One of the most familiar symbols or depictions of our lives is an hourglass or a sand clock.
The hourglass, sometimes with wings, has been a symbol of the passage of time since antiquity. Perhaps you’ve seen the Latin words tempus fugit on an antique clock.
Tempus fugit or “time flies” certainly describes my life today.
An hour glass consists of two glass bulbs connected vertically by a narrow neck that regulates the flow of sand from the upper bulb into the lower bulb. The specific duration of time that an hourglass measures is determined by the quantity and coarseness of the sand, the bulb size, and the width of the neck. One of the most familiar sand clocks measures the time for boiling an egg—three to four minutes for a soft boiled egg.
Unlike most other methods to measure time, the hourglass vividly illustrates the present moments that exist between the past and the future. With the addition of metaphorical wings, the hourglass is a reminder that human existence is fleeting, and that the “sands of time” will run out for every human life. At birth the top bulb is usually filled with grains of sand—moments of time.
When I study the picture of the hourglass above, I am reminded how little time remains for me. The top bulb in the glass represents the future that awaited me at my birth. It was full—full of potential and of time. I remember how slowly time passed as a child and in my youth. Like a toddler, time crawled. Life was filled with anticipation of events like the first day of school, entering my teens, waiting for a driver’s license and graduating from high school. The sand was slipping through the neck of the hourglass, but there was so much sand left that it seemed imperceptible.
At midlife, turning forty, the sand seemed to be pouring more rapidly, but still there was still so much left in the upper bulb of my sand clock. So much future to enjoy and invest, to plan and dream. But, all the while, the sand kept slipping away. I watched as the 50’s morph into 60’s and 70’s. This July I arrive, if time permits, at the perfect 77. The sand seems to be racing faster and faster; and the mass remaining in the upper bulb seems to be evaporating.
Several recent events have pulled me up short: A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a missionary friend sharing that his wife had lost her battle with cancer. Don and his wife, Ilene, once attended our church in Bend where I was a pastor. They founded and led a very fruitful ministry in the Baja and Oaxaca, Mexico. I felt deep grief at the news of her passing.
Shortly after the above news I received a letter from a woman in Marion, Ohio. Beryl shared that her husband, Charles Reed, had died from congestive heart failure. Chuck, as we called him, and I had served as co-pastors of The Berean Baptist Church in Marion prior to my moving to Oregon to attend Western Seminary in 1978. Over the years we stayed loosely connected with annual letters and occasional visits. Beryl included a copy of Chuck’s obituary from the Marion Star newspaper. Included in the article were two pictures: one of a handsome young man about age 30—Chuck, the young man that I had served with. The other picture was the white-haired older man that passed from this life on March 26, 2021. The picture of the young man represented the top bulb of the hour glass.
There was something about learning that Chuck, one year younger than me, was absent from this body. Chuck was more than a friend but the other member of a team of two young men serving arm-in-arm at a young, vibrant church.
Last Sunday (as I am writing this blog post) I was startled to learn that another dear friend had passed into the presence of Christ that morning. Barbara was a member at Foundry Church in Bend where I had served almost twenty-five years. She had the most gentle demeanor. I first met Barbara after her husband had died and she began attending our church.
Yesterday, I received a phone call from a widow of only a few months. Last year they celebrated fifty years of marriage. She and her husband had also attended Foundry. I attempted to encourage her as she struggles through the early waves of grief.
These four back-to-back reminders of the brevity of life and certainty of death have deeply impacted me. Each painful message of another friend’s death was a vivid reminder of tempus fugit—time flies.
God recently gave me two other timely reminders—not through a personal letter or a phone call—but through His Word. I finished reading through Deuteronomy this morning. The 34th chapter records the death and mysterious burial of Moses on Mt. Nebo (in present day Kingdom of Jordan).
“Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.” (Deuteronomy 34:7–8, ESV)
Last week I completed another reading through Ecclesiastes. I have always loved Solomons’s artistic description of aging and the inevitable dying that we all face. Perhaps as he gazed on an hourglass watching the sand racing from the top bulb into the lower—from the future through present and into the past—Solomon was reminded of the brevity (vanity or emptiness) of life. Note his challenge:
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.… The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, ESV)
Solomon’s challenge remains apropos today: remember our Creator while yet there is yet time because one day we will each stand before God and give an accounting for how we invested the time He placed in our hourglass.
Today, as I reflect on how silently-how rapidly- the grains of sand in my hour glass are passing, I am called up short. I want to finish strongly. I don’t plan to see 120 years like Moses, nor is my physical strength or eyesight comparable to Moses, but I want to seize each passing moment in this race called life.
Wherever you find yourself today, whether you are young and the top bulb of your sand clock appears to be almost full, or almost empty, now is the time to reflect on how you want to invest the time remaining. Now is the time to anticipate the finish line.
Are there broken relationships that need reconciled? Now is the time! Is there an important task that needs to be moved to the front burner? Now is the time.
We live in that narrow neck between past and future where the sand is racing.
Moses, writing in his old age, put it like this:
“The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:10–12, ESV)