May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
This familiar passage from Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything; that all things have their season, including a time for embracing and a time to refrain from embracing. I never understood how there could ever be a time for loved ones to refrain from embracing until these days.
The time described in this passage is God’s time, not human time. This enlarged sense of divine time is similar to that described in the New Testament, which uses two different Greek words for time. One is chronos, which refers to our familiar chronological time dictated by the calendar and the clock. The second is kairos, which refers to special time that steps outside of the controls of chronos. I’m sure that we have all experienced kairos, when time is stretched and may even stand still. It is when a significant event has happened—often traumatic—and time slows down. We recall second by second replays and everything else fades before the matter at hand. These are extra-ordinary (extraordinary) events that happen outside of daily routines and inside of God’s time, as described by Ecclesiastes 3.
We usually end our reading of Ecclesiastes at verse 8, but I’ve extended the reading for another paragraph because it gives a “so what” to everything having its own time. It suggests to us that we are to enjoy the simple pleasures of life no matter what time you are in. Even in extraordinary times, or “special time” as the Cubans call it, it is still possible to savour the goodness in the simple.
Extraordinary times may also call for an inversion of our practices and values. For the health of our loved ones, we refrain from touch—the very thing that assures our loved ones of our care and presence. It is incredibly difficult in personal care homes to visit and not to touch a hand nor to respond to their outstretched arms. But there is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.
Police officers are responsible for keeping the peace. Yet there are times when protecting life requires them to use lethal force. There is a time to kill, which is anathema to our value of the preservation of life. But in that moment, and only when all else has been tried, the police must discern in a split second that the preserving of life requires the taking of a life. There is a time to kill and a time to heal.
On a larger scale, the mission of our Canadian Armed Forces is to defend Canada and to contribute to international peace and security. In the best of times, they are peacekeepers and do all that they can to deescalate violence. But in extraordinary times, and only when all else fails, they are called to go to war. It is an inversion of the practice of de-escalation and the prioritizing of human life, but there are times when mass killings may be necessary to prevent even more. There is a time for war, and a time for peace.
Never are these inversions of values and practices to be celebrated. Many veterans who served on the frontline of the wars have told me that they will never celebrate the killings. On Remembrance Day, they don’t shout in a victory dance. Rather, they quietly remember the sacrifice of the mental and physical health of the soldiers so that the rest of the world could live peacefully and safely.
Killing should never be normalized. It is an extraordinary response required in an extraordinary time. The moment that time is passed is the moment when killing must end and the value of protection for all human life is restored. If we can’t reclaim these basic values of respect for every single person, then we have betrayed the lives of those who sacrificed themselves for us.
But even within extraordinary times, there are some values that remain constant. These include humility and forgiveness. These values remind us of God’s mercy and love that are without end.
Four-Star Admiral William McRaven just published a book called The Hero Code, which George Nyman recommended to me. McRaven recounts an incredible story of forgiveness within the midst of war’s atrocities. In Afghanistan, his unit had mistakenly identified the compound of a civilian to be the hideout of the Taliban. They attacked it and killed two of the father’s sons and a daughter, along with other people. It was the most gut-wrenching tragedy that McRaven had ever faced. Following Afghan tradition, McRaven prepared to visit the elderly man to offer an apology and bring compensation. McRaven’s translator told him that the man would forgive him. McRaven was incredulous. How would he be able to forgive someone who ordered the slaughter of his family? The translator replied that the elderly man was a devout Muslim. He then explained, “The Quran teaches us the value of mercy. The father will forgive you because it will take away his burden. Not the burden of his loss. Nothing can ever take that away. But the burden of his hatred and anger. Forgiveness is a great gift not only to those that receive it, but to those that give it.” Indeed, after McRaven had given compensation, made a heart-felt apology and asked for forgiveness, the eyes of the father and his eldest son softened. The son then spoke, “We will not keep anything in our heart against you.”
May the grace of God carry the members of the Canadian Armed Forces through extraordinary times and grant them the wisdom of discernment in moments of upheaval. And may God’s grace help all of us preserve the interfaith values of humility and forgiveness. May we not keep anything in our hearts against others.
 Admiral William H. McRaven, The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2021), p. 138-140.