“Dimensions of Time”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, January 13, 2013
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands,
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
~T. S. ELIOT, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
All we have to decide is what to do
with the time that is given us.
~J. R. R. TOLKIEN, The Fellowship of the Ring
“Toast” by Susan Deborah King, from The One-Breasted Woman
It’s worth getting up for.
Just at dawn, on a dead-of-winter walk,
I could smell it wafting from homes
all around the lake as they
emerged from the dark like loaves
from an oven, steaming.
Is there an aroma more divine
than that of bread warming, bread
browning, crisping for the spread
of butter and marmalade, the sprinkling
of sugared cinnamon? Whatever
terrors the night might harbor,
how bad can it get, if hot slices
stack our morning plate, the white
ones patterned with cobalt blue?
It’s what in the current vernacular
we’ll all eventually be: a pleasant
redolence rising and haloing
a roughed up, frozen expanse –
for such days, we make
not-too-burnt offerings of thanks;
we raise our glasses of juice.
Excerpts from Instructions to Painters and Poets
I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous
as if they were all guarding trade secrets
Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work
a site-specific art work
an art project of the god of light
the whole earth and all that’s in it
to be painted with light
And the first thing you have to do
is paint out postmodern painting
And the next thing is to paint yourself
in your true colors
in primary colors
as you see them
paint yourself as you see yourself
Then paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light
And be sure you get the perspective right
and don’t fake it
because one false line leads to another
And don’t forget to paint
all those who lived their lives
as bearers of light
Paint their eyes
and the eyes of every animal
and the eyes of men and women
known only for the light of their minds
Paint the light of their eyes
the light of sunlit laughter
the song of eyes
the song of birds in flight
And remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside
And when you’ve finished your painting
stand back astonished
stand back and observe
the life on earth that you’ve created
the lighted life on earth
that you’ve created
a new brave world
The first book I ever stayed up past midnight reading as a kid was A Wrinkle in Time. My mom must have turned off the light at nine or ten and I huddled under the covers with a flashlight, reading about a girl named Meg with braces who was smart but awkward, just like me. The plot was magical, the characters especially easy to relate to, and as an initial brush with metaphysics, it was a good one! First published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is still one of the best loved sci-fi fantasy stories for children. Madeleine L’Engle sends the children on a mission to rescue their father traveling through the universe by means of a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional phenomenon explained as being similar to folding the fabric of space and time.
There in the darkness the thought of time travel boggled my mind, but perhaps this was because in order to think about entering another reality, I had to recognize myself as part of this one. It was the first time I’d ever thought about myself as being a specific part of a universe, with physical elements like bones and nerves that caused me to exist and made me alive.
I can remember through my child’s eye, trying to picture traveling through the galaxy we are in, and arriving at the edge of it. I could see all the stars, zipping by me as they do on a screen saver or on Star Trek, and suddenly realizing that if I got to the edge of our galaxy, there would still be no end. Space goes on forever and ever, and so does time. Even now, I can feel the vertigo of arriving at Milky Way’s end and falling into the beginning of endlessness. I could stop right there at the edge, but the stars would go on and on and on. It was my first awareness of being temporal in eternity. Well, that was enough of a mind blowing concept for a 5th grader, even without the tesseract effect of warping into another reality altogether. I skittered down the stairs to my very real parents who were not warping in any way at all, but were perhaps a little ticked that I was still awake.
There are I’m sure, people in this very room who are quite knowledgeable about quantum physics, and I am not one of them. I can’t tell you about any dimensions past the third, but the concept of time itself has always intrigued me.
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. But these days that hardly feels true.
Has anyone ever heard of time compression? It’s a bit like making beans in your pressure cooker. You get the same product in less time. Except this is a technique used in film.
For two decades or more – When a movie made for the big screen is adapted for television – there’s usually some editing necessary. First, there’s editing for bad language or to get rid of certain scenes, and to make room for ads. Then to shorten the film even more, the time compression process electronically slices milliseconds out of the film – about twelve hundred times every minute. This last edit shortens the film another five minutes or so – and no one can even notice a difference, Not a word of dialogue is lost. And no chipmunk effect either.
