“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NRSV)
I don’t think I really understood Memorial Day until after my father passed away.
It’s not that I hadn’t known the purpose or practice of Memorial Day – indeed, from way back in my days in high school band, through the years I’ve worked as a pastor, I’ve participated in a good many services, ceremonies and parades that have honored the memory of those who have passed away, particularly those who died in service to our country. So I have long understood the great significance of what we do on this particular holiday; it’s just that since Dad died – nearly five years ago now – that Memorial Day became something personal.
I remember calling my mother just before the first Memorial Day after Dad’s passing, and asking her all these questions that had never come up before: what kind of flowers were we going to put on Dad’s grave; about how the stone, that got set just before snow flew the previous fall, weathered the winter and the inevitable frost heaves that happen come spring. And it wasn’t just Dad’s grave that we talked about; Mom also told me about how the shrubbery around my grandparents’ graves needed to be cut back and landscaped a bit. We talked quite awhile about these matters, and I remember at one point apologizing for dwelling on them – it was kind of a somber subject for us to be talking about, after all – but Mom said that was alright, because this is what you do on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day is a time to honor the memory of those we love simply by tending to their grave sites, straightening out and planting flowers – what’s the old maxim that there’s nothing more shameful than an untended grave? And in the process of all that, it’s also time to reflect on all that those love ones have meant to you, and think about all that they taught you by their words and by their very lives – and not so much in a grieving way (although, admittedly, that sometimes is a part of it), but mostly out of love and gratitude and even joy. As obvious as it may sound, much of the importance of Memorial Day is in the remembering!
But Memorial Day is also about time; an awareness of and recognition of time that is passed, time that is spent, and time that is lost. You know, sometimes when I go to a cemetery, I’ll look at the names on the gravestones and be reminded that each one of those names represent a life – of a man or woman or a child; of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, people who were somebody’s friend; people who worked and played and lived out their days; and the point is that these were people, each one of whom had TIME – time to mark and to use and to invest and to enjoy! And I’ll end up wondering how did all these people use the time that they had – did they make a difference somehow? Did they take advantage of the opportunities that came along to do good work, to show love and caring to others, to “teach their children well?” What kind of legacy did they leave with their time?
These are the kinds of things we remember in those we love, especially on Memorial Day. These are also the questions we should be asking of ourselves here and now!
It’s been said that where time is concerned, there are two unfailing truths: that time teaches, and that time will eventually disappear. None of us can accumulate a storehouse of time – not to sound foreboding here, but the fact of the matter is that whether we die far too young or live to 110, each one of us is given only so much time. So what’s important is how we use the time we have, what it teaches us, and, if we’re to correctly understand our faith, how time brings us closer to becoming the kind of true spiritual beings that God intends for us to be.
I’ve always been very fond of the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes – I love how in thirteen or so verses, the writer of Ecclesiastes lists down 28 experiences that are all common to our human experience; and arranged in such a way each one has an “opposite” experience that is just as likely. We are born and we die, we weep and we laugh, we mourn and we dance – every one of us. There will always be times of war, just as there times of peace. Indeed, “for everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn turn), and a time for every purpose under heaven” (What can I say? I’m an old folkie from way back…).
The point is that life does not remain constant; it is ever changing, and to fully appreciate the time we have in this life we have to embrace all of it – the good and the bad, the joyous and the painful, the routine day to day stuff, as well as the unexpected challenges that come out of nowhere. Writer and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says this well – she writes that “the purpose of life lies in learning to enjoy each giddy part, to endure each costly part, to cope with every exhausting part, to learn from every colorless part, to stretch and groan and grow, to milk every single period of life dry.”
How this will happen in our lives is an on-going mystery, no doubt about it. But the good news is that as we seek to make the best use of the time we have, we are not alone in the effort. We have the presence and the power of God, who “has made everything suitable for its time.” (Ecc.3:11) You and I are blessed that even though we so often find ourselves overwhelmed by the swift changing of seasons in this life, God is always there giving us strength and spirit to weather those changes as they come.
I am more and more convinced that there is no wasted time when God is involved! Yes, there is a time to plant and for harvest, time for love and for anger, and a time for peace even when there’s war – this is the stuff of life, as God has given it to us, and we cannot change that. But if we take on all of life with God, then all of these varied seasons become valuable, purposeful and, might I add, the stuff of greatness, the source material for a legacy that will last throughout the years, even when our time is over.
This weekend brings Memorial Day around once again, and we’ll remember those who “have gone on before” – family members, friends, the dear ones who we loved and who loved us; people who made a difference in our lives simply by their being with us. But perhaps we can also take to heart the other side of Memorial Day – the reminder that we still have time; time to love, time to laugh, time to dance, time to live, time to praise God in and through everything that makes up our lives.
As Pete Seeger (and the Byrds) once observed, “I swear it’s not too late.”
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry