Ecclesiastes 9 Staring into the Abyss and Finding Peace

La Porte dr l'Enfer a ete dressee dans les jardins du musee Rodin (The Thinker at the Gates of the Inferno and the Museum in Rodin)

La Porte dr l’Enfer a ete dressee dans les jardins du musee Rodin (The Thinker at the Gates of the Inferno and the Museum in Rodin)

Ecclesiastes 9

1 All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them 2 is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
 7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
 11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
 13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.”
 17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.

There are those both inside and outside the Christian community who see faith as a house of cards that if one thing is removed then the whole house crumbles. I see this from many of my friends who are agnostic or atheist who read the bible in a way that is as fundamentalist as the most fundamentalist Christian in order to discredit it and I see it in people who I are so afraid of the modern world challenging their faith that they are fearful of science or culture. Often the latter never move beyond trying to defend the timeline of creation in Genesis 1 (and may miss even the beauty of the way that passage poetically talks about the creation) and the former would never realize that within the scriptures there is one who asks their questions and takes them deeper. Ecclesiastes takes us to the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness, willing to rest his observations in the experience of the vanity of the present moment and his own experience. Ecclesiastes, knowing that in this present life being wise, righteous, faithful, religious or good do not guarantee one a blessed life nor does being foolish, wicked, unfaithful, irreligious or evil do not guarantee that one will be cursed, is willing wonder are the righteous loved or hated by God. There is no way to ensure one’s security in this life or beyond this life in Ecclesiastes view. Ecclesiastes stands at the edge of the abyss, where death is the only certainty and finds peace. It may take us a little longer standing in this place before we can find peace, but it can be found. It is a wisdom that may take us a bit of a journey to get to because it undercuts many of the narratives we are used to living with, but once we do we can find joy even in the midst of the often inscrutable nature of God or the perversity of life.

One of the narratives that Ecclesiastes undercuts is an orientation towards the future that is unable to see the gifts of the present. In its most extreme form it is a focus on the afterlife, awaiting joy in heaven, at the expense of enjoying the gifts of this day. Sometimes the apostle Paul is used to support this argument when he says to the Corinthians, discussing the resurrection, that, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 19) yet Paul would learn to “be content with whatever I have.” (see Philippians 4: 11). While there has been a predominance in much Christian preaching on heaven (and also hell) over the generations much of the Bible is concerned with how to enjoy the present life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his cell in Tegel Prison, wrote:

I believe we are so to love God in our life and in the good things God gives us and to lay hold of such trust in God that, when the time comes and is here—but truly only then!—we also go to God with love, trust, and joy. But—to say it clearly—that a person in the arms of his wife should long for the hereafter is, to put it mildly, tasteless and in any case is not God’s will. One should find and love God in what God directly gives us; if it pleases God to allow us to enjoy an overwhelming earthly happiness, then one shouldn’t be more pious than God than God and allow this happiness to be gnawed away through arrogant thoughts and challenges and wild religious fantasy that is never satisfied with what God gives. (Bonhoeffer, 2010, p. 228)

Wisdom is not deferring life until the next life or living with a contempt for the world. Wisdom that is really willing to come to the edge of the abyss and ask difficult questions of one’s experience if it isn’t going to fall into cynicism one will learn to embrace the good in the present in the midst of its impermanence.

A second narrative that Ecclesiastes refuses to let stand is the myth of living for one’s legacy. If one’s legacy is as transient as one’s life then a focus on one’s curricula vitae to the exclusion of one’s life with a partner one loves the enjoyment of food and drink and labor is truly vanity. There is no enjoyment of life and accomplishment beyond the boundary of death. The memory of the person we are and the life we lived is rarely preserved beyond a couple generations and even the wise among us are forgotten.

Another narrative that is potent in the American context is the narrative of security. Security may be the great American idol and we invest a lot of our resources into attempting to guarantee ourselves against financial, medical, or any other disaster. Yet, even with our security complex we often suffer from foreboding joy, a sense that even in moments of joy we are unwilling to trust them because they may be temporary. Yet, Ecclesiastes is willing to be honest about the elements of our lives that we cannot control and that when disaster strikes it pulls us out of what we know like fish in a net or a bird in a snare. Worrying about the possibility of disaster doesn’t prepare us for disaster but it can steal the joy out of the moments of joy in our life that we are gifted to enjoy.

