A Time for Ecclesiastes

Today the Bible opened to Ecclesiastes.  And I ended up reading the entire book.  The words kept teasing me along.  What was God telling me?  What did the words mean?  I could not quite understand it until the end:

“Therefore I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.”  Ecclesiastes 2:17.

“For what profit comes to mortals from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which they toil under the sun?” Ecclesiastes 2:22.

“The covetous are never satisfied with money, nor lovers of wealth with their gain.”  Ecclesiastes 5:9.

“All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied.”  Ecclesiastes 6:7.

Much of this book talks about the frustration that I often feel in life.  Sometimes I feel like I am chasing my tail.  Lots of toil, lots of work.  Lots of anxiety.  And what do we gain for our work?  We are never satisfied.  It is never enough.  We can never rest.

“Everything is the same for everybody: the same lot for the just and the wicked, for the good, for the clean and the unclean, for the one who offers sacrifice and the one who does not. As it is for the good, so it is for the sinner; as it is for the one who takes an oath, so it is for the one who fears an oath.”  Ecclesiastes 9:2.

“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not promptly executed, the human heart is filled with the desire to commit evil— because the sinner does evil a hundred times and survives.”  Ecclesiastes 8:11-12.

“Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike.”  Ecclesiastes 9:11.

I struggled with these passages for awhile.  At first I was dismayed.  Is it all for naught?    Despite all of our hard work on earth, all of our efforts to distinguish ourselves, we all end up the same.  We all end up dead.  What difference does it make if we work hard, do well, strive to do what is right?

Of course, I know the difference.  The difference is the relationship we build with God. (But it can be so hard on earth, where both good and evil have the same earthly fate, and sometimes the bad is rewarded.)

“God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. ”  Ecclesiastes 3:11.

We are short-sighted and see only the time on earth.   And often only see what is surrounding us at that moment.  We cannot see beyond our own struggle, beyond today’s pressure.  But God has a plan and everything has its time.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  Ecclesiastes 3:4.

We will have our time.  We will have time for joy.  But we will also all have time for sorrow, time to weep, time to mourn, time to struggle.  And here on earth these times stink.  And it is hard to see the good, when we are going through these times.

“Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked?  On a good day enjoy good things, and on an evil day consider: Both the one and the other God has made, so that no one may find the least fault with him.”  Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.

Although it is difficult to see this at the time, the time for mourning, the time for sorrow is important.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, For that is the end of every mortal, and the living should take it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter; when the face is sad, the heart grows wise.”  Ecclesiastes 7:2-3.

We learn from our struggles.  I don’t think we learn as much from our good times.  And importantly we learn with our heart.  Our heart grows, our relationship with each other grows, and our relationship with God grows.  This next passage tied it all up for me:

When the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth.  Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls, there shall it lie.

One who pays heed to the wind will never sow, and one who watches the clouds will never reap.

Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, So you do not know the work of God, who is working in everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hand be idle: For you do not know which of the two will be successful, or whether both alike will turn out well.

Ecclesiastes 11:3-6

We are given a limited time here on earth.  We could spend it constantly worried about how the wind will blow and when the rain will fall.  We could spend it constantly focused on the bad times and bemoaning our lot in life.  But we do not know the work of God.  We cannot understand the plans He has.  We do not know when the time will come.  So we keep working.  We keep trying.  We keep going.  We keep praying.  We keep thanking God for the days that we have, because each of them is a gift.

“Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 8:15.

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God.  For who can eat or drink apart from God?”  Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.

Lord,

Thank you for this day.  Thank you for the food and drink that you provide.  Help me to experience the joy and the sorrow fully.  Help my heart to grow through the “bad” times.  Help me to accept the “bad” times with an open heart so that it may be filled.  I know I cannot understand your ways.  But I know your plans are for good.  I trust you Lord.

 

The Book of Judith

Today the Bible opened to the book of Judith.  My first thought was “Oh no — Old Testament” — and, at first glance, it looked like a lot of historical genealogy about the,  son of Ox, son of Joseph, son of Oziel and son of Elkiah  — the sort of stuff that normally quickly puts me to sleep.  I was pleasantly surprised when I quickly landed on this passage:

All the men of Israel cried to God with great fervor and humbled themselves. They, along with their wives, and children, and domestic animals, every resident alien, hired worker, and purchased slave, girded themselves with sackcloth.  And all the Israelite men, women, and children who lived in Jerusalem fell prostrate in front of the temple and sprinkled ashes on their heads, spreading out their sackcloth before the Lord.  The altar, too, they draped in sackcloth; and with one accord they cried out fervently to the God of Israel not to allow their children to be seized, their wives to be taken captive, the cities of their inheritance to be ruined, or the sanctuary to be profaned and mocked for the nations to gloat over.  The Lord heard their cry and saw their distress.

Judith 4: 9-13

It is always good to be reminded that in times of distress we need to call out to God.  In Judith, the Israelites were being threatened with war by the Assyrians. I thought I would just write about this, but then I read further (an advisor to the Assyrians told the leader):

“As long as the Israelites did not sin in the sight of their God, they prospered, for their God, who hates wickedness, was with them.   But when they abandoned the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly destroyed by frequent wars, and finally taken as captives into foreign lands. The temple of their God was razed to the ground, and their cities were occupied by their enemies.  But now they have returned to their God, and they have come back from the Diaspora where they were scattered. They have reclaimed Jerusalem, where their sanctuary is, and have settled again in the hill country, because it was unoccupied.  “So now, my master and lord, if these people are inadvertently at fault, or if they are sinning against their God, and if we verify this offense of theirs, then we will be able to go up and conquer them. But if they are not a guilty nation, then let my lord keep his distance; otherwise their Lord and God will shield them, and we will be mocked in the eyes of all the earth.”

Judith 5: 17-21

What a prescription for life!  We make ourselves weak when we sin.   When we abandon the way God prescribes for us, we are utterly destroyed.  Hmmm.  Could our country learn something from this?

We make ourselves strong when we stand with God.

I thought this would be all I wrote, but then I read further — surprisingly it was actually quite riveting (the Israelites were about to give up until Judith stepped in and said):

Who are you to put God to the test today, setting yourselves in the place of God in human affairs?  And now it is the Lord Almighty you are putting to the test, but you will never understand anything!  You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or grasp the workings of the human mind; how then can you fathom God, who has made all these things, or discern his mind, or understand his plan?  “No, my brothers, do not anger the Lord our God.   For if he does not plan to come to our aid within the five days, he has it equally within his power to protect us at such time as he pleases, or to destroy us in the sight of our enemies.  Do not impose conditions on the plans of the Lord our God. God is not like a human being to be moved by threats, nor like a mortal to be cajoled.

“So while we wait for the salvation that comes from him, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our cry if it pleases him.

Judith 8:12-17

How many times do I try to bargain with God or cajole him.  Judith’s words from thousands of years ago, strike pure today.   We cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or grasp the workings of the human mind; how then can we fathom God, who has made all these things, or discern his mind, or understand his plan?  Who are we to think we can even try.  We just need to accept God’s plan.  And know that it is for our good.  He knows.  And no matter how we try, it is not humanly possible for us to fully grasp the reasons why.  Judith went on to say:

“Therefore, my brothers, let us set an example for our kindred. Their lives depend on us, and the defense of the sanctuary, the temple, and the altar rests with us.  Besides all this, let us give thanks to the Lord our God for putting us to the test as he did our ancestors.  Recall how he dealt with Abraham, and how he tested Isaac, and all that happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia while he was tending the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother.  He has not tested us with fire, as he did them, to try their hearts, nor is he taking vengeance on us. But the Lord chastises those who are close to him in order to admonish them.”

Judith 8:24-27

Read this passage again.  I find it amazingly uplifting.  First, our kindred’s lives depend on us.  Now that could seem burdensome, but I find it to be great guidance on how to live life when troubles seem to abound.  What better way to forget your own troubles than to focus on those around you?  Our kindred, our faith, our church depend on us, each of us.  What would happen if we all gave up?

