Living Ecclesiastes

Yesterday we said “happy trails” to our senior pastor of eight years and to his family as they moved on Alley in Spainto their next congregation. This isn’t unusual in the United Methodist Church, and it’s part of the gig when you are called to be an ordained pastor. Itinerancy is part of the package. This does not, however, make it any easier on any of the parties involved. There’s still a sense of loss, uncertainty, and a bit of chaos as the transition takes place. But we were all determined to make his final Sunday with us emblematic of the previous eight years.

Sunday also happened to be Scripture by Heart Sunday, when the Biblical storytelling team presents scripture from heart and from the spirit versus reading it directly from The Book. As I practiced, prayed, and worked with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and 14-15, I recognized my life echoing in the verses. In praying the verses, telling them aloud to an empty room, they stung…pressing on places in my heart I’d rather not think about. But like any medicine, it hurts when first applied to the wound, but after a few minutes there is relief.

Relief in the form of tears.

I’ve cried just about daily for the last few months. I felt myself at a crossroads but surrounded by fog on all sides. All the tears I banished for several years leaked out a little at a time. I’d allow myself time to shed just enough to keep the dam from bursting all together, and then I’d say “suck it up” and move on. But as I walked with Ecclesiastes, around and around ten well-known verses, I reached a watershed.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”

Everything is finite. Change is a given. We just hope that the “good stuff” has a good long season, and that the “bad stuff” is fleeting. Everything has its time…sometimes it’s to give us strength through respite, to extract us from a toxic environment, or to provide us with the right people and situations to help us thrive and fulfill God’s plan for us. Some seasons are painful and confusing, but serve a purpose, even though we are too busy cursing the situation and struggling to find a way through it.

“A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted…”

At first, I think of literal, physical birth and death, planting and harvesting. But I also see it as the birth and death of love, relationships, notions, ideas, and a definition of average or normal. The “normal” I’d been trying to live – perfectionism, self-critical, trying to do it all and do it brilliantly – caught up with me. The seeds of expectation I’d planted for myself grew into thorny vines of depression and anxiety. In the death of the old ways and the old me, I’m praying for a lighter path and a brighter direction.

“A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Don’t worry – no blood will be shed in the remaking of this life. Though I will admit to wanting to slap the taste out of someone’s mouth a couple of times. I have to kill the weeds. It’s like The Devil’s Snare in the Harry Potter movies. “If you struggle, it will only kill you faster,” Hermione said. But the weed hates sunlight. I am actively working to rid myself of toxic ideas and relationships, and allowing myself time to heal. I’m learning to say “no”. Breaking down old habits and rebuilding new ones is a tedious, draining process.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

A friend of more than 20 years recently said to me, “As long as I’ve known you, no matter what life has flung at you, you have remained strong, resilient, and positive. You are still that person.” In the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of change, including the end of a marriage and the departure of friends and mentors at a time when I craved stability. There is nothing I could have done to prevent these things, but pretending it doesn’t hurt only keeps the wounds open. Weeping and mourning I’ve got a handle on. Grief and I are old frenemies. But I am inherently someone who laughs and dances. I know that’s the real me. She’s in here somewhere.

“A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”

Farmers clear away stones from the field before planting, or maybe you check the lawn for stones before mowing. They are obstacles. What are your obstacles to living an authentic life – the one God planned for you from the beginning? Wrong thinking? Depleting lifestyle? Fear? I think sometimes He places obstacles there for our own strengthening and growth in wisdom. We have to learn to recognize the obstacles and move them. There may be ideas and people you want to embrace…proceed with caution.

“A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away…”

Did you ever lose something and spend hours trying to find it again, and hours more fretting about where it could be? Maybe it’s meant to stay lost. Maybe you don’t really need it. Did you ever cling to something out of nostalgia, obsession, or desperation? Maybe throwing it away is the first of several leaps of faith. We all need to declutter sometimes.

“A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…”

Do you repair it, or do you shred it completely and start over? The physical act of tearing something can be liberating – old love letters, photos, a journal. Carefully disassembling something, however, gives you the chance to reassemble it into something new, like taking apart an old dress and using the fabric for quilts and pillows. I struggle with silence. One of my great “faults” is keeping silent, often because I don’t want to rock the boat. I’d rather suck it up and keep the peace. Peace comes at a price, though. Anxiety, frustration, anger, depression. On the flip side, keeping silent also allows you to hear things that others may not.

“A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace…”

I hate the way I feel. I hate being at war with the way I feel. I hate myself for having all of these unsavory feelings because this is NOT who I am. This is the first time I have experienced this level of anger. I hope it’s the last. It’s time for peace and it’s time for love. That peace comes from forgiveness. I’ve been trying for a year to forgive “seventy times seventy times”…but I think the forgiveness is going the wrong way. Maybe it needs to go inward instead of outward. “Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself and free up that space in your head and your heart and your soul. That’s valuable real estate.” I know that I want to be in love with my life again…not just functioning, but living and loving every day.

“I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.”

Those are verses 14 and 15 from Ecclesiastes 3. If we back up a bit to verse 11, it reads, “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Yep. That’s a tough one. We are aware of the passage of time and we want to know what’s ahead but we can’t see it, and it’s not our job to know. I think/worry about who I’m going to be in another year or five years or ten years…what kind of parent will I be, what does forgiveness feel like, if I change will I still be me? I just read somewhere recently that dwelling in the past poisons the present and keeps us from our promised futures.

Present becomes past in the blink of an eye. The future arrives just as quickly. “God seeks out what has gone by?” Why would God seek out the past?

It’s interesting to look at the different translations of that last verse. The English Standard Version (ESV) says “God seeks what has been driven away”. The  New International Version (NIV): “God will call the past to account”. The New Living Translation (NLT): “…because God makes the same things happen over and over again.” The Common English Bible (CEB): “And God looks after what is driven away.”

This wrestling match, this storm, this dark night of the soul – whatever you want to call it – is messy, ugly, painful, frustrating, exhausting, and so many other things. I know there is a brighter side. God grant me patience for the journey.

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3 thoughts on “Living Ecclesiastes

  1. “I hate the way I feel. I hate being at war with the way I feel. I hate myself for having all of these unsavory feelings because this is NOT who I am. ”

    My dear. It IS who you are…sometimes. Every human being has the capacity for every human emotion. Trying to stamp out, avoid, resist, unsavory feelings doesn’t allow room for the savory ones. We’re built to feel ALL the feelings…love you.

  2. Wow! This is a very powerful message obviously born out of a lot of pain and reflection. Thank you for sharing. I can empathize with your sense of loss over your pastor’s departure. We lost our beloved pastor of 33 years to retirement a year ago and have been going through a long, slow period of transition since that time. I was diagnosed with cancer within weeks after his departure and have missed the support I know he would have given. Now, however, we are about to welcome a new pastor and a church which had grown stagnant is getting excited!

    • It’s been a time of transition, for sure. We’d known since late April he was leaving. The announcement came less than two weeks after my marital dissolution was final, and he was a key mentor in my discernment process toward becoming a pastor myself. He was with us for 8 years, which is actually on the long side. Our incoming pastor is leaving a church he’d been with for 12 years to come here.

      33 years is a LONG time to be in one place! I’ll bet it’s like losing a family member. I’m glad your church is getting excited about the possibilities. God has plans to give us a hope and a future! Glad you are doing well!

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