Sunday, February 8, 2009

Thoughts on living in time: the sunset as beginning

photoMelissa and I enjoyed some time on the Oregon Coast recently and one of our favorite things is to go down to beach near sunset.  Watching the liquid gold in all its flaming fury melt into a horizon of cold, blue darkness is one the amazing experiences granted to those who visit the rugged Oregon coast.

Let me ask you this:  what does sunset mark?  The end of a day, or its beginning?

From Genesis 1:

God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

It is the small differences in perception that lead us to radically different destinations.  God saw and named each day “backwards” according to the reckoning of our modern clocks and calendars.

According to our current convention, the day begins somewhere in the dark hours set by the arcane arts of the mathematician and astronomer.  But in terms of how we actually live, the day begins at sunrise (or I-rise, whenever I can stumble out of bed, darkness or no).  We scramble out of bed and the day assaults us with tasks and demands.  Even for the early riser, the day approaches us like the revolving steps of an escalator, and we can only wait so long before setting our foot on the moving steel.

And we are carried thus into a day of work, to be deposited somewhere near its end, darkness gathering (at least most of the year, for us Northwesterners).  We settle into our homes, eat one last meal, together with our families if we can manage it, and then wind down after the whirlwind with the television or a book (or facebook).  At last, we conduct the closing rituals of a wearying day: the swaddling of children in pajamas, the brushing of teeth, the locking of doors, the turning off of lights.  Another day gone, ground into fragments by the jaws of time. 

On our pillows, we ask ourselves at the end of that day: What did I accomplish?  What happened to me?  Was it worth it?  If it was a good day, we close our eyes with the satisfaction that we accomplished something, that we enjoyed ourselves, that nothing bad happened to us.  If it was a bad day, we end with the lingering frustration of important things yet undone, the emptiness of a joyless day, licking the wounds of arguments, things said or unsaid.  And such thoughts trouble our dreams.

imageSuch is the legacy of our culture: our keeping of hours, our reckoning of time.

But for those who look carefully at the words of Scripture in Genesis, there is another reckoning of time available to us.  It is very strange:  what sense does it make to begin the day in gathering darkness?  The ancient Hebrews looked for the appearance of the first stars of evening as the mark of a new day.  For a culture lacking the graces of fluorescent light and Jay Leno, the Hebrews began their day with preparations for sleep.  Backwards, we say.  Day begins at daybreak!  When I arise, when I meet the day, when I arrive on the scene—that is when my day begins!

Already the Holy Spirit is doing His work—we wince a little, knowing better than to entertain long these sorts of thoughts.  We know that we belong to another, that we are not the center of the world or the locus of history, that it is not strictly my day, for “this is the day the Lord has made.” (Psalm 118:24).

We know these things, but it is difficult to live them faithfully.  We mean to depend on God, we know He is at work around us (somewhere…), we trust that God cares for us, has meaningful things for us to do that matter both to Him and to us, and that He hears our prayers.  But once we say the closing amen, we cannot help but lose our spirit of dependence.  We shrug.  And we take up the reins of life ourselves.  We don’t mean to live life this way, but we cannot seem to depend on God anywhere but on our knees.

Allow me to propose as one way toward depending more fully on God that we obey these Scriptures in Genesis.  Let me be clear:  there is no command in this text; this is narrative Scripture.  Scripture like this functions very differently in the life of the church than other kinds of Scripture.  Some of us are used to seeing this text as a battering ram against science or evolution; some of us have been on the giving or the receiving end of those battering rams.  Let us set these things aside and obey this text.  For narrative (and especially poetic) Scripture like this, obeying means letting the rhythms, the imagery, and the perspectives get into us.  To filter past our reason, beyond the part of our heads that think systematically, and down into the deeper parts of us.  Where our habits are rooted, where our perceptions are shaped, the deep soil out of which all our behaviorial fruits grow—that is the level upon which this Scripture might work.

In order for it to do so, the Scripture has to disorient us.  That’s easy—we don’t see our day this way.  It makes no sense for us to think of our day as beginning at sunset.  Our lives are not lived like this.  It is strange:  evening and morning, the first day.  Backwards!  Even so, we allow this rhythm to crowd into our established rhythm, to play over it in disharmony.  We quiet our own rhythms and listen prayerfully to this new rhythm, allowing our hearts to attune to it.

What would it mean, what would it feel like to live according to this rhythm?

