I wrote this nearing the end of a summer-long Bible study where about ten of us artistic-types (musicians, writers, photographers, painters, etc) gathered to read and discuss and create our way through Ecclesiastes, with the hope of sharing our work at an art show near summer’s end. We did that, in an art show/house party in group member Helen’s backyard in Silver Lake. It was a fantastic night, and I had the opportunity to read this piece to the small crowd who had assembled to drink sangria and discuss the wisdom of the Teacher. When I shared the preliminary piece with just the group a couple weeks earlier, one said it reminded them of the letter read at the end of The Breakfast Club. I took that as a compliment.
In my Ecclesiastes Bible study group this summer, most of us are seminarians or recent seminary grads—a little disillusioned, definitely deconstructed, picking up pieces where we can and often trying not to fall into the abyss of doubt, cynicism, or whatever brand of philosophy that tells us we’re fools for believing the way we do.
Ecclesiastes is a heavy book—don’t read it if you’re in a funk, or you’ll never get out. Unfortunately, that’s where I’ve been most of the summer: in a funk. I keep stepping into little dark puddles of despair or low self-esteem or ultrasensitivity so that the pain of the world becomes too crushing for my small soul to bear. Others in our group are jobless, or wrestling with bosses, or questioning their calling and place in this world, or helping parents deal with illness, or grieving the loss of parents. Ecclesiastes is not a cure for our ailments, nor does it give us the answers we are searching for.
It is tempting to read the Teacher’s matter of fact sayings as authoritative declarations of Truth—“All things are wearisome…there is nothing new under the sun” or “Better off than both the dead and the living is the one who has never existed…” But really, all the Teacher does is give you words and sayings that yank back the curtain in your soul, exposing where you’ve been cowering in fear and confusion. You are forced to lay each of your squirmy, shadowy questions on the table.
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The opening lines of Ecclesiastes wrench the first wriggling question from the shadows: Is it all vanity? In our summer group, we wondered about this together and apart. Many translations use the word “meaningless” instead. Is it all meaningless? Our studies, our preparing of meals, our washing of clothes, our meeting friends for drinks, our words on pages, our paint on canvasses, our music in ears. We ventured further: Are we merely attempting to create meaning? Religion is a meaning-making machine, so many are quick to point out. Ecclesiastes rips the rug out from under our meaning so that the world loses its vibrancy and everything is dull and muted, with muffled edges—each day and thought shrouded in a dreary fog.
But wait! One of us rouses from the sleepy disenchantment of vaporous existence and asks, “What about God? What about the Holy Spirit?” Yes! I remember the times that the Spirit moved through my life and breathed into the mundane: a simple meal became a feast where a mysterious unity sprouted and blossomed in the hearts of people who could not be more different. The Spirit took tears of grief and let them water another’s plot of ground for healing. What is this but the Holy Spirit? What is this but sacrament—visible signs of invisible grace, as Augustine defines it?
Just the other day I read some words of Jesus that helped me put the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and my melancholy musings in perspective. In the Gospel of Luke, he tells the crowds that one day the “Queen of the South will rise up with the people of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
Traditionally, scholars attribute Ecclesiastes to Solomon, known through the ages for his superhuman wisdom. I think that’s why we take the book so seriously, beseeching the Teacher to dispense instruction for human existence. But Jesus said, Look. I am Wisdom. What I say supersedes the teachings even of Solomon. I say that nothing is impossible with God; I say that joy in abundance can be yours; I say that God is actually a Father who wants you to be right with him. The world isn’t two-dimensional and only black, white, and grey. I’ve let my Spirit loose in the world and now the universe is springing up in color everywhere—real, solid, three-dimensional and in your face.
But Jesus wasn’t really doing anything new, I think. It seems to me that it’s always been like that, for those who have eyes to see it. The apostle Paul said that that the people of Israel, wandering through the desert, partook of sacrament every single day: “all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (10:3-4). I don’t think it gets much more sacramental and mysterious than that. The food that we eat, the water we drink, the sheltering boughs of a tree—these all have potential to be channels to the divine. “Earth is crammed with heaven,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, but we must choose whether we’ll see God in the burning bush or just pick blackberries from it instead. I don’t mean that food or water or blackberry bushes are god or gods, but they do whisper to us: “It’s not meaningless.” They tell us about a good Father who made us all—Sister Moon, Brother Sun, and me—as they give us small sips and spoonfuls of his truth.