*The following is a transcript of the Summer Seminar closing lecture, given by Rev. Tom Troeger, Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication, on Friday, June 25, 2012* 


Marking Time in Multiple Modes


I was very taken with Teresa Berger’s observation that we live with different calendars.  Perhaps you can still picture her stacking different calendars on the ambo when she spoke during the hymn festival Monday night. I want to build on Teresa’s insight and say: we live not only with different calendars, we also live with different modes of time, often working simultaneously in our lives. To introduce the reality of multiple modes of time, I begin with a poem, and then the story that lies behind the poem:


First the Wind upon the Water


First the wind upon the water

as the formless sea is stirred,

then the source and core of being

speaks the potent primal word:

Let there be light, let there be sky,

let there be land and living things,

each according to its kind

having fins or hoofs or wings.

Let the multitude of images

in all your creatures shine

with the hidden, holy likeness

of the one who is divine.

First the gathering of matter

in explosive densities

whose compacted masses scatter

through the vast immensities:

Then waves of light that strike the earth

and rains and winds and thunderstorms

turn the dust we share with stars

to a host of living forms.

Thus the generating processes

of atoms, suns and cells

waken that same sense of wonder

that the ancient Scripture tells.

First the wind upon the water,

first the starry cosmic flame,

then the word of the creator

working in the human frame:

Let there be love, let there be grace,

let health and peace and justice rise,

let your science feed your faith

and your knowledge make you wise.

Center all your aims and purposes

in what this world displays:

that the source and core of being

calls for everlasting praise.

Thomas H. Troeger

copyright © 2012 Oxford University Press

The poem was commissioned by a church that had installed a new stained glass window. It featured images of the cosmos.  The big bang and explosions of supernovas were interwoven with images drawn from the creation stories in Genesis.  It was a congregation with many scientific thinkers.  They did not take Genesis literally, but they had a great appreciation for its theopoetic depth.  They interpreted the creation stories as myths, expressing important insights about the meaning and purpose of life.  They commissioned me to provide an anthem text, to be set by a composer, that their choir could sing at the dedication of the window.  The commission clearly stated the anthem must blend the Genesis creation myths with the theory of the big bang and the way life evolved on this planet.

I begin with this poem, and the story behind it, because it introduces us

to three different modes of time that were manifest in your congregational projects.

There were more than three modes of time, but three is enough for one presentation.  Here are the three modes that are present in the poem, and that were clearly evident in our work this week:


  1. Cosmic Time
  2. Ordered Time
  3. Creaturely Time.


It may be that your project deals with all three, although in most cases one mode of time tends to dominate more than the others. Cosmic time: First the gathering of matter in explosive densities, whose compacted masses scatter through the vast immensities; Ordered time: First the wind upon the water as the formless sea is stirred; Creaturely time: let there be land and living things, each according to its kind, having fins or hoofs or wings.  And finally, the convergence of all three modes in the ultimate purpose of existence: the source and core of being calls for everlasting praise.

Each of your churches is developing a project to bring at least one mode of time into greater harmony with the source and core of being, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the eternal spring of time and being, the everlasting God.

I will now look separately at each of these three modes of time. In doing this, I will draw upon your projects, comments from our conversations, the articles we were sent prior to our meeting, and various scholars and authors. When I have finished,

you will have time in a small group to discuss a worksheet designed to help you pull the week together. Before turning to cosmic time, I want to remind us of how elusive time is, a warning given by both St. Augustine and Don Saliers.  I like the way the contemporary Australian theologian, Gideon Goosen, puts the matter in his recent book, Spacetime and Theology in Dialogue: “We apply different verbs to ‘time’: have, use, kill, need, make, buy reverse, fill, waste, save, spend, run out of.   We use different prepositions with time: in, over, on, with, from, through, beyond, before.  We also use it as a substantive: good times, ancient/modern times, happier times, hard times, the march of time, the time of our lives, time on your hands, in the nick of time, no time and doing time! ”[1]


Cosmological time.


