Happy New Year.
We begin this first day of 2017 with an ancient piece of scripture from the book Ecclesiastes.
This book is set in the section of the Bible known as wisdom literature.
There was an ancient teacher of wisdom who was called in Hebrew Qohelet. The name in Greek is translated “Ecclesiastes.” This wise person understood time quite differently from the way it is understood today. He wrote after the Babylonian Exile, an experience that had taught the Hebrew people that human experience was never going to be easy and that time should not be a tyrant that demanded all our allegiance. In other words, Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is more to life than time.
Today’s reading catalogs various seasons of life, 28 of them arranged in sharp contrast to one another and yet each an undeniable part of human existence. begins with what is most fundamentally true–that one day, we are born into this world, then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end.
Listen to this ancient poem again, for the first time.
A Time for Everything
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
I have been thinking a lot about time lately. For one reason, I suppose because time seems to be going so quickly. This past Christmas season came so quickly, It seemed like school started and the with a blink it was Christmas. I was talking to a member of our session last month and was saying that I needed to get the church officer retreat organized for our new officers, and I felt like I had just done that. Wasn’t it January, 2016 only five minutes ago? Where has the time gone?
Dr. Suess shares this feeling, he wrote a little poem that went: How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?
This happens when I look at pictures of my kids and see how much they have grown and changed and I think to myself where has the time gone?
My days are spent trying to control time. Sometimes I curse time. This happens when I wake up at 3:00 in the morning, and turn to see the clock, and I think, “why in the world am I up at this time?” I lay there in the dark, trying to will myself back to sleep, but call it anxiety, call it clarity, call it wanting to get things done, call it annoying, whatever it is, the list starts going, and I give in and get up and get to it.
Allan Burdick wrote in a recent article for The New Yorker,
For more than two thousand years, the world’s great minds have argued about the essence of time. Is it finite or infinite? Does it flow like a river or is it granular, proceeding in small bits, like sand trickling through an hourglass? And what is the present? Is now an indivisible instant, a line of vapor between the past and the future? Or is it an instant that can be measured—and, if so, how long is it? And what lies between the instants?
Indeed, Augustine wrote, what we call three tenses are only one. Past, present, and future are all immediate in the mind—our current memory, our current attention, our current expectations. “There are three tenses or times: the present of past things, the present of present things, and the present of future things.”
To consider this present is to glimpse the soul, Augustine argued.
Much has been said about 2016 being the worst year ever. While it has not been the best year for the human race, if we know history we know that there have been some years far worse than this one.
But if you know history, you know that there have been some far more tumultuous years than this one. The Dark Ages wasn’t exactly a picker upper.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents lately. All of them are gone now, and I will never get to spend any time with them. I think about the lives they lived, and the things they saw. I try to imagine the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, or the day the stock market crashed, or the day Kennedy was shot, and then Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy and they must have thought, “these are the worst of times.” I wonder if they worried about the future, how things would turn out. I’m sure they did.
But when I knew them and spent time with them, time was slow. I never knew their worries for the future, because their futures had arrived. Their present was their future. And in their future, their granddaughter would come to their house for a week every summer, and climb trees, and pick strawberries in the garden, and play with tools in the basement, and ride bikes to the grocery. We would eat long meals, with cloth napkins and sip coffee from tea cups. Conversations would linger over pumpkin pie, until the sun set and it was time to go into the den and sit on the davenport and watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and we wouldn’t move too fast, or be in a rush. It was joy.
Time is something we have constructed. It’s relative. If you have ever waited for someone to call, or to get home, or for the mail to arrive, or the results to come in, or the surgery to be over, you know that time can move at a snail’s pace. And if you have ever gone on a week vacation, or been wrapped in a great show or been immersed in a fruitful conversation, you can later look at your watch and ask incredulously, “Where has the time gone?”
Time hasn’t changed, what has changed is how we feel in that moment. So on this New Year’s Day, I invite you to pay more attention to the moment and less attention to what is next. The more mindful you are of the moment, the closer you are to your soul and thereby more connected to God.
Writer Anna Quindlen authored an essay on being a mom in which she wrote, “One of the biggest mistakes I made as a mother is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of my three children sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 7, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to go on the next thing: dinner bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”
You know, the same thing can be said for the church. What if we said as a church community that “we are going to treasure the doing a little bit more and the getting it done a little less?” What if we really tried to pay attention to those with whom we worship every week? What if we were less concerned about what was ahead of us, and were more concerned with who was beside us? What if we came to the Lord’s Table and let the bread and juice touch our tongue and could taste and see that the Lord is Good. What an interesting New Year’s Resolution it would be to covenant together to not worry about tomorrow and not grieve the past, to but to be present with each other in the present.
I don’t want to sound sad here, but I want to say that over the past three years, so many wonderful people have greeted me at these sanctuary doors, and they are no longer on this side of heaven. I miss them. I wish I had one more moment to greet them. I don’t want to rush through life so quickly that I miss that holy moment of looking them in the eye and greeting them as a brother and sister in Christ. It’s too important. So my charge to all of you who faithfully came to worship on a holiday weekend is to ask that we all commit to finding the joy in the moment, regardless of the season. God is in every season and if God is there, there a glimpse of joy. Let’s covenant to treasure the doing a little bit more and the getting it done a little less.
We don’t know what 2017 will hold, but we do know there will be birth and death, there be a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time for love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Whatever the time presents, God is there and if we are present with God, no matter where we are, there is always the potential of joy.
As we stand at the threshold of a new year uncertain of it will bring, we have control over very little, except for how we respond to what comes our way. I will conclude with words from another wise poet. Mary Oliver writes:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don’t Hesitate)”
Allen Burdick, “The Secret Life of Time.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/19/the-secret-life-of-time
Anna Quindlen, “All My Babies Are Gone Now” Newsweek Columnist and Author
Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems