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

Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Get Ye Some Perspective (Chapter 3)

The Teacher is becoming a bit of a splinter in my toe (or a toothache or a thorn in flesh – point being, he’s been getting on my nerves).  He’s been back there in my mind whispering: “It’s all fleeting…it’s all hebel…”  Though slowly and kinda surprisingly, that voice is changing from a negative, pessimistic voice to a more positive one.  Part of that change has to do with the fact that I’m by nature an optimist.  Typically my response to any crisis or challenge is: “It’s going to be alright.”  Even if I don’t say it out loud, it’s most likely the thought going through my head.  My wife will tell you that this can really be annoying at times.

I’ve thought a lot about this fairly constant optimism since becoming a parent and I think that it ultimately comes from my firm hope in the ultimate victory of God.  Seriously.  Often, I’ll tell myself in the midst of some crisis that it will be alright, and I’ll continue by thinking: even if this particular situation is not alright, eventually everything will be alright.  This is the result of being raised in a church and by Christian parents who taught me that God’s got the whole world in his hands.  In terms of being taught about and believing in God’s victory, I’m definitely not alone in that.  I know a great number of people who believe in the victory of God – no matter where they happen to fall along the “optimist-pessimist scale”.  For me, it just happens to show up at times as occasionally annoying optimism.

As I’ve been turning over the first few chapters in my mind/heart/soul, what I’m learning from Ecclesiastes is perspective.  The perspective that the Teacher is offering (everything is hebel) is vital not only for maturing in faith, but also maturing in life in general.  In other words, the lesson of the Teacher is not only for ‘religious’ folks – it’s helpful for everyone.  As overblown controversies and scandals and political/theological fury finds its way onto my Facebook feed, the words of the Teacher are extremely helpful.  Whether it’s Miley Cyrus, healthcare, or Elevation Church – whatever is stirring people up this week (and, trust me, I sometimes get stirred up about stuff, too) – the Teacher reminds us: this is fleeting.  One day, this will be a memory.  So when that Facebook post makes you want to scream and your fingers move to start their angry dance across the keyboard, remember it’s all hebel.  Wait a few minutes, hit ‘refresh’, and it will be a memory.  When political issues, theological controversies, pop culture nonsense, and ball games get your blood pressure up and you are tempted to think/say/type hurtful, mean-spirited things, remember the perspective of the Teacher (and remember James’ advice in chapter 3 of his letter regarding the tongue.  Now, apply that to texting, Facebook, and comments sections on the internet).

In 3:12-13, the Teacher gives us a least a little positivity: “I know that there is nothing better for them (those who toil) than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”  Tucked in there (blink and you’ll miss it) is God’s grace.  It’s subtle and beautifully refreshing.  In the midst of everything that troubles people, whatever it is, there are these moments of pure gift: a good meal shared with family and friends, hearing a song that you loved when you were younger, dancing with your children, a date night with your spouse, a particularly beautiful sunset.  The Teacher tells us that these things are gifts from God.  These things are evidence of God’s grace.

The beginning of chapter 3 is probably the most famous passage from Ecclesiastes.  The Teacher is teaching us about the rhythm of life.  He’s not necessarily telling us to engage in these things, but rather he’s saying that these things make up life in our world – this is what happens.  Also note what’s not in the list: foolishness, oppression, injustice – there are no times for these things.  And I’ll admit that I struggle with the inclusion of hate, war, and killing.  But that’s neither here nor there.  I think that what’s important is that we choose how to respond to this rhythm.  As Ellen Davis helpfully puts it in her commentary, we can either live in denial or we can dance.  All that we do and experience, this entirety of this earthy life is hebel.  It is fleeting.  As Paul says in I Corinthians 7:31, “…the present form of this world is passing away.”

If we choose to not live in denial, but to accept the nature of things as they are (fleeting, temporary) and if we find can find enjoyment in our lives, the Teacher tells us to do just that.  I’m at the very beginning of putting my understanding of the Teacher in conversation with how I understand the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.  Is there more to life than simply enjoying the fruits of your labor and enjoying good food and drink and company?  Surely there is.  But it helps to remember that the Teacher is not attempting to write a treatise on doctrine and we should allow the Teacher some room to move around here.  The movement of the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes is interesting – it’s very kinetic, moving rapidly from one thought to the next.  The more I read and reflect, the more I appreciate this.  Isn’t this often how we think?  This almost feels like an argument that the Teacher is having with himself.  It’s very human.  Again, I’m glad that this book is in the Bible…

Next week I’ll post reflections on chapters 4 and 5…until then, grace and peace to you!

Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Chapter 2 – The Teacher Parties, Gets Mad at Slackers, and Then God Shows Up (Well, Kinda)!

King Solomon, original party animal

King Solomon, original party animal

It is good to finally move beyond chapter 1 – it’s not a fun chapter to have knocking around your head for weeks on end!  As we get into chapter 2, it appears at first glance to be more of the same.  The Teacher is running the “experiment” he talked about in 1:17 (“I applied my lev [the whole self] to know wisdom and to know madness and folly”).  He decides to “make a test of pleasure” – this doesn’t necessarily mean physical or sexual pleasure.  The word here is simchah, which simply means joy or happiness.  The Teacher later talks about enjoying “delights of the flesh”, so that was definitely part of his experience.  And let’s not forget, the writer of Ecclesiastes is claiming to be Solomon, who had (according to Scripture) 700 wives and 300 concubines.  This was not a person averse to sex.  But we should not read his pursuit of pleasure in a limited way – the Teacher pursued happiness and good times!  To put it another way, the Teacher decided to go out and party to see if this provided some kind of meaning.  It didn’t.  This is also hebel.

The Teacher decides to change his focus and actually tries to accomplish some stuff.  Starting in verse 4, he begins to dedicate his efforts to amassing wealth and possessions.  Verse 10 states: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.”  The Teacher, in this instance, seems to at last be satisfied with something – finally, something happy!  This satisfaction turns out to be very short-lived.  Verse 11 repeats the theme: all of this – the pleasure, the toil, the rewards for that toil – everything is hebel.  Of course…

The Teacher then goes into what appears to me to be a bit of a temper tantrum.  He expresses his frustration in verse 21: “…sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.  This also is hebel and a great evil.”  Many people can relate.  If you’ve ever left a job that you were really good at only to find out that the person who followed you wrecked what you had worked hard to accomplish, you can relate to the Teacher.  United Methodist elders, who move to new appointments every 4-6 years, experience this frustration at varying levels from time to time.  However, we can’t stay in this pessimistic place and the Teacher doesn’t dwell in his pessimism either, as we read on in the book.

As I’ve been thinking about hebel (and ruminating on Richard Beck’s wonderful post), I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that what is important when we read the beginning of Ecclesiastes is to understand that the nature of things as hebel is not a judgment of those things (you might even say that the nature of existence itself is hebel, but 1:4 and 3:14 show that this is not exactly the case).  In other words, the Teacher is not making a judgment about things being hebel – it’s just the way things are.  Which is why I really don’t like the words “vanity” and “meaningless” in the NRSV and NIV (along with other translations).  We have a choice in how we respond to the way things are.  Simply because our lives and everything therein are fleeting does not make our lives insignificant or meaningless.  And because our lives on this earth are fleeting, that does not mean that they are void of meaning.  One great hope of the Christian faith is that our lives do have a great deal of significance and meaning!  Shockingly, we actually matter to God!

At the end of chapter 2, in verses 24-26, the Teacher speaks about God for the first time in the book.  The Teacher states that the good things that we might enjoy, however fleeting they are, are “from the hand of God”.  He’ll make a similar comment in the next chapter.  At this point, the Teacher’s view of God seems to be basically providential.  That’s a good thing, but it’s not distinctive in terms of God’s nature.  The mention of God at the end of chapter 2 almost feels cliched.  How the Teacher talks about God here in chapter 2 doesn’t reflect any kind of personality or specificity that might connect this God to the God of the Hebrew people.  That will change in a couple of chapters.  But I’m not necessarily complaining – I’m just glad that there’s finally something positive!

 

Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor, Interrupted…

Due to the storm that is currently blanketing the area with snow, Bible study has been cancelled this week.  This means that I have another week to sit with chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes.  I’ve been sitting with this one for going on three weeks.  It weighs heavy on the mind and soul.  Chapter 2 looks to offer more of the same, with chapter 3 finally moving in a more positive direction, or at least in a direction where we can find some hope.  The end of chapter 2 seems to offer a glimmer of hope, but then the Teacher pulls the rug out from under our feet and reminds us that even our efforts to please God are hebel (fleeting, transitory) – even when we succeed in pleasing God!

Chapter 1 has been weighing heavily on me the past week or so mainly because it seems that there have been an unusually high number of deaths of people that I know and a couple of instances of illness of others that I know.  I’m not going to list them out or anything, I’m just going to say that Ecclesiastes 1 is perhaps not the easiest thing to grapple with in the face of illness and death.  But,for better or worse, it’s been my travelling companion for the last little bit and I’ll say thanks to God for God’s Word and for God’s faithfulness.

