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A Short Reflection on Time

This post was originally published on the Association of Christian Writers blog.

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of time this week. Not out of any great philosophical revelation, but simply due to the fact that my daughter has turned twenty years old, and that feels like a big thing, like something to sit with a while. I know twenty-one is the big one, but twenty feels new and different and scary. Twenty ages me so much more than nineteen, and throws me into a whirl of memories and well-worn cliches about where-on-earth-did-those-years-go. It was yesterday, surely, that she was a tiny newborn, snuffling in my arms. Time is wrong, isn’t it? It has to be.

As writers, and as creatives in general, we have a unique privilege when it comes to matters of time: we can manipulate it. We can bend it and travel through it, we can look back over it and forward to years we will never see. We can even break it, sometimes. Some of the most fascinating books play with time – think of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, or The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, or The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. All of these take time and shape it in unexpected ways, drawing the reader into a world that is at once impossible and yet compelling, as if in these stories we find some resonance, some echo of a long-forgotten story within us – as if time itself is a constraint on us we wish to throw off.

And it is. Time is a ravage, it’s an outrageous imposition on our autonomy and rights, it’s an enemy that robs youth and adds pain. But it’s a friend, too, in grief and in sorrow, in watching children grow into themselves, in drawing closer to God, in yearning for more than this. We so often wish time away – I’ve observed this more than ever over the past months: if only we can get all this over and done with, if only we could fast-forward to next summer when Covid will surely be done, if only we don’t have to live through this time where time itself can hang as an even heavier burden than usual around our necks. And then there are seasons where we wish time to slow and curse the passing of it, but nothing we do or say can halt its relentless tide.

Except for when we write, and when we read. When we hear a beautiful piece of music or reflect on artwork that carries us beyond time’s usual bonds. When we stand at the top of a mountain and watch the expanse of the sky in all its glorious hues. As Christian writers, perhaps we have even more opportunity to transport our readers out of time for a while, to allow them to play on the edges of eternity, to paint words that so burn in hearts that they are taken, for a time, outside of time, to where God dwells.

Ecclesiastes 3 is the Bible’s great treatise on time. There is a time for everything, the writer says, and goes on to create a poem of extremes that speaks deep into our lives as human beings. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. I love Scripture for its great and raw honesty about all the seasons of life, its admission of the pain as well as the joy. Scripture doesn’t try to hold on to time or to speed it on, but encourages us to sit within it and wait, to hold the times close to us and abide in them, whether they bring sorrow or gladness. Yet within this great call to embrace time, the Bible also gives a yet more alluring call: the call of eternity.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says this:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

In this profound mystery born in the timelessness of God, we find deep resources to cope with the ravages of our own times. The knowledge that God stands outside time – that God is the great time-shaper – holds us tight in the cages time imposes on us. We have the great privilege of being acquainted with the Creator of Time, and because of this, time does not have to be such a burden on us, it does not have to wreak all its havoc, it does not have to break apart every piece of us. God has put eternity in our hearts, because we are made for eternity, we are made to dance outside of time, to be unchained from its wreckage. Instead of being hostages to time, we are co-conspirators with time itself, allowing the influence of eternity to play out in our own lives and become a part of the very essence of who we are and how we act towards others. 

And as authors, we get to take hold of this truth about a God who cannot be constrained by the edges of human knowledge, and allow the love that both transcends and triumphs over time to seep through our words, to sing this enticing call to others. I’m so grateful for language, which has its own constraints and yet its far-reaching beauty and profundity, words that can only touch the very sides of the Creator and yet somehow plunge us further and deeper into love that is stronger than death and wider than time.

I’m going to leave this poem – and the video I made of it – here today. It tries to capture something of the enormity of God’s own shaping of and outshining over time itself. A few of you will have seen it already, but I pray that this poem blesses you today. If you want to read more, my new book Treasure in Dark Places will be out in a month’s time. It’s a collection of stories and poems through the seasons, most of which I wrote in the lonely shielding months of 2020. 

ALPHA

Nothingness
thick darkness weaves eternal poetry
no beginning no end
no beginning no end

Time perched on a precipice
waiting with bated breath
as formless void 
aches for unspeakable joy 

Ruach dances over unshaped deeps
breathless in expectancy
as the image of the invisible 
composes a divine song

The voice a rushing of many waters
and time is wrested into order
as bolts of energy pierce the night
and angels hymn; let there be light

Morning is born with a shout of elation
skies paint a canvas of blazed exultation
planets are crafted in songs of the stars;
a new anthem surging through every new heart

Eternity rushes through newly-forged shores
and whispers its promise through history’s doors,
streaming through ages and writing its pages
the creator’s song dances through all of our cages

Nothingness
thick darkness weaves eternal poetry
no beginning no end
no beginning no end

We cling to the wreckage of time
to the ruins in our wastelands—
waiting with the groaning of creation,
waiting with yawnings of anticipation

Hope floods through ages 
and epochs of time
the song swells through darkness 
and agony’s chimes

The heavens declare you through unfettered heights
skies proclaim wonder in potent design
when we are hemmed in and spent by the fight
roar out your song and so let there be light

no beginning no end
no beginning no end

Eternity’s opera all glorious divinity
our hurting is bound up in boundless infinity
even when shadows confine us in night
we whisper your song and say, ‘let there be light.’

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