. . . but why do you not know how to interpret the present time (Luke 12:56).
“I am the town clock-winder for Island Pond, Vermont.”
So wrote Garret Keizer in his fine memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. In his book Keizer reflects on his life as an Episcopal lay-pastor in a rural New England town. As the church’s solo pastor one of his duties was to climb into the steeple twice every week to wind the clock. This involved cranking two large spools of cable – one for the face of the clock and one for the bell that marked the hour.
Far from resenting such a mundane task, Keizer seems to delight in the insights he gleans from being the town’s clock-winder. One of his observations resonated with me as a very helpful picture of what we mean when we speak of a post-Christian world. He rescues the phrase from the academicians when he writes
The public keeping of time has passed from the church and possibly the municipal building to the branch bank. In most towns of any size that is the place to look for a digital display of the right time . . . It was logical for a church to tell people the time when one of the things they needed to know time for was when to pray, and when church feasts and holy days colored the calendar. Equally logical is it that a bank should tell the hours to a populace for whom time is not liturgical but financial, who inhabit a fiscal year broken into quarters and the maturation periods of certificates of deposit (p. 86).Keizer seems to be saying that when the church steeple rang the hour it declared that time was sacred. The digital display in front of the bank declares that time is money.
Of greater significance than how we tell time is the shifting locus of authority in our world. Whether the hour is displayed at a bank or city hall or on a cell phone, the church has lost its voice in the ordering of the day, perhaps in the ordering of life.
I’ll go one step further with Keizer’s insight. Not only does the church no longer have voice in the ordering of time, the church’s organizational life now finds itself smothered in competition for the hours that belong to its own members. A persistent and insidious barrier to meaningful spiritual growth is the busy-ness of life, what John Ortberg has named ‘hurry sickness.’
Earlier today I heard the carillon bells in the steeple of the church where I serve ring the noon hour. I love hearing that sound from my office or from within our sanctuary. Sadly, the hundreds of cars blistering the asphalt on Roswell Road didn’t hear what I heard. The hearing requires some measure of stillness.
This is not to suggest that the only activities of the day that have spiritual significance are activities that happen inside a church building. Rather, what Keizer invites us to ponder is the way that faith is squeezed and choked in the post-Christian world’s use of time.
The question for all of us is not about how much time you spend at church – but how the church’s message shapes what you do with time.
How might you take your schedule for this day and make it holy offering unto the Lord?
Gracious God, “my times are in your hand” (Ps. 31:15). And not only my times but my time – the hours and minutes of this day that you’ve placed before me. Order my steps, making every minute yours, lived thankfully and for your glory through Christ our Lord. Amen.