Making the most of life in the shadow of time

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“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”

If you want to fully appreciate the truth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote, I recommend a few hours in your nearest nursing home. The shadow of time hangs heavy there, among those who live for the opportunity to share with someone — anyone — the glories, loves, losses and regrets of days past.

That’s not a new revelation for anyone who’s spent much time around an elderly relative, or who has faced their own mortality. Facing the limits of our mortal lives, it’s natural to want to cling to what we’ve done, and far too often, what we wish we had done. But, this was driven home for me recently on a visit to a nursing home resident I’ve been visiting for about six months.

This man was one of the first people I met when a fellow parishioner’s move into this particular nursing home introduced me to the community. And, in the months since, I’ve learned many of his stories — many of which have been repeated many times, sometimes several times in the same visit. I could tell when I approached him for Communion in our latest visit that his memory loss had taken turn for the worse.

As I shook his hand, asking if he’d like Communion, I could see he was searching to place me. I was in there somewhere, but he couldn’t quite find me. It’s a frequently-received look when you spend much time in a nursing home.

“My name is James,” I told him gently. “We pray together and I bring you Communion. Do you mind if I sit and pray with you?”

He agreed, but I could tell he was still unsettled by not being able to place me. I sat quietly for a minute or two, letting him set the pace. Sometimes silence is the best prayer.

He nursed a cup of coffee. Then, he offered one of those profound nuggets with which I’m often rewarded on these visit.

“We have nothing but time, here,” he said. “But, we don’t have a lot of time.”

He wasn’t sad in saying it. Just matter-of-fact. Time is fleeting. And we have too little of it. In a place where acquaintances and friends regularly depart feet-first, he had no need to embellish on the urgency of mortality. But it wasn’t a morose reminder. Having said it, he picked up and resumed his normal, gregarious retelling of old tales. A weight had been lifted, as if he’d reminded himself of our promise in Matthew 24:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

Time will pass away for us all. But we take strength in the permanence of God’s love for us, and the eternal nature of our life in Christ. We spin out our mortal lives under the tyranny of the clock, measuring, fretting over and regretting the passage of time. But, in Christ, time is not as it seems to us:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:8-9

When we live in the Kingdom, a day well-spent carries the weight of a thousand years. And yet, a thousand years pass like a day. The point of this isn’t to get our heads spinning about cramming a millennium into one revolution of the earth. The point is to take our focus away from the dominance of regret over the past and fear over the future, so we can focus on the present.

This is what the psalmist meant in Psalm 90:12 — “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Wisdom lies not in a better arithmetical counting of our days, but in making our days count. We make our days, and each moment, count by rising above our regrets past and fears future so we can love more and live better in the only time that is real — Now.

And in that call to the present is our urgency. We can’t change the past. The future doesn’t exist. All we have is Now. It is our gift from God, and it is, in every instant, our God-given opportunity to pour love, light and grace into this world, and to inch a world dominated by the clock ever-so-closer to the timelessness of the Kingdom, where God’s love for us has no beginning and no end.

Eternal and timeless God, help me to use each moment of this earthly life in Your service. Help me to neither squander time, nor to waste time worrying over how time has been “spent.” Give me the peace of Your presence, that I may view each moment clearly, as a gift, unhindered by regrets of the past or fears of the future, that I may use each present moment in pursuit of becoming a better vessel through which You may pour Your love into the world. Amen.

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