Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 – What Time Is It?

There is a right time for everything, and everything on earth will happen at the right time.

There is a time to be born
    and a time to die.
There is a time to plant
    and a time to pull up plants.
There is a time to kill
    and a time to heal.
There is a time to destroy
    and a time to build.
There is a time to cry
    and a time to laugh.
There is a time to be sad
    and a time to dance with joy.
There is a time to throw weapons down
    and a time to pick them up.
There is a time to hug someone
    and a time to stop holding so tightly.
There is a time to look for something
    and a time to consider it lost.
There is a time to keep things
    and a time to throw things away.
There is a time to tear cloth
    and a time to sew it.
There is a time to be silent
    and a time to speak.
There is a time to love
    and a time to hate.
There is a time for war
    and a time for peace.

Do people really gain anything from their hard work? I saw all the hard work God gave us to do. God gave us the ability to think about his world, but we can never completely understand everything he does. And yet, he does everything at just the right time.

I learned that the best thing for people to do is to be happy and enjoy themselves, as long as they live. God wants everyone to eat, drink, and enjoy their work. These are gifts from God. (ERV)

Time is finite. We cannot get it back once we lose it. So, it is important to use our time in ways that reflect our most cherished values and commitments. For that, we need wisdom to know what to do, what not to do, and when to do it.

We can often use our time in strange ways. For example, Rafael Antonio Lozano of Plano, Texas has been on a quest to visit every company-owned Starbucks on the planet. He began his mission in 1997, when there were 1,304 Starbucks stores worldwide. Currently, there are 31,256 stores. As of September 2019, Lozano reported having visited over 15,000 global locations. 

Despite his impressive pace, Lozano is realistic about the nature of his quest, saying, “As long as they keep building Starbucks, I’ll never be finished.” He is also realistic about the importance of his mission. “Every time I reach a Starbucks, I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” he said, “when actually I’ve accomplished nothing.”

The book of Ecclesiastes would say, “There is a time to drink coffee, and a time to stay home.” Certainly, Lozano’s personal mission is extreme. But before we get too hard on Rafael, do we have a personal mission?  Does it reflect the stewardship of time God has given us?  When we get to the end of our lives, will we feel like we have accomplished something only to discover that we have accomplished nothing?

Time is a gift from God, and a temporary commodity to be used for God before the end of time comes.

One of the realities of time is that our lives are full of seasonal rhythms and change over time. These are built into the life God has given us. The book of Ecclesiastes is one that, throughout its contents, explains that nothing we pursue has any permanence to it. We throw ourselves into some work or activity, but what does that activity really do for us in the end?

Time is our master, and we must respect it.

When I was twenty years old, I thought nothing of playing a round of golf in the morning and three sets of tennis in the afternoon, then staying up late at night with friends. If I did that same thing today, I would have a team of doctors attending me in the hospital. We all, at some point, try to defy time and act like we can do the things we once did in the past. Sometimes it takes a lot for us to accept our limitations, whether it is our play or our work. Ecclesiastes teaches us that forces from the outside seem to always dictate what we can do and not do.

Time can be a harsh taskmaster.

The clock relentlessly and inexorably moves forward with the cycles and rhythms of life offering only meaninglessness, as we discover we are prisoners of time. But for the believer, time can be redeemed with godly purpose and meaning, no matter what the season of life is. Because there is time, and all things will someday come to an end – all activity, or the lack of it, will be judged according to how we denied or accepted our limitations due to time. 

Ecclesiastes also offers to us what seems a subversive perspective that is counter-cultural to our society. Whereas many Americans believe that if we work hard and do the right thing we can shape our own lives and our own prosperity, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes insists on submitting and moving with the events, rhythms, and seasons of God.  

Apart from God, time is futile and meaningless. In our denial, it is no wonder so many persons are so unhappy with their lives.

In the seasons of life and experiences we have from birth to death, the conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that everything is out of our control. Too many of us try to exert control over events, people, and circumstances when, in truth, any control we have is an illusion. I call this the “c-clamp syndrome,” trying to clamp down on others to get them to submit to our agenda.

Instead, Holy Scripture directs us to practice self-control – to focus on myself and my own actions:

Moderation is better than muscle, self-control better than political power. (Proverbs 16:32, MSG)

Prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. (1 Peter 1:13, NLT)

The end of everything has come. Therefore, be self-controlled and clearheaded so you can pray. (1 Peter 4:7, CEB)

Do your best to improve your faith. You can do this by adding goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, devotion to God, concern for others, and love. If you keep growing in this way, it will show that what you know about our Lord Jesus Christ has made your lives useful and meaningful. (2 Peter 1:5-7, CEV)

We cannot make time stand still. So, we must focus on how we spend our time now. It is time for us to lay aside lesser pursuits and diligently pursue God. We each must give ourselves to the unforced rhythms of grace and let God redeem the time. What time is it?  It is time to live in harmony with God in all we say and do.

God of all time help us to know ourselves. Teach us to recognize our weaknesses and work to walk in holiness. Let us follow you in all things, submitting to the times you have for us. Thank you for your unending grace and mercy toward us when we need it most. Help us to trust you with our lives through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

            The book of Ecclesiastes is not usually on many Christians’ list as the most enjoyable piece of literature they have read in the Bible.  If you have ever worked your way through these words of Solomon, then it is quite possible that you have walked away from it a bit discouraged.  Let’s face it:  this is a really depressing book.  When the chief message being expressed is that “all is vanity” when it comes to life, then it is hard to become enthused.
 
            However, we need to feel the impact of Solomon’s perspective.  He was expressing a common worldview present in his time:  history apart from God, without the divine Sovereign in the equation, moves along in vain with no real purpose behind it.  The ancient world in the days of Solomon looked at history as cyclical, not linear.  In other words, there is no real hope for things to improve, be different, or get better because what-goes-around-comes-around.  The only option in such a view of history and of the world is to accept your lot in life and try to make the best of it.  Yep, it’s depressing to say the least.
 
            But when we have God in the equation of history, there is a goal, an end to all that is happening; there is meaning and purpose to the world.  Everything we do and all that takes place around us is only vanity with the absence of God.  Yet, when the Christian fears God and keeps his commandments, then life moves along a decided pathway of following Jesus.  Life’s journey is not marked by useless activity, but faith, hope, and love.
 
            We all have a need for purpose and contribution, which is why the worldview apart from God is so meaningless.  We need to deeply and meaningfully connect with our Creator.  In doing so, we discover that life opens up to new and fresh vistas of peace and joy.  There is an end to the story, if we have spiritual eyes to see.
 

 

            Almighty God, you sometimes seem hidden and life appears to be going nowhere.  Open my eyes to see what you are doing in your world so that I might be directed toward your purposes in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Amen.