Turn up the Volume

It happens to me all the time.  I’m at the house in the chaos of the day and the kids are running around, the TV is on, the washer is running and I can distantly hear someone call my name but then the rest is gibberish.  “What!?”  I call back only to be met with more gibberish.  “I can’t hear you!  Come in here and speak louder!”  My life sometimes feels so full of noise that I can’t make out who is calling me.  All the noise sometimes threatens to overwhelm me and I find myself asking for wisdom from God to know the way forward and I can hear God distantly calling my name but what God says is gibberish, I can’t hear it over all the noise.  It is pretty good advice in such moments to turn down the volume of life and get still enough to hear God.  That is advice I’ve given and I’ve taken and it does work.  But sometimes someone else has their hand on the volume around you and turning all that down is just not an option.  So what do we do?  What do we do when the volume of life, of change, of the world around us is so high that when we ask for help the response sounds like gibberish?

“Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
   On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;” – Proverbs 8:1-2

God’s wisdom to us when we are afraid, lost, out of control, struggling in our relationship, wondering if God has left us, sad, hurt, overwhelmed is a promise God has given to us.  Wisdom and direction are not hidden from us.  Proverbs tells us that Wisdom calls out and raises her voice.  At the intersections when noise overwhelms, wisdom is calling out, she takes her stand close by, and she turns up the volume.  And she invites us to turn up the volume too.  Turn up the volume of God’s voice, a dial we do have power over in our lives.  Turn up the volume of God’s wisdom, God’s invitation to rest, God’s understanding.

“I can’t hear you!  Come in here, speak louder,”  we call to God.  How do we turn up the volume of God’s wisdom in our noisy lives?  We read the Bible (start with Psalms, the Psalm of your age, the year, your birth year), turn on Christian radio, worship, join a small group, take a technology free walk and pay attention to the world around you, pray, seek wise counsel.  Turn up the volume of God’s wisdom that is already crying out.

turn up the volume

We find ourselves in seasons of change and at intersections.  It is true in our personal lives and true as a church community.  Things are good at Harrisburg UMC.  God is at work and we are growing.  We’ve never been on more solid financial footing and the opportunities to reach our community for Christ have never been greater!  God has a plan for us – a bold, beautiful, world changing plan for us!  How will we know what to do?  Is the world going to get quieter?  Will the traffic on 49 ease up or the sounds of construction and growth abate?  Probably not.  So we need to turn up the volume of wisdom calling to us and to our community.  We need to invite God closer, ask God to speak louder, and listen – wisdom is calling.

 

 

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The Cutting Room Floor – Exodus

I had every intention of writing a weekly blog highlighting things that didn’t make our lessons on the Old Testament.  Obviously, this hasn’t happened the way that I intended…so I’ve got some catching up to do!  Instead of digging for stuff that didn’t make the lesson, I’m going to post about 2 or 3 verses/passages/details that pique my interest and that might hopefully lead to some discussion.

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them.  In great fear, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.  They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?  For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (11:10-12)

Throughout the Torah, God is repeatedly exasperated, frustrated, angered, and on the verge of severing relationship with Israel at several points.  I can’t say that I blame Yahweh for this – from the start, Israel is complaining pretty much all of the time.  Granted, their complaints are about essentials: threat of death, lack of food, and lack of water.  Israel’s complaining indicates a lack of faith in the God that has rescued them from slavery.  From the beginning, the people of Israel had seen the power of God and work, they are repeatedly given what they need to live, and they repeatedly complain about their situation, even to the point of claiming that a return to slavery and oppression would be preferable.

This is something that we should seriously think about.  What kinds of things do we complain about?  Does our complaining indicate a lack of trust in God’s goodness and love for us?  And much like the Israelites, at times we even complain about the blessings we receive.  Israel was hungry – God provided manna.  Then Israel wanted meat.  Israel cried out for liberation from the Egyptians and God freed them – then they faced some difficulties and they were longing for the “good ol’ days” in Egypt.  One of my operating assumptions in our ongoing Old Testament series is that Israel is simply a microcosm of all of humanity and we might see ourselves in Israel’s occasional ups and very frequent downs.

Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus and honor God with our lives need to pay close attention to whether or not we are living with a sense of entitlement as it relates to God.  One of the more difficult lessons of discipleship is understanding that God does not owe us anything.  Even so, we proclaim that in Jesus Christ, God has given us so much – salvation, love, grace, life.

People praying over (to?) the Wall St. bull during the 2009 crash. Umm, guys, this didn’t turn out so well last time…

The Golden Calf Incident – Chapter 32

Things take a serious turn here when Aaron and the people of Israel create and then worship a golden calf, which the Israelites preposterously claim was responsible for freeing them from Egypt.  Then the Israelites start partying, which was likely the reason for building the idol in the first place.  Serving Yahweh does not include sexual deviance and drunken revelry.  According to verse 6, the worship of this golden calf does include those things.  The Israelites attempt to combine the worship of the calf with the worship of Yahweh, which will be a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament.

In class, I mentioned that we still trying to combine our worship of God with the worship of other gods.  In our place/time, more often than not, it’s money that gets placed on the pedestal.  But it’s not just money – it can be power, or sports teams, or comfort.  It can be a church, your family, or even yourself.  Whatever it is, we are constantly confronted with opportunities to worship idols of our own making.

“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once!  Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” (32:7)

Up until this point, God had referred to the people of Israel as ‘my people’ and had claimed the credit for bringing them out of slavery in Egypt.  The golden calf “incident” changed the situation and while there were some serious stuff at stake here, I couldn’t help but laugh when I read this particular passage.  At several points in Exodus and Numbers, God and Moses seem a little bit like a married couple arguing about the kids, like when one of our kids is misbehaving, suddenly in talking to my wife they become “your children” as opposed to “our children”.

Thanks for taking the time to read – next up, Leviticus and Deuteronomy…

The Cutting Room Floor – Genesis

At Harrisburg UMC, we are currently studying the “big picture” of the Old Testament in our Journey Through the Old Testament series.  In this study, we are covering anywhere from 1 to 4 books each week.  Given the format of this study, there are a LOT of things that we won’t have the time to discuss.  This series of posts will cover a few of those interesting stories, passages, and people that don’t make their way into the lesson plan.  

Genesis is a rich and complex work that would take many months of study if we were looking to do a verse-by-verse study.  In the context of our current study, there are a lot of stories, people, and details that we don’t have the time to discuss in class.  So, there’s definitely a lot to choose from! 

Here are four things from Genesis that I find fascinating that didn’t make it into this weeks’ lesson:

image-question5-large1. In ____ beginning… – 1:1

Since the word “genesis” means “beginning”, we’ll start in the most logical place, which is (of course) the beginning.  The first words of Scripture, as famous as any words in the Bible, are typically translated from Hebrew into English as “in the beginning”.  That little definite article is very important.  And since it’s absent in the first word of Scripture, it becomes even more important.  The first word of the Hebrew Bible is berasheet.  The “be-” is a prefix that means “in” and rasheet means “beginning”.  The definite article (“the”) is indicated in Hebrew by the prefix “ha-“, so we would expect to read beharasheet in verse 1, but that’s not the case.   There are some Biblical scholars that argue that the definite article “the” should be assumed.  While they may be correct, it’s still interesting to think about how much difference it makes to read “in a beginning” at the start of the Bible.  How many beginnings have there been? 

2. The Tower of Babel 

On last week’s handout, I originally included this dense and mysterious little story in the reading list for Genesis and then deleted it when I decided that we weren’t going to cover it during this week’s lesson.  Actually, pretty much everything in chapters 1-11 seems somewhat mysterious, as if we’re trying to look at these things through some kind of primordial mist.  There’s a lot going on in this relatively short passage: the effects of human pride, the potential dangers of technological advancement, and the impact of an inability to communicate.  My favorite thing about this story is that it has a sequel – the day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2.  Through the Holy Spirit, communication and understanding become possible, bringing together people who were once scattered.

Melchizedek is not impressed.

Melchizedek is not impressed.

