Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Last Sunday's sermon, from Cindy. She preached from the book of Ecclesiastes, the words of Qoheleth, who often spoke of Hevel, or vanity...

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and
the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the
light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with[a] the rain; 3 in
the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women
who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see
dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one
rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is
afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper
drags itself along[b] and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the
mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped,[c] and the golden
bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the
cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath[d] returns to God who
gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher;[e] all is vanity.

I was taken with this morning’s scripture passage for it’s imagery and flow.  I could imagine
Mackenzie or one of her fellow poets reading it at one of their poetry slams.
Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth has sounded the chord of hevel, vanity,
futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and here he gives us a picture of what that might look

The sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened…
The guards of the house tremble…
The strong men are bent…
The women cease working…
The doors on the street are shut…
There are terrors on the road…

There are several traditional interpretations of this passage, though what first came to my
mind upon reading this was the thousands of refugees, some of whom Michelle met in
Hungary, who even now are trembling and bent as they face the terrors of the road, who
have had to cease work, who have had to shut their doors, and board up their houses in
order to head for safety…It’s a very poignant picture, isn’t it?

More traditional interpretations view this as a picture of the decline of a house or an estate,
which is easy to see, or as a picture of a storm. The traditional and fairly common
interpretation that I like the most though, sees this poem as an allegory to aging...

Because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets:  after
all that happens, you die and are buried…The silver chord is snapped, the golden bowl is
broken, everything returns to dust, including you…

Wow!  That’s depressing, but then so is most of Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
And yet, throughout the book, Qoheleth, even in spite of his disillusionment and anger at
the world as is, is able to affirm living, and wants his students to affirm living, too. That’s
why this poem begins with “remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the
days of trouble come.”  In other words, seize the day, carpe diem, embrace life while you
can! Even while droning on and on for twelve chapters about how awful everything is, 
there is nevertheless something inside him that cannot keep from resisting.  
I am reminded of a line from Ken Sehested’s poem, Bright Sadness:

In the sadness that surrounds our lives, our community, our world, we give thanks,
nevertheless. More is at work than we can see…

In the midst of life’s crippling failures, we still give thanks. In the midst of Fox News’
deceptions, we still give thanks. Nevertheless, nevertheless.

I went to an art workshop this summer, and one of the things that we did was to paint on
silk.  If you’ve ever painted on silk or a like fabric, you know that the colors are prone to run
and blend.  But they had this liquid there for us to use that’s called a resist.  I’d never used
it before, but what I learned was that you can use the resist to make your pattern, because
it resists the color of the paint.   

It’s as if there was some resist dwelling in Qoheleth.  As meaningless as he found
everything to be, and as often as he droned on about hevel, hevel, hevel, this other thing
kept popping up inside of him, this invitation, this exhortation to enjoy life. 

Six times he repeats this basic message: 

Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy, for your action was long ago
approved by God…Enjoy happiness with the one you love all the fleeting days of life that
have been granted you under the sun.  Whatever it is within your power to do, do it with all
your might…(9:7-10).

Rabbi Harold Kushner believes that this is not Qoheleth’s way of saying, nothing matters
anyway, so you might as well have a good time.

But rather, Kushner says, I suspect that he is saying something like this:  I have examined all
the evidence and come to the conclusion that nothing endures and nothing makes a
difference.  Everything is vanity.  Human beings are born and die like flowers or insects and
that is all there is to it.  The evidence leads me to conclude that life has no meaning.  But
there is something inside me that will not permit me to accept that conclusion.  My mind
tells me that the arguments for the meaningless of life are overwhelming: injustice and
illness and sudden death, criminals getting away with murder while good people die in
shame and poverty.  My mind tells me to give up on my quest for meaning because there
isn’t any.  But something from deeper inside me wells up and overrules my mind, dismissing
the evidence, and insists that in spite of all, a human life has to mean something…

Wendell Berry, in his Mad Farmer Manifesto, says that as soon as the generals and politicos
can predict your mind, lose it.

Kushner, here, seems to think that Qoheleth was willing, at times, at least, to lose his:

If logic tells us that life is a meaningless accident, says Qoheleth at the end of his journey,
don’t give up on life.  Give up on logic. Listen to that voice inside you that prompted you to
ask the question in the first place.  If logic tells you that in the long run nothing matters
because we all die and disappear, then don’t live in the long run. Instead of brooding over the
fact that nothing lasts, accept that as one of the truths of life, and learn to find meaning and
purpose in the transitory, in the joys that fade.  Learn to savor the moment, even if it does
not last forever.  Learn to savor the moment because it is only a moment and will not last.

Don’t give up on life.  Give up on logic.  Resist!

When I was a teenager, I went to Amsterdam, and visited the home of Anne Frank.  It was very sobering, as you can imagine, to see the attic, or secret annex, where she and her family hid from the Nazis for two years before being betrayed and taken to the concentration camp where she died.  And it was striking to see, as we were led through the last room on the tour, her words in big bold letters:  

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

It’s hard to imagine that kind of strength and resistance, and yet all of us have resisted at some point in our lives, pushing forward in the midst of whatever wilderness we’ve found ourselves in, refusing to give up on life and on God, even though logic has told us otherwise. 

Even now, I would guess, there is a resistance taking place in us, something that is happening in this world, or in each of our lives, something that logic would tell us is hopeless and unalterable.  But if we listen, we can hear that voice of resistance:  nevertheless, nevertheless.

On Wednesday night, in our discussion of why we are Christian, we used one of Anne Lamott’s writings as a spring board.  One of the phrases that several of us resonated with was very simple: I get to keep starting over, she said.

It’s so simple, and yet such an affirmation of life.  I get to keep starting over.  There’s always a new birth, a new opportunity, a possibility of transformation around the corner.  I get to keep starting over. 

Jesus, during that last supper with his disciples, seemed to know that he was going to be executed, and soon.  His hours were numbered, and everything around him was pointing to the end.  And yet, he resisted.  He refused to give in to the idea that his life, as fleeting as it was, had no meaning.  He used the time he had left to paint a picture that his disciples would remember forever.  He broke the bread, he passed the cup, he told them to remember him.  And all these years later, we still are.  We break the bread, we drink the cup, and we celebrate the life that we’ve been given. In spite of all the evidence, we choose life over logic. As we share this meal, we proclaim that the ways of death do not have the final word, but rather that resurrection, transformation, and second chances are ours through the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  We resist, nevertheless, we say, nevertheless, we resist, and we receive.