Ecclesiastes 3:1-9, 8:6-8a, 9:7-12 Matthew 2:13-23 Russell Eidmann-Hicks
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Another translation of this is ‘emptiness, emptiness, all is emptiness – and a striving after wind.” The writer of Ecclesiastes, is traditionally known as King Solomon – but more probably a teacher in the wisdom tradition from the 3rd century BC. The teacher is an elder sage, rooted in the natural world, and speaks of the meaning-lessnes of a life not centered in God, a life solely focused on the changing tides and seasons of life. Jesus was very influenced by this ‘wisdom’ teaching.
Like modern day existentialism, the writer sees little essential purpose in life, beyond enjoying day to day pleasures and work; but understands the beauty and fragility of life, and the eternal nature and unknowability of God.
“To everything there is a season…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….”
What I love is that this is a listing of opposites – that life causes us to do one thing and then to do the opposite, to undo what we’ve just done, or to go against what we did before. We go one way and then the other; like waves washing up on the beach and then returning the same way. And what do we gain in the end?
Milton Berle said his New Year prayer was this: “May my troubles last as long as my resolutions.” Resolutions are important – they help us set a course in life, and to cast a vision. But they often don’t last – partly because life is unpredictable, and we don’t quite know what to expect. Stuff happens, it’s not always good, and we can’t figure it all out. We are not in control – God is. Our lives wind down in the end, and our bodies return to dust and our breath, our souls, return to God. So it’s best to trust in God’s grace and to enjoy beauty and happiness in our short lives as best as we are able.
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.” (Eccl. 8:7) No guilt here for just being ourselves, and enjoying our dance upon this earth. We don’t find the call we hear as Christians to seek God’s way here on earth and to build the kingdom of justice and love. We don’t hear much about fasting or doing without. Instead we hear permission to be human, to live simply, and to dance when we can. What I also hear is a call for us to wake up, to pay attention, and to appreciate each precious moment of each beautiful day. Like Jesus taught, we are to eat our daily bread with faith and trust in God.
As we enter into the ‘unknown country’ of 2017, it is best to go with faith and humility. Faith that God is with us and we are under God’s guidance; and with humility, because we truly don’t know what may unfold. It is best to savor each day, each encounter, each relationship, each small pleasure, knowing they do not last. But even so, because they don’t last, we seek a deeper & truer meaning.
Matthew Kelly, in his book: Resisting Happiness, writes this: “I spent quite a bit of time with a group of Hospice nurses. One day at lunch, I was sitting with five or six of them, and I asked them, “When people are dying, what do they talk about?” They told me that people who are dying very often talk to the nurses about how they wish they had lived their lives differently. Here is a sampling of what they shared: twenty-four things dying people wished they did differently:
- I wish I’d had the courage to just be myself.
- I wish I had spent more time with the people I loved.
- I wish I had made spirituality more of a priority.
- I wish I hadn’t spent so much time working.
- I wish I had discovered my purpose earlier.
- I wish I had learned to express my feelings more.
- I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about things that never happened.
- I wish I had taken more risks.
- I wish I had cared less about what other people thought.
- I wish I had realized earlier that happiness is a choice.
- I wish I had loved more.
- I wish I had taken better care of myself.
- I wish I had been a better spouse.
- I wish I had paid less attention to other people’s expectations.
- I wish I had quit my job and found something I really enjoyed doing.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with old friends.
- I wish I had spoken my mind more.
- I wish I hadn’t spent so much time chasing the wrong things.
- I wish I’d had more children.
- I wish I had touched more lives.
- I wish I had thought about life’s big questions earlier.
- I wish I had travelled more.
- I wish I had lived more in the moment.
- I wish I had pursued more of my dreams.
These are helpful thoughts to take stock as we step into this New Year. Wishes like these arise from our souls whispering to us in the quiet of night, calling us to fulfill our deepest longings. Let’s not wait for our deathbeds to pay attention to them. Like the Elder Sage of Ecclesiastes, let’s seek to appreciate the fragile beauty and simple pleasures of this glorious life.
One of our problems as human beings is that we have a hard time not being ruled by our negativity. Our fears, our worries and dark thoughts can so easily dominate us. The future becomes like a blank screen that we project our anxieties upon – creating monsters and boogy-men that control us. Instead of allowing happiness to unfold in each new moment, we shut down and go on full alert. It turns out that being positive and loving takes focus and training.
Here is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest talking about this:
“It doesn’t help that our brains have evolved to hold onto negative thoughts (like Velcro) and let the positive thoughts slip off (like Teflon). To retain a positive experience, you have to intentionally hold onto it for at least fifteen seconds to allow it to imprint on your brain. You have to deliberately, consciously choose to love and not hate. Spirituality is whatever it takes to keep your heart space open. That is daily, constant work because your ego and the events of life want to close it down. The voices in the dominant culture tell you to judge, dismiss, hate, and fear. If you don’t have some spiritual practice that has kept your heart open in hell, I know you’re going to be a grumpy old man or a hateful old woman. By the last third of life, negativity is all you have left. You have to work to live in love, to develop a generosity of spirit, a readiness to smile, a willingness to serve instead of to take.”
There’s no better way to let go of negativity and to foster hope and positivity than by practicing loving kindness. It’s so much of what our faith is about, so much of what is needed to create a better year ahead. The Jesuit priest, James Martin wrote a powerful essay after the election, counseling communities to give each other the benefit of the doubt, while also being ready to defend those who may suffer as the years unfold: “the homeless, the unemployed, the underemployed, the disabled, the sick.” Compassion is a powerful antidote to sadness and despair.
So I wish for us all the ability to consciously let go of negativity- to consider what we’d like to let go of from 2016, and what to embrace in this new beginning of 2017. Write down what you’d like to leave behind – bring it forward as you come forward to communion or give it to a deacon – and we will go out and burn all of our negativity outside before we ring the big bell to usher in 2017. Let’s ring in the new year with fullness and openness of heart, so that we can appreciate and celebrate each moment of each hour of each new day:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
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. Amen! Happy New Year!