There’s a Japanese phrase, ichi-go ichi-e, which means something like “one encounter, one chance”. It encapsulates a concept similar to the New Testament Greek word “kairos” — which you’ll recall means both time and action, something like an actor’s cue. The other Greek word for time, “chronos”, is the one-darned-thing-after-another time, the regular round of events. The kairos is the moment that stands out as a fleeting opportunity.
It’s a bit like that thing Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Ichi-go ichi-e — one encounter, one chance. What comes to meet us is there only fleetingly. If we are not present to the moment, the opportunity will pass by, for this here and now will never come again. Of course, sometimes that can be a relief — “this too shall pass” — but it’s as well to be in a position to make the choice whether to carpe diem or be heartily glad to see the sun go down on it.
In connection with this, I find it interesting that the resurrection narratives recorded in the gospels are all full of groups of people chatting, with time to spare. The disciples are out fishing, or mending their nets, or meeting together to break bread and pray, or just hanging out together wondering what to do next, or (as in the case of this morning’s reading) walking along the road to Emmaus discussing recent events and trying to make sense of it all.
As the Christian church and Western culture have developed, the cult of busy has picked up speed. “Never be idle,” said John Wesley. “Fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run,” said Kipling.
The lovely Jimmy Carter, who is a man of faith and surely an example of service to us all, said, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something . . . My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, for as long as I can, with whatever I have, to try to make a difference.”
And while my soul salutes him, I find myself wanting to say, “Yes. But . . .”
One of the best ministers of religion I ever met in my entire life was the Reverend Derek Brice — and he had a reputation for being lazy. This was entirely undeserved and arose from people addicted to busyness not knowing what they were looking at. Because Derek was *available*, not lazy.
He had the wisdom to make sure he left enough space in his life to help, to visit, to be around to answer the phone when it rang.
I remember Derek reminiscing about an occasion early in his ministry when he’d been doing his pastoral visits, and went to the house of a man with young children whose wife was ill in hospital. The man was trying to juggle kiddies’ bath-time with preparing supper, not forgetting to do the laundry, put the hoover round, visit his wife in hospital and hold down his regular job. When Derek pitched up, this guy looked tired and harassed. So while the man told his children a bedtime story, Derek did the washing up.
When my previous husband Bernard was terminally ill in hospital, it was Derek who came and found us and Derek who contacted the Superintendent Minister and Chair of District to tell them I should be given compassionate leave because I was worn out.
And when, for All Saints Day, I wanted to talk to the congregation at Three Oaks about the life stories of those of their number who had died, it was Derek I phoned — and yes, he could tell me all about all of their lives immediately.
Derek wasn’t lazy, not one bit. He left space in his life to hold and treasure each one-encounter-one-chance as it flowed by in the river of days.
He was like Jesus. As Martin Baddeley said — Martin was the principal of the ordination course on which I studied — with reference to the time Jesus healed the daughter of the woman who followed him, calling out for mercy,
“Jesus walked and he stopped — what is the speed of love?”
This beautiful availability which is the heart of ministry and the soul of reflection, the well-spring of inspiration, comes from another thing the Japanese have coined a word for — they call it “Ma”.
“Ma” is the space around things that allows them to be appreciated, that makes them beautiful and harmonious, that allows their characteristics to emerge in our surroundings and be seen. Without “Ma” all you get is a jumble of stuff. And it’s the same with the moments that make up our time.
The path of a disciple includes learning to take responsibility for so ordering our days that we have the necessary space to listen, to consider, to see, to respond, to reflect.
That implies resisting the cult of busyness, *not* filling the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run, *not* being never idle, leaving a margin of possibility in our days.
I expect you are familiar with the word “saunter” and you probably know that it derives originally from “saint-terre”, which is French for “holy ground”. The word grew up in the Middle Ages from the spiritual practice of making pilgrimage.
Pilgrims walk slowly. They are reflecting and praying, they are deepening their faith. They aren’t just in a hurry to get this done and tick this box. A pilgrimage isn’t a chore or an achievement. Pilgrims saunter along the holy path of life. They take their time. They step out of all the hustle and bustle, the rush and tear.
Jesus walked, and he stopped. What is the speed of love?
And I put it to you that, just as the people of Israel spent 40 years traversing a distance they could have covered in half a day in a bus, so none of this that we heard about in our gospel reading this morning would have happened if those two disciples had gone to Emmaus in a car. They’d have whizzed straight past Jesus and left him in a cloud of dust.
When I was a Circuit minister in the Methodist Church, I came to the realisation that if I went everywhere in a car I would never encounter anything new. I went in my hermetically sealed bubble from my own manse to one church meeting after another, speeding past all the ichi-go ichi-e on the way without even knowing it was there.
So I started travelling through the world by bus and by bicycle, and I got into so many unexpected conversations sitting at the bus stop wearing a dog collar.
Just as the natural world relies on us urban folk leaving a wildlife corridor, some verges and hedges and places where weeds can grow, so our spiritual eco-system flourishes if we leave margins for the unexpected, for life and encounter.
Jesus joined them as they sauntered along the road to Emmaus, and when they got to the place they were staying they invited him in for supper. Only when he broke the bread as they sat down together did they recognise him.
Ichi-go ichi-e. I bet they were glad they didn’t miss that.