January is not my favorite month to paddle. The wind is often raw, or the river is limned with ice. So, I'm having some indoor adventures. Today I'm culling my files.
I slide a shallow box labelled "Xerox copies of books and articles" from a stack of boxes in my closet. Lifting the lid, I see the title of the top article: "Jewish Division of Day into Hours." Who knows why I photocopied this gem? Written by Robert L. Odom of Nashville, Tennessee, it's from a journal for pastors titled simply, The Ministry. Maybe I came upon it back in the 1990s when I was doing research for a biblical novel set in the 7th century BCE.
I do remember going back to my seminary to browse the stacks in the library, metal shelves full of bound journals that smelled of dust and disuse. Even when I was a student in the 1970s, when we were supposed to immerse ourselves in the wisdom of the ancients, I rarely saw anyone crack the spines of those journals.
Maybe I decided to keep the article because historical fiction is supposed to be realistic, and I wanted to understand how biblical people reckoned time.
But I'm not sure why I kept it.
You see, I've shuffled and re-shuffled the stacks of articles and boxes of unfinished projects in my closet so many times that the chronological layers are all mixed up. Unlike the geological strata of canyons carved by the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, which are fixed into colorful ribbons of sedimentary rock—my office closet is a shifting, jumbled mess.
But it is the date of this article that stuns me: April, 1946.
Written to assist pastors with biblical exposition for their sermons, it begins with a calmly pedantic sentence: "In the time of Christ it was the custom of the Jews to divide the daylight portion of the day into twelve hours." The article was published just when the world had ceased being on fire.
During World War II, which had ended just seven months before, the cities of Berlin, London, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and many others had been incinerated. This writer, Mr. Odom, may have sat in his study in Nashville, hunched over a wooden desk, clattering away on his typewriter about the ancient hours appointed for work, prayer, incense, and burnt offerings, while survivors spent their daylight hours sifting through the debris of ruined cities.
Did he feel vaguely guilty? I know I do, if others are suffering while I am safe.
Or, when he turned off his bedside lamp, perhaps remembering his sentence about how ancient Jews divided the night into four watches, did he think about wounded soldiers groaning through the night in hospital beds? Did he pray that Jesus would come to them "in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn"? (Mark 13:35)
Mr. Odom was doing his job as a writer, of course, just like the faraway soldiers were doing their jobs. He was trying to help pastors who were trying to help their parishioners survive the enormous grief, terror, and privation of the war.
Aware of war's vast causalities, perhaps he thought of lines from a hymn written two hundred years before, during Britain's war with Spain: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day."
As he hummed the hymn in the dark, perhaps he found comfort in its affirmation of God's overarching care throughout human history. "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home." Being a biblical scholar, Mr. Odom probably could recite Psalm 90:4, on which the hymn was based: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night." (KJV)
Taking the long view can bring a certain consolation. Humanity has made it through hard times before. Every epoch has its stories of bravery and hope.
During this never-ending pandemic, when I see how others are still suffering from illness and anxiety, and when I struggle with the conundrums of my own life, the perspective of Psalm 90 eases my breathing and stiffens my spine: Time passes. God is bigger than my problems. And one day, the mess in my closet will just be dust.
In the meantime, however, I can receive strength from the practices of ancient Jews and Christians, who gathered for prayer, morning, noon, and night. I can pause throughout my day to receive help for my admittedly smallish troubles.
I wrote some blessings from gospel stories about Jesus. Perhaps they will help you, too, as you move throughout your day.
9 a.m. (Third hour): May a powerful spirit come upon you as the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples in an upper room at Pentecost, freeing your tongue to speak the marvelous works of God. (Acts 2:1-21)
Noon (Sixth hour): May you meet your spiritual guide at midday like the Samaritan woman was greeted by Jesus beside Jacob's well. May you drink deeply of the water that gushes up to eternal life. (John 4:1-42)
1 p.m. (Seventh hour): May your fevers leave you as they left the son of the royal official in Capernaum that you may live and believe. (John 4:46-53)
5 p.m. (Eleventh hour): May you receive the wages of faithfulness at the end of the work day as did the laborers in the vineyard, not demanding your due, but rejoicing in God's generosity to all, even the undeserving. (Matthew 20:1-16)
12 a.m. (Midnight) May a word of consolation and challenge come to you in the second watch of the night, as it did to Nicodemus, who stole out under the cover of darkness to meet Jesus. In hope and in fear, may you be reborn.
Whatever your time, season or circumstance, may you know the Eternal One as shelter and home.
"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations." –Psalm 90:1 (KJV)
Playlist: "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRgVNVVBVDA, Isaac Watts, 1719.