Reflections on Turning Sixty by Bob Bishop

18 11 2013

The phrase “turning 60” brings to mind the face of a clock. One reason is that my youngest daughter gave me a notebook with clock faces on it with a quote from the ancient book of Ecclesiastes for my birthday. This quote exploded in my mind with a haunting song written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950’s. The lyrics were adapted almost entirely from verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music and recorded in 1962 by the Byrds. “To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)…There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)..And a time to every purpose, under Heaven.” It is difficult not to sing it as I write this.

So my mind ventured further. As a math teacher I felt compelled to investigate the significance of 60 in the matter of time. The age old question pierced my thoughts. Why are there 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour and 24 hours in a day? I discovered that there was a rather enigmatic tale of a collaboration of the Egyptian use of sundials to divide a twelve hour day and a twelve hour night, the Babylonian using base 60 in their astronomical calculations and the Greek mathematicians who divided circles into 360 degrees. It has a wonderfully mathematical history interesting to some and accepted by everyone. So we have the invention of the face of a clock circle explained as well as the significance of 60 in the matter of time.
So I have lived 60 years, 219,145 days, 525,960 hours, 31,557,600 minutes or 1,893,456,000 seconds.

That brings us to a story of a couple who had an old grandfather clock in their family for generations. It used to keep perfect time, but lately they had noticed that, instead of going “tick tock tick tock “, it was just went ” tick, tick, tick, tick “,and consequently it had started to lose time. Eventually they decided to take the clock back to the manufacturers in Germany. The clock maker studied the grandfather clock suspiciously, walked up to the face and declared,       ” Ve haf vays of making you tock.”

Clocks have a face but no mouth to talk with. They have hands but do not communicate. We impose personality to Father Time but still time tics away giving no meaning to our lives. Clocks do not give meaning- they only give time. As I return to the circular face of a clock I again see the turning of time. Turn, turn, turn. The hands circle round and round but do not produce significance.

I have an old clock that I wind every week just as my father did years ago. I remember the sounds of the gongs on the hour, the pings on the half hour and the memories of my father. As I look through the scrapbooks of my life that clock appears over and over. Through my childhood, through my middle school years and high school years it was in the background of the photographs. The clock was on the fireplace mantle where Christmas cards were hung. It was also on display at my father’s memorial service. I have significant memories and I give meaning to that clock.
Clocks are tools and like other instruments they have a specific purpose, meaning and significance we give them. But they do not give us purpose, meaning or significance.

Here is a metaphorical example for the use of tools. When you observe a clock you will see that most are round, they have 12 numbers,  they help when you want to be on time, and helps with schedules and appointments. Now take a compass. Notice that it is also round, it has 360 numbers, it helps when you are lost and gives us direction.

A person run by a clock could be seen as one who runs life by patterns, often distracted by the urgent, goes in circles, just turns the crank but winds up nowhere. Consider the idioms about time. We use so many phrases with it. We pass time, waste time, kill time and lose time. We do things in good time and we take our time. We save time and we are right on time. We are out of time. We mind the time. We keep time and we stall for time.

A person led by a compass has a direction in life, runs life by principles, stays focused on the important, and has direction and even sets direction. What comes to mind here is how a compass gave Einstein a sense of wonder. Here is how the story goes. When Einstein was five years old he came down with an illness that forced him to take bed rest. His father gave him a compass – a gift that would change his life. He pondered what made the arrow always point to north no matter where he stood. He shook it up, spun it around and it would still point north. When most people go through their lives with the least thought of the mysteries of the universe, this compass caused him to question. It kindled in him a life-long need to know how nature worked. There is a force in nature, a magic. Nature itself tells us there is much more than what senses cannot explain. This was the first time he experienced wonder. This sense of wonder gave Einstein a sense of direction for the rest of his life. A sense of awe and wonder drives one to ponder as Shakespeare wrote when Hamlet said to Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Returning to a timepiece we find that there are two words for time in the Greek. They are chronos and kairos. Both are Greek words which mean time, but they imply different things. Chronos refers to minutes and seconds like a clock. It refers to time as a measurable resource. It reminds us that we have only so much time in this world. Mitch Albom says in The Time Keeper , “Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”

Kairos is also a word used for time. Kairos means an appointed time, an opportune moment, or a due season. We tend to think of our time in a chronos mindset. We think of having 24 hours in a day. We define our workweeks by the number of hours that we work. We have a list of things to do and only so much time to get everything done. Being conscious of our minutes and seconds is a good thing. Our time on earth is so brief, and we want to be good stewards of every second that we have. We only have such a brief opportunity to raise our kids when they’re still young children. When a friend is experiencing pain, we have a brief window of time in which to reach out to them. Instead of looking at our time as grains of sand slipping through an hourglass, we view our time as opportunities flying by. Instead of viewing our time as seconds ticking by, we realize that not every second holds the same worth. This presupposes meaning and purpose.

Brian Selznick, in his wonderful children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Isabelle and Hugo discusses this high in a clock tower.

Isabelle: I wonder what my purpose is…

Hugo Cabret: Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains take you to           places. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any           extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured           if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for           some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.

For Hugo the giant clock reminded him of his purpose but it did not give him purpose. And such it is when we look for purpose and meaning “under the sun.” (a phrase introduced again in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes). Like a sundial and the silent face of a clock, as well as a calendar or how many birthdays I live–they give no meaning, they only measure time and provoke us to see a higher purpose.