In recent years I have been impressed by how science has demonstrated the interconnectivity of the universe: “[Humanity] is . . . related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable . . . plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time.   It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”[2] That is a quotation from John Steinbeck cited approvingly by the astrophysicist Martin Rees in his book:  Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. That “elastic string of time” is the string that stretches back 13.7 billion years to the big bang. It has taken that long for us to get to the current moment.  13.7 billion years.  Goosen observes: “The whole ecological movement draws attention to where we are in this cosmos, the place we inherit on earth, and how we interconnect with all on this planet.   We are now more cosmologically conscious, that is, conscious of our place in the cosmos as creatures, as part of the material world come to consciousness, after billions of year since the Big Bang . . . We also know that the modern humans emerged only about 120, 000 year ago, which is analogous to a minute to midnight if the history of the cosmos is represented by twenty-four hours.”[3] Here is one of the great gifts of cosmological time: it puts in scientific perspective the astounding wonder and fragility of his little whirling, watered stone on which we live. How do we communicate that to people who live from paycheck to paycheck, if they are employed, or from soup kitchen to soup kitchen if they are impoverished?  I believe it takes a new theopoetic.  The term “theopoetic” comes from the theologian Amos Wilder (1895-1993).[4]  Wilder coined the term “theopoetic” to describe imaginative, theological language that is congruent with how we picture and understand the material world.  The word is a hybrid of two others: Theo comes from theos, meaning God in Greek. Wilder joins this with the word “poetic” to give us theopoetic, a word he uses as both an adjective and noun. When I use the phrase  “theopoetic language,” I am referring to both verbal and nonverbal forms of expression.

The organic garden of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, TX, and their desire to be certified as an earth care congregation are forms of theopoetic expression about cosmic time.  We need a theopoetic language for preaching and liturgy, a theopoetic language that employs the insights of science and the visionary imagination of faith. If we lack this theopoetic idiom, our attempt to engage the eco-crisis may be too limited to a recital of the facts and the needs for action.  H. Paul Santmire in his book Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis, observes that the history of connections between liturgy and nature in Christian theology and practice has been checkered at best, including the 20th century. When the church has affirmed the value of nature it was often done so under the rubric of stewardship, which although it had some positive values, still “presupposes that nature is to be defined, essentially, as the object of wise and just human use.”[5] How then can churches develop a theopoetic language that reminds people of their place in cosmic time and thereby helps them to live in ecologically responsible ways? First Congregational United Church of Christ in Memphis helped us appreciate just how urgent the need is. Cheryl told us, “We are aiming to live at peace with the environment: some of our 20 years old members wonder if they will live out their full lives because of the eco crisis.”   Notice here how the concerns of cosmic time and creaturely time intersect.

There are obstacles to the church’s developing an ecologically effective theopoetic. Goosen names two major problems in ritualizing nature:  “[Christianity] has focused on human needs and aspirations, not on nature together with humanity.

In the same spirit, Christianity has also frequently been captive of the modern industrial worldview, shared by the advocates of both Marxism and capitalism, that regards nature merely as ‘the means of production.’”[6] However, I discovered a felicitous overcoming of this obstacle, when I turned to the materials of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlotte North Carolina, just after I had finished Goosen’s book. Goosen points out  “It was not until the fourteenth century that clocks appeared in Europe owned by the royalty and the very wealthy.   So the question of the movements of the sun and moon and how to measure these movements

is part and parcel of being human . . . “[7]  I then read about Trinity’s arts day camp

where the children kept time by the burning of candles, not clocks. That camp was helping those children to reclaim “part and parcel of being human:” knowing time without a clock.

As a preacher and religious poet who loves science and who loves the deeply biblical traditions in which I have been raised, I am aware of the enormous imaginative energies that are required to create a new theopoetic idiom of science and faith that is ecologically responsible, the very thing that the Memphis church is working on and that, I assume, drives Denton’s desire to be certified as an earth care congregation.


[Example of new theopoetic: ‘Thanksgiving Day’ homily.] 


Michael Benson, in his book, Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, calls our planet “this miniscule mote of oxygenated, irrigated Earth.”[8] I love the splendor of the words of the psalmist: The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.” But I live in a different cosmos. The image of “this miniscule mote of oxygenated, irrigated Earth” awakens in me a new theo-poetic expression for hymnody. And so one strategy for developing an ecologically responsible theopoetic for the church is to draw upon the writing of scientists and to blend it with our faith in theopoetically imaginative ways. Here is a hymn inspired by Michael Benson’s scientific writing and the Christ hymn in Colossians, especially the verses declaring how “in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created . .  and in him all things hold together.” (I Col. 1: 15 & 170)


How Miniscule This Planet

How miniscule this planet

amidst the stars and night:

a mote that floats in vastness,

mere dust that catches light,

yet, God, you count of value –

of boundless, precious worth –

all creatures who inhabit

this tiny, mite-sized earth.

Together faith and science

extend what we can see

and amplify our wonder

at all you bring to be:

how energy and matter

have coalesced in space

as consciousness and meaning,

and hearts that yearn for grace,

And from that wonder blossoms

a wonder that exceeds

the reach of human dreaming

for meeting earth’s deep needs:

the Christ in whom all matter,

all energies cohere,

is born upon this planet

and dwelling with us here.

By Christ we are connected

to every shining star,

to every atom spinning,

to all the things that are,

and to your very being,

around, below, above,

suffusing each dimension

with light and life and love.

                Thomas H. Troeger

copyright © 2011 Oxford University Press 


Ordered Time


I turn now to ordered time.  This was in some ways the mode of time that took the greater portion of our week.  And that is perfectly understandable. One definition of the church is “an organization that orders time.” Sunday Mass is at 7:30, 9 o’clock and 11 o’clock.  Every December 25th we celebrate Christ’s birth.  Teresa Berger helped us see how complex this ordering of time has been in church history. She observed that the liturgical year is a mixture of the natural and the biblical:  Easter is determined by the first full moon after the spring equinox.  It is a natural rhythm that fits well in the northern hemisphere but presents problems for the southern hemisphere, especially when our resurrection images are tied to the blooming of trees while many people south of the equator are headed into winter.

Many of you found your own complexities in the ordering of time. I have gone back and read all my notes on your presentations and conversations, and the result is

I have co-authored with you a little textbook, entitled Ordering Time and Why It Is So Difficult. Here is the substance of it:


Chapter 1:  Barriers to Sabbath


Knowing what these barriers are can keep us from beating up on ourselves because of our failure to keep Sabbath. Barrier One is related to the psychology of one’s sense of self in relation to time. I am reading here from an article by Graham F. Reed in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, “For most of us, our workaday lives demand continual reference to clock time, and assessment of temporal duration.

Only in certain occupations or during holidays can we enjoy release from the constant need to be aware of the passage of time.  But more importantly, our sense of self is intimately related to the subjective awareness of the continuity of life.  Any break in personal time is alarming, because it suggests some disintegration of psychic synthesis.”[9]

Dorothy Bass gives us a striking image related to this psychological insight

about our obsession with time. She writes: “A datebook can become a template

not simply for organizing time but also for visualizing what time is: a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled.”[10] These obsessive tendencies are only intensified by our electronic devices.  In a recent article in the journal Reflections

Wes Avram describes a fascinating exchange between some “old-timers” and a number of twenty year olds: “We spoke of the new normal in the upper middle class:

an iPhone in one’s pocket, an iPad in one’s purse, and a laptop in one’s bag all syncing every fifteen minutes with Facebook [and] Twitter . . .Eyes look down to laps instead of up to a teacher . . .‘Why?’ one of the old-timers asked.   ‘FOMO!’ came the answer spontaneously, from a couple of voices in their late twenties .  .  . ‘FOMO?’ came the reply right back.  And with glances at each other, our young tutors responded in concert again: ‘Fear Of Missing Out!’   [Avram concludes] I tested the acronym with anyone under thirty I could find; they all knew it immediately.”[11] FOMO! FEAR OF MISSING OUT.  FOMO trumps Sabbath in our electronic culture. Of course, the irony is that lost in FOMO, people will never be lost in the wonder, love and praise of living fully in the present, here and now.

Another barrier to Sabbath is the demon of financial success. Goosen writes:

“[The sacrament of the present moment] runs counter to current western culture in which one is so focused on the immediate future and works so hard to achieve things in the near future, that one often has no time to enjoy the present moment.   A linear approach to everything, especially economic achievement, has this stunting affect on life: too busy to stop and enjoy the present moment . . .”[12] Leslie confirmed that this was indeed the case for many of the members of Second Presbyterian Church in NYC: “There is no such thing as ‘Go out and play.’ If you are not laid off,

you have to work double time.”  Because of that pressurized pattern it is difficult to claim the gift for which the church hungers: “We need Sabbath.   We need to unplug

and connect more quietly to each other.”

Craig from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, TX gave us a concise but psychologically sophisticated understanding of how this drive for achievement

grips our own being: “We judge other people on the basis of what they produce,

and then we internalize that standard of judgment upon ourselves.” These are all strong barriers to keeping Sabbath.  They require from the church adroit pastoral care, a sensitivity to just how tangled our souls are. The Apostolic Letter, Deis Domini by John Paul II reminds us why it is worth the effort: “Sabbath recalls that the universe and history belong to God; and without a constant awareness of that truth, [humanity] cannot serve in the world as co-worker of the Creator.”[13]

As the opening stanza of one hymn puts it:


Unless this day be holy

all days shall blur to one,

as orderly but empty

they march from sun to sun.

