I know you remember the lines from the famous Christmas song “Silver Bells”: “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas!” Perhaps you can relate, but for me that “air” usually takes the form of panic as I try to get everything done before Christmas. There are events most every evening at the university, concerts to attend, church services to experience, and of course dozens of presents to purchase. During Christmas, the one thing I need more of is time.

It is not just at Christmas, either. Whether in the workplace, in the home, or even while getting a university education, the subject of time is always present.

“I could do a more effective job on that project if I just had more time …”
“I don’t have enough time to get that budget in …”
“Could you just give me some more time,” the student says to the professor.
“Son, I wanted to be there today, but I just did not have enough time …”
“Dear, I would love to go to dinner, but that project is due and I just don’t have the time …”

Time is something we always want more of, but we all know it is a finite resource. I am not going to get “more” time.

When I was a high school student, Harry Chapin penned a song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” that told the story of a son and a father that did not have “time” for each other:

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw, I said, not today
I got a lot to do, he said, that’s OK
And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
Said, I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him

I am a historian of 19th-century America, and for me the history of time is an important question. Did humans always count time as we do today? The answer is, of course, no. For most of human history, time was observed, not measured, through interaction with the natural world. Our ancient ancestors marked the movement of time by tracking the moon and stars and carving notches into mammoth tusks. Some cultures measured time by tracking seasons and observing the shift to the winter solstice, for example. Some cultures measured time in cycles, and it was the Judeo-Christian culture that imposed a linear view of time on the human community. You will remember that the Scripture tells us that “at the right time Jesus was born,” assuming a progressive and linear movement of time.

Until the 20th century, time was primarily a “local” system governed by the community. In fact, as late as 1875 American railways recognized more than 75 different local times in the United States alone. Time as we measure it and now know it was imposed by the march of globalization and technology at the beginning of the 20th century. Western industrial cultures needed standardized time to create an economic structure that would work across the entire globe. So, they imposed “time” on the world.

One author who studied the history of time described it this way: “Taking Western superiority for granted, they reflected European convictions about human reason and the remaking of the world.” Simply put, the Western industrial system created time as we understand it today as something that treats time as a commodity – measured accurately and used to accomplish key economic or scientific tasks. You might ask, “Well that is interesting, but why should I care? Are you suggesting that we should in some way go back to how it was before the 20th century?” (Even in that question notice our assumptions about progress and movement, which are actually constructs of how we understand time). No, but I am saying we need to consider what we have lost because it has a direct impact on how we live and work.

The way we “use” and understand time forces us to think of human interaction, as well as interaction with our natural environment, in transactional form. We plan out our days according to time. We have phones that show us every minute how our time has been scheduled and where we need to be at certain “times.” We squeeze every moment out of the day to complete our work or fill our time. What is so difficult for us is to step back and consider purpose and meaning – to be actively present in nature or with another human being. The Harry Chapin song noted, “Can you teach me to throw dad, I said, not today. I got a lot to do, he said, that’s OK.”

In Tolkien’s great work, The Hobbit, Gollum’s last riddle to Bilbo reminds us that, as much as we try, time is not something that we escape …

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers
Gnaws iron, bites steel
Grinds hard stones to meal
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down

We are a Christian university and often look to Jesus for how we should live. Jesus always subordinated time to purpose. Whether it was greeting children or taking the time to go to Zacchaeus’ home, he was focused on people and transforming their lives. It seems to me that in order to escape the “cycle” of time what we can learn from Jesus is that time must always be subservient to “purpose.”

You do not need to be reminded that Christmas is really not about gifts in the sense of items we purchase. It is primarily about the gift of time – the creator God descended to earth in the form of a child to spend intimate “time” with his creation. The greatest gift we can give is to live in light of the gospel and to step into the lives of those around us to be the transformative presence of Christ.

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