At this particular moment in time, there seem to be endless, shapeless weeks of confinement stretching out before us, with little change on the horizon. We keep losing track of time, as one blank day on the calendar blends into the next.
The formlessness of these weeks is symptomatic of a broader problem of modern life: we have forgotten how to mark time. Our world no longer follows the kinds of patterns and rhythms that shaped the lives of our ancestors.
The formlessness of these weeks is symptomatic of a broader problem of modern life: we have forgotten how to mark time.
In our modern society, each day is more or less the same. Shops are open seven days a week; the internet is open for business twenty-four hours a day. We can buy the same fruit and vegetables in and out of season; we can set our air-conditioning to the same comfortable temperature all year round. Thanks to technology and globalisation, our lives are cushioned from the natural rhythms of the days, weeks, and seasons.
In our Christian lives, we have lost the beat that kept our spiritual ancestors moving in time. Most modern churches no longer follow the seasons of the church year with their pattern of set readings and liturgies. Apart from Christmas and Easter, every Sunday is more or less the same.
The main rhythms of our modern lives are set not by nature or the Church, but by our schools and our employers—they are the ones who schedule our days, weeks and months. But since their drumbeat has become muted, many of us are feeling lost and aimless.
We Were Made for Rhythm
Humans cannot live without rhythm any more than we can live without meaning. This goes right back to the creation of the world. God created in a rhythmical way: he made the world in six days—each with evening and morning—and rested on the seventh. God also built into creation the marking of time, saying: “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” (Genesis 1:14) After the great flood, God promised:
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.
It wasn’t just these natural rhythms that shaped the life of God’s ancient people. God commanded the Israelites to order their lives to the beat of six plus one—God’s own rhythm of creation. Each week comprised six days of work, then a Sabbath of rest (Exodus 20:8-11). Likewise, the land was to be worked for six years, then have a year of rest (Leviticus 25:1-7). After seven Sabbath years, the Israelites were to celebrate the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17). In addition to these Sabbath patterns, the Israelite calendar included six different feasts throughout the year (Leviticus 23:4-44).
In past centuries, the Church built similar rhythms into its New Covenant worship: meeting weekly on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; marking the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.
Apart from Sunday, these festivals are not mandated by Scripture. But they may be helpful—surely their vestiges (Easter and Christmas) often are. Perhaps our common life is poorer and less anchored for ignoring the Church calendar.
A Time to Form Better Habits that Conform Us to Christ
The ancient practices of Israel and the Church were based on the assumption that the way we shape our time is actually forming and shaping us. That’s because our habits and rhythms of life train our hearts to long for certain things and ideals. These things we strive towards gradually shape the people we become.
These days of confinement present us with a unique opportunity to reassess our personal and domestic habits; to give structure to our formless days.
These days of confinement present us with a unique opportunity to reassess our personal and domestic habits; to give structure to our formless days. Here are some suggestions than might help us shape our time in a way that conforms us and our households to the likeness of Christ.
Start with Sundays
First of all, we can make the Lord’s Day significant. We can commit to family worship each week, supplementing online resources with our own readings, prayers, and discussions. In addition, we could prepare a celebration meal, even decorating the table and wearing smart clothes. We can make Sundays different by not doing some things we normally do—perhaps we could swap some screen time for a family board game or outdoor activity. Adults can commit to stopping work for the day.
In the same spirit of celebration, we can make more of other occasions than we usually do. This year we celebrated our wedding anniversary together with our children—we set the table with a tablecloth and candles, homemade cards and decorations; we put on some mood music; we dressed up as if we were going out; and we enjoyed some special takeaway food.
Punctuate the Day with Prayer
Now is the perfect time to take up the ancient practice of saying set prayers throughout the day. As we repeat the prayers, we begin to know them by heart; their godly, biblical perspective gradually shapes our own.
On “school days” we have starting committing the day to God with a prayer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (this and other daily prayers for families are available here). At morning tea time, we read a short children’s devotional book, which concludes with a prayer. At the end of the day, after reading a children’s Bible together, we say the Lord’s Prayer as well as some personal prayers.
Make the Most of Mealtimes
Mealtimes set a natural rhythm to our day and can be leveraged to set our hearts on the things of God. We can start with a prayer of thanksgiving. We might also commit to leaving our phones elsewhere in order to focus on making meaningful conversation. Meals allow us and our children to practise serving others in practical ways, such as setting the table, waiting for others, saying “please” and “thank you”, taking turns to talk and ask questions, and cleaning up afterwards.
Screen Our Screen Time
We would do well to consider how our screen habits are shaping us: What things are they training our hearts to long for? At the moment we are trying to wean our children off “silly” shows and help them to acquire a taste for good stories or documentaries that teach and inspire them to explore and create in the real world.
We would do well to consider how our screen habits are shaping us: What things are they training our hearts to long for?
This might be a good time to swap some screen time for reading books. We could make a habit of reading aloud the kind of stories that foster a love for what is true, good, and beautiful in life. You could start with some classic books by authors like C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle and Patricia St. John, or explore more recent titles by authors like N. D. Wilson, Andrew Peterson or S.D. Smith.
Give Shape and Colour to Weekdays
In between Sundays and special occasions, the week can still seem quite formless so it can be helpful to develop a weekly plan. During the school term, we can spread extra subjects like art, music, sport, and science experiments across the week to distinguish one day from the next. During the holidays, our family often draws up a plan for the week, assigning each day a different colour, shape, theme, or letter of the alphabet. Then we brainstorm things we can eat, make, play, watch and read on that day that fit in with the theme. This adds excitement and variety to our weeks spent at home.
Keep Special Things Scarce
Another way of shaping our time is to reserve certain things for certain times. In our family, we decided that dessert would be something special for weekends and birthdays only. The days of planning and anticipation make dessert infinitely more exciting. To make Advent more special, I put away all of our Christmas books, music CDs, movies and decorations, kept out of reach until the following year.
One final way we can mark our time is by paying attention to the natural rhythms around us. We can take note of the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons and how these affect the animals, birds, and plants around us. The Psalmists delight in these things and see God at work in them (eg. Ps 19, 104). Shouldn’t we take the time to do the same?
Wouldn’t it be good if, when all of this is over and we return to “normal” time, we emerged with habits and rhythms that are better attuned to the life and world given to us by our God? Wouldn’t it be good to cultivate rhythms in our days that help us consider Jesus? Wouldn’t it be good if we took the opportunity to replace some of the noise and chaos of our age with more deliberate patterns of life? That’s my prayer.