What Time Is It? A Post-Menopausal Reading of Ecclesiastes 3.
October 5, 2005
What time is it?
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. This year I’m terribly busy so as I sit in the waiting room, I hope that it doesn’t take a lot of my time. I, of course, have to complete the paperwork telling them the same information that I’ve told them for years. As I check off the list, I feel pretty good.
“I’m a healthy woman,” I say 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 year ago and haven’t had hot flashes or anything. And I’m love being rid of “the monthly visitor.” Finally I’m 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 says.
“Good,” I say to myself. “I’ll weigh less.” She weighs me and I start to step off the scales.
“Wait,” she says, “I’m going to measure you.”
Measure me? 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 announces.
Egads! Where did the other half inch go? I’m shrinking!
A bone scan reveals that I’m not as healthy as I thought and two more medications are added to my regimen.
The next day I’m at school and find myself talking to another woman in her 50’s about the medications we are on. My observer self watches this scene in horror. “Jane, what have you become.”
What Time is it?
Look at the clock
Away the hours slip.
What Time is It?
It’s time for me to get to class!
As you may know, I’m not just a teacher now. I’ve returned to the other side of the desk as a student working on my Master of Divinity degree. Meadville Lombard Theological School has agreed to allow me to take my Old Testament class at Georgia Southern. My professor, Dr. Matthew Goff, has assigned a couple of papers for us to do and for the first paper, I’ve decided to do a close reading of the 3rdchapter of Ecclesiastes. I chose this text because it’s often used by Unitarian Universalist ministers in rites of passage ceremonies. In fact, I used a portion of it myself this year in a funeral. 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’ve become very aware that the season of my life has changed.
Now, I’m not going to share with you today, my entire scholarly paper. (For one thing, I don’t have it written yet!) But I do want to share some of the things I’ve discovered and uncovered. First, though, I’d like for you to review this chapter with me. You heard The Fellowship Singers and The Byrds singing Turn, Turn, Turn which is based on the first part of this chapter. Let’s take another look at those words. We’ll read responsively the words from #558 which includes the first 8 verses of Ecclesiastes 3.
(Read responsively 558. Note: This reading includes verses one through eight.)
1: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3: a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5: a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6: a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7: a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8: a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
Now listen as Leon Spencer reads the remaining verses from Ecclesiastes 3 beginning with verse 9.
9What gain have the workers from their toil?10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.
11 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.12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.14I 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.15That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.
16 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.17I 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.18I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.19For 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.20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.21Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?22So 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?
One of the first questions Bible scholars ask about a Biblical work is: Who wrote it?
If you dust off the 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 words 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. But the writer goes further in identifying this philosopher and that’s where Solomon comes in. Listen to the first verse in this book.
“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
So if the teacher was not Solomon, how does one explain that verse and also verse 12.
It begins, “I, the teacher, when King over Israel in Jerusalem….”
When pondering this – I immediately thought of another book often used in rites of passage and that is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Now we know when the Prophet was written and who wrote it. His picture is on the back cover! But Kahlil Gibran does not claim to BE the Prophet. The Prophet is a fictional character that he names Almustafa. As you read this book, you see similarities in Almustafa and other Near Eastern Prophets. And, since I’m very familiar with the New Testament, the content and delivery of the teachings of Almustafa remind me of the content and delivery of the teachings of Jesus. Now Almustafa is not Jesus or any of many other Near Eastern prophets, but Gibran probably wants us to think of him in the same realm. Similarly, I propose that the author of Ecclesiastes can be likened to Kahlil Gibran. This writer chooses to impart ideas, wisdom if you will, to the reader through a character 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 older, he’s pondering what it all means and imparting his ideas to his students.
In the research for my paper, I found someone who has similar ideas to mine about the authorship – In discussing the authorship of Ecclesiastes, Biblical Scholar Michael Fox states:
(T)he author creates for his persona a fictional king based on Solomon. Though he wants us to imagine the persona’s wisdom, power, and prosperity as Solomonic in quantity and quality, he is not trying to make us believe that the author truly is Solomon or to give the book full Solomonic authority. Though this fact evades most commentators, it seems to me clear that if the author wanted us to believe that the author was Solomon he would have called him by that name. . . . The book belongs to the genre of fictional autobiography. (159-160)
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 obviouslyintended by the author. The teacher in the book is 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 earlier, 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. Now our new friend Trent pointed out to me at lunch last week 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
It shows 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
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. 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, when John Ritter died in the middle of last month, my middle aged friend shared that information with me along with the declaration – “I could just drop dead. Really!”
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? Well, in addition to constantly reminding them to “fear God” he states in verse 12 and 13:
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 last week, 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. 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 now have a word 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 at that last visit I was telling you about.
What Time is It?
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.
Adolescence is now prolonged
until age 30.
People don’t feel fully grown up until they are in their 40’s.
The fact that we are taking much longer to grow up and much longer to grow old shifts all the stages of adult life ahead by about 10 years:
40 is what 30 used to be.
50 is what 40 used to be.
60 is what 50 used to be.
She also says that we now have, not one, but several adult lives to be prepared for and mapped out.
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 dohave 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 commode 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. But people are not like commodes. – 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 like they are – especially people. 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. He indicates that you might as well enjoy life — 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 taken 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.
What time is it?
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 around the pedestrium if I’m at Georgia Southern or around the pond if I’m at home. 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 in the evening- I just want to put my feet up and maybe have a glass of wine.
Well, I’ve come to the realization recently that the noon hour has passed for me in my life. I’m not even menopausal. I’m POST menopausal. That means it’s afternoon. Problem is – I’ve been trying to live life at a morning pace. If I’m to have a GOOD afternoon, then I need to slow down – and perhaps even take a break occasionally. And they’ll 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 really enjoy the good things of life. And yet, for me, one of those good things is work. I’m just shifting into a work that means 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. Even the teacher in Ecclesiastes has moved into a new role. He’s done the “king” thing and he hears that clock ticking. So now he’s 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 . . .
I think I hear it now.
So you know what I”m going to do. . .
I’m gong to move my hips with the beat . . . .and declare to you all that. . . .
Hey – It Must Be Time to Dance!
Amen and Blessed Be
Now, in keeping with our efforts to balance our lives, please stand as you are able and join the fellowship singers in singing #354, We Laugh, We Cry, We Live, We Die. We Dance, We sing our song!
© 2005 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
All rights reserved.