Marking and Measuring Time : in grace and gratitude

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This summer I attended a course at college called The Meaning of the Sacraments – which I really enjoyed. Mostly we talked about what baptism and communion mean – the two common sacraments the church celebrates all over the world. However, one of the texts we read was For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann – who is an orthodox priest. His theology has a whole-of-the-cosmos-focus and he works hard to challenge the modern separation of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ realms of human life. After reading his chapter ‘The Time of Mission’, I felt invited to conduct my own reflections on the sacramental nature of time.

What followed was my major paper*. I followed the line that rather than seeing time as a wearisome burden, perhaps we are invited to understand the times and seasons given to us by God as gift. If so, perhaps there are ways we can ‘mark’ time regularly and cyclically – using repeated rhythms and rituals as well as moments of special attention and celebration.

These photos are of homemade lavender cake – a late birthday gift for a lovely (and patient!) friend. I know I have written about cake so many times but I after researching my paper a few years ago they seem so important as a way of marking a special day with special food. We put the best of our ingredients together to make something beyond basic fare because the people we have been given to walk with are gifts to us, we want to mark their milestones, to party with them, to be thankful for them.

Writing this paper was such a gift to me – I had always had a hunch that there was more to birthdays than what met the eye – the cake, the presents, the balloons – these matter because they are a way of delighting in God’s gifts to us – in particular, the person we love and are celebrating.

If you too would like a theological reason for partying – or if you have always felt called by the mountains on your horizon to look to God for help – this paper may also interest you.

*A pdf of my paper is below:
tomarknotmeasuretimeasagiftofgrace

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Ambivalent Consumer

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Sometimes I feel it when I am talking with a sensitive friend, sometimes when I am having a fragile moment myself. The uneasy recognition that each one of us, as complex physical, emotional and spiritual beings, exists in time and space. That by nature of our existence we use up time (as well as other resources) and take up space. In one of my favourite musicals, Sussical, the Who’s from Whoville sing out “We are here, we are here, we are here” to let the creatures in the large world know that they are real. For some of us the tension between this necessary cry of existence and deep reticence in acknowledging our very stuff-ness (and therefore stuff-dependance) can begin to break us.

There is a reconciliation I find myself fighting for on several fronts.

In moments of fear and mis-placed disgust, I long to be smaller, to take up less space, to find more room in my clothes. In corresponding moments of dogged self-talk I begin my schpeil; my body houses my bones, muscles and organs – growth and maintenance is heavily dependant on my genetic code. Isolated, no particular section of me is wildly photogenic or smooth or blemish free. But together, I am a human being, a creature, a body-and-soul matrix with real biological systems that process real organic molecules, animated by solar energy and the very breath of God. Discussions about fasting aside, regular food is necessary for my ongoing survival. Fats, carbohydrates and proteins – all necessary to keep me enlivened, alive. Sometimes I do wish that the whole could be smaller, that there was less of me, that I took up less room. I know that there is much that could be said on the topic. But, in truth, I do not want to be a small person or live a small life. All that remains is to live out of the body I’ve been given; thankful and ready to use it for joy.

Not only do I take up space myself (more than I would like when pressed for the uncomfortable truth), but my stuff does too. My very physicality (yours too) demands food (fairly regularly, ask my husband just how civilised I can be prior to dinner), water, air, clothes, some place safe to rest in, to live in, tools to do my work, toys to share in play. The list goes on. For most of us, where these things can be enhanced with beauty, they seem to answer our needs even more truly. The somewhat obvious and, at times disconcerting reality, is that providing for these very real and tangible cries requires considerable time and money.

In a weak moment we despair at the grocery bill, regret the rent, mourn the price of a new skirt – no matter how thoughtfully the shopping list was put together, how economically our decisions about where to live were made or how careful the purchase of an attractive, up-cycled charity-shop outfit for work was. In this frame of mind, justifying the occasional ‘this-is-beautiful-and-I-really-love-it-purchase’ can be even more difficult. Add to these daily reminders of your reliance on stuff, physical things, the double ups that come from moving to a new place – having left old things behind because moving ‘stuff’ costs. Packing stuff in and out of moving boxes and suitcases has become a recent but reoccurring theme of my life. While previously my stable geography meant that my collection of stuff moved only small distances and made itself less known, now no longer.  As the distances became longer and the cost higher, moving stuff became a more difficult issue for me. Deciding what to take and what to leave when moving away is difficult enough without adding the now-near-existential-regret-come-fear of mine – if I leave it behind I’ll need to buy a new one when I get there!

This summer ‘stuff’ weighed me down; an overseas move, study of Creation care and environmental brokeness followed with further international travel meant (a lot of) real luggage toting. It also meant grappling with my unwieldy emotional baggage. I do not in anyway find myself facing Fall all the ends tied up neat and tidy, but I have had to try and lay the issue down for a spell. It was getting too heavy for me.

We took this course together, Asher and I, in the summer. A course about ‘stuff’. Natural ‘stuff’ and human-made ‘stuff’. Creation in its outstanding diversity and the complex labyrinth of human production, technology and objects. We wondered how to negotiate the two realms, we read scripture and other wise writers. We worried about human failings in ecology. We rowed boats and explored marine environments. We sang and prayed together. We shared bread and wine and remembered the One who’s body was broken because of our destruction. And I think that is where the answers begin.

Our God made and loves this physical world. He made the ‘stuff’! The epitome of a good designer, He made the world both useful and beautiful. He made us as part of His creation to love and appreciate it, to use and work within it, and, as Schmeman would say, to offer it back to Him in praise and worship. God is not only just okay with a real, physical creation, He wanted it that way. He even sent His Son to become part of it. Incredible. God made flesh, bone, body. He knows what it feels to live in skin. His death and (bodily) resurrection answers so many questions, articulated and otherwise, but for my purposes here today, it at least says that our messy, uncomfortable, physical lives, our stuff, our home planet, all matter to Him deeply. He took on the great joy and incredible brokenness of life under the sun – and then some – because He loves His creation. His double affirmation of the ‘stuff’ of this world comes in the way He asks us to remember why He came, bread and wine are to be our mnemonics. We remember God dwelling among us as we eat a meal, a meal that speaks of sacrifice, life given for life and welcome.  Grapes, yeast, wheat, water. The very ‘stuff of life’ tells us the story of heaven meeting earth and welcoming her home, over and over, as often as we drink it.

This is not a full discussion of the spiritual importance of ‘stuff’, but for me, weary from the compromise of trying to do right within a broken system, arms heavy from carrying my ‘stuff’, I’m glad to sit down at the table. Eyes forced to the Head, praise and thankfulness the only right response to the Giver of all good gifts. Will you sit by me?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:4-8

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.