Three Score and Ten
Today is my 70th birthday. “Three score and ten,” in biblical parlance. That used to seem so old. Now, well, not quite so much.
Thanks to all of you who have shared good wishes on the occasion!
All of our family are here, fifteen of us, at our Wallowa Lake cabin. Sitting at dinner last night — at the kids table — with five of the six grandchildren (ages 7, 6, 3, 2 and not quite 1) I felt very blessed (and highly entertained).
But there’s something a little odd about birthdays. Perhaps an ambiguity in the bible gets at this.
In Scripture there are two different words for time. One is chronos, from which the word chronology is derived. It means time in the clock and calendar sense. When we say, “What time is it?” or “how old are you?” we are speaking of chronos time.
The other word for time in the Bible is kairos. When we say something like, “It was a good time,” or “We had the time of our lives,” that’s kairos. Or in a more portentous phrase like, “The time has come,” we are talking kairos.
In the end kairos is the more important of the two, which may be one of the reasons that birthdays can seem a little strange, even artificial. After all, you don’t tend to feel a whole lot different just because of the passage of day on the calendar.
In the bible kairos time is when God is especially and powerfully present. Jesus came preaching, “The time is at hand, the Kingdom of God is near.”
Kairos has a way of seeming to break in upon us. One moment we’re ambling along through the day. The next a hole has opened up in the day and we’re peering into depths or up to heights we had forgotten existed.
I mark this birthday with great gratitude. Gratitude for family and friends, for useful tasks to do, for good health. But the passing of calendar time seems less important than those times when kairos shocks, awakens, awes, delights or disturbs.
In one of my favorite sections from her book The Writing Life Annie Dillard speaks, or so it seems to me, of the chronos / kairos distinction.
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.”
From one bewildered, but grateful, creature — praise and thanks be to God.