Discerning what’s appropriate in each situation
The Bible Goes Gold
Did you know God wrote a number one hit song? Songwriter Pete Seeger draws all but six words of the 1966 hit Turn, Turn, Turn straight from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which we continue digging into this week.
The song Turn, Turn, Turn and the Bible passage it’s drawn from, Ecclesiastes chapter three, begs the question, what time is it? How do we make sense of our time? Rolling Stone magazine editor David Fricke comments that the song’s plea for peace was custom-made for 1960s America—a decade marred by assassinations, riots, and rising opposition to the Vietnam War. Musically, the tune is very simple. It’s miles from, say, Bohemian Rhapsody. It is the lyrics, coming straight from Scripture, that grabbed listeners and moved them to wonder, what time is it?
This time last year you would hear things like, “Time just got away from me,” “Time rushes by,” and “I don’t have enough hours in the day.” The past few months, the questions have changed to things like “When will things return to normal?,” and “What day of the week is it again?” That phenomenon actually has a name—COVID time, losing track of what day it is, now that our rhythms are being messed with. We can all recognize this is arguably the strangest time of our lives.
So let’s dive into King Solomon’s 3,000-year-old musing on discerning what time it is, and in light of that, how to make the most of what time it is, the time we find ourselves in the midst of. If you would, open your Bible or Bible app to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. There we read…
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
And so Solomon wonders…
“What do workers gain from their toil?
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the human heart;
yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
There’s a right time for everything
There is a right time for everything. The challenge is to discern what time it is in the moment, how to act in this season so that we can look back not with regret but with satisfaction that we redeemed this time. We figured out how to make the most of it.
In this poetic framing of everything possible in your life, Solomon frames 14 pairs of opposites. Together, they capture the full range of human experience. Let’s touch on them one at a time, and then pivot to two crucial observations to bring God into the equation.
All of life in just a phrase
Solomon begins with the cold-water-in-the-face reality that there’s a time to be born and a time to die. While I was writing this message, I visited with a yChurch member whose sister just died. They’re part of yChurch from their home in Oregon, and he flew back to Indiana for the funeral. We got together to mourn her death. Yet the same day he reached out, I got a text from our next-door neighbors with a
picture of their newborn, their first child, captioned “Meet your new neighbor!” Both extremes on the same day, birth and death.
We don’t get to choose when we’re born. We have no idea when we’ll die. Those are the bookends to life under the sun, with everything else in this poem falling between those two dates. So Solomon starts with the mystery of time into which we’re born, and the mystery of when we’ll die.
Insights from farmers
Next there’s a time to plant and a time to uproot. Valorie, who is a member of yChurch, is a direct descendant of the pioneers who homesteaded the land that is now the Indiana State Fairgrounds. In Pioneer Village, you can explore a recreation of the 1-room cabin in which they raised ten children. They would tell us what Solomon declares: You have to work with the seasons if you want to get a harvest. There’s a right time to plant, and a different right time to harvest.
Every summer when I was a kid, we vacationed on Lake Champlain, adjacent to the largest MacIntosh apple orchard in the world. Each Cavanagh kid had the experience of strolling into the orchard in June or July, plucking an apple from a tree, and biting into it, only to learn that those apples don’t ripen until October. Like Mom and Dad used to say, two ways to learn. We learned the hard way that in farming as in life, timing is everything.
Life lessons from herders
Solomon continues, there’s a time to kill and a time to heal. He might be thinking of herders healing injured animals only to slaughter them when the time is right. Some wonder if Solomon was thinking more of the confusing reality that life at times is like a war zone, while at other times more like a first aid station. If the latter, think about today. We have admirable organizations like Doctors Without Borders rushing into war zones to treat wounds and provide food and clean water. Yet at the same time you see things like Turkish forces crossing an international border to hunt down Kurds.
The week that I was writing this message, political activist artist Banksy bought a boat to rescue refugees at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean, while right here in Indianapolis, the news carried names of people who were gunned down and died.
Which brings us back to Solomon’s main thesis from chapter one and verse two, which is that life under the sun, meaning life apart from God, is a confusing mess.
Demolition and reconstruction
He continues, there’s a time to tear down and a time to build. Consider State Road 37 in Fishers. With the growth around here the past few decades, State Road 37 from 126th Street to 146th Street was a slow moving party come rush hour. Time to tear down and rebuild better, a project that’s underway right now.
Tears and high fives
Fifth, Solomon points out, there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh. Romans 12:15 in the New Testament says the same, that we’re to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Laugh with your friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. In each situation, discern which time it is.
