by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
1 May 2022
Back in November I was having a rough time and my spiritual director said, “You need to a retreat.” He advised that I come stay at the Incarnation Monastery, a Benedictine community of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska that is housed in North Omaha near Miller Park. I responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need.”
And so arrangements were made for early December. I felt decadent taking a little time in the middle of Advent for spiritual reflection and prayer. Which is, of course, ironic, since that’s part of the point of Advent. But preachers are often themselves so busy helping others with their spiritual lives that we don’t take the time for ours.
I only spent two days away, but it was exactly what I needed to rest, recharge, refocus, and spend time really thinking and praying about some things I needed to spend time really thinking and praying about.
Now, the rhythm of a monastic retreat is unusual. Waking very early for prayer. Services of prayer and song throughout the day. During some of those sitting in silence for twenty or thirty minutes. A two hour period in the afternoon where no one is supposed to talk. Going to bed early.
The strange marking of time compels you out of your routines. You notice different things about your body, your spiritual energy. It opens up vast time for reflection and contemplation.
Completely unplanned, while I was away for those two days I read a book about how the church tells time. The book is entitled The Congregation in a Secular Age by the Princeton theologian Andrew Root. That book was the perfect read in that setting. And I was struck by what Root had to say.
Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related. Modern life moves at a speed and according to values that are at fundamental odds with the way the church keeps sacred time. And modern uses of time have led to all sorts of problems for humans. We long for something different, and he argues that the church’s approach to time is what people really need.
He writes, “We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future time, but more deeply into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!"
I read that sentence and thought “Yes!” That is exactly what we long for.
And, so, I returned from the retreat and said to the church staff, “How about a series on time for the season of Easter?” And they agreed. One reason this seemed timely is that we’ve all had our time-keeping screwed up in the last two years of the pandemic. We don’t know what time it is, while also feeling that we’ve lost time or wasted time, that we were bored. While others felt like they gained valuable and rich time to spend on themselves or with family or exploring new hobbies and interests, or learning new skills. Plus, as more folks return to normal activities, they are contemplating whether they want to be as busy as they were before the virus or whether they want to build in more down time. Time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—all of that is in the current stew of our lives, and so our worship for this Easter season will focus around these ideas and questions.
So, to begin, let’s talk about time fatigue.
Andrew Root was talking to a local pastor who said, “I mean, these should be exciting times. Everyone knows we need change. But instead of creating energy, it creates depression.” He began to notice that this was common in the churches he visited and spoke to. He was hearing it from ministerial colleagues. There’s a lot that needs to be done, people even know some of what it is, but they seem to lack the energy they once had for it. Why is that? And this was written even before a global pandemic, though it was published in the middle of it.
What Root eventually diagnosed is that for individuals and even for institutions like churches, the problem is a “feeling that you just couldn’t find the energy to keep pace” with the speed that society now undergoes change.
If the twenty-first century world seems to be moving faster, that’s because it is. One dimension that is rather obvious is the speed of technological change and how quickly a new technology becomes obsolete and is supplanted by another one, compelling folks to constantly get the newest and latest or fall behind in efficiency, skills, or even coolness. Technology has, then, increased the speed of communication, transportation, and industrial production.
Which has, in turn, affected our social lives. Even they can now move at a faster pace. It’s a marvel and wonder to video chat with your grandchildren who live on another continent, when only a few decades ago you would have relied mostly upon mailing letters back and forth.
Social and fashion trends arise quickly and just as quickly are replaced. Political debates are no longer in depth conversations occurring over months and years. Through social media we can all keep up with hundreds or thousands of more friends and acquaintances than we once did, even knowing what they cooked for supper or the highlight of their vacation. And we can all watch the livestream of the child’s first walk.
I don’t need to belabor these points. You are aware of them in your own lives. And you’ve read articles, I’m sure, exploring both the good and bad outcomes of all these changes. Instead, I want to focus in on one spiritual aspect of the new, faster pace of life.
Andrew Root calls it “the fatigue to be me.” And he draws upon the work of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Weariness of the Self, which I read this winter after reading Root’s book. Ehrenberg identifies that there has been a radical increase in the rise of depression diagnoses and treatments in the last fifty years. He then sets about to understand why. And the conclusion he comes to is that people are worn out trying to keep pace with modern life. Particularly, they are worn out trying to be themselves. Worn out trying to be the best version of themselves.
