Friday, August 26, 2011

Making Meaning (1): Chasing Wind

08/21/2011 Bethany (Holy Communion)
John 3 (moments with the children)
Ecclesiastes 1:1-14 (message focus)

I love Ecclesiastes. I’ve turned to it – for years – when I’ve felt depressed. And, no, that’s not why we’re looking at it today; I set this focus months ago during study retreat. But a depressed or sad person reading this book? It seems counter-intuitive; the book is such a downer. Even ancient rabbis weren’t sure whether this book should be included in the Bible at all (Davis, 159). So, I appreciated the note by one of the scholars, Ellen Davis, who reports that one of her students, who suffers from clinical depression, says that Ecclesiastes is like “slipping into a warm bath” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion, 2000, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, p 159).

It is full of cynicism about life and meaning. Death is the ultimate leveler, and death is the end – the writer imagines no life after death, no resurrection, no ultimate justice. Since fools and wise men both die, since the righteous and the wicked likewise perish, neither path is superior, both are pointless, “vanity of vanities”, “empty of empties”, a “chasing after wind”. Since death is the end, you might as well find some way to enjoy life, to eat, drink, and be merry, because it is the “gift of God”. Or, to put it in the cynical vision of Ecclesiastes, it’s the best God has to give. Or in the words of Jack Nicholson in the movie, “as good as it gets”, so go with that (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:19, 5:18-20, 8:14-15, 9:7-10).

I love a joke from Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: A man travels across the world to meet the wisest man in the world, a guru in India. After many trials he finally finds this man in his mountain top retreat and asks him his pressing question: “What is the meaning of life?” The guru’s response, “A teacup.” “A teacup?” “Well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind (Ecc 1.14).

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail before she can sleep in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly before they are forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Despite all the cynicism, the book contains its own contradictions. It is a well written text, poetic and philosophic, yet he writes, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12). He despairs that “there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (2:16), yet – through this book – the writer is remembered for over two thousand years. (See Davis, p 160.)

It’s a clue that even the cynicism of Ecclesiastes, an ancient deconstructionist, like postmodern deconstruction, ultimately deconstructs itself. And, then what?

And, the Teacher is clear-eyed about evil. People are oppressed, and no one comforts them. Oppressors have power, and face no justice (4:1-3). People work hard, but it is only out of envy (4:4). We work in order to eat, but our “appetite is not satisfied” (6:7). Those who live on dreams and hope find that more dreams only bring more burdens and worries (5:3). Others are wistful for the past, for the golden days, but Ecclesiastes concludes that this is “not from wisdom” (7:10). He despairs that so much of what happens in life seems random: “Time and chance happen to all” (9:11). And he describes this insufferable evil: “The same fate comes to everyone” (9:3); humans die, just like animals (3:19)!

Even when he tells us “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” (12:1) he tells us to do so before we die – and uses over 15 metaphors to refer to aging and death, concluding, as usual: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity” (12:8).

All is vanity . . . and a chasing after wind.
How many years can a mountain exist before it’s washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
I love Ecclesiastes, what Eugene Peterson (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, 1980, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) describes as a book of “nay-saying”. There’s no room for pious talk that is disconnected from real life. There’s no room for religion that ignores reality and truth. And there’s no space for a spirituality that is all about me – my vision of justice, my idea of what is right, my thoughts on goodness and beauty and truth, my search for answers, my need for a miracle. It is a book that humbles us, that strips away all the bad religion that we’d rather cling to and directs us to God and God alone . . . just because God is God, not for answers, not for miracles. This work of “nay-saying” is paired in Jewish worship with the Feast of Tabernacles, a feast of plenty, celebration, and a great big YES (Peterson, 162). Before we get too excited about what has happened to us, about what God has done for us, let’s not forget that it is not about us at all.

When we come to the Table today, we come to the cross of Jesus, his body and blood given for us. This is no statement about us, our goodness, how much we deserve this, how our religion has prepared us for this moment. In fact, we don’t deserve grace. This is about Jesus, not us. Jesus joined us in our fate. He died, just like the animals, just like the little dead bird I saw on the East Maple Street sidewalk yesterday.
How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Back in 1997, Bob Dylan performed at a Catholic church congress. Pope John Paul II did what I want to do today (Wikipedia, “Blowin’ in the Wind”). He put Dylan’s song in conversation with John’s gospel, with Jesus’ statement, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). And, to admittedly deconstruct the deconstructionist Ecclesiastes, I want to put this in conversation with Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, a chasing after wind.” In both Hebrew and Greek, the languages of Ecclesiastes and John, the word for wind is the same as the word for spirit and for breath. Jesus is clearly having fun with some word play. Ecclesiastes is too serious for that. But my suggestion is that once we get over ourselves and all the empty things, the vain things, we obsess about and focus on, we just might be ready to be filled with the wind of God. Chasing wind won’t get us there, but when we discover that we are empty, we just might be ready to be filled.
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Ellen Davis. 2000. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Eugene Peterson. 1980. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. 2007. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Learning Philosophy Through Jokes. Abrams Image.

Bob Dylan. 1962. “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Wikipedia, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. 2011-08-20.

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