Building on that, Solomon says, there’s a time to mourn and a time to dance. Consider Solomon’s Dad, King David. When the ark of the covenant, the tangible reminder of the Lord’s presence with Israel, was brought back to Jerusalem after having been captured by enemies, it was a time to throw the mother of all parties. So David danced with all his might. He was thrilled and unafraid to show it. Yet the same David fasted and mourned when his son grew deathly ill. There’s a right time for each.
Getting ready to plow
Next Solomon says there’s a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them. When Valorie’s great-great-grandparents arrived to farm the land that is now Indiana’s State Fairgrounds, one of the first things they had to do was dig out all the rocks so that their plow could do its work. Those same stones could then be used to build walls or lay foundations.
Hugs and conflict
Solomon continues, there’s a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing…a verse that has taken on new meaning for us! One thought is that he’s referring to the seasons in our relationships. There are times for affection, and just as surely, any healthy relationship will include times of gentle confrontation.
If this is something you wrestle with, I strongly recommend Peter Scazzero’s material on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. There’s an online small group option we can offer if there’s enough interest. You can check it out at emotionallyhealthy.org. And if you connect with yChurch online, if you haven’t been with us in the Fishers YMCA, this offer is for you as well. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Search & rescue vs. search & recovery
Let’s keep moving. Solomon notes there’s a time to search and a time to give up. That’s a heartbreaking reality. Just this past month, an amphibious assault vehicle with 15 Marines and a sailor sank off the California coast during a training accident. Eight were able to escape, one of them succumbing soon after. Immediately a search and rescue operation went into action. But 40 hours in, it transitioned to a recovery mission. Solomon is pushing us with brutal honesty to wrestle with the seeming absurdities of life under the sun, of life apart from connecting with God.
Next Solomon observes there’s a time to keep and a time to throw away. Each May, our homeowners’ association announces the date for our annual garage sale. And all of a sudden, lots of homeowners find stuff to get rid of, get it out of the house. Either sell it or drop it off at Goodwill.
A present-day argument over what to keep and what to throw away is over southern Confederate monuments: why they were erected in the first place, and whether it’s time to remove them from prominent placement at a time when black Americans are crying out for justice.
Rips and repairs
That takes us to the next pairing that there’s a time to tear and a time to mend. When I was in grad school in South Carolina, the day came when we were called to a student assembly to hear from a former employee. She described her career cooking for generations of students training to become pastors and missionaries—but her own son couldn’t eat with the students when he visited her at work, and he couldn’t attend that school because of the color of his skin.
The purpose of that assembly was to own up to the school’s past and begin mending what they had torn.
Or think of a toxic workplace. When a work team becomes toxic, someone has to dismantle what’s there in order to replace what’s broken and get on to better business.
To speak or hold your peace?
Next Solomon says there’s a time to be silent and a time to speak. Many of us have regrets over things we have said. Few of us will ever regret the times we chose to think it but not say it. It’s usually better to practice self-control, to give the benefit of the doubt, or just give the other person space.
But there are times to speak up. The book of Esther’s Mordecai is a great example. He sees that it’s time for his niece Esther to risk it all in order to save many lives. And so he speaks up and asks, “Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) She listens. She discerns that he’s right. She risks her life by speaking up. And it works. Thousands are saved from genocide.
Love or war?
Solomon continues that there’s a time to love and a time to hate, and there’s a time for war and a time for peace, two pairs of opposites that go hand in hand. Remember the author. Solomon is king of Israel at the height of their power, wealth, and international influence. That little nation has always been a crossroads between East and West, trampled on time and time again by foreign powers. So for Solomon and his military leaders, they had to discern when the intentions of surrounding nations were peaceful, up against when it was time to call out the troops.
So there’s the poem that encompasses the full range of life’s experiences. But did you notice something? We aren’t told how to discern which is to be used when. Because in the poem, Solomon wants to lay out his observations about how complex and confusing is this life under the sun. It’s hard to know “what time” it is in any given season or situation.
Now the passage pivots. Adding up all these possibilities, Solomon essentially asks…
How can we make sense of it all?
“What do workers gain from their toil?,” verse 9. What’s the payoff? Where’s the profit in it all? Fourteen positive actions cancel out fourteen opposites. Up against each plus there’s a minus that neutralizes it. Every birth ends in death, everything that’s built eventually crumbles, every season of peace is stopped by yet another outbreak of war. How can we make any sense of life?
Solomon’s sum-zero math is intended to lead us back to his core thesis from chapter one that life under the sun, life without God, is meaningless, absolutely meaningless. It’s all fleeting, transient, futile and perplexing. There’s no rock-solid reference point, no clear purpose, and an unknowable future.
He is setting us up not only to see that much of life is locked away in mystery, and not to imagine that we can go to the locksmith to get the key and then understand it all. No. Rather, he’s setting us up to see that what we need most…is to trust the locksmith himself.
