The bright spring day of April’s heatwave lasted for about five months, a single timeless moment.
We were locked down due to Covid-19 from March through to June, and then with schools closed until September those who could continued to work from home.
I lived without rhythm. My work was at home on my laptop, church was at home on my TV, the markers of my weeks either vanished or all happened in the same place and so weren’t markers at all. Innocent, the drinks manufacturer, tweeted out what day of the week it was every day so that we knew. It was amusing to begin with and then swiftly helpful, how else would you know?
Somehow many months passed. Spring skipped through Summer into Autumn and a new year beckoned. I work at a University, used to teach in a school and help lead a church with a lot of students in attendance so I’ve never really gotten off the academic calendar. September feels more like a new year than January to me.
Rhythms returned, but very slowly. I went back to work in the office for two days a week, then one day a week as we fit a local lockdown, then during the second national lockdown two days a week again. Now, in the third national lockdown, I’m at home fulltime again. It’s February. Soon it will be March, but which year?
We still can’t meet as a church on Sundays as we rent our usual space and it isn’t available again yet, we found solutions and the rules changed on us constantly. There have been returns to elements of life and retreats again from them repeatedly.
It hasn’t felt like life through the much of the last year. It wasn’t death either for there has been joy and growth in God and relationships, taking what we could find where we could find it. It’s felt more like suspended animation, like holding our breath. We’re finding that eventually we can’t hold our breath any longer however much we’re being asked to.
We can’t live without rhythms, without days and weeks and months and seasons. There’s something deeply human about marking out time, I guess that we image God in creation as we bring order to chaos by establishing a pattern. We brought order to our endless moment too, I rotated myself around the rooms of the house to look at a different four walls, we used our garden much more when the weather allowed—and were correspondingly more grateful for it, and we grew our own food in the patch of land we call our own. We did what we could to submit ourselves to time.
We don’t know what time is
The world around us tells us that time is a commodity, we buy ourselves time. Or perhaps it’s a currency, we spend time. Or perhaps it’s a resource that we own and use and portion out until its used up. I’m increasingly convinced that this is unhelpful, a capitalisation of the cosmos. Time is not ours, we don’t own it and we can’t rule it.
While we spend time, we don’t then get to buy other things with it. Currency requires a measure of exchange or value. Time exists in a gift economy. Time is not a precious resource, but a previous gift.
If time is a gift, do we receive it with gratefulness? I’ve never thought about it before, you just get on with living, right? But time is to be enjoyed, to be used and to be thankful for. So often I’m concerned about not having enough time, I’ve had that conversation so often in the last year. I’m coming to see that when I think that I’m ungrateful. I’ve been given what I’ve been given, and so have you. Perhaps as we emerge from yet another Lockdown into the crisp spring air we could commit ourselves to that.
Time is precious, which is why to give it to another is special. I then always take this a step further and begin to begrudge others my time if they don’t use it ‘well’. ‘Well’ of course means ‘use it like I would have done’. I’m beginning to see that if time is a gift given to me, when I give it to others I cannot begrudge them how they use it.
Everyone in my world is in a rush. I don’t really want to be anymore. I’m convinced that Jesus wasn’t ever in a rush. Now, I’m not him: he’s the Lord of time and I am ruled by time. But as I follow his Way and learn at his feet perhaps I too will be able to take the world as I find it and expend less energy trying to force it to my hand.
Learning to stop
The Old Testament is keen to teach us that rhythms are a gift and that they have much to teach us. From Genesis chapter one we’re introduced to a pattern of days—a week—that culminates in the day of “stopping” (shabbat) in order to rest, and that introduces the sun, moon and stars as the timekeepers for “feasts” or “seasons”.
As the story of Israel continues we find a people who have sacred time marked out for them. They keep seven feasts a year. Every seven days there is a ‘seventh day’ of stopping to rest. Every seven month there is a month of stopping. Every seven years, a year of release. Every seven years of release, a year of Jubilee. Time is portioned and ordered to a rhythm to guide our steps and our hearts.
Living in rhythmless days is like living in disordered days, days of chaos. The patterns, especially the weekly day of stopping, are to help us stop, see that order needs to be brought to chaos and recognise that we are creatures.
I used to travel to work down a track in a metal tube to an office that the anthropologist Marc Augé would call a ‘non-place’. In 2020’s endless Spring I’ve been working in a (moderately) ordered place, my home, but living in ‘non-time’. My temporal borders have shattered. It hasn’t felt like chaos, but the Bible wants me to see that it has been chaos.
The Sabbath was God’s oath to his people to structure all of time in the new creation to bring us rest. Jesus arrived as Lord of the Sabbath to restore the rhythm of creation. We can in Christ rest: from work, but also from striving, from our self-salvation project, from our intense need to cover ourselves. That stopping is what we call ‘freedom’.
I’ve always thought that ‘work’ is the opposite of ‘rest’. I think that sort of thinking is fuelling my minor trepidation about returning to the office a few days a week. I’m coming to see that work isn’t the opposite of rest, or even the opposite of stopping. The opposite of rest is the curse.
It’s counter-intuitive but there will be something restful about returning to our rhythms at some point later this year. Rest is when we live in a pattern like God intended, rest is when creatures know they’re creatures and act like it, rest is to stop being my own master and know that I am owned. Rhythm is rest.