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Like the Wind

May 25, 2014

DSCN1503It is an interesting practice to read Ecclesiastes at an upscale outdoor shopping center.  I sat in the mild May weather, not too hot, not too cold on a bench, surrounded by business people talking on phones, people conducting working lunches with their laptop as their dining companion, girlfriends gathering for a midday break, shoppers carrying brown paper bags, and the sounds of children chasing birds.

Kohelet’s, the assumed author of Ecclesiastes, words were not lost on me in this moment:

“Meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

We toil under the sun, then we all die–the wise and the foolish–and are gone forever.

This rings especially true in this decadence, where my Bible sits on my lap.

Let me say this, I am not one to normally read my Bible in public spaces.  I subscribe firmly to Jesus’s instructions in the Sermon on the Mount to do our acts of piety and devotion in private, so not to attract attention to ourselves like the “hypocrites.”  My morning escaped me though.  I was anxious at home, worrying about things I couldn’t control.  I had an appointment over here and decided to do my quiet time somewhere else for a change.  Way back in the dead of winter, I listened to Lauren Winner talk about the practice of reading our Bible some place else.  The environment may influence how we interact with the Bible, she suggested.  I followed my whim this day.

Here I sat, under old, old oak trees that hopefully will outlive me (they should–there are some that are 1000 years old).  The sun was warm on my skin and the occasional wind gust refreshing.

“Absurdity, everything is absurdity.”

In Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis says translation is everything (seriously–the Bible translations she uses most of the time are her own).  The Hebrew word Kohelet uses for “meaningless” or “absurdity” is hevel.  The meaning lies closer to absurdity than meaningless and has a similar quality to the wind gusts I feel–rather ephemeral, not to be nailed down.   That seems to make a bit more sense than “meaningless.”  When the same word is used in Psalms, it is translated as breath–“You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.  My entire lifetime is just a moment to you, at best, each of us is but a breath.” (Psalms 39:5 NLT).

In a culture deeply concerned with fairness and everyone getting what they deserve, it is absurd that it rains on the righteous and unrighteous alike.  Tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricane don’t care about people’s spiritual status.  Cancer, disease, and genetics don’t worry about how *good* we are.  Absurdity.  Kohelet raises the question we have struggled with forever, why do the evil prosper?  Why are the righteous afflicted?  “But I have seen something else under the sun:  The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Eccl. 9:11 NIV.  We like to think that if we are good enough or work hard enough or always make the right choices we will avoid harm.  We would like to avoid vulnerability at all costs, but the truth is, like Kohelet observed, that is not always the case.  As much as our culture would like to tell us, it is not enough to work hard or study hard or do the right thing always.  When it comes down to it, how we do in life depends more on the family we are born into and their economic status than how hard we work.  It is time and chance that I have the relatively easy life I do.  God has not blessed me more than others because I am holier than others or a harder worker (I’m not either of those things), it is chance and time.  I am not any more deserving of any it than any other world citizen.

Absurdity.

Wherein lies our meaning?  What is the point of living this life that is as precarious as the wind?  What is our purpose?

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Davis came to the same response Jen Hatmaker did and Ann Voskamp did and countless other saints have–to give thanks.  It is all absurdity and as stable as the wind.  Yet we give thanks.  We give thanks for those things that bring us pleasure–food, drink, and good friends.  We give thanks for a job and we (sometimes) complete that job joyfully (I’m realistic here though–probably not all so joyfully every day, but we should be!).  We write our thanks down on lists on our fridge or in a book or in a journal.  We cling to those thanks to remind us that God’s grace is always here–even in the absurdity.

Again, In Getting Involved with God, Davis says:

The essential message, then, is, “Receive the gift.”  We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God.  And the truth is, most of those are given so regularly that we never even pause to recognize them for the gifts they are. (p 107-108)

…Joy is the one thing strong enough to stand up in the face of all that is disappointing, in the face of the fact that all we do achieve and value is passing away and will surely be forgotten.  (p 112)

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I used to worry about coming up with a unique, poetic gratitude each and every time I wrote something down.  After a while (as in years), I realized, it wasn’t the creativity and beauty of my words that mattered.  They were all meaningless, absurdity, like the wind.  I write down my gratitude because it reminds me to see the world around me and all the gifts I encounter.  Every time it rains, I write down simply “rain.”  I don’t apologize because every single time it rains, I am deeply grateful–we’ve been in this drought since my youngest was born.  Our owls in our owl box frequently make it onto the list as does names of my family members.  I want to receive the gift, not take the morning clouds and the wake up call of birds for granted.

So go ahead.  Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this!  Wear fine clothes with a splash of cologne!  Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun…Whatever you do, do well.  For when you go the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. (Eccl. 9:7-10 NLT)

 

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