My boys are learning about time. What the big hand means. What the little hand means. How to read the digital display on the stove and in the car. How many minutes make an hour, how many hours to a day, and so forth. Yesterday, a Saturday morning, mind you, my already-dressed son pounced on my bed around 8:30 am, and he exclaimed loudly, “Mommy, if you don’t get up soon, we won’t be able to do our fun things and play!” Not yet six and he has already imbibed Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Looking at his hopeful face located not even a foot from mine, I sighed, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and stumbled somewhat irritably out of bed.
Franklin’s words are just one way to think about time. Ask a businessman, a theologian, and a physicist about time and you will likely get more than three different answers.
Here in the west, we experience time linearly. We also tend to equate time with money—we “spend” it or “save” it, and when we “lose” or “waste” it, we tend to feel as if we are not being productive, efficient, or successful. The University of Toronto’s Sanford Devoe found that thinking of time in terms of money changes how we experience time:
“What thinking about time in terms of money does is press individuals to evaluate happiness based on the economic returns of time,” he says, “when in reality there are many different facets of value that are important to take into consideration when evaluating happiness.”
He suggests that if “you’re at your son’s soccer game and you’re thinking about how much it’s costing you, [you might instead] remind yourself that one of the reasons you work so hard is so that you’re able to enjoy these moments of leisure.” Enjoyment and whether or not people have value in the experience are equally important when you are sitting there fretting about your time.
Additionally, anthropologists tell us that different cultures perceive time in different ways. Some peoples don’t have verb tenses for past or future; some cultures being “on-time” can be perceived as rude, and some cultures do not imagine the future “in front of us,” but rather “in back of our heads” because it is hidden. Imagine if we associated time, not with money, but primarily with relationship, beauty, significance, or our ancestors? “Time is a created thing,” Lao Tzu once said. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.”
To complicate matters further, physicists might argue that while the flow of time may be humanly sensed, time may not exactly be real in the way that we commonly accept it. Why? Because of Einstein’s theory of relativity—that space and time are, well, relative— and because of quantum theory that basically says that time may move backwards as well as forwards. In a recent article from The New Scientist magazine, Richard Webb, explains: “Most physicists explain away the illusion that time flows by appealing to the ineluctable rise of entrophy. The universe must have started in an implausibly ordered configuration and what we experience as time is the constant drift away from this state.”
All this to say that with the ancient Egyptians dividing our days by 24 hours, and the ancient Babylonians subdividing hours and minutes into 60, and given that the very concept of time is a construct, though an important one, we might wonder how our Christian forebears thought about time, and how we might perceive time in other ways and with an eye to God’s realm at hand. Today’s letter to the church in Ephesus does just that. Paul writes: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Paul urges us not to be foolish, but wise, seeking to understand God’s will in the brief time that we have with each other.
C.S. Lewis once said that “the future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever [s]he does, whoever [s]he is.” But most of us have had the experience that sometimes the passing of a day feels long, and sometimes feels short. What is the difference? Often it depends upon mood or circumstance. When bereaved or ill, time may move achingly slow or not at all. During blissful moments, time moves altogether too fast. When feeling lost, sometimes our moments are difficult to fill. And yet, the minutes pass with urgency when one has the vivid awareness that they will end in short measure.
For our ancient forebears, Paul included, there was two kinds of time. Chronos time is what we think of as measureable time—the moment by moment passing of time or what we would mark as hours, minutes, seconds. It is sequential time, time measured by our calendars, our watches, and our phones. Chronos time was clock-time, sun-dial time, hourglass time, the kind of time that passes with the rising and setting of the sun. It is the time that you miss when you are always running between meetings and minutes, the time that you count when you are weary with living and silently wonder how many days must pass before you will see your loved ones again.
However, kairos time is something different, something special. It is the appropriate time, the “right” time, or what we mean when we say in “due season.” Kairos is a moment of opportunity, a time when the opportune moment has come, when a decision must be made, when an awareness or epiphany is discovered and embraced. You can experience kairos moments when you lose yourself in an activity and lose all sense of the hours passing. It really can’t be planned or mapped out; kairos time is marked by life-changing experiences: awakenings, revelations, but also smaller, meaningful moments. That being said, kairos time belongs to God’s spirit; chronos time belongs to the energizer bunny in all of us.
