Sunday Lecture - 2.2.14

Today’s reading is from the first chapter in the book of Ecclesiastes.

These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem.

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”

What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea.

Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new.

We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.

I’ve always loved the book of Ecclesiastes. I would even say it is one of, if not my favorite book in the Bible. At first blush it reads as a nihilistic view of the world, where nothing matters, nothing is real, and nothing has any meaning. That’s not how I read it.

I think the book has always had an appeal to me as a justification for the lack of involvement I had in all the “world-changing” activities going on around me in the Bay Area. Every non-profit out to save the the world and every startup out to change it. I could look at myself in the mirror, count the ways in which I was not making a difference, and think, “what they are doing is meaningless, everything is as it was, and as it will always be.” I’m fairly certain this is not what the author had intended. In fact reading the rest of the book that becomes quite clear.

What I was really wrestling with was a lack of call, a lack of passion, and a lack of vision for my life. I felt no call to battle, so I never geared up and never got bloodied. I never lost anything, but also never gained. I always had Ecclesiastes to fall back on, it’s all meaningless anyways. As far as someone was able to push the boundaries, someone else would push them further, as big of a name as someone could create for themselves, there was always someone bigger.

Even on a day like today, Superbowl Sunday, how quickly are the victor’s forgotten as the new season comes around? This year’s champions have to start all over again next season. And the season after that, and after that.

The truth of course is that I was hiding. I used to think that at least if you don’t play, you can’t lose. This is so wrong. You lose opportunities at meaningfulness, you lose time, you lose purpose, and you lose out on the great adventure of life. Thinking of life in the game context is all wrong. If you believe in a spiritual afterlife, then the gaming metaphor falls totally apart. There is no winning or losing, there are no points, and there are no opponents. The message of the gospel is redemption, but a redemption that has come about through nothing that we could do on our own. This means there are no tactics, moves, or cheats we can employ to any advantage.

Life is not a game that you can choose to play, it isn’t a game at all. It is an existence and it’s the only one we are given. What then is the meaningful part? I do think our culture could benefit from a little encounter with The Teacher in Ecclesiastes, some humility and understanding that whatever we build, however great we feel, it has been done before, it will be forgotten, and it will be done again.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It’s just that with that perspective, we can re-evaluate what success looks like in our endeavors. For the non-profit, is it how much money is raised, how many folks are reached, or how wide the message was preached? Or rather is it about the transformation the workers themselves go through? How their own lives are changed as they strive to serve others, knowing that they will never eradicate all the evil in the world, but they can, for a time, bring light to some dim part of it. For the startup, for the businessman, is it the accumulation of wealth, the notoriety of your product, or the speed at which you can live life? Or rather are those just a backdrop to their own personal journey, to fatherhood or motherhood, to friendship, to easing the world’s pain just a little bit? Nobody is keeping a tally of their successes, they can be lost just as easily as they are gained, but the journey is theirs forever.

I sit and think on my own life and what parts are meaningful in the eternal sense. Part of this life is never knowing until we pass on. Perhaps it was a friendly gesture that made a difference to someone, a gift of money at some point, a kind word, a reproach or rebuke, just being neighborly. There is little feedback into what was successful, really successful in our lives, until we’re gone. We can live only in our little portion of it, trying to love others as much as we love ourselves and obeying God’s commandments as best we can. Everything else is meaningless.