Sunday, August 4, 2013


        Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 

The choice of the word “vanity” by the translators in today’s "track two" option for the Old Testament reading is unfortunate; such are the challenges of a translator's work. The confusion goes all the way back to the late fourth century, when St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, in what came to be called the Vulgate. Jerome chose the Latin word, vanitas, for the Hebrew word, hebel

But the writer of Ecclesiastes isn’t talking about vanity in the same way that we use the word to talk about someone staring at himself in a mirror or as Carly Simon intended when she sang “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”  So let's forget about vanitas for a moment and focus on the Hebrew: hebel. Literally it means vapor or mist or breath. (Think of a kid with the croup and running a vaporizer in her bedroom—that mist coming out is hebel.) 

The thing about vapor is that you can see it, but you can’t grasp it. Why? Because it’s not graspable. It’s more air than water. So we might more accurately try to hear that first verse of today’s reading like this: Vapor of vapors, says the Teacher, vapor of vapors. All is vapor.

The writer insists that life is like that sometimes, maybe even most of the time. We try to convince ourselves that it is otherwise - that the world we inhabit fits into a predictable, Newtonian model where there is a cause for every effect. We sometimes assume that if we can influence the right causes then we will get the effects we desire. If we do “a” and “b,” then “c” will surely follow. Sometimes we try to plan our careers like that: if we go to this college and major in this subject then the next thing is we'll find the right job that will lead us to the next right job. 

The problem is that the world isn’t always like that.  Sometimes you do everything you are supposed to do and yet the result comes out of the blue for good or ill. Maybe you train hard to be a horseshoe maker and you are the best one in town, but then someone comes along and invents an automobile. Or you get trained to work on the auto lines in Detroit, and then the company moves overseas and now you are 42 years old with a couple of kids and you are out of work because of larger macro-economic forces that you can barely understand, let alone control. All is vapor and a striving after wind. 

If you do “a” and “b,” then “c” is supposed to follow. So you eat more fiber and you reduce the saturated fats in your diet and you faithfully build in thirty minutes four times a week to get cardio-vascular exercise. You do everything your doctor tells you to do. It’s supposed to follow, then, that you will live to be ninety or a hundred, right? Except there you are, sitting in the doc’s office and before she opens her mouth to tell you the results of the tests you know what she is going to say. “How long do I have?” you ask with a trembling voice.

Life is not always fair.  And sometimes life is brutally unfair. That is not an excuse to avoid hard work in school or to stop taking care of our bodies. It just means that there are no guarantees. Sometimes the world is insanely unpredictable. It's like vapor, like mist. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the Teacher.  

Usually in English translations the writer is called “the Teacher” or in some translations, “the Preacher.” But here, too, it helps to go back to the Hebrew, which is Qoheleth: literally, “the Gatherer.” The irony here is clearly intentional. The Gatherer was taught that wisdom was like a commodity—something you could gather and control and use and manipulate. He once believed that. But what he has discovered in his life is that Wisdom, too, is more like vapor; it is simply not gather-able.

Qoheleth seems to have been raised by parents and teachers who put a lot of stock in the Book of Proverbs, which is pretty good stuff about learning how to navigate your way in the world. It’s common sense, really. Mind your “p’s” and “q’s.” Look both ways before you cross the street. Honor your mother and father. Remember the meaning of the story of Pinocchio, and choose your friends wisely. Because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. All that good stuff. There is a reason we get cliches; over time, they seem to reveal truth, at least most of the time.

Now it is certainly true that if you study hard you are way more likely to succeed than if you don’t. And it is surely true that one should choose one’s friends wisely, because they influence the situations we find ourselves in and the choices we make. And it is also true that people who care for their bodies do live longer as a rule. And it's mostly true that what goes around comes around. So choose to follow the straight path and life will go well; break the rules and eventually you’ll get caught. That’s Proverbs, in a nutshell, and we shouldn’t minimize the importance of such conventional wisdom. Without it we lapse into nihilism.

And yet...

None of these proverbial truths represent quite the whole truth, and that is a danger—because when bad stuff happens we often spend all of our time trying to find the cause and maybe even blaming the victim. That’s where Qoheleth comes in. Proverbial wisdom is mostly true. But because life is more like vapor, it is not always that way. Sometimes shit happens. Sometimes you choose the best friends and life still unravels. Sometimes you end up in the wrong crowd and that’s where you learn the most important of life lessons.

