The other day, I got to do some important work.
Before I went to bed the night before, I revisited one of the first books of the Bible I ever read: Ecclesiastes. I read and reflect on snippets from this book often for wisdom and advice, but for the past few nights I've actually been in the process of re-reading the whole thing. Each time I read I discover new wisdom that applies and correlates to something that's newly happening in my life. It never fails: when I actively seek God, I find true presence.
Ecclesiastes is a book that grounds me; it has been personally important on my faith journey, as it was one of the first books (recommended to me by a friend, actually) that I read when I was looking for healing, exploring faith, and not quite sure exactly as to how to do the whole 'being Christian' thing.
I remember it being the book that brought me to the idea that the wisdom in God's word touches on something eternal that I hadn't found in spirituality before, but that matched something within, something very 'close to home;' something that helped me understand the true nature of my soul, what that actually means, and what living from my soul might actually look like.
Ecclesiastes deals with the emptiness, meaninglessness, hollow-ness we sometimes (sometimes often) feel in life, with disillusionment and disappointment, with what exactly the point of life is, anyway. I'm not sure why it took me so long to entertain the idea that loving God is (ultimately) that point, our highest calling and the thing we need to do to have true wisdom, happiness, and peace (and what took me so long to delve with any depth into what exactly that looks like) but I will always fondly remember Ecclesiastes as one of the first testimonies that pulled me deeper into that depth of understanding.
Just as it is now, and will continue to be, it was the wisdom I needed exactly at the time it came to me. It contains the famous verse:
For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
When I first read the words, about two years ago now, they hit me profoundly. Maybe it was because for the first time in my life, I believed them- or I believed in a life beyond sadness and suffering, or their management. I came to some personal clarity that just as good things pass out of being, so do bad things. Sometimes loss or hardship, though we cannot see it at the time, is actually creating an open space in which we are going to be renewed in some way.
This good-follows-bad, bad-follows-good philosophy was always more of a vicious cycle to me than anything else, an anxious mentality of 'waiting for the shoe to drop,' so to speak; of never really deeply enjoying the present in life because something bad (some loss, some disappointment, some failure) was bound to follow.
But of course the problem with that perspective is that when we see life this way, we sort of eventually lose hope. We give too much weight to the fact that because life seems 'dualistic' like this, we can somehow control the things that happen to us to tip the scales in favor of 'good'- which actually just winds up becoming a desire for what's 'comfortable,' 'familiar,' 'easy,' or 'most convenient' to us so as to curb more pain from happening. It's actually a very self-defeating way to think, a very negative way to define the natural ebb and flow of this life: that because we will eventually lose what brings us joy, we fail to deeply, holding nothing back, invest in and appreciate it when we have it.
Whether romance, friendship, work, vacation, life in general- no matter if or when we lose it- we should feel totally alive and open to it while it's happening to us. It doesn't contribute to our sense of presence and aliveness in this life to anticipate losing or failing.
And once we lose hope, it's easy to lose purpose- then drive, then vision, then love, then passion, then meaning; maybe the ability or desire to even slow down and feel. We suffer a lot. We have no grace for ourselves. We stop believing consistent joy is possible- our happiness remains circumstantial: we like the pleasure of the highs but prematurely look for ways out of the valleys.
It was usually from this place that I sought spiritual refuge prior to coming to God- a place where, subconsciously, I felt I needed a practice, direction, or philosophy to save me from hardship or to comprehend the nature of life. But Christianity has brought me back to a more simple, basic purity- that life is supposed to be joy: it was designed to be joy, we were designed to be joyful, and the ideology of seeking our own freedom and enlightenment is actually not as necessary as simply knowing what God wants for us.
When we understand the way God works, something changes. Suffering now has a redeeming, distinct, transformative purpose- and we learn we have a purpose too. We begin to see the cause-and-effect relationships in our own personal lives over time, and we use wisdom to teach and to love- not to be personally 'right' about anything. The suffering to which we prescribe all sorts of meaning and philosophy now becomes something that God has actually blessed us specifically with- often to show us our truest, purest, happiest, freest selves; to reveal to us our spiritual gifts; or- most graciously- to show us Himself.
That, in a nutshell, is how I decided that I needed to become an artist. And how I decided I needed to write.
Sometimes we have to lose things we absolutely do not believe we can even go on living without in order to be reborn, awakened. Some things need to go, to clear up space for something new to be born. Sometimes it looks like the physical death of a loved one, a personal loss, a relational loss, an identity loss, the loss of our health to illness; it depends. It's different for everyone. I've experienced all these things and I'm not sure why, but for me it was relational loss that taught me to be closest to God.
There is time to cry- and a time to laugh. A time to grieve- and a time to dance. When I center myself around this awareness, I can be fully present to the idea that I can totally trust that there will be light even when I'm in the dark- something I really can't say I did very well before I knew God: totally, completely trust. Now I can- trust there will be good, even if things feel bad- and it's not wishful thinking or blind hope, but a way of spiritually perceiving the world, being able to see a more ultimate cause-and-effect.
