Friday, November 27, 2009

The Time Being

Is it our culture or our nature that we live with such a constant awareness of time? Every devise I carry for some other purpose, such as my phone and iPod, also contains a clock and a calendar. Every vehicle holds a digital clock on the dashboard reminding me of the exact moment in which I am driving. Every classroom contains a gigantic, sweep second-hand, analogue device to make certain that I start and stop on time. The upper-right hand corner of my MacBook Pro reads “Thu 10:28 AM.”

We are time beings. As far as I can tell, other species have a concept of time only in the broadest sense of seasons for migration, reproduction, preparation for survival. Wild geese measure winters. Oaks measure centuries. We are occupied with 40 hour work weeks, 30 minute meals, and one minute management.

Time, for us in the West at least, is tied closely to tasks. The books on time management (and I have read my share) are really about task management, occupied with the question, “How do we get the most important things done most efficiently?” Our clocks and calendars are about work, really. Seldom are they about leisure.

In other parts of the world, it is different. Time is for people and relationships. Tasks come in second. Meetings start late because of an untimed conversation at the market. People take precedence.

In 1987 Ray Stevens wrote one of his profound lyrical pieces – “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?” I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t. But then, I suspect he wouldn’t wear a Timex. He seemed to operate much more in the present, with an awareness that “the night comes when no one works.”

William Martin , in The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections, observes that only two questions are important for the living of our lives: “Where am I?” and “What time is it?”. The only correct answer to the first question, he says, is, “I am here.” And the only correct answer to the second is, “It is now.” How often we expend effort with a concern for another place and another time, as if there were a place more important than here and a time more significant than now.

I don’t need a watch or a GPS device to be aware of the here and now. This is the time and place in which I draw breath and have an opportunity to love, to experience God, to be alive.

What Time Is It?

My dad retired from Armco Steel Corporation in 1977. He worked there for twenty-eight consecutive years. He actually worked there a bit longer, but a steel strike interrupted his tenure and he drove a cab for a while. All my life, he wore a hard hat and worked the graveyard shift (midnight until eight in morning) in the mill on the Houston Ship Channel.

He dressed for work each night around ten, just as we were preparing for bed. He donned his khaki pants and shirt, laced up his steel-toed work boots, and grabbed his white hard hat, which marked him as a foreman. Then he’d give me a hug and tell me goodnight. He smelled like Old Spice.

Dad came home each morning around nine, which meant that my sister and I were already at school. He ate a meal and then went to bed. When we got home, he was always asleep. Around six my mom would send us to wake him up and call him to join us for supper. It seemed a strange circadian rhythm that had one sleeping in the day, working at night, and eating spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast.

Imported Japanese steel brought a change to the industry and Dad took early retirement in 1977, at age 58, only a year older than I am now. He and Mom soon sold their home and moved to the suburbs of Houston. He bought a bicycle shop in Humble, Texas and ran that business for several years, giving away more merchandise than he sold and repairing too many kid's bikes for free.

Somewhere along the way, I don't recall when, he gave me his retirement watch. It is a silver Bouleva Accutron, once billed as the most accurate watch in the world. It has an Armco logo on the face and an inscription on the back: “To Joseph R. Creech, 28 years, 1950-1977, Armco Steel Corp., “ and the signature of William Verity, CEO.

Despite its claim, this watch never functioned perfectly. I used to wear it, but out of frustration and failed repair attempts, eventually set it aside. For some reason, earlier this year, I spontaneously took it out of the jewelry box and turned it over to a local jeweler for repair. I have been wearing it since July, and it is once more keeping time. It is analogue. It tells me how long until and how long since, not just the precise moment. I like that.

I don’t know what prompted me to leave my digital Casio Fishing Watch, with all its cool features, in my top drawer and wear the silver Accutron. I didn’t realize until some weeks after I’d been wearing it that my dad first put it on when he was my age, leaving work he’d done for twenty-eight years to relocate and take on a new task.

It was the watch that got me thinking about time and its passing. My dad lived another 18 years after he retired, even with his smoking and emphysema. The second hand on the Accutron swept across the face nine and a half million times. Fifteen years ago next month, he died.

I suspect it is our consciousness of mortality that makes us wear watches and glance at them throughout the day. We are, as Martin Heidegger reminded us, Beings-Unto-Death – not the only creatures who die, but the only ones who live with an awareness of life’s brevity. This is ultimately what we have to make sense of in order to live with meaning. The watch is a reminder of a gift my dad gave me – not a watch, but a life of hard work supporting his family, a life of character and love. It has also reminds me of the gift my Heavenly Father has promised, eternal life through Jesus Christ my Lord, a transcending of this mortal, time-limited existence, the hope of which allows me to live with meaning now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Winding Down

I’m at the place in the academic calendar that exists in no other profession I know. I can look at a calendar and a syllabus and know exactly what remains to be done to complete this semester’s work. I can put a date and a deadline to it. In a matter of exactly 35 days I will turn in final grades and close the books on four months of work and I will have three weeks to get ready for the next round. Then, in early January, I’ll walk into the classroom to new faces and start all over. It won’t be a Groundhog Day experience either. The new faces will bring new questions, new responses, and new experiences. And then, sixteen weeks later, I will close the books again.

It is that sense of closure that is unique. It all starts at one time and it all comes to a appropriate end at one time. It is done. Completed. Finished. If it went well, a sense of satisfaction envelopes it all. If a class did not go so well, then do-overs are just a couple of weeks away.

And the calendar comes with a pause built in, something that most of life does not. Just before the final burst of energy required to produce the papers and study for the exams that will close the semester (or to mark those papers and grade those exams), a Thanksgiving or Spring Break shows up. When that last effort is expended, a pause is there prior to starting again.

I did not appreciate this rhythm so much when I was a student, because it was the only experience I’d ever known from age five to twenty-five. Then, fresh out of graduate school in my first pastorate, I did not so much notice it was gone. I entered into the seasonless cycle of ministry in which sermons were due every week, crises arose unexpectedly, Christmas and Easter meant more sermons, meetings continued unabated throughout the year, and any pauses had to be intentionally inserted into the busyness. None were really natural. When the pause was complete, you did not start over. You picked up where you left off. Nothing ever came to an end. It was energizing, exciting, and enjoyable.

When I took a full-time teaching job in 1982 I became aware of the academic rhythm. I stepped out of the endless demands of the pastorate and back into the sanity of working, pausing, and working again. I lived there for five years. Then I returned to the work that never ends. This time I noticed the difference. I found I had to make the effort to insert the pauses that are necessary. I needed to relish the tasks that I completed, even if others, yet unfulfilled, overlapped them. I needed days off, days of prayer, retreat, and sabbatical to study, to stay rested and fresh. If I did not take them, they did not come.

Now I am once again hearing the rhythm of the scholar's calendar. It is familiar and inviting. The work this semester has been intense. Teaching three classes I have never taught before and preaching on weekends has been like preparing and delivering seven sermons a week. The emotional stress of meeting hundreds of new people and wading into a completely unfamiliar work system has made its demands on my naturally introverted self. Being away from home during the week has deprived me of my most dependable support. The semester has been challenging, enjoyable, and demanding. And now it is winding down. Next week, a pause. Then three weeks of the final stretch. Then a pause. I like it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How's It Going?

Since August I have answered the question, “So how do you like Baylor?” or some other version of the inquiry about a thousand times. “How’s Waco?” “How’s the new job?" (Or the puzzling version of that: “How do you like retirement?” Retirement? Turns out being full-time on the faculty of a seminary at a major university is a job.) I’m glad to have been asked those questions, because having friends who are interested in the changes in your life is a good thing.

I love being at Baylor. It is an intellectually and culturally rich environment. In the thirteen weeks I’ve been here, visiting scholars and musicians have paraded across the campus regularly. Tonight, for example, the NPR series, “From the Top!” will be recorded from the Jones Concert Hall in the McCrary Music Building. A few weeks ago I met David Crowder just outside my classroom. Dr. Haddon Robinson, one of the most influential preachers and teachers of preaching spent a couple of days with us at Truett, as did Dr. Lamin Sanneh, an expert on world Christianity and missions from Yale. I have enjoyed the collegiality with faculty from other schools at the university that those teaching in stand-alone seminaries do not experience. Two professors in the Hankamer School of Business gladly brought their thinking on leadership to my classroom and enriched the learning of a couple of dozen seminary students. Within five minutes of my office I have access to Starbucks, Big 12 baseball and basketball, and a top-notch fitness center. The Moody Library is only two blocks away, but when I need a book or journal article, I simply go on line and order it and it is delivered to my office or inbox in a day or so.