In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle describes Kairos time as “real time” and “God’s time.” She writes, “[Kairos is] That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.”
When Paul urges the Ephesians to “make the most of the time,” he is referring to kairos time. He encourages them to live in those kairos moments. Making the most of the time, for Paul, is to redeem the time—“redeem” being the word often translated here for the phrase making the most of the time.
But redeem from what?
To answer that—please consider: Can our use of time be moral or immoral, used well or used for ill? It seems that Paul would agree. When he casts an eye over his own time, he sees days that are evil. We probably could give many examples of how today is similarly evil in its own way, from the utter disregard of human rights in some quarters to rampant abuse by those in power, to the evils of greed and violence, to the evils of the Church most recently revealed in the grand jury reports in Pennsylvania. Yet, Paul is asking the Ephesians to make the most of the time in the middle of this kind of chaos. Not to eat, drink, and be merry in order to pass the hours and minutes in oblivion, but to use the time with an eye to God’s discernible will.
If you think about it, our time can be held hostage by lots of things and possibilities that aren’t part of God’s will. We can be held hostage by our relentless schedules or our propensity to engage in addictive behavior, our desires run amok, our acquisitiveness, or our need to be in control of everyone and everything around us. Yet, shifting into kairos time—discerning the needful thing at the needful time, doing God’s work despite whatever our daily planner or the majority dictates, and engaging in service that expands and deepens our experiences and relationships with others in ways that heal the world or our little piece of it—all of that is engaging in Kairos time. In short, by shifting our focus from chronos time to kairos time, both we and the Ephesians redeem time from the evil that would hold time (and us and our relationships) hostage.
In his letter, Paul calls the Ephesians to a different kind of life… He believes that they are fully capable of experiencing a different kind of time, even in days of evil, whatever they may bring. And so he asks them to be filled with Spirit instead of being filled with wine. It may seem that Paul is being prudish with his concern about drunkenness, but when we are inebriated, we are not as aware. We can be drunk with despair, high with our own self-importance, sick with our own worries and preoccupations. Likewise, church can be inebriated with its own self-righteousness or wobbly with its reason for being. Richard Ward writes: “When the church is out of touch with its vocation, it moves through these evil times as one who is intoxicated—satiated and reeling, engaging in regrettable behaviors. If a quest for spiritual formation and maturity in the church displays as desire for balance and integration, drunkenness is the condition of being unfocused, off balance, and out kilter with ‘what God wants for you.’” When we are prone to self-medicate to excess, we are numb to opportunities to redeem the time—our time and God’s time—from the evil to which it may be held hostage. When we are numb, we live less intentionally and more haphazardly with ourselves, each other, and the world.
Paul urges us to live carefully then, living wisely and well, making the most of every opportunity to change this world for the better. I am reminded of the poem shared earlier by W.S. Merwin, “In Time.” In it, the world is exploding around a couple and they set their candle in the back of the room so as not to be detected by the enemy. The couple puts on heavy boots to be ready for a hasty departure, but in the meantime, they enjoy savoring oysters, each other, and dancing without music when it seems all the world is about to end. By the light of a single candle, they experience a Kairos time—not while numb and drunk with despair, but while awake, vibrant, and filled with the hope of the one moment they share together on that dark night. Kairos in the midst of chaos.
In her own letter this week, my Canadian friend, Pat, sent the following reflection from the kitchen of St. Benedict’s Monastery, Colorado, which gently sums up our theme for this morning:
“I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly God was speaking. ‘My name is I am’. I waited. God continued. ‘When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets it is hard. I am not there. My name is not ‘I was.’ When you live in the future, with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not ‘I will be.’ When you live in this moment, it is not as hard. I am here. My name is ‘I am.’ ”
Sisters and brothers, may you experience kairos in the midst of your chaos. In all your moments, may you live wisely and well, trusting God to guide you and trusting yourself to redeem the time from that which would render it inconsequential or meaningless. For all of us, my son included, it’s about time. Amen.
 Michael Richardson, “It’s Time to Rethink Time,” https://healthy-magazines.com/ways-we-think-time-wrong-way/
 Richard Webb, “How to Think about Time,” The New Scientist, 30 June 2018. 31-32.
 Walking on Water.
 Richard F. Ward, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Kentucky: Westminster John Knowx Press, 2009) 355.