Ecclesiastes keeps circling back to the gift of enjoyment of the things that are a part of our life now. Eating and drinking, dressing in festive garments (as white garments were in an ancient culture where people rarely washed their clothes and water was a precious resource), enjoying one’s relationships and enjoying one’s labor. They are not permanent, you cannot guarantee them, and yet they are precious and enjoying them is a gift from God. Better to be the dog, a scavenger and a dishonorable animal in Jewish thought, who is alive than the proud lion who is dead. Whatever one’s lot the best one can do is to find enjoyment in it. One can worry that life is not fair or that it is too short or one can embrace what one has. One may be a king or a poor but wise person whose wisdom is not heard and yet be quickly forgotten in the turning of the seasons.

Yet, even wisdom is often overcome by shouting and foolishness. It seems that perhaps the life of wisdom is at least partially tragic. The story told in verse eleven of the poor man who delivered (or as C.L Seow translates it might have delivered had anyone listened to the poor man whose wisdom was despised) (Pauw, 2015, p. 196)but is quickly forgotten seems to lead to the final brief proverbs about the struggle for wisdom in Ecclesiastes and our own time. People may overlook wisdom for the shouting of the ruler among fools or in favor of the weapons of war and one bungling individual can undo much of the wisdom of generations. Wisdom may continually struggle and often be overcome in the public arena by the louder or more powerful voice but ultimately the wise and the foolish voices are all forgotten by a new generation and their legacies forgotten. Yet, the wise person can learn to enjoy the gifts and the impact they can make in their brief span of life.

 

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Flooded Landscape

You drank and you drank and you drank
But the floodwaters covered your face
As you drown under the smothering waters
Which seem to pour endlessly from the sky
Your skin had been dried and cracked yesterday
Baked and hardened in the summer sun
Your clay mask peeling flaking away in the heat
But now it is washed away by the continual beat
Of millions of tiny drops fall cold upon your body
And yet while the thunderstorm rages around you
You drink and you drink and you drink
And you will outlast the storm like all those before
The waters will recede as you trade
Your faded brown summer garb
For a beautiful dress in shades of green

Finally got time to get back to the Intro to Poetry, this being day 9 of 10 with the prompt being a landscape and the challenge being to use apostrophe where the poem addresses and object (usually personified) in the second person

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Life May Be Good…

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
Taking the moment to savor food and drink
The embrace of a friend or the lover’s kiss
To enjoy the quest for knowledge and wisdom
Or to delight in the produce of one’s hands

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one doesn’t obsess about one getting more
And another getting less than their works deserve
When one doesn’t let fame or prosperity define
The enjoyment of the day or the measure of life

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one accepts the gifts one has with gratitude
And celebrates the relationships one has in life
Remaining thankful for all that the seasons bring
For life can be good even when it isn’t fair

This is the poem inspired by the day 8 prompt of intro to poetry (pleasure) using anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a verse). This was also inspired by book of Ecclesiastes which I’ve been working my way through over the last several weeks

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Ecclesiastes 8 Wisdom in an Unjust World

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Ecclesiastes 8

1 Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed.
 2 Keep the king’s command because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way. 6 For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. 7 Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? 8 No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle, nor does wickedness deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.

 10 Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil. 12 Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, 13 but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.

 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

Life is not fair, justice is often skewed towards a privileged group or individual, and the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. Bad things do happen to good people and one would have to shut one’s eyes tight to the world around them not to perceive the unfairness of the world. No one, not even the greatest president, king or official will be able to by their own wisdom alleviate all the suffering and injustice of the world. Oppression does occur and sometimes is sometimes even praised. Wisdom has to figure out how to live in the world as it is and not in the world as one imagines it should be.

