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Ecclesiastes series conclusion

Getting ready for winter

This week’s message was taped at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park. These waves have been crashing ashore since long before we came on the scene, and they will continue doing so long after we are gone.

I’ve chosen this setting for our final message from the book of Ecclesiastes because chapter 3 of this unusual Bible book reminds us that…

“There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

Ecclesiastes 3:1

There’s a season for everything, that is, the four different seasons accomplish different things. Everyone loves spring, when nature comes to life. First the crocus, then tulip bulbs, buds and leaves on trees, and birds making nests to have their young, to bring the next generation into being.

We enjoy summer for its warmth and sun and a chance to get outside and catch a tan, to barbecue with friends, and head out of town for vacation.

With Fall come blazing red maple trees and crisp nights and Halloween. Indiana’s corn and soybeans have long since been harvested, now the fields lay fallow heading toward winter.

There’s a season for everything. But few of us look forward to winter. I’m taping here now, because ten days from now, no one will come here. Not until Spring. The Acadia Park loop road will be gated and locked as winter settles in on coastal Maine. One of the most-visited national parks in America will transition into a season of silence and rest.

Creation and people experience all the seasons

This park, and creation itself, moves in a rhythm of thaw, heat, cool, freeze, repeat; rhythms of work and play and rest; rhythms of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and taking a break.

In Ecclesiastes chapter 3, Solomon observes that just as nature has a right season for everything, so do people. So do we. Just like it would be only a fool who tries planting corn in Indiana come January, or just as foolish is the one who ignores his lawn all Spring, Solomon tips us off that spiritually, too, there is a season—a right time—for everything. There are different seasons that accomplish different things.

With permission, I can tell you about conversation with a friend recently who is struggling with the season in which he finds himself. There’s tension at work, loneliness from a marriage that didn’t work out, challenges of trying to influence a child who is now an adult and making his own choices, and seasonal depression, which many suffer from. It’s a hard season, one neither he nor any of us would choose. But it has come.

As winter nears, it’s an appropriate time, a right time for us to explore the wisdom God would give us for facing winter with mature faith—neither faking it till you make it, nor succumbing to the pessimism that marks many, but facing a hard season with eyes wide open and with faith for what God can accomplish in us, through a winter of the soul. So here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll explore the characteristics of a spiritual winter. That will bring us to the appropriate focus when you’re facing a spiritual winter. And finally, we’ll identify the ways Christ draws close to those who find themselves in a spiritual winter.

Open your Bible or Bible app to Ecclesiastes chapter 12. In his closing chapter, old man Solomon poetically portrays the winter of life, meaning advanced old age. He urges, beginning in verse 1…

“Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    ‘I find no pleasure in them’—
before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher.
    ‘Everything is meaningless!’”

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

The physical winter of aging

That’s a poetic portrayal of advanced old age. All the elements of productivity have gone silent: grinders turning wheat into flour, formerly strong men are now stooped over, eyesight dims, they get up early but don’t have a song on their lips, they fear where in the past they would stroll the streets with confidence, and there is the description of death—people going to their eternal home, as mourners walk the streets remembering and missing them. The dust of the body returns to the ground, while the spirit of that elderly person returns to God who gave it.

You have seen this if you have had parents or grandparents live to a ripe old age. I see it in my work leading a chaplain team at a local assisted living facility. There are former biochemists and physicians and world travelers and patent holders who, as nice as that place and its employees are, there are residents who would echo Solomon in verse one in saying, “I take little to no pleasure in my days. Not anymore.”

I meet with seniors who, with tears in their eyes and face fallen, tell how much they miss their husband or wife who has gone on to their eternal home. They’re lonely, and the pandemic is exacerbating that: their families cannot come for indoor visits. And now that the winter is approaching, it’s unclear whether there will still be occasional, planned-ahead-of-time outside, physically distanced visits with family. It’s a hard season.

What the winter of life and the winters of the soul have in common is the loss of delight, the loss of satisfaction and fulfillment. In their place befalls a sense of uselessness that provokes the conclusion of verse 8: “Everything is meaningless!”

The food you once savored? Well, the taste buds begin to dull. The trips you used to go out on—internationally or on a long flight or long road trip? They come to an end—even as for most of us, the long season we’re in now has paused so many of the usual plans. Visits to an art museum or a movie, meandering through the library, mall, or grocery store, hanging out with friends—these are all the losses of this stretched out season. There are job losses. We have members who are between jobs. A member who works a side gig with ESPN laments as hundreds of ESPN employees have been let go.

