We had a guest lecturer in OT last week; a gentleman whose dissertation was on Qohelet, which is the Hebrew name for the Book most of us know as Ecclesiastes. (I tell you these things, my lambs, so that you can also be wicked cool if you ever find yourself in seminary, and say things like; “I was thumbing through Qohelet yesterday, and had to wonder at the extent of Hellenistic influence on the assertion that self-indulgence is, at its core, an act of futility.” You are welcome.)
Ecclesiastes is a confounding book, full of contrasts and contradictions. It also, however, contains exquisite language and imagery, and some very memorable lines. The one most of us know is some version of Ecc. 8:15: So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves… (“Eat, drink and be merry” is in both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Tobit, and while those words are not found as such in Ecclesiastes, certainly the sentiment is much the same).
If you are a Byrds fan — and I’m assuming you are, because in addition to being so gorgeous, you are also very wise — then you also know Ecc. 3: 1-8: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
I’ve loved this song for a long time, both in its original form, and as a performance by the E Street Band featuring Roger McGuinn, founding member of The Byrds. While the meaning of the verses from Ecclesiastes, and thus the song, is on one hand quite simple, there is also something profound about the realization that everything that happens to us — everything that we agonize over, dread, celebrate, fear, enjoy, loathe, anticipate, and grieve — is as impermanent as we are.
This is useful, I think, particularly on those days when we feel ourselves dropping into the pit. We need to be reminded that the season we’re in — which may at the moment seem devoid of hope and joy and a pathway out — will pass. Things won’t always be this way.
If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you’ll know what I mean when I say that it can seem downright insulting that the world keeps turning. The day my friend Carter died, for instance, I got the news when I was leaving town on the way to a wedding. I’d just spoken to him the day before, and had, in the course of our conversation, rekindled the hope that Carter would pull through his illness.
But he hadn’t, and getting that call felt like a blow to the chest. Pulled over on the side of the road, vomiting onto the pavement, it seemed impossible to me that other people had the audacity to continue going on with their lives, to laugh and smile and chatter inanely. Didn’t they realize that one of the greatest men to ever walk the Earth had just left us all behind? It was so blatantly wrong, I thought, glaring through tear-swollen eyes, that the whole world wasn’t in mourning, too.
But yet…there was also something decidedly reassuring about that very thing. The fact that the sun rises and sets and the world keeps turning is reassuring in its essential disregard for whatever we’re going through, because it’s a reminder that our current grief, while deep and searing and profound, isn’t permanent. It’s merely a season.
I had a conversation with a friend recently about how often the dread anticipation of something is so much worse than the event itself. “It’s the things you don’t even know to worry about that bring you to your knees,” I said, “not the ones we spend so much time working over in our minds.” My friend agreed wholeheartedly. Worry, in and of itself, is futile. It changes nothing, accomplishes nothing, improves nothing. And it is also offensive to God, in that it presumes a degree of control that is not ours to maintain.
But does that mean that we should just give up, kick back, and cede having any influence on events? Of course not. We’re fully in control of how we react to life. And furthermore, the decision to meet challenges head on, or cower in fear while life passes us by, belongs to us alone.
But worrying along the way won’t help. What it will do is keep us from living in the present time, in the specific set of circumstances that we’ve helped create. Worry blinds us to pleasure, and robs us of joy.
All that being said, I’m not sure what the remedy is for our natural inclination to worry. But I’m guessing it involves faith. Acting as though we trust our God. Acknowledging the ego that is involved in worrying about the future, as if we’re dictating the terms….which clearly, we are not.
It probably also involves cranking up some groovy tunes, like Morning has Broken by Cat Stevens (in his pre-Yusef Islam incarnation), Give me Love by George Harrison, Presence of the Lord by Eric Clapton, and, of course, Turn! Turn! Turn!
One of the best experiences I ever had was in the late 1980s, seeing U2 in concert a couple of times and hearing the song 40 (lifted, of course, directly from Psalm 40) sung by tens of thousands of people. As the song entered its final refrain — How long to sing this song? — first Bono exited the stage, then Adam Clayton, then the Edge, and finally Larry Mullen, Jr (He of the Righteous Forearms), who stayed behind to bang on the drums until the last possible minute, until no one was left … except the thousands of people in the audience who went on singing long after the music had stopped.
If it sounds cheesy, I can assure you it was not. The sheer number of people singing together was enough to give me goose bumps every time…and the memory of it still does.
Because I love you, my lambs, I’ve assembled some videos for you, so that you can experience some of this music for yourself, and also, because — as Qohelet reminded us — too much toil is a bad idea. Feel free to quote this passage when one of your co-workers has the audacity to question the fact that you’re watching music videos at work:
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…
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.