Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 3, 1986, p. 1085. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Ah, to be free from time’s tyranny, measuring time as our ancestors did — by the gentle passage of seasons, by sunrise and sunset, not by seconds, minutes and hours. But to live as if there will always be a tomorrow is to live like a fool.
Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, the summer is already near. So also.. . when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. . . . take heed to yourselves . . . [Luke 21:29-34].
Ah, to be free from time’s tyranny, measuring time as our ancestors did -- by the gentle passage of seasons, by sunrise and sunset, not by seconds, minutes and hours.
I live according to the chronology of the academy. We scholars are in the business of cautious observation and careful deliberation. Many a good thesis has been ruined because its author rushed to judgment, failed to weigh carefully all the facts, prematurely eliminated a possible solution. The key to good research is patience, restraint, caution.
"Scholars don’t make good managers," says one management theorist. "They are trained not to decide."
There is a story told about the physicist Max Planck. When he died and went to heaven St. Peter met him at the gate saying, "Professor Planck, this door leads to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this door leads to a discussion about the Kingdom of Heaven." You know which one the scholar chose.
The word decision comes from the Latin meaning "to cut off, to sever." Better to discuss things, defer judgment, refer the matter to a committee for further consideration, than to make a decision. Why go on record as believing that the earth is round when someone may discover next year that it’s really flat? Wait. Observe. Be patient. There’s still time.
No wonder that many prudent people simply decide not to decide. They drift, or sit quietly in a corner watching the vast, multicolored parade go by. One day they may decide, but not now, not with so many options open. Not today. We musn’t prematurely close out possibilities.
Besides, as Christians we know that even if we are late in deciding things, there is always grace. Matthew tells the story of a man who goes out at dawn and hires some workers for his vineyard. Later in the day he hires some more workers, and then, an hour or so before quitting time, he hires still more. At the end of the day he calls the workers together and pays them all the same wage. The ones who have been out sweating since dawn get no more than those who started an hour before dusk. There is grumbling. "Do you begrudge my generosity?" the master asks.
We love that parable, because it suggests that there is still time. So what if we haven’t gotten our lives together today? We may be the 11th-hour workers who by grace receive as much from God as do those who have been working in God’s vineyard since infancy.
Jesus says that when you see the fig tree blossom, you know what time it is. Jesus had no Greek view of history. As a Jew, he viewed history not as a never-ending circle but as a straight line with a beginning and an end. Someday, there will be no tomorrow. The door will open and then it will shut.
That view isn’t popular these days. Nor was it popular for the church in Luke’s day. It’s difficult to live every day believing that there may be no tomorrow. By the time Luke’s Gospel was written, the church had been waiting for 75 or 80 years for the return of Christ, and that was a long time to be standing on tiptoe. It’s difficult to maintain a sense of crisis for 80 years.
"There will always be a tomorrow," some must have begun to say. "After all, there have been about 29,000 tomorrows since Jesus told us that he would return for us." The once-taut church relaxed, settling down into the everydayness of things.
But to live as if there will always be a tomorrow is to live like a fool. One of the best-selling religious books of all time is a rather shoddy piece of rehashed millennialism called The late, Great Planet Earth. Fifty million people paid good money to read Hal Lindsey’s view of the end. It is not only people like Lindsey or Jerry Falwell or James Watt who think about the end. With the ecological crisis, the threat of nuclear war, and international monetary problems, everyone is thinking in apocalyptic terms -- except the liberal, contented church, which long ago made its peace with the present and trusted in tomorrow.
Jesus says that for us all there will be a day when there is no tomorrow. The invitation comes, the door opens, the word is spoken, and it is time.
When I was serving a little church in rural Georgia, one of my members’ relatives died, and my wife and I went to the funeral as a show of support for the family. It was held in a small, hot, crowded, independent Baptist country church. They wheeled the coffin in and the preacher began to preach. He shouted, fumed, flailed his arms.
"It’s too late for Joe," he screamed. "He might have wanted to do this or that in life, but it’s too late for him now. He’s dead. It’s all over for him. He might have wanted to straighten his life out, but he can’t now. It’s over."
What a comfort this must be to the family, I thought. "But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day. So why wait? Now is the day for decision. Now is the time to make your life count for something. Give your life to Jesus!"
It was the worst thing I had ever heard. "Can you imagine a preacher doing that kind of thing to a grieving family?" I asked my wife on the way home. "I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap and inappropriate. I would never preach a sermon like that."
She agreed with me that it was tacky, manipulative, callous. "Of course," she added, "the worst part of all is that it was true."