I like to picture Qoheleth as a crotchety guy in his early sixties - which I once thought of as old but now think of as just wise. If I were making Ecclesiastes into a film I’d convince someone like Jack Nicholson or maybe Clint Eastwood to play the lead and the film would open with him sitting at a bar and sipping on a scotch as he delivers those first lines we heard today: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… 

So what does that mean? I don't think he is saying that you shouldn’t teach your kids the wisdom of Proverbs. He’s just saying that if that’s all you choose to know about the world, then you are deluding yourself. He’s just reminding people that you can read all the right books and make all the right choices, but it will not guarantee the outcome you are looking for because life doesn’t come with guarantees.

Jesus, I think, is indebted to Qoheleth more than we have sometimes been taught and we get a glimpse of that in today’s Gospel reading from Luke 12:31-21.  The parable Jesus first told is surrounded by teachings about how we should deal with money, but the story itself would make Qoheleth proud: a parable about a responsible guy who is doing what you are supposed to do: planning for retirement by faithfully contributing to his 401-K plan. But Jesus says the guy is a fool because now at last he is ready to relax and eat and drink and be merry and guess what? He suffers a heart attack three days after his big retirement party and dies. Ouch.

Qoheleth says that we will all face good days and bad days, but here is the thing: we cannot control which will happen when. So he offers two words of advice that summarize well the entire book: consider and enjoy. If life is a mess, then stop and consider. Ask the question, what can I learn here? And when life is good, then be sure you aren’t too busy to miss it. Enjoy.

Because life is not controllable or graspable—because it is more like vapor—all you can do is consider and enjoy. As that most familiar of Qoheleth's sayings puts it, there is a time and a season for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up what has been planted. One needs to learn how to tell time like that and go with the flow, so if it is a time to be born then focus on birth. And if it is a time to die, then try to die well. The problem is that we forget how to tell time and sometimes try to force our own agendas "out of time."  We spend all winter yearning for spring except that spring comes and it's raining all the time - those famous April showers. So we start dreaming about those long summer days, except that when summer comes it turns out to be too hot, so we can't wait until fall. As a cousin of Qoheleth once put it: the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. We do that not by making every day sunny, but by learning how to pay attention: to consider and to enjoy.

Whenever I teach Ecclesiastes I always ask people if they hear this message as good news or as cynical and depressing. The answer, of course, reveals far more about the responder than it does about Qoheleth, which of course is the whole point. In the past Qoheleth has sometimes been read as akin to Sartre or Camus, a kind of proto-Existentialist who feels trapped in a world with no exit. Alternatively, when he says “eat, drink, and be merry” it's tempting to read him as an Epicurean. For my own part, I find Qoheleth to be a truthful realist. He is just telling it like it is. And if he is in fact right about how the world is, then there is “good news” to be discovered in facing that reality. If the world really is beyond our control, then someone needs to slap us upside the head (sooner rather than later) because we can be spared a lot of heartache when we learn to let go of our need to try to control the flow of life. On the good days, enjoy. On the tough days, consider. 

I am pretty sure that Qoheleth would not have been the kind of guy to write a self-help book or to go on Dr. Phil. But if you got him in just the right mood and you asked him, say, what advise would you give to parents raising children, I think he'd say to take the experts with a grain of salt. Assume your children will need to find a good therapist one day no matter how great a parent you are. Because kids do indeed grow up very fast in an unsteady and confusing world, don't try to control them: just learn to consider and enjoy. If you can’t wait until they can walk, you will miss the amazing mystery of crawling. If the day they start walking they drive you crazy because you find yourself wishing they were infants again, you are setting yourself up to be a pretty unhappy parent. Each and every day is a gift, the good ones and the hard ones. On the good days, enjoy it. On the challenging ones, consider.

For me, as a bit of a control freak by temperament and by training, there is tremendous freedom in recognizing the great vanity of thinking we are in control, and from that place, good news can be discovered. One of the discoveries that can come from that place is something perhaps like the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niehbur, who perhaps in some small measure was indebted to Qoheleth—and certainly to Jesus: 

            God grant me the serenity
            to accept the things I cannot change;
            courage to change the things I can;
            and wisdom to know the difference.

            Living one day at a time; 
            Enjoying one moment at a time;
            Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
            Taking, as Christ did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
            Trusting that God will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
            That I may be reasonably happy in this life
            and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.          


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