Wisdom of Story Reflection 1: The Roles and Rules of the World

When an author tells a story one of the first things they have to do is place their characters in roles and in a world that has rules. The rules and roles will be different based upon the character and the world. A young wizard in a world where magical things are possible will have different roles and rules than an old cowboy riding into the old West. Even within the same world the rules can be different. A private in the army, for example, operates under different rules and certainly a different role than a general. Rules and roles work in a story because it imitates our life. Often the roles we play are second nature, like the feel of clothing on top of our skin that we no longer notice and the rules are as much a part of the environment we live in as the air we breathe.

The rules that we live within are dependent on the numerous roles we play within our lives. Some are gender determined: there are different cultural expectations for men and women. Men are shown from a young age to put their work above everything else (even family), to not express pain or weakness, and that the cultural expected role is for them to be the provider. Some rules come out of one’s place within a family: a young son or daughter should have different rules and constraints than a teenager or a young adult. Some rules come from the organizations and work that one is a part of. In my life the expectations as a military officer and later as a pastor were very different, for example language that was assumed to be a part of the life in the military are no longer considered appropriate in a more ‘holy’ calling by many.

Rules are not bad, we need rules to make sense of our lives and world. However, there are times where they can become stifling. Roles may fit us like a second skin or we may feel like we are continually wearing a mask that covers up our true self. Often these parts of our lives are invisible until a major change comes that changes the rules and roles. Things that we may have assumed to be true about our lives no longer hold up under the stress of the changes that go on within our lives.

So what do we do when the rules no longer work and the role we once played no longer fits. That is where the hard part of the story begins. Much like the people of Israel on their long Exodus from Egypt we may long to return to the places we knew and the security we once had (even though it might have been its own type of enslavement). Yet, in a story this is act 2, the challenging part of the story where a crisis pushes the protagonist to find our something new about themselves. If a person is in that part of their life it doesn’t feel like a story, it may feel like chaos or freefall. Yet all stories have a beginning point, a Launchpad so to speak and the rules and initial roles are that solid ground that retreats away on the expedition into the scary unknown frontier.

 

These meditations are based upon the Courageworks course, the Wisdom of Story taught by Brené Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton. This is my reflections after session 1.

Posted in Psychology and Philosophy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ecclesiastes 12-The End of Wisdom

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8: The End of Things

1 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 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 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, 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 returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

So now we come to the end of things and at the end of things is growing old and death. The final eight verses either talk metaphorically about the aging of the individual or directly about the collapse of a city or town. I read this metaphorically and at the end of all things is the gradual process of letting go that comes with old age, diminished health and eventually mortality. One of my nonagenarians from a previous congregation who had a spry sense of humor even in the midst of her failing vision and health would remind me when I would visit her that, “Old age isn’t for sissies” and that “they can call these the golden years but it must be fool’s gold.” Ecclesiastes has no place for a sentimentalism about how things will be better in some great by and by in the afterlife, it only has place for that which it can see. Perhaps there is an uneasiness with the somewhat agnostic perspective that Ecclesiastes seems to portray at certain points, its willingness to question what many people would rather overlook. Yet, looking at the world through the lens of a person who is willing to call much of what they see ‘vanity’ doesn’t lead the Teacher to desperation but instead a greater sense of peace in the moment. It allows them to counsel their pupils to embrace their youth, to remember the creator of this time and not to rush forward into the responsibility and diminishment of old age. In a culture where old age was valued and youth was not Ecclesiastes was an unusual voice. In our culture where youth is valued and old age is considered a burden and death is to be avoided at all cost perhaps the honesty of Ecclesiastes might help us with our own vain struggles against our mortality.

One of the greatest gifts I think Ecclesiastes brings to things is the wisdom of appreciating the gifts of the day. We can struggle against our mortality and against our limits but they make the time we have precious. Health, wealth, relationships, fame and power may all be transitory but the gift comes in being able to find joy in one’s food and drink, relationships, toil and the work of one’s hands and mind. Vanity of vanities, all may be vanity but that doesn’t have to be a source of struggle. Instead we can be freed to enjoy the day that our creator has made and to indeed be glad in it.

Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14: Epilogue

 9 Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The voice shifts suddenly to one talking about the Teacher rather than one talking as the Teacher. This short book was one that barely made it into the canon of Scriptures because it is a very different voice. Here an appreciative epilogue is offered which closes Ecclesiastes as we have it. It evaluates what has come before as both plainly truthful but also pleasing in its composition. That perhaps is a challenge for anyone trying to speak or write in a way that can speak the truth to the best of their ability but also not in a callous or judgmental way. Ecclesiastes writes about some uncomfortable truths and as Ellen Davis can comment, “who in our culture has the moral authority and the imagination to make uncomfortable words heard in the public forum? Few teachers or clergy, even fewer politicians.” (Davis, 2000, p. 226) Yet truth, perhaps most of all the uncomfortable truth that is skipped over in the soundbites and marketing strategies, is needed for both the individual and the public’s life.

