A Reflection on Time

My newsletter article reflecting on one aspect of our trip to South Africa:

Fellow Disciples,

As I write this I am still getting over my jet lag from our trip to South Africa. While that experience is still fresh in my mind I want to introduce you to the concept of “South Africa time.”

Anyone who has travelled to South Africa knows exactly what I mean when I say “South Africa time.” It’s not derogatory or anything along those lines…but to Americans it can be incredibly frustrating. The basic rule of “South Africa time” is that schedules are a loose guideline at best. To Americans, who are generally ruled by the clock, this is a very foreign (and difficult) attitude.

Case in point: Every evening when we were dropped off with our host family Dean Ndlovu would give us a time to be ready by the next morning. So we would set an alarm which would provide us with ample time to get up, make our morning ablutions, have a nice breakfast with our hosts, do our devotions, and then collect our things so we’d be ready to go. Invariably we would be ready at the appointed time (if not a few minutes sooner) and end up waiting for our ride…usually 30 minutes or so, but once or twice it was over an hour before they arrived.

Our day would typically begin by getting picked up and being told we had an hour or so to get to our first parish (or wherever we were visiting). We never made it on time…not once. We were always 15-45 minutes late; a fact that drove Christina and I crazy. We didn’t like to feel as though we were wasting people’s time.

But here’s the thing about “South Africa time,” it makes sense if you understand the priorities of the culture and the South African people. If you keep your eyes and mind open you will quickly discover why no one can be anywhere on time. Time is simply not a priority. Instead, people are.

It would take us longer to get places because Dean Ndlovu would need to stop somewhere to take care of something for someone who doesn’t have a car; or because he wanted to introduce us to someone he knew who worked at the store we were passing by; or because we were giving a ride to someone. Dean Ndlovu (or whoever else was giving us a ride) was typically late to get us for similar reasons; they needed to touch base with someone or to help someone or saw someone to greet. On two occasions we pulled over on the side of the road because Dean Ndlovu recognized a car and flashed his lights at them to stop so he could introduce us.

Relationships are more important than the schedule, people are more important than time. But what of those who were waiting for us, you might ask? They understood this as well. And they also understood that while we were there with them then that relationship was what mattered. That was something of a constant surprise to me…while I was with people in South Africa I genuinely felt as though there was no place else they’d rather be and no one else they’d rather be with. Sadly, I don’t find that to be a common experience here in America.

All too often I get the sense that whomever I am with is already thinking about the next thing on their agenda. And, I must confess, I’ve acted that way as well. At times I am not as present as I should be with others because I am distracted by the dictates of time…what’s next on the schedule? What’s next on the to-do list? What do I need to do to be ready for the next thing? And I end up missing out on the relationship right in front of me.

I am not saying America needs to turn into South Africa when it comes to time. But maybe we could learn a bit from our brothers and sisters there. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to lower time as a priority (even by just a little bit) and increase the importance we place on relationships.

This lent I invite you into spiritual discipline of generosity. Specifically, generosity of your time. As you find yourself with others, give them your full attention. Focus on them completely. Let go of time and make them feel as though there’s no place you’d rather be and no one else you’d rather be with. Let’s see what might happen if we focus more on relationships and less on time. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find we have more time than we thought and deeper relationships than we realized.

Pastor Jon