3. Melchizedek Blesses Abram 

There is a shift beginning in chapter 12 – things get a little less weird and we start an extended narrative about Abram/Abraham.  We see some elements that perhaps make a little more sense to us: more details about family life, little snippets of political intrigue, recognizable people.  Even so, there are still events and details that are shrouded in mystery, such as Abram’s encounter with King Melchizedek in Genesis 14.  Here’s the quick background: in the first part of the chapter, Abram saves Lot from a group of kings with really awesome names: Tidal, Amraphel, Arioch, and (best of all) Chedorlaomer.  These four defeat five other kings and sweep through Sodom, collecting the spoils of their victory, including Abraham’s nephew Lot.  To celebrate, there is a feast and apparently the King of Salem (Jerusalem, perhaps?) was chosen to bring bread and wine to the party.  Genesis 14:18 says that Melchizedek was a “priest of God Most High” (in Hebrew, El Elyon).  The name “Melchizedek” means either “my king is righteousness” or “king of righteousness”.  He blesses Abram and then Abram gives one-tenth of “everything” (Genesis doesn’t explain what “everything” is referring to – spoils?  Abram’s possessions?).  The interesting thing here is that there is no “official” Hebrew religion at this point – for what religion was Melchizedek a high priest?  OT scholars think that it was possibly the Jebusites, who occupied Jerusalem before the Hebrews.  Also, it’s kind of odd to see connections to communion and tithing this early in Genesis.  Melchizedek shows up again in Psalm 110 and several times in Hebrews in the New Testament (5:6 and chapter 7). 

4. Jacob Wrestles…someone (God? An angel?) 

This story did actually make the class reading list and I’ll also be referring to it during the lesson.  The reason it’s here is because this is on the short list of my favorite Bible stories.  This story is deeply resonant and rich with meaning.  This story functions metaphorically on several levels:

  • The wrestling match is something like a rite of passage, a “crossing over” in which Jacob leaves his troubled past behind and begins a new phase of his life.  This is best represented by the first part of verse 31: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel…”  This experience is a turning point in Jacob’s life.
  • If we want to read the story from a more psychological point of view, the encounter represents Jacob’s internal struggle.  Thus far, Jacob has not done much to warrant praise or trust.  Right before this story, he sends a large number of gifts to Esau in an attempt to counteract any lingering resentment on Esau’s part.  The past does tend to catch up with us and this story might represent Jacob being confronted with his own deceit and betrayals.  It also makes a nice companion piece to Romans 7:14-8:1
  • This story can also represent the very human struggle that we have with God.  So many times, God’s face is obscured and we can’t seem to get a good grip.  We also cry out for blessing and we want to know the name of the God with Whom we are struggling. 
  • The “man” (an angel?  God?  The text is not clear on the identity of this figure) changes Jacob’s name to “Israel”, which means “struggles with God”.  This will come to be the name of Jacob/Israel’s descendants and there’s really no other name that’s more fitting for the people who will continually struggle with God, with one another, and with other nations throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  This attribute of Israel does not belong to Israel exclusively.  Israel’s inability to be faithful and to respond to God’s love is a universal problem, not simply a problem reserved for the Israelites. 

Next week, we’ll be looking at Exodus…until then, have a great week!

Grace and Peace,

Wes

If you’re interested in joining the conversation on Facebook, check out the Harrisburg UMC Bible Study Group.  

The Cutting Room Floor – Saying Fare Thee Well to Ecclesiastes…

I’ve said in the previous 2 or 3 posts what I think is an adequate farewell to the Teacher, but I did want of finish this inaugural edition of The Cutting Room Floor by looking at a few verses in the last chapters of Ecclesiastes.  This book has certainly led me into some introspection and uncomfortable reflections over the past few months and I’m beginning to see some good come from that, especially in terms of perspective.  As debates and issues and worries and crises (all legitimate!), it helps to have the “big picture” perspective that the Teacher offers: this – all of this – is fleeting!  Soon, it will all be a memory!  This does not have to lead the reader to despair, but perhaps to greater humility and even greater appreciation for what about our lives that we can enjoy.  This, I think, is where the Teacher ultimately ends up.  And now about those verses:

1. “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.” (10:10) 

I have mentioned on this blog and repeatedly told the Bible Study group that the Teacher is one voice among many in Scripture, bringing a unique perspective to the Biblical witness.  This is a good example.  The last phrase in this verse is in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, not to mention the prophets.  Money can certainly meet some needs, but surely not every need.  This highlights our need to read the Teacher with some understanding of Hebrew wisdom literature and Hebrew poetry.  The Teacher is not a literalist and throughout Ecclesiastes uses hyperbole to make his point.  Even though I understand this, the end of this verse still caught me off guard.

