Transforming the Time

By Bruce G. Epperly

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-59

Life is full of special moments – your first day at school, graduation from college, falling in love, your wedding day, the birth of a child, the day that God became more than a word to you. Life is also full of special places – your birth place, your home town, the summer house, the place where a loved one is buried, a monument to a great president.

Today’s scriptures invite us ponder the reality of sacred time and sacred space. Some of our favorite Bible stories involve “thin places” where the temporal and spatial worlds reflect God’s presence in surprising and transformative ways. As Christians, we affirm the doctrine of divine omnipresence; we believe that God is present everywhere, but we also believe that God’s presence can  be dramatic and unexpected. Some places and times truly reveal God’s aim for wholeness and beauty – Abraham and Sarah entertaining angels at their camp site; Jacob at the Stream of Jabbok, wrestling with the divine; Jacob dreaming of a ladder of angels, ascending to and descending from heaven; Moses on Mt. Sanai receiving the ten commandments; Mary’s welcome of the angel Gabriel; the healings of Jesus; Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

Think for a moment – what are you holy times and places? Where have you experienced God’s presence in your life? God is everywhere and in all things, but God is most often experienced by  those who “have eyes to see” and who have prepared themselves spiritually. Diana Butler Bass, in her The Practicing Congregation , reminds us that congregational vitality is related to following  practices such as prayer and meditation, worship, hospitality, and service. These practices enable abstract doctrines to become concrete experiential realities.

Sometimes Life presents us with a question, and the answer we give will be a matter of life and death, and success and failure, as we face the path that lies ahead. The Hebraic narrative describes a holy moment in Solomon’s life – a moment in which God’s presence and character became a reality to this fledgling king. One evening, the new king encounters the Holy One of Isreael, who presents him with an opportunity of a lifetime, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon’s response reveals what’s truly important to him, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

In each second and over the course of a lifetime, God confronts us with possibilities for transformation and wisdom. Indeed, in every moment God presents us with the question, “what do you want to do with your life right now? how will you use the gifts of wisdom, insight, and energy I give you each moment of the day and in the future that lies ahead?”

In responding to God, Solomon receives much more than he asks for. His quest for wisdom opens the door to unexpected possibilities. God promises him a long life, wealth, and power as well as wisdom. Perhaps, only through wisdom – through attentiveness to God’s dream for your life and your role as God’s partner in healing the world – can power and wealth have any meaning. Sadly, most governments, including our own, prefer empire and riches to wisdom and justice. The cost of turning from divine wisdom is obvious to anyone who has “eyes to see.” Just look at today’s paper. Look at the ill-fated foreign policies of our nation, North Korea, Israel and Palestine, Iran, and virtually every other nation.

Psalm 111 affirms the importance of wisdom as the basis for abundant living. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Perhaps, a better translation of Psalm 111, might be “living in awe and wonder, reverence and appreciation, is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom is not about fear, but about seeing God in the dramatic as well as the ordinary, in the harmony of the spheres and the workings of our immune system, in praise and worship, but also in humble service and extravagant welcome.

Ephesians counsels us to “make the best of the time.” I would render these words “transforming the time” so that all time is holy and full of wonder, even suffering and death. But, once again, a transformed sense of time and space not accidental, but the result of an ongoing commitment to living out traditional spiritual practices in new and creative ways. For Paul, we transform time and space, whether in the Jerusalem temple or a jail cell, by the practices of thanksgiving, prayer, hymns, and spiritual songs. We truly sing our faith, and as the old adage goes, “she who sings, prays twice.”

We remember the hymns of faith long after we have forgotten the preacher’s message. The hymns we sing are affirmations of faith, that change our lives and our experience of the world when we repeat them over and over again.

Take another moment: think of your favorite hymns and how they have transformed your life in times of joy and sorrow. When I was unexpectedly downsized from a long-time chaplaincy and administrative position as a result of university politics, I took solace in singing “My life flows on in endless song amid life’s lamentation.” At other times, I have been strengthened by “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound,” “God of Grace and God of Glory,” and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” After the death of her husband of nearly 50 years, my mother-in-law began each day singing, “Spirit of he Living God, fall afresh on me.”

Hymns of praise, hymns of thanks – a living faith that experiences each moment, each place, and each encounter as a gift and opportunity to serve God.

The reading from Ephesians notes the importance of gratitude in shaping our vision of reality. Gratitude connects us with the wider universe upon which we depend. As Meister Eckhardt noted, “if the only prayer you can make in your entire life is thank you, that will be enough.” Thanksgiving joins us with God, our neighbor, and the world around us, past, present, and future. Those who are thankful are never alone or without hope. As Dag Hammarksjold affirmed in his Markings:

For all that has been, thanks.
For all that is to come, yes

Jesus’ words are strange to modern Protestant ears. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” No doubt these words reminded Jesus’ first followers of his Passion and the Last Supper. But, perhaps more is at work than a literal flesh and blood participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Perhaps, Jesus’ message is deeper than flesh and blood. As followers of Christ, we are called to embrace the message and life of Jesus, to take his wisdom into our lives, to walk his path and make it our own, and live by it. In so doing, Christ’s substance, his life, is embodied in our lives, and lives in us. We claim our place as words of God, “little Christs” in our world. Living in Christ, “ingesting” his message and spirit, we experience God’s loving intimacy and everlasting life in the times and places of our finite and passing lives.

So, today, cherish the hymns of faith…sing them over and over again…remember those special moments of illumination and places of inspiration…and take time for prayer and gratitude that makes every place a sacred place and every time a revelation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor ofDisciples United Community Church in Lancaster,PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.