By Steve Olshewsky
I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10b) How do we calculate the abundance of our lives? Some look at material blessings and find support for a prosperity doctrine in verses like Malachi 3:10. While “pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” suggests something physical or material taking up space, it does not rule out other forms that blessings can take.
In a capitalist society, it makes sense to describe the value of our lives in dollar terms. Yet most of us measure our lives in years and value the ability to spend our time freely. So the real pearl of great price is the time God gives us to continue in this world. Of all the things for which our gratitude leads us to care, the most precious is God’s gift of time.
In 2006, an economist and a Nobel winning psychologist at Princeton along with researchers at three other universities verified that material concerns are misplaced. “The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory.” The use of the word illusory is especially interesting to religious scholars who recognize it as an alternate translation of hevel or “vanity” as it appears in Ecclesiastes. The study revealed that “if people have high income, they think they should be satisfied . . . income, however, matters very little for moment-to-moment experience.” In fact, higher incomes cause people “to be more tense” and not spend their time in particularly enjoyable ways. (D. Kahneman et al, Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. Science 2006; 312:1908-1910)
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that people with higher incomes devote relatively more of their time to work, shopping, childcare and other activities associated with higher tension and stress. Higher income people have less leisure time for socializing or other enjoyable activities. Government statistics show those making more than $100,000 per year spend about 20% of their time on passive leisure versus about 35% for those making less than $20,000. Accepting a long commute during rush hour traffic is an example of how we sacrifice our time for money. If we believe that stress affects wellness, then it makes sense to wonder why we care more about money than we do about health and happiness.
Accepting the duty to be good stewards of our time brings us to consider techniques of shepherding. A shepherd protects, guides, influences, directs and maintains order. Saving or finding time might be a simple question of efficient time management. However, consider the possible trade-off between the quantity of output and the quality of experiences. The Pennsylvania Dutch word shuschlick means “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
Multitasking might seem a faithful way to optimize this grace God has bestowed upon us. Warnings against doing too much too fast have not stopped us from believing we could do more with our time if we juggled it more creatively. “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” Quakers may find these words from the Earl of Chesterfield (1747) agreeing with our testimony of simplicity, but it is harder to accept his further observation that “hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”
Resigning ourselves to doing one thing at a time and doing it well forces us to decide what is important to us. Looking at the calendar on the wall, I see lots of time, but am I planning to use it well? Thinking about all the things I “need” to do as compared to all the things God would have me to do begs the question: Why me Lord? Why am I here? Why bother? Why is the world such as it is?
Sadly, we all know the answers to most of these questions. The kitchen is a mess because nobody did the dishes; nobody put things back in the refrigerator and now it simply stinks. Asking ourselves about what would have prevented the stench or, for that matter, the world from becoming a stinky mess seems an academic deflection. A better question is: what can anyone do about it now?
Sure we give money to all the right organizations and support good causes, but can this be extended to our time? We sit in worship for an hour a week, maybe even devoting time to reading and study, but how much time do we spend taking action? Some say that charity begins at home. We need to be the change we want to see in the world. As Quakers, we all want to “be patterns, be examples.” Ephesians 4:12 tells us we have been given gifts “for the work of the ministry” so working to create the kingdom of God on earth is the proper employment of gifts like time.
Even when right action seems obvious, we manage to avoid it for reasons that often elude us. Think of all the excuses we have for not taking action, all the things that distract us. Many activities consume our time until we have nothing left with which to answer God’s callings. Moreover, consider all the reasons it is more advisable to not take action. Anyone investing in the stock market knows the dangers of taking a risk (not to mention the Quaker witness against gambling). Seasoning an idea (often just sleeping on it) helps us gain clarity before jumping into
Safety, security, comfort and similar considerations make it hard to justify getting up out of our favorite chair. Yet as we sit in that chair (or pew), may we look upon our treasured time to see how inactivity might threaten the good we seek? No matter how fully we sow the seeds of peace, have we weeded out the seeds of war?
Before this devolves into a finger-wagging chastisement, recognize that our children are not getting to school, soccer or anywhere else without our time spent driving them there. However modest our estates and treasures, the bills need to be paid by hours at our jobs. Given the limited number of hours in the day and our pesky need for sleep, how can we get the clarity and guidance we need from God in worship with time left to take those blessings out into the world?
Friends testified to the world about equality by putting their faith into action working against slavery. Refusing to use a phone denies us the modern convenience of this handy servant. It also protects us from falling into slavery. The ring of the phone demands an immediate, perhaps Pavlovian response. Whether or not the phone saves us time, how can we be free to work for the glory of God when our time is not our own? This explains why we put our phones on “silence” during worship.
Perhaps the car is a better example of a graven image requiring our devotion in the form of oil changes and filling the tank. Earning a living to pay for these necessities requires giving our time in exchange for money that is subject to taxation. Estimates vary, but maybe half of the taxes we pay support the military. Our time thereby comes to “nourish the seeds of war.”
John Woolman’s Plea for the Poor reminds us that “the way of carrying on wars common in the world is so far distinguishable from the purity of Christ’s religion that many scruple to join in them.” We easily accept (scruple) joining in with wars because we do it in a way so far removed from our objections to war. That is, we would never pick up a gun, but we pick up the bill for that gun.
Can we remember to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10) while working for peace on earth? Community with Friends improves stewardship the same way cleaning up the kitchen is easier when using a dishwasher and good set of Tupperware.
Some Friends refuse to earn taxable amounts while others refuse to pay some or all of their legally owed taxes. For myself, Christ’s love demands that the laws change to liberate us from the burden of choosing between obeying the law and remaining true to our faith. This then requires the kinds of actions facilitated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation website.
Good stewardship of time might be as simple as signing a petition or as fun as joining a committee when our hearts are open to that still small voice and we do “whatsoever [our] hand findeth to do” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). George Washington arrived at the Second Continental Congress (1775) in full military uniform ready to rock and roll for freedom. There is a lesson in that for conscientious objectors (ironically) and anyone struggling to liberate their schedules. We need to put on the full armour of Christ everyday to be dressed and ready for taking advantage of the time God allows us.
Steve Olshewsky is a tax professor and member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting who works for a Peace Tax Fund. This article benefited from comments in a writing class at the Earlham School of Religion for which the author is grateful.