Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Time

Time passes.  That much is taken for granted, but few realize how we picture the passage of time and how culturally conditioned that picture is.
We see time as a straight line, and we are on that line moving from left to right the way we read a sentence.   The future is in front of us, because where we are headed—where we are going to be in just a bit—is in front of us.  The past is behind us, because all the stuff we passed by along the way is behind us.  This imagery is reflected in our language: we go “back” in time and we look “forward” to some anticipated future event.  Paul even uses this imagery: “...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 12-13)
Other cultures view time differently.  In some, we stand still while time passes by us, as if time was a river that we are standing in facing downstream.  In this image, the future isn’t in front, but behind, and we can’t see what is coming.  We can see the past because it has already passed by and we can see it receding in front of us.
There are no real implications in the differences in these two views of the passage of time other than to highlight that our view of time is culturally conditioned.   There are, however, some ramifications in the way our culture treats time and the way other cultures do.  For instance, we schedule our worship services to begin and end at certain times.  We almost never begin a service early, but every once in a while we will start late, and we try to plan them so that they end right on time—usually an hour after beginning.  It’s acceptable to end a service a little early—there’s no such thing as a bad short sermon—but if services habitually end late, someone is going to get in trouble!  But in their book, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Read the Bible, E. Randolf Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien  note that in some cultures worship services always  start and end at the right time—although we wouldn’t think so.
In Indonesia, for instance, a service will be held at midday.  That’s not very precise; we’d like to know something more specific.  Is midday 11:00 a.m.?  Noon?  1 p.m.?  No, midday isn’t tied to a time, it’s tied to temperature: midday is when it gets hot.  When the day gets hot, people begin to arrive at the church for worship, and it may take an hour or more for everyone to get there.  Once everyone is there, the service starts, and in this way a service never starts late.  Richards writes, “So while in the United States church begins at 11:15 a.m., whether or not people are in the building, in Indonesia church begins when people get there. I always thought, Wow, some people get here early and some late. They didn't think that way. Arriving just took time.”
An Indonesian service might last two or three hours, but it never ends late.  It ends when everything that needs to happen happens.
In our culture, schedules reign supreme.  One of the reasons church leaders are so sensitive to ending a service on time is because if we don’t, we mess up people’s schedules, and that is rude and inconsiderate.  Sunday School classes have to begin, or we have to get home so we don’t miss the opening kickoff.
In Indonesia, the quality of an event matters more than fitting it into a set time period.  Even more significantly, they value people more than they value time.  “Relationships trump schedules,” Richards and O’Brien write, “so things begin when everyone who needs to be there has arrived.”
In our culture, time is money and we don’t like to squander either, yet we take little issue with squandering relationships.  When we come to the end of our lives, perhaps we will  find that we are rich in things but poor in friends.  
      Also, churches like to claim to be about relationships--with God and with others--but perhaps our cultural addiction to setting and keeping schedules actually undermines that claim.  What if the true worship of God can't be confined to a set ending time but needs to allow for the Spirit to have more freedom?  What would happen if we relaxed a bit and refused to start until "everyone" has arrived?  Maybe that's too radical an idea for our culture, but on the other hand, maybe it’s time for churches to reassess whether the church schedule is really more important than relationships with God and others.

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