Breakdowns and Breakthroughs
Ecclesiastes is known as the Book of Wisdom. For a long time, the book was attributed to King Solomon—David’s son—who built the temple and was considered the wisest king of all. Now, scholars question that attribution. What isn’t questioned is the wisdom which the book contains. That wisdom has, at its core, an honesty that names a central hard truth: that in the end, death is the common fate that all human beings share, good folks and bad folks alike. Therefore, our job is to live a wise life—not because it will get us some reward, but because that wise life is its own reward. That wise life rests in how we approach each day, how we eat and how we work and how we treat the people around us. The author won’t promise us that there is eternal meaning or value to the decisions that we make. Human actions might well be “hevel” in the end—just breath that evaporates with time. However, who we choose to be and how we choose to live, matters in the here and now—regardless.
What’s striking about this wisdom is how profoundly modern the thinking is. Life is uncertain. We don’t know what’s coming next. What we do know is that the journey matters. And what we know, day in and day out, is that the journey is made up of today’s choices. So much of life is beyond our control. So much of life is beyond our understanding. The best we get to do is to make the choices that are ours to make and try, in the process, to live with some sense of integrity. All of this is shared by someone who was writing over two thousand years ago.
Certainly, as followers of Christ in this church, we believe not only that death comes for us all but that there is more that follows death. The God who loves us in this life loves us well-beyond this life. However, to follow Christ is to stand in the midst of this life in not all that different of a way and to be challenged to do things not all the different than Ecclesiastes’ way. Our job is to be present. Our job is to choose. Our job is to live with integrity. And in the end, in doing these things, we honor God.
So, let’s make this concrete. None of us have control over time. As I’ve pointed out before, there may be times in our lives when time just can’t go quickly enough. Maybe we are suffering or grieving or going through some medical treatment. All we want to do is get to the other side of that time in our life as fast as possible. There may be days in which we are just bored: “I don’t want to be where I am. I can’t think of a single thing to do.” There may be times when time is flying by and you know it: you’re enjoying precious time with friends and family; you’re doing work that is particularly meaningful; you’re just in a surprisingly joyful place. Here’s the thing, we don’t get to hold the “clicker.” We don’t get to hit “fast-forward” in the hard parts or “pause” in the really good parts. We get to experience life but we do not get to control life.
One of the biggest questions is how long it will take a person to come to grips with that truth: you are not in control. One of the hardest things for a lot of people when it comes to worshiping God is that they still aren’t quite convinced that they aren’t God. I’m not saying they walk around thinking that they are the God. I’m saying that a lot of people act as if they are the masters of the universe. They are in control. They are in charge. They are doing everything they can to shape and mold their children into becoming who they believe their children should be…and in the meantime, their children keep being who they’ve been since the moment they entered this world. It is an entirely human thing in the face of all the insecurities of this life to want to try to hold everything together the way that we know that it should be. Eventually, though, that’s exhausting. Eventually, the world defies our best efforts. Eventually, we feel like we have failed. Everything is falling apart. Eventually, we feel like we are having a breakdown.
The surprising thing is that the breakdown actually ends up being a breakthrough. What an incredible relief it is to realize that I am not in charge of being in control! What a difference it makes to know that my children are who they are and my job isn’t to change them but to help them become the best version of that self whom they can be. I can be in relationship with them. I can love them unconditionally. Beyond that, though, my influence in their lives will be grounded in persuasion. I can listen. If asked, I can offer an opinion. However, mostly what I can do is be here for the people I love and offer them the assurance that whatever they have to go through, they will not be alone. I will be right here loving them. I can’t make their lives easier but I can make their living less lonely.
This is the second major struggle that we go through. We make peace with the fact that we are not in charge: “Okay…fine. I’m not ‘driving the bus,’ here.” The next place that is so easy to go is to assume that God is in charge. If God is in charge and God loves me, then only good things will come my way, right? Or, maybe we modify that and say that only good things will come my way if…if I’m a good person, if I give “X” amount of money to the church and charity, if I park myself in a pew from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings. I can’t control things but God will. Therefore, whatever happens is God’s will, right?
The second great challenge is to come to grips with the fact that a lot of what happens in this life is not stamped, “Endorsed by God.” I remember being in shop class in 7th grade and the song that kept playing was, “I beg your pardon…I never promised you a rose garden.” Nothing quite wrecks a song like hearing it over and over again in a room filled with dangerous tools and smelly 7th grade boys! Still, God really doesn’t promise us a rose garden—seriously. In his last night of freedom, Jesus Christ spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeing the pain that was coming and praying to the point of sweating blood that there might be another way.
So much depends on this insight. If you’ve read the book, you know that terrible things happen to Jesus. Easter morning and an empty tomb do not cancel out the reality of suffering in this life. It makes all the sense in the world that if we intend to follow him, we should expect to suffer, too. Some of that suffering will be intrinsically meaningful. We will suffer for telling the truth or for caring for the “wrong” people or daring to live out our faith. Those days will be hard but at least we will be able to claim their meaning.
Other hard things won’t come with that kind of intrinsic meaning attached. I had a friend diagnosed with Alzheimer’s recently. That is just terrible. Cancer isn’t God’s will or God’s punishment. In a world where millions of people are enmeshed in poverty and hunger and homelessness, I don’t believe for a second, God is somewhere thinking, “Just like I planned it!” Some of those things may be things that we contributed to in how we chose to take care of ourselves or how we chose to horde the world’s resources. However, a lot of those things just happen. And when they do, if our faith rests in God being a controlling God, we’re in trouble. Our faith is going to fade fast.
This is where Ecclesiastes’ wisdom comes in. There is a right time for everything—not because everything is good, not because everything is stamped, “Endorsed by God.” No, there is a right time for everything because if you’re going to spend your life arguing with life or with God or with yourself that what’s happening is wrong or unfair or cannot possibly be real, then you are going to waste your life. We are not here to call “balls and strikes,” to decide which moments that we will live and which we will check out on or just skip. Life includes every possible kind of moment, some of which we relish and some of which we dread. The job, though, is to live them all. The question is, “What is the faithful way to navigate this?”
Go back to the whole parenting question. Almost as soon as your child can crawl, you know that you are no longer in control of them—no matter what the person on the plane next to your child seems to believe! You are there for them through their best moments and their worst moments. You have a huge stake in helping them grow. You are present. You can even—occasionally—be persuasive. However, you can’t control them or what happens to them. You can only love them for all they’re worth.
I think that this is how we need to think about God and how God is present, too. Right now, a whole lot of people cannot forgive God for not being in control. We are more aware than ever of the worst things that happen every day in our world. And, if we are convinced that it is God’s job to keep everyone safe and happy and fed and housed, then God is failing on a daily basis. The God who is in charge of everything and at the very least making sure that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished is taking a real beating. That faith if breaking down.
That is precisely the breakthrough that I invite you to make. Not everything that happens is God’s will. However, there is nothing that God will not go through with us (and the good news is that this loving, relational God is intimately familiar with just how hard and painful this life can be!) Like a loving parent, God will not abandon us. God will be with us. God may even persuade us to find a better pathway through what we face—to exercise the choices that we have been given. And like a loving parent, God’s greatest delight may rest not in having everything go our way but in witnessing us navigate a terrible moment without losing ourselves.
My hope for our church is that we will be there for one another—in good days and bad—in this Godly, loving, relational way. My hope is that we will be the people who look each in other in the eye and say, “I would give anything to take this pain away but I can’t. However, what I can promise is that if you let me come with you, I will join you every step of the way!” This is the gift of life together in a church family.