Perhaps it is great vanity writing about a book that can claim ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ But there has been enjoyment in the toil and a sense of satisfaction coming to the end of these reflections upon this irreverent little piece of the scriptures. Fearing God may be the beginning of wisdom as Proverbs 1:7 can state and here is one of the few times Ecclesiastes sings in harmony with its neighbor in the scriptures. Yet, perhaps it would be vanity to worry about how God will judge this deed in the end and so for me too this is the end of the matter. Vanity or wisdom or both it is done and I go to enjoy the rest of this day that God has provided.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Ecclesiastes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ecclesiastes 11- Proverbs for Life in an Uncertain World

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Ecclesiastes 11

1 Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.
2 Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.
3 When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth; whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.
5 Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
8 Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
9 Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
10 Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

As we approach the end of the reflections that make up Ecclesiastes there is a sense of peace as the mundane moments of day to day life are lifted up against the vanity and uncertainty of the future. In the much more secular age that we live within perhaps Ecclesiastes is one of the voices of the canon that rings truest to our experience. While there is much in the New Testament, and some in the Hebrew Scriptures as well that deals with the transcendent the wisdom of the author of Ecclesiastes is in the discovery (or rediscovery) of the pleasure of the present. As Charles Taylor can describe our time as one where, “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 143) These proverbs for life in an uncertain world lift up joy and generosity in the face of foolishness and vanity.

Over 105 years ago the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard stated:

Philosophy is quite right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that life must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward. (Pauw, 2015, p. 200)

Or put more simply, ‘hindsight may be 20:20 but we don’t walk through life backwards.’ We may understand much of our life much better with the hindsight of experience and the separation of time but we don’t have that option. Life is lived forward and so within the unknowable future and in the immanent present one chooses how one will approach it. The approach to life in these initial verses of chapter eleven is one of generosity, of spreading rather than hoarding. Of letting one’s bread float out upon the waters and dividing one’s wealth numerous ways. There are no guarantees but generosity and trust seems to be the way lifted up here by the Teacher. If we wait for the rains to come down from the heavens or trees to fall or until we understand all the secrets of life we will not act and we will miss life. Going out to work and planting without a guarantee of harvest is a part of the risk of life. Sometimes our work will come to nothing, sometimes the things we nurture and care for will fail. Here there is the ability to enjoy the light when it comes in all its sweetness while rejoicing even in the dark days. Ecclesiastes is not a moralistic crusader trying to put off passion, he encourages those who are young to follow the inclination of their heart even while knowing that their lives ultimately rest in God’s hands. We do not always see or understand the interaction between the work of our hands and the gifts of God’s work for our sake, yet we can move ahead without knowing the “blueprint for God’s work.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 201)

Finally, the chapter closes with a note on anxiety which has several echoes in the New Testament, probably the most famous being in Matthew 6:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

Many of the things that cause anxiety are indeed hevel (vanity). This is not to belittle those who suffer from anxiety but Ecclesiastes’ focus is on the present. Often anxiety or worry may come from an unknown future and the desire to secure that future and that is in Ecclesiastes’ view hevel. Youth and the dawn of life may be vanity but they can also be joyful. Often joy is stolen by trying to hoard one’s gifts to ensure an uncertain future but we are reminded to enjoy the immanent present. To enjoy the sweet times of light even though days of darkness may be many. To go out and sow without guarantees and to follow the inclination of your heart before it is too late. Carpe diem, to seize the day not because one is fatalistic about the future but instead because they have not invested securing the future as an ultimate concern.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Ecclesiastes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future of the Bard

By Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard) - 0QHOMxCB-XDE7Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22128907

By Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard) – 0QHOMxCB-XDE7Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22128907

Perchance if one would live to see
The bard forgotten as time passed thee
If Hamlet’s question was ne’er to be
And forgotten Othello’s tragedy
Bubble, bubble, and trouble that day
When lost are king John, Henry two and three
Would Julius still say ‘et tu brute’
Or Cleopatra hold dying Anthony
 
Yet somehow all the world is still a stage
A midsummer night dream when day is done
May the poet’s words endure each new age
Perhaps it is much ado about none
And maybe it’s silly even to fret
Forgetting Romeo and Juliet

 

This was for the day 10 prompt of the Intro to Poetry where the prompt is future and the challenge is to write a Sonnet. Since Shakespeare wrote many sonnets I challenged myself to write about the future of the bard using his style of iambic pentameter and his typical ababcdcd efefgg rhyme scheme. Was a fun try to use some of the bard’s work to inspire the words of the poetry.

