I first became aware that time is a finite resource when I was 11. My father had open heart surgery. It was 1965. Heart bypass surgery was in its infancy, still little more than a medical experiment. My dad had this risky surgery because his doctor said that without it, he would die. He spent the whole summer in the Toronto General Hospital, and, although he lived a good life, he was never really well.
For the first time that summer, it dawned on me that my dad would not be here forever. I remember thinking, “Maybe if everything goes well, he’ll live for another 20 years” – which, when you’re 11 seems like forever. But time continued to flow on inexorably, and that anticipated time became shorter.
In fact, my father lived for over 30 years, which makes his surgery an unqualified success.
But for us mortal creatures, time marches on. Time moves in one direction. Every day behind us is a day less in front of us.
The hourglass is a visual image of this reality. The sands of time run continuously until the top half of the hourglass is empty.
But what if we looked at things differently? A while ago I decided to start focusing on the top half less and the bottom half more. The top of the hourglass the remaining time available to me. The bottom half is time that is past, yes. But it’s also the accumulated experiences and events that time past represents.
When I was 18, most of my life lay ahead of me. There was way more sand in the top half of my hourglass than the bottom. But I had not yet finished university, met my wife, started ministry. My four children were not even a gleam in my eye. I had not yet met most of the people or read most of the books or listened to most of the music that have shaped my life. I knew almost nothing compared to what I know now. Today I realize that most of my years are behind me, But because of all that has happened in those years, my life is immeasurably richer than it was when I was young.
I know it is a very great blessing to be able to say that, a blessing that not everyone can share. But even if the bottom half of your hourglass contains pain and sorrow and disappointment, it is still your life, a life which is valued and cherished by God.
What’s true of us as individuals is true of our churches. The sands of time are running out on many of our churches – or at least it seems that way. We have long been hoping that, somehow, we could find a way to turn the hourglass over and start afresh. But sadly, it hasn’t happened for many of our congregations, or for the United Church as a whole.
Recently, I was gently taken to task for saying that a church was “failing.” What I meant was that it would likely have to close. It was pointed out to me that “failing” is not the right word. Even if a church is reaching the end of its life cycle, it doesn’t mean it has “failed.” All the impact, influence and blessing that have flowed out of that community over the years is still very real. Countless people are who they are today because of that church. The top half might be diminishing, but the bottom half is full to overflowing.
Maybe the hourglass is not the only, or even the best, image for the lives of us as individuals, or our churches. The past does not sit trapped and inert, but continues to live and move like the radiating ripples of a pond. The flow of our lives is so much not like the sand running out of the hourglass, but like a stream, originating in its source and flowing to its end point.
The great devotional writer Oswald Chambers wrote “A river reaches places that its source never knows.” What Chambers meant is that we never get to see most of the impact of what we have say and do. Most of it is hidden from us, known only to God.
We continue to hope and pray that the faith that has sustained us will be passed on to a next generation. And we need to do what we can to make that happen.
But we also need to pray and believe that God is continues to use what we have said and done to bless the world in ways that we can neither see nor even imagine.