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Like Sands Through the Hourglass
A Fire Communion homily by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 27, 2015

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"Where Did the Time Go?" By C. B. Ortman (Sung A Cappella)
I don't want to slip right through those years
       That some how just slip away.
And somewhere down the road
       I don't want you or me to have to say,
Where did the time go?
       Seems like yesterday …
Where did the time go?
       There's a price too high to pay …
Where did the time go?
       I never felt it slippin' away.
I wrote these words as part of a song over 30 years ago. I never imagined, at that time, that I would ever sing them in such a setting or situation as this. And yet, at this point, my years in the ministry outnumber my 18 years of songwriting and performing by a substantial margin. Talk about the years flying by!

Way back then, besides playing music on the weekends, I was an at-home dad taking care of three young kids. I loved our family and our home. I didn't want to fail in paying attention to any of it. And I surely didn't want to let it just slip away.

My idea when I wrote "Where Did the Time Go?" was that I wanted to live every day, every minute, if possible, as fully as I could. I surely don't always live up to that goal, but it does continue to be what I ask of myself and of my life: living as fully and meaningfully as I can. Still, from my perspective now, it's often impossible to keep from wondering, where did the time go?

Henry David Thoreau wrote about living deeply and sucking the very marrow out of life. George Bernard Shaw wrote:
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It's a sort of splendid torch which I've got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.
The calendar on our computer desktop, the clock on the wall, tell us that we are only moments away from the end of yet another year and on the threshold of a new one. And, even though the New Year is an arbitrary milestone, it is one that has been contrived to help us recognize the passage of time. And so, it is as though we're being handed yet another new, splendid torch, that we might use it to let our lives burn more brightly.

And so I wonder, have you thought much about the year that is closing or this new one whose threshold we stand on? We might take some time this morning to do that together – to consider what has been and what yet might be our lives. I'm not suggesting that we turn our backs on this moment, only that we might best prepare ourselves in being ready for what's next.

Like the sands of an hourglass, so are the days of the year numbered. Just like the days of the year, so are the days of our lives numbered. Much like the sands in an hourglass though, we have no way of knowing what that number – the number of days and years we may have – might be. But unlike the sands of time, we can be intentional, we can make choices about the courses we would pursue in living our minutes in ways that give meaning to our days and our years.

There is a story told by Chaim Potok in his novel My Name Is Asher Lev. The story concerns Asher, the artist as a young boy, walking with his father in the city and coming upon a dead bird. The child asks, "Everything alive would one day be [as] still as that bird?"
"Yes." "Why?" I asked. "That's the way the Ribbono Shel Olam [God] made the world, Asher." "Why?" "So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious."
This new year before you will not be yours forever. Because of leap year, this one will have 367 days, in which the possibility of preciousness awaits your attention, awaits your discovery. Your life, too, is something that will not be yours forever. It, too, is precious. The question is: how precious are you willing for it to be? How precious are you willing to make it?

In my message today I have to claim a major premise that I make here as a personal truth. It is this: I hold that life really is the greatest gift of all. I know that not everyone experiences life that way. For me though, life is what makes all other possibilities possible. I have no need to credit some anthropomorphic being for having bestowed life upon me. But it, life, my life, is something that I did not cause to happen, and it is something for which I did nothing to merit. My life was/is a gift to me and I hope to others – a gift that emerged somehow from this vast universe.

In honesty, for anyone who does not see life as a gift, the value of this message is considerably limited. And so for you, my hope and prayer is that one day you might be able to experience your life as a gift – a time-limited gift – that is truly precious and, that you might fashion of it something of unfathomable and infinitely greater value. And I pray that until you experience life as such a gift, you might have faith that one day you will walk through whatever keeps you from knowing it, so that you might then more fully receive this gift that has been given to you.

All of that having been said, there's no good cause to think that, just because life is a gift, we've been given some easy row to hoe. There is no good reason to think we can just walk around in some idiotic state of bliss because somehow gratitude provides a superhighway to happiness. It might provide a decent map, but it doesn't guarantee the way, and it surely doesn't magically place us there.

We all know – all too well, I suspect – that the way is not often easy. And we know that with or without good maps, we have to find the way ourselves. We might note that paying attention to our lives – to the people around us and to our world – has something, has much, to do with finding our way.

My job is not telling people – telling you – what's good for you. My job is to try to help you remember what you know to be good, and then to cheer you on your way as you go about seeking to fulfill whatever goodness you might. We may well know that we want to live life deeply, sucking out its very marrow. We may well want to be thoroughly used up when we die. We may well want to find the world to be good, and then to leave it better for those who follow.

We may well want to right the injustices of racism, homophobia, eco-cide and other oppressions. We want to live good, meaningful and attentive lives. We may well know what we want, and there are some pretty good maps for helping us get there, if we pay attention.

This morning, here in community, let us be intentional in taking the time to pay attention, so that when we go out from here, that intention to be attentive might linger in our thoughts and even in our hearts. We don't get to determine all or even most of the events of our lives; but by our intentions and attentions we can and will be better able to orient and reorient ourselves in those events.

However many grains of sand, however many minutes, hours, days or years there might yet be in the glass that holds the story of your existence, I wish for you that not a grain of it slips, unnoticed, through your fingers. I hope for you that when you do come to the final end of your time, you might have filled your life to bursting with gratitude and appreciation for the gift that has been your journey. For, even in all its limitations, it will have been... so very, very precious.

As this year comes to its end and the new year begins, may you be keenly, exhaustingly, and fulfillingly aware of life's preciousness, the very preciousness that is you. Ah … there's a good way to turn the wheel, indeed.

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