I love teaching at Truett. The colleagues I work with are amazing thinkers, prolific writers, and devout followers of Jesus. Besides daily lunches with several of them at Penland Food Court, I enjoy hallway conversations, the exchanging of ideas about theology or teaching, and even faculty meetings.

The students are young, bright, passionate about life and ministry, and far more sophisticated about the world and the mission of God than I was as a student. The sense of partnership and collegiality that develops between professors and students is remarkable. I travelled to Abilene with a half-dozen of them last weekend and learned at least as much as they did from the two informal three and a half hour seminars held in my Hyundai.

The facilities at Truett are lovely. The Truett building is new, LEED Certified, and conducive to community life. The technology we have to work with is amazing. A program called Elluminate Live! allows me to have guest lecturers in my classes from anywhere in the world via an Internet connection, or to meet my class when I am not on campus. (Haven't tried that last feature yet.) Most scholarly journals and many books are now electronic and available to me on my laptop wherever I might be. When I was last full-time in a classroom, blackboard was literally a blackboard. I went home each evening with chalk dust on my clothes. Now Blackboard is the means of connecting with students and sharing all kinds of resources.

Every Tuesday the community of Truett gathers for worship in the beautiful Powell Chapel. The worship is student-led and the preaching is done by faculty or visiting speakers. The faculty has been preaching a series on “Texts That Have Shaped Us.” I get my shot at that on January 19. It is a bit intimidating to think about preaching to a group that includes Drs. Joel Gregory and Hulitt Gloer, professors of preaching, and a list of biblical scholars and theologians the sandals of whose feet . . .. And their students.

On Thursday mornings students gather in Covenant Groups for spiritual formation practices. This is required of them. The faculty voluntarily gathers in two such groups. We sit in silence for a while, read Scripture, and share our reflections about it. Then we pray together.

The semester is nearly over and I’m beginning to feel less awkward in the classroom, gradually discovering the ethos and culture of this place. I’m making adjustments to the way I will teach my classes next semester. Students have been fairly patient with my first semester awkwardness.

I like Waco. It is small, uncrowded, and friendly. I have not yet missed anything about the City of Houston itself. I drive to work in ten minutes through a rural setting. I can get used to that eventually. I have been blessed with a place to stay. Jerry and Judy Wilson, Kyle’s parents, have graciously opened their home and permitted me to stay in the “grandma room” on the back of their home. I walk out to my car each morning and see the longhorn steer across the fence in the 150 acre pasture. The drive back and forth to Waco over these past thirteen weeks has not been bad. The first hour of it coming to Waco and the last hour returning to Houston is through the big city and its traffic. The remainder of the drive on Hwy 6 is, for me at least, relaxing and pleasant.

I miss my family. I am eager beyond words to be back to living in the same house with Melinda and Jenna. Phone calls, Skype, email, and crowded weekends do not make up for the daily, face-to-face time with them. I truly sympathize with those who make their living by travelling all week long or who for various reasons live and work at a great distance from their families. That doesn’t work so well for me. I’m looking forward to the closing of the parentheses. We have located a home in Waco we think we would like, but ours has to go first. Selling a house takes time, and I easily grow impatient.

I miss my church. I miss friends and coworkers. Serving at UBC is one of the great privileges and shaping experiences of my life. Continuing to preach there on weekends has helped some with this, but the number of Sundays remaining in that role is dwindling rapidly, and I do miss the interaction with people during the week.

So, how’s it going? As with most of my 57 years so far, I’m blessed well beyond anything I deserve and am living in a kind of slack-jawed amazement most of the time. I'm confident that the remainder of the transition of home and family will take place in God's time. It is going well.