Lent: A Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1

“There is a time for everything, and season for every activity under heaven.”

“A Time.” What kind of title is that? I’ll admit to trying at first for something longer, or maybe at least catchier, to sound as if this post might contain something worth reading. Lent: a time for what?

I resisted. There will be time for whats in other posts. I’m going to pause here at the subject of our sentence, Time, and hold off for the moment on Lenten verbs like fasting and reflection and mourning.

Pausing does not come naturally for activists in hard places.

I’m personally no good at pausing, in writing or in life. I am in fact behind on everything all the time. My email inbox is crammed and messages are flashing on my phone. There are people I want to get together with, and we are both disappointed it hasn’t happened. There are urgent needs.

Multiple to-do lists tacked above my desk almost obliterate a faded clipping of this Thomas Merton quote:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolence methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)


It’s a common observation that we make ourselves busier than ever in the modern world. Early in the twentieth century, the technological revolution promised more leisure time, because machines would do all the work—a promise that seems like a quaint joke now. I would like to make a more specific observation here, however: that many of us seeking to follow Jesus in hard places are busy busy driven busy. I say that even about those who have jumped off the tracks of consumerism and material success, and onto tracks of serving others. If you’re not busy—and I know a very few who are not—please teach the rest of us your secret. If you can get our attention.

As a child I heard a story about Gladys Aylward, a young British woman who had a dream about sitting in a peaceful field next to a cliff plucking flowers, while hearing the cries of China’s millions dropping into the chasm of hell below without hearing of Jesus. How could she sit idly by while throngs perished? For the rest of her life she worked doggedly to spread the good news in word and deed in China. It took awhile to sink in, but the story I heard as a child wasn’t wasted on me. Jesus calls us to a costly mission. Decades later, after working among the poor in Bangkok slums, I collapsed into a beach chair at a retreat house. Sitting next to me, staring blankly at the ocean, was an American doctor taking his first day off after months in a refugee camp. “Every hour I sleep at night, someone dies who I could have saved,” he muttered. I remember the way he kept squeezing clumps of sand in his fists. Not only had our bodies collapsed, but our spirits as well. This was good news?

More recently here in Denver I was leading a half-day session on basics of the Christian faith. Midway through, in blustered an urban youth worker with several teens in tow. “Figured we’d get here in time for the good parts,” he laughed. I wasn’t quite sure which were the good parts, but it didn’t matter because he took over the conversation. “Just burnin-out for God… that’s what it’s all about.” The teens nodded. “I’m just burnin-out for God, bro… don’t hardly sleep or eat. This worthless body will get tossed when I die anyhow. We’re losing our youth in this city, and I’m gonna rescue every single one I can. Gotta keep ‘em busy and outa trouble.” I asked him something about his impression of Paul’s teaching that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, but it got lost in discussion of the many activities his youth were involved in—which on one level I was genuinely impressed with. They wolfed down some of the lunch we had set out and then, “Gotta roll. Servin’ Jesus, man.” Out the door they blew.

No doubt, there is a time for rippin’ and runnin’. Maybe even for Jesus. Maybe even with Jesus. Maybe.

Lent is a time.

We know from the ancient Greeks that there are two kinds of time, which they called chronos and kairos. The distinction, blurred in our one English word time, is this: chronos is the measured, ticking time of clocks and calendars. Kairos, on the other hand, cannot be measured. Kairos is a moment (or a day, or forty days, or a year) of opportunity, a critical juncture—the kind of time we mean when we say “seize the day” or “once upon a time.” It cannot be counted; its measure is timeless, eternal. It happens in chronos but is not bound by it.

Chronos is running out. Sand slips through the hourglass. There aren’t enough chronos hours in a day or years in a lifetime for all we have to accomplish. Chronos can appear as a relentless enemy that frustrates our plans and withers our bodies. “I never lost a game, I just ran out of time,” said old-school quarterback Bobby Lane. The Greek god Chronos was all-consuming, a point not lost when he ate his own children.

Kairos is portrayed in film by a young man and woman after a date, on the front porch. Their eyes meet; their lips are still apart. At the moment of goodbye, chronos is suspended. The music stops. There is a pause, an opportunity—on which the rest of the film and their lives may hinge. Kairos is that moment in history when a very young Baptist pastor is persuaded to help lead a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Maybe, it will be better for him to mind his own business. Or?

After Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the scriptures say the devil left him “until another kairos.” It may eventually have been this: “When we were without strength, at precisely the kairos, Christ died” (Romans 5:6).

Lent is the forty days, measured in chronos time, before Easter. Different Christian church traditions calculate the time differently—some, for instance, do not include Sundays since they are each regarded as mini-Easters. The forty days commemorate Jesus’ time of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, or by other accounts, his forty hours in the tomb. Of course there have been disputes about all this, to the point where some churches (like my own local church) do not recognize Lent at all. That is surely a great loss. For those who do observe Lent, the forty days provide opportunity to reflect deeply on the haunting invitation of Jesus when he had predicted his death to his disciples: “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

These forty chronos days, should we choose to seize them, are a season. Modern people, technologically insulated from land, weather, and celestial cycles, are disconnected from the ebb and flow of annual seasons. We no longer plant with new hope in the spring, work long summer days in the fields, feast from our harvest in the fall, and sit reflectively by candles on winter nights. (It has been suggested, by the way, that the Lenten fast has roots in an age when late winter food stocks were nearly depleted anyway.) In southeast Asia, young urban men no longer enter the monastery during the monsoon. Our twenty-first century days are indistinguishable by season. Our schedules are relentless, though we cannot help the impulse to order them by annual sports spectacles and cultural holidays, not to mention weekends.

But again, I want to make a particular observation about those of us who live with a sense of God-given mission: we have answered a calling to places and situations of vast and deep need, and often we feel a relentless drive to meet those needs. There is no whip at our backs; in most cases no clock to punch. We are compelled from within. We love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—sometimes to exhaustion and the death of our spirits, oblivious to the irony of exactly the ways we are unloving the selves we are entrusted to love others with. To use Merton’s phrase, we are succumbing to—no, cooperating with—violence. We come to embody (incarnate!) something profoundly in conflict with good news.

Lent is a time, a season under heaven.

I am a postmodern urban person, and enthusiastically so. I have loved ones who live close to the land, and I admire them for it, but I am not suggesting we’d all be better off that way. I am suggesting this: that we recover and explore anew the rhythm of seasons for the care of souls—ours and those we serve. Seasons are a recognition of our journey as a story with different but connected chapters. Seasons are a recognition of time not as a consuming enemy but a gift—a recurring cycle of gifts, new with every rising of the sun and lengthening of spring days. (It has been suggested, by the way, that the word Lent has ancient roots in common with the word “lengthen.”) Seasons are a convergence of chronos and kairos.

Lent in particular is a season that announces a chapter of death that leads to the chapter of life. On Ash Wednesday I was marked with the dust of death in the shape of a cross on my forehead. There is resurrection, but the time to celebrate it has not yet come. The music has stopped. The lips have not met. This moment of opportunity cannot be measured by clock or calendar, though it comes as a gift of this time. In these forty days I have quit a particular quirky pleasure (you’d laugh if I told you what it was.) More importantly, I have at times paused from the usual press of my schedule, and even of all things (!) my busy impulse to help others. Those wouldn’t be appropriate disciplines for everyone, but the act of pausing has shaped me. Maybe just a very little, but I’d like to think significantly, along the lines Paul had in mind when he spoke of being “conformed to the likeness God’s son, so that he might be the firstborn of many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

Shaped how? I may not know for awhile, but it likely has something to do with what Madeleine L’Engle called “Being Time” (in contrast to “doing time”):
“Being time is never wasted time. When we are being, not only are we collaborating with chronological time, but we are touching on kairos, and are freed from the normal restrictions of time. In moments of mystical illumination we may experience, in a few chronological seconds, years of transfigured love.” (Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)

For a desert season Jesus quit the crowds, ceased doing time. It foreshadowed his kairos on the cross. In humiliation and death he relinquished any capacity for significance through doing, through accomplishments measured by time. His time, as we say, was up. By faith, however, we discern something much deeper than defeat in that kairos moment. Could we not say that as Christ gave up his spirit he put to death Chronos as a life-consuming enemy, and in resurrection offered time reborn as a gift?

A gift.

Stories that remind us what is possible when leaders undergo the Incarnational Movements.