 

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ecclesiastes 10: Wisdom, Life and the King

Paul Alexander Leroy, Haman and Mordecai (1884)

Paul Alexander Leroy, Haman and Mordecai (1884)

 Ecclesiastes 10

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
 2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left.
 3 Even when fools walk on the road, they lack sense, and show to everyone that they are fools.
 4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post, for calmness will undo great offenses.
 5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as great an error as if it proceeded from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves.
 8 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
 9 Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them; and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them.
 10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed.
 11 If the snake bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer.
 12 Words spoken by the wise bring them favor, but the lips of fools consume them.
 13 The words of their mouths begin in foolishness, and their talk ends in wicked madness;
 14 yet fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds?
 15 The toil of fools wears them out, for they do not even know the way to town.
 16 Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant, and your princes feast in the morning!
 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman, and your princes feast at the proper time– for strength, and not for drunkenness!
 18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.
 19 Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.
 20 Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Wisdom is not the exclusive property of the wealthy or nobility as we heard at the end of the previous chapter when the author related the parable of the wise poor man who saved (or might have saved) a town. Yet, even knowing that those who rule are not necessarily wise or diligent, Ecclesiastes is deeply troubled by the thought of the ‘powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up’ as Mary can sing in Luke 1: 52. The teacher in Ecclesiastes still ultimately believes that ‘a king is for a plowed field’ (Ecclesiastes 5: 9) even with all the oppression that can happen under the sun. Ecclesiastes version of wisdom seeks an ordered world, not necessarily a fair one, but one in which the wise person can learn to live and can make peace with their position within that world. Many other voices in the scriptures will attempt to challenge those in power, particularly the prophets. Ecclesiastes attempts to find a place for wisdom in the midst of all the folly and absurdity that are a part of life.

One bad apple can spoil the batch and a little folly can undo years of working wisely. Wisdom seems to be for Ecclesiastes a way of walking and thinking and acting that are continually cultivated. There is a sharp delineation between the walk of a foolish person and the walk of the wise. Wisdom may be the road less taken and it is a road that requires accountability but eventually the toil of the foolish wears them out.

The proverb in verse four about calmness in the face of the anger of the ruler reminds me of a time when I was a young lieutenant in the army. My unit had been assigned funeral duty, in a time before the omnipresence of cell phones, and we had been on this duty for many weeks. I had sat at home many weekends while my girlfriend at the time was 200 miles away. We would wait for a call to come in to tell us if we had any funerals on Saturday or Sunday but we were expected to remain close to Ft. Polk where I was stationed. One weekend I waited until late Friday, but no call came so I drove to spend the remainder of the weekend with my girlfriend in Texas. Saturday morning a request for a funeral came in and I was not reachable. I returned on Sunday to a couple messages on my phone. As hard as it was I first called my commander, then everyone else involved and apologized and was willing to accept whatever punishment was to come. Later I learned that my willingness to call and be open and honest about my mistake and willingness to accept the consequences earned me a lot of respect in the unit, but that day I was only trying to do what was right after I had made a mistake.

Ecclesiastes has already shown that it is well aware of how nobility and position do not automatically ensure wisdom. Foolish rulers and crooked officials were a part of the experience of the people of Israel. Unlike some other cultures that enshrined their elite with almost godlike status the Hebrew Scriptures have a skeptical view of kings and their motives. Even Solomon who is lifted up for his wisdom often ruled in ways, especially later in his life, that the texts considered unwise and ultimately led to the fracturing of the Davidic kingdom and monarchy. Yet, Ecclesiastes still holds onto the belief that the nobility and the king are ultimately a positive thing and anything that upsets that order or the appearance of that order (like slaves on horseback while a prince walks) upsets the ordered world of the teacher in Ecclesiastes.

One’s wise actions may not prevent the chances of life from coming about, but they still may prevent self-injury. If one refrains from digging a pit one also refrains from falling into it for example. The wise are measured in their speech and know when to remain silent but the foolish in contrast talk on and on. Blessed in the one, in Ecclesiastes view, who lives with the gift of good government and wise rulers who work during the day and celebrate only once the work is done. Laziness in rule and in life can destroy much and a little folly can outweigh wisdom and honor in a person’s home and in a kingdom. Yet, wisdom is not an ascetic’s life. The wise person can enjoy feasts and wine and wealth.

Finally, the chapter closes with a proverb similar to our own times saying that, ‘the walls have ears.’ Cursing those in power over you or complaining about them can make it back to their ears. There will always be people who will use our words to their advantage. Perhaps this also can evoke stories like the story of Esther where Haman’s words and plots become unraveled because he unknowingly plotted against Esther and Mordecai who could in their own way appeal to the king.  Words matter to the wise, speech matters and actions matter. Many things are beyond the control of the wise person but one’s speech, calmness, walk and how one lives are within one’s control.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Ecclesiastes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mechanical Dinosaurs

By MathKnight - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19698684

By MathKnight – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19698684

They rumble in herds across the grassland plains
Devouring once fertile fields and leaving them stripped
Felling trees, trampling grass and crops and weeds
Indiscriminately they track their way across the countryside
Leaving behind their droppings of concrete and asphalt
Attempting to fulfill their unending hunger and thirst
As they transform the fecund earth into urban sprawl
And their consumption goes unchecked in their environment
For they are all herbivores consuming all that is green in their path
No natural predator, no carnivorous beasts stalk their herds
Nothing tracks and preys upon these monstrous beasts
Nothing culls the herd or limits their destruction
So fields become neighborhoods and concrete jungles of suburbia
As the urban landscape is drawn outward by the mechanical herds
In their quest for new  lands to be consumed by their hungry mouths
 

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Ecclesiastes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment