The View from Above: The Corn Maze (Part Three)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13 (New King James Version)

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

As noted in the last devotional, taking on the corn maze from the inside can be challenging, even maddening. Worst case scenario, one continues to walk around, repeating the same mistakes, never finding the path out. The inside perspective of our passage from Ecclesiastes was similarly confounding, reminding us that amidst the complicated lives we lead, we should not overlook but the simple, good gifts God offers daily. Our third run at this passage, presents the outlook from above, a transcendent perspective, directing us to this passage’s truth within the full message of the Gospel. Like the view of the cornfield from overhead in Google Earth, we can see the entirety of the complex patterns of our journey – the turns, forks, junctions, and dead-ends we must encounter – and discern the true path through.

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher speaks to the challenges of finding meaning in our lives. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” The writer is at times mired in the endless striving which fills up his days. A confession: I have already acknowledged (in a previous devotional) that “life is hard”. One of my reasons for choosing this text from Ecclesiastes is that the Teacher voices the outlook that, on our bad days, on most days for some folks, resonates within our souls. “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Perhaps we are in a difficult relationship. Maybe our jobs have become rote and lack significance. Possibly, our caretaking of another person feels more like obligation and burden, than a labor of love and meaning. Maybe our age leaves our days full of repetitive tasks to fill our time but devoid of the joy we once experienced. I remember a time in my life when I could not imagine that life held any new wonder or surprise. Thoreau voiced the same sentiment when he said, ““The mass of [humans] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation … A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of [hu]mankind.” His words encapsulate the outlook often articulated by the writer of Ecclesiastes.

But in today’s passage, the Teacher opens a window in the skies, to a view from above. “I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts.” From that position God’s presence can be recognized within the whole of our lives. We gain the perspective that the good news of Christ reveals. We can see God making everything beautiful in its time. We see God setting eternity in our hearts. What can that mean – “eternity in their hearts”— except that we are created to yearn for something from above, something more than our present ticks of the clock and cycles of the seasons? We are made to be in communion with the One who came to our world, but conveyed truth and meaning that transcends the truths offered by the world.

In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus proclaiming this message: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. If you do not believe that I am He, you will indeed die.” God entered time and broke its cycle of meaninglessness by doing a completely new thing through the cross and resurrection. Through our own dying with Christ and taking on of a new life in him, we can find the “view from above” for our lives. And this perspective enables us to bear through the hard times, to discover meaning in our struggles (perhaps like those of the present), even to find peace and joy among the simple gifts we are given during this time. This is the “eternity in our hearts” created in each of us, which was made wholly known in the person of Jesus. This is our new life in the Spirit breathed into us when we trust in the Risen One. This is the new life in Christ we can proclaim this Easter season.

Prayer: Lord Christ, be in our hearts that we might know of your presence. Be in our minds that we might see your purpose. Be in our actions that others who don’t know you might glimpse your goodness and mercy. Amen

Musical Offering
Benedictus by Karl Jenkins

At 3:45 of the video the choir joins the orchestra singing the text below. At 5:20 the chorus erupts into a gorgeous proclamation fit for the empty tomb on Easter morning. (The images shown at 4:20 of the video are of a huge star-forming region in space, known as “The Pillars of Creation.” Heartfelt thanks to my friend, Jim Richardson, who has been such a special companion along the way this year. I know you will enjoy this.)

Musical Text

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis

(translation)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest

All Is Hevel: The Corn Maze (Part Two)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13 (New King James Version)

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

In the previous devotional, I mentioned three different perspectives gleaned from three different locations when encountering a corn maze and engaging this passage from the pithy book of Ecclesiastes – a positive perspective from the outside, a more questioning view from the inside, and a transcendent outlook from above. Today’s view of the passage will access its message from an internal perspective, attempting to extract its meaning from the context of Ecclesiastes as a whole. Part of the Bible’s wisdom literature, this particular book is often referred to as “Skeptical Wisdom” or “Dissenting Wisdom”. The author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, is a sage who has lived long and has grown weary of life’s uncertainties and absurdities. “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” the book begins.

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun? …

8 All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun …

12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Such words are a recurring sentiment throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, with our passage from the third chapter being something of a respite from this jarring perspective. The Hebrew word hevel, which is translated “vanity” or “meaningless” in various translations, is used thirty-eight times within the book. It’s fair to say that the author is not all “kittens and rainbows” in his outlook on life. The Teacher explains that he has set out to investigate and understand life, so that he might live it wisely. He is trying to avoid, as someone once put it: “getting A’s in all my subjects, but ending up flunking life.” So, he explores every avenue for happiness, meaning, and self-gratification available. Everything people say makes life meaningful. The Teacher comes to a conclusion similar to that offered by actor Jim Carrey once in an interview: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

If there’s any point this time of the coronavirus has made obvious, it’s that seeking meaning and happiness by indulging ourselves in the “American lifestyle” is a fruitless and empty endeavor. It can ultimately provide neither satisfaction nor security. Martin Luther once wrote of such misplaced expectations, explaining what Ecclesiastes seeks to address:

What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures [i.e. the things God has created] but the depraved affection and desire of us, who are not content with the [created gifts] of God that we have and with their use, but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others.

Luther’s description of humanity must be timeless and universal, as it fits our culture as well, perhaps better, than the society of 16th century Europe. What culture, with all its time-saving devices, has ever scurried through its days with more frenzy and less contentment than our own, trying to wring out as many pleasures and experiences, as possible? Ecclesiastes seeks to address such soul-sickness with a reality check. However, the knowledge that life is hevel (fleeting) should not lead us to an empty pessimism. It should lead, instead, to humility and to a proper delight in the gifts of God.

Our present situation has forcibly shed many of the trappings and accessories of our normally, complicated lifestyles. In doing so, it may have given us the chance to appreciate the simple gifts that adorn our days and so often go unnoticed. “He has made everything beautiful in its time … I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” There is now a season to look forward to my daily walk with Michelle. It is a time I can relish phone calls from friends out of the blue (thanks Cynthia, Judi, and others), and to talk often with my dad. There is a time to savor a well-cooked meal, and to fully appreciate the companionship of our dogs. This is a season when I can properly anticipate the opportunity to meet with my brothers and sisters in Christ for our Bible-study and choir gatherings using Zoom. In this time of the coronavirus, I don’t overlook the beauty of the forsythias, azaleas, and dogwoods, nor the good fortune that I have clean water and electricity during this emergency.

Ultimately, the picture of life the Teacher paints is incomplete, lacking the hope and wholeness the Gospel breathes into our lives. However, if we live our life with God on the periphery instead of at the center, the Teacher’s assessment may well be true. And this wise instructor from Ecclesiastes does remind us that, even in the most difficult of times, there is a time for us to work, laugh, be thankful, and delight in the gifts we have from the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Prayer: Gracious Lord, thank you for our daily bread. Amen

Musical Offering:
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (excerpt)

There Is a Season: The Corn Maze (Part One)

Passage: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

3 To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

9 What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? 10 I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

 

Ever spent time at a corn maze? Looking at it from the outside, the maze looks just like any other corn field, pretty perhaps with the lush green stalks and golden tassels atop. It’s very different, however, when viewed from the middle, on the inside, struggling with myriad turns and blind alleys, trying to find your way through to the opening. All the stalked paths look the same. After a while, you aren’t sure if you are on a new, potentially right path or one you walked before to a dead-end. Both of these outlooks are different than the view from above, perhaps as seen through a helicopter ride or accessed by an aerial image from Google Earth. From this perspective, one could see the entire pattern cut in the field and quickly find the true path out of the maze.

Three different locations lead to three different perspectives. This idea of three different outlooks could be helpful when approaching today’s famous passage from Ecclesiastes. In order to fully appreciate the wisdom of the “Teacher” in this book from the Bible’s wisdom literature, we might do well to spend time with each of these perspectives – an optimistic and common sense perspective looking from the outside, an inside view that is blunt and less hopeful, and a look from up above for an ultimate perspective.

This first devotional in a group of three will look at the text from that outside position. From this vantage point, just taking the text at face value – without getting deeper into its context – everything looks pretty safe. You might even find yourself humming the popular tune from the sixties, Turn! Turn! Turn! (if you’re of the right age). From this perspective the passage offers the basic but sound advice that there are appropriate times for the different experiences of our lives. If we, as Christians, ponder this outside perspective, we acknowledge the wisdom of these different times. We rightly challenge the assumption that if we are spiritual enough, we ought to be happy and laughing all the time, realizing instead if we’ve lost someone – to divorce or dementia or a death – it is the appropriate time to weep.

In this singular moment in history, we’ve found some new occasions to be timely during this pandemic. We realize that there’s a time to love (the ones we long for that we can only enjoy online or by phone, as well as those nearest to us each day); and there is a time to hate (the coronavirus and partisan squabbling). We should recognize that this is the time for us to embrace political cooperation and compromise, such that we are effective in dealing with the necessities of this emergency; and a time where we refrain from embracing, taking seriously the calls for social-distancing and self-isolation. We have found the right time for war, with all world’s nations’ scientific resources united in our fight against this deadly disease; and we have found an unusual occasion for peace, as the virus has driven warring factions in Yemen to declare a ceasefire, and possibly now in Syria, too. What if this disease delayed our animosities long enough that we considered options for sorting out our grievances other than military action?

The Greek language has two separate words for time. The first, “chronos” refers to the measuring of time, in days, hours, minutes, and seconds. The second word, “kairos” denotes the idea of time we are addressing in the passage today, the timeliness of our actions, that certain moments call persons to respond with certain behaviors. As Christians, we might even say kairos is the time God has intended for particular events and actions. In this singular moment of our world’s history, so many of us are reevaluating the priorities and values we’ve used to arrange our lives. I can’t say what is timely for each of you. The words urgency and purpose come to mind for me. That I must be about things that count. While most of us try not to think about it constantly, we wonder (and worry) whether our span of time, and the time of those we love, will be long or short. And I think many of us have determined that this time (however much there is) must mean something. Certainly, this period of global emergency will eventually end. My prayer is that those who continue gathering as our community of faith will remember how much we need each other, and how much the world needs us. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” There is a time for every matter which God has purposed under heaven.

