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Time and Meaning - Issue #9

I have always been a "rhythms" person. I wake up and read at the same time every day. I excercise bef
Time and Meaning - Issue #9
By John Starke • Issue #9 • View online
I have always been a “rhythms” person. I wake up and read at the same time every day. I excercise before work. I have beginning the work-day and ending the work-day rituals. I take a Sabbath day of rest each week. I worship each Sunday and have particular rhythms of community and friendship. These almost come naturally for me. It’s quite remarkable how each week can look similar. I love these rhythms. It alleviates the need to make a bunch of small decisions in my day and allows me to think and work on more meaningful things.
One thing I’m bad at is how these daily rhythms work towards a telos. How do these ordinary, day-to-day, week-to-week rhythms of work and rest, eat and pray, worship and read add up? Where are they going? I know where they’re ultimately going, but how are my habits and rhythms in September impacting my October? This is stretching me. When I think about what I ought to be accomplishing this year and what I actually have the capacity to accomplish this year, it forces me to think of my limitations and weaknesses.
This reality always forces me to think about goals. Some of you are goal-oriented. I’m not and that’s okay. But I’ve sensed a need to grow in this and aim my time in a more particular direction with my family and vocation. It actually narrows things quite remarkably. I have been saying yes to things I’ve always feared I wouldn’t have time for and saying no to things that I’ve been saying yes to but shouldn’t be.
So I’ve been thinking about time and how we (or I) use it. I’ve gathered a few thoughts of my own and others and, in the end (surprise, surprise!), I talk about rhythms. If you are a goal-person, let this old-rhythm person come alongside you and advocate for how rhythms can participate and enhance our goals.