It’s appropriate to name the winter losses and lament them. Call them what they are: winter experiences. Buchanan likens it to suddenly living not a purpose-driven life but a purpose-starved life. It’s like being forced to shift into neutral when you know there are still places you want to go, foot to the accelerator. No one chooses winter. But it’s a season that comes around.

I realize this is a hard message. But I urge you to hang in there. This is what spiritual winters feel like.

Giving voice to our winters of the soul

Now let’s pivot to where to focus when you find yourself in a spiritual winter. Psalm 88 is a great place to discover that. Turn with me there, please, to Psalm 88. Psalm 88 doesn’t contain anyone’s life verse. It’s not in anyone’s Bible memorization plan. But it’s a powerful winter of the soul Scripture.

While you’re turning to Psalm 88, I can tell you that I was on my way here when someone called to let me know that while he was at work, his house burned down. No one injured, but the house is unlivable. This is a man of strong faith. He trusts God and actively seek to follow the example of Jesus a day at a time in his leadership role at work. And…he was struggling. He’s trusting God and feeling a bit lost.

Psalm 88 gives voice to such times. Psalm 88 and the other winter of the soul Psalms are here for the times when your knowledge about God runs smack against your present experience of God, your lack of feeling anything from God. And truth be told, everyone has those times. Winter is a season that comes upon us all.

Look with me at select verses from Psalm 88. Here’s how it begins:

“Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.”

Psalm 88:1-3

It starts like an upbeat worship song! Almost all of the contemporary American church’s worship songs are upbeat songs of praise. The Psalms, which is the Bible’s songbook, makes space to also mourn when spiritual winters hit. And so the psalmist is honest in sing-praying, “I’m overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death.” I don’t know how much more I can take! I’m stressed, Lord. I feel like I’m going down.

Why is this in the Bible? To model the way to make it through winter. Here’s how: be honest with the Lord. Forget about faking it till you make it. Pray it. Pray what you’re feeling. The winter Psalms allow us to break our silence when God is silent. The winter Psalms give words to your pain and frustration and sadness when your theology and your reality seem irreconcilable.

Look with me at just one more portion from Psalm 88, verses 10-12. The Psalmist writes, and Israelites later sang this in the Temple and in their synagogues…

“Do you show your wonders to the dead?
    Do their spirits rise up and praise you?

Is your love declared in the grave,
    your faithfulness in Destruction?
 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
    or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?”

Psalm 88:10-12

This feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It does to me, at first blush. It sounds like he doesn’t believe in life after death. It sounds like God’s goodness stops when someone takes their final breath. But that’s not what this is. For God’s people of old, for Jews throughout history, and now for Christians as well, Psalm 88 and the other winter Psalms are like the giant digital boards above I-69. They have been placed here to tell us which direction to go in winter. And that direction is upward: direct your pain, voice your doubt, pray your questions, sing your loneliness, cry your frustration and longing. Bring it all to God. Don’t deny it, don’t stuff it, don’t let it come out sideways against others. Pray it. All of it. Every season—winter included.

The winter Psalms give permission to pray what we imagine we must not pray. Here’s why we can say that with confidence. With your Bible open, look back again at verses 10-12. What does this believer who finds himself in spiritual winter believe about the Lord? The clear answer from verses 10-12 is that he believes in the Lord’s wonders, his love, his faithfulness, and his righteous deeds. All he’s voicing is a plea that God show his wonders, love, faithfulness and righteous deeds again. Let there come an end to the winter. By your great power and according to your great love, Lord, bring me back into Spring. Carry me through this, that a new song may come to my lips when you bring me into a new season of fruitfulness.

Buchanan makes a great point: the wintertime of the heart is when we pray according to what we know, not what we see. Winter is when we walk by faith, not by sight. For the next several months, nothing around here will grow. Bears and other mammals will hibernate. Trees will remain bare. The ponds will freeze hard with ice. The park look road will remain empty.

But this is a necessary season. The seasons, if you will, force creation to rest. That’s something that Americans are not very good at, to our harm. The current pandemic is nothing good. Yet good can come from it, if we will see it as a winter of the soul, and take from it the lessons of winter.

Learning from those who have gone through winters of the soul

Here’s one, one lesson from winter: when you’re hurting, when you find yourself in a tough spot, the person you want to listen to you and pray for you and counsel you is instinctively someone who has themselves walked through hard winters. You want to listen to the counsel of those who have tested God’s wonders, lov, faithfulness, and righteous deeds when they didn’t feel it, and made it through to a new season.

