Sunday, October 10, 2010

What Time is It?


A Post-Menopausal Re-examination of Ecclesiastes 3 (offered the day after my 60th birthday)

Responsive Reading UU Hymnal # 558 in UU Hymnal

There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:

A 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,

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.

Sermon: What Time is It? A Post-Menopausal Re-examination of Ecclesiastes 3.

Tick Tock
Tick Tock
What time is it?
Tick Tock
Look at the clock.
Away the hours slip.

Each fall I take time for an annual check-up. It’s not that I worry about my health – but after all, my health insurance pays for this check-up, and I should get my money’s worth and go. At the time of this particular visit back in 2003, I was terribly busy so as I sat in the waiting room, I was hoping that it didn’t take a lot of my time. I, of course, had to complete the paperwork telling them the same information that I had told them for years. As I checked off the list, I felt pretty good. “I’m a healthy woman,” I said to myself. “Well, except for my allergies, and my cholesterol, and a bit of a stomach problem now and then. But I have pills I take for that stuff. And I made it through menopause just fine. Quit taking those hormones a while back, and haven’t had hot flashes or anything.”

Finally I was called back to the room where the nurse takes your temperature and your blood pressure. She also weighs you. “You can take off your shoes,” she said.

“Good,” I thought, “I’ll weigh less.”

She weighed me and I started to step off the scales. “Wait,” she said, “I’m going to measure your height.”

“Measure my height? I haven’t been measured at the doctor’s office since I was in elementary school.”

“You’re 5 foot, 3 and a half inches,” she announced.

“Egads! Where did the other half inch go? I’m shrinking!” A bone scan revealed that I was not as healthy as I thought and two more medications were added to my regimen.

The next day I was at the University where I taught and found myself talking to another woman in her 50's about the medications we were on. My observer self watched this scene in horror. “Jane, what have you become!”

Tick Tock
Tick Tock
What Time is it?
Tick Tock
Look at the clock
Away the hours slip.

What Time is It? It was time for me to get to class! Since the 70’s, I had been a teacher and a teacher of teachers. But in 2001, I returned to the other side of the desk as a student working on my Master of Divinity degree at Meadville Lombard. My advisor, John Tolley, agreed to allow me to take my Old Testament class at Georgia Southern where I was employed as a Professor of Education. My Old Testament professor assigned some papers for us to do, and for one of them, I decided to do a close reading of the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes. I chose this text because it’s often used by Unitarian Universalist ministers in rites of passage ceremonies. In fact, I used it myself in memorial services. So I thought it would be good to pay a little closer attention to it. And I found that I really had not read it before in quite the same way. Perhaps it was because I had become very aware at that doctor’s office visit that the season of my life had changed.

SO, I’m going to share some of my findings with you here today. Now, I’m not going to share my entire paper. But I do want to share some of the things that I discovered and uncovered back in 2003.

Now you all are probably familiar with the first eight verses of this chapter. Those are the words we used for our reading beginning with “For everything there is a season.” And, the words were borrowed by Unitarian Universalist Songwriter Pete Singer for this song “Turn, Turn, Turn” made famous – back in the day -- by “The Byrds.” But those familiar words make up just part of this chapter in Ecclesiastes. Listen to the remaining verses of Chapter 3 beginning with verse 9.

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, 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; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by. Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?


Amen!??

One of the first questions Bible scholars ask about a Biblical work is: Who wrote it?

If you dust off the Family Bible you have at home and turn to Ecclesiastes, the preface to that book provided by the publishers may state that the book was written by Solomon. However literary analysis has indicated that this work was written much, much, later. The teachings included in this book are identified in the first verse as words of Qohelet - which is Hebrew for teacher or preacher. We get the word Ecclesiastes from the Greek word for teacher.

This unknown writer chooses to impart ideas, wisdom if you will, to the reader through a teacher who can be likened unto another important figure, Solomon. In fact, the author probably wants us to think of someone like Solomon when we read this work - someone who has obtained great knowledge and great possessions in his life and now - as he is growing old, he’s pondering what it all means and imparting his ideas to his students.