Listen.  “And there was evening, and there was morning.”  We begin in gathering darkness.  24 hours yet stretch before us, just as any other day—but this time the emphasis is different, we begin in a different place and everything changes.  We begin in darkness, just as God began His creative work in darkness.  Immediately we are reminded that God is still making, still at work in His creation and in us.  The day begins in darkness, a reality unfamiliar and frightening to us but not to God.  He holds darkness as well as light in the palm of His hand, partitioning them off and setting them to work for His creative purposes.  Here in darkness, we begin.  “This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Listen.  “And there was evening, and there was morning.” We begin with preparations for sleep.  Backwards!  But is it really so backwards?  Do we not wish to depend more fully on God?  Is there a more trusting act than giving ourselves over to sleep?  Sleep is like the little death.  Even Jesus conflates the two in the story of Lazarus; they are similar enough from the perspective of God.  We lay ourselves down in the darkness.  We let ourselves go—no one can try to fall asleep, we must give ourselves over to it.  We can force the issue with chemicals, we can fall victim to it when we run ourselves too long and too hard.  But most often, we lay ourselves down and give ourselves over to sleep, a state utterly out of our control.  Begin the day like this?  Isn’t this the perfect metaphor, the most excellent beginning to a journey of dependence on God?  Is not giving ourselves over to sleep an act of radical faith in forces we cannot control but that we trust?  What if, in preparation for sleep, we give over to God all of the do’s and almost done’s and the done-to-me’s of the previous day, scattering them in the darkness never to be seen again?  And there, empty of the previous days encumbrances (and as yet unencumbered by the coming day’s!), we come peacefully to fall asleep, secure in the presence of our Heavenly Father.

But the day is not over, it has just begun!

Listen.  “And there was evening, and there was morning.”  Morning comes to us unbidden.  While we sleep, God keeps watch.  And God is at work in the world.  Jesus tells this parable:  “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”  The dawn arises by the gentle hand of God, and we are invited into the work God has already begun.  This is what living under the authority of God, living according to the kingdom of God is like.  I do not arise to my day or my work, I arise to our day, our work.  God puts tools in my hands and invites me into the harvest of what He is doing.  Producing wealth for the sustaining of my family?  This is work I do together with God.  Caring for children?  This is work I do together with God.  Enjoying a time of rest from work, enjoying the fruit of our labor, enjoying the blessings of food, friends, family, sports, hobbies, art, music?  This I do together with God, for all of these things originated with God in His creative work.

Even on the hard days when nothing seems to be going my way, I work with God in the field where I’m found.  Whenever and wherever I meet others—the handiwork and image of God, each of them—I meet them as if God has brought us together, to work together in His field where we’re found.  When a great harvest, a bumper crop of blessing, is the result of the swing of my sickle, I celebrate and rejoice with God in the field where I’m found.

And at the end of that day, as my work together with God comes to its temporary pause and darkness gathers again, I put down my tools, wipe my brow and look over all that God and I together have done.  Whether the outcomes of today look good or bad, whether my failures smirched the day with sin, whether the crop of blessing came today or God and I together wait for their coming someday soon—all of this I do together, dependent on God.  The sun falls, the day ends and it is done.  As I cease my working, God brings a new day out of the stuff of gathering darkness.  Already He is busy making something new as I quiet myself.  I swaddle my children in pajamas, I brush my teeth, I lock my doors, I kiss my wife goodnight and turn off of lights.  And I give myself over to peace in His presence.

Is this not a different rhythm?  If we long for the peace and power of depending on God, then perhaps this is the place to begin: in gathering darkness, in preparation for rest, waiting on the one who creates by His powerful word.  We begin each day in surrender to the little death of peaceful sleep in His presence.  We arise to a day already in progress, waiting, watching and listening for His invitation to join what He is already doing.

This is a different way of approaching our days.  I do not mean this to be some sort of quick change you can make or some shortcut to spirituality.  There are no shortcuts in relationship with God or anywhere else.  But there is a life-giving, creating and re-creating rhythm at work here.  Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians of taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ. Through the discipline of prayer and remaining silent before God, through the hard work of listening for God’s rhythms in His word and holding up our own rhythms for Him to compare and change according to the lordship we have given Him over our lives—God will change us. 

Let the words of Christ inspire you—this is what the kingdom of God is like; and where kingdom comes, good living, joy, and peace—LIFE—follow!

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