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I recently came across a letter I wrote to my wife as I was beginning my fiveyear prison sentence. There in my tiny little cell at the county jail, awaiting the terrifying uncertainties of the years ahead, I was learning just what old convicts mean when they say, “Do your time. Don’t let your time do you.” Here’s an excerpt:
My mind just won’t quiet down. I keep pacing the room, laying down, getting up again. I tried sleeping some more, but sleep just won’t come. I know in my mind that it will get better once I’ve been “broken” and have adjusted to the passage of time in prison. It’s just so hard sitting here minute by minute reliving the happiness of the past several months with you. I have to learn to force those thoughts from my head because they only drag things out. I have to keep thinking in terms of weeks or months–stop measuring time by hours and days. One year is so small in the big picture, but it seems so unbearably massive when I think of 365 more days passing like this last one has.
The really sad part is that I had only a relatively short sentence ahead of me. When I finally did make parole, twenty-five months later, I would be departing from a unit where some of my companions had been locked up longer than I had been alive. During my last week of prison, I spoke with a man who was preparing to fully discharge a fortyyear sentence. A n encounter like that will seriously mess with your head, especially when you think about what the world was like forty years ago. I mean, here I was lamenting how many firstrun feature movies I had missed over two years, and this guy was getting ready to go out and use a cell phone for the first time in his life! It was a disorienting and supremely humbling conversation. It made me ref lect on what a precious gift our time really is.
Those of us living in today’s e-world of instantaneous text messaging and Facebook updates measure time in terms of seconds and minutes, not days and weeks. We speak of the postal service as “snail mail” and consider a headline “old news” after twenty-four hours. The ability to multi-task has supplanted patience as a social virtue. We are hopelessly addicted to our busy schedules and generally intolerant of anything that delays gratification.
Time is certainly a scarce resource, but I suspect many of us go too far; we make an idol out of it. In a world where every second counts, anything that “wastes” time becomes a secular sin. Procrastination is evil. Inefficiency is a curse. In effect, we bow to our incessantly ticking clocks and worship at the altar of industry.
In such an environment, time is no longer a resource for savoring the good gifts of God. It is instead a tool for endlessly pursuing worldly preoccupations. Time flies, but not because we are really enjoying ourselves so much as we are running out of opportunities to get and do more of the things we think will make us happy.
The mortal danger of this perspective is simple: in the midst of our hurrying about, we are perpetually chasing a vision of happiness that we never quite attain. When we find ourselves saying things like, “There are just too few hours in the day,” we are really just expressing a growing frustration with how hopeless our quest for this contentment has become. Our days have grown exhaustingly busy with activities, yet somehow they have also grown pitifully insignificant. Then we inevitably wake up one morning lamenting the years of our lives squandered on this idolatrous busy-ness. Surely, we think, our time was meant for something more than this.
Prisoners have a rather different perspective on their time. In a thought-provoking section of his book The Executed God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), theologian and prison reform activist Mark Lewis Taylor discusses the way America’s correctional institutions hijack time and use it as a “weapon of terror”:
Time’s agency becomes most vicious when it is routinized, when institutions organize time with a certain practical effect in mind. The routinization of time is a transformation cultivated by prison authorities and designed to make every day like every other. In this experience, paradoxically, time acts even to deaden one’s sense of time. (22)
We say one has become “institutionalized” once he or she has succumbed to this hypnotic sameness. Our fierce individualism rebels against institutionalization, but all inmates inevitably learn that the only way to do your time without going insane is to let the system envelop your consciousness as soon as possible. You begin to long for the days when nothing memorable happens because when time has no significance anymore, the thought of enduring additional years of such torture no longer overwhelms your soul. Unfortunately, yielding to the opiate of routinization means deadening yourself to the experience of the here and now: the past becomes a nebulous haze, while the silhouetted present is just another step toward a dim future.
When time is punishment, anything that “kills” time is a welcome reprieve. Two-hour naps, scads of trashy reading material, and mindless work assignments may not offer much in the way of personal fulfillment and self-actualization, but they do an outstanding job of numbing the anguish of an interminable prison sentence. Is it not cruelly ironic that the same days which seem to pass too quickly for one group of unhappy people should seem miserably prolonged for another? Surely, we think, our time was meant for more than this.
When time is a good thing for us, we idolize it. When it is a bad thing for us, we “kill” it. But neither extreme reflects God’s intention for our time.
Pondering the swiftness with which our human lifespans pass, the psalmist prays, ” Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90:12 NIV, emphasis mine). I think we are generally good at numbering our days, but I suspect few of us number them “aright.” Placing ourselves at the center of the universal timeline, we seize our share of that infinite progression of moments as though it were a perishable personal belonging. We allocate time according to the same economic principles that govern our finances: “How do you spend your time? ” we ask one another, the ver y question betraying our concept of time as subject to our personal designs.
The frustration comes as we realize that we are subject to time; it is not subject to us. We make choices about what to do in any given moment, but we are not ultimately in a position to “spend” it. When it comes to time, we are stewards, not owners. And since “he has put a sense of past and future into their minds” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NRSV), we inherently sense that “our” time is indelibly connected with the Creator’s purpose in history.
As stewards, we are subject to time, but we do not belong to time; we belong to its Creator. Likewise, as stewards, we cannot possess time, but we must nevertheless bear responsibility for how it is used. It is the Owner’s privilege to decide what to do in time; it is the steward’s place to discover and to actualize the Owner’s purposes with her assigned portion.
I believe the Bible summons us neither to idolize time (as though it were the ultimate force in control of our lives) nor to “kill” time (as though time was created merely to serve us). The busy American futilely trying to cram too much into a finite schedule and the lonely prisoner trying desperately to numb the passage of time are more alike than it might seem: both are self-oriented, failing to perceive how God summons them to redeem the time allotted to them.
What might it mean to “redeem” our time? The word has the sense of buying something back, of paying some price to liberate it from bondage or oppression. Inasmuch as our sinful natures desire that we use time for selfish pursuits (or that we forfeit the use of time altogether through laziness and despair), those precious moments are not serving their Creator as they ought. Redeeming time means foregoing selfishness in order to appreciate how God’s desires might be advanced through our judicious use of whatever time we are given. The price paid is our natural desire; the prize won is God’s will accomplished through us.
A biblical appreciation of our stewardship over time prompts us to value and to wisely appropriate whatever moments we are given, not as selfish hoarders or as senseless subjects, but as privileged participants in an eternal drama. Whether rushing about like the proverbial chicken or pacing the floor in a jail cell, the time we use is time in which God’s eternal plans are being worked out around us. If we are not participating, then we are being circumvented. If we are not actors, then we are props.
This, indeed, is the challenge of our temporality: being subject to time, yet belonging ultimately to the One who “inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15, NRSV; cf. 2 Peter 3:8), how shall we employ this sacred trust? Our time perishes unprofitably both when we mindlessly consume it and when we deliberately “kill” it, yet these are the two extremes toward which our selfish natures instinctively draw us. I submit that those of us who long for authentic happiness will learn to redeem time, prayerfully discovering where and how God is at work in these precious moments, then eagerly joining in.