Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A TIME TO ENJOY



A LESSON FROM THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES 


I once spoke with a woman who had just returned from a vacation where she circumnavigated the Mediterranean Sea by air, stopping for a few days each in many of the countries that bordered the sea.  Then, on the return trip home, she stopped for a couple of days at the Canary Islands.  It is a trip that most will only ever dream about.  It is an ancient and beautiful part of Western and Near Eastern civilization.
It is a journey through the old charm of the cities and castles of Spain, the beaches of Southern France, and the historic and enchanting cities and countryside of Italy.  Besides these, there are the very ancient remnants of history in Egypt and the mysteries of the northern coast of Africa.  And, of course, there are many of the roots of our civilization to explore in Greece, as well as the roots of our faith in Israel.
I asked her about her trip and was myself excited to hear of her impressions.  I wanted to listen to the wonder of the days of her trip and what images of the past her expedition invoked.  To my great surprise however, what she told me were not her thoughts as she walked through the ruins of Athens or the old city of Jerusalem.  She did not tell me of the beauty of the beaches and the climate that many consider the most pleasant in the world.  I heard nothing about the marvels of the city of Rome and the wonder of the remnants of the old empire, nor about the pyramids of Egypt.
When I asked her about her trip, she reiterated to me her itinerary – the date when she left her home, her stops in each country and how many days she spent in each place, and the date she returned.  I learned about her flight plans and connections, her hotel accommodations, and how well her schedule worked or what faults she discovered.  The next time she would know better how to plan the agenda and the itinerary so that there would be less delay.  She told me which hotels to which she would probably return, and which she would avoid.
I was astounded by our conversation. It was really little more than a recounting of flight and time schedules and hotel ratings.  Her criteria for a successful and rewarding trip were not what she was able to see and experience, nor the thoughts and meditations that went with her adventures.  To this woman, everything depended upon logistics.  If the itinerary worked, it was a good trip.  If there were too many failures in the schedule or (heaven forbid) a missed flight, the trip was a disaster.
Although few of us will tour the Mediterranean, to some degree we all may be able to understand this perspective.  Ours is a country blessed with many very beautiful national parks.  The trouble comes in trying to plan a trip to visit these sites because ours is also a very expansive country.  Many families try to take in as many parks as they possibly can in one summer’s vacation. 
The planning and the itinerary become everything.  “We will leave early in the morning and try to make the Badlands of South Dakota by nightfall.  The next day we will drive through the Badlands and the Black Hills.  Then it is on to Devil’s Tower and the Tetons before we head down to Utah and Arizona to visit some of the parks like Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon.  Then, to complete the loop, we will head up to the Colorado Rockies and then back home.” 
On the map, it looks like an exciting vacation, but as the miles beat by, it simply becomes an endurance test and one more park on our agenda to check off.  A flat tire or a blown radiator hose can ruin the whole trip.

Unfortunately, this is the manner in which some Christians live their lives.  The logistics of life take up so much of our energy and planning that there is no time simply to enjoy the journey.  We have mapped out so much for our lives that we have not a moment to lose.
          Since early childhood, we are asked to think of what we want to be when we grow up. Later, our high school counselors help us to list our life’s goals and the steps that we must take to achieve them.  All of this is fine, but there is an ingredient that is missing.  There is a perspective that we are not considering.
It is easy to look at our lives as being greatly limited by time.  We make goals for our lives based on the assumption that we only have a limited number of years in which to achieve these objectives.  We have a goal to be out of debt by the time we are 25 years old, make our first million and own our “dream home” by the time we are 35, and retired at 50.  If we are able to retire young enough, we think, we have more years simply to enjoy life.
That is the world’s perspective.  It is understandable that it is this way, because coming from this viewpoint, the short years that we have here on earth is all that there is.  Our life becomes a race in which we hurriedly attempt to do the work that is necessary so that we can have a few moments to do the things that we think we would enjoy.
However, even if we do achieve those years in which we are able to do these things, we are so accustomed to our racing lifestyle, that these patterns continue.  Now we are trying to pack as much fun into our lives as we possibly can before we die.  We fly around the Mediterranean, ticking off all of the tourist spots that we can in our agenda.  Or, we drive long, laborious miles over the freeway system of the United States in order to visit as many sites of natural beauty as we can.  But there is no time to really enjoy these sites.  We must get on to the next one.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes gives us another perspective in living and in enjoying our lives.  In teaching us this point of view, he first poses a question and then states an observation:

“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given the children of man to be busy with” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-10 ESV).

This is the dilemma in which the world finds itself.  Each of us has been given our 70 or 80 years of life.  In this short life span, we have our work and other things with which to occupy ourselves.  However, when we have said and done everything, what is the ultimate benefit of these years?   How is it that we should view our years here on earth?
The writer then gives us this perspective:

“He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

I think that the word “beautiful” was specifically chosen by the writer because he is not talking merely about “getting things done,” as one would be if he were approaching the subject from the viewpoint of the world.
Rather, he is attempting to unlock the puzzle of how we are to enjoy life.  If our years are so few and if our tasks have no lasting benefit, what then is to be our attitude toward them?  To gain this benefit of the enjoyment of each part of our lives, we must see things from a new perspective.  This perspective is what the author of Ecclesiastes tells us next:

“Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV).

God has placed within us an amazing perspective, which tells us that this life is not all that there is.  The reason I say that it is amazing is because this perspective is universal among men, no matter what their culture or faith.  Not only is it universal, but it is not based upon anything that we can understand.  We cannot even conceive of the concept of eternity, much less comprehend it.  And yet we long for it.
It is this perspective of the eternal that really is the key to unlock the aforementioned puzzle of how we are to enjoy life.  Recognizing the eternal perspective is not only necessary for us to have proper priorities in our life now, but it is also necessary if we are to learn even to enjoy our life.
Paradoxically enough, however, as much as we desire to know and understand eternity, with our actions we show that we are trying to extinguish that desire.  We may not realize it, but we battle against the very thing that will teach us to enjoy life. Our culture battles against the perspective of eternity.
          We believe the lie of materialism and we are sold every imagined type of consumer item so that we are able to wrench as much enjoyment out of this present life while we are still able.  Our homes are full of every type of electronic gadget duplicated many times over.  Our closets are full of clothes we never wear and our garages full of vehicles we use only a few times per year. 
What are we to make of this?  Are we then not to enjoy earthly things?  If we are viewing our lives from an eternal perspective, does that mean that we should deny ourselves enjoyment here in this life?  Well…no, it does not mean that:

“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor-- it is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NAS).

Viewing our lives from an eternal perspective means instead that we understand that there are appropriate times for each thing, and that the time for each will come.  Moreover, when we allow events to happen in their appropriate time, we will see that each event also becomes beautiful.
          We do not have to pack everything into one summer’s vacation.  Life does not have to be an itinerary list or a schedule of timetables.  Each event and each stage in life, and indeed our work itself, becomes enjoyable because we allow these things each in their appropriate and beautiful times.

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