And: God’s Timing in
Narrative, Praise, & Wisdom
There is something elusive, yet compelling about a world in which we don’t know, and can’t predict, the times. Yet, along with Harry Emerson Fosdick, “I would rather live in a world where life is surrounded by mystery, than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.” More than any other aspect of our humanness and our stories, time seems to encompass the greatest of mysteries: the cycle of life and death through time. Time is a peculiar thing in the Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures; it’s a constant, often hidden character in every story, every prayer, and every piece of advice. The passing of time is history and we are products of history – the history of a particular people. Their history creates story, story elicits response, and response necessitates wisdom. God’s way with time dictates our human experience as revealed in the narrative, praise, and wisdom of the Hebrew Writings.
Psalm 139 reminds us that we were knit together in our mother’s womb; our inmost beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (v. 14). Our birth is the first marker of our history in time, and God is intimately and lovingly involved in it. Psalm 89 says that life is fleeting and no man can “live and not see death” (v. 48). Death is the concluding marker of our history. Birth and death book-end life, placing it within time. Life then becomes a series of successive wholes, of “confronting and combining both sequence and pattern in various ways” (Ricoeur, 178). Death is the common experience insisted on by Ecclesiastes – “death is the destiny of every man” (Ecc 7:2) – therefore, we cannot understand life unless we keep in focus the fact that we are “walking in the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4), a death that confounds our fears by promising to be better than life (Ecc 7:1). Death gives limits or boundaries to living, creating freedom to move within a story that we don’t ultimately control (Ecc 8:8). When we first acknowledge we are bound by time, and then allow God to speak to us regarding time, we quickly come face-to-face with death. By refusing to wait until the end of life to confront the conclusion of time – the awaiting of death – we receive dynamic, rushing, pursuing, fierce, and hesed life with God; we receive our story in the story of a people remembered through an eternity that does not end. Would time exist without death? Fortunately we don’t have the means or the need to conclusively address this question. Instead, we remain bound by beginning and end, turning to God to learn how to live within time. Time is the and between birth and death, and as we look to the Writings we discover how and when God reveals himself in the and.
The books of the Writings do not set our lives in the context of a set of beliefs or ideas, but rather within the context of the big story of Israel and then some of its smaller stories. These stories frame our lives within history – within time – and in doing so encourage us to share our stories with each other (through praise, confession, and testimony). However, because stories unfold in time, we do not get to know the exact story while we’re living it (creating the need for wisdom-living). The narrative of God’s dealing with Israel, through history, transforms our posture towards time; Israel’s narrative puts us inside the tension of now and not yet. The book of Daniel captures this not-yetness: in the first half of the book, the reign of God is in the here and now of Daniel’s religious life in a political world, while in the second half of the book the reign of God is still coming as witnessed by his “vision for the end of time” (Dan 8:17) of “one like a human being coming with heavenly clouds” (Dan 7:13). The narrative, while historical, tells the story with the perspective that we (right now, whenever you’re reading this) are still living under the fourth regime of Daniel 7; the not yet also becomes a lens for the now. Furthermore, Song of Songs celebrates the not-yetness of the journey through time; the completion or fulfillment of the lovers’ story is always within, but just beyond grasp, while they experience the exuberant joy and expectation of living within their story, in light of God’s story.
Ruth, for example, is a historical figure who actually lived – her name and her legacy becomes a part of the genealogy of Jesus. The plot of her life, of marrying into a family and experiencing the disorienting disappointment of loss and uncertainty is grafted into the story of Israel. A history, a memory that began and ended in time, has now become eternal in the life and imagination of a people. Her story also becomes my story of finding the courage to plant my feed in a new land, with a new people. In the midst of disappointment and uncertainty, I want to become like Ruth, trudging forward, resolute, and not looking back. I wonder what she might have left behind in Moab. What was she running from, what alternatives did she (not) have, that allowed her to so boldly announce to Naomi: “Where you stay, I will stay” (Ruth 1:16)? I enter into my own time through her story, and through her story, I experience the story of Israel. The beautiful mystery of narrative time is its connection to the historical and the particular that becomes ingrained in the life and rhythm of whatever time is now. The narrative time of the Writings is my way into the story of God.