Others have set their sights higher for meaning by looking beyond the endless measurement of time to the vastness of the universe. The tools and instruments are not clocks but telescopes.

We hear from scientists that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. Light reaching us from the earliest known galaxies has been travelling, therefore, for more than 13 billion years. So one might assume that the radius of the universe is 13.7 billion light-years and that the whole universe size is double that, or 27.4 billion light-years wide. The standard picture is that our universe descends from a Bang 13.7 billion years ago. According to scientists, we do not even know whether it is finite or infinite.

The satirist Sci-fi writer Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says “The universe is a very big thing that contains a great number of planets and a great number of beings. It is Everything. What we live in. All around us. The lot. Not nothing. It is quite difficult to actually define what the Universe means, but fortunately this Guide doesn’t worry about that and just gives us some useful information to live in it.”

We gather this smallness and meaningless from the recent film Gravity. We see Ryan Stone hanging in the vast void of space and devoid of God seeking enough reason to survive and bravely overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to return to earth. Here I am reminded of a quote by Ravi Zacharias, “Meaninglessness is the plague of our time.”

But in the vastness of space we can be wowed but miss the music of the spheres, the poetry and mystery of wonder. Does science necessarily lead us down a road that ends in the naturalistic explanation of everything we see? In the nineteenth century, modernism lead us that direction. The “God of the gaps” was finding himself in a narrower and narrower niche. However, 20th century and now 21st century science is leading us back down the road of design – not from a lack of scientific explanation, but from scientific explanation that requires an appeal to something that the tools of science do not deal well with. As a result of the recent evidence in support of design, many scientists now believe in God. Here are a few of these voices:

Paul Davies: “The laws [of physics] … seem to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design… The universe must have a purpose”.

Alan Sandage (winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy): “I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.”

Roger Penrose (mathematician and author): “I would say the universe has a purpose. It’s not there just somehow by chance.”

Robert Jastrow (self-proclaimed agnostic): “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.” (Note: Tipler since has actually converted to Christianity, hence his latest book, The Physics Of Christianity.)

Arthur L. Schawlow (Professor of Physics at Stanford University, 1981 Nobel Prize in physics): “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. ……I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.”

It is strange how the infinity of time and vastness of space impresses people but smallness displays infinity in another direction.

When we replace the telescope of astronomy with the microscope of nuclear physics we ask how small is the universe? It can be said that there are possibly more atoms within that single grain of sand than there are grains of sand on this entire beach.

When we replace the microscope back to instruments of time measurement we approach the question how short of time can we measure. We have moved from seconds to, milliseconds (one thousandth of second), to single digit microseconds (one millionth of a second) and now into the nanosecond range”

Here we are reminded of William Blake’s haunting poem….

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

We are awed that we can explore infinity of the macrocosm as well as the infinity of the microcosm with instruments of science. But tools are made to measure and observe things. They are not to give meaning. We need not bow to the papacy of science. The tools of science compel us to keep asking questions but it will never give us the answers to the deeper questions of life.

As we seek answers to life, as we search for that compass to give direction and wonder, as we desire a kairos purpose in our lives, as our hearts echo the childhood wisdom of Hugo Cabret, as we see that science does not necessarily lead us down the road of atheism, we can ask the deeper questions of life and seek answers for the head, heart and hands. We can seek answers that are intellectually satisfying, answers that fill the desires of our heart, and answers that give us something significant to do.

Just as there are scientific facts to the universe there are also facts and deeper questions that science does not have the instruments to discover.

Fact number one: There is something rather than nothing. We live as though we are real people in a real world. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Fact number two: We can know this universe (or at least part of it). We live as though we can trust our senses and reasoning. Why do we have the ability to know and understand?

Fact number three: People have dignity as well as cruelty. We live as though we have a superior standing in the world and are moral creatures, but we have difficulty living up to this standard. Why do we have a sense of morality, love, and justice?

Fact number four: We hunger for something more. We feel a need for purpose, we have longings to satisfy, we desire challenge, victory, and contribution. Why do we seek beyond what is? Why do we feel like the Hallow Men of T.S. Eliot yet feel unfulfilled at the end of it all…”This is the way the world ends….Not with a bang but a whimper.”? Why are we not satisfied with Macbeth’s utterance, “Life….. is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I remember after my brother died of cancer he left us his car. Not able to sell this car it had just enough energy to drive to the junk yard. Arriving there I traded the car for some cash and asked the attendant what I should do with the car keys. He took the keys and threw them into the junkyard with all the rest of the wreckage. And so it will be with all the so-called scientific keys of life that with a hubris bravado claim they have finally arrived at the answer of life. We have a history full of claims. Again Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.

We seek satisfying and sufficient answers. We desire something greater to live for. We seek not just a life enjoyed but a life with a purpose larger than we are. Deep inside we seek a life non sibi (not for self). Deep inside we desire our finale to have a life well-lived, a life well- played and a life well-told. We will not find these answers or even the correct questions “under the sun” but somewhere else. So at sixty years of age I looked at a clock, face to face, and it served only as a goad for me to seek further.

I close with these words by Frederick Buechner from his book Wishful Thinking,

On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein is said to have asked, “What is the answer?” Then, after a long silence, “What is the question?” Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks. We are much involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow—the immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily at home and at work—but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are really going. There is perhaps no stronger reason for reading the Bible than that somewhere among all those India-paper pages there awaits each reader, whoever he is, the one question which, though for years he may have been pretending not to hear it, is the central question of his own life.




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