It’s not often that passages of the Bible make it into songs that hit the heights of the pop music charts. Many might think of Psalm 137, which was given a reggae beat and became a hit for Boney M as the song ‘By the rivers of Babylon’. But an arguably better known passage became a No 1 for American group The Byrds. Set to a tune written by the folk singer Pete Seeger, the lyrics are taken almost verbatim from Ecclesiastes chap 3, verses 1-8. The song, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, has been recorded by many others, including Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Mary Hopkin, Dolly Parton, Chris De Burgh, The Seekers and Emmylou Harris to name a few.
The words will be familiar, I am sure, but let me remind you of them.
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
New International Version.
I have been thinking about these words over the past few days, after receiving an unexpected message.
The story starts some years ago, when I was working as a prison chaplain. I had to go and tell one of our residents, let me call her Joan, that her son had been killed in a car crash. Giving someone that kind of news is never easy but that occasion was particularly hard. Joan literally crumpled in front of me and wailed with pain. I spent an hour or two with her but eventually she had to return to her cell and stay there, locked up, alone in her agony.
Over the following days I would go back to see if I could offer some support but usually all she wanted was that someone would sit with her while she sobbed. In due course, arrangements were made for the son’s funeral and I helped her apply for permission to attend. It was a three hour journey each way and she was only allowed to be present for the actual service, with no real opportunity to speak to any family members. It seems very hard, but those are prison regulations.
Weeks went by, and then turned into months. And eventually Joan started to talk to me. And the thing that she wanted to know was ‘Why’? Why had her son died? Why then, just when they had started to rebuild their relationship? Why, when he was on the cusp of making his own way in the world?
When I first met Joan she would not describe herself as having any kind of faith. In fact, I don’t think she had ever really given any thought as to what God might be like. But as we talked over those months and then years, she began to ask me why I did the job I did, when it meant having to do such awful things as give people like her bad news. She started probing me about what my Christian faith meant to me, and whether it had helped me through any bad patches in my own life. I was able to share some of my life experiences with her and, whilst I had not had any tragedies on a scale comparable to hers, she could see that my life – like most of us – had not been plain sailing.
In time, Joan began to ask about the nature of prayer. started to read the Bible, began to attend a small fellowship group. She started to talk in ways that suggested she no longer felt alone. Joan was serving a long sentence and as I moved towards retirement she wanted to know who would be around for her to talk to as, having been the chaplain who had broken the news to her, she didn’t feel anybody else would understand her situation. I encouraged her to talk to other chaplains but also said that, if she wanted to, she could write to me and I might even be able to visit her.
The pandemic lockdown came along, so visits were impossible, but we exchanged occasional letters. Then Joan was transferred to another prison, which basically meant that visits were ruled out, but we continued to exchange letters. A few weeks ago she wrote to me and, among other things, said “I believe that talking to God is getting me through the tough time I am going through, and I know that he is keeping my son safe. One day I will join him (not yet though, in the future).” In my reply I encouraged her to keep on talking!
Then came the unexpected message. Joan had died. I wrote to her mum expressing my sadness. Within days I had texts from Joan’s brother and sister and her daughter. Then phone calls. “Why, Michael? Why has she died just as she was beginning to plan for her release? Why did it have to end like this?” And then: “Would you do a reading and speak and pray as her body is laid to rest next to that of her son?”
At the beginning of Ecclesiastes (chap 1:2) the Teacher writes “Utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.” The word comes from the Hebrew for smoke or fog. In other words, it’s not that life has no reason but rather that it’s sometimes difficult to see clearly why something is happening just now. But there is a time for everything. And so I will read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and pray with certainty that Joan’s hope of being reunited with her son will be fulfilled.
Chaplaincy cannot be a neatly defined activity starting at nine and ending at five. The work has to be about those among whom we minister. But, to my mind, walking alongside others as they go through the ups and downs of life, sharing with them, helping them see through a fog more clearly, is a privilege of the highest order. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
By Revd. Michael Page, CWC Trustee