Prayer: Gracious Christ, who has known our concerns, our anguish, and our sorrows, even before you have heard it in our prayers, comfort those who are sick or lonely, anxious or grieving. Help us to find time for the purposes you have summoned us to during this season. Help us to go forth from this season with a calling to be about your kingdom. Amen

Musical Offering:

For those who were longing to hear it, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. Not the version you’re most familiar with by the Byrds, but my favorite rendering sung by Judy Collins. It’s really worth the listen, and makes the passage above come alive.

Whistling Past The Graveyard?

Passage: Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

While our mission group was working in a rural village in Honduras, we were asked by the Honduran minister from our mission organization, if any of us were interested in going out to pray with the residents of the village, as a number of folks had requested prayer. While I found the manual labor we had done in the homes quite meaningful – pouring concrete floors over the dirt floors on which they normally lived and building latrines – I also welcomed the chance to share a time of prayer with the people with which we were working. The experience was eye-opening and poignant. As the minister translated, one young woman sought healing for a digestive system malady, likely a problem with her gall bladder, the minister gathered. Another older gentleman requested relief from the difficulties and pain caused by a serious hernia. A mother and father wanted healing for their daughter, who was sitting there with us, from a head injury which quite obviously had affected all aspects of her life.

While we were praying with these devout persons, the full reality of the situation began to dawn on the three of us who accompanied the minister. We weren’t able to pray for them to find the right doctor to heal their particular health issue, or for proper medical attention to reach these persons. Such help is simply not available to nearly all persons in the remote areas of Honduras. Only one general-practice physician serves the nearly one hundred thousand residents of the entire Agalta valley. And most of those folks have no means of travelling to see the doctor. Our prayers were for God to provide healing and comfort directly to meet the needs of these persons.

In that moment, I realized that prayer for healing there was quite different from a prayer for healing at home in the United States. At home, the expectation that God might heal us directly, isn’t really a necessity, is almost an “add-0n”, with the knowledge that we are certain to receive suitable medical care for our ailments. Such prayers for healing are much easier to make under those circumstances. A prayer for healing in Honduras lays one’s faith bare, with the knowledge that only God and ourselves will be present in any way to help bring healing and comfort to those for whom we pray.

Now with the growing threat of the coronavirus, we find ourselves increasingly more exposed to conditions that are out of our control. We too are becoming acquainted with the insecurities of life that are commonplace in much of the world. How do we read the passage above now when our confidence, in the ability of the government agencies and our medical care system to keep us safe and healthy, is in question? “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Will we read it as a pep-talk, an optimistic statement touting a God who is in charge in of our world and will protect us from all harm? Will the psalm merely become “whistling past the graveyard”, an attempt to calm our fears and bolster our confidence in a time when we are weighed down with anxieties?

It’s safe to say that the faithful of Israel who sang or chanted this psalm had no health care system or police presence or unemployment benefits to give them any confidence that life would remain dependably safe and secure. Much like with our prayers in Honduras, the faiths of those invoking this psalm were laid bare in the moment of voicing these affirmations. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper … The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Only those who had completely entrusted their lives to this God, could affirm such claims with real conviction. Only those who had thrown in their lot fully with this Lord – in good times and bad, in abundance and scarcity, in health and in sickness – would be able to proclaim these words so as to find great comfort in them.

While I do not believe in any way that God has visited this pestilence on humankind, our situation has provided us with an occasion for reassessing the foundations of our faith. Might it even offer us the opportunity to rediscover the real basis for our life as Christians? Might it remind us that our security can never be found in the safety and abundance of our American lifestyle, can never be assured by our own efforts to protect our lives from the slings and snares that all of us will surely encounter. My time in Honduras, and our time with the coronavirus, might help us remember that as Christians our security and hope is built on our trust in the “faithfulness of Another”; the faithfulness of One who chose to be with us, to know our doubts, our pain, our vulnerability. “Faith means trust,” wrote Karl Barth.

Trust is the act in which a person relies on the faithfulness of Another, that God’s promise holds. … “I believe” means “I trust.” No longer must I dream of trusting in myself. No longer am I required to save myself. … In God alone is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to him, to rely on his promise and his guidance.

In this time when uncertainty threatens to overwhelm us, this passage reminds us that the only real security we are offered is entrusting our lives to this One who came to be with us, and gave himself for us.

Prayer: Gracious God, who is faithful to us in both our belief and our unbelief, give us the courage to live our lives depending on our trust in you.

Remember, the psalms were originally designed to be sung/chanted, sometimes even accompanied by music, as they were expressions of the heart, not simply reflections from our heads. Perhaps you might want to reread this passage while listening to the piece linked to below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7SvBtJuh3Y

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