Life Is Momentary

First, a short meditation.  Please spend a little time and let the words work their magic.

“Life is the space between two breaths.”  Jaya Gautam

“One day, one lifetime” Japanese saying

“Forever – is composed of Nows.”  Emily Dickinson


Now, for the scripture:

“ ‘Meaningless!  Meaningless!’ says the Teacher.  ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.  What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?  A generation goes, and a generation comes but the earth remains forever.’”

Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 (NIV)


“For everything there is a season, and a time for every activity under heaven…”

Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NIV)


I am a “military brat.”  My dad was in the U.S. Navy for 20 years.  His last assignment was at the Naval Air Facility located on Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Mt. Clemens, MI.  One day in June, my brother and I woke up to a wonderment we had never seen.  The world had been covered in mayflies (we called them fishflies).  They wallpapered the outside of buildings and covered streets so completely that they crackled under car tires as they drove by.

I learned later mayflies live their entire life in a day.  For months, they live in the lake as nymphs.  Then in one spectacular day, they burst forth in full adulthood, make love, and die.  In human terms, the mayfly lives a year in an hour, a month in a minute, a week in a second, and their day is a blink of the eye.

Time is at the heart of the book of Ecclesiastes and the author isn’t happy about it running out.  It is a book like no other in the Bible.  It runs contrary to much of what is taught in the rest of Scripture and it’s one of the things I love most about the Bible – sometimes it argues with itself.  

Here’s just one example.  Proverbs 14:11 says, “The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish.”  Ecclesiastes counters in verse 7:15, “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.”

There is a Jewish tradition that says when the sages met to figure out which books would be in the Bible and which would be left out, there was a heated debate about Ecclesiastes.  Many found it offensive and threatening to the faith.  They finally decided to make room for the book and we are the richer for it.  Ecclesiastes’ struggle for meaning is a struggle we all share and I think part of that struggle is how we look at time.

My friend and teacher Rev John surprised me one day when he told me that the Greek language has two words for time – chronos and kairosChronos is chronological, tick-tock-on-the-clock time.  It can be counted, put into schedules that rule our lives, and thought of in the past, present, and future tense.

Kairos is momentary time.  The word pops up all over the Bible with different meanings:  season (as in the time of harvest), the appointed time (“the time has come”), the fullness of time, the right time, the opportune time.  For me, kairos is those rare moments when things click, everything falls into place, and there is a moment of clarity.

Ecclesiastes is grumpiest when he thinks about time in a linear fashion.  He says wisdom is meaningless.  All his studying showed him was how really messed up everything is.  Work was meaningless because one day he would have to hand it over to someone else and who knows what they would do with it.  He found a life of pleasure empty and wealth brought no satisfaction, only an unquenched desire and the fear of losing it all.  We’re all going to die and turn to dust anyway.

But then, a moment of kairos peeks through and Ecclesiastes breaks out into poetry.  Pete Seeger put Ecclesiastes 3 to music in his song Turn! Turn! Turn! and the Byrds scored a number one hit with it in 1965, all a testimony to the excellence of biblical poetry.

In chapter 9:7-10, we get a summary of sorts in poetic form.

Go eat your bread in gladness and drink your wine in joy

For your action was long ago approved by God…

Whatever is in your power to do,

Do with all your might.

(Ecclesiastes 9:7, 10, translation by Rabbi Harold Kushner)

And yet Ecclesiastes can’t quite shake his chronos ways.  Chapter 12 is a lament to aging and death.  I think all of us get caught up in linear thinking about time when we can’t let go of the pain of the past or the worry about the future.

The antidote is kairos, keeping our focus on the moment and what is needed in the moment.  In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes that it is the transitory nature of our existence that gives us meaning.  Every moment is filled with potential and it’s our actions – the choices we make – that becomes reality, “…they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness.  For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything is irrevocably preserved.”

In the book Practicing the Presence of God, we find this momentary awareness in action in the life of Brother Lawrence.   Before he did anything, whether it was cooking in the kitchen or going on a journey to buy wine for the monastery, he went to God and asked for God’s help.  Afterwards he would sit with God to review how things went, thanking God when things went right and learning and moving on when they went less right.

Life is the space between two breaths.  We live a lifetime in a day.  Forever – is composed of Nows.  At any moment, we write the past and create possibilities for the future.


Prayer: Eternal God, help me to be in your presence at every moment, and, when I stray, speed my return.  Amen.

Joe Bulko