The spaciousness of time

What we will be has not yet been revealed. 1 John 3:2.

This is a year of anniversaries and “significant round numbers” for me. Last week I officially hit my “late thirties” (38); this week is our eldest son’s tenth birthday; May sees the tenth anniversary of my starting my current job; and my wife and I will, God willing, celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary in July.

I am, in short, a mid-life crisis looking for somewhere to happen.

Which is why I must try to take to heart a lovely little nugget from the James Alison essay on which I posted yesterday.

It comes in a section where Alison is describing the “moment” in discipleship that he calls “stuttering creativity”. “Stuttering creativity” is the stage at which – following the initial “stripping away” of our old, rivalrous forms of identity and belonging – we start to find ways in which we can love and create “out of nothing” rather than in reaction to others. Out of gratuity rather than reciprocity.

Alison observes that this moment includes a degree of “faffing around” as we try to be creative without having fully discovered what it is that we have been called to create. And this is what he goes on to say:

It is part of learning that time is not my enemy, but is very spacious, and I don’t need to succeed immediately, or to order, because it is eternal life that is behind the hints of creativity which are being born.

Isn’t that wonderful? Hitting “significant round numbers” in our lives tempts us to measure our life against a worldly timetable in which time is our enemy: in which it is cramped and brief, and if we don’t succeed now then we will find it has drifted (or run) away from us.

But whatever we are doing in our careers or in our families or in any other aspect of our lives, however important and useful it may be, is only part of a larger project of creativity and renewal that has all eternity ahead of it. So we can relax.

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2 Responses to The spaciousness of time

  1. Blair says:

    Hello John,

    always pleased when you blog about James Alison’s work 🙂

    & yes I think it is wonderful, though wonder if I can say so as I’m aware I don’t live with any real sense of time being spacious… it seems cramped and hurried all too often. Lord have mercy, etc…

    Just wanted to add in something from a talk of James’s that I transcribed (full text at ) which may or may not add something:

    And then he told them this parable. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. And he said to the vine-dresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground?’ And he – that’s the vine-dresser – said: ‘Let it alone sir, this year also, ‘til I dig about it and put on manure, and if it bears fruit next year, well and good. But if not, you can cut it down’”.

    And hearing that parable, how many of us imagine that the one who owned the vineyard is God, and this vine-dresser is a wimp? When in fact the parable is exactly the reverse: because the owner who comes to the vineyard, is a dunderhead if he thinks that a vineyard and fruit trees produce fruit after three years. As any Middle-Eastern horticulturalist will tell you, these start to produce fruit in the fourth year, and in the fourth year you have to pay the tithes of them, to redeem the first fruits. And then in the fifth year, is when you start to get really good produce. So this is not a story about God as the landowner, and a wimp as his vine-dresser; this is a story about humans trying to foreclose, with their dumb imagination – turning up before things are ready, demanding to see the fruit, when, as any A-Level biology student – or first-grade biology student – could have told them, coming after three years is a little bit early if you want a fruit tree. So that actually, the voice of God in this story is not the landowner, but the vine-dresser, who’s saying, ‘err, don’t be impatient – this vineyard, creation, it’s a small thing, of my own; be patient, allow me to put manure, allow me to produce the fruit at the right time; don’t foreclose. If of course no fruit at all gets produced, then you can cut it down’. Of course, the vine-dresser knows, because he’s in the business of producing the fruit, when it will come. The arduous good demands a healthy imagination that is able to inhabit time and space gracefully, to imagine that things are not in our control and don’t need to be foreclosed by us.

    in friendship, Blair

  2. John H says:

    Blair: thanks for that. I remember reading it before, but had forgotten it. Simply outstanding stuff, and yes, as you point out, highly pertinent to the topic of this post.

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