To everything there is a season,
and a time for every purpose under heaven.
So begins that famous bit of wisdom from “The Teacher,” preserved in one of the Ketuvim (Writings) from the Hebrew Bible. It was written 2300 or more years ago — a long time.
Those words are more likely known as lyrics from a song made famous by The Byrds, but also sung by Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and The Seekers to name a few. It came to mind recently as a friend bid me adieu as she moved away in order to better care for a loved one. For everything there is a season.
It hovers most vividly in my memory as a refrain I uttered in response to a deep sadness in my father. It happened on a sunny afternoon in October, in Northern Michigan, as I was taking down the dock at our family cottage. My dad was in his late seventies, maybe early eighties, and he sat in a lawn chair watching me. A gentle, quiet man of few words, I heard him say, “Gosh, I just hate this.”
I stopped, and looked up from the distance where I stood below the rocks with my legs in the water. “What?” I asked.
“That I have to just sit here.” He pointed to the planks and boards I had already taken up and said, “That was my job for so long…”
His voice trailed off. I could feel his sadness and also frustration more than the icy water surrounding my calves. The only thing I could think to say was, “For everything there is a season, Dad. You did it for a long time and now I am doing it.” Today it sounds so resigned as it echoes in my memory.
To give The Teacher his due, Ecclesiastes is not an expressionless, “whatever.” Nor is it a cynical “we live and then we die.” The Teacher declares dozens of times throughout Ecclesiastes, that all life is “hevel.” Hevel is often translated from the Hebrew as vanity but many think it is better rendered as vapor. “All life is vapor” The Teacher declares.
Embracing that all life is vapor, a diffuse mist we cannot mold or hold onto, we are stepping back with humility. By humility, I mean a kind of awe that suddenly embraces our small place in the order of things rather than seeing all things as pertaining to us. It is the experience of standing alone beneath the night sky in a place where we can see a sprawling canopy of stars stippling the darkness. That kind of humility.
Such humility does not drive us to then grasp for more and more and more, because what else is there? Nor does it send us into depression that there isn’t more. Instead, deep, authentic humility embraces awe and delights in what gifts there are around us. It inspires gratitude.
That is what I wish I had said to my dad back then. Instead of preaching from the words of Ecclesiastes, I wish I had helped him ponder the wisdom of vapor: “Hey Dad, what are the things about this place that you have loved over the years?”