Tranquility: Cultivating a Quiet Soul in a Busy World

 By David W. Henderson

Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.

           In “Sweet” fashion, a reading friend recommended this book to me, so I had to read it. He didn’t steer me wrong. The preface makes you laugh: almost twenty years ago, a publisher asked him to write a book about time, busyness, and hurry. He was too busy! By the time he got around to get on with it, the guy was gone and he had to shop it around. Long story short—he finished it about fifteen years after the initial contact. By his own admission, it’s a different and better book than it would have been fifteen years ago.

           I loved the first sentence of the introduction: “We are a river people, we human beings, and time is the current in which we live. From the instant we splash into time, we are swept along by its coursings. We live by it and with it and on it and in it.”

           Henderson began with an excellent history titled, “Giving Time a Face.” He had visited the oldest operating clock in the world in Salisbury Cathedral, dating back to 1386. It had no housing or face, and the ringing of bells marks the hours. I never knew that the original clocks had no hands. As early as the sixth century, monasteries had established seven standardized times for prayer based on Psalm 119:164. It wasn’t until the middle of the twelfth century that the first clock began to mark off these hours mechanically. Urged along by shopkeepers and merchants, clocks moved out of the monastery and into the public square around 1330. This is the kind of clock at Salisbury.

           The advent of spring-driven clocks, dating back to 1430, made it possible to have a mantel clock in every home, even in every room. Then pendant and pocket watches allowed a person to carry the time about and consult it as often as wished (1510 is the year of the first known pocket watch). The earliest tower clocks merely sounded the hours. Faces and hour hands were added by the mid-1300s. In the 1600s came the addition of the minute hand. That was followed in the early 1700s by the second hand. Who knew? Every technological development had its own unintended consequences. With the clock came new ways of thinking about how best to live within time—among them the virtues of planning, punctuality, and efficiency.

           In the section “Understanding the Times,” Henderson notes that looking at God’s dealings with humanity over time, we see in the witness of the Bible four great eras of human history. In his Centuries of Meditation, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne defines them as man’s “fourfold estate of innocency, misery, grace, and glory.” He looks at creation and shalom, and misery when sin entered the garden along distance from God, yet hope was born, as God promised a Prince of Peace through His prophets. The kairos moment, the hinge in history came as Jesus revealed God through every word and deed. God kept His promise as grace came down in this current season. Jesus made it clear that He would return and close out the age in glory.

           The perspective from which Henderson says the Bible views time could be called “heavenward” time—time as God sees it from the perspective of heaven. The Newer Testament uses the simplest of words to capture this vantage point: “Ano” meaning “upward,” “above,” or “heavenward,” a favorite expression of both John and Paul. “From this ano perspective—time is forward-facing, and unfaltering, marked by an unswerving linearity, not a circle but a line, like an arrow whisking inexorably toward its target.” (89)

           From clocks to maps, “centrality is the word cartographers use to describe what occupies the prominent spot at the center of the map. Almost invariably, maps are self-centered—ethnocentric is the mapmaker term. You see it in ancient Chinese maps, ancient Mesoamerican maps, medieval European maps, Victorian British maps… Until recently, American-made world maps plunked the United States squarely in the middle, even though it meant whacking the great landmass of Asia in half.” (109-10) Mapmakers place themselves in center, the same way we occupy time. We take up two-thirds of the page.

           In the book, Amish Grace, the study of the Amish response to the tragic shooting of ten of their schoolgirls, the writers introduce a word that stands at the center of Amish life: Gelassenheit. English translations include “composure,” “calm,” and “tranquility.” It is a core virtue they seek to embody as Christian believers. Behind this word is a prerequisite posture of the heart toward God: submission. The Amish word for this is Uffgevva (“give up”). It is captured in the favorite prayer of the Amish: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10 KJV). One Amish believer said, “Uffgevva means giving up self and accepting God’s will. That’s what our life is all about. It’s the biggest thing about being Amish.” (114) The way we view the time before us is connected to the way we view ourselves before God. This certainly circles back to the clear implications of Psalm 90:12—“Teach us to number our days…” Our time is not our time after all. It belongs to another.

           In the section “Making the Most of the Time,” Henderson changes cultures, quoting David Stern’s translation of Luke 10:4, as Jesus sends out His disciples to do ministry, He says to them, “Don’t stop to schmooze with people on the road.” Stern explains: “The Yiddish word schmooze, which means ‘talk in a friendly way, chit-chat, engage in idle conversation, gossip,’ and is derived from Hebrew shmu’ot (‘things heard, rumors”), conveys precisely the sense of Yeshua’s instruction not to waste time on the road but to hasten to the destination and get on with the work to be done.” (142) Urgency and clarity are signs that we understand the kairos and seen to make the most of it.

           In the chapter on Waiting, Henderson well-notes that we hate waiting. He also says we should “Mind Your Peace and Queues.” Waiting is less about stopping than being made to stop. We think waiting is wasting time, only to be endured, not redeemed. Yet the Bible’s view of waiting is markedly different. What about “effective inefficiency?” When we are made to wait, God isn’t “overlooking something. He is overseeing something. Waiting is not a place where God fails us; it is where He meets us.” (161) I liked his play on words when he said that instead of thinking of waiting as enduring alone, we should think of “weighting.”

           Henderson closes out the final section titled, “Trusting God With the Rest.” He writes of soul rest, rhythm and margin, still life, sleep, Sabbath as the weekly gift, and stop. The last chapter is titled, “Deeper Still,” where he gets into silence. I could go on, and on.

           My buddy gave me a good recommendation that I’m passing on to you. Get it. Read it. Slow down and marinate a bit.

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