At the end of the film, I raised my fists in the air. It was spontaneous, reflexive, exultant. I was speechless. In the six weeks since I’ve been wondering if it might have been the best film I’ve ever seen in a theater. And in the six weeks since I haven’t been able to think of a better one.
Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over a period of twelve years. For a few days each year, he gathered the same cast and crew and shot the next series of scenes in the life of a Texas family. The film centers around a boy called Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six-years-old when shooting began. By the end of the three-hour picture, he is eighteen. Viewers watch him grow up before their eyes, moving from a bright-eyed little boy lying in the grass watching clouds to a gangly adolescent looking for his place to a confident college freshman with a sense of excitement about an open future. Yet despite the film’s title, Boyhood, and the fact that it does center itself on Mason’s experience, it isn’t really about boys. You don’t need to have been a boy to appreciate it. You don’t need to be a parent to be moved by it. You don’t need to have lived in Texas or grown up in the suburbs to get it. Because the film’s subject is more universal. The film is about time. And what it shows so vividly is the movement of time in the lives of every character—Mason, his sister, their parents and friends. And while we each have a vague idea of the passage of time on the small scale of hours, days, or weeks, it is another thing altogether to sit down for a few hours and watch twelve years slip by on the big screen. “Time is but [a] stream,” said Thoreau, “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away. . .” As I walked out of the theater, I had almost no sense that three hours had passed. But for the rest of the day, and for parts of every day since, I have felt the shining quality of particular moments, my mind wakened to them by a director’s twelve years of work.
In his essay on the film, “Making Real What We Cannot See,” poet Dan Chiasson writes that time is the real actor; the people on the screen are simply the media through which it speaks. “Naturalism,” Chiasson says, “is. . .the ultimate special effect.” And while there is a narrative to the film, basically the story of the ups and downs of Mason and his family, it seems of little importance. What we get from the film is time. And questions about how it passes and if we notice. Nowhere is this portrayed more simply than in one of the film’s early scenes. Mason and his family are moving to Houston. As they clean their house before leaving, Mason’s mother stops at the doorframe where they have marked his height every year. She gives Mason a jar of white paint and the boy quietly brushes over the marks with a tentative look on his face.
It isn’t easy to think about the passage of time and it isn’t something that we do very often, caught up in time’s stream as we are. But Richard Linklater’s film suggests that we open our eyes, in a way, to the cycles and seasons, lest they pass unobserved and our lives with them. It is, in a way, a kind of wisdom teaching, which leads us to this morning’s reading from our sacred stories, one of the most well-known passages from the Hebrew Bible and also one of the strangest inclusions in the biblical canon. The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qohelet, is all about the passage of time and the ways that we notice it and puzzle to find some order or meaning in it.
In his excellent study of the wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, professor Robert Alter explains that the perspective of Hebrew wisdom literature is “. . .universalist. It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of. . .right conduct.” The wisdom writers, deeply philosophical in their approach, were searching for ways of being human in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty. They felt the passage of time, the quick movement of cycles and seasons, and they wished to respond by noticing and by living meaningfully and well. The wisdom books bear certain themes in common, but Ecclesiastes stands out for its bleakness. The writer of Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher,” struggles more than the others to find something he can hold. He sees the cycles and seasons, but a larger purpose seems to elude him. In fact, the Preacher is so reluctant to offer comfort that generations of scholars have wondered how exactly this book came to be included in the Hebrew canon and then carried over into our Christian Bibles. One scholar went so far as to call him the Hebrew Bible’s “skeptic par excellence.” So what are his words doing in our Bibles?
Biblical scholar John Barton reminds us that all too often Christians assume that the Bible is a book full of things with which we must agree. We bring to our reading of the text an expectation that it is some kind of “book of right belief” when that is not what it is at all. The Bible is rather “a collection of narratives, laws, poems, aphorisms, biographies, letters, and visions.” Only when we see it as such and begin to free it from the weight of expectation can we ever begin to hear what it is trying to say. Read it without preconceptions, Barton says. Listen to it. And enter into its questions. So let’s listen for a moment to Ecclesiastes.
