It’s a spring afternoon and the cottonwood seedlings are falling and spinning, gathering into white bushels at our feet. It is the time of year when the air is filled with what my grandfather used to call “cotton balls.”
“When the cotton balls stop falling,” I tell my children, “that’s when Grandpa used to say we can open the pool.”
Emma and Hudson are unfazed. But as a young boy, the falling cotton stirred excitement in me, reminding me that it was nearly time for summers spent playing and swimming in my grandfather’s backyard. To this day, they still put a smile on my face. Seasonal sacraments like these have long been helpful for me, offering orienting reminders in disorienting times.
“For everything there is a season. And a time for every matter under heaven,” the author of Ecclesiastes writes. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Eccl 3:1, 4–5).
But Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us what season it is. That requires learning how to pay attention to what is going on around us. Fortunately, we are not left to figure things out on our own. Like my grandfather leaving me reminders of when the pool will be ready, God has given us clues to recognize what time it is.
At one point in his ministry, Jesus is approached by Pharisees and Sadducees who ask for “a sign from heaven,” looking for divine validation of Jesus’ authority. But neither Jesus nor the kingdom of God works like that.
Rather than satisfy their request for a miracle, Jesus tells them to read “the signs of the times” (Matt 16:1–3). As N. T. Wright puts it, Jesus asks them (and us) to “see the gathering storm clouds in Israel’s national life, to recognize the way in which corrupt leaders, false teachers, and people bent on violence were leading the nation towards inevitable disaster, from which only repentance and a fresh trust in God’s kingdom could save them. The irony was that they were asking him for a sign, but they were blind to the many signs all around them.” 1
I want Emma and Hudson to notice that God has given us natural rhythms that help us live in sync with God’s movement in the world. When we’re responsive to the times, we’re more likely to encounter the incarnate God in our midst. Just as the cottonwoods remind us to prepare for summer, Scripture teaches that the signs of the times will tell us what faithfulness looks like.
In a season of troubling signs, the temptation can be either to rush to quick solutions or to fast-forward to celebration. Reading Ecclesiastes offers another way. There will be a time for celebration and joy, it says. But that time is not now. “Lamenting is a lost art,” my pastor friend Doug recently shared with is congregation. “We are a culture of positive thinking. I don’t like to sit and allow. I want to fix things and get to the good stuff. But when it comes to the major challenges of life, there are no quick fixes. The first thing we do is just lament. We still hold onto hope. We still hold onto joy. But we lament.”
Whether it’s time to weep and mourn or laugh and dance, Scripture offers resources on how to live faithfully in time, drawing us deeper into the incarnate life of God, openhearted and grateful to participate in every season of life.