In a moment of realism but perhaps seeming depression, the writer of Ecclesiastes penned these words:
“For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time:
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 break down and a time to build up;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time for mourning and a time for dancing….”
So often in the West this sense of seasons has been eroded, we hold death at arms length, we try and protect ourselves from pain and sorrow…….but in our travels so far we have seen close at hand the ups and downs of life, the seasons or times that we experience joys and sorrows, the very fragility of life itself.
This was evident in Malawi as people scraped a living to help them exist, where sickness or accident often led to death, where we saw children who were undernourished and families begging for something to eat, where water was drunk from oil drums and clothes washed in stagnant and dirty puddles. Yet as a result they lived very aware of these seasons of life – they knew when to plant and when to harvest, when to kill a prized chicken and when to go without meat, when to laugh and when to weep. They knew about dancing and singing, but also about weeping and mourning.
Coming to New Zealand though, whilst generally people are much more protected from all this, we have continued to see the fragility of life as the newspapers and news bulletins are full of the Christchurch earthquake and the continuing aftershocks. This was not a city that was thought to be on a fault, and so the quake has come as an incredible shock to everyone, and whilst the death toll has made it the worst disaster to hit this country, they say that over 10,000 homes will have to be demolished and it may not be possible to rebuild in the same places. But their is a sense that “we are all in this together” as people give and offer to help to those who have been affected, yet we are very conscious of the difference between an eartquake here and that which struck Haiti, and how quickly Christchurch will get back to some sense of normality in comparison.
However, being a relatively young country, the struggles of the early settlers is still talked about and very evident in the museum displays. We visited one in Invercargill to see a display about the sub-Antartic Islands, and the people who have inhabited those islands over the years or who have been shipwrecked on them. A harsh and difficult climate to survive in and now no one lives on them, many having died there as a result of the severe weather, the lack of food and water, or as they have been battered by the high seas and fierce winds against sharp rocks and steep cliffs. Many of those who lived on these isalnds were seal or whale hunters, killing tens of thousands of seals each season, almost wiping out whole seal populations.
At the same museum were housed some Tuatara, reptiles that have existed from the time of dinosaurs. Not many of them are left, and those that are still in the wild are on remote islands as on the mainland they have been killed by rats, stoats and other predators brought to these islands by the ships carrying settlers. However, the museum has become successful at breeding them and hope to start to release some back into the wild. Last year they hit the world news when their oldest resident tuatara, Henry, aged 111 (they think) mated with an 87 year old (Mildred). Not a bad age to start a family!! Whilst they have survived for millions of years, and can live to a ripe old age, their continued existence is under threat. In just over 150 years, we have brought them close to extinction.
We have also visited a colony of yellow-eyed penguins, and sadly one of the adults had been found dead that day from unknowm causes, probably having been frightened to death by humans. There are not many of these penguins left, and they too are under threat from similar predators to the tuatara, but they are amazing creatures to watch with their funny waddle, and one of them even posed for photos in the gathering dusk.
Similarly the young of Royal Albatrosses, which we saw at Dunedin, face similar threats, but after a year they are out of the nest and set off for their first flight, only 9000 kilometeres to Argentina, but to get there they hardly have to flap a wing as they soar on their 3 metre wing span. They are magnificent to watch, but many die, often getting caught up in fishing lines or from eating rubbish that has been dumped in the sea.
So whether human or animal, life is fragile, there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh…..these seasons come to us all, sometimes when we least expect it, and perhaps those who live more closely with those seasons cope with them better than those of us who have been brought up to try and cushion oursleves from the ups and downs of life.
But as we reflect on Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, leading up to Good Friday and the cross, it is a good time to remember these words from Ecclesiastes, that we will all face these times in our lives. We cannot hide away and hope that they will never come to us, because they will, nor can we fully wrap ourselves in cotton wool. However we can have hope and the promise of a future whatever we are facing, and in this season it is good to renew our dependency on God, rather than on the things of this world.