‘Tis a Season

“God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

The author of Ecclesiastes, (aka “The Teacher”) provokes us to examine our lives. Today we’re discussing Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, which is actually a poem, and the most well-known part of the book. Seasons in this context aren’t like the seasons we think of regarding weather patterns. Chapter 3 focuses on seasons of life, and the events we encounter, and how our lives are really a series of seasons

In this poem, the Teacher basically lists different events that all humans are likely to experience. All humans are likely to know times of war, and to experience birth and death within families. We will plant and harvest through our vocations. We will build some things and will disassemble other things. Our lifetimes are more accurately marked by the seasons we experience than by just our birthdate. The seasons of our lives are not always predictable, and often the times of season changes are unforeseen. In fact, we can wake up one day expecting everything to be routine like yesterday, and in a moment everything changes.

What does the Teacher in Ecclesiastes have to say to us today? The spiritual journey is a life lived in tension. We enjoy many blessings but being a part of the kingdom of God is not an everlasting spa day. This divine tension is found in balancing the things we are unable to understand with the eternal truths we should always hold onto.

What we don’t know or understand – The “What, When and Why?”

We cannot always predict the what- what season is coming next. We cannot always know the when- when a season may suddenly burst in and disrupt our lives. Things like pandemics, accidents, natural disasters, and medical diagnoses, can come about unexpectedly. Even when we have a hint that something is on the horizon, no amount of imagination can anticipate the dozens of ways a single event can alter every part of your life. Living through a traumatic season will have residual effects throughout the remainder of our lives.

We are living in a season of COVID 19, a pandemic. While some seasons change with the fading out of the old season and the phasing in of the new, some seasons abruptly bursts through the front door and takes its seat right in the middle of our living room, without allowing us time to process it or to plan for it. Now, in 2020, we find ourselves in a season to “refrain from embracing,” (v 5), it’s a time to refrain from congregating, it’s a time to refrain from carelessly moving about in our community, it’s a time of job loss, it’s a time of anxiety, and for many, many people- it’s a time to die.

Not being able to anticipate the what and when of abrupt changes makes us feel increasingly unsettled the more we think about it. We can develop a heightened fear about what may come next, or we “wait for the other shoe to drop.”

The popular author, social worker, and researcher, Dr. Brene’ Brown, speaks about this. She explains that many people develop a mindset of what she calls “foreboding joy.” That’s when you won’t allow yourself to fully experience love and joy because you fear loss. She uses the illustration of a parent looking in on their child sleeping and thinking of how much love they have for the child. As the parent begins to feel the joy of that whole-hearted love, suddenly they imagine how horrible it would be to lose their child. That moment of joy triggers an immediate moment of dread. The fear of loss prevents us from feeling love and joy whole heartedly. In fact, many of us will obsess over that fear of loss, trying to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario. Dr. Brown, who has interviewed thousands of trauma survivors, points out that there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that terrible call, or that dreaded news. When we forbode joy, we waste time that we can’t get back being fearful of loss, instead of freely loving and enjoying our relationships.

We can’t know the “What?” and the “When?” The final thing we can’t know is the “Why?” In my opinion the why is the most haunting question we face. Why does the Lord allow certain things to happen or why doesn’t the Lord step in and fix things? We won’t understand the why because our minds can’t comprehend how God is orchestrating things for everyone involved. Many of us have lived bitter days obsessing over the question “Why?”  My experience has taught me that when you hear someone asking “why?”  about a difficult time, the most loving thing you can do is admit that you don’t know, because you don’t. When faced with someone who is hurting, well-meaning people often will say, “It’s the Lords will,” because that seems like a perfectly sound spiritual answer. That’s the kind of answer that can wrap doubts and messy feelings into a pretty package with a bow on top. But that answer isn’t comforting at all to a person struggling through the most tortured days of their existence. In fact, a response of “It’s the Lord’s will” sounds like a diversion to pivot the conversation toward something more comfortable for the listener. When we’re hurting, we are in tension, and we struggle to find meaning. We need to speak and express our pain. One of the reasons that people are often discouraged from speaking about their difficult feelings is that it’s hard to find someone who is willing to listen and to sit in that uncomfortable space with you. One of the bravest and most helpful things you can say as a listener is “I don’t understand what you’re going through or why you’re going through this, but I know you’re hurting and I’m going to stick with you through it.”

