A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 12, 2014
Ecclesiastes 2:18-23 CEB
Robert Frost’s “The Lesson for Today”
While living in the Northeast, we had several opportunities to visit First Congregational Church of Bennington, Vermont, a picturesque, classic, white-frame New England church which happens to be the oldest Protestant church in the state of Vermont. That church holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. For one, had the timing been right, I possibly could have become minister of that historic church. In 1999, First Congregational Church of Bennington advertised for a new minister. I sent my resume. But about six months passed and I had not heard anything. Then finally the church called, inviting me to come up for an interview. But by that time things had changed in our lives and the timing was not right. Consequently, I had to turn down the offer to interview with them. I have always wondered how things might have gone, had circumstances been different.
Then two and a half years later, we ended up moving a mere 45-minute drive from Bennington. We visited Bennington several times over the next six years. But a second reason that church holds a special place in my heart is because poet Robert Frost is buried in the church’s cemetery. There is a big monument by Frost’s grave, of course. And written on Frost’s monument is the epitaph he chose for himself: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” The line, as has become evident by now, is from Frost’s poem, “The Lesson for Today.” The poem has been described as “not one of Frost’s more accessible poems.” It was unveiled on June 20, 1941, at an event celebrating the anniversary of Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Society. The poem is an imaginary discussion with a medieval scholar. But even though it is not one of Frost’s better or most familiar poems, the last verse of the poem became one of Frost’s most famous lines:
“were an epitaph to be my story,
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
As we read the poem, we see that there is tinge of regret, as the poet realizes that his life and career will soon draw to a close and he has not accomplished all that he had hoped to accomplish in life. He relates how that he had visited a cemetery for the sole purpose of reading the gravestones and comparing the amount of time that different ones had lived.
“…I was only there to read the stones
To see what on the whole they had to say
About how long a man may think to live,
Which is becoming my concern of late.”
And then he continues,
“We all are doomed to broken-off careers…” Hence, a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Some of us, no doubt, can relate to Frost’s sentiment in this poem about having a lover’s quarrel with the world. We may at times feel like we, too, have had or are having a lover’s quarrel with the world because of the troubles that come our way. The world—or daily living in the world—for the most part is a warm, fulfilling, joyous experience. But it is not always so. Sometimes the world can be cold; daily life can be anything but fulfilling and joyous. Prolonged, chronic, day-in and day-out pain; a debilitating or life-threatening illness; being a primary caregiver to another family member who needs constant attention; tragic family or life circumstances that are beyond our control—so many things can happen in life that make daily existence a struggle, that may cause us to have a quarrel with the world. And some people, and some families, seem to have much more than their fair share of troubles and struggles. We can understand why some people feel like crying out at God or at life or at an unfeeling universe: “Why me?” “Why was I chosen to receive all these troubles?”
The preacher of Ecclesiastes had a lover’s quarrel with the world of sorts, not unlike that noted by Frost. With the philosopher of Ecclesiastes, we often bemoan the fact that life is not always fair. The preacher of Ecclesiastes realized that those who are good don’t always reap the greatest rewards in life. But he was wise enough to know that such rewards and troubles are not indiscriminately dished out by God. He realized that chance and fate happen to all in life, regardless of one’s station in life. The same fate can come to rich or poor, the righteous or unrighteous, to kings and paupers alike. In the passage that I read, he bemoaned the fact that one may use his wisdom, skills, and hard work to achieve great things in life, only to die and leave it all to some undeserving person. It’s just not fair! He cried. He had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Then there is another sense in which we may have a lover’s quarrel with the world; and that is when the dreams we had cherished do not materialize. When we are young, we may set out to change the world. Or we may have stellar visions for what we plan to accomplish in the course of our lives and careers.
As a teenager, I had a lofty dream of who I was going to be and what I was going to accomplish, as many teenagers do. But that dream didn’t materialize. Then by the end of my teen years, my life had turned in an entirely new direction and I was drawn to the ministry. Early in my ministry, I attended a lot of ministers’ retreats and conferences. During one of those early retreats, the leader asked us to write down where we envisioned ourselves being five years, ten years, and twenty years. I set some pretty ambitious goals for myself—the size of congregation I would be minister of, the best-selling book that I would publish, and so forth. Well, some thirty years later, it is becoming apparent that those lofty goals I set way back then are not going to materialize either. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would not trade the United Church, Chapel on the Hill, for a one-thousand or five-thousand member church, even if I could. I am quite happy here. I still wouldn’t mind having a best-selling book published, but I am not holding my breath. But the fact remains, the older I get, the more I struggle with the reality that those life goals I set early on likely will not come to fruition. Maybe some of you feel the same way.
Most of us set out as young adults with lofty ideas of what we plan to be and accomplish. But then real life happens. That first baby is born. You take a job, not because it is your idealistic position in the world, but because you have to survive. You struggle to pay the bills, and keep a household going, and meet the life crises that the world throws at you. The truth is, I think, that the vast majority of humanity can identify with Frost and the preacher of Ecclesiastes, in that life is not fair, many dreams are not realized and goals are not met, and the end of life slips up on you and you look back and say, “Where did the time go? And how do I deal with the fact that my life has not gone the way I envisioned it going?”
For whatever reason, we may miss our big chance in life, we may not live up to our best selves, the riches or fame or success we had dreamed of may elude us. We draw close to the end of our days and feel like our lives are incomplete, and such a feeling may result in feelings of regret. Consequently, we may have a “lover’s quarrel with the world.”
But perhaps the real question is, What actually makes for a “successful life”? Is it those lofty goals we may have set for ourselves when we were young? Or those dreams of changing the world? Or of becoming rich and famous?
Or could the standard of a successful life be, perhaps, that at the end of the day you have someone or someone(s) to love you and care for you; that you have friends to lean on who love and support you; that you have a caring community like this United Church where you belong? I am reminded of that line from the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life: “No one is a failure who has friends.” Or could the standard of a successful life be that we are leaving the world a bit better than when we entered it?
Yes, if the truth be known, perhaps everyone has a lover’s quarrel with the world, for one reason or another. Regardless of our situation, we always wish things were a bit different or better. Perhaps a lover’s quarrel with the world is part and parcel of the human experience. The key is to be able to look past our lover’s quarrel with the world and see the good that is there as well. At least that is the way I see it. Amen.