But if we keep the Sabbath

through prayer and song and praise,

we’ll find the sacred meaning

of all our working days.[14]


We all need to hear the wisdom of Craig’s father, who told his son, when he claimed to have no time to make a family reunion: “There is always time for what is important.”

Chapter 2 in the little textbook we have co-authored, Ordering Time and Why It Is So Difficult observes how the structures we give to time refuse to stay in place.

I think here of three related stories from three churches, each of them hundreds of miles apart geographically but all caught in the same cross-generational crunch. Trinity Presbyterian in Charlotte NC:  “The church has a lot of meaning for the 70-80 years old but the middle aged need another way of being.”  Trinity Episcopal New Haven:  A service that once was popular now has become “More an ingrown toe nail  than a rose in bloom.  It served a definite time and place.  It worked for a while, but in the 90s started a precipitous decline.” And at First United Methodist in Evanston, IL: “We are now at a time when we need to form ourselves for the next generation.”

All three churches have to deal with Maggi’s great question: “How are we to be faithful to tradition without getting stuck in traditionalism?”

Chapter 3 of Ordering Time and Why It Is So Difficult begins with an important observation: “Individuals, their cultures and circumstances order time differently.” If you doubt this, I invite you take your seat in a pew in Lake Chelan Lutheran Church and see how different people order the time given to worship: “People who like to talk among themselves during the entire service sit in left rear. Those who like to heckle the pastor: center left. Farmers and orcharders: right rear. Children who dance during service: center aisle.   People who use medical marijuana and smell like it.   Last right row.”  Lake Chelan has discovered that the disorder of ordered time keeps flooding into their project to minister to the dying: “It’s not as simple as we thought: when we say ‘the dying,’ to whom exactly are we referring?” How do you provide order to the unordered, messiness of dying: from slow dying to unexpected death to death fervently prayed for and to death self-inflicted?

Sometimes it is not people but physical space that reorders time. Jacque told us there was a time when The Church of St. Francis Xavier had “So much soot the church looked like Good Friday all year long.”  What is the feeling tone of the space that shapes our experience of how time is ordered?    It is difficult to celebrate Easter when the building proclaims death.  In addition to all these things different cultures order time differently: Dean reports that his African American congregants love it when he breaks into song in a sermon, but are baffled why he preaches only 15 minutes, which to them feels like he is just warming up.   But others do not want him to disrupt his sermons with song, and 15 minutes is plenty long enough for any sermon, as far as they’re concerned.  These cultural differences extend into different liturgical practices. Contrast, for example, a comment by Rita and another by Cheryl. Rita, speaking about the power and beauty of the liturgical year, told us: “My maternal grandmother interwove every common act with the liturgical year.  She made the sign of the cross over a loaf of bread before it went in the oven.  She once stopped my mother from doing the wash because it was the day dedicated to the Lady of the snows.”   Then came Rita’s acute summation:  “We have our lives but the liturgical year reminds us we are part of something bigger.”

Cheryl from Memphis provides an intriguing contrast to Rita’s affectionate memories:  “The liturgical year must not become another loop to jump through.”

There are different ecclesial cultures, different values, different perceptions of how time is to be ordered.  And this still does not exhaust the list. There are different voices inside ourselves, giving us conflicted signals about how to order time. Don Saliers put it this way: “Our tropism is to go after immediacy.  Our deeper desire is to be formed in a way that allows us to be grasped by a passion that takes us over time.”  The Church of St. Francis Xavier confirms Don’s insight.  Xavier hopes to participate in the evaluation of a new translation of the missal, and you can hear them wanting to say no to the tropism of immediacy and yes to being formed by a passion that takes them over time. They are “Especially interested in trying various musical settings that have a longer shelf life than the up and down pseudo-chant found in Liber Usalis.” We also hear this desire to being formed by a passion over time in Lake Chelan, as Wendy insists on the place of beauty in the ordering of time. She says of the liturgical resources they hope to produce for the dying, “The book must be beautiful.”   The need is to touch something that conveys the holy, a beauty rich with the weight of sacred wonder.