This is why it’s good to learn from believers who have come before us, who have made it through the winter seasons of life. Earlier generations have faced spiritual winters of pandemics, of persecution, and more.

Look up the writings of Corrie ten Boom, whose Dutch family hid Jews from the holocaust but was caught. She survived Nazi concentration camps and went on to become a jaw-dropping example of how to live facing forward with forgiveness, when she could have gotten stuck in the winter of bitterness. Check her out, Corrie ten Boom and the 1975 film titled “The Hiding Place.” It’s inspiring.

Look up Joni Eareckson-Tada at joniandfriends.org. At 17 years of age, Joni broker her neck and became a quadriplegic. That was 1967. She launched a ministry to give practical help to the disabled that over the past 40 years has spread around the globe. We had a member serve on a short-term missions trip with that organization fitting those who needed them with wheelchairs—people who needed but had never had one. It’s a faith-strengthening story that comes from a winter experience.

Watch the award-winning film Chariots of Fire. It won the Oscars for best picture, best screenplay, best musical score, and more—because of how inspiringly it tells the true story of Eric Liddell, whose commitment to Christ had a public cost to it, but he pressed on.

Look up the details of the seasons of William Wilberforce’ life. Read up on John Newton who authored the hymn Amazing Grace.

Pick up a modern-English version of the powerful allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and cross-reference it with a Wikipedia look at the winter that its author, John Bunyan, pressed through.

Learn the story of Amy Carmichael and how she pressed on in rescuing girls from slavery amidst a winter of threats and fierce resistance.

Read of John Perkins and his work for justice and forgiveness, neither at the expense of the other.

What they all show us is that in winter, what keeps us going is the promise of resurrection, which is the soul’s Spring. Turn with me to one final Scripture for this week, as we stretch forward from the Old Testament to the New, and Paul’s winter experience described in 2 Corinthians chapter 1. Turn there with me, please, 2 Corinthians chapter 1. There we read…

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.
Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.”

2 Corinthians 1:8-9

There were seasons when Paul and his teammates were rejected, abandoned, lonely, poor, hungry, and abused. It got so bad, so intense, that it was like getting caught in an Alaska blizzard. Paul readily admits that it was too much, such that they despaired of life itself. They really didn’t think they were going to survive.

If you haven’t read Jack London’s short story To Build A Fire, this week would be a great time to do so. The main character in that story reminds me of Paul in the winter season he describes. They’re in the midst of deep suffering. And they cannot make out the path ahead. But look at where they anchored themselves. Verses 9 & 10 continue…

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again.
On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us…”

2 Corinthians 1:9-10

Winters of the soul prepare us for the soul’s Spring

Don’t miss this. Right here is the good that can come from a spiritual winter. Here it is: Only winter prepares us for heaven. Only winter breaks our focus away from that which will not stand the test of eternal value. Only winter pulls us back from racing through life head down, accumulating as much stuff as possible, but never thinking about what comes after this life.

  • Spring gets us excited about summer.
  • The sweaty dog days of August make us long for Fall.
  • Fall ushers us into winter.
  • And winter? The forced slow-down of winter makes us yearn for the soul’s Spring—for resurrection.

1 Corinthians chapter 15 is all about the believer’s resurrection. The entire revelation in that chapter draws on the seasonal image that just like a grain of wheat must be planted before a new plant comes to life, so our bodies at some point die, but will be raised to new life. Verses 42 and following, Paul explains…

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed…For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

…Thanks be to God! 

He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 51, 53-55, 57

  • When winter hits, this is the believer’s hope, friends.
  • Bring what you’re facing to God. Pray about all of it. Nothing is off-limits for lifting it before God, even lamenting the hardships.
  • In your spiritual winter, pray according to what you know about the Lord, during that season when what you know about the Lord doesn’t match what you see.
  • In your spiritual winter, draw from those who have face their own winters and made it through. Let them show you the way to walk, where to place your feet.
  • And finally, when winter hits, hold tightly to the revelation that for the believer, winter isn’t the end of the story. Spring—resurrection—awaits.

Would you pray with me?

Our Father in heaven, we believe there is a season for everything. And so we lift before you those we know who find themselves staring toward a spiritual winter. Sustain them, we plead. Fill them with your Spirit, enabling them to pour out their hearts to you. Bring us and others from across the ages alongside them to warm them from the cold. And renew their hope, we pray, in the ultimate promise for those who trust in Jesus who was raised—that we will be raised as well. Clinging to that promise and trusting that you have us in your firm grip, we come before you in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen!