Friday, September 25, 2009

The Key Play of the Game

You probably know the story (maybe apocryphal) of Reinhold Niebuhr taking Paul Tillich to his first baseball game. It was bottom of the ninth in a tie game, with the home team’s best batter stepping to the plate. Not having a clue why all the fans were standing and shouting, Tillich tugged inquisitively at Niebuhr’s sleeve: “What’s happening?” Niebuhr answered, “It’s the kairos, Paulus. It’s the kairos!” Whereupon Tillich leapt to his feet and cheered with the rest.*

This sports report reveals the two kinds of time found in the Bible, and in the liturgy of God’s people who follow Jesus. On the one hand there is chronos, that time that is marked off by the squares on the scorecard, batter by batter, inning by inning. On the other hand there is kairos, the time, the moment, the instant that gives meaning to all the rest of what’s been happening, the key play of the game.

In theological language, kairos is God’s time, where God finds it opportune to break in to human chronology and act in a way that will transform or infuse chronos with meaning. Christians see a kairos, “the Christ-event,” intersecting the chronos of history. This took place “in the fullness of time,” just at the opportune moment, to change everything, bringing light into the darkness, hope to counteract despair, love to triumph over self-interest.

Because of the Christ-event, Christians have learned to look for other, smaller versions of kairos when they happen. Even if we still think chronologically, we keep alert for kairos. We anticipate kairos, we even long for God breaking through to us.

For example, we Christians order the year according to the life of Christ. The Christ-event kairos is spelled out in considerable detail. Yet there are times in that chronology when we expect kairos more than others: Easter, Christmas, their preparatory seasons, Lent and Advent, and other special days. Anticipation of God’s breaking through to us is high.

The liturgical question, however, is whether or not we recognize kairos breaking into the chronology of Sunday worship. It is easy to see worship as just one thing after another and miss the spiritual potential in each act. We come to worship on the Lord’s Day expecting the promise to be fulfilled: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) God is already there for us, ready to transform our worship from a duty to a joy, from boring to exciting, from something to run through quickly as possible to an event that is profound and one to be savored.

We need to anticipate and expect such kairos to interrupt our sequence of liturgy. For each one of us it may be, and in all likelihood will be, something different. The kairos we await is that life-changing touch by the Spirit that makes us new, renewed and refreshed. It could turn out to be God’s “key play” of our whole life. Surely that’s worth standing up and shouting about with enthusiasm.

Where do you anticipate kairos in your life. Looking back, where have you seen God breaking through even though you may have missed it the first time? Where do you look for kairos at Lord’s Day worship?
* Another version of this story appeared in From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, by Joseph L. Price, Mercer University Press, 2001, p. 73.

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