Part of what happened by the end of the twentieth century is that for many people in the wealthy West, there was a radical expansion of freedom and choice. This came about through the demise of traditional social roles and expectations and the revolutions brought about by movements for civil and human rights for various groups of people. All of these, of course, are good developments in the history of humanity.
But where even in the mid-twentieth century the social role and expectations for many people were decided for them, now most people had the freedom to decide for themselves. Who will they marry, and will they stay married? Will they have kids or not? What career will they explore? Where will they live? How often will they move or change jobs? What religion or spirituality will the practice, if any?
And along with them came new emphases. To be unique. To have self-esteem. To live an authentic life. To live your best life.
And, yet, that doesn’t work out quite for everyone. Not everyone has the financial resources or social connections. There are unforeseen circumstances like illness, divorce, financial setbacks, and more.
And the shadow side to all this freedom is that you might be constantly wondering if the life you’ve chosen is the best one? You might constantly be wondering what would happen if you made other choices? Would that life be better, richer, more enjoyable? You might get plagued by the question, “Am I living my best life?”
Ehrenberg writes that depression then rose as a result of more and more people running out of energy to keep up with the new expectations of choosing, curating, and creating a rich, full life. Root summarizes this idea when he writes, “But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand. If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting. But without it, the choice and openness is depressing.”
This is one of the particular spiritual crises of our contemporary age. A fatigue that sets in with the ever accelerating pace of life. An inability to keep up. A time fatigue that leads to weariness.
But what we truly desire is a richness of time, a fullness of time. Maybe that’s a chance for time to slow down and let us focus, like I was able to on that monastic retreat. Maybe what we long for is a sense of time larger than ourselves and our own choices and actions? A sacred time that is bigger and more mysterious and that extends through the ages?
Last week I stood at the graves of ancestors who lived four hundred years ago. My Pilgrim ancestors who had traveled on the Mayflower to Plymouth. John and Jane Tilley, who died during that first winter, and whose remains are interred on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth with those of all the others who died of starvation, illness, and exposure. The monument is engraved with these words:
History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this pilgrim band. In weariness and painfulness . . . in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every [person] through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in [their] own way.
I stood at the gravestone of their daughter, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who survived that winter and lived to a ripe old age. Her epitaph reads, “It is my will and charge to all my Children that they walk in the fear of the Lord and in Love and Peace toward each other.” Those are words I quoted at my own ordination 25 years ago.
And I found the grave of John Howland, her husband, and the young man who came to the colony as an indentured servant, almost died when he fell off the boat during a storm, and yet lived to be the last man of the original group of pilgrims, raising a large family and rising to wealth and prominence.
This sacred connection through the ages is a different way of marking time than the fast pace of our contemporary age. The whole purpose of our trip to New England last week was to explore the past, our history, our story, in order to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.
Today we celebrate the 166th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church, when Omaha was only a small settlement on the Missouri River and no one knew for certain what would become of this village or this congregation. And, yet, here we are. Because of the faith and vision of those founders and the generations that followed them in the work and ministry.
A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Congregational Archives in Boston, where we found documents and information that were lacking in our own vast archives. The great reading room looked out over the old Boston graveyard that contains such luminaries as John Hancock. The room was decorated with the portraits of great pastors and thinkers of our movement. It was not hard in such a space to feel a deep and abiding connection, a communion even, through time and space.
I was delighted that the archives had a copy of the 50th anniversary program of the congregation, celebrated in 1906. I had not seen this booklet before. And it’s closing paragraph resonated with me and Susan and Deb:
The church has passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and of hope, during its history. In them all it has endeavored to maintain its witness for [the One] who is the Light of the World. And now as the shadows fall on its first half century, it is girding itself for the years to come, praying for grace to keep the faith and to commend it to [humanity] by word and life.
This paragraph resonated because it felt so true of us in 2022. That we too have “passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and hope” and yet despite it all we too endeavor “to maintain [our] witness” to God “who is the Light of the World.”
These deep connections help us to tell time in a different way. To transcend the pace of contemporary life. To step away from busyness towards fullness. To focus on transformation, rather than change. To seek resonance, rather than relevance.
And these are the ideas we’ll explore in the coming weeks of this series, “A Time for Everything.”