There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Composed of 14 pairings of positive and negative actions or states (e.g., planting and uprooting; war and peace), this “catalogue of the times” seeks to encapsulate the breadth and depth of human experience, from birth to death, and what lies between. While not covering every human activity and state, it resonates as a succinct, and realistic, account of human life and experience.
Why have I been drawn to this passage from Ecclesiastes? First, seeing the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world and experiencing life in Alert Level 4 has been such a contrast to my summer months (which were so full and fruitful). Summer had a lot of the positive actions and states from the catalogue in Ecclesiastes; the last few weeks have had a few more of the negative actions and states. The season has definitely shifted.
Second, I’ve come back to this passage because I want to affirm that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. I don’t want to say stupid or hasty things, like God caused COVID-19, or this is God’s judgement for X or Y. But as a theologian—and, even more so, as a Christian pilgrim trying to make my way in the world before God—I want to affirm the sovereignty of God and God’s activity in the world, mysterious though that is. I want to affirm that, because of who I believe God to be, the world has not been overrun with chaos, disorder, meaninglessness, or lack of purpose—and COVID-19 hasn’t changed that. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that as a limited and sinful creature I don’t have anything close to full visibility or clear vision on God’s purposes and work at this time. I want to affirm, then, what Michael Fox (the Bible commentator, not the actor) has written, in reflecting on the catalogue of times from Ecclesiastes:
“Every event and deed has its right time, a set of circumstances in which they should happen or be performed, and God determines when this is. So in whatever one may do, he should wait until the time is ripe rather than straining and pushing against the grain. But there’s a catch: God has denied man the knowledge of when these times are.”
The foregoing leads me to venture something—something potentially rich and stretching, but with certain attendant dangers. Between complete agnosticism about what God is saying and doing at this time, on the one hand, and a full-scale, detailed account, on the other, there is a middle course to be charted that dares to ask: What might God be saying at this time? What might God be doing? Not, I want to suggest, by daring to ask these questions in relation to the entire world. But rather, by asking them much closer to home: God, what might you be saying to me at this time? God, what might you be doing in and with me?
Answering those questions requires that I pay attention. And it requires the same for you, too.