What do you do when you despair of the monotony of life? What do you do, when you are, season in and season out, burdened by the endless cycle of rising and sleeping, working and spending, eating and commuting, finding your way and then getting lost yet again? What do you do when you despair that the kids are fighting again, your in-laws are giving you grief, you’ve overslept again, the work piles up again and again, the bills keep coming, the doctor appointments keep multiplying, and holidays are few and far between?
The writer of Ecclesiastes is a Teacher linked in some way to King Solomon, but most scholars agree that this writer actually comes later. The Teacher fancies himself as exceedingly wise, having “acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before him” and has a great desire to learn and understand. Yet, this same Teacher, concludes that “all things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear with hearing. What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
I imagine the Teacher older than myself and resigned; “All is vanity” he says. The Teacher has observed the futility of wisdom, and he asks somewhat sardonically, “What happen to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?”
And what about you? Have you looked at life from a certain angle and concluded that life is irrational, transient, and absurd? We might question our own striving and our own wisdom in a time of folly, which is why—sometimes—when we are in a very bad mood, we might read Ecclesiastes. There is something about the writer’s mood and mindset that appeals to pessimistic state of mind.
At funerals and memorials, a popular reading is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Why? Why read this at a time when we may be given to despair? We recognize with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes that there is an appointed time for each thing and person under heaven, an appointed time to do particular things weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing, planting, and harvest. And so, I suppose people try to see this particular Ecclesiastes reading as giving a head-nod to the reality of human mortality: there is a time to be born and a time to die…And why do we rage against the inevitable?
And yet, perhaps you have done a number of things in your life out-of-season. You birthed a child very young or very late in life. Or you married as a teenager or even a middle-aged bachelor. Perhaps you divorced after a year or 20 of marriage, or you suffered a health crisis or a death out of “season.” Or maybe you just never matched up to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or someone else’s academic dissertation about mental illness or the autistic spectrum. While there was a rhythm to the Universe, your rhythm was always slightly off-beat and you’ve learned the hard way that not everything can be neatly divisible into seasons which fall in line like a pinsetter gathering pins for the next game in the proverbial bowling alley of life.
Perhaps you, too, have seen how people sometimes giggle uncontrollably at funerals or fail to say the appropriate thing at the correct moment, or act out unreasonably at the most unseasonable moments. Perhaps you have danced in the middle of grieving your spouse, or tried to harvest a beautiful flower that bravely managed to grow despite dry soil, weeds choking its life, and leaves falling all around. Maybe you are that flower even now growing despite yourself, despite all predictions to the contrary, despite the late season, and unpredictable weather forecasts.
Or maybe you’ve wanted to kill something in a time of peace, or broken something in your life just so that healing could take hold. And maybe the stones that you gathered and the stones that you tossed were one and the same, and your gathering and tossing have gotten all mixed up together, so you methodically stack your stones just to say you’ve visited a place, just to say you’ve been there and you existed, like some kind of spontaneous zen-like stone sculpture that you know will be swept away by the next person kicking dirt on the path.
The Teacher sees vanity all around—he actually says that he hated life, because “what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and chasing after wind.”
On this Sabbath Sunday, where is the hope or help in this text?
The Teacher comes to see that God has made everything suitable—or good– for its time which helps those of us who may feel like we were born too soon or a little too late, for the late bloomers or early strivers, and for those who have been prone to act before our age or experience had time to catch up.
