November 16, 2003

Managing God’s Estate: Our Time
Psalm 90; 1 Cor. 15:58

As you enter a monastery virtually anywhere in the world today, you are immediately struck by the candles piercing the darkness. In a day and age dominated by chandeliers, desk lamps and fluorescent light bulbs, one would expect such candles to have long ago been relegated to decorative pieces on the altar rail in the central prayer room. Yet they remain. Joan Chittister, herself a member of a monastic community, helps us to understand why. “Candles…,” she writes in her book entitled Wisdom Distilled from the Daily,
focus our minds on the light of Christ and remind us always of the ebb of
our lives. They tell us that the day is slipping by. They tell us that it is time
to look into the dark spots of our souls and bring light there.
“They teach us,” Chittister concludes, “not to burn the candle at both ends.”

Whether you live in a monastery in the middle of the Judean Wilderness, a condo on Fifth Ave. in New York, or a dorm room at Messiah College, burning a candle at both ends is a real temptation. Managing our time is, of all of the issues we have thought about in this series on stewardship, perhaps the most difficult. There just never seems to be enough of it. Yet Jesus, who himself rarely if ever looked overly busy or frantic, certainly continues to include the management of our time in his call for us to watch over his house while he is away. Where do we begin?

Time is the focal point of Psalm 90. The psalm is a community lament, a corporate cry of God’s people on some now unspecified occasion. They are struggling, desperately longing for God’s grace and intervention. And what is it that concerns them?
What is it that they hope to learn? “Teach us to count our days,” they pray in v. 12, “that we may gain a wise heart.” Teach us to think more carefully about time.

God is eternal, according to the opening stanza of Psalm 90, unbound by time. Imagine the most wondrous mountain that you have ever seen, ancient and majestic, rising nearly to the heavens. Even before that mountain was a tiny little dirt pile, God lived. Imagine the very ground upon which you stand, the earth that serves as the foundation for everything that lives and breathes. Yes. Before it was even designed by the divine architect’s pen, God was. God has no need for watches and calendars, let alone palm pilots or other time measurement devices. “From everlasting to everlasting,” the psalmist cries with a voice no less stunning than that of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 40 of his prophecy, “you are God.”

But we human beings are drastically different. We’ve been corrupted from the earliest of days, as is so evident in vv. 3-11, and such corruption has brought with it our own mortality. Though originally created to live forever, our days are now numbered. We are like a dream that soon fades away, or grass that quickly withers. “You turn us back to dust,” the psalmist acknowledges (v. 3). “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong (v. 10).”

What seems to lie at the heart of this lament, however, is this frightening realization. Although the psalmist has apparently come to recognize the shortness of his days, most of the people around him have not. It is a frightening thought that the poet develops here. One of the consequences of our sin is a shortening of our days and ultimately death, yet our sin prevents us from ever realizing it. People live their lives solely for the moment. People bounce around everyday, showing no regard for the affairs of life that genuinely matter. People burn the candle at both ends, running themselves into the ground. “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist inquires. “Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And so he cries, “Teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”

Try with me to experience the passion of the psalmist here in Psalm 90. If we can do that, we will at least begin to understand what is involved in being good stewards with our time. The psalmist prays, first of all, that his people would learn to count their days (v. 12). We so often live our lives as though we have all of the time in the world. The energy and vigor that we typically enjoy, at least until the latter years of our lives, can pull the wool over our eyes. “You won’t die,” the serpent boldly announced to the woman way back in Genesis 3, and our own youthfulness sometimes leads us to conclude that he was right.

Nearly every morning I glance over the obituary page in the Patriot News—not to see if my own name is there! It’s true—Paul “Pappy” Helman of Harrisburg lived to be 88. But Brenda Bartlett died at the age of 45—two years younger than I am right now—and Benjamin Noah Manhart was only 18. He was a senior at Red Land High School. Time is an exhaustable resource that God gives us, and to make matters worse, we have no clue—no guarantee—as to exactly how much of this resource we have been given. If you have $10,000 dollars in the bank, you can at least know how to budget it over the coming months. But time? “Teach us to count our days,” the psalmist asks of the Lord. Help us to realize that our time is limited.

