What "Time" Is It For Us?
By John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
In last month’s newsletter, I offered an article entitled “What ‘Time’ is it for You?” It began with a quote from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes where the writer says,
For everything there is a season and a time
for every matter under heaven:
. . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .
I noted that “time,” as described in these verses, does not have to do with clock time, or calendar time--time that can be measured chronologically in minutes hours or days. It refers rather to an occasion—a moment in time or a series of moments in time or an indefinite period of time (season)—in which a certain response (in this case, grief) is “timely.”
I then made the point that for each of us individually, there are times when we need to take time to grieve following a personal loss, without the need for apology or shame. And these times for the expression of grief may re-occur for many years after a loss.
But throughout those years, and even during the early days after our loss, there will also be times when it will be possible, natural, (and even necessary) to take a break from active grief, and to enter into the joy and happiness of life which is God’s gift even to those who grieve. In other words, a time to laugh and a time to dance!
National Grief and National Joy
This month I want to suggest that what is true for individuals is also true for nations. For the United States then, there are times when we, as a nation, need to “weep and mourn”—together; and there are times when “we, the people, need to laugh and dance”—together.
Unfortunately, we, as a people and as a nation, are not very good at observing either of these times.
Exhibit A: When terrorists succeeded in killing more than 3,000 Americans and destroying the two World Trade Center towers in New York City and a portion of the Pentagon building in Washington DC all on the same day, our national loss was huge and the impulse to grieve, not just as the individuals who observed the attacks in endless replay on television but as a nation that had suffered loss was intense in the face of that loss.
Consider the immensity of the loss, even for those of us who were not connected personally to a friend or relative who died that day. We as a nation had lost our national pride, our sense that we were secure from attack, and our belief that the government with the largest and costliest military force in the world could (or would) be able to protect the American people from a small band of guerillas able to turn our own airliners into bombs and willing to kill themselves and others in pursuit of a supposed righteous, and religious, cause.
But our leaders were neither prepared to admit loss nor to lead us in a time of national mourning. Instead they encouraged us to terminate our impulse to grieve. They got us stuck at the stage of denial. What happened on 9-11-2001 was not a national loss, they said, but only an implicit declaration of war by forces hostile to democracy, forces that we would quickly ferret out and destroy thus converting our loss into gain. We would show the world that America is a winner, not a loser.
Contrast this response with that of the people of ancient Israel, whose devastating defeat by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires are described in the Hebrew Bible. The author of the book of Lamentations, for example, expresses the grief of the nation when he writes:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
But the people of Israel do more that grieve openly. They use their grief as an opportunity for reflection, self-examination, and national repentance. They wonder if their loss is related to their failure to trust in God.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are sick,
because of these things our eyes have grown dim . . .
But you, O LORD, reign forever . . .
Restore us to yourself, O LORD,
that we may be restored.
--Lamentations 5:15-18, 20-21
The people of Israel knew when it was time to mourn. And because of that they would also know when it would be time to dance—when the darkness of their defeat and exile was over and they reconnected again with the God who saves.
I strongly suspect that America as a nation will be able to become great again when it learns the meaning of national grief, and learns how to recognize when there is “a time for mourn.”