“Time, flowing like a river, to the sea…till it’s gone forever, gone forever.”
In my high school years I often heard this lyric from The Alan Parsons Project on the radio. It spoke of passing friendships, life, and of course, time. The music was alive with beauty and melancholy. Over 40 years later I can still hear and feel the wonder and mystery mixed with a hint of something like hope.
Yes, because (seems to me), if time means so much as to leave us devastated by its passing, then maybe it has real meaning. Why else would we be devastated? Put another way, there is something in this life, in our very existence that is real in a way beyond us. The fact that life and loved-ones pass leaves us deeply sad, and that is the clue that the moments and relationships really matter.
The ancient writer of that too-easily neglected book Ecclesiastes nails this to the wall over and over. “Life is full and it really, really matters,” he seems to say. “Except.” And the whole world is in that last word. “Except everything you love and work so hard for is lost to you when you die. Someone else will use it and squander it and you will be a bare memory, if that.”
Ugh! Who wants to be reminded of that! And yet, we must if we would seek wisdom. As the author says elsewhere in so many words, “There is more to be learned in the house of mourning than in the house of glee.”
And there is still more. Ecclesiastes offers clues here and there and gives a final conclusive answer at the end. But tucked in the early chapters we are told we have “eternity in our hearts.”
We don’t do eternity well because we are too chained to the here and now. As Neil Postman put it, “We read Time when we should be reading eternity.” Time is a creation, a construct: if you don’t believe me, try to grab it. We place crushing significance in time when it is the thing most slippery in life. Time is so elusive we don’t even know what it is or what it means. Moderns have tried to control it, but it controls us. “Father time never stops,” we are told, and our only recourse is to surrender.
Time will win.
Where does this leave us? In mystery to be sure, for the greatest verities of life are beyond our complete grasp. But I think it leaves us daring to believe there must be something more, something to which time itself is subject. As a Christian I believe this is an infinite, personal God who is himself eternal and has put that eternity in our hearts. That sense of the eternal is what makes us both despise the bounds of time and hope for the something beyond.
Parsons’ lyric of time flowing to the sea is an apt metaphor as far as it goes, but it still leaves empty. What is the sea? Void and meaningless, time lost within it. Where are we? Only material beings bound by time when alive, simply gone when not? What was it that is now gone? What is it that was?
These things always bring me ‘round to what I believe life itself suggests and what C.S. Lewis put so well: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
The eternity in our hearts makes us long for something beyond this world. For me this is the blessed hope at the heart of Christmas, and the grandest reason to embrace the New Year with joy.
Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke where they raised 2 sons. For the last 8 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska. (Yes, there really is a North Pole Alaska . . .)