Likewise, despite the limits or the seasons that we experience as human beings, and despite our mortality, God has given us good gifts to be enjoyed in the moment and pleasure to be experienced in spite of the hardship, commute, and daily drudgery. These good gifts are meant to be enjoyed despite our weariness with life, and in spite of our tendency to climb on the hamster-wheel to succeed, or to sit down in the midst of a hot mess. What God has created endures—and so, if we believe that God is goodness and love, then that goodness and love is available even in the midst of unspeakable sorrow and monotonous days that seem to drag on like years. We’ve only to look for it, and invite it in. Our wisdom, the Teacher seems to say, can only get us so far. Our seasons as human creatures will come and go, but what God does endures, is always in season and “nothing can be added to it, not anything taken from it.” (3:14)
Elizabeth Webb writes, “The cure for despair and hopelessness, and the desire of God for human beings, is to find joy precisely in this wearying life. Several times…[the Teacher] asserts that, when confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of life, the best we can do is enjoy ourselves — take joy in eating, drinking, even in our work. A particular joy is to be found in companionship with one another; two are better than one, he writes, “For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9-10). We are to see such enjoyment in play, in work, and in relationships as gifts from God; indeed, enjoyment comes “from the hand of God” (2:24).
You do not have to like the Teacher or Ecclesiastes to appreciate the wisdom contained within it. All of the bible is filled with stories that describe our human relationship with the Transcendent and with God. But these stories also describe how humans before us made meaning out of the experience of their lives. And where our experience of life intersects with theirs, there is ringing truth for us to grasp and to hold onto, when the things or people in our lives have failed us.
So, friends, a story. The story comes from various sources—and is told in multiple ways as good stories are. It is called The Magic Thread. This version is re-told and summarized by Michele Tulik:
“There once was a boy by the name of Peter. He was always ready for the next thing; never truly enjoying life…Peter was just like us, craving new big things in life! Running away from reality, jumping up and down to look over the wall to the future but never fully experiencing the moment.
“Well, one day when Peter was in the forest, an old woman approached him and asked if he would like a special gift. This gift was a silver ball with a golden thread, not only was this a fancy little thing but it had powers; if someone would tug at the string they could make an hour go by in a matter of seconds!
“Instead of staying present, Peter believed things were better in the future. He pulled the string nonstop, soon he wasn’t a student in school anymore but a grown man in the army! Instead of dealing with life issues and feeling the pain of living in this world he ran from his problems; using the magical mystical thread to zoom forward into the future.
(Can’t we relate? There are times when we want to rush forward through the drudgery, through the messiness, and through the tedium of life…)
“But the time came when he looked at his mother and she had gray hair and he couldn’t even remember her aging. Sometime later she passed away, and then he also became old. His life had gone by in a blink of an eye, he never learned anything!
“One day, when his wife became ill he wanted to pull the string but when he looked at the thread it had changed color. What once was a vibrant gold color turned into a dull gray color and it had shortened greatly. He put it in his pocket and went back to the woods where it all started with the old woman, to reflect on the notion if he should pull it or not.
“She was there waiting. “So, Peter, have you had a good life?”, she asked him. His response was not what he thought he would have felt in the end.
‘Your magic ball is a wonderful thing. I have never had to suffer or wait for anything in my life. And yet it has all passed so quickly. I feel that I have had no time to take in what has happened to me, neither the good things nor the bad. Now there is so little time left. I dare not pull the thread again for it will only bring me to my death. I do not think your gift has brought me luck’
“She laughed at him and called him out for his indecisiveness, but she offered him one last wish. He wished to go back to everything the way it once was without the magic thread. She granted it and he woke up flustered from the nightmare.
“He was no longer despaired about going to school, rather he was excited to see all his friends and for the first time he started to appreciate the beautiful gift of nature…he was even thrilled for his classes! Finally, he understood that this was his life and he could either be in misery in his life situation or accept it and have a rejoiceful heart! He chose the latter.”
Sisters and brothers, you, too, have been given a choice like Peter and like the writer of Ecclesiastes to live despite all that you know, in spite of all that you know, and in the midst of a life and a time that can be both soul wearying but also soul strengthening. In some ways, it does not matter what season you are in or what unseasonable things you have done, but how you enjoy and experience the good gifts that God has placed before you.
 The author summarizes from The Book Of Virtues by William J. Bennett , p 57, but also cites other sources.