We urge you not to accept the grace of god in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, an on a day of salvation I listened to you.” See, now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” —2 Corinthians 6:1-3

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them… —Matthew 6:1

I would like to speak to you about the nature of time, how we experience time and think about it, and what, in the spiritual life is known as “opportune time,” or in the words of St. Paul, “the acceptable time.”

Spiritual time isn’t the same as chronological time, which is marked by passing increments of minutes, days, and weeks that either hang heavily or race by depending on life circumstance. We often think of chronological time as something we can have to waste or use wisely. Moving from the Midwest to Washington, and from a position with a certain set of responsibilities to a position and role with seemingly infinite responsibilities, I am acutely aware of time, and the passage of time, and of a new experience of time that is now my life. Even so, chronological time is something we fill and define. Not so with spiritual, or opportune time. Opportune time has a sense of purpose and potential all its own. It is time charged energy that transcends whatever we might make of it.

Have you ever worked really hard to make something happen, to bring about a desired change or initiative, and no matter how hard you tried, nothing happened or improved, and indeed, for all your efforts, things actually got worse? Then in a different context, in an opportune moment, you worked perhaps just as hard, but this time something else was working alongside you, there was wind in your sails, somehow, and you were able to do accomplish something that was once impossible. That’s what opportune time is—the right time for something to happen that we cannot bring about on our own.

It isn’t easy waiting for opportune time, particularly when we can see what could be or needs to change. It’s difficult to live with ourselves during the time we know we need to change something long before we have the capacity to accomplish it. Try as we might, we can’t force things along faster than the acceptable time allows. Actually, we do try all the time, and sometimes by our sheer will force things along, but we do so at the risk of damaging the very thing we hope to bring about. As one of my teachers used to say, you can’t make a bean grow faster by pulling on it.

In 12-step spirituality there is the notion of “hitting bottom,” which is related to the idea of opportune time, in the sense that no matter how much a person learns about the destructiveness of addiction, no matter how many people try to be helpful, until that person faces into the abyss and sees the absolute mandate for change, change will not occur. I once had a friend whose husband smoked heavily. She hated his smoking and worried about his health. One her of husband’s smoking buddies suddenly took ill, wound up in the hospital for heart surgery, and was told in no uncertain terms that if he continued to smoke, he would die. So he quit right then and there, which was a bit of a crisis for my friend’s husband who lost the one person who supported him in his habit. His wife went on a campaign to convince her husband that the opportune time had come for him to quit, too. But he refused and, in fact, further entrenched himself in the behavior she was trying to talk him out of. We can’t give opportune time to another, nor can we force it on another. We can only discern it for ourselves.

Yet, it’s also true that opportune time may come for us as individuals and certainly as a society long before we feel ready. All the great movements of history tell of struggle and work and leadership that coalesce at a critical moment, along with this sense of time, the right time for something to shift. But not everyone was ready to make the change. But no matter how they resisted, things moved forward anyway, because the time for change had come. It can be that way for us as individuals, too: the time may be upon us whether we feel ready or not.

The marriage equality debates that have gathered momentum in the country of late have now a feeling of opportune time about them. There’s a different energy and momentum, a sense of possibility that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. I confess to you that I didn’t see it coming. As supportive as I considered myself to be for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our church and country, I would never have predicted how quickly the issue of marriage equality has captured the imagination and a sense of possibility. That kind of spiritual energy and movement in society is important for us as people of faith to pay attention to. It doesn’t happen every day on every issue, and we have a window of time, of opportune time, to act.

One of the most important tasks of life is to consider the nature of time: what time it is now, and for what. Of all the good things we might strive for, how can we discern the opportune time for particular things? There’s nothing to be gained by pining for the changes we long for but can’t bring about, if in the process we avoid the particular task before us, whose time has come.

Lent is a good time to think about time, and the possibility that God may be at work in you and in me bringing something to fruition at its acceptable time. As Jesus said, faith is not about impressive acts of piety for show, and neither is Lent. On the surface, Lent is nothing more than 40 days—a set period of time; but on a deeper level, it’s a sacrament of time, time that symbolizes the space between what we long for and where we are, the time of waiting and preparing and the time of response to opportune moments when they come.

Take this day, and even this season, to ask yourself what time it is for you. Knock on a few doors, and see which one opens. Consider the things that you exhaust yourself to make happen, and the things that seem to have their own power and momentum. Allow yourself to feel the weight of time and the gift of it. God is at work in and through us, and in and through time. The acceptable time, the opportune time for whatever you long for will come. In the meantime, use Lent to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, in order to be ready to act when the time is right.