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2021 has been an exciting year for me!
Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
The teacher looked out over the city from the balcony of his palace, taking in the skyline that stretched out before him, the sun a brilliant burnt orange as it started to set. He could see the temple he had built, the city’s magnificent walls, the beautiful marketplaces teeming with life. The teacher’s mind wondered away from the scene to his own household; he thought of the vast underground treasure store full of riches from all over the world; he thought of the harem full of his wives and concubines who would keep him company should he so desire; and he thought of the library full of knowledge and books, many written by the teacher himself. He had everything he needed to be happy. So why wasn’t he?
The teacher turned away from the window moving stiffly towards his desk. Age was not being kind to him. His hair had turned a pearly white almost a decade earlier, and he found his knees and hips were giving him more trouble with every day. He turned around and looked back at the setting sun – his life was like that sun, close to dipping below the horizon, disappearing from the Earth. But, thought the preacher, the sun would be back tomorrow, heralding a new day. Would he be so lucky? Would he rise to see the dawn or would his servants find his cold body in his bed, his spirit having left him in the night? And what then? One of his sons would replace him, and eventually one of his grandsons would replace his son. And so time would roll on, mercilessly taking each generation and replacing it with another. Suddenly it felt as if a weight had been placed upon his shoulders. He sat down at the desk, and pulling a quill and parchment towards him, wrote “everything is meaningless”.
A Life of Doing
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Its a question I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, usually from grown ups such as parents, family, teachers etc. but also from other children. From an early age, we are asked to consider what we want to do with ourselves when we hit adulthood and have to start earning a living. My ambition when I was seven was to be a combination of footballer (anyone who has seen me play knows what a stretch that would be), astronaut, rock star and history teacher. I am doing none of those things, probably because I got distracted by playing with my Pokemon cards or Beyblades. But the question of what we want to do begins to take a more pronounced importance once we hit our teens. We are expected to select GCSEs, A-levels or college courses, and maybe even University Degrees, all in the pursuit of this goal. But why?
Human existence is based around one thing – achieving. All of us will have a series of goals, dreams and dearest ambitions which we wish to accomplish in our time on on Earth, some of them realistic (getting a job we are passionate about, making money, finding love and starting a family), some fantastical (being the first man on Mars), but all probably near and dear to our hearts. Our lives revolve around reaching these goals, seeking the elation that satisfaction brings to us, that sense of achievement.
But as Fleetwood Mac once said, ‘Time made you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older to’.
Things Fall Apart
The goals we have all require a sense of a better future. We have to be able to think that if we achieve these goals our lives will keep going and get better. To have goals requires us to have hope. So what happens when the future stops?
At some point, our future will run out, or at the very least our sense of the future can run out. One of two things will happen; we could fail at some of our goals, and suffer an immediate sense of disappointment and despondency, the future immediately becoming darker as we realise we cannot get what we want; or we achieve everything we set out to do, but then realise that it hasn’t actually made us any happier at all. Think of an athlete, seeking to excel at their sport, to be the champion. What happens if they have a career ending injury, or never become the best because there is someone better? Or maybe they do achieve all those things, but are forced to retire in their thirties. What do they do next? Studies of athletes post-retirement have found that many of them become depressed, their lives having lost the meaning that competition and training brought.
I have my own personal experience with this sense of futurelessness. About a year ago, my relationship ended, leaving me almost unable to contemplate a happy future. Although life went on, and I achieved a great mark in my Masters Dissertation, I couldn’t help but think of the meaninglessness of it all. The grade didn’t make me happy because it didn’t replace the absence felt in the loss of the relationship. It hasn’t even translated into a career which was the entire reason I subjected myself to studying. And it was in the middle of this hopelessness that I read Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a twelve chapter meditation on the human condition found almost at the centre of the Bible, part of five books with Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon that put us at the centre, viewing God from the ground up, the ants eye view. Ecclesiastes is reported to have been written by King Solomon, son of the great King David. For those of you unfamiliar, Solomon was blessed with wisdom at his request by God, who then also blessed him with everything he could have asked for; he was richer than any man living (1 Kings 10), had great palaces and had over 1,000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11). Solomons wisdom was renowned throughout the ancient world, and we are told he wrote many Proverbs and Psalms, and also contributed to early scientific explorations into nature. If we could look at any man and said ‘He was contented’ it would be Solomon.
Ecclesiastes puts pay to that notion. The first words written by Solomon are ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”, a cry of despair about the state of the world. Solomon’s collapse of the future was imminent and in the most natural way possible; old age and death. In his twilight years, Solomon realised that all his great accomplish were for nothing in the grand scheme of things:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure... yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2: 4, 10, 11)
Solomon is realising just how fleeting his achievements are. Later on in chapter 2, he realises that he wont get to enjoy all he has built, because he will die and it will be given to someone else. Solomon’s life, all his glory, riches and splendour is just something that will pass, time ceaselessly moving on, the sun rising and setting, rising and setting until he, everyone he loved or ever remembered him is gone, and still time will roll on long after that.
The same thing will happen to us eventually. We spend our entire lives running after our goals, only to find ourselves old and maybe rich, maybe having even achieved something, but for what? Some people may remember us after we are long gone, but who cares? You’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. All of us dust in the earth.
12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
Well this has been a bit of a downer right? “So much for the joy and hope of the Bible and of Christians” you might say to yourself after learning about Ecclesiastes. But the book is in a weird way slightly hopeful, and this is why its one of my all time favourite Bible books.
See, if we realise everything in this world is ultimately meaningless, that means we can stop worrying about it. Who cares if you leave a great legacy behind you, or amass a large fortune? Its all for nothing in the end. God doesn’t value such things! He has given us a life in large part to do what brings us joy, not great renown, hedonistic pleasure or untold riches. Its a life to be enjoyed a celebrated!
Once, when on holiday down in Devon, I stood watching the fishing boats come in and out of the small harbour of a small seaside village. It was a small moment of tranquil bliss, with the smell of the sea, the sound of gulls, and I could imagine myself on a tiny trawler fishing for crabs and being perfectly contented with the world. That’s what God wants for me and for you, to enjoy the little things in life. There’s a beauty in the pointless, and joy in the meaningless