Does it feel like somebody is doing this to your days – shortening your hours so that you can’t accomplish what you had planned to do? Time has become a thief in the night. This is of course, not the way time works, there are the same number of hours for everyone in each day, but the pressures of keeping up with society have increased substantially in the last decade alone.
A few days ago I saw someone brushing her teeth while driving along in her car. She pulled up at the light beside me, and there were two kids in the back seat also brushing their teeth! Efficient but ridiculous looking!
There are so many ways to relate to time. At the start of a new year many of us take stock of our lives and ask ourselves what we’ve accomplished, or what we hope to do in the year to come. Whether we make resolutions or not, we wonder what is worth getting up for, what to strive for or let go of, what to change in our lives.
When you think about time as a factor in your life, what comes to mind? Here is a non-exhaustive list, and you can add your own thoughts as we go along: How did I let myself get so busy? Why is my work stealing my time? How am I using the free time I have? Am I leading a good life? Am I using my time for the common good? Is another culture’s way of life a better way to spend our days? Am I in touch with the seasons of the year and the seasons of my life? Is there a way I could lengthen my time on earth or increase my enjoyment of the time I have? How can I manage my time better and not feel that it rules me? If I knew how long I have left to live, would I change anything about my life? What messages about time am I sending my children? And lastly, if time goes on without end, and I am no more, … is there more? Could I or others I love be a part of that “more” somehow?
In high school there were three courses I regret not being able to take. “Dimensions of Food,” “Dimensions of Love,” and “Dimensions of Time.” The classes had newly been created for 10th graders, and I was a junior already. I remember that on the second day of classes, the students in “Dimensions of Time” were bringing in objects that related to their first class discussion. It was like a visual brainstorm. One girl had her grandfather’s pocket watch that her family had stopped on purpose the day he died. One boy brought in his Bucket List of things he wanted to do before he got really old. “Drive!” was at the top of the list. I hope he didn’t think of age 17 as old, but who knows. Another brought a telephone cord which represented the connection of two people’s thoughts, explaining that both people with receivers in hand were hearing the other’s voice, moments after the words had actually been spoken, so that the conversation was both in the present and in the past at the same time. Someone else had an old black and white photo from her immigrant grandparents. Another time, another place, but still a part of her, she said.
There are two words used for time in the Greek New Testament. One is clock time: chronos – the steady progression of seconds, minutes, hours, and days. Our watches and calendars refer to chronos time. The other word is Kairos which means an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season. This is the kind of time filled with possibilities. We have a brief opportunity to shepherd our kids when they’re still young children. When a friend is experiencing pain, we have a short window of time in which to reach out to them. Sitting beneath a gentle oak, we let Kairos bring our awareness to the tickling grass and watch these particular birds flying by right in this moment.
In the book by Stephen Levine called A Year To Live, the author talks about his son Noah who worked as a medical technician in a hospital. He was the fellow who administered the AIDS tests and two weeks later pronounced the results. He saw part of his job as reminding patients that while waiting two weeks to hear whether they have a fatal degenerative disease can put a strain on the mind, it was also an opportunity for the heart, for insight and reflection on priorities, goals, and desires. Noah recommended that the patient ask themselves two questions. First: if you receive a positive diagnosis, what will you do next, who would you share this disturbing news with, and what changes might you make in your life? The second question was: if you find you don’t have the AIDS virus, that you have a second chance so to speak, what will you do with your life then? Kairos time. A moment filled with possibilities.
The author John Kabat-Zin titled his book, Wherever you Go, There You Are, and this mindset resonates for me. Time is steady and constant, it’s not an opponent in a game of chess. Though we may get vertigo standing at the edge of our Milky Way looking back at our planets and stars, and forward into endlessness, we are always nowhere but exactly here. This moment you and I are experiencing right now together has never been before, and will never be again. It is new and then it’s gone as soon as I say it, but it has been, and therefore even though we’re now already in the next moment, in this moment we recall the past and know our life is made up of these moments, each one new for just a tiny while. Rabindranath Tagore said the butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. We are born, live out our days or months or years if we’re lucky, then cease. How aware we are of our existence and our alive-ness, is up to us.
