Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Striving After Wind

Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, who currently teaches at Vanderbilt, formerly taught at Princeton Seminary. He has an extraordinary commentary on Ecclesiastes in The Anchor Bible Series that I highly recommend.

Years ago, I was privileged to take a class with Dr Seow at Princeton Seminary on the Wisdom Tradition. And then, as I was reminded recently by a colleague, we brought Dr. Seow to the parish I was serving at the time, St. Francis, Holden, to preach and then lead a continuing education event for Episcopal and ecumenical clergy on Ecclesiastes. I've been thinking about that lately, and thinking about what insights that literature has to offer in these crazy times we are living through.

There are two Hebrew words one needs to learn before opening up the Book of Ecclesiastes to move beyond that text about there being a time and a season for everything made popular by The Byrds. The first is the name of the preacher/teacher: Qohelet. Leong suggested that we call this preacher/teacher "the Gatherer."

The second term is hebel - which means something more like "vapor" or "mist" rather than what we usually read in English, vanity. (One popular translation (NIV) uses the word "meaningless!" which is perhaps reason enough to never use that translation!) The word appears 38 times in Ecclesiastes, so trying to get it right matters. If you have to pick a word, I think "All is vapor" works pretty well. As Seow puts it:
It refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory. Something that is hebel cannot be grasped or controlled. (Ecclesiastes, page 47)
So there is perhaps intended irony that the gatherer cannot gather hebel any more than one can grasp the vapor coming out of a humidifier. Vanity of vanities to think we can!

If you are still with me then perhaps you will stay with me longer. Recently a lot of us laughed as Tina Fey ate a sheet cake on SNL while trying to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville. The segment was funny because Tina Fey is funny and it was well-written and it struck a chord. But what also made it work, I think, is the underlying theology that I think Qohelet would appreciate. All is hebel and a striving after wind! May as well eat sheet cake: Or, as Qohelet puts it:
I commend enjoyment for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
We need to keep reading the prophets. And we need to keep on speaking truth to power. We need courage for the living of these days. But we also need to find ways to cope. Eating a sheet cake a day is one way but maybe not the healthiest! But understanding that the work toward racial justice and healing has never been a linear enterprise and "grasping" that the world is just sometimes crazy, and even insane, is also part of the work to which we are called. We need routines and prayer and exercise and fun because otherwise we'll burn out. We need to support one another. We need to sometimes sit down at a bar with Qohelet and order a good IPA and pour out our hearts about everything we've seen under the sun. That includes some crazy, uncontrollable shit.

In that class I took with Seow all those years ago, he suggested that the Book of Proverbs was about learning how to cope with life when all is well. It's what we teach our kids. Pay attention to the ant. Work hard. Look both ways before you cross the street. The Book of Job, he suggested, is about what happens when that tragedy strikes, when life is not fair, when we look both ways but a drunk driver comes out of no where...

Qohelet, he said, is about what happens when the world seems to have gone off the rails. When up is down and down is up. "I've seen," says Qohelet...
...that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
I commend this old text to you, whether or not you consider yourself a "religious" person. Some read it as pessimistic. Not me. I'm an optimist by nature, but always tempered with realism. And I think Qohelet is reasonable. Nothing wrong with a sheet cake every now again. But we might also read, mark, and learn this ancient wisdom as well - even as we remember there is a time and season for everything under the sun. Or to put it another way, "this too shall pass."

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