A decent story deserves and necessitates different tellings of it. The purpose is not the reduction of facts, but the telling of a narrative. For example, we need the full breadth of Chronicles, Kings, Samuel, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther to even begin grasping the story of Israel’s history and relationship to their God and the Temple. The historical event of its destruction is connected to the historiography of its people and finally to the significance and impact of its narrative. We need retellings of important stories from different perspectives and from different times. The narrative of the Writings teach us that we can’t know the boundary between history and fiction (Was Esther a real person? What about Job? Do we learn less from them than we do from Ruth? Is Song of Songs really just about sex?), while insisting that this is okay because it’s all God’s word. While the modern assumption is that the only reality is inside our direct and/or rational experiences, the narrative becomes a basis for trust outside of our own experience and our own time; allowing (or perhaps forcing) us to sit in the tension of not-yetness, not knowing, and otherness. In this way the Writings’ narratives read us and our time rather than us reading them; the narrative knows what we do not and it tells us who we are and where we belong.
As the narrative of scripture washes over and through us – like a film (rather than a novel) – we interpret the story as a series of events that speak for themselves as they unfold; God works with things that happen, as they happen. The time measure of the Writings is not predetermined chronology, but more thematic and symbolic. Entering the space of narrative time, moving beyond the illusion of sequence and fact, God deals with time in such a way to unite us across temporal and spacial barriers. As Paul Ricoeur writes, “A story is made out of events to the extent that plot makes events into a story. The plot, therefore, places us at the crossing point of temporality and narrativity” (Ricoeur,171). Death is perhaps the plot, and therefore time, or the succession of instants that we live, becomes the story; a story followed to its conclusion in the kingdom of God. Time remains hidden in story because “the art of storytelling is not so much a way of reflecting on time as a way of taking it for granted” (Ricoeur, 175). With eyes to see, however, God’s way with time is illuminated in every face and every corner of the story of God’s grafting his people into a particular and historical narrative.
In praise and testimony, we tell a public story. In confessing, we publicly relate a sin. In lamenting, we express our pain to the world. These narrative enterprises, recited in real-time, are “incorporated into a community which gathers it together” (Ricoeur, 176). This is how David’s Psalms after his encounter with Bathsheba continue to be relevant to our circumstances today. We start out knowing who we are and who God is (i.e. orientation) and then something happens and everything we thought we knew about how life works, who God is, and what God means becomes fragmented (i.e. disorientation). In the gap between orientation and disorientation we come before our community and our God to pray. A prayer that never ends because today’s renewed orientation is destined to become tomorrow’s disorientation. Life, our stories, the story, becomes a spiral of time moving around and forward in a life-long process of growing, discovering, and seeing new things. “These narratives, in fact, represent a person acting, who orients him- or herself in circumstances he or she has not created, and who produces consequences he or she has not intended” (Ricoeur, 176). This is how God acts within time and teaches us to experience time: as life keeps bringing the Israelites up short, as their story keeps cutting down time, the Writings teach us that the waiting on the Lord (versus waiting for the Lord) is not dead space, it becomes an active, participatory, communal and public part of the narrative. Being still to know (Ps 46:10) is not being quiet, but being persistently prayerful; it does not happen in a time vacuum, but in the living-and-memory of a people.
Psalms, Lamentations, and the psalm-like sections of Job teach us that we don’t merely wait for God’s timing, we beseech him to act and to move, in real time, to deliver us from our circumstances. We aren’t passive victims of time, yet we aren’t controlling the destiny of our lives. God deals with time in such a way that our autonomy comes through prayer, worship, praise, and lament. What do we do in the gaps of our narrative? In the gaps between what life was and what it’s supposed to be? How do we live in the not-yetness of a journey? In the tension of not knowing and waiting? In the confrontation of otherness or sin? We do so in prayer, worship, praise, and lament. These are ways of looking at tough times, these are how we rail against the limits of time and the approaching of death; a death that the Israelite’s experienced quite differently from us. The Psalms do not distinguish life and death as sharply as our time, rather eternal death can be experienced in time now. And so we pray now, experiencing the life cycle, or spiral of time lived through our extolling, protesting, and dirging.