2. “Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.” (11:4)

There are a number of verses that I found helpful and relatable, 11:4 being one of those.  The first part of this chapter concerns finance and wise work and the point here is that we can spend so much time checking conditions, taking assessments, and measuring variables that we don’t actually get to work.  Life well lived and work well done involves getting your hands dirty.  At some point, you’ve got to put down the gauges and thermometers and put your hand to the plow.  This doesn’t mean that evaluation and accountability are unimportant – in fact they are crucial! – but it does mean that we can’t be so worried about measuring, so obssesed with weather forecasts that we neglect working in the field.

3. “The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by the one shepherd.” (12:11)

A goad is a pointed stick or staff that also includes a crook – a shepherd’s staff with a point at the end.  This was used to drive cattle and sheep.  The point was to ‘encourage’ them to move forward while the hook was used to keep them from running too far ahead.  This is the intent of wisdom – to prod us, even sharply to action while at the same time pulling us back from foolishness and destruction.  I like that image, but the image of nails firmly fixed is even more compelling to me.  We might think about a modern-day house and all its components: the foundation, the framing, the drywall/plaster, the wiring and plumbing – all the concrete, wood, wire, metal.  And the typical home is held together by relatively small nails.  If you magically removed all of the hidden nails from a typical modern home, the whole thing would collapse.  Such is the case with wisdom.  These proverbs are small and wisdom is typically hidden, often seeming to be out of view.  Yet if wisdom is removed, the whole thing collapses.  That image fits and helps me understand that wisdom need not be loud or prideful, but is quiet and sturdy.  With all that I have struggled with in Ecclesiastes, I appreciate that little image at the end of the book.

I cannot honestly say that I’ve enjoyed studying this book, but it has been good.  I have gained an appreciation for what the Teacher has to offer, even if I don’t ultimately agree with some of his conclusions (especially when putting them in conversation with Jesus).

Thanks for reading!  I hope to write more as we begin our study of Christian denominations.  Until then, you can find the audio of the Ecclesiastes study on our website.  Grace and peace to you in the Name of Jesus Christ!

 

Wes

The Cutting Room Floor – Approaching the Horizon with Ecclesiastes

I began the Cutting Room Floor as a way of engaging with what the HUMC Wednesday Bible Study was studying and I plan to continue do that as we move on to other studies.  I like being able to explore tangents and reflections that don’t necessarily “fit” into the Wednesday study.  I also hope that it will serve as a way that people can engage beyond the Wednesday class.  So, as we make our way through differing topics, I’ll make every effort to post weekly about whatever it is that we’re covering in Bible study.  After wrapping up Ecclesiastes next week, we’ll be taking a look at the major Christian denominations using the study Christianity’s Family Tree by Adam Hamilton.

So, this means that this will likely be one of my last posts on Ecclesiastes.  I started with the ambition of blogging about each lesson, which meant posts about 2 chapters every week.  I started by focusing on hebel and other interesting words that caught my attention.  As I continued teaching and studying over these past few weeks, the Teacher began to wear me down.  The persistent voice of cynicism and the repetition of the nature of all things as hebel has made me somewhat weary and ready to move on to other things.  Though I am concerned about a few things:

  1. I’m thinking that Ecclesiastes was not meant to be read over a period of weeks, but rather in one sitting.  In this way, Ecclesiastes is a sustained reflection on the meaning and nature of existence.  I imagine that this would make the book somewhat more bearable and the repetition would then be more lyrical or rhythmic.  However, this is not how we have been studying this book.  Instead, the repetitive nature of the book begins to drag.  By the 4th week I was literally saying out loud: “I know, I get it – it’s all hebel…”
  1. It has not helped that the start of this study coincided with a season of illness and death among family and friends.  My wife and I were talking the other day about entering this season of life (yeah, I know, for everything there is a season) when people who have been so important to you, family and friends, being to die with sad regularity.  This season would have been difficult without the Teacher tapping me on the shoulder every so often to remind that it’s all hebel
  1. As I’ve pondered my various responses to this book, my concern is that there is some deeper wisdom here that I’m simply missing.  I always assume that when it comes to Scripture, I’m ever in need of some maturing before I can understand things a little better.  I need more insight, more experience, more something.  In other words, my operating assumption is that if I don’t understand a text, the problems is not with the text, but with me and my lack of understanding and/or patience and/or maturity.  This book definitely brings that assumption to the fore.

