The New Horizons probe left Earth on January 19 on a nine-year, three-billion mile journey to Pluto. Two previous attempts at launch failed, and NASA had until Valentine’s Day to succeed. Why? On February 14 the “launch window” would have closed, and the trip would have taken up to five years longer. A delay would have meant the craft could not have used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot it to the ninth planet.

As far as we know, the ancient Greeks did not send probes to other planets. But if they had, I suspect their word for “launch window” would have been kairos. It also means “good timing,” “propitious moment,” “when everything comes together.” Kairos is a ford in the stream of time; it is an embryonic dream brought to term and given birth in the midst of our experience. Kairos is not merely the passage of hours and minutes and seconds; it is time conceived and perceived as an occasion, an event. If clock time is quantitative, kairos-time is qualitative.

In theological terms, kairos is the moment when God’s purpose breaks in to set humanity or a people or a particular person on a new road, to challenge them or him or her with new directions and thoughts. Christians believe there was a supreme kairos when God shared the divine self in the midst of the mundane. That was the coming of Jesus, whom we confess as the Christ. His presence transforms chronos (tick-tocking clock time) into kairos.

The Gospel of Mark reports that when Jesus began his ministry he came saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). As has been said over and over in the churches, repentance is a change of heart. We give up—sometimes with much difficulty and kicking and screaming—the old habits and ways. But we do it for our greater good: a life enriched and empowered by faith as we work for the greater good of the world God loves.

Repentance is what makes our minds and hearts attentive to the voice of God. It empties us of our old selves so we may receive what God is offering us. Like knowing when the kairos is here.

Paul Tillich, in my opinion one of the greatest theologians of the 20th or any century, said: “Awareness of kairos is a matter of vision. It is not an object of analysis or calculation such as could be given in psychological or sociological terms. It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience” (Systematic Theology, Volume III: 370-71).

Did you catch that last line? “It is not a matter of detached observation but of involved experience.” The discernment of God’s kairos in our lives arises from our faithful action, prompted and considered in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ. If we are to know God’s time, we must plunge into the sometimes cold stream of human need, participate in the birthing of something brand new, and set out on the road trusting God to care for us.

Is now the time for you to launch on your mission?

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.