“The Stuff of Life”
January 1, 2017
As we wrapped up 2016 and entered the
first hours of this New Year, I’ve been thinking about time—the stuff of life.
The first page of my appointment book quotes
Benjamin Franklin: “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the
stuff life is made of.”
Now, George Carlin used to have a long
routine about the “stuff” that we had, saying that a house is actually just a
little place for your stuff, just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. And when you leave your house, Carlin pointed out, you
gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your
Even so, with all our
stuff and all our security, we can hold onto the stuff of life—time.
The awareness of time weighs heavily upon
us as a new year begins. Samuel Miller, who, before his death in 1968, was the
Dean at Harvard Divinity School, said: “Time is now! The past is present, and
all the future we shall ever know is present. The narrow alley in which we live
may seem uncomfortably small and precarious, but it is also impenetrably deep
alley in which we live”—what a strange and wonderful image for our times, or
Our time is
accessible only to us—neither those who came before nor those who follow
encounter the distinct opportunities and challenges that we face.
So the author
of Ecclesiastes invites us to open our eyes and look around. To everything
there is a season—a time to rend, to sew, to plant, to reap, a time to be born;
and a time to die, yes, for birth and death allow everything else to happen and
fill us with an urgency to do our work, and love others, and live our lives in
this narrow alley.
We begin to
sense the connection between time and our own finitude. We do well, then, to
pray with the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart
Now this psalm is said to be a prayer of Moses.
And although we today might not think that this psalm originated with Moses,
his story helps us understand the psalm and maybe even gives us a better
understanding of time.
It has been pointed out that the problem Moses
had was time—that is, his time was too short. After leading the Hebrew people
out of slavery in Egypt, after putting up with them and chastising them and
giving them the Torah in the wilderness, Moses died before entering the
Promised Land. And so his story is the human story; his story is our story. As
one person put it, “We always come up short, in terms of time, intentions, and
And yet, if we listen we will hear
encouragement for our own lives in this story. Clint McCann, who teaches at the
UCC Eden Seminary down in St. Louis asks: If even Moses came up short, should
we be surprised or lament when we do? The death of Moses was a reminder that
God, not Moses would lead the people into the land. Our time is not all there is to measure. God’s time is primary and…our time must be measured finally by
So Moses or the unknown psalmist or we ourselves do not ask that God teach
us how tragic and oppressive life is. We would ask with the psalmist to learn
how to accept the gift of our days, however many or few.[ii]
It is in these days that come to us as a gift that we would work and would pray
that our work might prosper.
Here, of course, the author of Ecclesiastes
helps by telling us that we should take
pleasure in all our toil, that we should be happy and enjoy ourselves as
long as we live. After all, when death comes, no one says, “I wish I had spent
more time at the office.” Isn’t this what all the celebrating on New Year’s Eve
points to—the simple enjoyment of being alive in these days, however
challenging they might be.
And this brings us to those surprising words
from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise
people, but as wise, making the most of time, because the days are evil.”
Two things are clear in these words. First,
following in the way of Jesus Christ requires that we use the time we have to
the best of our ability. We receive our life, our time, from God, and we should
be guided by the wisdom that each day is of eternal value and eternal meaning.
Second, we are encouraged to make the most of
time, not because everything is going so well and it’s an opportune moment. We
are encouraged to make the most of time—because
the days are evil.
The unchecked assault on the environment is
resulting in global climate change.
The unchecked greed is resulting in a global
inequality between rich and poor.
The unchecked religious fanaticism is resulting
in global unrest and animosity.
Our time, like all times, is filled with
threats, with dangers, and yes, with what we would call “evil.” We may feel
that we are in a vast wilderness with no Promised Land in sight. In just such
circumstances we are called to live fully, doing justice, loving kindness, and
walking humbly with God. Our task in these days is to give God those works that
might prosper—to create beauty, to be agents of healing, to raise children who
can love as they have been loved, to teach, to generate wealth and share
wealth. All such works matter now in time and will matter continuing into God’s
So in these first hours of 2017, perhaps
we can understand the wisdom of linking Christmas with the coming of the New
Year. No one, of course, knows when Jesus was born, neither the year nor the
date. And the “New Year” comes at different times in different calendars.
But early Christians began marking his
birthday on the 25th of December because of the winter solstice. The
days were—and are—beginning to get just a little longer once more. The light
has triumphed over the darkness. What better time to celebrate God with us in
Jesus? What better time to mark the advent of the one we call the light of the
And now, just a week later, we mark the
start of a new year.
Without our yearly celebration of
incarnation—which continues until Epiphany—that’s always on January 6, but
we’ll celebrate it next Sunday, January 8—without our yearly celebration of the
incarnation, we would be reluctant to go into another year. Each year the
weight of the past gets heavier—the things done that should not have been done,
the things left undone that should have been done. Each year the weight of the
past gets heavier—and so we continue to follow Jesus who tells us his yoke is
easy, his burden is light.
Of course, you know that we don’t just
leave this fading year behind. We can’t. We bring it along as we continue down
this narrow alley. The days pass, one after another, and no clutching will keep
them. Yet they leave their marks upon us, upon our hands and faces, upon the
spirit most of all, and our heart is filled with their voices, laughing and
To lighten our
burden, God calls us always into the living present. Each year, each day is a gift to us from our Creator.
This is the
time in which we are called to live fully. Perhaps another time would have been
easier. But that is not a choice we have been given.
So as the New
Year begins ask yourself the big questions: What am I doing right in my life?
How can I keep that going? What have I done wrong in my life? What must I now
do to make that right? What have we doing right as a society, as a
congregation, as a family? How do we increase that? And what new good are we
called toward in the coming year?
God gives us
life—and time, the stuff that life is made of. Let us make good us of the time
of our lives.
The days are
evil—although sometimes, you know this, don’t you, sometimes they can seem pretty
good. Let us make the most of time, the stuff of life.
[ii] Clinton McCann, Psalm 90, NIB