So we don’t know who wrote it. But somehow, it made it into the biblical canon. It’s very unusual in some ways that this book made the cut. The book is full of contradictions and, unlike some other contradictions in the Bible; these are obviously intended by the author.

The teacher in the book is clearly a man of great faith in God. He fears God and believes his students should fear God also. But he is a questioning man. He’s a philosopher who has looked at all the injustices in life and questioned how this can be. Yet, he holds onto the faith of his youth. And guess what? He’s somewhat depressed.

Many of us have been there for sure. We realize that life is full of contradictions. And sometimes it does seem absurd. In the passage that we read prior to the sermon, the teacher pairs the positive with the negative in a poem about time. This passage indicates that God has predetermined all. He has set the world in motion so that there are seasons and times for everything. In the teacher’s view, we have no control over this. The good things in life are canceled out by the bad things and it all adds up to zero. Nothing profited.

While doing the research for this paper, I discussed this passage over lunch with Trent, one of our UU friends who practices Zen Buddhism. Trent said that Buddhists like the poetry at the beginning of this chapter because it shows that life is balanced.
A time to weep, a time to laugh
A time to mourn, a time to dance
Balance.

But that’s too optimistic for the teacher in Ecclesiastes. He is the quintessential pessimist. Perhaps he was in the mind of Robert Oppenheimer when he stated that, "The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist knows it."

This teacher thinks in quantitative terms. In fact, the bottom line is profit. In verse 9 he asks? "What gain have the workers from their toil?"

Moreover, he sees God as just keeping us busy and guessing.

Verses10 and 11 state:
"I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."

He also provides us with a little extra humble pie - lest we think we are special. In verses 19-20, He states: "For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again."

Yes – this teacher has come to the realization that - no matter how hard he works and how much he “gains” - - he’s just gonna die anyway. Now all of us KNOW that we are going to die from a very early age. We learned that little bedtime prayer that said, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

What is it about getting older that somehow makes us wake up to the reality of death! It usually happens in mid-life when someone we know or someone famous dies either at a young age or unexpectedly. For example, while I was initially working on this paper in 2003, John Ritter died. And you think – “Oh that could be me.”

The Ecclesiastes teacher had come to the conclusion, not only that he was going to die, but that he was getting old and would not be able to do the same things he had done before. So he encourages his students in this passage also. And what is this encouragement?

Verse 12-13 states:
"I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil."

In our lunchtime conversation, Trent shared with me that he has a Jewish friend who puts it this way: “Enjoy what you can in life and try not to piss off God.” Well, since my theology is not the same as the teacher in Ecclesiastes or Trent’s Jewish friend, I don’t have to worry about that last part. But I do connect in a way with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. I believe we have some things in common. First, we’ve both lived a very productive life in many ways,yet we both suffer setbacks occasionally. Second, the Teacher and I are both anguished about the suffering in the world and the unfairness of it all. And third, we both have come to the conclusion that you should enjoy your life and your work as much as possible.

And there’s another thing: I believe that we are both probably in the same season of life. I obtained a word in 2003 to attach to that season for myself: That word was driven home with all of the literature sent with me from the doctor’s office visit I was telling you about. I’m post-menopausal! Well, maybe now – post post menopausal.

Tick Tock
Tick Tock
What Time is It?
Tick Tock
Look at the Clock
Away the hours slip!

Okay so I’m post-menopausal. But what does that mean today? Gail Sheehy has made a good living out of exploring and writing about the different seasons adults go through on their life journey. Her books about Passages are best sellers. She indicates on her web site, though, that these life stages are changing. Sheehy says: “There's a revolution in the life cycle. People today are taking longer to grow up and much longer to grow old.”According to Sheehy and others exploring adult development, there are some times of life that are more anxiety producing than others. For me, this was the decade of my 40's. And the lesson I learned through those experiences resembles the lesson taught by the teacher in Ecclesiastes. And that is that there are some things we just have to accept. Some things are not in our control. Now I don’t go as far as the Ecclesiastes teacher does with this. His philosophy is very deterministic. As indicated before, the Ecclesiastes teacher believes that God has it all mapped out. However, I believe that we can make a difference. We do have some things within our control and influence. My problem is that I have often wanted to expand that control and influence.

