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For Everything There is a Season

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven;
A time to be born and a time to die,
…a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 4
 

The late, great comedian, George Burns, used to quip, “The first thing I do in the morning when I get up is read the obituaries… if I don’t see my name in the newspapers, I go and make breakfast.” I have found, like a lot of people my age, the older I get, the more I read the obituaries, along with the memoriam section in alumni publications from my college and graduate schools, and also in various Church publications that print the names of clergy who have died. Unlike Burns, I am not looking for my own name, but for the names of friends–and the older I get, the more familiar names I see.
 
Usually, when I come across one of those names, my head starts filling with memories shared. If I was close to the deceased, I will certainly wince and habitually I pray, with thanks, that I knew the person, but also for those loved ones they have left behind.
 
I winced not too long ago when Hank Aaron died. The “Hammer” died on Jan. 22, leaving behind not just an incredible legacy of baseball records, but also a life well lived. Aaron battled his way up the ladder of America’s favorite pastime, breaking not only Babe Ruth’s record, but breaking through barrier after barrier that others had put in his way because of the color of his skin. Until days before his death, he would still talk about a childhood memory when the KKK showed up at his home in Mobile, Alabama, seeking to set his house on fire.
 
Yet, he kept at it until his retirement from the Milwaukee Brewers in 1976. To this day, I remember the one time I got to see Aaron play, during his years with the Atlanta Braves, when my father took me to Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama for an exhibition game. Aaron did not disappoint, which inspired me in my adult years to write him a passionate letter requesting that he sign one baseball for each of my three children. We made a trade. I gave a gift to his foundation, and he came through.
 
Some of you may have read Douglas Brinkley’s wonderful article, “A final interview with Hammerin’ Hank.”[1] Brinkley reflected on the incredible life of this great man. A faithful Roman Catholic, Aaron died in his sleep at the age of 86. He saw it coming. Aaron confessed that it was hard to process the deaths of so many of his friends who were now dead and gone. And Aaron responded, “It is… It’s sad. But I guess in some ways, you know, you come here and you have to leave. God doesn’t expect you to stay all the time. It’s tough. I’m at the age now where anything might happen to me. That’s the way it is.”

I suppose, in some ways, it was Aaron’s version of the well-known verses from Ecclesiastes I have quoted above. If you do not know these words from Scripture, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, you probably will recall the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds that included most of the third chapter of this remarkable poetic book. I am particularly drawn to the song, which was actually written by Pete Seeger in 1959 and then published in 1962–the year I was born.
 
You know, Aaron was right, as was Solomon–there is a time to be born and a time to die. There are sad times and yet, there are happy ones and there are times when we mourn. That is what we experience when we suffer the death of someone very close to us–a major shift in us occurs, our lives are changed, diminished to some degree. It also happens, though to a lesser degree, when we open the paper and read a name of an old friend. What does our faith say to those times? Is that all there is to the story?
 
When I was a kid, we had a large hourglass in our home. I can still remember flipping it back and forth and watching, sometimes patiently–sometimes shaking it back and forth in its pewter stand and watching as the last few grains of sand slip through the bend in the glass. And, well, then I would flip it over and watch it all start again. Our lives are made of all kinds of starts and stops, hellos and good-byes. We bid farewell to backyard play to head off to kindergarten; from kindergarten to grade school to high school–then to career or more school. One career choice means letting go of another, youth gives way to middle age, middle age to older age… and so on. Turn, turn, turn, as the song goes.
 
Yet, then comes that last grain of sand. It could be sad, really sad, if our faith did not have more to say. Some of you know the name Joni Eareckson Tada. At age 17, her life changed dramatically when she dove into a shallow lake and suffered a spinal cord fracture that left her paralyzed from the neck down, without the use of her hands and legs. Lying in a hospital bed, she tried desperately to make sense of the horrible turn of events. She begged friends to assist in her suicide–anything to end her misery.
 
She says she believed in God, but she was so angry with Him. How could this circumstance be a demonstration of His love and power? Surely He could have stopped it from happening. How could permanent, lifelong paralysis be part of His loving plan? Yet, a good friend of Joni pointed her to Christ. He reminded her that Christ suffered and pointed her to the promises of Christ’s companionship in that suffering. That relationship transformed Joni’s life. “Now,” she says, “God has used my accident to help turn a stubborn kid into a grown woman... My wheelchair used to symbolize alienation and confinement. But God has changed its meaning because I have trusted in Him…”
 
Yet, that does not mean there are not still times of sadness for Joni. She has made it no secret that, though Christ has been a close companion in her suffering, there have been times of great darkness and melancholy. She recalls one of those valleys some years ago. It was Easter Sunday and yet, her mind and soul racked with depression, thirsty for hope–for a renewed sense of God’s presence. She went to church, an Episcopal Church (as was her custom), hoping, no doubt, that something said, sung or done in the service would renew her confidence in God. And after the opening of the service, she heard the Celebrant offer the prayer assigned for Easter Sunday–this prayer:
           
Almighty God, who through Thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by thy life-giving Spirit; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord....”
 
And with those words sinking beyond ear to heart, she began to weep. What happened? God’s Spirit fell upon her. In that very moment, she began to have a vision of what rests beyond the grave. She says that she suddenly realized that when this life is over and she arrives at the wedding feast of the Lamb of God, she will first fall down on her knees before Jesus and then, then she says, she will stand–stand on her own two feet, freed from the wheelchair, released from the paralysis of arms and legs, and she will dance.
 
You know, one of the many gifts of our faith is that, in God’s hands, there are no dead ends. Yes, there are times to weep, mourn and even a time to die. Yet, if we trust our heavenly Father, if we allow the grace of His Son, our Lord Jesus, to saturate our lives, then with each ending, God will flip over life’s hourglass, and endings will become beginnings. There will be time to laugh and time to dance. And when the last grain slips through, do not lose hope, for that last turn of the glass comes with an endless supply of life.
 
For at the end, there is a season to be born yet again and go on forever and ever and ever.
 
A Prayer
Oh my God, I believe in thee, do thou strengthen my faith. All my hopes are in thee, do thou secure them. I love thee with my whole heart, teach me to love thee daily more and more. Amen.
 
Richard Challoner, d. 1781
From The Garden of the Soul

[1] Douglas Brinkley, “A final interview with Hammerin’ Hank,” reprinted from the New York Times in The Houston Chronicle, January 27, 2021, p. A-17.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
Rector
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