Yes friends, I was the “11 o’clock preacher” Aug. 17 at First Presbyterian Church in Newton, NC.
I spoke that Sunday after our contemporary church musicians performed a wonderful tribute to the Byrd’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
I admit that I have been remiss in not posting this earlier.
Here is my text:
“To Every Thing There is a Season”
Our Old Testament lesson this morning shares the wisdom of King Solomon from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. I will be reading from the King James Version, which many of you recognize as lyrics from the song “Turn, Turn Turn” written by Pete Seeger and recorded by the Byrds in 1966. Listen.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which 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, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
The New Testament lesson is taken from Matthew 6 Revised Standard Version (RSV), verses 25-34. This is found in the New Testament section of your pew Bible on page 6. In this passage, Jesus urges us to set priorities. Listen.
• 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
This is the word of the Lord.
(Thanks be to God.)
It is a privilege to speak to you today. I thank the band and Pastor Steven for arranging this Alternative Worship Experience. You know I remember when I was a teen-ager thinking how neat it would be to use more contemporary music in worship, which shows how good things come to those who wait. Thank you to all who have made this service possible.
I’m bringing this message to you just three days after I marked a significant milestone. I celebrated my sixtieth birthday on Thursday. I know, all this time you’ve thought I was turning forty, or maybe thirty… but it’s true. I’ve turned the Big Six Oh. If you’re lucky, it will happen to you too. Good things do happen to those who wait.
Yes, you heard me right. Good things.
When we step into a new decade, we pause to reflect. We take stock. We see how far we’ve come. But the important thing is we’re alive and able to take stock.
Socrates said in the first century that an unexamined life is not worth living, and I believe he was right. Throughout life, we need to pause and reflect. Is your glass half full or half empty? Is it ¼ full? 1/8 full? Is there any water left at all?
According to the psalmist. A full life is three score and ten, or 70 years. Here’s my glass. (HOLD UP GLASS)
At 60, I’m way past the half-way mark. Way past. It’s reality. It’s just the way it is.
After six decades on this planet you could say that I should’ve learned some truths about life. One is that you can run but you cannot hide. Another is that none of us will get out of this life alive.
When I was growing up I heard a lot of sermons about the dangers of being a short-timer. Since you didn’t know when you were going to die, you should repent and turn to Christ now. And they had a point. We don’t know how much time we have. We should make the most of each day and live it as if it were our last. That is what my Mother told me, But I haven’t listened to her advice as much as I should.
One of the standard check-offs on every school report card was “Uses time wisely.” I thought it was a judgment call that seemed a bit silly at the time. Now I don’t think it’s silly at all.
I’ve wasted a lot of time on frivolous things–on worry, on clothes and appearance, on what others think. Over the years I’ve worried about worn carpet and faded sofas and driving used cars that may or may not start. I’ve worried about not fitting in, not measuring up. That is part of being human though Jesus tells us plainly not to worry about such things, not even to worry about food or clothing.
One refreshing thing about being sixty is that you no longer care about some things like you once did. So when I considered this big birthday coming up, I thought of how to observe it. Would I celebrate or commiserate? Like some friends, I might want to run away, become depressed, dwell on the fact that I am no longer young.
It is true. When store clerks and wait staff call you “sweetie,” or “dearie,” you know you’re in trouble. But on the other hand, there are advantages. Senior discounts. Free coffee. And who among us doesn’t want a good deal?
So, I decided that what I’d like to do is celebrate my birthday with friends, which I did. They knew I wasn’t forty. You can’t fool your friends.
Nor am I fooling God. He knows everything about us. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve said, everything we’ve thought. He has been there the whole time. But He is not a drone or a government spy. He is our Holy Comforter. The Bible tells us that God is with us for the long haul. He will not forsake us. Think about that for a minute. You don’t have to go through life– or death–alone. I know, we’ve heard that before, but have we truly listened? I mean really listened? That’s the best deal going. A God who will never forsake you. Think about it.
So what of being sixty? A hundred years ago, sixty was near the end of the road. Not so anymore. So right there, you have something to be glad about. You weren’t born in the 19th century though in the morning sometime, I wonder as I rise each morning with stiff joints.
But if you’re like me, you are a work in progress and God isn’t done with us yet. I don’t know what my next path will be, but I have to trust God to be there even to the end. What a comfort that is.
Wasting precious time in self-pity should not dominate our time. Life is a precious gift. We should not fill our time with regret and sadness. Those are not appropriate ways to thank God for the gift of life, are they?
My transition to sixty began last summer. I often think of birthdays a few months in advance. This story began in July of last year when I came across the address of a long-lost friend, Anne Halliburton. I had been looking for her a long time. We had lived across the street from one another in Tampa, Florida in 1962. We were both in second grade. She was born Aug. 1, two weeks before me, and we were alike in many ways. We both played piano, we both liked to dress up, and we both liked to write letters. When my family moved to Illinois that following summer, we said we would write to one another. Back then, people actually handwrote letters and sent them in the mail. (You younger people, this is what email used to look like.) (HOLD UP LETTER) This letter came from Anne in 1963.
We grew up a thousand miles apart by exchanging letters, birthday presents and Christmas gifts. We went on to high school and college. We both majored in journalism, we both joined sororities, we were both interested in current events and politics. We were both members of the United Methodist Church. She was the cake cutter at our wedding reception. She worked as an aide for Senator S. I. Hiyakawa of Hawaii. She later ran for a seat in the Virginia State House, though unsuccessfully. By the late 1980s we were busy mothers. And so our 25-year correspondence faded away.
As the internet became a bigger part of life, I would search for her occasionally without results. I had no idea how someone like her could just disappear. Then last July I ran across Anne Halliburton Moore on ancestry.com. Her address was Springfield, Virginia—just outside DC, right where she should be. And I was thrilled to find her.
I wrote her one more a letter.
A few days later our answering machine was blinking. It was a message from a young woman, Meghan Moore, who said she had something to tell me about her mother.
I called the number, and Meghan told me that Anne had died of ovarian cancer in 1997, when she was 42 and Meghan was only seven—the exact age her mother and I were when we began our childhood correspondence. Anne’s husband had raised Meghan and her sister alone. And I learned that not only had Anne died, but Anne’s younger brother and her parents were gone as well. Learning all of this hit me hard because, though I hadn’t contacted this family in many years, they represented part of my past that was now permanently erased.
Why did Anne, a young woman with so much promise, someone with so much to offer die so young? She had two young daughters to raise. She had dreams. Why did God take her? I don’t know.
A few days later I wrote to the Moore family. I found some old letters that Anne had sent me in high school and college, I found some photographs and mailed those as well. This was one gift I could give them that no one else could. And so these old letters became a way for Anne’s daughters to meet their mother as a child and a young woman.
And for the first time in my life, I fully realized how wrong it was for me to resent growing older. Yes, this past week I turned 60. But I have had 18 years that Anne never had. How can I possibly be so ungrateful for having this gift of time? I’ve seen my son grow up. I’ve joined this church, experienced new places, met new friends and enjoyed old ones. I have had the privilege to do so many things that Anne did not.
I don’t share this story to set me apart. All of us have experienced loss of loved ones and we ask the same questions? Why them? Why not us? How are we to go on without them?
Our job is not to know all of the answers. Rather our job is to be open to and accept what God reveals to us, and he does this every day. We must stop and listen and correct course if need be. Fine tune the things we’re doing, make the most of the time we have left, for none of us knows how much time that is, do we?
While I was going through my old letter boxes looking for Anne’s letters, I ran across this diary. (HOLD UP DIARY) Yes, I’ve been a writer for a long time. When I began keeping the diary, “Turn Turn Turn,” the song by the Byrds was still being played on the radio—because it was a number one hit 12 months before I wrote this, my first diary entry on New Year’s Day.
Monday, Jan. 1, 1968.