The things we can’t know about seasons of forced change can be haunting, but the Teacher of Ecclesiastes gives us 3 eternal truths that strengthen and encourage us.

The first eternal truth we find in verse 11 is that “God has put a sense of the past and the future in the human mind.” In a different translation it is worded as we have “an awareness of eternity that we can’t comprehend.” Here we go again…. another thing that we can’t understand. No wonder the spiritual walk is a journey through tension because we want certainty without having to depend on anything. I think the sense of eternity is best understood as we have an awareness that we are part of the greater story of God and humanity. We know that our days on earth are numbered, but maybe the work we do or the influence we have isn’t limited by the days we live. The book of James reminds that our life is like a mist, here one moment and gone the next. We all know people who may have passed on, yet they still influence our lives. In the same vein, our influencers had people in their past who influenced them. These are glimpses of how time fits together beyond the days of a human life. This sense of eternity is among our richest blessings, even though we don’t see the full picture. God has invited us to participate in the work of the kingdom that stretches way beyond us.

The second eternal truth also found in verse 11 is that God makes all things suitable for its time. Another translation of the Bible says that God makes all things beautiful in its time. So lets talk about suitability. All things being made suitable in their time is a promise that no matter what season we face, it will be made suitable. It is going to serve a purpose.

So what about COVID 19? What is that suitable for? We don’t know, and that is part of the tension we live in. As much as we like to be optimistic, the data suggests that we’re not near the end of this season yet. Once a vaccine is found and this illness becomes non-threatening, we are still going to have multitudes of people suffering with residuals effects. There will also be decades of grief from the lives lost and there will likely be decades of latent economic effects on many people. Of course, just as with most disease and economic hardship, it will be the poor who will continue to suffer the most long-lasting impact of this pandemic season. Christian author Bob Goff says, “In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted. Not pain, nor disappointments, nor our setbacks. These are tools that can be used later as a recipe for our best work.”

The final eternal truth is found in verse 14 and repeated many times throughout Ecclesiastes. The Teacher reminds us repeatedly, that only the work of the Lord will last. We live in a series of seasons, we gather, we build, we plant, we procreate, we celebrate, our life is full of activity. The only things that matters are the things we do for God, things that have eternal value. Is there anything wrong with enjoying “non eternal” things? No, in fact Ecclesiastes reminds us that there’s nothing better than to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Celebration and enjoyment are gifts from God. But we are quickly reminded that the fruits of our labor, our stuff, our celebrations, won’t be where we find our purpose. Chasing after such things is like chasing the wind.  We weren’t created to accumulate. We were created to be in relationship with God and to love people. I don’t want to limit my legacy to passing on a bunch of stuff. We were created with the image of God imprinted on us. We are equipped to do work with eternal value. The world needs the best of us, not our stuff, we have too much stuff already. It’s ironic that in many places around the globe people die from not having enough, while in the US the leading causes of death can be attributed to our insatiable desire for excess.

In verse 14 we see it written, “God has done this so that we will stand in awe before the Lord.” What that is saying is that in all the things we experience, we are reminded to remain in the place we were crated to be in. Recognizing that God is God and we are not, is the natural order that God set in place from the beginning. It is the safest place for us to dwell. Why are spiritual disciplines important? Activities like prayer, Bible study, stewardship, worship and living in community are where our spirits get exercised and trained. In these holy spaces, our spirits train to be in the posture we were crated to live in. It’s a posture of submission and dependence on God, the posture that the disciples of Christ are called to.

Rejoice in the Lordship of our Creator. We’re not responsible for having all the answers- and that’s great because we don’t know them. We are not responsible for everyone’s health, safety and happiness- and that’s great because it’s beyond our skill set to provide those things. The Lord has woven together a safety net for us. Some of the things that our safety net is woven from is our community, scripture, prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit. That safety net saves us from ourselves.

In these days and always- may we look for opportunities to love and comfort others.

May we discipline ourselves daily- to be centered on the Lord and to be about the eternal work of the kingdom.

As we live in this tension- may find peace knowing God is with us- in all the painful and exhausting places this season calls us to.

