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Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
This has long been one of my favorite Bible passages. I find comfort in the way the author we know as Ecclesiastes, or the “Teacher,” invokes natural cycles to suggest that there is a rhythm to our lives, as individuals and in community. Like many people, I suspect, I would like to have it read at my funeral. It strikes me as an equally appropriate, if perhaps somewhat unusual, reading for a wedding.
But rereading these words can feel jarring when events in our lives feel “out of season”: loved ones die young, we are unable to gather in the usual ways to celebrate holidays both religious and secular, long-anticipated occasions such as graduations and weddings have to be postponed and/or refashioned in ways that feel less than fully satisfying. Even the weather has seemed out of season lately; we’ve had May days that felt more like March or October.
In those moments, I find comfort in another characteristic feature of the poem: its balancing of (apparent?) opposites. Yes, there are expected seasons and cycles our lives, but all too often they are disrupted: by death (and sometimes by birth), by other losses, by conflict. Like the authors of some psalms, Ecclesiastes seems to acknowledge just how much human beings are buffeted by strong and often contradictory feelings and impulses, how even lives that seem balanced over time can include extreme highs and lows.
Ecclesiastes also seems to suggest the value of living into the moment in which we find ourselves, even – perhaps especially – when it is unexpected or unsettling. Sometimes, when a season is not what we expected or wanted it to be, balance returns in the form of new insight: we are reminded of what we most value, and maybe also realize that some things don’t matter as much as we thought they did. At other times, the rhythm of life feels jagged or entirely lost, and balance elusive. We’re not sure which parts of our lives we should be breaking down or building up, gathering in or throwing away, embracing or letting go. Somewhere in between the lines, Ecclesiastes seems to suggest there’s a time for such uncertainty, too.
For one example of the many ways readers over the years have sought to apply this passage to their own lives in unsettled times, you may want to listen to Pete Seeger’s musical interpretation, sung by Seeger and Judy Collins in 1966: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qURAnrk30ng
Lord, help us to follow your will, even when we are not sure where you are leading, or what your purpose for our lives may be.