Recognizing how prayer moves and sustains us through time becomes a way of linking the Psalms and worship with the liturgical calendar and yearly religious festivals. We know the shape of Israel’s worship year through its scriptures; revealing an explicit link between time and prayer. Prayer intertwines Ricoeur’s two competing qualities of time, “the circularity of the imaginary travel and the linearity of the quest as such” (185). This duality creates the spiral of prayer that grows us as a people with a history and a memory. Moreover, it is impossible, for example, to disconnect Lamentations (the narrative response) from the fall of Jerusalem (the time-based event). And finally, the praises and prayers and laments of Israel are, in some ways, timeless. They are always about the current king, the current reader, the current sufferer. They teach us that the only consistent thing about God is that he acts; in response to our prayers, consistently, in time, through events (Chronicles), coincidences (Esther), relationships (Ruth), dreams (Daniel), loss (Job), death (Ecclesiastes), and wisdom (Proverbs). God teaches us to deal with time in prayer; to look at the story, our responsive prayers, and God’s delivering action alongside each other as we spiral into becoming.
Time is the historical and narrative gap between here and there, between now and not yet, between what was, what is, and what will be. We live the story of this gap remembering and beseeching God to fill in time by our prayers of praise, testimony, lament, and confession. Yet this is not the only way God teaches us to live in and carry time. How else do we live as God’s people in the meantime of and? The wisdom literature of the Writings teaches us that life hinges on the ampersand. There is a time for “giving birth and for dying,” “for planting and for uprooting,” “for searching and for losing” (Ecc 3:1-8). The concrete stories of the Writings maintain the elusive mystery of time by giving us a story to remember, lives to think against, and a God to follow. As we become overwhelmed or consumed by just one side of the duality of time, wisdom reminds us not to get stuck; that the eternal and timeless now is not permanent, but moving through, along, and within a moving story with a beginning and an end.
Wisdom is acquired through time. We create layers of wisdom in remembering and retelling the words of wise leaders and teachers. Wisdom makes it possible to live with the hard and unanswerable questions when the Exodus, or God, or the cross, or conversion seems like a long time ago. It makes it possible to sit in tension without paralyzing fear and heavy immobility. The wisdom literature of the bible is a story of a people on their way, through time. It is an inspired mixture of fact and fiction, a recurrent plot told in and through characters, sayings, and images. As communities share, remember, and retell these stories, we discover that “following the story is less important than apprehending the well-known end as implied in the beginning and the well-known episodes as leading to this end” (Ricoeur, 179). The apprehension of the story is the wisdom. The fabric of the life of Ruth, Esther, Job, and Daniel is woven together in the life of the Israelite people as God teaches them the wisdom of living in time. The Judeo-Christian religion contains future-minded stories, visions, and wisdom. But mostly it is a religion of living in the story of now: of how to embody and carry and wait in time; a time that once was, and God has fashioned to always be, now but not yet. It is a story of becoming, a becoming in real-time which God dictates through the wisdom of his revelation to his people.
In infinite time, what does an end mean? What is the difference between stopping time and finishing time? Stopping creates a void, finishing creates an end. The end is not a single moment, but the last part or the aftermath of something. The “end of days” is not necessarily eschatological; the end is now. But the prophecies of Daniel and the wisdom of the Psalms (Ps 2 and 23, for example) remind us that there is also an end that is coming; it won’t go on like this forever:
“By reading the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end, we learn also to read time itself backward, as the recapitulating of the initial conditions of a course of action in its terminal consequences. In this way, a plot establishes human action not only within time, but within memory. Memory, accordingly, repeats the course of events according to an order that is the counterpart of time as ‘stretching-along’ between a beginning and an end” (Ricoeur, 180).
We label and comprehend life in hindsight: with memory and by retelling. This is certainly not everything. It’s usually not enough. But it’s also not nothing. To live, to tell, and to remember the story of God’s people is a baffling blessing. Time as story, prayer, and wisdom maintains this mystery without leaving us stranded. As frustrating and slow as it is to be attached to a timeline, to be chasing after a vaporous wind, and to march towards death, it is the only means through which we experience the life and hope of the not-yet, the unknown, and the other.
In our relating to time, in the way God moves and acts and builds together time, we learn from the Writings to first, share time, and second, to remember it. This is why the Jewish community rotates through the Five Scrolls in their calendar, why the liturgical church calendar exists. It’s why we repeat the same words of the Psalms over and over again, on behalf of ourselves and others whom we know and many whom we do not. The Writings, God’s word through scripture, bind and unite us across the temporal gap of history. We experience a small glimpse of eternity in their pages. And we vow to keep sharing and remembering because repetition is itself a kind of resurrection of the dead that keeps the not-yet as the always-now.
“Narrative Time” an article by Paul Ricoeur
Lucian’s ideas from How To Write History
Sacred Space event at Temple Judea