I live at odds with the clock. With youth and energy, a type-A personality and multiple responsibilities, I often find myself in a rush, trying to cram a gallon’s worth of activity into a quart’s worth of chronos. My neighbor, Jack Schriefer, however, has shown me a more excellent way of relating to time.
Jack and his wife, Marianne, live down the road from our farm in an old white farmhouse with crooked doors and slanting floors. With their own children grown and gone, they have become another set of grandparents for our young children and trusted friends and neighbors to us. Alongside his day jobs, all his life Jack has farmed about 160 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. At 75, he has far more plans and projects for his farm than he will have enough lifetime to finish. He works hard, but he is unflappable and unhurried; and in fact he is famous around here for being “slow as a mole.” Even when things fall apart around him, I have never seen Jack become frustrated or angry. Somehow he has learned to accept whatever is happening with an almost otherworldly serenity.
While doing some fieldwork recently, Jack accidentally stalled out his rusty, faded-orange Allis-Chalmers 180 tractor. The starter button had broken long ago, so he climbed down carefully on creaky knees and employed his usual hot-wire method of firing up the tractor: shorting out the starter solenoid with a screwdriver.
A blue spark of current arced at the terminals, the starter cranked, and the tired diesel engine roared back to life with a belch of black smoke. Jack had inadvertently left the tractor in gear, however, so it lurched forward and took off on its own, almost running him over. Jack leaped out of the way and galloped after it, but he could not catch up. So he gave it up for lost and stood watching with Zen-like attentiveness as it bumped its driverless way across a hayfield toward the nearby woods. By his figuring, he told me later, it would eventually hit a tree and stop with, he hoped, just minor damage.
Suddenly, however, the 180 hit some uneven ground in the field and, true to its name, curved around in a wide arc, away from the woods and back the way it had come. With unerring aim, it headed directly for a nearby farm pond. Jack gazed helplessly as it chugged down the bank.
Fortunately, the pond had just been rebuilt and had little water in it.
Jack’s old tractor, which would never run when he wanted it to, now simply would not stop. It churned its way around the muddy bottom of the pond and motored right back up the bank very near to where Jack was standing, taking the whole scene in.
This gave Jack a second chance to catch it, and so on this one splendid occasion, he actually hurried.
Waiting for the right moment, he let the tractor pass by him as it labored over the bank of the pond; then he sprinted just in front of the heavy field roller it was pulling, took a wild, dangerous leap of faith onto the tractor’s rear hitch and clambered up into the seat.
Nonplussed, with no harm done to man or machine, Jack calmly finished his fieldwork and (wisely) shared not a word about the incident with Marianne until days later, as a casual aside.
The story, which Jack now recounts between belly laughs to any willing listener, has quickly become a local legend.
As someone who is usually in a hurry, I often feel that time runs away from me, just as Jack’s tractor did, or besieges me with the many (over)commitments of my life and its various vocations.
I do believe that to befriend time and recognize its sacramental quality means slowing down and “just being.” For this, Jack has long been my model.
But in wrangling with his tractor, Jack has also shown me that the true contemplative does more than just sit still and wait for revelation, as necessary as such a spiritual practice may be. Sometimes, attending to the transcendent moment demands not relaxation and deep, slow breathing, but a mad rush and great risk. Jack has diabetes and heart problems, and Marianne is battling cancer. I do not know how much more time they have in this world. What I hope is to be fully present to the moments we have been given with them, whether many or few, whether leisurely or at light speed.
With contemplative attention in such moments—or in any moment, really—chronos can give way to kairos: when God flings open the door to the divine realm and shouts, “Jump!”