And more importantly thank God for putting us to the test — thank God for the struggles — why — because He chastises those who are close to Him in order to admonish or warn them — in order to help guide us!  God loves us.  The tests, the struggles, the burdens are not to harm us — but to strengthen us and make straight our path to Him.  All of those close to Him have suffered in some fashion — indeed, we all suffer, we all go through dark times.  But God has given us kindred to help and like a good parent gentle reminders of the path we need to be on when we stray.  Sometimes the reminders may not be as gentle as we would like — but they are what we need to bring us back to the path to God.

Lord,

Thank you for all of the gentle reminders you throw my way, and even for the not so gentle reminders.  Strengthen me so that I may help others.  Guide me in the path to you.  Help me to be patient when I do not understand your ways or the path that I am on.  Help me to trust and let go in you.

The blame game

Why is everything always someone else’s fault?  Why do we feel the need to blame someone else for any misfortune, or accident that occurs.  Why do we lash out at others, and even wage wars, over every slight or perceived slight or whenever things do not go our way.  I guess it is because we believe that everything should go our way.  That we are entitled to everything to be in accordance with our plans.  Perhaps, sometimes we forget about God’s plans.

I think this is what the Bible is telling me today:

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Rehoboam assembled the house of Judah and Benjamin—one hundred and eighty thousand elite warriors—to wage war against Israel and restore the kingdom to Rehoboam.  However, the word of the LORD came to Shemaiah, a man of God: Say to Rehoboam, son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all the Israelites in Judah and Benjamin: “Thus says the LORD: You must not go out to war against your kinsmen. Return home, each of you, for it is I who have brought this about.” They obeyed the word of the LORD and turned back from going against Jeroboam.

2 Chronicles 11:1-4

Perhaps not everything that seems bad, is bad.  Perhaps rather than looking to blame and seek retribution, I can look for the bright side.  Because I have a feeling that in God’s world there is definitely a good side (I just  have to stop focusing on my plans).

Dear God,

Help me to be patient.  Help me to be open to changes to my plans and look to see your plan.

 

The Book of Ruth

God sent me another reminder today — do unto others…

The Bible opened to the Book of Ruth.  If you have not read it, it is worth the read.  It’s a relatively short chapter and tells the story of Ruth, who stands by her mother-in-law, Naomi, when Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) dies.  Naomi begs Ruth to abandon her, and essentially save herself, telling her that she is too old, but Ruth can go on and find a new husband. Ruth refuses.

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to go back and abandon you!  Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.  Where you die I will die, and there be buried. May the LORD do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth does unto others as she would have them do unto her.  She puts Naomi’s needs above her own.  And she finds the way to happiness for both her and Naomi.  Without abandoning Naomi, she finds a new husband and gives birth to a child, who will become the grandfather to David.  And along the way she helps Naomi, who initially appeared to have given up.  After her husband and then her sons died, Naomi felt that God was against her.  But by the end, thanks to Ruth’s faithfulness, Naomi is being reminded of how great God is:

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the LORD who has not failed to provide you today with a redeemer. May he become famous in Israel!  He will restore your life and be the support of your old age, for his mother is the daughter-in-law who loves you. She is worth more to you than seven sons!”  Naomi took the boy, cradled him against her breast, and cared for him.   The neighbor women joined the celebration: “A son has been born to Naomi!”   They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Ruth 4:14-17

The Book of Ruth told me two things:  Do good for others and good will come to you.  And don’t doubt God’s plan.  It was certainly a hard journey for both Ruth and Naomi, but how important the journey was.

Dear God,

Your plans are great and sometimes mystical to me.  Sometimes, I just don’t understand.  Help me to never give up.  Help me to trust in you.  Help me to put the needs of others ahead of my own, even when doing so seems to be against my interests.  Help me to realize that your interests are my interests.

Amen