There are dog people and there are the rest of people. My family of origin is dog people. My brother and his wife married almost three years ago, and my brother gave a beautiful speech describing his love for his beautiful and talented wife Alexx, but also his love for his dog Chicco, whom he met on the same day he met Alexx, which, I think, was not a coincidence. Chicco, of course, was ring bearer, and kind of co-oficiated with me in the ceremony, giving his own benediction.
Dogs can teach us a great deal about life. This is my dog Rosie, obediently lying down before her birthday bone. What is remarkable about a dog is that they are completely transparent. I can tell you right now that the only thing Rosie is thinking about is this bone. She has no sense of past, or future, or any reality apart from the existence of this, $2 piece of dehydrated meat. She has no idea that this bone has anything to do with her birthday, or that she even has a birthday. And ten seconds after this photo is taken, there will be no thought in Rosie’s head except, “yummy bone.”
You and I, on the other hand, are both blessed and cursed by our ever-present sense of past and the future. You could be sitting down stuffing your face with a delicious, moist, chocolate birthday cake covered in homemade buttercream icing, and thinking about the presentation you have at work on Monday, or the fact that the kitchen chandelier needs dusting, or that you wish your uncle had been able to make it.
Ecclesiastes puts it this way (NIV): “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Ecclesiastes scholar Roland Murphy wrote that this verse is a fantastic statement of divine sabotage. God has placed us in this catch-22. We are mortal; we are limited; our time here is brief, and yet we, alone out of all creatures, have a sense of limitlessness, of eternity. We have a sense of past and future, yet we are also cursed with the understanding that we were not part of that past and will not be part of that future. It all goes back to the trees in the Garden of Eden. Remember them? There was the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge. We ate from the tree of knowledge when we weren’t supposed to, and that act cut us off from the tree of life. So humans have the knowledge of eternity, but we won’t live forever.
What’s the solution? How do we then live? Eat the birthday cake. Live in the moment. The author of Ecclesiastes, traditionally Solomon, tells us: embrace the season you are in. Even hard things, even suffering. Be where you are. Or as Christ told us: Matthew 6:34: So don’t be anxious about tomorrow. God will take care of your tomorrow too. Live one day at a time. (The Living Bible)
The author tells us there is a time for everything, a time for every season under heaven. He begins with our beginning; a time to be born (in Charlie’s case, hopefully not before I can get the car seat installed.) There is also a time to die. He gives us these sets of opposites, telling us, showing us, that even difficult things have their season in God’s design. Our task is to constantly be reminded our mortality, our limitation, and to live totally and fully in the moment, trusting in God to take care of the past and the future.
This means accepting our death, and the death of our loved ones. This passage spends a lot of time talking about grieving and how to give it a proper time. Not only does the author say that there’s a time to be born and a time to die, he also says there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. He also says: Ecclesiastes 3:7, a time to tear, and a time to mend. NIV In that culture, when you grieved, you tore your clothing as a sign of your grief. The author is saying there’s a time for that, and there’s a time to take those torn shreds of cloth and piece them back together. I’ve noticed that in American culture, we expect people to “get over” their grief very quickly. You might get three days off work for the death of a parent or a sibling. This is unique in all the cultures of the world, where people wear black for a year. The fact is that everyone grieves differently, and we can’t expect people to be happy right away. And it’s also okay if some people grieve differently or more quickly than others. I’ve seen in families so much difficulty surrounding grief. People get worried because someone in the family grieves differently. Some men, for example, don’t cry, they just get angry and difficult. But that is their way, and it’s what they need to do. The fact is that everyone does it differently, and the time for you to grieve, or the way that you grieve, might be different from the way that I grieve. The problem comes in when you never sew your clothes back together. When you never dance again. When your grief from one death is holding you back from the births that are surrounding you. One person I care about described grief this way; there’s a hole in your heart. And it will always be there. But over time, new things begin to grow in around the hole. They don’t take it away, but they make it beautiful, they make it liveable. So dance. Let new things grow.
Another important point to the author of Ecclesiastes is that there is a time for working and a time for resting. When the author says, Ecclesiastes 3:5, A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them. He is talking about the rocky fields of the Holy Land, and the task of preparing a field for crops. At one time, you would throw those stones out of the field so you could plant crops. There were also times when you might gather stones to build a wall or a building. The point that the author is making is that you’re really just shuffling stones. In the end, the stones will still be there. The walls you build will one day be scattered. So do your work, but don’t think it will last forever. In American culture, many of us live to work, instead of working to live. We place a lot of value on what we do, instead of how we live, as though our accomplishments will universally live on. But the reality is, we are all little drops in a great ocean. The presentation you have to give on Monday? It won’t change the world. Ecclesiastes spends a lot of time reminding us that everything is meaningless. You may have heard it translated as vanity. In Hebrew, the word is hevel, meaning wind, nothingness, meaninglessness. It doesn’t seem like a very religious sentiment—everything is meaningless. But what the author wants to get across is that our little lives, in and of themselves, are nothing; so we are called to place our trust not in our own accomplishments, not in what we are doing, but in what God has done. Ancient people shuffled stones; you and I might shuffle paper, or install plumbing, or restock shelves. All these things need to be done, and there is a time for them; but the paper will get unshuffled, the plumbing will one day give out, the shelves will need restocking. The stones will be scattered. So, work like a dog. Work for your treat, and then lie down and enjoy it. Don’t stress about the jobs you have to do. Do your work, and then rest. The goal of life is not to finish with an empty inbox.
