Formed by Time

*This blog series is my own journey to de-westernize the ways that Western values have distorted my spirituality. This series is not a criticism of Western spiritual traditions. See series Introduction: This is my Un-Forming for more info.

Clocks, watches, and calendars have formed the western understanding of time. With these tools time moves in a continuous progressive motion. Time is linear with only one direction: forward.

If time can only move forward and all past time is lost, then we begin the obsessive scramble to save time. We value the fast, efficient, and productive. We attach numbers to time to somehow manage it. Over centuries of living with this understanding of time we have somehow come to the distorted belief that we can own time. This is exemplified in our impatience and anger each time we believe someone is stealing or wasting my precious time. We have attached a price to time and commodified it.

Linear time informs our approach to spiritual formation. We teach formation like it’s a series of steps to take. If you do steps 1, 2, and 3 then you’ll progress. If it’s not working, you’re not trying hard enough. We set goals and expect formation to be productive. We want the greatest return in the shortest amount of time so we look for just the right book or curriculum. Even our preaching on Sunday mornings is linear.

We teach that sanctification is like this:

When in reality it’s probably a lot more like this:

God has a very different sense of time.

This is made very clear in the wilderness narratives when the Israelites wandered the desert in circles. Through these stories we learn that God’s timing sometimes takes a whole lifetime. In fact, God’s timing may take several generations.

Because I have been formed by a western system of time, I grumble at the seemingly slooooow work of God. I measure God’s responses by days, months, and years.

It’s true God’s timing is not the most efficient way. God’s timing is definitely not the quickest way. It’s not supposed to be.

But I wholeheartedly believe…or try to believe…that God’s way is the most complete way.

I want to be formed by God’s sense of time.

An alternative way to look at time is cyclical. Cyclical time has no clear direction. Rather cyclical time values completeness. Cyclical times requires that I stay and wait for the whole process to be complete.

Cyclical time is found in the scriptures as kairos time. Kairos time is not measured by clocks, rather kairos means that things happen when the moment is right or opportune. What if we are to be formed by kairos time rather than clocks and calendars?

The following are practices to resist western time and to be formed in cyclical time:

  • Practice waiting by being present for the whole process. Watch an entire sunset. Watch water boil. Pick the longest line at the checkout. Listen to someone fully before your mind begins to form a response.
  • Spend a few days without looking at the time or date. Remove all watches, clocks, calendars, and phones. Spend those days simply living by the patterns of light and dark.
  • Live by rhythms rather than clock time. Pay attention to the rhythms of day and night, Sabbath and work, and seasons of the year. Live in a way that matches these rhythms.
  • Commit a season of your life to not progressing. In this season, it’s ok to not accomplish anything. In this season avoid planning your next steps in life. Rather, give God unrestricted time.