But of what value is it to learn to count our days? With at least some frequency, people who come face to face with their mortality either surrender in despair or accelerate the pace of their lives even more, hoping to cram everything they possibly can into a relatively short span. Neither is healthy or godly. Instead, we learn to count our days so that “we may gain a wise heart.” We count our days so that we can live wisely. We count our days in order to gain a biblical sense of perspective. We count our days so that we live balanced lives. What the psalmist asks God for here is the ability to discern, and you and I need to ask God for the very same thing.

I suppose the need to be discerning with respect to our time is even more crucial now than it was in the Psalmist’s day. We face so many options, and we encounter seemingly endless amounts of data. There is always somewhere to go and something to do. Sometimes the voices that call us entice us to waste valuable blocks of time in insignificant pursuits, often at the expense of more important matters. Other voices entice us to carry on our shoulders the concerns of the entire world to the extent that we bury ourselves in good works, forgetting the biblical invitation to rest and holy leisure. We find it extremely difficult to sort through all of the options, and we cry out, “Lord, give me a wise heart.”

Our struggles, of course, are further compounded by a great deal of the technology in our world today. It wasn’t supposed to be this way! Back in 1967, the hope was expressed before a Senate sub-committee that by 1985, people would work an average of just twenty-two hours a week or twenty-seven weeks a year. Many people, it was suggested, would be able to retire at the age of thirty-eight! I don’t know about you, but that is hardly the world I see going on around me.

“In a lifetime,” Richard Swenson writes in his extraordinary book Margin, “the average American will
spend six months sitting at traffic lights waiting for them to change
spend one year searching through desk clutter looking for misplaced objects
spend eight months opening junk mail
spend two years trying to call people who aren’t in or whose line is busy
spend five years waiting in lines
spend three years in meetings
learn how to operate twenty thousand different things, from pop machines to can openers to digital radio controls (not to mention computers)
commute forty-five minutes every day
be interrupted seventy-three times every day (the average manager is interrupted every eight minutes)
receive six hundred advertising messages every day (television, newspapers, magazines, radio, billboards)
travel 7,700 miles every year
watch 1,700 hours of television every year
open six hundred pieces of mail every year (add to that e-mail)
What did we do before we were surrounded by all of this stuff?” Swenson wonders. “Is it possible that the time margin was used for conversing, for serving, for resting, for praying?”

Many of you have heard the illustration before, but it is worth repeating. A man addressed his audience on the subject of time management, and he pulled out a jar. After filling the jar to the top with stones, he asked the audience if the jar was full. “Yes,” they quickly responded. Next the man dropped pebbles into the jar, and they settled in around the stones. “Is the jar full now?” he asked, and the audience immediately answered, “Yes.” Finally the man poured sand into the jar, and it too rose to the top. “Is the jar full now”? he asked, and they of course said, “Yes.” “And what is the point of the illustration?” he asked. Soon they answered, “When you think the jar is full, you can always get more in.” “No,” he responded. “If you want to fit the big stones into the jar, you have to put them in first.”

“Lord,” we pray with the psalmist, “give us wise hearts. Help us to discern between what is peripheral and what is central. Help us to discern between what is urgent and what is important. Help us to discern between what is temporal and what is eternal. Help us, while we still have time, to recognize what the big stones are.”

Finally, the psalmist’s prayer provides one more bit of insight as to how we might be good stewards with our time. It is perhaps the trickiest but most important idea, and we find it in vv. 13-14:
Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your
steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
This, I suspect, is the key to managing our time. The psalmist asks that God himself would satisfy our deepest longings. Not work. Not sports. Not shopping. Not movies. Nor any of the other often good things that we might spend our time on. How much of our frustration with time results from our attempts to drown out the concerns of our lives with stuff that doesn’t satisfy the deepest longings of our soul? How much of our frustration with time grows out of our lack of intimacy with God? “Turn, O LORD! Satisfy us today with your steadfast love.”

Candles have great symbolic value. They can remind us that the day is slipping by. They can encourage us never to burn the candle at both ends. But they can do even more than that. They can stir in our souls the image of God’s fire burning within our own hearts. If that fire consumes us, and if the glow of the Holy Spirit overwhelms us, then everything else in life—our talents, our money, our relationships, our bodies, our time—take on entirely new meaning.