Having just started my second year in stipendiary ministry I’ve realised that I have failed to keep a promise I made to my congregations and to myself. I said I wouldn’t even try to change anything in my first year. I have made some changes, or rather tried to introduce some new things and I rather wish I hadn’t. On the other hand some new things have “happened” without my particularly trying, and those I am very happy about.
This has led me to reflect on a number of different things and this post dwells on one of them. What time do we live in and at what speed? For tonight’s church meeting I am using one of the daily lectionary passages as the basis for my opening devotions. I have been given (or chosen) the well known passage from 2 Peter 3 which says that: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” My year here is like 365,000 years and like a minute and a half and the 80 years one of my churches has existed and the 70 years the other has are like 25-30 million years and like a little over an hour and half, God’s time.
They are periods longer than anything meaningful to a human being and periods too short to do much at all. My ministry and even the ministries of my churches are on a scale where, in God’s time, nobody’s efforts make much difference to anything. Why then do I so often feel burdened either by the feeling that I don’t have enough time (in all sorts of ways) or that I need to hurry? Living at God’s speed(s) I either couldn’t keep up or wouldn’t be able to discern any movement.
All too often we are driven by a desire that Christianity or the Church be relevant, that it should “make a difference” but we constrain that desire by forcing it to conform to our time, which is neither of God’s times as Peter describes them. We live in a middle time, determined primarily by the length of our lives. In that time, and on that horizon, it is impossible to discern the things that really matter from the point of view of God’s time.
From that point of view the two kinds of things that matter are: on the one hand, the great historical processes and shifts that no individual can really control or determine, the changes in patterns of family life, of economic organisation, of political structures, of technological infrastructure, of language, of thought; and on the other the individual moments of a life, the connection with one loved, the help offered to one in extremis, the prayerful insight into God’s nature and will. The vast and the tiny are what matters at the scale where a day and a thousand years are exchanged for one another.
Some of the areas where I have tried to hurry and short-circuit the processes of congregational development and discernment to which I am theologically committed have been driven by my trying to make God’s time conform to my time rather than submitting to God’s speed.
I have discerned the need for things to happen and have thought that they need to happen at MY scale and in my time. I need both to slow down and to speed up. Slowing down means really valuing and prioritising what happens in a moment and with one or a few people. I know this, really, the Bible studies I lead are some of the times in my ministry where I feel most nourished and most in touch with the Spirit. When we gather round the word and insight comes and the Spirit present I thrill to God’s love and action in Christ. Nothing obvious happens as a result, no projects or transformations are easily discernible afterwards but when one day is like a thousand years a 2 hour Bible study is like a whole lifetime. What happens in that session has its own absolute value.
Equally when a thousand years are like a day then the whole of my ministry here amounts to a fleeting moment in a lifetime. It can be spent any way that seems best at the time since it will soon be over and can be forgotten and moved on from. Looking for “results” from it is futile and unnecessary, that is in God’s hands, as I am an instrument for his use. I shouldn’t worry about what will be achieved but rather submit to the guidance of the one who can see at the scale required.
I found it challenging but fruitful to pray the prayer for grace with which I was taught to begin each session of the Ignation Spiritual Exercises:
Lord, grant me the grace that all my actions, operations and intentions be ordered solely to the service and praise of the divine majesty.
This grace would enable me to live at God’s speed(s) and I pray for it,