With those points serving as caveats, I can say that I’m not too terribly saddened to move on to another “season” in our Bible Study.  I’ll write another post or two on some ‘points of interest’ in the last few chapters and with that we will bid the Teacher farewell for the time being.  And in so doing, I’ll be bearing in mind a few things:

  1. The voice of the Teacher is one voice among many in the symphony of Scripture.  I opened our study on Ecclesiastes with a question: “Why is this book in the Bible?”  I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to this question.  Yet, I am still glad that it is, mainly for its honesty.  The Teacher does not back away from doubt and cynicism.
  2. In some ways, the Teacher is way ahead of his time.  His teachings are introspective and reflective in ways that would find later sympathetic partners in existential and even empirical philosophies.  I assume that this can be attributed to the influence of Greek philosophy and culture.
  3. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I assume those who claim that the Bible is “full of fairy tales and silly myths” have not actually read Ecclesiastes in a serious way.

Next week, I’ll post about the final few chapters, lifting up some things that caught my attention…thanks for reading along!

Grace and Peace,

Wes

The Cutting Room Floor – Ecclesiastes at the Halfway Point

As we come to the halfway point of Ecclesiastes, I want to share some thoughts before looking at chapters 6 and 7:

1. I’m not really surprised that Ecclesiastes is quoted only once in the New Testament.  And that single instance in Romans 3:10 has nothing to do with the actual content of Ecclesiastes itself.  Some of the teachings in Ecclesiastes are in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus (and Paul, for that matter).  The more I read and study this odd little book, the more I’m understanding the consistent questions about its inclusion in the canon across the centuries, from Jews and Christians alike.

2. However, even with my difficulties and reservations, there are some things that I’m learning to appreciate about Ecclesiastes.  For my family and my home church, these past few months have been a season of death and illness, with a number of people that I know well (or knew well at some point) dying or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  The beginning of this “season” corresponded with the start of my preparations to teach Ecclesiastes.  At first, I was frustrated by this as evidenced by my first posts in this “series”.  However, the Teacher’s meditation at the start of chapter 3 is what is remaining with me.  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”  This is an important voice in Scripture and in the life of discipleship.

3. As I’m making my way through the back half of Ecclesiastes, I’m wrestling with the repetitive nature of the book.  Ok, I get it, it’s all hebel.  Looking at it though, there’s a kind of a ‘looping’ thing happening.  There are meditations on any number of issues in human life: work, love, power, oppression, friendship, mystery – and it all keeps looping back to the refrain: all of this will pass.  The Teacher fluctuates between being ok with this (“enjoy your life!”) and angst (“It would have been better if I hadn’t been born at all!”)  I think that most of us can relate to both of those responses.

4. It’s interesting to me to see connections (even if they are tenuous) between Ecclesiastes and philosophical speculations and movements that occurred many centuries after this book was written.  There are big doses of skepticism, a few verses that lean toward deism, a number of places where the Teacher sounds an awful lot like a “modern” philosopher (like Albert Camus: “seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable”; or Bertrand Russell: “All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction. So now, my friends, if that is true, and it is true, what is the point?”; or Jean-Paul Sartre: “Every existing thing is born without reason, goes on living out of weakness, and dies by accident.”)

I said this at the beginning of this study (as a Facebook post): whenever I hear/read someone talking about the Bible being full of fairy tales or convenient myths, I assume that they have not really read or grappled with Ecclesiastes.  I assume the same about Christians who claim that all of the Bible is uplifting and “inspirational”.  This is hard stuff, and deep.  Sitting with the Teacher might very well be an education in what Christian mystics call a “theology of descent” – not being built up or encouraged, but being torn down.  You might think about Jesus’ teaching about pruning in John 15 in this way.  St. John of the Cross spoke of the “dark night of the soul” – the Teacher seemingly knew how that felt.  There is a pronounced absence of God in most of Ecclesiastes – I wonder if this reflects the experience of the Teacher, the state of Hebrew faithfulness at the time when this book was written, or if it’s a function of the nature of Hebrew “wisdom” literature.  Either way, this book continues to challenge and frustrate me.  I have not really let go of the question “why is this in the Bible?” and I go back and forth about how I feel about it’s inclusion in Scripture.