Chapter 4 of Ordering Time and Why It Is So Difficult is titled “Yielding Ourselves to Ordered Time”


Despite all of these human complexities, ordered time still manages to connect us with the One who is even greater than cosmic time. Santmire in Ritualizing Nature writes: “The hands that hold bread and cup are the hands that hold the center of the universe, as that center now is moving through time-space, from the Alpha of the universe to its Omega.   William Blake’s words could then be taken with a new seriousness, in a way that he more than likely never intended them to be in Auguries of Innocence: ‘Hold infinity in the palm of your hand . . .’”[15]

Bread and cup move us beyond verbal language. And so I end these reflections on ordered time with music, pure music.  For as Rowan Williams observes: “To listen seriously to music and to perform it are among our most potent ways of learning what it is to live with and before God, learning a service that is perfect freedom.   We choose to yield something of ourselves, a portion of our time, a period of our life; no one forces this, no one and nothing can compel our contemplation except the object in its own right.”[16] At the end of this brief movement from a Marcello sonata, I ask for you to keep silence and let whatever wordless motions have been set free in your heart continue as you listen for the Spirit that prays in sighs too deep for words.


[Music Example: Flute sonata]


Creaturely Time

Creaturely time is breathing time. Creaturely time is heart beating time.  Every project engages creaturely time because every project will be carried out by human creatures, who will live so many years and then die:

All things of dust to dust return

on earth and in the sky.

The hottest, brightest suns that burn

in time grow dim and die.

The fish that leap, the birds that soar,

the newborn young that play,

the leaves that fill the forest floor

revert to dust and clay.[17]

Although every project engages creaturely time, the project that particularly features creaturely time is from Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. I want to consider one of their stories in particular: Malory and cancer.   Paul told us “The catechumenate process before her cancer helped her understand her situation in terms of life in the presence of death.”   This story discloses something profoundly important.  The story reveals that human understanding of creaturely time does not come to us any more automatically, than our understanding of cosmic time and ordered time.  It took the catechumenate for Malory. We need to be educated in creaturely time: like those boys Paul took to see the congregation member dying from Parkinson’s.  We need to learn why the finitude of creaturely time is a gift.

Karl Rahner writes, “If [time] were capable of being extended indefinitely it would become hell in the sense that it would be a meaningless void.   No moment would have any value because it would always be possible to postpone and put off everything endlessly to a future that was infinite and so never made actual.   Nothing would ever be too late for us (there would always be enough), and on this hypothesis everything would fall into the void of absolute indifference, where it would have no value.”[18] Finitude awakens gratitude for the grace of being.

[Example: Homily on our heartbeats and gratitude]

I invite us now to close by singing an acknowledgement of the pure giftedness of creaturely time: Each breath is borrowed air.


 Each Breath is Borrowed Air

Each breath is borrowed air,

not ours to keep and own,

and all our breaths as one declare

what wisdom long has known:

to live is to receive

and answer back with praise

to what our minds cannot conceive:

the source of all our days.

The sea flows in our veins.

The dust of stars is spun

to form the coiled, encoded skeins

by which our cells are run:

to live is to receive. . .

From earth and sea and dust

arise yet greater things,

the wonders born of love and trust,

a grateful heart that sings:

to live is to receive. . .

And when our death draws near

and tries to dim our song,

our parting prayers will make it clear

to whom we still belong:

to live is to receive. . .[19]                                     

[1] Gideon Goosen, Spacetime and Theology in Dialogue, Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2008, 11.

[2] John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez as quoted in Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, New York: Basic Books, 2000, p. 1.

[3] Goosen, 155.

[4] Amos Niven Wilder.  Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

[5] Santmire, 72.

[6] Santmire, 7.

[7] Goosen, 41.

[8] Michael Benson, Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, New York: Abrams, 2010, p. 11

[9] Graham F. Reed, “Time-Gap Experience” in Richard L. Gregory, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, 777.

[10] Dorothy Bass, Receiving the Day, 1.

[11] Wes Avram, “Connecting with a Theology of Technology” in Reflections: iBelieve: Facing the New Media Explosion, Yale Divinity School, Fall 2011, 7.

[12] Goosen, 96.

[13] John Paul II, 7.

[14] Thomas H. Troeger, Borrowed Light: Hymn texts, prayers, and poems, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 135.

[15] Santmire, 170-171.

[16] Rowan Williams, “Keeping Time” in Open to Judgment,249-250.

[17] Thomas H. Troeger, God, You Made All Things for Singing, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 22.

[18] Goosen, 42.

[19] Thomas H. Troeger, Above the Moon Earth Rises New York: Oxford University Press 2002, 8.