“You know how everyone’s always saying, ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know. I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”
A Twelve-Year Odyssey
So replies a young woman in the final scene of Boyhood, a twelve-year indie film project released in 2014 that chronicled the life of a boy named Mason from age 10 to 22. It is a literal coming-of-age narrative, following Mason’s path into adulthood, watching him grow up with all the joys, sorrows, and complexity of a fictional American family. The realism in Boyhood is unparalleled. Though it is typical movie length, the plodding along of Mason’s life meets us head-on with the reality of time as a long, slow-moving progress toward a perceived, though often unclear, conclusion.
At the end of the film, Mason’s friend contemplates the moments in time that seize us, fixing our lives to a chronology underscored by a purpose that is yet to be fully defined. Her line, in many ways, frames the entire film, helping us see that every moment of Mason’s unspectacular life was fraught with meaning, as it captured his story of growth into adulthood. His ordinary everyday moments observe how the movement of time brings a stark reality to personal growth.
Imagine if Boyhood’s script was re-oriented around a spiritual journey. What if Mason’s story was not so much a boy’s development into manhood, but an odyssey of belief—a coming-of-faith? The years depicted in the film would slowly tick by, with an emphasis more on the process of faith rather than the product. What would this tell us about the relationship of time to faith? What kind of meaning would be given to the process of believing? Maybe the experience of faith would become more extensive, long-range, and greater in scope. Perhaps we would see faith as more inconclusive than we often think, because time is long and enduring.
We live in a culture that is catechizing us toward speed. Human beings are upgrading and outdating themselves faster than you can click an Amazon purchase. In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick writes about speed metaphorically as a drug, an addiction to which we’ve succumbed. He looks to examples such as the speed-dial function, previously enjoyed on the old landline phones, now rendered irrelevant by the advent of the smart phone—a device which at its core is built for hyper-speed functions. With each new tech product, we become more antagonistic to the idea of slow. Streaming services, e-commerce, city infrastructure—the examples are legion—all are working to solve the inexhaustible problem of speed.
Our cultural drug has infiltrated our growth scales. We yearn to develop, grow, and progress faster than the average lifespan. Co-opting the cultural obsession with speed, Evangelicals tend to be fixated on the newest engine of discipleship, machinations designed to bring new converts up to speed, as it were, in the Christian faith. The assumption being that human beings need to be moved along quickly, assimilated into the life of the church by next Sunday, lest they should fall away. Having served in pastoral ministry, I can say it was a rare moment where I actually desired a church member to “take it slow” with Jesus, or a new attender to “give it time” before committing to membership.
Speed is not a modern phenomenon. In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor mentions various reform movements in the Middle Ages designed to close the gap of civility between the societal elite and the ordinary, including the spiritual disparity between clergy and laity. The goal was to reduce the distance between different “speeds” in the Church, bringing the street-level parishioner more quickly in line with the clerical practitioner. This was part and parcel to constructing a disciplined Church within an ordered society. Suffice to say, we’ve had an historic infatuation with fast-tracking spiritual development.
In all our pursuit of growth, we are, as Gleick has observed, straining to push time, and squeeze every nanosecond of production out of it. For many of us, the daily battle is not against flesh and blood, but against traffic, long lines at Costco, and poor WiFi signals—structural “evils” we believe are striking death-blows to our schedule. But here’s the obvious reality: time actually doesn’t go faster. It can’t. It only goes one pace. So the tension we feel often when trying to accelerate our lives is because we’re trying to fast forward a clock that is divinely built in to the universe to advance at only one speed.
The problem is not with time. It’s with us. It’s in how we view time, use time, crunch, push, and try to protect time. Every day we constantly work to save up time, yet we end up fighting it. Like a strange co-dependent relationship, we have an avarice yet aversion toward time. While we think we’re being good, productive humans, storing up units of time, hoping to use them for future, ironically we’re actually wasting the opportunity to experience time for what it is in the present: a gift from God.
The Gift of Time
Time is a gentle deity, said Sophocles. It has a way of nudging us into the reality of growing slow in everyday moments. Watching Boyhood helps us slow down and embrace time, to both struggle through yet appreciate the mundanity of everyday life. Unlike many films in the coming-of-age genre where climactic moments drive the narrative, with winsome banter interspersed for maximum flair, the plot line of Boyhood has zero panache. Its writing is bare bones, meant to convey the average dialogue of a 21st century American family merely existing, plainly moving through life.
The depiction of life in Boyhood is not so much momentous as it is monotonous, just there, present, happening day in and day out as Mason gets older and undergoes the changing dynamics of his family’s life. The sheer realism of Boyhood reminds us that our days can feel ninety-percent conventional. Nothing spectacular or significant. Just the rhythms of an average day carried out in all their commonality, as if by rote. Yet the monotony of these everyday moments, dragging along as they do like molasses, are no less meaningful as they provide a space for growth. The question is, are we aware of what God may be doing in the routine, humdrum moments of life?In spite of our drive to speed up growth and reach the goal of faith, perhaps the real goal is to trust the process. Rather than an object to be controlled, we can enjoy the blessing of time as a gift.
Time exudes process. The Hebrew patriarch Abraham was called upon by God to follow in faith to an unknown land and was promised thousands of descendants. However, fulfillment of the promise was anything but immediate. Thomas Schreiner, in his theology of the biblical story, notes how strikingly slow the fulfillment of God’s covenant was with Abraham. Indeed, it took virtually Abraham’s entire lifetime to gain his first offspring of the promise. If the book of Genesis teaches us anything, it is that there is no fanfare in the process of believing, and apparently God is not in a hurry to get things done.
Time is a test of faith. My family and I recently moved to another city to be near our extended family. We are undergoing our own “Abraham” narrative, as this move has proven to be one of the hardest experiences of our lives. We have housing, but nothing permanent. We have piecemeal employment, but not stable income. We have landed, yet feel very unsettled. We are still deep in transition. We need a permanent place to call “home.” We are waiting in faith for God to provide us with a place and a purpose. This unusual season for us has many days full of tests, teaching us to wait unhurriedly, not to languish in anxiety that God’s provision is not arriving sooner. A time of transition can feel so slow when you’re in the midst of a coming-of-faith narrative.
In his well-known work Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard offers a moving portrayal of the existential journey of Abraham. His story leads up to one of the most infamous scenes in all of Scripture: the sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. In spite of a hundred-year journey of learning to trust God’s faithfulness, Abraham is called upon by God to, in Kierkegaard’s words, “irrationally” draw the knife and sacrifice his son on an altar. Fortunately, we know this scene ends with redemption and renewed life. However, Kierkegaard’s reflections on time and the process of belief are poignant. “You needed 100 years to get the son of your old age against all expectancy… in 130 years you got no further than faith.”
Abraham’s coming-of-age narrative was ten times longer than Mason’s. One could argue that worked in Abraham’s favor. Yet in looking back at Abraham’s faith journey, the Bible emphasizes the quality of faith learned rather than the quantity of time it took to learn it. The length of time is relative. The experience of faith is paramount.
In spite of our drive to speed up growth and reach the goal of faith, perhaps the real goal is to trust the process. Rather than an object to be controlled, we can enjoy the blessing of time as a gift. A season of growth may take twelve months or twelve years. But the length is irrelevant. Attempting to hurry the process would be to our loss. I was conversing with a friend recently about seeking employment, and we both agreed how hard it has been to find a full-time job during COVID, indeed even get an initial interview; that the time of waiting can be grueling. He mentioned how another one of his applications had not been accepted. “Back to the drawing board,” he said with a tone of hopelessness. I gently responded, “Well the good news is you’re getting no further than faith.”