Wisdom making one’s face shine may be a reference to the starting place of all wisdom, to God’s own wisdom. As Ellen Davis can say, “A shining face is, then, a sign of God’s benevolent presence; it shows forth the light of the Holy Spirit.” (Davis, 2000, p. 206) The wisdom in the shining face that reflects God’s benevolent presence is also coming from a softened face. A part of this wisdom that fears God and can place one’s trust in God precisely in the midst of an unfair and unjust world is the ability to find joy and celebration even in the midst of the seasons of the world one cannot control. It is finding peace in the midst of the oppression, joy even in the midst of suffering, and enjoying the food and drink in the moments of prosperity and want for they all come (ultimately in Ecclesiastes view) from God. Wisdom seems to reflect the ability to trust God even when one cannot riddle out the interpretation of a thing. Wisdom is willing to let go of the quest for certainty and is willing to reside in the humility of one’s own knowledge and power. Wisdom fears God and knows that we are at every moment of our life caught up in the movement of things that we have no control over. We cannot control when the time of birth or death is or war or peace or even whom we receive love from and who we might receive hate from. No one, not even the wisest sage can understand all that is going on under the sun.

J.K. Rowling’s character Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series may be an interesting figure to contemplate as one explores Ecclesiastes description of a wise person. In the novels he is a complex character who often has to put people he cares about into situations that may bring about suffering for them or even death and yet he rarely in the novels displays a hard countenance. His face is often light, he seems to enjoy the moments of levity and celebration even when they are brief. He is unafraid to tell the difficult truth that other may want to obscure or hide and he refrains from the certainties that many of the other characters want to cling to. Even for all his wisdom and power there are many things he is unable to prevent and close friends he is unable to protect and yet in his life and death (in the story) he becomes a character who models what wisdom might look like in that fictional world with all its struggles.

As a person who served in the Army I understand the need to follow orders that may be unpopular and the times when unquestioned obedience was called for. In the royal court, in government and in society there are times where we simply have to follow the commands we are given. There are certainly times where one will have to resist and illegal or unjust command or attempt to work with the system (or sometimes oppose it) to work towards a more just system. Yet, most of our lives we live with rules, laws and boundaries that we have to work within.

As a preacher I attempt to invite my congregation into the struggle with the texts and to teach them to wonder what it may speak to them rather than confidently claiming to have all the answers. God’s mysterious ways often elude me and in Ecclesiastes the interpretation of the thing often eludes the author in all their wisdom. In the United States there are a number of preachers and traditions that seem unwilling to allow for this type of wisdom which can reside in the places of uncertainty and instead they fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of the mind of God. “The dangers of overly confident preaching are felt particularly in the homiletic temptation to discern God’s retributive justice in situations of human suffering. In this respect, some preachers seem to have the whole divine road map spread out in front of them and so are in a position to give the rest of us confident progress reports. Qohelet, by contrast, reminds us the wisdom about God’s mysterious ways in the world regularly elude us.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 185) Wisdom could lead us to a homiletical humility, a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and to acknowledge the gaps rather than to explain them away. To help oneself and one’s community to learn the wisdom of finding joy precisely in the midst of an unjust world, and the wisdom of trusting God event when one cannot make sense of the senselessness of life. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 189)

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Banana Pie

155620-425x281-Banana-meringue-pie

Banana pie was childhood’s sweet treat
That for special occasions we would eat
But only on the first day
Would the fruit looking nice stay
So perhaps that is why it was rare
That we would indulge in this sweet fare

This is day seven of the Intro to poetry challenge where the prompt is flavor. I made it short in case I had the time to make it a found poem (which can be like the ransom note assembling the media from other places). This is one of those flavors I love from childhood and as an adult as well

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The Treacherous Sea

My avatar wades out into the vast sea of information
Fishing for the truth in the midst of the murky waters
Made brown by the silt of data that flows down river
And the runoff of the manure deposited upon the fields
Yet, the sea itself is a living and crafty organism
It knows the quarry I seek and it sees my reflection on its face
It watches the places I sail to in my quest for knowledge
Yet, it only surrenders the secrets it is willing to show
But sometimes I wonder who watches who more
Does the sea
See me?
For in the vastness of the ocean I am so small
And am I merely sharing the data I choose to show
Upon the screens of the digital sea as bait
Or have I already been hooked?

This is the Intro to Poetry day 6 based on the prompt of a screen and trying to use enjambment (a sudden break in a line for effect)

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Thinning

When did my hair get so thin
That it no longer protects my scalp skin
Yet it never lays flat
After wearing a hat
Oh how wonderfully vain I have been

Several days behind now in the Intro to Poetry prompts, but this was a fun one. To take an imperfection as the prompt and then to attempt to put it into a limerick. And while I am still glad to have as much hair as I do at almost 44 (especially with the men on both side losing much more) there isn’t as much as there once was.

IMG_0751

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