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The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three major sections: the Torah, the Prophets, and Wisdom books. The Wisdom section includes the Psalms, Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Fr. Richard Rohr says that Wisdom literature reveals an ability to be patient with mystery, contradictions, complexity—and the soul itself. The book of Ecclesiastes offers insight on the random, mysterious nature of life, and tackles complex issues like death and futility. It would be easy enough to become apathetic after reading the opening lines in Ecclesiastes that life is futile and meaningless, or reading a few more verses in that our hopes are often dashed, injustice often prevails, hard work is often not rewarded, and no one knows what the future holds. The main speaker in Ecclesiastes — who is called “the Teacher” – is attempting to answer an unspoken question that broods beneath the surface of every verse. How do I live well despite the random, uncontrollable nature of life? The book of Ecclesiastes, as well as the Psalms, may have wisdom to offer to teach us how to live well, how to live a meaningful life, especially in the midst of this current pandemic.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 is one of the most quoted and sung verses in scripture: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I am not convinced that this pandemic falls under “a purpose under heaven” because far too many people are suffering, and I refuse to believe in a God who desires suffering at any level. What I do know is that this pandemic will most likely create a paradigm shift in our lives, and will last for a longer season than any of us desires, but in the midst of this season, there are ways we can uncover some of the hidden gifts this season brings.
Lack of control is a major theme in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher reminds us that random things are going to happen in our lives that we have no control over, like COVID-19. His goal is to spiritually thrive despite the uncontrollable nature of life. When we are unable to influence an outcome – we CAN choose to focus on what we can control—which includes how we respond, and releasing what is beyond our control. Wise advice, yet often difficult to follow. We can start by cultivating appreciation and gratitude and staying present in the moment – whatever the season is.
Last Sunday, we started a worship theme using the book Earth, Our Original Monastery by Christine Valters Paintner.
“When we pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons, we learn about the rise & fall of life, about emptiness & fullness. Spring invites us to blossom forth; summer calls us to our own ripening; autumn demands that we release and let go; and winter whispers to us to rest, to sink into the dark fertile space of unknowing, to release the demands of productivity, and simply to be.”
What is the rhythm of this present season calling you to do? Even as we are in the full blossom of spring, spiritually speaking, it may feel more like winter – of sinking into the unknowing.
Theologian Steven Chase wrote a book in 2011 called Nature as Spiritual Practice. In the book he wants reclaim the role of nature in the formation of spiritual and moral identity.
He invites us to develop the capacity for astonishment as a spiritual practice. He says that we don’t earn transcendent moments in nature. There is nothing we do to deserve a wide night sky with a thousand glittering points above. No accomplishments earn the sun rising above the sea in shades of violet, fuchsia, and amber. The only proper response to these transcendent moments is to bow our heads in gratitude and to join in the prayer already at work around us. Cultivating our sense of wonder, enchantment, and astonishment becomes an act of resistance in an age of cynicism and despair.
It may be a time to refrain from embracing as Ecclesiastes 3 says, and a time to refrain from gathering in community in the ways we have known before, but one way to ward off cynicism and despair is to continue to cultivate our sense of wonder and astonishment of God’s creation that we did nothing to earn. Bonus points that it could be considered a subversive act of resistance.
Over the past few weeks, I have been asking for you to send me reflections of when you experienced God in creation or to talk about landscapes that formed you or to reflect on places that are sacred to you. One of the gifts of this season is receiving some of the deeper reflections of people in our congregation. I offer three reflections from Elizabeth, Joyce and Lou.
Elizabeth: In the summer of 2015, my older son, Sam, and I took a trip through the highlands of Scotland. One day on the Isle of Skye – the “misty isle” – we had some time to explore the lush, mysterious landscape. I spotted a huge stone sitting in the middle of a field, as if dropped from a giant’s pocket. It seemed to beckon me. “That rock wants to talk to me,” I told Sam, and laughed. “I’ll be right back. Take a photo of me with it, ok?” When I got to the stone, I greeted it, and it greeted me. I can’t explain how. There were no wise words spoken, no secrets shared. Just a friendly “How have you been?” so to say. In Celtic folklore, as all over the world, stones are often assigned magical or spiritual meaning: there are stone circles, cairns, standing stones, stones believed to speak like oracles, stones that house deities, memorialize a hero, or stones who were once people and may be again. There is even a belief that stones can somehow “record” emotions or events that took place about them. I can’t vouch for any truth to these beliefs, but I know that I am one of those people drawn to stones wherever I go. I collect the ringed “wishing rocks” from the beach, purloin tiny pieces of slate and such from ancient sites like Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and have even been known to go out of my way to greet an old friend sitting in the middle of a field on the Isle of Skye. These stones remind me that this entire planet is our sacred place. They are but bits and pieces of it – as are each of us – no one more or less important than the other. Jesus once hinted that stones could “cry out.” Who knows? It’s worth a listen.
Joyce: In late June 0f the Summer 1936, we had to move out of the house we’d been living in since coming to California. Dad moved us to a place he’d found, where he thought we’d be safe. It was on a hill side, about 2 miles north of Nevada City, at least a half a mile from anyone else. He made a tent of blankets for my mother and little sister to sleep in, but I got to sleep outside, under the stars, like my older sisters and Dad. Every night, when it was time for me to go to bed, Dad would wrap me in my blanket and talk to me about all kinds of things. I remember him telling me that God, a long, long, long time ago, had made the earth (the ground we walked on) and he put the stars up in the sky. Dad showed me where to look for the north star and the big dipper. Some nights he talked about the oceans because God made them, too. Dad talked about serving in the navy. Some times the ship he was on would go so far out on the water they couldn’t see any land. He talked about rivers and we would remember how pretty the moonlight was on the water of the Colorado River when we camped by it coming to California. I learned to recognize a pine tree or cedar or oak tree that summer – AND poison oak. Some nights we’d talk about how much fun it was camping out, about finding really big pine cones or about the deer we’d seen go by. We ended most talks feeling sorry for my cousin Tom, who slept in a house with the shade down so he couldn’t see the stars AND how lucky I was, I got to sleep out under the stars…that luck lasted until sometime in early October 1936.
Lou: Four years ago I was walking a trail at the Tijuana Estuary in San Diego with my three-year-old great-grandson, Max, at my side. I am appreciating the peacefulness of the area, the variety of the wetland grasses, and the occasional appearances of birds and squirrels. But it is the soft sandy trail itself which becomes metaphorically spiritual. It is a welcoming path that Max and I are sharing. At some point the trail will divide with Max and I continuing on separate paths. Mine will be a shorter trail. Yet it will also be comforting as I walk toward whatever destination God is guiding me, grateful for the many blessings that I have experienced. Recognizing that Max will be walking a much longer trail with many challenges, I remind myself that God will walk with him and will bless guide him and guide him through whatever challenges he may face on his trail. And that gives me peace.
Elizabeth, Joyce, and Lou are remembering seasons of their lives in God’s creation that evoked a deeper spiritual reflection and I am grateful. I imagine reflecting on these memories brought them great comfort and what a gift it is for us to hear and receive these reflections in this time of worship.
Ecclesiastes 3:12 – The Teacher says: The Teacher says
“God has made everything beautiful in its time. I know the best thing we can do is to always enjoy life as long as we live; God’s gift to us is the happiness we get from our food and drink and from the work we do.
What are ways we can enjoy life as The Teacher says in Ecclesiastes, or to cultivate wonder and astonishment as Steve Chase wrote in Nature as Spiritual Practice? What will the rhythm of your days bring in this season of continuing to shelter at home?
The Psalmist speaks of the rhythm God created –
God made the moon to mark the seasons and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening. How many are your works, O Lord? In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Christine suggests setting aside a moment to pay special attention during certain times of the day – such as dawn, midday, dusk, and bedtime. Much like praying the hours. To become present to this time and to ask these questions?
Morning: What are you awakening to?
Noontime: What in your life longs for illumination?
Dusk might ask what you are called to release?
And dark may ask you to open yourself to mystery to live into the questions of life rather than seek answers.
May we soak in the simple pleasures of being alive on this Earth, our original monastery from God. Thanks be to God.