One of the truly terrifying prospects in my life, a source of deep melancholy and fruitless wish-dreams, is the growing realization that there is no where else to go. No forward momentum that launches into anything new or creative or impactful. I’m sure most people feel this at one time or another in their lives. This desire to continue to grow and become better than I was yesterday. We want to learn to be better, to apply ourselves and be rewarded for our achievements, get the next big bonus or promotion. But for many of us, the truth of the matter is that we spend our time feeling more like we’re stuck on a merry-go-round. They rhythm of days roll into the rhythm of weeks and months and years and before we know what happened most of our years are already spent. It’s not that we don’t have dreams or aspirations, its just that either they are impossibly grand or too small to make much of an impact.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes famously writes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecc. 3:1-8)
Turn! Turn! Turn! As the Byrds said. Up and down, round and round it goes, a time for every matter under heaven. We see this list and we know that there are certainly times when we can shine, times when we can separate ourselves from mediocrity and rise above the rest. But in the end, we are mostly along for the ride. The longer I’m a parish pastor the more this reality sinks in. There is no corporate ladder to climb, no promotion around the corner, no second career shift that will reinvigorate my duty. I’m a parish pastor. I have been so for 18 years and will most likely be doing this when I die or my Lord returns.
Perhaps this is why I welcomed the challenge of a pandemic and why I was so dismayed at the institutional church’s capitulation to all things state. We could have made some grand stand, some daring display, but I suppose that would all have been prideful arrogance and irresponsible, or so I was told. Better to just stay on the horse and go along for the ride. Same stuff just different parameters for doing it.
The thing is, that famous verse from Ecclesiastes is followed up by something even more surprising and challenging. The preacher goes on to say, “What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Ecc. 3:9-13)
Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man. This is the lot that God has given man to concern himself with. Eat, drink and find joy in our work. The grand direction of all things, the end game of the constant turning isn’t ours to know. Our aspirations and dreams are great but they don’t change God’s design. This, I’ve found, can be extremely freeing. The gift I have is to enjoy the task set before me, to better myself not for my own glory but for the benefit of my neighbor, for someone else’s good.
The struggle is that eternity is in my heart, but I cannot see it, so I’m constantly learning to love what I can see. To love the small and simple task set before me. For it just might be that in the little things, the little ups and downs of the merry-go-round that true joy and contentment can be found. It’s not an easy task, it won’t make me famous or even all that popular, but it remains a gift from God.