There was a period of consecutive months where eight people from Faith Church died, at least one per month. I listened to and counseled their eight grieving families, officiating each of the funerals. This weighed heavy on me, as I was thinking about death constantly. I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about death, and that freaked me out. The last few verses in our study this week, Ecclesiastes 3:12-15, helped me begin to resolve that struggle. Go ahead and read those verses.
Do you hear the joy in what the Teacher says?
The Teacher says we can be joyful and do good during the time we have, no matter the circumstance or the season. Rather than be upset that we can’t know it all, we can be satisfied and even happy with what we do know, the life and work and relationships that God has given us. Dorsey notes that the word the Teacher uses, which the NIV translates “happy,” is not the temporary emotion of happiness, but joy, a deep abiding joy. We can experience joy, even in the midst of the fleeting life we all live. Even in the midst of difficult times.
That is what really helped me when all I could think about was death, and how much I didn’t want to die. I could take the Teacher and God at his word, and enjoy the life God has given me. The Teacher expands on this in verse 13. We can enjoy the life God has given us, including the basics of eating, drinking and, yes, even finding satisfaction in our work. In fact, the Teacher says, this is a gift of God.
Imagine a world where even eating and drinking would be horrible. Where what you need to do to survive is horrible. Surely for some people in our world, this is their reality, and we need to be sensitive to that. One of pastoral colleagues has a son with pervasive allergies to foods, and they have struggled to keep him healthy. But for most of us, eating is a distinct pleasure. Even in places without a variety of foods, I have noticed people appreciate the pleasure of eating and drinking. I did a missionary internship in Guyana, South America, in the summer between my junior and senior year of college. At one point in the summer, I joined my Guyanese friends on a brief trip to the capital city of Guyana for a church conference. I was so excited because there was a KFC restaurant in the capital. American-style fast food was not available in the more remote area where I was serving. You know what my Guyanese friends said as we were eating our fried chicken? KFC was nice, but they missed their rice. They had rice every single meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day! Bland rice! And they missed rice!!! But that is the joy God has given us! Even the joy of eating rice.
And we would do well to live joyfully that way! Instead of fixating on the shortness of life, instead of feeling freaked out by death, I learned to change my thinking to enjoy the life that God has given me.
This is hard, quite frankly, in the USA, because we are taught to be dissatisfied. I was recently listening to a podcast where the speakers were talking about how consumerism has impacted Christians in the USA. They said that we used to hear how the USA is pretty much the greatest place to be a Christian with our freedom of religion and our many opportunities. But in recent years that viewpoint is changing. The one person on the podcast was talking about how he learned that people were reviewing his church on Google. And not all the reviews were positive! People are used to going out to eat, and then posting a review on Google or Yelp, describing what they think of the restaurant. “My sandwich was too cold. My bacon wasn’t crispy enough. The décor was old.” You can do that for churches too. “I didn’t get the sermon that I wanted. Or the projection system wasn’t bright enough. I’m only giving you 3 stars out of 5.”
Think about the mindset of that. I’m not saying that churches should have a blank check to do whatever they want. I’m also not saying that we should be free from evaluation. But what I am saying is that we need to be aware that we can bring a consumerist mindset to our faith, and that can work powerfully within us to make us dissatisfied about many elements of our faith. The result is a lack of joy.
What the Teacher is advocating for, then in Ecclesiastes 3:12-15, is a view of life that trusts in God to answer the big picture questions, and for humans to live simply and joyfully. That brings great meaning to life. That’s a life that we can enjoy and share and pursue the flourishing of all people.
This had me thinking of a woman in our church who passed away this spring. As we walked with them this past year of her ovarian cancer diagnosis, treatments, and the ups and downs of this battle of cancer, there were most certainly times of sorrow. But they always carried their sorrow with a deep joy. They had an assurance of God’s goodness even in the midst of the pain, the questions, the ups and downs. We spent time in the ER, with them all at the hospital, and while there were questions and sorrow, there was still deep assurance and peace. During her final week, my wife Michelle and I both spent time at their house. Yes, they expressed tears and sorrow, and they also shared smiles, and even laughter. There was deep sadness, but deep comfort and joy in the Lord. And never a complaint from our friend as she passed away.
This reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4. There he talks about what we should let our mind think on: whatever is true, good, noble, right and pure. Fixing our minds this way will help us keep the different seasons of life in proper perspective. So where is your mind during times of good and during times of not so good? It does not mean we never feel sad. But what we choose to fix our mind on, in the midst of the ups and downs, in the midst of the normal seasons of life, changes how we handle those season.