As we mentioned, the passage we heard this morning one of the most well-known in Hebrew literature. “Everything has a season,” it begins, and then proceeds to offer a beautiful series of poetic contrasts. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. . .a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. On and on go the lines, and most of us hear them and focus on the experiences they describe. We think of our own experiences with birth and death, our own work in the garden planting and pulling, our own times of deep grief and great happiness. Yet these experiences are not actually the point of the Preacher’s reflection: time is. Life’s ups and downs are simply time’s stage. The focus of this passage are the cycles and seasons themselves moving through and circling back in time. This is evidenced by the lines that follow the poetic contrasts. Most churches when they read from this book stop at the end of the litany’s times for this and times for that. But right after, Ecclesiastes poses a stark question. What gain is there in all of this? Put another way, what is the point?
The Preacher in the wisdom book has seen too much to offer an easy answer. His answer is this: Everything has been done in time, God has put this knowledge in our hearts, and yet we really don’t see, we really don’t grasp, what is happening. Who among us really gets the passing of time? The Preacher in the text famously counsels that all is vanity or, in Alter’s translation, “mere breath,” and it is here that we are invited into a kind of conversation. Do we agree with him that all is vanity? Does his weariness and skepticism resonate? Do we share his view that we cannot understand the passing of time or apprehend what is happening around us?
I think many of us might answer yes and no. On the one hand, we may well agree with Ecclesiastes. Of all the things we cannot control, time may be the greatest. It moves without stopping and always will. There is nothing we can do to pause it or slow it, and each of us is pushed or pulled through it without being asked for consent. Every Sunday we gather in this place a week older whether we like it or not. Every Christmas we’re a year older. Before we know it, we’re twelve years older, like the characters in the film, still ourselves but changed.
Yet on the other hand, we may not completely agree with Ecclesiastes. For we do have some control over our time. Not control over its passage, but control over its use. Each of us is given the chance, every day, to wake up, to notice, to seize the shining moments and name them for the ordinary miracles they are. Every week we gather in this place to mark time and to celebrate it. The light streams through the windows. The children grow before our eyes. The ancestors surround us in the churchyard and we feel held in wakeful attention. Through a kind of spiritual practice, we train ourselves over time to notice the passing of time and to give thanks for every day. This is the wellspring of our gratitude, this grounding in what we already have.
In her memoir An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes of coming to terms with time and the spiritual practice of trying to pay attention:
How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself around the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself. . .Too little noticing, though—I would risk much to avoid this—and I would miss the whole show. I would wake on my deathbed and say, What was that?
Dillard may offer the real wisdom here. For we cannot notice everything. But we really must notice some things. And so each of us is encouraged to find ways of waking and watching every day. This may be in church. It may be reading the sacred stories. It may be in prayer, meditation, or yoga. It may be on a walk or in the garden. Or it may be in a time of sadness or illness or one of the other things for which there is a season. But the idea is to pay close attention to the time we have. . .the time that has us.
At Circular, I think that we are as skeptical as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, but not as weary. We never really throw in the towel, though we certainly understand the struggle. Instead, we try and ground ourselves in sustaining spiritual practices, the first of which is gratitude. And on this Harvest Sunday, we come in gratitude for a community where we can be our true selves over time. Whether we are six or sixty, we gather to mark the days, to celebrate the seasons, and to find within them the holiness that lies all around. We offer our thanks for its proximity. And we open our eyes to its beauty.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 92.
 Dan Chiasson, “Making Real What We Cannot See” in The New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014, accessed online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/boyhood-making-real-what-we-cannot-see/
 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), xiv.
 James Williams in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 277.
 John Barton, What is the Bible? (London: Triangle, 1991), 56.
 Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 155.