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ecclesiastes 3: seasons of life & the vanity of it all


tree leaves changing color

This clearly isn't a great picture, so let me explain why I'm using it. I remember taking it three years ago. Sitting in a parking lot, alone, dealing with medical things in the middle of covid (they wouldn't let me in the building), having just called my brother as I was very upset because I knew without a shadow of a doubt that our mother needed to be admitted to the hospital and that she was close to dying and they weren't listening to me. I don't know why I took the picture, but I remember seeing the changing colors of the tree and praying and asking God to help me have the courage to call and insist they take her in. Not something I am great at (being firm with someone on the phone...), nor was it anything I actually wanted to do. I hated the whole situation. I hated that I was alone. I was angry. I could see the season changing.

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But there's always unseasonable weather. What we think of the weather and behavior of life on the planet at any give season is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There is a bit of every season in each season. -Annie Dillard


Anytime someone sticks Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 into a sermon or devotional, my skin itches and I start arguing with them in my mind. I couldn't quite figure out why I always reacted so frustratedly, until I analyzed what they were saying and what I was hearing. There is a time for everything said in sing-songy poetry packages life so nicely, but then we're hit with the actual rhythms of life and we feel disappointed, confused and wondering what's wrong with us for not matching up with someone else's definition of "what season you're in."


I have lived in the Midwest my entire life, which means I'm very used to the pattern of the four seasons. The crisp air and blowing leaves of fall, the clear blue of a summer sky, the smell after a spring rainstorm, the chill of winter that reaches your very bones as you add on another blanket. I'm not sure I can ever move away from it. But anyone who lives in those seasons also knows that an 85 degree day can hit us in September, a February day can be sunny, no snow on the ground downright balmy. Nature itself doesn't even follow the strict boundaries we put on seasons. And yet our humanity likes to package it up into a system we can understand (and control). It's all very chronological as it follows the calendar. And the way our human brains put that into something we can understand is by thinking that's how life seasons work as well... first you graduate, then you get married, then you have kids, then they go off to college, then you retire, then you take care of your aging parents...


Nicely packaged, tidy, controlled. If we know how things will be, then we can feel sure of how WE will be. If I plan this hard enough and detailed enough, then I am the one that makes the next season happen. Look at me in my preparedness! If/Then taking us all the way home to the finish line.


Then it snows in spring.

Thunders in November.

You stumble upon the Christmas aisle in July.

Wrong jacket for the weather.

Incongruous. Unexpected.


We stop after the poetry of Ecclesiastes 3 as though that sums it up about right: Be a "good" parent/wife/American, and oh, above all, please be a "good" Christian according to the rules we have set forth (made up) for you! and the seasons will line up, marching in one after the other, grieve a little, plan a little, sow a little. But instead you stand there in your out of season confusion where the weather doesn't line up with expectation and you feel you're being patronized while being patted on the head, "oh, it's just your season of life." For those who lose loved ones early, who struggle with illness, whose plans don't go according to...plan, for those who have to die to self daily as expectations don't come through for them, the words fall short of assuaging their sorrow.


What most pithy cards or comments or devotionals do is stop after the pretty little packaging of the first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3, instead of continuing with what the author is saying: Vanity, vanity, it's all vanity. (The author clearly tells us this is his point almost 40 times in the book.) He goes on to say that God has put eternity in our hearts therefore, even though we want to understand our purpose, our meaning for standing on the timeline of the world in our little temporary spot, ultimately, we can't know the reason(s). "Human labor is without profit because people are ignorant of God's eternal plan, the basis by which He evaluates the appropriateness and eternal significance of all their activities."


In order to make myself feel better, I join in as well trying to figure life out, section it off into a "seasonal" explanation because I am deeply afraid of being surprised by yet another disappointment, yet another person who lets me down, yet another pain felt by my child, yet another loss...[insert your fear here].

As one writer states it, the paradox is that one cannot genuinely face personal mortality and finitude without first facing God’s immortality and infinite power.

Guess who's not in control?

Me. (You too.)

This doesn't sit well with me. (You too?)

Instead I keep trying to respond to life, You can't surprise me! I'm totally in control of all of this crap! Here, look, I even brought snacks! That's how ready I am! You can't catch me off-guard!


Ah, but peace: In my learning that it can, indeed, snow in spring, I can step back and begin to rely more on God's faithfulness and omniscience. The author of Ecclesiastes speaks to this as well, reminding us that it's a gift from God to enjoy life. The author isn't ignoring the pain, but is putting it in its proper place. Our suffering is light and temporary and is producing for us an eternal glory that is greater than anything we can imagine. (2 Corinthians 4:17) This doesn't minimize our pain, it maximizes the eternal glory. Ultimately, although we will experience frustration, disappointment, grief, and pain, we can rest in the truth that He promises to make all things beautiful in His time. He will take what seems out of order, and make it "appropriate" in the grand storyline of all time, people and things.


In the meantime, hang your jacket up, it's about to be 85 in September.


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Quotes taken from Annie Dillard, The Bible Knowledge Commentary and Women's Study Bible (ESV) published by Crossway.


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