The Time is at Hand
Months before my 16th birthday, my mom and dad let me know I would soon be old enough to get a job. My older brother and sister heartily agreed. After all, they had each started working when they were my age.
Two weeks before my birthday, my brother decreed the time was at hand! He’d ever so helpfully gotten a job application from the local grocery store.
I was a terribly shy teenager and dreaded the thought of spending work days with strangers. But I painstakingly filled out the form. Then I walked down to the grocery, over to the service desk, up to the store manager, my knees quaking every step of the way. Mr. Bruce barely glanced at my application before saying I could start Thursday next week. Thursday!
Had he not read the details of my application? That was the exact day of birthday. And so it was that my first day as a “sweet 16-year-old” would be spent learning how to punch the time clock, run a cash register, and bag groceries with cans on the bottom, fresh bread and eggs on top. (back to top)
Kairos and Chronos
Both chronos and kairos are Greek words for time. Although I wouldn’t learn these two words for nearly another decade, my grocery store days began an important lesson in the distinction between the two.
Chronos is calculated in seconds, days or millennia, it is the time that passes. It is what is measured by my employer when I punch the time clock, by kids counting days until summer vacation, by the bank when it determines the amount and dura- tion of my monthly car payments. When we say “time is money,” we are talking about chronos time.
Kairos is time with hinges. Kairos may involve danger or joy, dread or anticipa- tion. Kairos may refer to events as diverse as a week of soul-lifting vacation or a split second of terrible insight. In every case, kairos is a time that opens windows—or sometimes gashes—into everyday reality. Like the day you find out you’ve gotten that new job—or been let go from the old one.
In this first job at the grocery store, I mostly dealt in chronos time. I watched the clock. When days were busy, the time flew by. When business was slow, time crawled. When that cute bagboy worked with me, time expanded and contracted in waves.
Every so often a special kind of wave in time would happen. For example, there was an ancient couple who came in with their own pushcart and always bought the same thing: 20 dollars of grocery basics plus one quart of white milk and one quart of chocolate milk. “The white’s for me and the chocolate is for this sweet thing,” the husband said, resting his hand on his wife’s thin shoulder. Each week they made a point of choosing my cash register; each week he said nearly the same thing; each week they made me smile and cracked open a tantalizing hint of kairos time.
I experienced some bitter episodes of kairos time, too. “What are you looking at?” spit out the just- fired co-worker, who had gotten caught giving “free” groceries to her family and friends. She was looking directly at me, catching me in a moment of such smug self-righteousness, that her look still stings me, half a lifetime later.
Whether a work day had been good or bad, I always looked forward to the moment I could punch out at the end of my shift. There was something right satisfying about the bang of the time-punch. “Your work is DON E,” it declared. (back to top)
God’s word is by no means indifferent to chronos time. The Bible is surprisingly specific in counting up the generations, compiling years of a king’s reign, detailing seasons of fasting or feasting, and commanding a day of rest every seven days, no more, no less.
But God’s word is also studded with kairos moments, words describing events in which time cracks open, releasing streams of eternity into everyday life. In Genesis, light is created in kairos time. The first woman is created in kairos time. In the New Testament an angel is sent to an old man who thinks his wife is too old for new life. The angel visitor suggests otherwise. It turns out that the kairos of God can scrunch and wrinkle time—in a grocery store, in the stars, in an old woman’s uterus, in a young woman’s heart.
Despite the satisfying click of the time clock at the grocery store, I set a goal for myself. I would someday have a job where I would not watch the clock. I didn’t fully see it then, but I was looking for a vocation in which I would have plenty of windows in my work. Kairos windows. (back to top)
Kairos of Dating
Eight hours of sleep. This is my minimum nightly requirement. Always has been, and with a bit of luck and plenty of aerobic exercise, I’ll continue to be a good sleeper into my old age. Ah, but once upon a time there was a certain someone for whom I would stay awake. To be honest, I went through a short series of such someones, as I explored different relationship possibilities. Yes I would go to the 9 p.m. show and I wouldn’t mention how close to my usual bedtime that was. Who needs sleep when relationship possibilities were open?
The kindest and brightest guy in that mini-series became my husband. Our wedding date was set for what turned out to be a gray day in March. We counted the months, the weeks, the days. The morning of our wedding seemed a flurry of seconds—a second for my hair, a second for my bridesmaids to arrive, a second for my make-up, a second to get over to the front doors of the chapel. The trip down the aisle, however, took at least an hour. Seeing my future husband stand and await me with tears in his eyes—this was kairos. (back to top)
Kairos of Pregnancy
Mark Twain once famously said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
In a similar vein, the distinction between time and TIME is the difference between “Monday, April 12 at 8:30 a.m.” and “that morning we found out I was pregnant.”
I actually don’t recall the exact date, nor whether it was morning or afternoon. But I remember the time. The big bay window of parenthood was opened. Our lives were never going to be the same.
Pregnancy is—among many other things—a series of time calculations. How many days must pass until you can take a pregnancy test? Which day does the heart- beat begin and which week can you hear it? Which trimester can you feel life moving, and come to think of it, is there anything else in life measured by trimesters? How far into 40 weeks is far enough for the baby to “be ok”? And oh yes, how about that due date?
These days I’m on Facebook several times a day to see if my friend Julia has had her baby yet. It’s the first baby for her and her husband, Joe, and all of Julia’s friends wait with her for the baby to arrive … even me, and I’m an ocean away.
Since Julia is such an organized person, she and Joe had the baby room painted and decorated months ago. She’s got birth announcements designed, just waiting for the date, time, and a photo of the newborn in living color—no longer just ultrasound gray.
Maybe the difference between ultrasound images and the actual, newborn baby is a metaphor for the difference between chronos and kairos. Chronos mea- sures time in scientific graduations of gray. Kairos shows time in living color.
But when, O Lord, when will that baby come? God alone knows. When she comes, it will certainly be a kairos moment. (back to top)
Intercultural Perspectives of Time
“You Americans have all the watches,” our African friend and neighbor used to say, “but we Africans have all the time.” I loved that about our Global Mission years in the Central African Republic.
I’ll never forget the Sunday we had been invited to lead worship out in a small African village. It had poured, the roads had potholes the size of small trucks, and we had stopped for ages waiting for the weather to clear. By the time we arrived, we were hours late and I thought for sure all congregants would have returned to their homes. “Never!” exclaimed the head pastor, who greeted us upon our arrival. “Of course we wait for you. But please do not rush. First, you must be refreshed.” And only after a leisurely snack of coffee and red bananas, was the time considered ripe to begin the worship gathering.
These days I live and work in Asia. I love so many things about the city and vibrant, hard-working people and churches of Hong Kong but find myself more than occasionally puzzled by time schedules. Church (and business) leaders see no problem in asking people to work on weekends or holidays, to ask an employee at
4 p.m. to stay for a business dinner and meeting that evening. I think the strong work ethic in this part of Asia demands that one should be open anytime for what are presumed to be kairos moments of business or work, but perhaps to the detriment of true kairos in one’s spiritual or family life.
It is also true that some of us Westerners are too tied to the chronos of our well–synched calendars, marked months and even years in advance. (back to top)
My sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer three years ago. How bad is Stage 4 breast cancer? Well, there is no Stage 5.
The first thing we all did when we heard the diagnosis is head for the Internet. How much time is left? We wanted to plan and manage the time.
The doctors were understandably reluctant to give dates or times. New therapies evolve. Each patient is unique. But finally… two to three years was the grim, hesitating response.
The following summers we spent as much time together as possible. Each August when it was time to head back to Hong Kong, the parting was harder.
Last October I received a video call from the United States. One look at my sister’s face, and I made arrangements to fly to her home. Her daughter and son each took time off from work. Other relatives took breaks from jobs, flew over oceans and drove cross- country to join us. One by one and two by two, nieces and nephews arrived until the small home was packed. Hospice arrangements were made; pain was managed; neighbors filled the kitchen with food.
But who was going to get our mother, who lives a state away?
I’ll be honest. She is 88 years old. She moves slowly. She has trouble hearing. She has to eat at certain times. She can be uncomfortably blunt.
God forgive us, we thought, how will we man- age my sister, the medical equipment, the family and friends, and now who will drive a day to get our mother and take care of her too?
But then time expanded. One of the grandsons went to get his Omi, his grandmother.
As she came into my sister’s room, her dying child, her firstborn, my mother did not pause, did not take a moment’s rest. She sat right down and began a lullaby.
It was a German hymn, sung just like she sang to my sister and my brother and to me when we were small:
I’m sleepy and it’s time for bed.
I close my eyes, lay down my head. Father in Heaven, watch over me Until I’m safe in heaven with thee.
Yes, the rest of us had given up time and distance and a host of calendar obligations in order to be with my sister and with each other in this awful, holy time. But it was my elderly mother who brought the whole family a moment of kairos—time with hinges, opening a window into God’s eternity.
The Rev. Christa von Zychlin lives in Hong Kong, China, where she teaches adults and children through ELCA Global Mission and the ELCHK (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong). Read more about Christa’s adventures in Hong Kong at www.marathonangel.blogspot.com (back to top)