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  • Reverend James Squire

Black People and Time

This past Sunday was the celebration of the life of Absalom Jones, the first black man ordained priest in the Episcopal Church who lived 1746 to 1818. He was the founder of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in the Overbrook Section of Philadelphia and was a leading abolitionist. He recruited men to form the “Black Legion”, a group of black soldiers who fought in defense of Philadelphia in 1812. Jones played a key role in black history. In Absalom Jones most famous sermon, The Thanksgiving Sermon, on January 1, 1808, he describes God as the “God of heaven and earth and is the same, yesterday, and today, and tomorrow.” Absalom Jones’ God is a God embracing time.

There is an irony here where people know that February is Black History Month, the shortest month to celebrate the contributions of black people. Perhaps having the shortest month is appropriate for black people not because their history is less important but because black people have historically been aware of the importance of time. I have seen firsthand their ability to enter into flow, a psychological concept, that I wrote about while at Duke and Duke Medical Center and later named by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihayi (pronounce sick-mick- hile) in his research at the University of Chicago. Flow is an important part of positive psychology and meditation. I met Dr. C, as he was known for obvious reasons, at a thought leader conference that I was invited to attend at Princeton. I was interested in exploring a direct bridge between religious experience and positive psychology. I found that flow was part of that bridge between those two disciplines.

It was quite something to encounter the man who named and did research about something that I found focused in black people at Duke Medical Center. He was dressed all in black with a head of white bushy hair.

At Duke I wrote a paper, The Existential Notion of Intentional Time in Black People. I had counseled and spent time with a number of black people and noticed something about the time that we spent together and how they related to time as all-encompassing as found in Absalom Jones belief that the God of heaven and earth is “the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

People did not go to Duke Medical Center for ordinary things. When all else failed they arrived at our doorstep. What I noticed and wrote about was that black people under the greatest of challenges had the ability to focus totally on the moment. The “now” was what was critical to them. Less critical was past and future because my black patients were change agents and the only thing that can change is their time now. They had the ability to get “lost” in the moment and to appreciate all that the moment meant to them. Later Dr. C and positive psychology named it flow or being in the zone. A simple example of flow is when sitting in a boring class, time seems to move forward like a person crawling across a desert. If we are in a class that engages us with flow, time passes as though hours felt like minutes.

I believe a bridge between positive psychology and religious experience rests in the difference between Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for time that we experience on a clock. Kairos is God’s time or sacred time where the event touches us with immense importance and insight to see or experience something that we would say was beyond the limits of time. It is not measured by a clock but is measured by connection to self, others, and God. St. Paul may have stated it best when he wrote “now we see in part but then face to face.”

Some examples come to mind. One of my advisees at EA who is black became a minister in an evangelical church. He called one day and asked if his ordination could occur in our school chapel as our school was part of his faith development. I told him that would be a great thing to do. He set the date and the time. It would occur at 6. There was a series of phone calls between his church organization and me to make arrangements. I don’t know why I asked the question but I asked, “You are talking about 6 at night, right?” The response was, “No, it will be at 6 in the morning and the band will arrive at 4. There is no way I can adequately describe the spiritual experience of being with this former student and a large group of his church and family members. Women in white dresses went up and down the aisles making sure everyone was all right in the midst of such intense emotion. The band played spirituals and the congregation swayed and called forth the Holy Spirit. Everyone was in the moment.

The ordination service lasted 6 hours, but it seemed to me to be just moments when we had just begun. Kairos! God’s time! Black Time!

Vicki and I attended a service at St. Thomas Church in Philadelphia founded by The Reverend Absalom Jones. I knew that there would be EA families there. We were the only white people present and were received as though we were royalty which is the way all new people are received. Four hours later we knew that we had been to church. Kairos! God’s time! Black Time!

All people should know that Chronos time is precious captured in my home church this morning with the spiritual, Steal Away! The last line is, “The trumpet sounds within-a-my soul, I ain’t got long to stay here.”

Time is the most important thing we have. It is more important than gold! We can never get it back! It’s our job to transform Chronos to Kairos for all races. That’s why we are here on earth.

During this Black History Month black people can teach us what is important in this life which is the sacred nature of time gleaned from their history. We can learn from history that the slave owners would quietly look in their slaves’ windows of their cabins where they were singing and rejoicing with religious conviction and joy in the midst of the harshest of times. They redeemed time.

A few years ago, the junior members of the Student Spiritual Leadership Group at EA decided to give the outgoing seniors a gift. I didn’t know this was going to happen. They gave them pocket watches. When you opened them, there were words etched into the cover opposite the time for them to see when they checked on what time it was at that moment. It read WATCH YOUR TIME – REV I NEVER REALIZED HOW OFTEN I SAID THAT EXPRESSION TO THEM!

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