Review: Carpe Diem Redeemed

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Carpe Diem RedeemedOs Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A consideration of how, in our present day, we ought make the most of the time, to properly seize the day.

The collection of epigraphs alone may be a reason to acquire this book. The book opens with fourteen pages of epigraphs on the subject of time spanning the gamut from Lao Tzu to Richard Branson.  The epigraphs explore various perspectives on time and our relation to time, and how we live within it. The one thing all of us recognize in our most reflective moments is the brevity of our life span and how rapidly it passes. As the author of this work, it is “the dash between the two dates on our gravestones.” The perennial question is what the meaning of this transient existence is and how we might make the most of it.

Guinness interacts with a similarly titled book, Carpe Diem Regained, by Roman Krznaric, who believes there is no transcendent source of meaning, that we must create that meaning for ourselves, and then “seize the day” Guinness argues that carpe diem requires a vision of life that makes sense of time and history, and roots this in the Judeo-Christian account found in the Bible.

He contends for a covenantal perspective on time in contrast to cyclical or mere chronological views of time. Time has a telos that is shaped by the relation between a sovereign God committed to his creation including human beings created with real freedom to respond in love or rebellion. This freedom involves both real risk and the possibility of redemption. Our lives are neither determined nor part of an endless cycle.

We exist in an era in which the precision and coordination of our time-keeping eventuates in a life of constant pressure. At a deeper level, our modern understanding of time is shaped by a narrative of progress, a presumption that the latest is the greatest, and the paradox of the avant garde becoming the rear guard, an inevitable fatality of progress.

How then does he propose we seize the day within these contemporary dynamics of time. The beginning is not an idea, but a “walk,” daily, with God, the daily rhythms of trust and obedience that shape a life and not just an ideology. Secondly, this means discerning the times, understanding what is really happening in them and how God is working in them. Then it means serving God’s purpose in that time. Christians practice a kind of prophetic untimeliness or “resistance thinking” against the ways that the culture distorts past, present, and future.

This kind of life may be costly. Guinness relates some of the cost to his own family, former missionaries in China. He lost a brother and sister to starvation during World War 2 and his parents suffered arrest under the communists for several years. It was tempting to wonder what they accomplished, yet there hope was that “the end is not the end,” that our hope is in the coming of Jesus.

He summarizes his argument as follows:

   Those with the greatest view of time are those best able to use and enjoy the time they have. Life is short, but we are called to rise to our full potential, making the most of it and seizing each day. Within the biblical view of time and history, life offers meaning and opens prospects whose significance far outstrips its shortness. (p. 136)

This is classic Guinness, down to the three alliterated points in many chapters! But there is also something different. There is a personal character to this work as well. Guinness shares more of himself than I’ve observed in many of his books, and we have the sense of one who has been long at this journey imparting vital wisdom. He speaks into our time-pressured and experience-oriented culture of a vision of carpe diem that is far more than filling one’s life with as much experience as we can cram into the brief space of our lives. He reminds us of the biblical wisdom that understands life within our covenantal relationship with a transcendent and yet loving God who makes sense of the flow of time and its ultimate end. This is a God who invites us to walk with Him, to see our times with his eyes and serve his purposes in our generation, and trust that this is enough. We also seize the day, not in a self-fabricated purpose or an endless cycle, but in the faith that the employment of all our energies toward the purposes of God will bring joy and our time and matter for eternity.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Passages

We just returned from a family vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, staying in a cabin at a conference center owned by the organization for which I work. The trip itself was kind of a passage, back into winter, or the very beginnings of spring. The bay on which the cabin is located is still completely frozen and snow still covered many areas although we were told that two feet of snow had thawed in the four days before our arrival. If you think we’ve had it bad this winter, folks in the U.P. have most of us beat! And after several warm days, we had one more blast of winter, shared by much of the Midwest as 2-3 inches of new snow fell. Temperatures were at 16 degrees the morning we left!

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This trip was a kind of journey into the past in some ways that reminded us of the passage of time, and the many rich memories that have filled those years. This began when we paged through the guestbook in the cabin, which we have stayed in as a family four other times. One of our entries was from June of 1985, and we remarked on this being our son’s first visit to this conference center at a month and a half old. Now, it is nearly twenty nine years later, and it was fun for his wife for whom this was a first visit, to read this entry and to realize some of the family history wrapped up in this place.

As we showed our daughter-in-law around, memories unbidden returned of programs I had led or participated in, in just about every room. Seeing a recently built lounge area named after the founder of our organization in the US, I was reminded of hearing him speak at this site in 1977 during my Orientation of New Staff. Walking into another room in the same building I remembered a crazy and delightful time of suddenly assuming the direction of a program I was attending for the first time when the director was ill. It was a scramble and yet God met us in wonderful ways as we improvised and stayed maybe a half-step ahead of the students.

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I looked out on the frozen bay from some of the same spots where I sat enjoying the summer sun and spending personal times in prayer, reflection, and reading at a student leadership training program I was attending in July and August of 1974, my first visit to this site. I remembered a TV being brought into the meeting house so we could watch the resignation of President Nixon at the end of Watergate. And I thought, could nearly 40 years have passed so quickly?

Indeed they have, and yet as I thought of all this, my mood was not so much wistful as thankful. I mention in the “About ” page to this blog of how I live at the intersection of the love of learning and the love of God. So much of my passion for these was cultivated in this place. So much of life over the past 40 years has involved sharing with successive generations of students and faculty at a number of universities as well as at programs at this site how these two things walk hand in hand and how loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39) is not only the greatest of the commands but central to a life well-lived.

How well-lived my own life has been is ultimately a matter for God to judge. But as I look at things so far, I have to say that my own sense is one of having no regrets and great thankfulness. We’ve shared as a family in so many of these ventures. It was rich to share our memories together, as well as make new ones, like evenings in the cabin playing hearts or Scrabble and laughing at the turns of the game, usually against me–I didn’t win even once!

As we departed, both we, and our son and daughter-in-law left new entries in the guestbook. While none of us knows what the future holds, perhaps it will be that at some future date, we and/or they will mark yet further passages of time and hopefully have new and rich memories to share.

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12, NIV)