There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
We are about to begin a new year, and it is safe to say we know what will happen in the new year and we do not know what will happen in the new year. In the calendar year 1982, my father lived for one day — actually 23 hours. He died at 11 pm on January 1, 1982. He did not expect that to happen. Nor did his family. We know what a new year will bring, and we do not know.
I love the prayer we prayed together a minute ago. It was written by Thomas Merton.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
What an honest prayer, and what a good prayer to pray as we head into a new year with all its knowns and unknowns.
As we look at these things, what we seek is wisdom, which is the art of living well and making wise choices in life. We want to live wisely in 2013. It is appropriate, then, to turn to the wisdom writings in the Bible, like our reading today from Ecclesiastes.
In Hebrew, the book of Ecclesiastes and its author are both called Qoheleth. He lived long ago and wrote the book we call Ecclesiastes. I love Qoheleth. He and I are old friends. I have read his book often in my life, and I never fail to benefit from it.
There are two kinds of wisdom — traditional and subversive. Qoheleth is subversive. Traditional wisdom, for example, says, “Work hard and you will be prosperous.” This is a lesson parents have been teaching children ever since there were parents and children. But this is not Qoheleth. He says, “Work hard and you will be prosperous. Yes. But then one day you will die, and you will leave your wealth to another, and you do not know if he will be a fool.” Qoheleth is skeptical and believing. He is like Eeyore: “Oh bother. I shan’t expect any good today. Oh bother.”
The most well known thing Qoheleth wrote is this poem we read from Ecclesiastes 3. Pete Seeger wrote a folk song with these words, and The Byrds made it famous. So the words are familiar to us.
I want to draw two words from Qoheleth today that can guide us and make us wise in the new year.
The first word is TIME. We will be given time in the new year. In his poem, Qoheleth uses the word time 28 times, in a series of couplets of different things we can do with our time. We can do this, or we can do that. The choice is ours. Wisdom means knowing that you have been given time, as well as knowing with to do in a certain time.
After the main Christmas Eve service last week, I walked into my office and found Patrick Kaplan there with his newborn daughter Nora. Patrick is married to Adrianne, whom you may know as A.E. Wagley. They have a two month old. When I found them, Patrick had just changed Nora’s diaper, using my office, because as he told me there is no baby changing station in the men’s room on that side of the building. (Which tempts me to put a sign on my office door that says, Baby Changing Station.) Patrick then shared with me his two rules for parenting. Rule One: If your baby is not crying, continue doing what you are doing. Rule Two: If your baby starts crying, go back to doing what you were doing when your baby was not crying. We decided Patrick may write about book about his rules.
He reminds me of the wisdom of Qoheleth. In any situation, it may be a time to do one thing, or a time to do the opposite. I suggest to you that you consider doing the opposite in the time you are given next year. If you usually scatter stones, gather them instead. If you keep things, give them away. If you speak a lot, be quiet more; or if you are quiet, speak more. Consider doing the opposite with your time. Qoheleth and Patrick remind us that we have the choice of doing one thing or the other.
When we think of time, we think of watches and clocks. There is a clock right here by the pulpit to tell the preacher what time it is. But sometimes watches and clocks tell us what time it is, and sometimes they do not. A dad was walking along the beach with his young son, collecting stones and shells and walking in the surf — it was joyful and magical for both of them. The dad looked at his watch and saw that it was 12:30. Time for lunch. Sigh. So they trudged up the sand to the house and had lunch, looking wistfully out the window back at the beach. After lunch they went back to their activity at the beach, but it wasn’t the same. The magic time had passed. The dad realized that his watch had led him astray and taken him and his son away from what they should have been doing. Wisdom means knowing when your watch tells you what time it is, and when it doesn’t.
One last thought about time. Dostoevsky said, “What are months, what are years, when one day is enough to know all happiness.” We’ve been given time so that we may know happiness.
The second word from Qoheleth is ETERNITY. In the prose section after the poem he says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart, yet human beings still cannot understand what God has done.” That last part is typical Qoheleth skepticism. I want to focus on the first part of the phrase. God has set eternity in the human heart. That’s a stunning though. Eternity is in my heart. The Hebrew is ambiguous here — ha olam means eternity, and it means other things too. But rendering the phrase in this was is legitimate, and points to something profound. God has put something vast and spacious and eternal in us. Amazing.
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon living in Virginia. He taught neurosurgery at Harvard for many years. A few years ago he contracted a rare case of meningitis, which attacked his brain and left him in a coma for seven days. His doctors, nurses, and family worked desperately to try to save him, but as the days wore on they had less and less hope that he would survive. During this time, though, his consciousness left his body and went on a journey; he visited a vast, spiritual universe, so large he said it makes our physical universe look like a speck of dust. While there he learned that God is real, that love is the basis of everything, and that he himself was deeply loved. After the seven days, his consciousness returned to his body and he awoke, much to the surprise of everyone at the hospital. He remembered his near death experience vividly and wrote about it in a book called Proof of Heaven, where he uses his scientific expertise to examine his mystical experience.
I think Eben Alexander’s experience is a reminder to us that there is more to us than meets the eye. It is an example of what it means to find the eternity within, as Qoheleth teaches. In physical terms our heart is the organ that pumps and circulates blood throughout the body. In spiritual terms our heart is the very center of who we are, and it is in touch with a vastness, a spaciousness, a beyond that is within. Call it heaven, call it eternity, call it what you will, but it is within us, and it is our deep identity and our true home.
How do you make contact with the eternity within? Do you have to go into a coma as Eben Alexander did? No, thankfully. In less dramatic ways it is possible for us to find the heaven that tugs at our hearts. I often turn to four words that begin with S: silence, sunlight, scripture and song. Listening to silence, standing in sunlight, reading scripture, and singing a song (or hearing one) — these are ways I find the eternity within me. It is critical for me to remember that as I live in time, I also live in eternity. We have a foot in both realms.
At the end of our reading Qoheleth says finding satisfaction in our toil is a gift of God. He is all about the simple pleasures in life. In addition to the simple joys, two other gifts God gives us are these two words from Qoheleth — time and eternity. You are about to enter a new year, and in it God gives you time and eternity. Use these gifts wisely and well.