Last week I mistakenly thought weather was a safe topic. This week, the weather has been decidedly unsafe, at least here in the midwest. A brutal storm dumped ice, sleet, and nearly a foot of snow in its path, leaving power outages, jack-knifed semis, and level red travel warnings.
But the weather also did something else: it suspended us in time. Reminiscent of the early pandemic days, things ground to a complete stop in my part of the world. Schools closed for snow days, factories halted production, government agencies told employees to stay home. A few tried to carry on learning or working from home—another vestige of pandemic scrappiness. But most of us just stopped.
Suddenly, for a day or two, something other than efficiency defined us; we remembered that we are more than our capacity to wrench maximum productivity from every minute of the day. We took walks and baked brownies and watched television and read books. We worried about the pipes freezing. We laughed at our dogs covered in snow. We shoveled until our backs hurt. We binge-watched Netflix.
We remembered we’re merely human. Time has a way of reminding us of that.
Time is our topic for this week. Let’s get to it.
1. Never Enough Time
I always feel like I never have enough time, while at the same time always feeling like there’s just enough time for one more thing. (Just let that sentence settle over you for a minute.)
My husband Steve calls me a schedule-crowder. And he’s right. I consider the amount of time I have in a day (or between appointments or before we need to leave for church), and I think of all the things I’d could do with the time. Then I usually add one more thing to the list.
Invariably, my estimates are off by at least one thing every time. If I stopped just before that last thing, I’d have plenty of time. I’d feel relaxed and ahead of schedule. I’d create less chaos and frustration among my more time-oriented family members. But instead, I look at the to-do list, with it’s one unchecked item staring back at me, and decide to go for it.
When it comes to me versus time, time always gets the best of me.
Which is exactly the problem. When I think of time, I imagine an epic battle, where time’s carefully guarded treasure is only won through struggle and violence. I fight against time to live the life I want. Or more often, I think of time as a commodity or time as money, and I budget, save, and spend time with the goal of never running a deficit.
What could be worse than running out of time?
Another way to talk about time is to talk about efficiency. The technical definition of efficiency is “the ratio of the useful work performed by a machine or in a process to the total energy expended or heat taken in.” To put it simply: efficiency is measured by the most output with the least effort. In farming, tractors are more efficient than horses. In manufacturing, assembly lines are more efficient than artisan production. In marketing, email blasts are more efficient than hanging flyers around town. In housekeeping, a Roomba is more efficient than running a vacuum yourself.
When it comes to human efficiency, often what we’re measuring is time saved. We buy food already chopped for more efficient cooking. We set up auto-pay for more efficient bill paying. During the pandemic, we learned that working from home can be more efficient than working in offices, with less time socializing and commuting. And the more time we save, the more we have to spend. Efficiency, then, allows us to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. Author Alan Noble goes so far as to say that efficiency has become “the greatest good,” taking on a “moral superiority” that’s become deeply engrained in our lives.
In his book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, Noble writes, “There is no space in contemporary life that has not become subject to the dominion or rational methods for achieving maximum efficiency, from the marriage bed to art and warfare. That’s not to say that we never prioritize other values—we certainly do—but our one agreed-upon value in nearly every sphere of life tends to be efficiency.”
But a world where efficiency is the greatest good is not a world where humans—made in the image of God and caring for the places and people around us—can thrive. Relationships are messy and time consuming. Doing what’s best for the environment or a community isn’t always the fastest or most efficient option. Having a relationship with God and growing spiritually doesn’t follow a predictable or efficient pattern. And many of the things God calls us to—rest, silence, solitude, service, giving—are incredibly inefficient. In fact, to an onlooker, they might seem like a waste of time.
But if we don’t belong to ourselves—if we’re not always trying to define and optimize ourselves with efficiency as the highest goal—we can have a different relationship with time. When we belong to God (and therefore to each other and to our places), we can transform our understanding of time away from war and commerce to the language of gift. The time we have is given to us by God, and we can trust him to tell us how to use it.
In Galatians 5:16, Paul tells us we should “make the most of our time because the days are evil.” He uses the same word in a letter to Colossians, inviting them to “make the most of every opportunity” with people outside the church. To my 21st century ears, that sounds like an appeal to efficiency. In fact, Paul even uses the Greek word exagorazō, which is from the world of commerce. Sometimes it’s translated as “redeem” or “purchase.”
But Paul isn’t speaking from a position of self-optimization. He’s not inviting his readers to spend their time well because it will make them more efficient. Rather, he says making the most of our time is an expression of wisdom. “The days are evil,” he tells the Galatians. To Paul’s way of thinking, a misuse of time isn’t the difference between fast food and a home-cooked dinner. It’s about living in a way that’s contrary to the will of God. To make the most of our time, then, is to use it in ways that please God.
Sometimes, pleasing God might include choosing the more efficient option. Sometimes, it will not. But always it will be about choosing the way of love. Because we are not our own. We belong to God.
In reading these passages from Paul, I wonder if he had in mind Psalm 90, the one where Moses reflects on the reality of time.