Continue reading “‘Tis a Season”

Crying Out

“What have you done? Listen your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)

For people of faith, the story of Cain and Abel is the first place in biblical history where we see the beginning of the pattern that is tearing our society apart today. This pattern of behavior has replayed over centuries and explicitly demonstrates: “What I want is more important that your life.” This pattern is responsible for the holocaust, genocides, worldwide wars and the systemic racism that has plagued the United States since its precolonial days. It’s quite shocking how little life is valued and how easily we have been accustomed to the slaughter of people as being collateral damage. It is particularly disturbing how this is so widely ignored by persons who consider themselves to be people of faith. Most faith traditions believe that life is a sacred gift, but our actions demonstrate that we don’t believe that at all. Being created in God’s image and being precious in the eyes of the Lord seems to be a concept that we teach children so that they’ll have healthy self-esteems, but we don’t carry that belief far enough to impact our social and economic policies.

Cain and Abel were two of Adam and Eve’s children who lived in the Garden of Eden. Their story unfolds in Genesis 4 as both young men present offerings to God. For some reason Abel’s offering to God was accepted and Cain’s was not accepted. We aren’t given the details as to why Cain’s was not accepted, and it would be an exercise in futility to shift our focus on this unknowable aspect of the story. Suffice it to say, there was something unacceptable about Cain’s offering, it was God’s call, we just need to leave it there. Obviously, Cain was disappointed, maybe embarrassed, and mad. God addresses Cain’s anger and says in essence, “Why are you so distraught and mad? If you do the right thing when present the offering, won’t it be accepted?” (The following words we see recorded are particularly foreshadowing and rings with truth and wisdom even today. “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” v 7). The story proceeds and Cain’s anger leads him to murder his brother Abel. The Lord returns to Cain and asks about Abel, and Cain replies with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9). Of course, the Lord knew what had transpired, I think that the asking Cain the question was a test to see if Cain would own up to his action or deny his guilt. After Cain’s unsuccessful attempt to “pivot” the conversation (didn’t work with God then, and still doesn’t) the Lord says, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground!” (v 10). The Lord then confronts Cain with all of the consequences for his actions. Cain’s existence would never be the same. Cain then cries out that he could never bear living with the consequences and that someone would surely kill him because he murdered Abel. Then, the Lord declares that Cain would be able to live out his life and that he would not be murdered as a payback for the killing of his brother.

This story came to me as I was participating in public protest this weekend that was a demonstration against systemic racism and the long history of police brutality against people of color. In fact, as one of the protest leaders was speaking, I actually looked this scripture up and read it because I was feeling so drawn to it in that moment. Let me explain why I think this ancient story is a story that illuminates this current moment.

As I mentioned before, this biblical account is a clear illustration of what happens when we value our interests above the lives of others. Cain presented an inadequate offering to the Lord. The Lord clearly stated, “If you do the right thing your offerings will be accepted.” All Cain had to do was correct whatever the issue was with the offering. He could simply give another offering that was acceptable and receive a blessing from God. Instead of correcting his action, he eliminated someone who made him jealous. I guess Cain thought he would look better if he didn’t have competition, which is absolutely not true. God’s acceptance of an offering has nothing to do with your offering being better than someone else’s offering. God judges our offerings against the spirt in which we present them, other people have nothing to do with it. It seemed that Cain, instead of owning up to whatever his offering lacked, chose anger against his brother instead of confession and repentance to God.

After Cain’s anger led him to murder his brother, Cain was reluctant to own up to his actions. His answer “Am I my brother’s keeper?” seemed like a great way to spin the situation from focusing on the murder that he committed. As humans we love to spin stories, presenting things in such a manner as to divert attention or to present ourselves in the best possible light. This is effective, we see it every day, however, the Lord who always has discerning vision into our hearts doesn’t fall for “spin.” The Lord has been calling out “spin” since before Cain and Able were born. We see the Lord confront Cain about Cain’s actions. “Your brother’s blood is crying out.” Cain was forced to own up to his selfish act that was rooted in the philosophy, “what I want is more valuable than your life.”

