I love getting presents, and one was waiting for me at the table where a dear friend and I had gathered to have lunch. In much the same fashion as the restaurant, which was decorated for Cinco de Mayo, the gift was wrapped in bright yellow paper and green string. It spoke joy to me even before I had discovered what lay inside. Soon I was holding a ruler—and not just any ruler, but one displaying the Hebrew alphabet. In an instant I was brought back to those first days of knowing my friend as my biblical Hebrew teacher at divinity school. Over two decades ago, she gave each of her students a similar ruler, which I have cherished—and used—ever since. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, the old ruler shows the wear and tear of being well loved, but not once have I ever considered disposing of it—even now, when one could argue that the new should replace the old. In my mind, or more accurately in my heart, the two belong together. And it’s beginning to dawn on me why: they are markers of time’s passing, of life progressing toward some point I cannot see between these two “goal-posts” in my possession.
Sometimes time passing can be really depressing. I don’t know anyone who rejoices to see new crow’s feet on their face or another gray hair atop their head. More seriously, I remember watching important milestones whiz by as my autistic son remained stuck in one developmental pothole or another, be it speaking his first word or becoming potty trained. To this day, it remains hard to be around typical children his age, as the gap between who he is and who they are yawns ever wider. Some days I think, “What I wouldn’t give to have a normal conversation with my boy, the kind so many other parents take for granted. What I wouldn’t give to know that he understands, really understands, how much I love him.”
There have been times when I have felt woefully left behind myself as my peers from school go on to do impressive things with their lives. Some appear on TV, work in prominent government positions, write books, become doctors, or lawyers, and excel in academia. Most days I count myself productive if I can get a few sentences written, at least one good thought corralled in my head, and dinner on the table. (Lately I’ve expanded that list to choosing one item to give away to my local thrift store, if possible. You really don’t want to see the state of my overstuffed closets and cabinets.)
Then there are the nights when sleep eludes me because of mental health issues. I pace the hallway in the wee hours, feeling like everyone else in my world is sleeping as they should, and soon will get up and be productive members of society. This while I stumble around in a stupor the next day because something is “wrong” with me, like I’m a windup clock whose inner parts have been jammed with a screwdriver.
Looking at the rulers together, however, I realize that the passing of time is not always bad. When I examine the new ruler, the letters on it are still familiar to me. I haven’t forgotten how to write or read them. That’s something, when I ponder other languages I’ve studied, like Greek or German, that all but elude me now. I hope that somehow biblical Hebrew has sunk into me and become part of my DNA over the years that I have continued to engage it. I hope that it has made me a better, more sensitive reader of the Scriptures with its inherent mysteries and sparse-yet-profound constructions. Biblical Hebrew certainly “thinks” in a different way than English, and that keeps me humble as I approach the one text that supersedes all others in my life because it is uniquely sacred. And I am someone who needs to be reminded, deep inside where snap judgments and faulty decisions get made, that I don’t know everything. That in fact, I know very little, but have a shot of learning more if I get quiet and observe what’s going on around and inside me.
What will I do with what I notice? Help another? Myself? Is this a question we should ever stop asking, should ever pull off of the top of our list?
Receiving my new ruler reminded me of a line from Psalm 31: “My times are in Your hand” (31:15). Rendered as a plural noun here (“times” instead of “time”), one can almost hear it preceded by the adjective “all.” Whether hard or harmonious, whether I perceive Your presence or not, ALL my times are in Your hand.
What will You, O God, make of them altogether? What will You make of this very moment?
I see that the question I put before God is closely related to the one I pose to myself. It supposes that we who are alive have agency, have the power to affect what happens to us. Psalm 31, which is largely a desperate cry from David for God to deliver him from his enemies, ends with:
Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord
All well and good. This kind of optimism is something we might expect from a man fashioned “after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). One who braved Goliath and experienced multiple rescues throughout his life by God’s own hand. For the most part, David appears to have taken measure of those experiences and let them become part of his DNA. He knows God as a deliverer, as someone who cherishes him like a favored son.
But (for me, there’s always a but), if you read a few verses earlier in the psalm, you encounter these haunting words:
Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
These words haunt me because according to Luke 23:46, they were the last Jesus cried out (“Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!” Psalm 31:5) when he finally died upon the cross. These are words uttered in sheer faith, yes, but also in sheer agony. They suggest that the two experiences can not only come together, but become one thing.
What I mean to say is, what about those of us whose DNA has mutated over their lifetime so that statements of faith are always laced with deep doubt, suspicion, even anger, over unresolved issues? What do those of us do who try to measure certain agonizing experiences against God’s goodness and come up short?
I’ve thought about this as I’ve watched my boy make huge strides and also lag behind. Just this morning he had a fantastic swimming lesson, where he was doggy paddling with his face underwater. Afterwards, when we went food shopping, he jumped up and down around the store, squealing and tracing shapes in the air with his fingers in a way that was obviously not normal. He paid no attention to the traffic in front of the store, nor to others pushing their carts around inside. So, on the one hand I worried a little less about him drowning, while on the other I worried more about him never developing the kind of situational awareness that keeps oneself safe. All within the span of two hours.
So my answer, at least today, to the question of what we do with the sum total of all of our times, good and bad is: keep them both. Keep them both in your heart and wait on the One who has gone on record as rescuer in your past. No, those rescues don’t erase the times when it seemed like no help came and you had to muddle through yourself. Nor do they guarantee that things are going to turn out exactly like you want them to, no matter how justified, how loving, your desires might be.
What those good times do is provide reason not to give up, because the bad times can’t turn around and erase them either. It works both ways. And something in my spirit, the better part of me, is convinced that, ultimately, the story is going to end well, if we gather enough people around us and work together to help each other out when the going gets tough. That is the narrative I choose to believe in, to bet my life on (did you know you get to choose?).
Don’t throw out the worn and broken pieces of your story because they seem irredeemable, irreconcilable, at this point. Remember, the author of that Psalm 31 knew enough to cry out when things got unbearable. Jesus knew it too. You have more than permission to be honest about your struggle. You have encouragement, straight from the sacred text, to hold both blessing and hardship in your hands. You also get to lay either one of them down when you need to just be, be something small and unknowing who lets tomorrow take care of itself (Matt. 6:34, Ps. 131).
One word of caution: beware of people who insist that you be unerringly positive, who never give you room to express hurt or doubt. They are not your true friends. In another psalm (Ps. 51:6) we are assured that God desires truth in our inner selves. That includes hard truth. No, we don’t want to wallow and drown in darkness, but neither do we want to deny it. And what a gift we can give to others—to place both rulers in their hands, consistently, over time.
O You who chose to step into time and know our struggle
Have mercy on us
Freedom to receive joy with abandon
And pain with grace
Both for ourselves
Our times, all of them
For all of us
We put in Your hands
Keep them safe for us
Until we understand
And all—all—is forever well