Meditation on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
I wrote this nearly four years ago, a few weeks before driving my daughter to college. Today she’s no longer a child or even a teen, but a 21-year-old about to enter the real world of adult dreams and responsibilities. I suspect I’ll have some new thoughts to write down as graduation day gets nearer. But for now, here’s a flashback to my final lay sermon, which I delivered in August of 2013.
To borrow a song lyric from Jerry Garcia, “Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” By “trip,” I’m talking about the odyssey I’ve been on for the past 17 years and eight months –- one that’s about to change its course quite dramatically.
As many of you know, I’m the mother of a high-school graduate who, in just a matter of days, will embark on her own adult journey as a college freshman. She’s not here this morning; I suspect she knew that our current transition would be the jumping-off point for my message to you now. I can just imagine the eye-roll and hear her soft moan. “Oh, Mom…”
Letting my child go off on her own, truly, for the first time, is a huge step for both of us. It’s one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to do. Nonetheless, it’s in the job description of Parent. For the past four months or so, I’ve made a concerted effort to ease us both into the climactic moment when, having moved her safely into the dorms, I will hug her tight, give her a peck on the cheek (or more, if she’ll let me), and drive away, leaving her to her own devices on a 125-year-old college campus in North Carolina.
About midway through this past year, I stopped giving Hanna a weekend curfew. Instead of a strict deadline for her arrival home after an evening out with friends, I gave her a strongly recommended time, then a suggested time, then a range, and finally, the freedom and responsibility to use her best judgment about when to come home. Eventually, I got to a point where I could fall asleep without having to hear her key unlock the front door. You see, at some point — maybe it was in March — I’d had an epiphany. In less than a year, she’d be away on a campus far from home, with no more rules or requests from Mom to constrain or to protect her. Why not let her practice this burgeoning autonomy close to home, by cutting her some slack and in some instances, giving her just enough rope with which to hang herself? I assure you I did not completely unplug — that’s why I love our family cell-phone plan — nor have I ever really stopped worrying. Even when I’m able to sleep soundly through the night, the first thing I look for when I wake up is her set of keys dangling from the hook by the front door — or a text message letting me know she’d decided to stay at a friend’s house.
Standing here before you this morning, I can tell you that this “long, strange trip” has given birth to a kaleidoscope of emotions: joy, sadness, pride, nostalgia, denial, grief, hope, faith. And gratitude.
Like the African proverb says, it does take a village. And as members of this congregation -– this church family — you have been part of the village that raised my daughter. I am grateful.
From the time Hanna was very little and attending Sunday School taught by so many terrific adults, I liked to remind her that there was a love even greater and stronger than my own maternal love for her — God’s love. That the phrase “child of God” is not simply a figure of speech. “See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called the children of God — and we are.”
Even without the prospect of a family member leaving home, the final weeks of summer have always made me wistful. By mid-August, the days have grown a little shorter, the air has become a little cooler, and the pace has quickened, just a bit, in anticipation of the new year. I work at a school, so September, not January, marks the start of a new year.
Every August I’m also reminded of the summers of my own youth, spent on the coast of Maine in a close-knit community called Ocean Park.The family ritual went like this: In June, just after school let out, my dad would drive my mom, siblings and me to his parents’ cottage. Within a few days, Dad would head back to Buffalo to teach summer courses at Niagara University. The rest of us spent a long and leisurely vacation. I can vividly recall playing in the cold Atlantic with my mom, collecting seashells with my brother, biking to Camp Ellis with my sister, reading the Anne of Green Gables books with my grandmother, and eating the juicy, well-done hamburgers my grandfather would cook for us on the outdoor grill.
Dad would rejoin us in late August, and spend a few days in Ocean Park before we all headed home to Buffalo just before Labor Day. Unlike our morning treks to the beach with Gramps, my father’s pilgrimages to the ocean occurred in the late afternoon or even at dusk. One reason for this was very practical — he had inherited his mother’s fair skin and easily burned under the hot sun. But I also think the dreamer (and the world-weary cynic) in him preferred the sunset over the midday sun. Dad favored a rather secluded part of the beach that had many sandbars and very few tourists, which he nicknamed, appropriately enough, The Quiet Waters. I suspect it was one of his favorite places to reflect and to feel a deep connection with the Almighty at a time when he was growing in his adult faith.
Today’s reading, often attributed to Solomon, was written by a teacher living in Jerusalem several hundred years before Christ’s birth. It’s one of my favorite passages from the Old Testament because it deals quite pointedly, and poignantly, with the human condition – expressing the gamut of raw and conflicting emotions tucked deeply and neatly inside calming, rhythmic verse.
For everything there is a season…
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the author’s “description of the human situation is truer than any poetry glorifying man and his destiny. His honesty opens our eyes…”
Indeed, many folks might be put off by Ecclesiastes’ fatalistic outlook. Some may rightfully question its usefulness within the larger context of choosing hope over despair.
Is it possible to have an appreciation for the nihilism of Ecclesiastes, while still believing in a higher purpose and meaning, as demanded by a Christian life?
I say yes.
For me, the poem from Ecclesiastes reaffirms the mystery of God amid the beautiful, banal, tragic, harsh, and sometimes baffling realities of our daily existence. To me, it’s not bleak. It’s life-affirming. The candid affirmations of random circumstance and human limitation create a space in my head and more importantly, my heart, for a deeper, more powerful message: one that speaks of grace and salvation.
Here’s Tillich again: “Only if we accept an honest view of the human situation, of man’s old reality, can we understand the message that in Christ a new reality has appeared.”
Ecclesiastes inspired folksinger Pete Seeger to write a song in the late 1950s, which became a hit for the pop-rock group, the Byrds, in 1965, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Have I got the tune stuck in your head yet? The mid-sixties was a time when, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, so much was changing in our society. As laws supporting racism were being challenged here at home, our involvement in a war on the other side of the world was escalating.
“A time to love, and a time to hate. A time for war, and a time for peace. I swear it’s not too late.” Seeger’s song was popular in the last century, but the words remain relevant. Like the original verses, they are timeless. Think about the political tensions throughout our country, and the continuing bloodshed in Egypt.
For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of helping Mark Aquino and Debbie Katz with Westminster’s confirmation class. We lead the kids in two culminating exercises a few weeks before they are to be confirmed during worship. Each confirmand is asked to produce an individual faith statement. The entire class, working with the three of us, also creates a corporate faith statement. Depending on the individuals, not to mention group dynamics, one exercise can be harder than the other.
For their individual faith statement, most of the confirmands follow a familiar approach: they write a couple of sentences or a few paragraphs, and they often write several drafts. I remember the experience of three students from my very first year as a co-teacher.
The first one, a boy, didn’t want to write his faith statement. Instead, he chose to create a PowerPoint filled with photos of a camping trip with his dad. The slideshow he put together using his own images of the sky, the mountains, the trees, the water, and rocks became a visual prayer of praise to God the Creator. Another confirmand wasn’t so sure she could commit anything to paper. She needed some answers before she could begin to write. So we sat together one afternoon, poring over the passage from Acts about the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost. This girl, both blessed and burdened by her keen intellect, wanted definitions and concrete examples, not a description of the supernatural. Her faith statement ended up acknowledging the role of healthy doubt as part of an evolving, authentic faith. The third student was a girl whose mother had died of cancer just a few months before confirmation. The eighth grader was heartbroken — and furious with God. Several passionate questions were scattered throughout the final version of her faith statement.
Even though it’s usually offered as comfort, I don’t subscribe to the blithely dismissive saying that “everything happens for a reason.” Everything? As a child, I spent too much time in the hospital surrounded by vivid examples of the pervasive unfairness of life. I don’t believe in a cynical or sadistic God that metes out suffering to keep us in line or teach us a lesson. I also don’t believe in a Santa Claus God or a genie God that will grant us our every wish.
We can’t control events or predict the future, despite our most fervent prayers. But that we pray, how we speak to God and what we do still matter. Our motives and actions in accordance with God’s purpose for our lives together still matter.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.”
If I passed out some paper and pens right now, what would your faith statement be? How has it changed since you were confirmed? How will it change as you keep on living?
For me, at this moment in time — as a mother who is both excited and anxious to send her child out into a human world that doesn’t always make sense — I can share this: God is Love, the teachings of Jesus the Christ affirm this Love, and I believe in Love. In joy and in sorrow and even in death, Love endures. By the grace of God.