Snowy and cold. Below zero. Listened to WLS and copied down the top 67 records of 1967 until 2 am this morning. Got up at 10. Saw the last of the Rose Parade. Took pictures with my new Agfa camera. Dad cleaned out the kitchen drain. I saw the Flintstones on TV from Chicago and picked up a TV signal from St. Louis and Terre Haute. I was for Indiana in the Rose Bowl Game, but they lost to USC 26-24. I’ll be glad for school to start tomorrow. I want to be a nurse. I like the Buckinghams and Paul Revere and the Raiders and Herman’s Hermits. (Some things don’t change.) I hope to visit England and Scandinavia someday. I’ve always thought and still feel that 1968 is going to be a truly good year.
Now I don’t want to dishonor the thirteen year old who kept the diary. She wrote some other things too, such as “I hate dumb 8th grade boys.” On one level she was wiser than I give her credit for, but she was so wrong in that first diary entry. Much of it was trivial day-to-day happenings. But much of it was taking stock in the form of a letter to my future self. I never followed sports much. I never became a nurse. I did go to England, but I have never been to Scandinavia.
I know that my former self would be mortified that a 60-year old woman would read her diary, much less mention it in a sermon.
She would be sad to know that so many soldiers in Vietnam would be lost in a war that was never won. She would be sad to learn that Anne Halliburton did not live to see her children grow up. And she would be sad to know that 1968 wasn’t such a good year.
That spring we lost Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. That summer, Chicago erupted in riots during the Democratic convention. 1968 was the peak year for casualties in Vietnam–16,899 young Americans died in service of our country. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In the eighth grade, I was aware of world events at a distance, but like most teenagers I was mainly concerned with clothes, hair styles, grades and boys. I worried about what people said, what was playing on the radio, what was cool, what I would do when I grew up.
I spent a lot of time listening to my radio tuned in to one of only two Top 40 radio stations in our part of the Midwest—WLS in Chicago and KXOK in St. Louis. That’s all there was. Two stations. I wasted precious time listening to the same songs, worrying and imagining things that never happened. And though we look back on youthful diaries as silly, I think God sees us in much the same light. Are we so different than an eighth grader? We adults worry about what to wear, what people will think or say about us, whether we measure up to the society’s standards. We keep world events—especially the messy, ugly ones—at a distance.
Like anxious adolescents, we worry about the future, though as mature Christians we say we know better.
Billy Graham, the great evangelist, offered a comforting thought when he said, “I’ve read the last page of the Bible, and it’s all going to turn out all right.” Why don’t we believe this?
I think it’s because we’re afraid of all the stuff that will happen before the end, though most of the trouble we see coming down the road will hit the ditch before it reaches us.
I don’t know why I’ve been given 60 years of good health, good friends, an affluent family, a caring church. I have been given many blessings that I did nothing to deserve. I should be more grateful that I live in a place that’s free of gunfire and marauding armies. Just as I was a child with a report card, I should use my time wisely. As children of God we should not squander our time, for regardless of the season, we are put on this earth for a higher calling as The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches:
Question Number 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to fully enjoy him forever.
Whether you’re at the beginning or end of your journey—whether you are in the season of planting or reaping or casting away stones or gathering them together, we must remember the wisdom of King Solomon. There is a time to laugh and a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to sow and a time to reap. None of us are guaranteed another day, but all of us should glorify God, the one who guarantees his love even unto the end of time. As Billy Graham said, “Things will turn out all right.”
I don’t claim to be a fraction as wise as King Solomon, but I have learned a few things that I would like to tell my thirteen year old self if I could. They are:
Life isn’t fair.
Try to live thankfully.
Share your time and talents with others.
Don’t put things off.
Be open to the unexpected.
Listen for God’s whispers.
Take time to examine your life.
Cherish what you have, not what you have lost.
Remember that you are a significant link in a long chain of history.
Respect the past but live for the future.
Watch for God’s miracles.
Be involved with something bigger than yourself.
Use your time wisely.
The world of 2014 is far different than it was in 1968, but in many ways it’s much the same. Conflicts dominate the news. We still have troops fighting on our behalf.
“A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
Remember what Christ tells us in Matthew:
33 Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.
34 So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’
So what will you do with the water that remains in your glass?