Last week, I was sitting in a funeral home with a family that I’ve known my entire life helping them to plan the funeral service for a woman that was a very important part of my life.  Marie ran the daycare and afterschool care that I attended for 3-4 years, she was a very active member of my home church (and my family was there pretty much every time the doors were open), and she helped my dad in running the softball league at my home church (I spent a LOT of hours at that field).  Needless to say, Marie was very important in my life.  While we were talking, one of the family members was sharing her concern that the great-grandchildren would not know Marie and know how wonderful and loving she was.  This is a pretty common concern in tight-knit families.  Several of us mentioned that it was now the job of Marie’s children and grandchildren to carry on in that role – they are to be the examples.

I didn’t mention this of course, but Ecclesiastes 1:11 jumped up in my mind like an obnoxious, braying donkey: “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”  And, yes, I just compared a verse of Scripture to an obnoxious, braying donkey.  In that flash, I was kind of agitated with the Teacher.  And I momentarily joined in with those who have long wondered why this book is in the Bible.  I quickly shelved that brief interruption from the Teacher, but the questioning and pessimistic voice of the opening to Ecclesiastes has echoed in my mind over these last 2 weeks.

However, it does get better.  Granted, this improvement doesn’t happen until chapter 3, but it does get better.  Chapter 3 sees the Teacher moving us into a more hopeful direction.  This does not mean that the Teacher is finished with the prominent theme of hebel (the transitory, fleeting nature of existence), but that he begins adding more depth to his meditations.

So in this “in-between” time, when a lot of the world slows or even shuts down, perhaps further reflection on Ecclesiastes 1 and 2 is necessary.  As Richard Beck says in his blog post on hebel, “transitory” does not equal “bad”.  As I was thinking about Marie and her life, this particular conclusion hit me with considerable force.  Life is fleeting and it may be the case that those who follow us will eventually have no memory of us.  The Teacher is telling us that this is how life works.  It’s interesting to me what survives in history.  In doing some research on my dad’s family, I found info going back to 1764 and an ancestor named George Smith.  All that survives are records related to property, marriage, and children.  I know nothing of him beyond the barest of facts – was he kind, or harsh?  Were the children at St. Enoch Lutheran Church drawn to him, or were they afraid of him?  Did he treat his wife and children well, or was he a bad husband and father?  We don’t know these things and once people fall out of living memory, it becomes very difficult to access this kind of information.  I’ve thought a lot about how difficult it would be for me to communicate to my children how important Marie and her husband Pete were to me.  The same is true of my own grandparents.  The same is also true of a number of people who were part of my church family.  A number of these people are still alive and it would still be very difficult to explain to my kids why they had such an impact on my life – they’re not going to be formed and shaped by these people as I was.  As I thought about this, I realized that these people may not play significant roles in the lives of my kids, but my kids already have their own people in their lives, names that will one day make them think of kindness and integrity and faithfulness and the love of Jesus.

Above all, what I’ve finally settled on is that though the Teacher is right about the fleeting nature of life, that does not take away from what these people mean in my life.  The memories I have and the lessons I learned – these things happened.  It was real and it mattered.  It still matters.  And, while this might sound kind of mystical and I’m not sure if there’s Scripture to back up an assertion like this, these people and their actions, their lessons, the things they said, the good that they did, the ways that they served Jesus and the church – these things are in the mind and heart of God.  Their service and faithfulness was not in vain nor was it meaningless.

Next week, I’ll post some miscellaneous stuff about chapter 2…until then, enjoy your week!

Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Chapter 1 – The Background of Things and The Whole Self

qoholethI have loved digging into Ecclesiastes 1 during the past week!  I am really excited about this study and have been amazed about the depth of meaning that I have found in chapter 1.  Most of my teaching experience and educational background is focused on the New Testament – especially Paul and Revelation.  While I treasure all of Scripture and I am comfortable teaching and preaching from the Old Testament, it never really resonated with me like the New Testament.  But in reading and studying Ecclesiastes this past week or so, it has really grabbed hold of my attention!

Over the next few weeks, as the Wednesday Bible study group at HUMC takes a look at this book, I’ll be blogging about certain aspects or points that I don’t fully address in the lesson.  This could be because of time constraints or it could be little nuggets that just didn’t fit into the lesson.  If the first chapter is any indication, I will likely be posting about certain words and how knowing their Hebrew meanings can open up the text for us in ways that reading it in English simply cannot do.  That does not mean that the Spirit can’t speak to use through our English translations, it’s simply that knowing some of the background helps us to have a deeper understanding of what The Teacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes) was talking about.  You can access audio of the lessons along with the handouts I distribute on the Harrisburg UMC website.  Additionally, I’ll direct you to these outstanding posts by Richard Beck on his blog Experimental Theology (which is a great blog to bookmark).  It had already been decided that we would study Ecclesiastes when I came across these two posts, but they did motivate me to dig into the text a little deeper.

Post 1 on hebel (“vanity” or “meaningless” in most English translations)

Post 2 on Ecclesiastes and idolatry

For our first post on Ecclesiastes, I want us to take a look at three Hebrew words and how knowing several possibilities for translation might give us a fuller picture of what The Teacher is teaching.  Words are slippery things.  Too often we assume that when we read a word in Scripture, it has a fixed meaning.  This word means this, whatever “this” is.  So, we don’t often take the time or effort to think about the multitude of meanings that words like “heart” or “word” or “follow” mean.  And you can think about this without knowing the first thing about Hebrew or Greek, though I’ve found that studying those languages has helped tremendously.  The two words that I want us to look at on this post are: “things” (verse 8), and “mind” (verse 13).  There are plenty of other words that I could talk about, but I don’t want this thing to get too long.  And volumes could be written about each one of these (and already have, especially “for ever”, a word used in verse 4 that I was thinking about exploring on this post and then thought better of it).  I’m not going to attempt a full accounting of what the words mean in Hebrew.  I’m simply going to highlight one or two things that I found interesting in my study.  This, after all, is a blog, not a book!

First Word – In verse 8, the Teachers says: “All things are wearisome.”  The word “things” is a translation of the Hebrew word davarim, which can also be translated as “words”.  There is a connection to another word, d’vir (pronounced “duhvir“).  This word originally meant “the most holy place in the temple”.  It also had the connotation of “in the back of things” or “in the background”.  It’s a possibility that there’s a depth of meaning to this phrase that isn’t captured by the word “things”, which is about as basic and non-descript as a word gets.  It might be a big assumption, but it makes sense to me that it’s not only “things” or “words” that are wearisome to the Teacher, but the background of things, the meanings behind the meanings, so to speak.  A few verses later, the Teacher says: “I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”  The Teacher hasn’t just examined “things” or “words”, but philosophies and ideas and the systems “in the back of things” and has come up empty (as far as we know at this point).  The Hebrew word davarim might suggest a depth of meaning and weariness that “things” simply does not.  Though as a disclaimer, I’ll say that I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch of the imagination…

Second Word – In verse 13, the Teacher says the following: I “applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”  The Hebrew word here translated as “mind” is libi, from lev, which is commonly translated as “heart”.  Generally speaking, the Hebrews had a more holistic or cohesive view of humanity than did the Greeks, who were responsible for the other dominate worldview at the time and place Ecclesiastes was written.  Greek philosophy is still hugely influential in our world today and in the Christian faith.  The Greeks, again generally speaking, understood people in less cohesive terms, basically compartmentalizing aspects of the person.  Philosophies differed, but the some of the words that we use to describe ourselves have roots in Greek conceptions of persons: mind (thinking), heart (emotions), body (our physical selves), and soul/spirit.  You can probably include gut and brain as well.  We tend to separate thinking and feeling and acting in ways that would likely not have made much sense to ancient Hebrew people.  The word “mind” here doesn’t capture, in my opinion, the full commitment of the Teacher to his project..  The Teacher engaged his full self in this project – libi means heart/mind/will.  Where this connects for me is the fact that it has been pretty difficult for readers to decide what exactly the Teacher is doing – is this theology?  Philosophy?  Empirical “research”?  A spiritual reflection on existence?  A pessimistic rejection of wisdom?

My hunch: Ecclesiastes is a combination of all of these things.  And this book engages our minds, our hearts, and our souls.  Of course, these “parts” of ourselves cannot be so easily separated.  Ecclesiastes engages us a whole people, presenting us with some really difficult questions that aren’t ultimately settled within the book.  I think that the Teacher would say “that’s life…even the answers are fleeting…”

Next week we’ll take a look at chapter 2…be sure to check out the audio of our Ecclesiastes study and the class handouts on the church’s website at harrisburgumc.org…btw, we’ll likely start posting the lessons early next week…

Respect for the Image of God

When our children were born I remember thinking back to my childhood and the things my mom did right that I wanted to do as a parent.  My mom isn’t perfect, she’d be the first to tell you so and the circumstances of my growing up weren’t perfect (my dad died tragically when I was 5), however I grew up knowing that I could trust my mom and that my mom trusted me.  When I was a teenager, my mom had this policy that 1 time every 9 weeks of school I could come down stairs in the morning and say, “I just don’t feel like going to school today” So long as I didn’t have a test and I wasn’t running away from some problem at school, Mom would let me take the day off.  She called them “mental health” days.  I look on that now (20+ years later) and I wonder at the lessons this taught me.  First of all, my mom was teaching me about listening to my spirit and taking a break when you need a break.  In a world that devalues the command to keep Sabbath almost more than any other commandment, the lesson is powerful.  Secondly, I see now that my mom was telling me that she trusted me and respected my ability to make choices and decisions.  I knew that these “mental health” days were given as a trust to me not to be abused and because I knew my mom would listen to me and value where I was coming from I learned to trust her and value her opinion and her rules above all others.

I read once that one of the more amazing things about Jesus is that God chose to entrust his greatest treasure to weak, flawed, sinful human beings.  First entrusted to a unwed teen, then to a bunch of shepherds and foreign kings, then to some fishermen and tax collectors and then to the world who killed him.  But in the resurrection God chose again to entrust the message of resurrection to us broken and imperfect those we may be.  God trusts us.  He trusts us with his message, with his Spirits gifts, with the generations that will come behind us.  God chooses to trust us and when we see that we learn that we can trust him all the more.

I think about those lessons when I think about our children as young as they are.  With regard to respect, Michelle Anthony encourages us to “show it first and expect it next”.  That is hard with our little ones and yet I know that the journey begins now.  It begins in respecting our children enough to let them say what they need to say, even if we disagree, even if they are clearly wrong, even if they end up needing to be disciplined for a wrong choice.  There is power in giving them the respect of letting them choose and fail and get back up again.  There is respect in listening even when we disagree or don’t understand.  There is respect in saying, in the face of all that, “I love you and value you, no matter what.  And though you’ve made a mistake, I’m willing to let you try again knowing that I have your back.”  After all, isn’t that the grace that the Lord has shown to us?

I hope we raise our children knowing that they can trust us and knowing that we trust them.  I pray that it makes a big difference in the kinds of choices they make.  I pray that we will remember that even though they are our children and look and behave so much like Wes and I, the first and deeper image they bear is the image of their Creator and they are meant to look and behave like the Lord, not like us.  And I pray that we will never fail to bow down to the image of God we see in them, giving glory, honor, and respect to the Lord who creates, redeems, and sustains us all.

Pastor Toni Ruth

The Power of Prayer

As I look back over the years when our children were growing up, for me, Discipline was probably the hardest part of parenting.  I remember during my own childhood when my mother would punish my brother or me, sometimes she would say ‘this hurts me as much as it hurts you’.   I didn’t believe that for a minute – until I became a mother myself.  Our two children are complete opposites when it comes to temperament.  One is easy going, flexible, content in most any situation. The other extremely strong willed, opinionated, and vocal. Because they are so disparate, we soon learned that how we needed to discipline each one was also very different.  What worked with one usually did not work with the other and trying to figure out what was effective was hard, exhausting.  It was especially difficult for me when dealing with the strong willed child.  I remember the day I reached a turning point.  Our oldest, the strong willed one, was 4 years old, the youngest 1.  It had been one of those days where nothing suited the oldest.  I felt as if I constantly had to punish, correct her.  She was becoming angrier and defiant while I was feeling frustrated, growing more impatient with her.   By the end of the day, she was in her room screaming and crying while I was in mine – crying and on my knees.  That was the first of many times I turned to God asking him to help me know how to love and ‘Train [my] child in the way [he/she] should go…’[Prov. 22:6]  I didn’t always remember to stop and pray – I’m sorry to say that many times I just reacted to a situation.  Still, God used those times to teach me something about patience, being slow to anger, and grace.  If anything, praying for wisdom and guidance in disciplining our children was probably the one thing I did right.  Also, something I found helpful was talking with my mother-in-law about my struggles, a quiet woman who lives her faith rather than talking about it.  Her wisdom and insight were helpful in more ways than I can count.  She was also a source of encouragement and helpfulness, a real blessing to me at times when I was feeling like such a failure.

I made some mistakes in disciplining our children and there were times when I had to ask them for forgiveness.  But I loved them with all that was in me, made certain that I told them ‘I love you no matter what’ and trusted God to work things out despite my failures.

Blessings,

Sandra Bilbro

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