Last week thrusted me into the dark, hopeless abyss of the Lexington Avenue subway line when its experiencing delays. A verse in the bible talks about darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. I’m almost certain it is a prophetic description of my commute to work one morning last week.
After syringing myself through the throng of frozen, angry, and under-caffinated commuters, into a bleak corner of the 5 train at 86th, I turned my earbuds up in an effort to drown out my own misery with the sweet musings of this terrific Australian band called Violent Soho (Phipps introduced me, look them up.) The train moved at a snails pace for a few hundred yards, and then stopped. And sat there… forever. Well, for at least 4 minutes. We were delayed because of a “sick customer at Grand Central Terminal.” I turned my earbuds up as loud as they would go but the misery was louder.
I made it to 59th and decided to transfer and try my luck with the N/R. I came down the stairs onto the platform to be delighted by the sight of a less-than-half-full N train with the doors open. I should have known that it was too good to be true. No sooner than I could sit down, I was asked by a police officer to exit the train and the platform, because it was on fire. Yes, that is correct, fire.
I made it to the surface where I could manage to get a signal, and all I could think about was rerouting my commute to work. I was surrounded by people, and at the same time completely oblivious to their existence. I had a meeting at 9:15 that I was egregiously late for, and I was done with trains for the day. We needed some time apart, so I took a cab the rest of the way to work.
Time might be the only thing most people in western culture see eye to eye on. We will never all vote for the same candidate, cheer for the same team, prefer the same music, or believe in the same god, but we will all be beyond irritated if the train catches on fire and makes us late to our 9:15 meeting.
Time is reliable, and it’s precise. If I want to arrange a meeting, all I have to say is a short series of numbers, and the person I am planning on meeting knows exactly what I’m talking about. We all agree that 8:00 AM means something specific and measurable, and nothing is more frustrating than something or someone violating the agreed upon expectation established by the numbers next to an item on our schedule.
Time is also a valuable, and limited resource. When describing our relationship with time, we use words like “spend” “waste” and “value.” We even have a popular idiom in our culture that says “time is money.” Sure, there are 24 hours in a day, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Thats why we get frustrated by the train fires and sick customers, because we only have so much time. We even show people how important they are to us by “finding time” for them or “making time” for them, and much like money, in this city time seems to spend more quickly than other places.
I wonder what would happen to our lives if time would loosen up a little? What if time wasn't so regulated and perpetual? What if the amount of time we had mattered less to us? If so, than what would matter more?
The Greek language that the New Testament is written in has two words that are typically translated into the English word “time.” The first is chronos, from which we get the word “chronology.” This is the quantitative term for the kind of time that we value so highly in our culture. Sequential, and precise. You can place it on a schedule or a timeline of events. The other word we often translate as time is kairos, which is the qualitative term for time. This term is used to describe when something important happens. A moment that stands out among the minutes. For instance, Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “Make the most of every opportunity (Kairos) for the days are evil.” Several times in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of a “time” (Kairos) that is coming, but has not yet arrived. He often says “My time has not yet come.” right before he escapes a group of officials who want to arrest and execute him. He’s not pointing to the fact that there is a scheduled time, rather he is pointing to the circumstances surrounding him, and the fact that they do not coalesce into opportunity.
Jesus seemed to put much more energy into managing kairos than chronos. He was more concerned with moments than minutes. He was much less tethered to a packed schedule than he was to the people he was encountering on a daily basis. His task list didn’t only take a back seat to his relationships, it was determined by them. The quantity of time was less important to Jesus than the quality of time. One of my favorite stories from he New Testament is one where Jesus is hurrying to a man named Jairus’ house because his young daughter is dying and Jesus is going to heal her. I think its safe to say that chronos is an important factor in that situation, but even then Jesus is still interruptible. He is stopped when a woman with a bleeding disorder brushes against his clothing. She didn't grab him. She didn't step in his way and yell “HEY JESUS! HELP!” She just brushed against his clothing, and he noticed her. I imagine its because Jesus was more sensitive to opportunity than punctuality. Jesus healed that woman because she was there, she needed help, and he noticed her.
How many moments of opportunity do we miss because we are so preoccupied by the minute hand on our wrist watch? How many life changing relationships never happen because of our failure to pay attention to the people around us? What kind of stories would come come to the surface of our lives if we committed ourselves to risking our minutes in order to take advantage of the moments of opportunity to bless and serve the people we brush past on our way to the train?
I know we all have things that have to get done. It’s just reality. But what about your days off? Do you still find yourself (as I do) walking at a similar pace that you set for yourself in route to that 9:15?
I know that sacrificing minutes at the alter of possible moments is a little scary, but I’ve been trying to do just that lately, and its been interesting to see what has come of it. The other day, after I left the gym, I purposely left my earbuds in my pocket and walked to the train. As I came to the corner of 34th and 6th there was a sweet, elderly woman who was staring down at her feet with a palpable trepidation, generated by the fear of a black, murky abyss of slush that is every New Yorker’s winter nemesis. She literally reached out to grasp my arm, looked into my fogged up glasses with a look that communicated something between desperation and hope, and asked, “Will you let me hold you?” At that moment you really only have one possible response if you have any remnant of a soul.
I replied, “Of course ma’am,” as any southern raised gentleman would. She smiled, in a bit of a surprised, and maybe suspicious way, and I helped her stretch her stride to its maximum capacity in order for her not end up ankle deep in a mid-winter’s morning nightmare. The thing is, I honestly don’t think I would have noticed her if I wasn't intentionally trying to notice something. No joke, the same thing happened with an elderly man in my neighborhood later that afternoon. Well, he had a cane and an attitude, but it was basically the same situation.
On the train the next morning, I sat across from a family of three from the Bronx. A dad, mom, and a baby girl who was barely able to talk. I didn't really talk with them much, but I did notice them, and for some reason I felt the need to pray a blessing over them. So for three stops I just silently prayed for them. I don’t know why. I’m not sure if it made any difference in their lives, but maybe it did. And I didn't lose a single minute from my day. I just lived aware of that particular moment in my day. I probably could have spent that time composing an email, or trying to reach the next level in Two Dots, but I didn’t. I looked for an opportunity… for kairos.
My prayer for myself right now is to have the courage to live at a slow enough pace to see faces more than I see feet. I’ll pray the same for you, and then maybe we’ll have time to hang out.