Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Making Meaning (2): Timing Is Everything

Mark 1:9-11 (moments with the children)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 (message focus)

The beautiful poetry of Ecclesiastes 3 invites us to consider the important questions of time and eternity. St. Augustine devotes 27 pages, Book 11 in my printed edition of his long-form prayer, The Confessions, to these very themes, “Time and Eternity”.

He writes:
In the eternal, nothing can pass away but the whole is present. . . . Who will hold the heart of man, so that it may stand still and see how steadfast eternity, neither future nor past, decrees times future and those past? (285)

What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know (287).

My mind is on fire to understand this most intricate riddle (294).
Most of the time, though, our focus is not on these kinds of philosophical questions. We’re focused on getting through the day – work, dinner, household chores, music lessons, sports practice. And, a small delay – an auto accident stalling traffic, a missing back-to-school form, the kids needing attention – throws everything off. We’re so focused on getting through the day that we fail to enjoy it.

Or, we’re obsessed with deadlines – the term paper, the quarterly financials, the newspaper. We’re so obsessed with deadlines that we fail to live.

Or, we anticipate being, if not elsewhere, then elsewhen. Maybe it is the future: Things go poorly and we wait “for the other shoe to drop”. Things go well and we can’t wait to do it again. I have a friend who tells me that whenever he is eating one meal, he is thinking about the next one. Maybe it is the past: I wish that things could be the way they “always” were – a sentimentality that Ecclesiastes calls “unwise” (7:10). C. S. Lewis, in his The Last Battle, describes Susan as being in a hurry to get to a certain age and then, once she reached that age, trying in vain to stay there as long as possible.

“Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)”, by Pete Seeger
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
Welcome - Work - Wait

Welcome – Rhythm and Beauty: Ecclesiastes does not provide us a morose dropping of the “other shoe”. Ecclesiastes, as cynical as it is about human fate, and while it is certainly not syrupy sweet, does not drip with bitterness as it contemplates the times and seasons of human life. Instead, the ancient Teacher offers wisdom in the form of the rhythm of the seasons. We don’t control when winter comes, though we can be ready with shovels, salt, and a warm jacket. And, when winter comes, we can treasure the icicles hanging from the gutters, the sparkle of the snow after hardening over night, the cadence of scoop-toss down the driveway or walk. Insisting that it is not winter is counter productive. Living as if it is summer – turning on the air conditioning in the winter – is just plain stupid.

Likewise life. There is a time to be born and a time to die. There is a time to break down, and a time to build up. There is a time to mourn and a time to dance. We have zero control over those times, those seasons, and when they come into our lives. But we can learn to dance in rhythm (Davis, 184). “God has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Unfortunately, some of our translations change the word beautiful to “suitable”, a shift in meaning that removes wonder and focuses instead on functionality. Functionality is good, but the wonder must not be overlooked. God has made everything beautiful in its time. Welcome it.
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
Work – Word and Flesh: “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it” (3:13-14).

There are two interesting things about these verses. First of all, the work of human beings (which does not last) is placed along side the work of God (which endures). Second, the lasting work of God is described in terms familiar in the Jewish tradition, but not in relation to work. This phrasing shows up in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 in relation to the Torah (Davis, 184), the law, the covenant . . . God’s revelation, God’s Word: “You must neither add anything . . . nor take away anything” and “Do not add to it or take anything from it”.

John’s gospel describes Jesus as “God made flesh” (John 1:14). These lines from Ecclesiastes suggest that our work – though in itself it does not endure – our work has the potential of joining God in making Word into human Flesh, of bringing revelation to manifestation. We can’t control the times that come into our lives. We can’t do work that endures. As Ecclesiastes points out, there is always someone to come after us and mess it up (2:18-19). But when we work toward God – whether it is doing dishes or paving streets – we give flesh to Word.
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing
Wait – Time and Eternity: “God has put eternity in their hearts” (3:11). The translation of this phrase into English varies greatly. We have “eternity” and “a sense of past and future”. Well, which is it? The ancient Hebrew language did not have a word that corresponds directly to the English word “eternity”. This word, ‘olam, comes closest. It is a word for lots of time, time beyond calculating. It can refer to great antiquity – distant past, long dead, ancient hills – or to indefinite futurity – “for ever”, “everlasting arms”, “without end”, “redeemed at any time”, “perpetual reproach” (BDB Hebrew Lexicon). It is used in 3:14, “I know that whatever God does endures forever.”

We are locked in time, but eternity is in our hearts. We need to be, to some degree, outside of time. Augustine points out that measuring time necessitates being outside of it. How can you measure the past when it no longer exists? Unless, of course, you are able to step outside of time by means of memory. And, how can you anticipate the future when it does not yet exist? Unless, of course, you are able to step outside of time by means of expectation (The Confessions, Book 11 “Time and Eternity”, chapters 20-21, 26-28).

We are locked in time, but eternity is in our hearts. “God has done this so that we should stand in awe before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). The Biblical term for this is “wait”, “wait on the LORD”. It is not waiting, as in fidgeting in line at the grocery store behind a person who has 7 more items than are appropriate for the express line. It is waiting as in letting go of time and practicing trust. It is waiting in the present, not stuck in the past or the future, because “with you, today is eternity” (Augustine, 11.13.16, p 287). It is waiting that makes us conscious, not of how much we have to do and how little time we have to do it. No. This waiting makes us conscious of eternity and the presence of God (see T. S. Eliot, cited in Davis, 185). Only then do we discover that there is actually enough time for everything that is important in life. Because God has appointed a time, a season, for every matter.
To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of peace, I swear it's not too late
T. S. Eliot writes,
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future
Only through time is time conquered.
(Four Quartets, cited in Davis, 185)
Today we remember and celebrate Holy Baptism. It is one of those special and powerful moments in which eternity overlaps in the present in an intense and personal way. It is an opportunity for each of us to say “Yes” to the presence/present of God in Jesus Christ.

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven
. . . I swear it's not too late
Resources:
Ellen Davis. 2000. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Augustine. Translated by John K. Ryan. 1960. The Confessions. New York: Image, Doubleday, Bantam.

Pete Seeger, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)”

Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon. (Electronic version integrated into Hermeneutika’s BibleWorks).

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