17 Apr A Time for Everything
Since Alert Level 4 began, I’ve been drawn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”
Composed of 14 pairings of positive and negative actions or states (e.g., planting and uprooting; war and peace), this “catalogue of the times” seeks to encapsulate the breadth and depth of human experience, from birth to death, and what lies between. While not covering every human activity and state, it resonates as a succinct, and realistic, account of human life and experience.
Why have I been drawn to this passage from Ecclesiastes? First, seeing the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world and experiencing life in Alert Level 4 has been such a contrast to my summer months (which were so full and fruitful). Summer had a lot of the positive actions and states from the catalogue in Ecclesiastes; the last few weeks have had a few more of the negative actions and states. The season has definitely shifted.
Second, I’ve come back to this passage because I want to affirm that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. I don’t want to say stupid or hasty things, like God caused COVID-19, or this is God’s judgement for X or Y. But as a theologian—and, even more so, as a Christian pilgrim trying to make my way in the world before God—I want to affirm the sovereignty of God and God’s activity in the world, mysterious though that is. I want to affirm that, because of who I believe God to be, the world has not been overrun with chaos, disorder, meaninglessness, or lack of purpose—and COVID-19 hasn’t changed that. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that as a limited and sinful creature I don’t have anything close to full visibility or clear vision on God’s purposes and work at this time. I want to affirm, then, what Michael Fox (the Bible commentator, not the actor) has written, in reflecting on the catalogue of times from Ecclesiastes:
“Every event and deed has its right time, a set of circumstances in which they should happen or be performed, and God determines when this is. So in whatever one may do, he should wait until the time is ripe rather than straining and pushing against the grain. But there’s a catch: God has denied man the knowledge of when these times are.”
The foregoing leads me to venture something—something potentially rich and stretching, but with certain attendant dangers. Between complete agnosticism about what God is saying and doing at this time, on the one hand, and a full-scale, detailed account, on the other, there is a middle course to be charted that dares to ask: What might God be saying at this time? What might God be doing? Not, I want to suggest, by daring to ask these questions in relation to the entire world. But rather, by asking them much closer to home: God, what might you be saying to me at this time? God, what might you be doing in and with me?
Answering those questions requires that I pay attention. And it requires the same for you, too.
Easter Sunday was difficult for me. As I said on Lockdown Radio, it was the lowlight of last week. The day did begin well. I got up, had a coffee, and started listening to a couple of my favourite hymns on Spotify. But when we sat down to do “on-line church”, I was overwhelmed by sadness and anger. I wanted to cry. I thought to myself: I hate “on-line church.” I felt like a hypocrite because I’d done a Good Friday interview on NewsTalk ZB talking about some of the benefits of moving services on-line (while acknowledging the costs as well). I thought to myself: I shouldn’t be reacting this way on the day of Christ’s resurrection!
I felt pain. The temptation was to push that pain down, and just move on. But I decided not to. I decided to sit with it. And, since Sunday, I’ve taken time to pay attention to that pain, allowing God to speak to me through it and to discern what he might be doing in and with me at this time.
C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain wrote:
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
It is worth noting that, for Lewis, God does communicate with us through our pleasures. We live in a good world created by a good God which is attended by all sorts of delights and pleasures. We can learn to pay attention to the whisper of God in our pleasures, aided by prayer and the framing that Scripture provides. Indeed, my guess is that many of us have heard the whisper of God in the last weeks through the pleasure of silence, time with family, a good book, a less-rushed meal, more leisure with hobbies, and so on.
Yet pain grabs our attention in a way that pleasure does not. It breaks in; it arrests us. Pain insists on being attended to, as Lewis puts it. That’s why it’s God’s megaphone for a deaf world.
Of course, Lewis’s point doesn’t resolve all our questions about pain and suffering. In venturing this middle course between agnosticism and a full-scale, detailed account of our situation, I recognise that lament may be the only appropriate response in particular cases, as I learn to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Yet, pain and suffering can also be an occasion to hear from and respond to God as pilgrims on the journey of life. As Oliver O’Donovan suggests:
“Stepping back from our suffering, we may recognise it as an opportunity for a further step on our pilgrimage, experiencing what we have not experienced, deprived of what we have not hitherto been deprived of, focusing attention upon aspects of God’s will on which we have not focused it before.”
Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts (Hebrews 3:15; cf. Psalm 95:7-8). The freedom that God gives leaves open the possibility that we are unresponsive to God’s voice. In pain, God might speak loudly, but even then we may choose not to respond well. Indeed, the hardening of one’s heart, of which Scripture speaks, means that one can even deafen oneself to the voice of God.
The hardening of our hearts takes many forms. We may ignore what God is saying because it is challenging or requires something of us. We may resist it because we don’t like what God is saying. We may avoid it altogether by immersing ourselves in Netflix or going from one Zoom conversation to another.
We need to recall that while God may address us through pain and suffering, his address is always loving. Indeed, knowing that God disciplines those he loves, while difficult to experience, can be strangely comforting (see Hebrews 12:4-11). But for the very reason that God’s address can come through pain and suffering—and that is something most of us want to avoid—like those other disciplines that we cultivate to hear the voice of God (such as reading Scripture), we need to find ways to attend to the voice of God in pain and suffering.
I think that is especially the case now. Although for some of us going into lockdown might have involved shifting into a season where there are a few more positive actions and states from the Ecclesiastes list, I suspect for most of us the balance has shifted to have a few more negative actions and states.
So how might we pay attention to what God might be saying to us at this time?
In this edition of Common Ground, my dear friend and colleague Katrina Belcher explains the practice of the Daily Examen and how this can help us on our Christian pilgrimage. Within this article she outlines a simple, four-step Daily Examen. This four-step Examen opens up a space for us to, among other things, reflect on those points in our lives where we are experiencing pain and suffering, to consider how we’ve been responding to these, as well as how we might respond to these moving forward. It’s a powerful practice; and I commend it to you at this time.
Just on from the catalogue of times in Ecclesiastes 3, the author writes in verse 11:
“God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
It’s an affirmation of the sovereignty and goodness of God. God is making everything beautiful in its time. God has been at work, is at work, and will continue to work. It’s a promise we need to cling to now. Yet, alongside this affirmation, is the recognition that we do not fully comprehend what God is up to: no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. We may desire to know, but it is not given to us.
This verse encapsulates, for me, one of the challenges of this season: affirming God’s sovereignty and goodness, while acknowledging that we do not fully understand; and yet still paying attention to what God is saying and doing in our lives—as best as we are able.