The past week has been meaningful, sad, joyous and thought provoking for me. The week began with the burial of a 58-year-old man who died much too soon, continued with the wedding and celebration of a young couple, very much in love and surrounded by their friends, and ended when I “called” Bingo at the local nursing home where my 96-year-old mother lives. As my thoughts and feelings of the events of the week swirled around my head and body, I recalled from my youth the phrase that gives this article its title: “Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity.” This phrase opened every episode of the 1961-1966 television medical drama, “Ben Casey.”
I am sad for the too-soon death, thrilled and happy for the young couple and their friends and family, and both happy and pensive about the residents of the nursing home and the opportunity I have to spend time with them — especially my mother, who has lived a good life, though rough in spots, and continues to give me and many others joy and meaning. I am reminded, again, that life is truly a gift from God, and that God gives us one another: parents, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, children and “double first cousins,” to be our companions on this journey.
As I thought and, yes, prayed about life and our world, the “good, the bad, and the ugly,” I remember one of my favorite Books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians), the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer, Qohelet, “the Preacher,” is as much philosopher as he is theologian, and has wrestled with the same questions as I and many others have. “Why am I here, what is the meaning of life, why do we get sick, why do we die, can we still be happy?”
I share with you some of his answers: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose 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, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to mend; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)
In the burial worship of the Episcopal Church, we proclaim: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382)
Ben Alford is the former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville.