In order to orientate a variety of foreigners for residence in North America, L. Robert Kohls and his staff at the United States Information Agency constructed a groundbreaking article, “The Values Americans Live By.” Kohls felt that visitors to the U.S. needed to understand “common American values,” for such insights would allow them to integrate more fully into the predominant cultural currents. “The Values American Live By” highlighted numerous ideals that most (but not all) U.S. citizens possess, all for the purpose of awareness building and cross-cultural understanding.
Among the topics covered by Kohls was the importance of time, for people from the U.S. often conceive of time in ways far different from others around the world. As Kohls wrote:
Time is, for the average American, of utmost importance. To the foreign visitor, Americans seem to be more concerned with getting things accomplished on time (according to a predetermined schedule) than they are with developing deep interpersonal relations. Schedules, for the American, are meant to be planned and then followed in the smallest detail.
The article continues:
It may seem to you that most Americans are completely controlled by the little machines they wear on their wrists, cutting their discussions off abruptly to make it to their next appointment on time.
These thoughts on time-keeping in the U.S. are striking, for not only does it prepare foreigners to reside in the U.S., but it also allows those of us already living in the U.S. to perceive ourselves through alternative lenses.
As common language in the U.S. is filled with references to time, it shows how much we value (and sometimes obsess!) over so-called “time management.” For example, many in the U.S. believe time can be "on," "kept," "filled," "saved," "used," "spent," "wasted," "lost," "gained," "planned," "given," "made the most of," or even "killed." We recognize that many fail to manage their time by allowing time to manage them, or as William Penn once remarked, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” And so, as we turn our calendars from 2012 to 2013, we recognize the need to reflect upon our usage and value of time, for too often we place our plans as a higher priority than other people.
As we consider the dawning of a new year, many will reflect upon events of the past, take inventory of the present, and make numerous resolutions for the future. In doing so, we recognize that the Bible is an excellent resource for such undertakings, as it points us toward a faithful and fruitful use of the time God has given to us, as is written in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven …”
In striking contrast to our common temptation to let time manage us, the writer of Ecclesiastes shows that time is not merely that which we measure on our watches, but time is to be seen as a variety of opportunities given by God. In other words, time is not merely about measurements on a clock or calendar, but time is more about the various occasions in life where we are called to experience God’s presence and respond through sustained service, regardless of how many minutes it takes. The vision of time drawn from Ecclesiastes is a wonderful contrast to our common U.S. conception, and it allows us to enter into the coming year with renewed focus, readiness, and a sustained willingness to see what God is doing and follow where Jesus is leading.
As Mother Teresa once said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
And so, instead of allowing time to manage us, and rather than placing predetermined plans as a higher priority than potential possibilities with other people, may the coming year be a time for us to see time not merely as that which can be measured, but as opportunities to experience God’s presence and respond to the needs of our world through an outpouring of mutuality and service. As we turn our calendars from 2012 to 2013, may we remember that each day is a gift, every instant is an opportunity, and every breath that God continues to pour into our bodies provides an occasion for us to embody the Gospel and serve as instruments of divine reconciliation. The time for a New Year of opportunity is upon us. Let us begin.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).
Photo: 2013 image, ©