And so it is at this lowest of lows that Solomon abruptly shifts perspective from life under the son, to life with God in the equation. He commends to us two perspective shifts. Here’s the first:
- When God brings discernment to our moments, each day finds purpose.
Finally in verse 11, Solomon brings God into the picture, observing…
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11a
Meaning, God gives an appropriate time for everything. When God gives discernment to sense what time it is, to sense the appropriate approach to this season, that infuses our days with purpose.
The most dramatic example of this in the Bible is Esther. Esther is another great book for the strange time we find ourselves in, because like us, she doesn’t see God or hear God. She doesn’t so much as have a Bible or any of the Scriptures. Prayer is never mentioned. Worship, temple, God—none of that is visible in the book of Esther. It’s written that way on purpose, so that in the times when it seems like God is gone, we can gain hope. Because he is at work, always. It’s a matter of discerning how the Holy Spirit is leading, discerning what time it is.
Well what time is it these days? What might God be up to behind the scenes today? This is what our leadership team is beginning to wrestle with. I firmly believe the Lord is calling us to discern how to make the most of this season. What are new ways each of us can stay connected and on mission? How can we shift our focus of ministry from church buildings one hour a week, to the places God has us the other 167 hours each week? I’m pivoting to making my messages much more practical for equipping and encouraging you to be on mission where God has you each day, with your immediate and extended family, with your coworkers, with your neighbors.
The other thing I’m convinced of is that it’s time to invite as many people as possible to the church’s new front door, which is online ministry. Not online only, but definitely online first. Our daughter is considering where to go to college next year. For that big decision, choosing where to live and learn, eat and make best friends, the starting point is always…online. That’s the new front door for many reasons. It always will be moving forward. It’s the same for churches now. Everyone you want to reach with the good news of Jesus…is online. If you will share our online ministry consistently, with your personal endorsement for why it’s worth checking out, we can reach people anywhere, anytime.
We’re connected already with believers in Oregon; in Long Island, New York; with parents and friends who live elsewhere in Indiana and in Michigan, who are blessed by our ministry and are connected to someone here. It looks different because they’re connected to you long before they’re personally connected with me and the rest of the congregation. But that’s a good thing! It’s personal ministry, being made available digitally—again with the potential to reach your circle of friends and family anywhere, anytime. It’s time we maximize the new front door for ministry.
Back to the point: there’s beauty to be found in this painful season. But finding it calls for prayerful discernment.
And then in the latter half of verse 11, Solomon reminds us of eternity. If you’re taking notes, here’s what we can say:
- When God brings perspective to our eternity, we’re free to enjoy today.
“He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Twenty-nine times in today’s poem, Solomon alludes to time. He concludes by contrasting time with eternity. Everything we do, we measure in time: seconds in races and basketball games, minutes in time running for exercise, hours billed, years on the job, and so on. And yet, Solomon notes, we all have intimations of eternity. Humans instinctively think of forever. We try to picture life beyond this life. We strongly sense there is life that never ends. But we can’t figure it out. God has hard-wired that yearning for eternity into us.
And the “Groundhog Day” kind of reality that we find ourselves limited to time—70 to 90 years at most—leaves us frustrated, unfulfilled. The “math” Solomon has laid out is all intended to push us to take a good hard look at eternity. Because when you get your eternal destiny settled, there comes the freedom to enjoy the time you have.
Can I ask you, are you ready for the moment when you will step into eternity? If you’re not absolutely sure about your eternal destiny, make today the day you settle that. Solomon was right when he said there’s a time for everything. There’s a time to get right with God. Maybe today is your time to settle where you’ll spend eternity.
Here’s how. The New Testament book of John tells us this about Jesus:
“To all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12
If you will trust in Jesus as your Savior, that is that he died and rose to forgive your sins;
And begin to listen to and follow him day by day, the promise is that all who truly accept him become children of God. God becomes your Father in heaven. The church becomes your extended family on earth. And new purpose will come to your days. Life can go from meaningless to meaningful and enjoyable, because you have God with you, and you have the family of God alongside you.
Let’s take a moment to talk with God right now. Lord, we believe you led Solomon to observe that there’s a right time for everything. Show us what time it is, Lord, so that we can redeem this unusual season, so that we can make the most of it. Give us courage to invite family and friends to come hear about you. Give us opportunities throughout the week to listen well, to empathize, to stand with those who are wrestling with the stresses and losses. Use us, Lord God, to bring the hope of eternity into today’s questions. May many seek and find you in this time, we ask in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.
We’re so glad you chose to be with us today. If you’re new to yChurch, use the contact form to drop a line. We’d love to be in touch personally to pray for you. We’re not too busy for you!
God bless you this week and make you a blessing!