“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, adn a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 …. as read by Kevin Bacon in the movie Footloose
You may or may not be aware of this, but I have had the longest summer of my life. Graduate school in the States gets out in early May. Germany grad school has winter and summer terms instead of fall and spring, so my first day of school isn’t until October 26. It’s OK, you can hate me. I’m not going to lie, as far as summer vacations go, this one has been fantastic, and I definitely did not take the long break for granted. I danced, I traveled, I hiked, I row-boated, I swam, I worked (a little), and, yes, spent some time mourning and preparing and wrestling (emotionally, anyway). It started with the death of Grandma Bunny, and it came to a close with the birth of Jaxson Wood. It was a season in which all things took place.
Now, I am in this awkward time where I discover that my “vacation” technically continues for a month–though learning German has been a full time job in itself for the past three weeks or so–but the summer season officially came to a close yesterday. I am farther north than I have ever been in my life, and I can tell you that Herbst (Autumn) is creeping in steadily, and on schedule. But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my little summer sabatical, and I found in Ecclesiastes a helpful lens through which to do that.
Everyone knows the passage I quoted above, probably BECAUSE of Footloose. But that poem is actually the lead-in to a slightly longer piece in Ecclesiastes, reflecting on the paradox of humans: We are constantly aware of the past, the future, of all eternity, but we are incapable of living in any time but the present moment. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes affirms that, truly, God is the One and One Alone who operates in all eternity. God’s work is eternal, ours is but seasonal. Beautifully articulated later in the chapter: “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 (3:14-15).” God simply is. God’s work simply is…and FOREVER. As a person of faith, how am I to act and live during my short season on this planet so that I, more often than not, act in concert with God’s eternal work, rather than against it?
It is a paradox, and what I have learned from many great spiritual leaders is that paradoxes can never be resolved–otherwise it wouldn’t be called a paradox, would it?–only managed. Given the resources at my disposal, how do I manage this paradox: I am a finite being, with limited abilities, attempting to fit into an infinite stream of love and justice.
The Arch was erected as a monument to the expansion of the American West. As it turns out, this is what a lot of our monuments–at least the ones west of the Mississippi River–are about. America was destined to be a great nation, and you can tell because of how BIG it is, right? Mabe it’s because I am from Arizona, but I never really appreciated how big a role Western Expansion has played in the formation of our national identity. If our major tourist attractions are any indication, the most American thing about America is that America became a huge country by expanding west, civilizing the native peoples, and inventing new-fangled things that could unite the entire geographic area as one America.
Mt. Rushmore is a memorial of our 4 greatest Presidents, identified as such because of how they fit into this identity. Washington got the whole thing going, Jefferson made expansion possible, Lincoln saved the union, and Roosevelt–via his love of the outdoors–helped ensure that our country would match its solid, moral inner beauty with equal, albeit less important, natural outer beauty. It’s a good story, and if geograhpic area is the only measure we have of a country’s greatness, then we are surely up there with the best! The promise of the great American experiment…we have erected monuments all across our country to this idea as if it is something timeless, something untouchable, something eternal. But…is it eternal? Is it something that is in the past? Does the answer to that effect the way we live right now?
In Nebraska, we visited one of the last remaining Pony Express Outposts. It is a pretty log cabin in a city park in a quaint Nebraska town just off Highway 80. I couldn’t find a picture of that, but here’s one from a little later of me playing in a fountain at a monument called Pioneer Courage (which is actually pretty cool), sponsored by the First National Bank of Omaha.
Now, we won’t go into a whole thing about it, but basically The Pony Express is remembered as one of the signature American ventures. Buffalo Bill Cody, a Pony Express rider in his younger days, took his traveling Wild West Show all over the world and popularized the image of the young Pony Express Riders, a small band of young men who were the first to successfully carry mail from coast to coast within 10 days, as the quintessential American. These young men faced native savages, deadly weather conditions, and through the power of their own endurance rode without stop until their package was safely delivered. They were brave, they were selfless, and strong and adventurous. The Pony Express and its riders, to this day, are thought of as a highlight of American ingenuity and courage. But what you hear about less often is that after 18 months of operation, the invention of the telegram made the wildly expensive and financially insolvent venture irrelevant and it quickly went the way of the dodo. The actual Pony Express was a complete failure on every front–including in its ability to pay its workers–but the legend of it, what it represents, lives on as a powerful and positive symbol of America’s unique place in world history; a place of adventure, discovery, and promise.
All the monuments I visited this summer had to do with this idea of western expansion, carrying with it excitement, promise, creativity, all the things that America wants to be known for; and it is a time that has long since past. These monuments serve to capture a specific moment–a particular season–of our history, and ensure that moment is remembered forever. And that seems to be what we like doing: Taking our favorite moments, and living in them as if they never passed. When we don’t manage the paradox of being finite beings with the capacity to consider the infinite, we confuse seasons with eternity. And, if we ever feel a Terry Jones-type revelation coming on, maybe we would do well to remember that eternity doesn’t just mean “forever,” it also has to mean LARGE. Large enough to contain, not just the good things about America, but also the slavery, oppression, and genocide on which it was built. Eternity doesn’t just contain Mt. Rushmore, but it contains the fact that the Laxota Sioux Indians called that mountain Six Grandfathers before we carved our forefathers on the side. It contains BOTH the failure of the Pony Express and the glorious, inspiring legend that it birthed.
I don’t feel comfortable being the one to say, “Oh, that is God’s eternal work there, but THAT is just a seasonal thing.” It is not for me to declare what the difference is, but thanks to my summer experience, I feel very confident in saying that it is important, at least from time to time, to have faith that there IS a difference. When we aren’t carefully negotiating the paradox of our existence, finite creatures called to partner with God to, momentarily, contribute to the infinite, then we oscilate between the belief that our actions and decisions don’t matter at all and the belief that we are somehow responsible for the success or failure of God’s work. I think when we dedicate ourselves to prayer and contemplation and joy, it is easier to remember that God is God, and we are not. Maybe we don’t have to have the weight of eternity on our shoulders. Maybe it is enough to honestly and openly live in to OUR moment. Between the “good old days” of yesterday, and the potential paradise/apocalypse of tomorrow is OUR moment. What if we erected a monument to NOW in the form of our everyday lives?
Happy Autumn, everyone!