My sister, Alyssa, is a role model to me in this regard. Three years ago she left a settled life in New York city to begin anew with a one way ticket to Europe. She followed her intention of dancing her way through different countries, teaching dance and English which pays her way, and finding meaningful and generous ways to connect with various communities and individuals she meets. Watching her dance this morning to “All That you Have is Your Soul” seems just right for a person who can carry almost all her stuff around with her in one backpack. I have watched her become more authentically the person she is and strives to be, discarding false expectations of self and others. More than ever before, I can see her soul as she moves. It is said that the body is a temple for the soul, and I wonder what this thing called soul really is. I feel it when she hugs me, though it is not her arms. As Joe’s song this morning said so well, we are all just passing through. Our living is important. And what we leave behind lives on in other people.
Of the questions on that short list of ponderings I read earlier, this one nudges me most. If time goes on without end, and I am no more, is there more? And also, could I or others I love be a part of that “more” somehow? Growing up Unitarian Universalist, I remember an entire year of Sunday School devoted to the question “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” One of the most pressing questions we asked over and over again in many forms was “what happens when we die?” Time keeps moving, but where do we go? It was a deepening year for me.
Just recently, our own 5th and 6th graders wrote questions to the ministers and many of their questions are in this realm too. “Do you believe in heaven?” “Is reincarnation possible if you want to believe in it?” “Can I live a longer life if I’m a better person?” Later in 9th grade they will be asked to write their credo and share it with all of us in church. Writing a statement of belief is a daunting task at any age. So they are in a formation stage, finding their own thoughts and ideas, just as we all are throughout our lives.
But I’d ask you this: if a young person in some way wants to know your thoughts on matters existential, don’t dodge the question. The number of hours they spend in Religious Education is nothing compared to what they spend at home or school or with the people they trust the most. Religious education happens in our classrooms, but it also happens singing songs around a campfire, telling bedtime stories, or chatting in the car. Speak your truth and ask theirs. It might feel awkward to be so overt at first, but I think it’s worth it. Saying that we are all free to think for ourselves, is true, but it’s not enough. The hymn that ends “even to question truly is an answer” used to drive me nuts. Young people want to bump up against your real opinions. They don’t mind that your thoughts might be different from theirs. That’s already a core UU principle. Tell them something you do believe is true, that you’ve figured out for yourself, that you learned from your favorite grandmother, or that came to you in your own valley in the shadow of death.
I remember once burying a beloved guinea pig with my dad. He had told me earlier he didn’t believe in heaven, but then patting the soil down, he said softly, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” under his breath. I had never heard that expression before, and because I was introduced to it with such love, it has stayed a sacred phrase for me all these years. My dad felt death was final, and yet he found a way to express that we are all a part of the earth, and in that way a part of all that is.
So I encourage you to stick your neck out and share more of your specific beliefs with our young people. Let’s not hold back. The context for their religious understanding is us. …Then again some of those 5th and 6th graders wrote down questions about banjos, which are of course, also important to ponder.
A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life states that 74% of Americans believe in life after death, with equal number of people believing that heaven is a place where people who have lived good lives are eternally rewarded. I guess I was surprised at how high that number is, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Here in this sanctuary we embark together on a search for truth and meaning each week, and depending on how we qualify the question about life after death, I bet we’d get a wider array of answers than we might initially imagine. Since I was just talking about sharing what we each believe to be true with one another, I will share with you a poem about death that resonates with me. I’d love to know what you believe or understand thus far as well.
“What happens when we die?” our kids ask. Here is one answer to this question in a poem by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.
Just like asking a hundred painters and a hundred poets how to paint sunlight on the face of life, we find there is no end to ideas about what it means to be alive, to exist despite all challenges, in our own miraculous yet temporal body. It is hard enough to stand in the moment we are in, meeting again at the source of existence, which is now. But we must in addition, paint ourselves as we see ourselves, without whitewash, without faked perspective. This life, in all its dimensions, past, present, future, is the one that matters. And of course, living that one wild and precious life in community, with all of you.
In closing, as our days march forward, I’ll tell again a story familiar to many of us. There was once a philosophy professor standing before his class with some items on the table in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2 inches in diameter.
He asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.
He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “Yes.”
“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
The pebbles are the other things that matter – like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff.”
“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life.
If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.
Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”
May it be so.
Kendyl R. Gibbons
There is, finally, only one thing required of us: that is, to take life whole, the sunlight and shadows together; to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.
We have such a little moment out of the vastness of time for all our wondering and loving. Therefore let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.
Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.