So is it all really meaningless? Yes, and no. The author reflects, Ecclesiastes 3:12-13: (NIV) I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his toil—this is the gift of God. The divine sabotage, the catch-22, the curse and the blessing, is that we are caught in a time, and that we are aware of eternity, aware of God, aware that we have this gift not to be wasted. Our awareness of our own mortality means that nothing matters—and also, that everything matters. That’s actually the title of a book I read once, a strange and beautiful book, about a young man named Junior who was born with the awareness that a meteor would hit the earth at an exact day and time, destroying all life on earth and making this planet unliveable. He was also, in this novel, a scientific genius. And he was presented with a choice. He could tell all the scientists, all the governments, help them prepare the world for this catastrophe. He could head up a team to try to quickly colonize the moon, and choose a few select people to go there so the human race would live on. He could watch as the world tore itself apart fighting over who would get to go on that ship. He could live through the fighting and the chaos and the pain. Or, he could live his life. He could marry, have a child. He could put his genius to work improving life for the few years that life would be a reality. He could invent underground pumps that would provide whole communities with fresh, clean water. He could, in the end, wait with everyone else, for the end, surrounded by his family, surrounded by love. And that was what he did. At one point in his life, he went to a television interview about his brother, a famous professional baseball player, and his daughter, a famous activist for world peace. And his brother said, “what I’m doing is so small, so unimportant, compared to what my neice is doing.” And only Junior knew that statement was not true. Because everything matters, baseball, and world peace, would both bring people joy in the short time they had under the sun. Our life has meaning because of our death. Life has meaning because we are caught in time. And we only are able to understand that meaning because we have a sense of the eternal. So perhaps God has not cursed us after all. Perhaps God has created, in us, someone who can get a sense of the great, great gift that we have: the gift this passage begins with in verse 1, a time to be born.
Ecclesiastes 3:8 says there is a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 begins with birth, and it ends with peace. At the very end, just after mention of war, the most terrible reality humans can know, comes peace, and that is where we end. Our lives are a short flurry of joy and suffering bookended by the reality of God, the reality of life, the reality of love, the reality of peace. But where would we be without all that comes in between? The fever, the story, the joy and suffering of life, gives that peace so much more meaning.
My family is dog people; we are also movie people. I tend to judge movies by the way they end, by the last scene. My family could recite for you my lecture on how The Dark Night Rises should really have the same ending as Monsters, Inc. But perhaps my favorite ending is in Return of the King by the Christian author J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein begins his epic Lord of the Rings series (the book version, now) by describing to you the Shire, the little home of the Hobbits. “Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people…they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” From this ordinary beginning, Tolkein catapults us into enormous world events, weapons of mass destruction, death and sacrifice and pain and love and war. Frodo, the little Hobbit from the Squire, and his friends, are at the center of it all. When the world has been saved, Frodo finds himself searching for peace, unable to forget the great drama of his story, and so he leaves the Shire to find peace in the Undying Lands. But he must say goodbye to his friends, including his friend Sam, who was his companion through all his adventures, who carried him when he could not go on, who was with him in the deepest part of the earth, when life and death and all things hung in the balance, and the little hobbit was called upon to make the great sacrifice.
Frodo leaves; but I love this scene because it doesn’t end there. It ends when Sam comes home, to his simple hobbit-hole, half hidden in a grassy hill; to his little wife, and their little children, and the stones that must be gathered together another day. And they run and embrace him; and in that moment, as he stands there, holding them, he looks out. And I think in that moment he sees, the vast and terrible story, the horrors of war; all the suffering, the great sacrifice, that has allowed him this moment to hold these people in his arms. He looks out, and sees that everything matters. And he goes into his little house. And he shuts the door.
Without the story, we would see nothing more than a man, coming home to his family. It’s only because we know the story that this moment is filled with meaning. Because we now know that it all matters, the Shire, the children, the stones, it all matters so much. It is all part of this greater story. It’s because of everything in between that we can see the beauty of this moment of peace.
We, as Christians, are called to be like Sam. We know the pain and the sacrifice that has given us the gift of this peace—the greatest sacrifice of love, demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus Christ. We know the story, and so for us, the peace and joy of everyday living is endowed with greater purpose. We, like Sam, are called to look out, and see the vast and beautiful meaning of this simple life, because we know what it cost. We know, then, that everything matters. We are called to share that knowledge with the world, so that others may experience the depth of God’s love and the power of His peace.
“Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NIV: I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.”
May you embrace each season in its time. May you eat, and drink, and find satisfaction in your toil. And, every once in a while, may you look out, and see the beauty of your story, of our story, of The Story, made beautiful because it ends; and may you and then rest our little stories in the midst of the great eternal peace; and, gently, close the door.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.