“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31:15
“One of my predecessors scrawled above the cell door: ‘In one hundred years everything will be over.’” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In a letter from prison to his parents in May, 1943, Bonhoeffer told them he was trying to write something on the “sense of time” in order to cope with his loneliness and isolation, or what he called the “experience of empty time.” The inscription above his cell door daily reminded him that in a “hundred years everything will be over.” But what about living now in the confinement of a prison cell? And what about us during this pandemic that has radically affected everyone across the globe? How do we cope with so much time on our hands, in physical isolation from friends and loved ones?
If Bonhoeffer had time on his hands in prison, he was still apprehensive about his aged parents in Berlin trying to cope as the war reached its climax; his friend Eberhard Bethge, a soldier on the frontline in Italy; his former students conscripted to fight on the Eastern Front; his colleagues in the Resistance plotting against Hitler. He might have had time on his hands, but others close to him were being exhausted by their responsibilities and the urgency of the time. So, too, as those of us in isolation have to find ways to spend our time, we remember those for whom this is a very busy and dangerous time – doctors and nurses working long hours, those engaged in other essential services, those who cannot live in isolation because of poverty and inadequate housing, those who spend hours in queues to buy food, or those lying ill in overcrowded hospital wards as time drags on. Compared to them, to have time on our hands is a gift, even a luxury.
When he wrote to his parents, Bonhoeffer still hoped to be released soon. But in the meantime he kept notes of his thoughts, jotting down familiar phrases which, in times of isolation, take on fresh meaning: “passing time”, “killing time”, the “emptiness of time,” “letting time slip away,” the “ravages of time,” the “healing of time,” the “fulfilment of time’ and the “benefit of time.” He wrote about waiting anxiously as well as about boredom, about impatience and yearning, and even hinted at suicide to end it all because of feeling “dead already.” And yet, he kept on coming back to the words of the Psalmist: “My times are in your hands.” And to those of Jesus: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today!” (Matt. 6:34)
Many of us are spending every day in relative isolation, as if we were confined to a cell. Being social beings who find meaning in relationships, this does not come naturally, but it has become necessary for our well-being. We might not be in prison or solitary confinement, but we are getting some sense of what it is like to be forced to live in relative confinement, and therefore how important social relations actually are.
Although we know that our “sentence” might only last 21 days, we fear that the lockdown will last much longer, and even then, we have no assurance as to its outcome if we survive, something not guaranteed. Uncertainty does not lessen anxiety. We rightly worry about tomorrow. But that does not mean that we should not prepare for the future. On the contrary, we are called to act responsibly today for the sake of tomorrow and future generations. The “worry” Jesus warns us against is, however, something else, it is panicking, that is, allowing our worries to take control of our lives so that we become incapable of doing what needs to be done today. It is then that our lives fall apart, and we become victims to the general malaise that grips society in times such as these. Of course, we need to keep in touch with news about the pandemic an face reality, but we should not allow ourselves to be so overwhelmed by it that we cannot do what we need to do. Quite literally we should not waste this time but rather grasp hold of it as a gift and opportunity.
There are two Greek words used in the New Testament which we translate “time.” The one is chronos, from which we get chronological time, that is years, months, days, hours, seconds and seasons. The other is kairos, that is, time understood as a God-given opportunity to choose between life and death, between following the way of Christ or the path of greed, selfishness and arrogance. So, St. Paul, also writing from prison, tells his fellow Christians in Colossae to “redeem the time.” (Col. 4:5 KJV), that is, to regard the passing hours and minutes as a God given opportunity to fulfil their vocation as Christians. This does not mean trying to be busy all the time but using the opportunity to enhance life in creative and redemptive ways that make a difference both to ourselves and others. This is not only learning to live meaningfully now but also preparing for a post-pandemic future.
How often we say that we cannot help someone today because we do not have the time! How often we say that we cannot spend time to listen to a friend in need. How often we say that we don’t have time to be still, to pray or read the Bible. But for those of us now in lockdown that excuse simply does not cut ice right now. In fact we are being invited to see time different: an opportunity to phone a friend and see how they are doing, to discover something we never knew about the world or ourselves, to read a book or even write one, or time or just stand and stare at the beauty around us. We don’t any longer have the excuse: “I don’t have time!” At the very least we can learn to embrace time as a gift so that when things return to relative “normalcy” we will have learnt how precious time is, something to treasure and cherish not wasted. This time will pass, but in the meantime may we discover a true sense of time, that our time “is in the hand of God.” Yes, time will pass, but will our lives be changed by it for the good?
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 5. 2 April 2020.