I traveled to Israel recently with a joint Jewish-Christian group composed of seminary students, pastors, church and synagogue members, and their families. One of my most memorable moments was celebrating Sabbath led by our Rabbi. As the sun was setting on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, we recited Sabbath prayers next to the Western Wall. Our Rabbi chanted in Hebrew the Psalms under his prayer shawl as the light faded. I felt God’s presence as our touring group prayed, sang, and read Scripture. I felt so connected to the Spirit.
An hour before the sun set, we walked to the Western Wall, and I placed my hand on one of the large stones. This structure was present when Christ visited the Temple before he was crucified. As I returned to our tour group, I observed Jewish men and women rushing about the open plaza. Most were dressed in formal attire. Many of the men were dressed in heavy black coats and large elegant black hats. Women wore long dark dresses and had their heads covered. They hurried children who were also formally dressed. You could feel their eagerness as the Sabbath approached. Everything needed to be made ready before the holy day of rest.
My opinion of the Sabbath changed after observing it within the Jewish nation of Israel. It was not a day of boredom but a day of joy. Families looked forward to worship, study, and community gatherings. The Sabbath dinner at our Jerusalem hotel was filled with Israeli families enjoying a community meal. It felt like a birthday party, except Sabbath occurs weekly and the meal preparations were done in advance. Saturday morning, we took a walk around our Jerusalem hotel and almost all businesses were closed. The normally busy city streets were practically free of traffic. It was eerily quiet. As we walked, I started to relax and be present in the moment. The previous days of rushed touring slowly ebbed as I conversed with my fellow travelers. The Sabbath connected me to the moment.
Oliver Burkeman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 2021), writes about the historical decline of pleasure. Pre-Reformation Western European history placed pleasure above work. “The Latin word for business. negotium, translates literally as ‘not-leisure,’ reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the highest human calling. … Leisure was life’s center of gravity, the default state to which work was a sometimes inevitable interruption.” (pages 144–145)
Burkeman advocates focusing on the pleasure of the experience instead of viewing rest as simply recuperating from work. Genesis states that the first day after God created Adam was a day of rest — not work. “In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. From this perspective, idleness isn’t merely forgivable, it’s practically an obligation.” (page 147) For many people, it isn’t until mid-life that they begin to see the project-driven life as emptiness. This is where the term, midlife crisis, gains prominence. Utilitarian living starts to be questioned. Burkeman stresses the importance of incorporating “into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone —to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself.” (page 158)
He makes a statement that is both true and false: “that what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much — and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.” (page 208) The universe is more than 13 billion years old and human civilization is perhaps 6 thousand years old. From the perspective of universal time, Burkeman is correct. Human history is a minuscule slice of universal history. From a theological perspective, God commands humans to love God, love their neighbors, and be good stewards of God’s world. It does matter to God how humans spend their limited time, but it is also true that humans unrealistically overvalue their existence. Just watch professional sporting events to appreciate the extent of human ego. But when comparing God to humans, there is no comparison. Striving to be the next Mozart, Michelangelo, or Einstein is unrealistic since there were only a few people who have achieved this level of brilliance. “In other words, you almost certainly won’t put a dent in the universe.” (page 212)
Once a person accepts time limits, then a transformation happens. “You get to actually be here. You get to have some real purchase on life. You get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter to you, in themselves, right now, in this moment.” (pages 218–219) While this may seem a simple concept, it is actually harder in practice. For example, I recently accepted a meeting with a non-profit development officer that I previously decided not to financially support. Why? Because it was easier to chat for an hour than to honestly explain my decision. I needed to just say no since I have about 1,000 weeks (or less) remaining in my life. I should be focusing on the few important projects that have meaning to me.
When I gaze up at the stars, the vastness of the universe and how little humans know about it, I contemplate Burkeman’s thesis of time limits. The fact that my life is 75% or more completed is not comforting. After the next several generations are born, few, if any, will remember me. My life will not be in history books. Only aged computer records will show my existence. What comforts me is that I was created in the image of God and through faith, there is life after death. This truth is far more reassuring than human achievements since it is given without human deeds. Eternal life is achieved simply through God’s grace which is the ultimate embodiment of love.