Christianity 201

August 19, 2017

The Whole of Life; The Big Picture

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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As we’ve done in the month of August in previous years, we’re paying a return visit to the website Gospel-Centered Discipleship. The post today is an excerpt from a larger piece, so to see it all, you need to click the link which follows. The writer this time around is David Gibson.

For everything there is a season,
    a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
    A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
    A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
    A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
    A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
    A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
    A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
    A time for war and a time for peace.

Everything in Its Place

…The difference between real life and Lego construction… is that we are not the ones with the instruction blueprint laid out in front of us. God is. We have individual pieces in our hands, and in the Bible God has given us enough explanation to set us building, but only he has the master plan. We are building our lives, and we have an idea of how we want to do it, and how we hope it will turn out, but there is so much about the shape our lives will take that we cannot control.

The Essence of Ecclesiastes 3 

In chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes the Preacher introduced his main thesis: death puts an end to our repetitive quest for greatness and gain and instead teaches us that we are simply part of the generation who came after the last one and before the next. But it’s not just that the whole of our lives comes and goes like a vapor. In chapter 2 the Preacher explained that all the pursuits and pleasures to which we give ourselves within our lives also slip through our fingers with little lasting satisfaction.

Now in chapter 3 the Preacher brings together both the big picture (the whole of life) and the individual parts (the seasons of life) and begins to explain why our lack of control over either is the very thing that can give us hope. There are many ways to embrace our frailty, and nearly all of them involve thinking clearly about time. It is part of living well to accept two things: first, we are enclosed within time’s bounds, and, second, God is not. What we do comes and goes, but “whatever God does endures forever” (3:14). We are each building the project of “me,” constructing the edifice of our lives, but as we do so, we are neither architect nor site manager. We are each writing the story of our lives, but we are not the main author.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a very beautiful chapter, with famous words of poetry often read at funerals, even humanist ones. As we will see, however, the beauty of the Preacher’s poetry in verses 1–8 is only half the story; we need the punch of his prose in verses 9–22 if we are actually to find any joy and hope in the poetry.

The Powerful Pattern of His Poetry (vv. 1–8) 

Just as the created world has a rhythmic pattern built into it, so too our lives within this world experience their own regularities and cadences that ebb and flow with the rolling years. Ecclesiastes 3 gives us a poem to show this.

The statement in verse 1—there is a time and a season for everything—is fleshed out in verses 2–8 with an artful literary technique that places polar opposites or extreme positions side by side “as a way of embracing everything that lies between them (e.g., north and south, heaven and earth).”1 So with “a time to be born, and a time to die” (v. 2), the whole of life is captured as being something that has a time for its beginning, a time for its end, and a time for everything else that happens between the decisive moments of start and finish.

After stating the big picture of life and death, the rest of the verses move through different experiences of life and all the varied human activities that most of us engage in or encounter at one time or another. There does not seem to be a logical progression or natural connection between one set of extremes and those that come after or before. If there is any structure, it most likely lies in the fact that the list of opposites is made up of twenty-eight items in fourteen pairs; this means the list is comprised of multiples of seven, the number that symbolizes perfection in the Bible.2 It is a skillful way of again emphasizing the totality of things that are contained within any human life. This is a complete summary of the seasons of life.

It is a mistake to extract these verses from the whole chapter (as is often done) and think they can have their real meaning displayed without looking at how the Preacher follows them in verses 9–22. The poetry is setting up a problem that the prose will seek to resolve. At the same time, however, there is a wonderful richness to the poetry that is worth lingering over.

To begin with, note how the poem expresses the beautiful complexity of life. Some of the opposites in the list can be grouped together into a basic pattern of bad times and good times: there is a time for killing and a time for healing, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. But not all seasons have an opposite that is either straightforwardly good or bad: there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain; there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Each of these can be good when done at the right time in the right way. Others seem even more ambiguous to us: there is a time to search and a time to give up. Which one of these is favorable or unfavorable? Again, as with chapter 1, the form of the poem is part of the meaning of its content: life is complex, full of good times, hard times, in-between times, and a whole manner of lifestyle choices and decisions that often require a wisdom that seems to escape us. There is a time for every single one of these things.

