There is a saying, you could even maybe call it a proverb, that says that the reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once. Sometimes, when you look back at certain times in your life it feels that everything is happening at once. Other times, you may look and wonder if anything is really happening in your life at all.
Christmas Day was one of those times where it seemed everything was happening at once. We were trying to celebrate Christmas, we had our 7am Christmas service at the church, Lisa’s parents were arriving in the evening, and Bronte chose this day and this time to come down with her first stomach flu. It was not pretty, and it was not great timing at all. We had about three or four Christmas themed outfits that we kept changing her into after she vomited on the one before. It took us a while to figure out that we were dealing with more than a little spit-up. We would put her in an outfit and we’d head back under the tree to play with presents with her and next thing we knew, we’d need to find another outfit for her. I guess the reason we didn’t catch on right away was that Bronte wasn’t acting sick at all, she was her usual, cheery, smiley self so we figured she couldn’t really be sick. She didn’t begin to act sick until the next morning.
I ended up spending a chunk of the afternoon on Christmas Day driving around Storm Lake looking for something that might be open so that I could get some Pedialyte, a water with electrolytes in it, basically Gatorade for babies, which the Emergency Room nurse suggested we feed her. Of course, since it was Christmas Day, nothing at all was open and so I eventually found myself at the Emergency Room begging them for some Pedialyte to get us through the night. They were very gracious and did that very thing for us, truly saving us from having to bring Bronte to the hospital to keep her from dehydrating.
Bronte’s first sickness was not exactly fun for us and it clearly wasn’t fun for her, but it wasn’t a horrible crisis either. We are thankful that things weren’t any worse. But the whole experience reminded me how time works. It reminded me that we can have the best laid plans and be all set up to do what it is that we are planning to do, and then something will happen that will change everything. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that there are different times in our lives, different seasons. It tells us there are times to love, celebrate, plant, heal, dance and mend. But there are also times to hate, die, mourn, weep, tear down and even (though it doesn’t say it in these words) be sick.
We are in the middle of the Christmas Season. We are celebrating the incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. And we are also celebrating the turning of the year: the ending of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. What season are you in? And what are you going to do with the season that you are in? We can learn from the author of Ecclesiastes, that we can accept the season we are living through and find ways to thrive in it, for everything that God puts before us, no matter how difficult and trying it may be, is there to strengthen us and help us through.
I. The Problem with Prosperity Gospel
I must admit that I continue to struggle with people who say that if you are a Christian, then nothing bad will ever happen to you. This message, which is quite vocally preached in some Christian circles, tells us that we are called to live victoriously as Christians and therefore if there are any problems in our lives, we are doing something wrong with our faith. This message comes from an understanding of the faith that I’m not terribly crazy about. It looks at our faith as something that is about receiving from God instead of truly being a relationship with God. If faith is only about receiving blessings from God, then it becomes an issue of asking God, “What have you done for me recently?” And this is not one of the questions I believe that we should be asking God.
I don’t think much of this prosperity gospel because it doesn’t line up with the faith that I have found in my life. It doesn’t line up with the God I know and it doesn’t line up with scripture either. The fact is that our lives have seasons. They have times of plenty and times of want. They have times where things seem to be going well and they have times where you wonder if God is really with you. And this is captured so beautifully in Ecclesiastes 3.
There is something terribly poetic about Ecclesiastes 3: the contrasts between the good times and the bad; the juxtaposition of the two is just beautiful. I truly wish some of the bad things weren’t in the list. Many people wish there wasn’t a time for weeping or mourning in the list. But I wish there was never a time for war. I wish there was never a time to hate. But this is a part of the world we live in. It is a part of what we experience in the world. And just by listing it out, Ecclesiastes allows us to find meaning in the difficult times as well as the joyous ones. Without war could we truly appreciate peace? Without mourning could we know the joys of dancing?
When we accept that all of this is a part of the world we live in we can find strength through it all to help us move forward in the difficult times and help us to remember God in the good times. I’ve said before that it seems to me that when everything is going well, when you are in the times of joy and dancing and laughter, you sometimes forget about God. You begin to rely on yourself a bit too much. You begin to believe that all your fortunes are of your own making.
II. The Dark Night of the Soul
But sometimes we have the opposite happen. Sometimes we go through a long time of mourning. Sometimes we look around and we wonder if peace will ever come again. These times are an important part of the world we live in. I would even go as far as to say that they are an important part of the Christian life. Some Christians have even come up with a name for these difficult times. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century priest referred to the difficult time as the dark night of the soul. The term has stuck and it is still talked about in those terms today. For St. John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul is a time where God seems distant, where problems seem overwhelming, where questions seem abundant, where faith is difficult. St. John of the Cross spoke of the dark night of the soul as a time where prayer became difficult and God seemed unrelatable. But he also believed that in the midst of the crisis of faith there was blessing. He believed that instead of just being a test of faith, the dark night was a time for the faith to grow and prosper and become even deeper.
If you spend time praying when praying seems impossible, if you cast your cares upon God when God seems unrelatable, if you allow yourself to surrender to a God who you aren’t sure you believe in, then you will find strength and growth. And when God reveals himself to you once again you will find yourself on even more sure footing.
This concept of the dark night of the soul has been translated to a modern context in the overly pithy poem “Footprints in the Sand”. The poem talks about a person complaining because they looked at their life and saw two sets of footprints in the sand, one set for themselves and one for Jesus, who was walking beside them. But at the difficult times in their lives, they would only see one set of footprints. The author of the poem asked why Jesus abandoned him during those difficult times. And of course, Jesus responds by saying that he didn’t abandon in the times of trial. Rather, the reason you only see one set of footprints is that Jesus was carrying him through the difficult times.
III. What do we do
But Ecclesiastes 3 doesn’t just spend time focusing on the juxtaposition between good things and bad things happening in their seasons. It comes up with an understanding of the world that at first seems somewhat depressing or maybe just pragmatic. Ecclesiastes as a book talks about the fact that there is so much that we just don’t have control over, it is better for us just to live our lives to the best of our ability and let God sort it out. Ecclesiastes seems to be telling us that if we’re searching for meaning to our lives. If we’re searching for understanding or greater purpose, we may just find ourselves disappointed.
But I’m not sure that the book is trying to actually be depressing as it asks this question. I think that it might actually be a good question to ask, and the answer that is found in chapter 3, if you really let it sink in is quite powerful. It begins at verse 12: “I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and do good while we live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”
Sometimes I think we are looking for a little too much from God, from our faith, from our lives. We sometimes think that we are all destined to some sort of greatness. And we are, but the true greatness that we receive doesn’t happen here on this earth. It happens when life on this earth is over and we are in eternity. What we have to look forward to in this world is that we can eat, drink, and find satisfaction in the work that we do. Ecclesiastes tells us that this is a gift from God. Are we willing to accept that gift? Are we willing to take it and find meaning, find purpose in it? Do we find satisfaction in what we do? Are we finding ways to experience joy in our lives and do good? This is what we are called to each and every season of our lives. And if we live this out, we will find joy and strength in the good times and the bad: when Bronte is vomiting up on Christmas Day as well as when she’s being her sweet, good-natured, normal self; when we find ourselves in times of mourning as well as when we find ourselves in times of laughter.
God does have a plan for you. He does have a purpose for your life. Know this, accept it, believe it. And find joy and happiness in your life, it isn’t worth spending too much time on the negative. And if you cannot find happiness right now, be about doing good, for if you seek out ways to do good, the happiness will come. And God will be with you, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And he promises a great eternity ahead. But for today, for this life, do as the author of Ecclesiastes recommends: eat, drink and do things that bring you satisfaction. This is truly a gift from God. Amen.