It's common to believe we get what we give in relation to other people in this life, but as believers we get what we give in relation to God. My lot in life is between me and what I do for God, who is Love- and not between me and what I do to please or retribute other people. Something changes when you conceptualize that the joy and well-being you will experience in life isn't a matter of serving or being compassionate to others on the terms by which you understand them, but on the terms by which God has outlined them. Life becomes much more selfless, and much more centered around and motivated by pure, expansive love.
This shift, too, fundamentally chooses not only who we're living for, but why we're living at all. Purpose becomes embodied in God, in a relationship with who we know- not what we know, so to speak. Wisdom begins to take place in our lives- not just our theories or thoughts- because we have a purpose for living now, and that purpose (not our own thinking or self-management) is sufficient. When our hearts belong to God first, we are content- and whatever we touch, do, or say becomes saturated in that contentment too.
It's like becoming free to live because we truly now see life as a gift- and you don't over-scrutinize or over-criticize or act ungrateful for gifts- you accept them, and you get to work.
So what, literally, does any of this have to do with the work I did the other day? Well, I had the privilege of painting for someone I haven't spoken to- and didn't think I'd ever be ready to speak to- in a long, long time: my dad.
It's vulnerable to talk about this relationship for me, as it is for a lot of people, sadly; to say that the absence of a strong paternal influence in our lives affects us on a level it takes years (if we can even face the pain it brings at all, which in and of itself sometimes seems impossible) to discover.
And yet, it's not so bad to talk about: because there is something truly miraculous about what happens when you comprehend how vastly loved you are as a child of not just this universe or this human family but of the God who made it all. What, when you come to see this, can possibly stand against you?
I've learned that there are a lot of philosophies we can use to explain or deal with our pain, about why we hurt the way we do in this life in general, but none liberates, frees, opens us up to be who we are supposed to be like a diligent relationship with the Lord. I, like most people, certainly have my own story as to why what has happened to me has happened to me- and in my story alone, the narrative contains a correlation between 'who I must be as a person, how worthy I am,' and 'what has happened to me.'
If we understand life this way- and if we have experienced a fair amount of pain, loss, lost-ness, or suffering- what winds up happening is that no matter how well we think we understand things philosophically, intellectually, emotionally, or even spiritually, we subconsciously create a statement about who we are, and because we all experience pain, loss, rejection, and failure, it can be pretty negative. We get wrapped up in seeing ourselves as unworthy, unable, unlovable; we get lost.
We may try hard to figure out who we are or why we're here, but we never even think to ask ourselves: what would I look like if something blameless defined who I was, and what I was worth? This is the beginning of what it is like to see- and be seen by- God. This is the Christian narrative, the heart of the Gospel, the story of Christ (and the work of Christians): there is a blamelessness by which we can be seen, and by which we cannot see ourselves, and that is the vision and perspective that heals us and brings us back to a state of love.
I never thought of it like that, but it is fundamentally self-centered, instead of God-centered, not to. It's the kind of thinking that doesn't sustain us for long. We try to be our own masters, our own forgivers, our own directors- all the while harboring within us the impurities that fracture who we are. But our nature is such that only once we are loved, forgiven, and blamelessly seen, are we free to think, love, live, or become whole.
I learn from Scripture what I simply see happen in life: that the Lord is always working on our behalf when we understand what it means to work for Him; that we will see miracles we never in our small, limited minds would have fathomed; that there will be healing and growth most optimally when we want something higher than ourselves.
That there actually will come a time when the relationships we want mended are ripe for mending; a time when the love we wanted to find but never thought we would or could actually does enter our life; a time when what seemed negative or heartbreaking actually propels us into joy and potential we never imagined; and a time when forgiveness is entirely possible. And this will all happen exactly as it's meant to according to a higher plan- and never like we imagine.
And our ability to act on, accept, or receive any of this goodness is contingent upon who we see as the center of the universe: if it's God, we are ready, and we accept the infinite gifts of this life; but if it's us, we keep missing the opportunity- we become depressed, hopeless, self-centered, self-motivated, self-reliant- and then usually blame someone else.
But when we embody the transformative love of God, something else happens: peoples' hearts change for the better. It takes time, that our soul becomes ready to heal, but we can trust that the Lord gives this healing to us with the people and at the time its meant to be. But it starts with doing what we need to do for God, not ourselves. We set out for Love and humility, not grandiosity or getting our way about things- and eventually God comes through for us- and in us- in huge and visible ways.
Getting wrapped up in a love that doesn't keep a record of wrongdoing, one that is a fully-present and obtains results by not requiring them, is a wonderful way of living. Fear goes from us- and, if we're patient, love comes back. And the thing about living for God is that we can be sure of this end. It comes with the plan and the territory of embracing our design when we look from a perspective higher than ourselves. We are made to be brilliant, brave, loving, and fearless of the opinions of others; we are made to know God and to love God; and we are made to drop our defenses, be forgiving, be fearlessly goodhearted, and receive blessings.
And when the time comes where it happens to us personally, we have to remember this very simple thing that we tend to forget: there is a time to dance.