Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

My Problem with Time

Given our present age, what does a father tell his son or daughter? What should we be imparting to the next generation that will help them gain a sure footing?
It’s a question that provoked Sohrab Ahmari to write his book, The Unbroken Thread. He wrote to his son Max in hopes he will be a “better man” than his father. Because these are vacuous times, his son will have to have the moral convictions to withstand a growing, permissive individualism that makes oneself the final authority. Unless Max gets his bearings, Ahmari fears his son might chase after a purposeless decadence, one exacerbated by the recent pandemic.
There is a wisdom tradition that is being threatened, so he closes with this counsel—
-maintain the thread of tradition
-read old books before new ones
-make your best decisions in light of truths that come from God
-avoid becoming glib—laughing nervously when moral outrage is in order
-recognize that whatever moral precepts you expound demand to be acted upon
In between his introduction and his closing advice, Ahmari tells Max there are moral questions he and every member of the next generation need to answer if they hope to flourish. Among them—
-can you justify your life? How are you doing that?
-should you think for yourself? Or are you letting others think for you?
-is God reasonable? Do you think you have him figured out?
-does God need politics? Does God need anything?
-Is sex a private matter? How did we come to a place where we assumed these temples of God are ours to do with as we please?
Important as these themes are, what captured my attention was his chapter on time—“Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off?” Some of us might respond by asking, “Does God really want that?” “Would it matter so much if I did—or didn’t take a day off?” “Isn’t God rather impressed that I am hard at it most of the time?” If we are especially honest, we might ask, “What if a day off takes more energy for me than a day on?” Or this—”With all due respect, what if I don’t have this kind of time? What if setting aside the Sabbath feels like a luxury?”
These questions might seem odd to you, but they come easy for me. I’ve rarely had enough time. I’ve been encouraged to hustle all of my life. I think my dad’s first words to me in the crib were, “Get up! Hurry!” I’m still in a flurry. My deadline for finishing this review of edits on my book fast approaches. My standard answer to “Come on John” is “I don’t have time.” Even as I write this, I am looking at the watch. I’m sorry, but my editor did not factor in divinely ordained rest, a.k.a. the Sabbath.
Right now, I identify with Ahmari’s words: “A day off feels like an imposition—it is an imposition.” It’s hard to imagine setting aside the evening for a Sabbath meal when most of my eating is on the run.
But, as I noted, Ahmari’s chapter forces me to pause. He is right. It’s necessary to pay attention to time and its inexorable—inevitable, unavoidable, inescapable—passage. Only by slowing and taking a day off with God are we allowed entry “to an entire dimension of existence—namely time.” Here we are made aware that everything is contingent. Everything passes away except God.
It turns out that a day off with God is not an imposition—it is actually liberating. I am s-l-o-w-l-y learning this up here in the wilderness.
This is a point particularly poignant for our times. Devoting time to becoming God-centric and eternity-centric is, as he puts it, “the only sure guarantee of human dignity and social justice.” Could it be that so much of our debates about biblical justice vs social justice could be settled if we all took a day off from our noise to honor God, his rhythms, and his perfect will? Could it be that behind some of the injustice we witness and experience is a culture subservient to acquisition, something especially enabled by services like Amazon Prime?
Ironically (or was it simply coincidence?) I read Ellen Cushing’s article “Cancel Amazon Prime” in The Atlantic today. This subscription service (soon to be the largest on earth!) could be what she calls “Amazon’s most terrifying invention.” Already trapped in this hedonic treadmill, consumers are hooked into free shipping and greater immediacy, all of which further short circuits the consumer’s brain. And this activity takes no day off. There are no open and closed signs; only a warning that you have 3 hrs and 44 min if you want next day delivery.
Ahmari writes, “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.” It is the nature of holiness to require abandonment. Something must be handed over to God, beginning with our time. To Max (and to me), his warning is that a world without a sabbath is a world without a soul.

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