Just how busy are we? Helen Pearson writes that we may not be as busy as we think we are. Citing research that looks at times logs from 1961, 1984, and 2015: “In 1961, 80 to 90 per cent of people were eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times; by 2015, this pattern had mostly vanished, with more people eating and snacking throughout the day.”
But what about our work week?
In surveys, men working full time report that they work an average of 42.9 hours per week and women 39.3 hours. UK time-use diary data from 2014–15 suggests that they actually work 40.2 hours and 37.3 hours respectively. (The data also shows that those who spend the most time working are single parents and parents with full-time jobs.) Similarly, surveys suggest that we overestimate the length of time we exercise by as much as double.
It exposes the big myth that we are busier than generations have been in the past. “The authors also propose that people wear their busyness as a badge of honour. ‘The words “I’m terribly busy at work” act as a means of status enhancement, signalling importance and indispensability,’ they write.”
Judith Shulevitz cites similar studies in her book, The Sabbath World
In 1991, the economist Juliet Schor advanced the now conventional thesis that global competition forced Americans to toil longer and rest less. She based this on rough estimates that people gave during interviews with U.S. census takers over three decades. Meanwhile, two sociologists, John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, were asking people to fill out time diaries noting exactly how much time they spent on each activity of the day right after they’d done it. They concluded that Americans work less than they did in the 1960s. How do you reconcile what people said with what their time diaries showed? You acknowledge that Americans feel more pressed for time, whether they’re working harder or not.
Today, Americans actually work fewer hours than previous decades but feel more pressed for time. Why?
Since our modern world sees our highest good being individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression, we’ve rejected or deconstructed traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression. The problem is traditions, religions, received wisdom, social ties (like family and community) have historically been the “meaning building” things of life (as Shulevitz puts it). We are now more pressured into finding meaning and significance in our accomplishments and careers than ever.
It’s not that we are working more that’s wearing us out, but that we are expecting more out of our work. It’s not meant to provide this much inner stability and meaning.
We are not working more, nor are we resting more. So what are we doing?
We are online. Which is why we are restless. The happiness that we are working so hard to achieve at work seems to be given to the people we follow on Instagram. Moya Sarner points out, “Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew says she is seeing more and more envy in her consulting room, from people who “can’t achieve the lifestyle they want but which they see others have. ” She says, “I think what social media has done is make everyone accessible for comparison,” she explains. “In the past, people might have just envied their neighbours, but now we can compare ourselves with everyone across the world.”
They go on describing just passive use of Facebook or Instagram (you know, the kind of passive, laying on your back after work, scrolling, not necessarily looking intentionally): “The more you’re on there scrolling away, the more that elicits feelings of envy, which in turn predicts drops in how good you feel.”
Always working. Always scrolling. Never at rest.
On the Sabbath, Shulevitz writes, “not only does drudgery give way to festivity, family gatherings and occasionally worship, but the machinery of self-censorship shut down, too, stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”
The eternal inner murmur of self-reproach. Do you know what she means by that phrase? There’s something deep down inside us, an inner “murmur”—a whisper—telling me I need to prove myself. Most of us sense that “inner reproach” on our days off: what I have done is not enough; it’s not good enough. So our days off are not restful but anxious feelings of “I need to get back; I need to check in; I need to answer that email!”
Today, I’ve reviewed a handful of articles/books that have described our age as: (1) Hyper-insecure (2) Lacking Self-awareness (3) Having an Anxious Presence.
I sense that in my own life and it breaks my heart to think of churches full of lives like this. It’s hard to imagine depth of life and fruitful discipleship with these dynamics breathing down our necks.
It seems there aren’t silver bullets to combat these issues other than ordinary Sabbath keeping, Bible reading, slow prayer, spiritual friendships, regular worship, and praying the Spirit exorcises these demons out of our lives and church communities.
One great step is to stir an imagination for what a Sabbath day can look like and what it may do in our hearts. Here are a few books that have helped me along the way:
The Sabbath (FSG Classics), Abraham Joshua Heschel. From a Jewish perspective, but provides surprising insights and theological reflections on the commandment to rest. He’s especially helpful in correcting the view that Sabbath is merely a strategy for getting more work done.
Sabbath: The Ancient Practices, Dan Allender. I love this book. It has many practical parts, but the best part is that it gives an imagination for how a Sabbath day is to be experienced and how to receive it as a gift. One thing to keep in mind—he sometimes describes the experience of the day through what could only be done by semi-retired individuals who are empty nesters with a good bit of excess money. But don’t let that keep you from having an imagination for the day.
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, Marva J. Dawn. Marva Dawn is a treasure and her work is often overlooked. Her book A Sense of a Call is helpful for Christian leaders on, as the subtitle says, "a Sabbath way of life for those who serve God, the church, and the world”
Christianity Today has a list of books I have yet to read but plan to.
A Few Summer Books
Summer is over and which means summer reading is over. Reading from now on will be less leisurely. Maybe? Nevertheless, there were quite a few books I really enjoyed this Summer. Let me list a few:
Recursion, Blake Crouch. How do you describe this book? It’s a mystery novel that deals with a phenomenon it labels False Memory Syndrome (FMS), where an individual has memories of a previous or different life that they’ve apparently never lived but feels as if they have, causing chaos. I loved it and it reminded me of the novel City in a City. Here’s the NYTimes review of the book.
The Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman. Another mystery novel, this time centered around a journalist trying to discover both herself and the reason why a woman, nobody cared about, disappeared. I liked it more than my wife liked it, but not as much as Stephen King liked it.
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer. Biographies of diplomats don’t sound fun, but this one was. It was interesting to see how the expectations of the emotional life of powerful men changed over time and how Holdbrooke didn’t keep up with the times.
American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, Tim Alberta. It’s a book on the Republican party, showing Trump as the fruit of corruption rather than the cause of it. What can you say but that it’s another book on Trump, written by a National Review political correspondent (so the phone call is coming from inside the house). It’s well researched, with a tight narrative, but utterly depressing (so maybe I didn’t enjoy this one).
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino. Tolentino is a young, 30-something staff writer for the New Yorker who is publicly working out the danger of forming our identities online. I don’t hold many of the same assumptions about the world and humanity, but her assessments and observations often ring true. Her experience growing up in an evangelical, mega-church environment in Houston, TX and then leaving the faith was sad. Her longer reflections on feminism were excellent—she critiques modern versions of pop-feminism that has found a way to monetize it’s ideology and thus emptying it of its virtues, while also critiquing more thoughtful versions of feminism (even her own) as being self-contradictory. However, she never quite gets out of the “expressive individualism” way of seeing feminism (or any modern ideology) as the freedom to live how you want and be who you want, which I think undermines her critiques in the end.
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John Starke

John Starke

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Pastor of Apostles Church Uptown, New York City