Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Meaninglessness of Life



I have to admit that my favorite part of the Bible is the book of Ecclesiastes. It is famous for the passage which forms the song Turn, Turn, Turn, written by Pete Seeger and popularized by the Byrds--"There is a time for every purpose under Heaven."

Yet, many Christians keep the book at arm's length. Some even wonder why it is even in the Bible at all. It is the proverbial red-headed stepchild. A lot of folks don't know what to do with it. It's kept around, because we are loyal to the biblical canon. In other words, we are stuck with it, but we just sort of keep it... over there.

It could have been written today. It's message is extremely modern. Qoheleth is struggling with a sense of existential angst. Everything seems futile. All our hard work seems to amount to nothing.  Generations of people come and go.  He struggles with the purpose of life.

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't struggled with those very same questions.

Case in point: I have known my grandparents. I know something about my great-grandparents (at least some of them), but with the exception of a detail or two, that's as far back as my history goes. I barely know anything about the very people I come from just a few generations before me. Yet, I imagine they had joys and sorrows. I imagine they achieved much and failed a lot, too. Yet, they came and went. It's wrong to say they have no enduring legacy, because I'm here--but the details of their lives have been all but lost.

It's easy to wonder, like Qoheleth does, what's the point of it all?  Do we just eat, drink and be merry and make the most of our short time?  Qoheleth seems to have tried that. Yet, just looking for temporary pleasures doesn't bring him fulfilment, either. It reminds me of another song:  U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Nothing seems to satisfy him.

Qoheleth commits himself to hard work. He is as industrious as anyone, having achieved more than most. He gets some satisfaction from a job well done, but that doesn't last. He sees the false pride that is underneath the pursuit of "hard work" (Eccles. 4:4). This is not the prosperity Gospel. He is still empty.

Do we fall into despair? Do we just give up?

It's probably good that Ecclesiastes just sort of hangs there, unresolved. We like everything wrapped up in tidy little boxes, but the spiritual journey is one of struggle. The Bible is not ultimately a book of easy answers but rather of toiling with the deep questions. The Book of Ecclesiastes makes perfect sense in light of that.

The paradox is: You just can't get to the answers without agonizing over the questions for a while.

We do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we attempt to resolve all questions as quickly as possible. Great spiritual masters tell us that God often speaks to us in the spaces between our words and our thoughts.  If we seek easy answers and don't leave space for God, we may be missing a lot--that's true even if we fill that space with God, because all we are doing is filling that space with what we think of as God--our own conceptions and voice--which actually can drown out God's voice.

It is almost as if the writer of Ecclesiastes in desperation reaches some kind of breakthrough. Sometimes you have to be pushed to your utter limits to break into the liminal space necessary for change and growth. The writer realizes that this is indeed a world of dust--and that's okay. We have to trust God in that.

It is an enormous challenge to face this. It is good to realize this, though, as that forces us to grow. It forces our true self to grow through the shell of the false self, so we can live our true nature. But those are some major growing pains and they hurt. It is normal to experience a monumental grieving process, because there is a lot at stake--virtually everything we know gets carried off in the wind like so much dust.

In the Gospels, Jesus is continually calling on us to discern between what is eternal and what is not. Jesus calls us to let go and be not afraid. He tells us that there is reason to hope in this, even if--or maybe especially if--we hang onto hope by the skin of our calloused fingertips with our last bit of strength. He tell us that what is lasting is not of this world--it is of the Kingdom. All worldly pursuits, all riches, even the emotional "riches" of pride--maybe especially so--come from dust and return to dust. At best they are meaningless, at worst they are distractions that keep us from finding true meaning.

You have to realize that this world amounts to nothing more than dust in order to really understand the message of Jesus. We are not supposed to build a permanent home for ourselves here. Jesus made that quite clear.

Everything of this world does perish. Qoheleth is right in discovering this. 

The rest of the story (in the voice of Paul Harvey), however, is that everything of God does not perish.  When it is all said and done, all that remains is faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).  That is exactly why it behooves us to let go of everything false to live into this Truth: Give up everything and be with the poor in faith, hope and love. If we were not so attached to our possessions, our wealth and our worldly sense of security, we would probably do this rather easily. It involves us shedding our false self to let the Kingdom within shine. Jesus shows us the Way: He continually ignored worldly titles and statuses and instead encountered anyone and everyone in peace and recognized their dignity. He is in and with the poor. That is where Jesus is and that is where his Church ought to be.

Our religious structures can be a barrier for this true spiritual journey, too. When we think our church is the only "right" one, when our doctrines are the "best," then we can actually stop listening to God and listen only the echo chamber of our own conclusions. Make no mistake--God can speak to us through religious doctrines and structures, but when they become a false idol then the religious tradition that could have pointed us to God now stands in the way.
 

 
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil

    at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
 

What has been is what will be,
     and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.

The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (NRSV)

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