Throughout the history of the United States we have been confronted with our self-serving policies that were executed to the detriment of many. It seems like no matter how much evidence is presented there is an unlimited collection of spin to divert the attention from the issues of inequality so that the comfort of the elites (or the “haves”) can be assured. Despite many accounts of the indigenous people helping the settlers, the Europeans killed many, stole land and wealth from the indigenous people and exploited them in the passage of “legislative acts” and “treaties” that were blatantly to the settlers’ benefit. Even worse, the very biased acts and treaties are easily ignored, even to this day, when compliance isn’t financially beneficial or convenient to the country. After the bloody Civil War ended, the reparations promised to the former slaves were quickly reversed after Lincoln’s assassination. The Civil Rights movement which fought to secure legislation to end the economic and social disparities saw this legislation ignored or selectively enforced. And here we are, after another person of color literally had his life squeezed from him, and we, white people, are very uncomfortable. We hope that somewhere we will find the right combination of smoke and mirrors and spin to make this disappear, just like we’ve done for centuries.

To all of us white people of faith- our brothers’ blood is calling out to us and the Lord is saying “What have you done?” While it is very convenient to just get wrapped up and jump on the bandwagon of people who look like us and who say things that we like to believe, we are still confronted by our Creator who in complete love, grace and righteousness is saying, “What have you done?” “What are you doing?” “What are you going to do?” Our preachers, our spouses, our community leaders are not who we answer for, we are being asked about our actions. Dare to research and learn more about the accusations being made by protesters. I recommend resources like the book The New Jim Crow, and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Poor People’s Campaign. Study, pray and ask the Lord for guidance. God didn’t give us a brain capable of understanding and discernment just for us to regurgitate the ideas of our parents or the people in our churches and social circles.

We sit in disbelief at the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Latin America, and other places. We act so taken aback when we hear stories about the murder and hate in the accounts of Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom. I believe that most of us sincerely hope for better circumstances for the people in far away lands. The problem is, we are blind to the pain in our back yard. As an average white person raised in the United States in the 70s and 80s, I wasn’t raised to recognize racism. When things caught my attention there were always pivots and spin to take my attention off the issues. “Blacks are lazy and want to live off the government.” “Mexicans bring drugs into the country and steals our jobs.” I know what white people say when only white people are around. You hear these things spoken usually in hushed tones, but they are still spoken in schools, community settings, churches and of course these ideas are promoted by the media. I’m thankful that I grew up in a family that didn’t speak words of hate against others, but these racial biases were certainly not hard to find. I’m definitely not holding myself up as an example of anything, but my views have changed because I began to learn. I began to be exposed to these issues, and the more I looked the more I saw. There is plenty to see.

One more thing about Cain- let’s talk about the grace at work in this story. It can be argued that Cain “deserved” to die and not enjoy years of life like what he stole from his brother. The Lord didn’t do that, in fact, the Lord made him a promise that he would be protected from murder. Cain really messed up bad, but that didn’t have to be the end of his story. Years later, Jacob really messed up bad, but that wasn’t the end of his story. In the New Testament Peter really messed up bad, but it wasn’t the end of his story. There are usually consequences for our bad actions, but our stories are defined by what we do with the grace we find after our screw ups. What is our answer to the cries of our brothers and sisters whose blood cries out to us from the ground? It’s impossible to wrap our heads around everything at play in this moment of our lives, but I’m sensing that we are stumbling upon a time of grace that is waiting for us just beyond the point when we lift our repentance to the Creator of us all for our apathy.

Because of my faith in God’s grace and power, I know we can do better as a society than we have done. We have a funny relationship with the word repentance. We see repentance as being closely aligned with punishment or manipulation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Repentance is merely “returning to God.” We punish ourselves when we don’t repent because we are willfully keeping ourselves away from the Lord, which is our life-giving power source. This is our moment! Let us repent of our complacency toward social justice. Could it be, just like Queen Ester, that we were created for “such a time as this,”(Esther 4:14)? What a blessing it would be to participate in a time that ushered in a new chapter of understanding for justice and equality for our country, a true season of healing grace. There has been so much pain, so many lives wasted, so much potential never realized, because we were preoccupied by what we wanted instead of the value of human lives. Generations of blood is calling out to us in this moment. May the offering we present to God, our lives, be acceptable. May we not let this moment pass us by.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A1-16&version=NIV