I get the distinct impression that the Teacher would say: “Doesn’t matter.  It’s all hebel anyway…”

I’ll post an entry on chapters 6 and 7 by the end of the week…grace and peace to you!

The Cutting Room Floor – Ecclesiastes 4 and 5 – Oppression and The Teacher

The focus shifts in these two chapters from more abstract thoughts about times and seasons (and whether or not animals go to heaven) to very practical concerns about work, money, and proper vow-making.  The Teacher is making his way through various aspects of life and how all of it is hebel.  I’m finding myself struggling to pin down exactly what kind of writing Ecclesiastes is – is it “Wisdom Literature”?  There are certainly elements of that.  And certainly chapter 5 is more aphoristic than the previous chapters, reading more like something from Proverbs.  There are some differences from Proverbs – for example, the Teacher in chapter 2 runs an “experiment” and seeks to learn from experience instead of tradition or established wisdom.  This, as far as I can tell, is unique to the Old Testament.  Is the book theological or philosophical speculation?  Perhaps, though through chapter 4 there’s very little talk about God.  The Teacher talks more about God in chapter 5, but it’s not anything particularly distinctive.  There’s not much to point us towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In fact, at this point, the Teacher could be talking about any god.

As a Christian, there are subtle little ‘notes’ here and there that catch my attention: 2:24-26 and 3:13 speaks to me of grace and God’s generosity, 5:1 reminds me of reverence and lessons I learned early on about reverence in the church, 5:2 makes me think of James 3 and Ephesians 4 as it relates to what and how I speak.  However, I’m reading Ecclesiastes through a Christian lens and unapologetically so.  What I’m trying to figure out is the point of view of the Teacher.  Granted, I’m not even halfway through the book, but at this point there is not much at all that connects what the Teacher is saying to the Hebrew tradition.  This does not trouble me – I’m finding that the Teacher is a necessary voice in Scripture.  I have been teaching parts of the Sermon on the Mount to the youth group and it’s been pretty interesting to have Jesus’ teaching in Matthew in conversation with Ecclesiastes (if only in my head).

Chapters 4 and 5 include some thoughts that I find especially relevant for the present moment in American culture.  And it’s here where Ecclesiastes might find room at the table to sit comfortably with some of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus of Nazareth.  Granted, they would be coming from very different perspectives, but if I’m reading chapters 4 and 5 right, the Teacher would be able to offer some good insights about “how the world works”.  The Teacher is not offering any moral guidance in light of this – he is descriptive, not prescriptive (what we should do) or proscriptive (what we shouldn’t do).  Again, this is another indication that Ecclesiastes is an odd fit in Scripture.  Anyways, there are three snippets of chapters 4 and 5 that I want to highlight this week.  This is getting a little long…sorry about that!

  1. 4:1 – “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them.”

This is a twisty verse that needs a little unpacking, especially the last sentence.  I’m totally onboard with the second sentence and the truth of what the Teacher is saying.  And there’s a cruel dichotomy here – the oppressors have power, the oppressed have tears.  That’s a powerful image.  But, the Teacher quickly says that there is no one to comfort the oppressor.  Now, there’s a syntax question here: does “them” in that last phrase refer to the oppressors or back to the word “their”.  This would indicate a parallel with the sentence that comes before and it would read like this: “Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors, there was power – with no one to comfort the oppressed.”  That makes sense to me and it sounds like a Hebrew poetic construction.

However, and this is something that I’ve wrestled with since my seminary days, if oppression is born out of sin and systemic separation from God, then is there room for compassion and pity for the sinners caught up at all levels in these sinful systems, even those at the top of the pyramid?  Here’s where putting Ecclesiastes in conversation with the Sermon on the Mount gets interesting.  If we naturally consider “oppressors” to be our enemies (and we typically don’t number ourselves among the oppressors), then Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:43-48 is a bit of a pill to swallow.  Ephesians 6:12 peeks its head into this conversation as well.  I find myself having a debate with myself about this.  It goes something like this:

Me #1: Yeah, that’s a nice idea – the whole “room for compassion and pity” thing – but doesn’t that get oppressors off the hook?  Isn’t that just an artful dodge by oppressors around actually being held accountable and answerable for their oppressions?

Me #2: Maybe so, but Jesus’ command to me, and to all disciples for that matter, is to love and pray for our enemies.

Me #1: True, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t call these people out for their oppressions.  What about Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple?  His teaching in Luke 4 about letting the oppressed go free?  Surely Jesus is not just talking about “spiritual freedom”…

Me #2: Well, what if he is?  Aren’t even oppressors in need of God’s love and the forgiveness offered by Jesus?  Doesn’t Jesus say in the Beatitudes “blessed are the poor in spirit”?

Me #1: That’s pretty convenient, for a couple of reasons.  First, that’s exactly what an oppressor would say to deflect attention from their oppressive behaviors and choices.  It’s an attempt to level the playing field without actually having to make any substantive changes to oppressive systems.  Secondly, if we spiritualize poverty, we do the same with wealth.  This means that the oppressed are told not to focus on their lack of resources or their lack of opportunities or how the system is rigged against them economically, politically, and judicially.  “Don’t worry about it” the powerful say – “you’re rich in love”.  Which may very well be true, but if it’s coming from the mouth of the oppressors, that has a bit of a condescending stench.  It’s the same thing as “don’t worry about the trials of this earthly life – heaven is waiting!”  That might be encouraging coming from somebody in the trenches with you, but coming from the person wearing the boot that’s pushing your face into the mud, so to speak, it’s a bit much…

On and on it goes.  Reading these two chapters is causing me to think about the relationship between the prophetic voice and the pastoral impulse.  This was a tension I felt often during my time in seminary, falling as I did somewhere between those who primarily emphasized social justice and those who primarily emphasized personal piety.  Briding that gap is hard work.

  1. 5:3, 7 – “For dreams come with many cares…with many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words.”

No one would accuse the Teacher of being an idealist, that’s for sure.  I’m assuming that the Teacher is referring to idealistic visions and lofty plans.  And they have attached to them (1) many cares or worries; (2) “vanities”, another use of hebel; and (3) a lot of talking.  I’ve been this person before – young and certain of what I knew and what I would do with that knowledge.  I’m not sure if I had many cares or worries at first, but my presumption created those in good time.  And nothing is quite so fleeting as idealistic dreams.  Also, I have certainly done my share of talking without corresponding action to back it up.  I don’t have much to say about this, but I found it a random little insertion into Ecclesiastes.  For the most part, the Teacher seems to try to be “above the fray” and seems to have no dogs in the fight.  But here, he lets loose with a “get off my lawn” jab at naïve dreamers.

  1. 5:8 – “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.”

Well, ok.  This certainly is a dramatic departure from the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  There’s only one command here: don’t be surprised when you see oppression and injustice.  What are to do about it, Teacher?  “I dunno.”  The last part of the verse hits me in two ways: (1) I can relate to this and I assume that most people can as well.  Have you ever tried to talk to somebody in charge when you have a complaint about insurance or a bill?  For many of us, this nothing but a minor annoyance, something  we vent about after we finally got the problem solved.  There are people in our world for whom this is a more serious problem.  Working at two churches that minister to/with homeless or impoverished individuals and families has given me a great deal of sympathy for people as they try to navigate beauracracies that are often apathetic or even downright antagonistic to these people and their needs.  There’s always another manager/supervisor who’s willing to tell you that  they can’t help you, but they’re more than happy to put you through to their supervisor’s voice mail.  A beauracracy can be engineered to wear people down and not effectively address the problems created by the beauracracy.  And, of course, now when you call companies/agencies it can be almost impossible to actually talk to a human being, much less one who can actually help you.  So, yeah, I’m a little cynical.  (2) It seems that the Teacher is saying that there’s not much of a point in addressing or speaking prophetically against oppression and injustice.  I disagree.  I’ve been turning one question over in my head the past couple of weeks – was the Teacher writing from a position of privilege and wealth?  My guess is that he was and this helps to explain a lack of urgency.  The Teacher was not in the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  His response to oppression in 5:8 is telling, with the Teacher basically saying, “that’s just how it is.”  This is the point of view not of the active oppressor necessarily but rather of one who might benefit (even unknowingly and unwittingly) from oppression.  I’m sure I’ll be pondering this some more as we make our way through the 2nd half of the book.

Sorry this entry has been so long – I was initially worried about what I was going to write about!  Anyway, be sure to check out audio of our Ecclesiastes study, along with handouts at harrisburgumc.org…

Grace and Peace,

Wes

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