Observe as well how the combined effect of the poem puts flesh on the skeleton of a human life. There are seasons in the world that act upon us (war and peace), but almost every pair in the poem involves our connectedness to others between the moments of our birth and death. We are profoundly relational beings, and most of the seasons of our lives are taken up with navigating the different stages of our relationships and the effects they have on us. We dance at a wedding, and we mourn the loss of the one we danced with. We laugh together, and we weep for what the people we used to laugh with have done to us. Without thinking, we reach out and touch, but we instinctively respect a different emotional and physical boundary with someone else. We grow to love some people and come to hate others.

If we were somehow to take the seasons of life out of the web of relationships in which we are enmeshed, our lives would become flat and monotonous. We check our calendars every day, but we don’t set the seasons of life just by the patterns of the sun and the moon. Rather, our times are marked by being a daughter and a sister, becoming a wife and a lover, then a mother and a grandmother, and a widow. These are the seasons God gives. The times he grants are bound to the presence or absence of relationship.3

The Preacher is seeking to give us perspective on each of the items in his patterned opposites, while pointing us to the perplexity of this rhythmically ordered arrangement of time. Life is full of flaws. Killing, tearing down, weeping, mourning, hating, warring: these are the times of life we will experience that show us in the most painful of ways that we live east of Eden and under the curse. More than this, the fact that there is no chronological sequence or discernible purpose to the order of each of these items is itself part of the Preacher’s point that we have no control over any of these things. We make real, responsible decisions every single day, but in reality we each know that the seasons of life are almost completely out of our hands. There is a time for everything, but we are not arranging them on our stopwatch. “Three hours for mirth today, and next week I will have just twenty minutes of sorrow, please. Following that I will embark on an entirely new chapter of life with great success, and in two and a half years I will be happy to move on to something new.” We all know life is not like this. So what can we do about it?

Each of the individual aspects of the curse displayed in this poetry combine to point to one great flaw—and here is where I want to make good on my claim that this beautiful poetry on its own can actually do us more harm than good. For notice how the Preacher follows the poetry immediately in verse 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” This is the most powerful of sucker punches.

There is a time for everything; life is a lyrical arrangement of good and bad, of relational complexity and nuanced subtleties, and at the end of it all, you go in a box in the cold, hard ground. What have you gained after living all the seasons of life? Nothing. You’re dead. You experienced it all, you came and went, and look: you have no lasting gain. It is vital to see that there is nothing in the first eight verses of chapter 3 that could not have been written by an atheist philosopher or the Poet Laureate. Anyone with enough experience can dramatize life in this way and sum it all up with a lilting flow of rhythmical patterns.

It’s why I’ve heard these words at a humanist funeral, but I have yet to hear a celebrant advance to verse 9. Is it possible that it doesn’t much matter whether you read out verses 1–8 at a humanist funeral or a Christian one? For it is still a funeral. Joe Bloggs might have led a varied life in all its richness, but what has he gained now? Nothing. He’s dead. It’s over.

1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, NIV Application Commentary
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 87.
2. Ibid.
3. Zack Eswine develops these things in characteristically thoughtful ways. See his Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 130–35.

May 12, 2017

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

We’ve linked to The Christian Examiner at Thinking Out Loud before, but never here at C201. We noted this devotional article and thought we would share it here. Better yet, read this at source — click the title below — and then navigate to their news pages for a Christian perspective on current events. Bookmark the site for frequent reference.

Wait Is a Four-Letter Word

by Elizabeth Laing Thompson

Wait is a four-letter word. Coincidence? I think not.

We’re all waiting on something from God: true love or a baby, a job or a cure. And the period between answers can feel like a place where dreams—and faith—go to die.

I have often thought to myself, The worst part of waiting is the uncertainty. I wish God would just give me a yes or no so I can move on with life.

Have you ever thought something like this:
  • If I knew I wasn’t going to find true love, maybe I could get busy building a fulfilling life as a single person.
  • If I knew I wasn’t going to have the career breakthrough I’ve longed for, maybe I could devote my time and energy to other things.

We tell ourselves the problem is the not knowing. Dealing with uncertainty. We tell ourselves we wouldn’t mind waiting so much if God just told us, “You’re going to get what you want in the end, but buckle up for a long ride—it’s going to take awhile.”

But who am I kidding? When I’m waiting, I want more than just a yes or no from God. It’s not enough to know if, I want to know when. I want a timeline. A fat red circle on the calendar.

I’m going to wait two years and nine months before I get pregnant, You say? Okay. I don’t love that timeline, but I can work with it. I’ll do the Pinterest thing and make a cute countdown calendar, and I’ll find a way to be happy the whole time I’m waiting.

But life doesn’t work that way, God doesn’t work that way. It is in the not knowing that God works on our heart, our faith, our character. It is in the not knowing that 2 Peter 1 and James 1 collide:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:5–8

Christians are meant to grow—to become godlier, more loving, more self-controlled, better at persevering—so we don’t stagnate spiritually. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen automatically, accidentally, or overnight. Spiritual growth is a lifetime process we never outgrow. It takes conscious effort—every effort, in fact. The perfectionist in me finds this both overwhelming and comforting—overwhelming because I want to be done growing (meaning perfect) yesterday; comforting because I realize I’m not supposed to be done growing yet. Character is built slowly: step-by-step, choice by choice, even mistake by mistake, one strength building on another over time. Smack in the middle of this character-building process we find the trait we desperately need when we are waiting: perseverance. Now let’s pair this passage with what James says about perseverance:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2–4

Did you catch that last phrase—”let perseverance finish its work”—as in it’s up to us to allow that work to happen so we can grow? As in trials produce perseverance, and perseverance can lead to spiritual maturity, but we have to let it happen, not fight the process? If we let Him, God can use our waiting journeys to shape us, to make us into the people He created us to be.

Knowing our weakness, knowing our need, God offers us many stories of godly people who have wrestled with waiting with varying success. People like Sarah, who received a definitive promise from God but then crumbled in the face of bleak fact: seventy-five-year-old women just don’t have babies. The good news for those of us (all of us) who wait imperfectly? Many of our fellow waiters in the Bible got second chances. (Remember Sarah’s miracle baby, Isaac?) And third and fourth and fifth chances, and on and on goes the grace of God.

Waiting seasons aren’t fun, but they are opportunities. Through our waiting seasons—yes, through the not knowing—we can build character one step at a time. Through our waiting seasons, perseverance can gradually “finish” its never-ending work in us. As waiting does its thing, and God does His, we get the chance to become our best selves, the people God designed us to be. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get started.

August 18, 2015

The Seasons of Life

This came in an email from the ministry Great Big Life, from whom I subscribe to Breakfast of Champions, a weekday devotional by Andy Elmes.

Get from Every Season All it has for You

John 4:35 (NKJV)

Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!

The journey (pilgrimage) of life is certainly a journey of different seasons. The art of living well is to make sure that you live (milk the goodness out of) each and every season by both sowing into and reaping from each and every one of them. Being alive means that we will all walk through the various seasons of life. Here is a classic verse from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to make you think this morning.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (NKJV)

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted.

If you get the chance read the rest of this classic chapter to see the different types of seasons each and every one of us faces as we journey through this thing called life. Like King David said in Psalm 37:25, we will all experience being young and being old and every season in between. I have met some older people that live in the regret of not being a teenager anymore and I have met younger people that can’t wait for a later season of life (like being married), but the problem is they are missing the season they are in. Neither of these is good enough. The answer to how to get the most out of life is to love the season you’re in.

You can’t go back and re-live seasons gone but you can learn from them. You really don’t want to fast forward to future seasons because when the ones you are in are gone, like flowers when they have flourished, they are gone for good. The key for us all today is to carpe (seize) the one you’re in! So choose today to learn from seasons gone, love the one you’re in and, with faith and expectancy, have excitement concerning the ones yet to come that are promised by your God. Every season has something for you so make sure you harvest it out!

To everything there is a season. There are seasons of age, seasons of relationship, seasons of ministry and business, seasons for everything, and in them all there is a time to plant and a time to pluck (harvest) what was planted.

Here is some food for thought for you today as you consider the seasons that you are currently in:

• What seasons are you in today? Is it time to plant (sow) or to pluck up (harvest)?

• Are you getting from this season everything that you should be or could be? Are you milking out everything that is in the season to be had?

• What else do you need to do to enjoy and seize the season you are in?

God bless you – I pray that this season of your life prospers. Don’t say, “In four months …”, but make the decision to live large today the life God has given!

This has always been one of my all-time favorite Christian songs. If you have 7 minutes, close your eyes and enjoy Seasons of the Soul by Michael and Stormie Omartian.