“A thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or like a watch in the night.
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass that sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it wilts and withers away.”
According to Moses, God doesn’t understand time the way we do. He doesn’t experience the passing of a day as a distinct unit; He doesn’t measure a life by its quantity of years. His goal for us is not to squeeze the life out of every minute in a mesmerizing feat of efficiency. His goal is for us to grow in wisdom, to become the humans he created us to be.
That doesn’t mean God expects us to live outside of time. After all, he created the sun and the moon, day and night, seasons and other ways of marking time before he created humans. Rather, God invites us to live within the limits of time for our good and his glory. Here’s Moses’ prayer:
“Satisfy us in the morning with Your graciousness,
That we may sing for joy and rejoice all our days.
Make us glad according to the days You have afflicted us,
And the years we have seen evil.
Let Your work appear to Your servants
And Your majesty to their children.
May the kindness of the Lord our God be upon us;
And confirm for us the work of our hands;
Yes, confirm the work of our hands.”
One way I’m growing in my own understanding of time is to see that my “lack” of time is not really about chronology. It’s about expectations. It’s about holding efficiency as the goal in every endeavor: from work to housekeeping to parenting. When I mistakenly believe that I belong to myself, I judge a day, a week, even my life by what I accomplished, by how well I used my time. And often I’m disappointed, even ashamed.
But when I remember I’m not my own, that I belong to God, I receive each day as a gift, and its work as from God. The success of a day is measured not by what I accomplished, but by how well I noticed God at work around me, how I grew, and how I loved.
I wonder … what is your relationship to time? What metaphors help you think about time? Do you judge yourself by how well you use it? How does remembering God’s view of time help you “number your days, that you may present to God a heart of wisdom”?
2. Poetry and Time
I love this episode of Poetry Unbound discussing Tishani Doshi’s poem “Species.” The poem itself is about the future of earth as imagined from the farther future in which the narrator lives. It’s a funny, fantastical poem, with lots of word play and specificity. But it was host Pádraig Ó Tuama’s introduction to the poem that cast it within a conversation of time. I listened to him read the poem differently because of the set up:
“My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and one of the reasons I love poetry is because you could say, in a certain sense, that most if not all poems are a certain reflection on time — what happened then? How am I thinking about it now? How do I imagine and reflect on that in the future? Over and over again in poetry, time is at its work. And paying attention to time in a poem is one of the ways that we can open up to its great gifts.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this poem and the gifts it offers to you as you paid attention to its use of time. What did you notice in the poem? What particularly captured your attention?
3. “There’s No Such Thing as Time Management” by Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel’s latest book scheduled to release this year is all about time: In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace. I wish it were already published so we could refer to it in this conversation. But since it’s not, at least we have Jen’s recent essay over at Christianity Today all about the myths of time management we often torture ourselves with and the better approach of managing our attention.
“What seems far more important than disciplines of time management are disciplines of attention management. The minutes are not ours to multiply. We receive them as a gift. What we can do, however, is cultivate the ability to inhabit those minutes with attention, or undiluted unfragmented presence. Simone Weil noticed the gains of attention in her spiritual life, when she began repeating the Lord’s prayer in Greek every day. Whenever her attention wandered, she started over again. ‘It was during one of these recitations that … Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
I wonder … what do you think of this difference between time management and attention management? How does this help us understand the connection between time and wisdom that both Paul and Moses offer us? Do you think God cares about our “productivity”?
4. “How Hobbies Infiltrated American Life” by Julie Beck
Exhibit A for how efficiency has achieved the level of moral superiority in our culture: We value productivity even in our spare time.
This essay from The Atlantic explores the roles hobbies play in American life, especially in times of great anxiety, and how our seriousness about our hobbies reveals “the notion that idleness is wrong,” or what historian Steven Gelber calls “the folk wisdom of capitalism.”
“The message that a hobby is the best way to spend one’s free time is also a message about what you should value most in life: hard work, achievement, productivity. Those aren’t bad things, but are they really more important than relationships, contemplation, and rest? Hanging out with your friends, caring for your family, enjoying creature comforts, replenishing your energy—these may not make for a unique fun fact to whip out at parties, but they are good for the soul.”
I love this question author Julie Beck asks about halfway through the essay: “Does society value hobbies because of the real benefits they provide, or because we value the appearance of busyness?” What do you think? How does that contribute to our sometimes difficult relationships with time?
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. As always, thanks for joining me here. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
Before I go, I wanted to share one more link to an essay I recently wrote for The Redbud Post. It’s not related to this week’s theme, but I thought you might enjoy reading it: “Looking at Earth and Seeing Heaven Instead.” It’s an exploration of sacramental living.
As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Until next time,
As always, so much to think about - and resonates! On a lighter note, Steve and Will can commiserate over our, um, optimistic view of how much can be achieved in any given time frame! And I love how you’re exploring here how we might actually define “achieve”.
A great meditation as to how to spend the time given as a gift to me today.