I’m a fixer – a problem solver. This is not a bad characteristic. For example, our toilet in the hall bath was not flushing unless you held the handle down for a five count. I had several options. One was to write a note on a yellow sticky sheet telling everyone to do just that. Another was to call a plumber. And the third was to figure out how to fix it. It took me a while but I figured it out. I just needed to shorten the chain for it to work right again. But people are not like toilets. – well we could take that simile further and see. BUT the point is I realized in my 40's that I would have to accept some things, especially people, like they are.

A book by William Glasser entitled, “How to Take Effective Control of Your Life,” and the first part of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer helped me with this. Those words are:
"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference."
That third line is the hard part and still gives me trouble.

I believe that the advice given by the teacher in Ecclesiastes to his students shows that in his “post-menopausal” days, he had gained a bit of serenity as well. Might as well enjoy what you can --Cause there’s just no need in fretting bout stuff you can’t do anything about.

My dad used to tell me that he never lost sleep from worrying. He said if there was something he could DO about it, he would get up and do it. And if he couldn’t do anything about it – then he might as well sleep.

Well, as Greg can tell you – I’ve took that advice to heart – and so many nights – I’m up working on stuff in the middle of the night. Beats lying in bed awake and worrying.

Tick Tock
Tick Tock
What time is it?
Tick Tock
Look at the Clock
Away the hours slip.

What time is it? It’s time to get up! In addition to sometimes being a nocturnal person, I’m a “morning” person. For most of my life, I’ve awoken early and after a cup of coffee (or perhaps two), I’m off and running. I tend to have lots of energy in the morning hours and I can get a lot done. Then noon hits and I have to take stock of where things are, get a little nourishment, and see what’s left to do. I’ve found that I can still get a good bit done in the afternoon but I sometimes have to take a little break - maybe a power nap or perhaps go for some walking meditation on the rock labyrinth in the woods behind my house. Then I’m ready to move forward. By the time evening comes, I’m ready to relax a little and even put my feet up on the coffee table. Now I can still enjoy my relationship, my work, and my play – I just want to put my feet up and maybe have a glass of wine.

I came to the realization back in 2003 that the noon hour had passed for me in my life. I was not even menopausal. I was POST menopausal. That meant it was afternoon. And now it’s a little later in the afternoon. Problem is – I sometimes still try to live life at a morning pace. If I’m to have a GOOD afternoon, then I need to continue to work on slowing down a little– I’ve gotten a little better since 2003, but it’s kind of hard. Perhaps I even need to take a break occasionally. And there will come a time that I’ll need to put my feet up a little more too.

Like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, I’m getting older and realizing that I need to enjoy the good things of life. And yet, for me, one of those good things is work. I was fortunate to be able to shift a few years back, into a work that means even more to me and I hope to others as well.

And that is what happens when we hit the afternoon of our lives.

If we take that meditative walk or power nap –and take some time to reflect on what’s most important for us to do – we can renew ourselves and move into a time in which we can really do the things that are meaningful. For some that might mean changes in jobs or relationships. For others it means emphasizing new priorities right where they are. But it can be a wonderful time in life. The teacher in Ecclesiastes had also moved into a new role. He had done the “king” thing and he heard that clock ticking. So now he moved on to more important things: teaching and preaching and sharing with others.

Do you ever hear that clock ticking? If you do, that means it’s time to reflect on what’s important and meaningful and what brings joy and passion to your life.

Listen . . . (tick, tock)
I think I hear it now.
So you know what I’m going to do. . . I’m going to move my hips with the beat and declare to you all that “Hey - It Must Be Time to Dance!”

(Sing)
Let it be a dance we do!
May I have this dance with you?
In the good times and the bad times too,
Let it be a dance!

Amen, Blessed Be, and Cha Cha Cha!

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