Significance- lessons from Ecclesiastes…

I am 45 years old. My first career is possibly over, my second uncertain. Any hopes I had of making a way for myself through music of some other public magnificence are long gone.

In many ways, particularly for blokes, life is about a search for significance, ascendancy, personal power and the recognition of our peers.

Sooner or later (no matter how much of the above list you manage to manufacture) we all come to the conclusion that this is futile. Success is fleeting and always nuanced, and the pursuit of power extracts a price from our humanity. ( I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 4:4)

So in the wreckage, what still stands?

This is the big question of those of us entering the second part of life. It is all too easy to fall into the way of Ecclesiastes chapter 1;

1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

The book of Ecclesiastes plays with these themes constantly- the meaningless futility of life, and the inevitability of death. The success/failure of the wicked, and the success/failure in equal measure of the devout. The limitations of wisdom, and the fickle search for success.

If the words were authored by Solomon (as traditionally held to be the case) they seem all the more poignant. They are the words of a 4th C BC King of excess, who had it all, turning towards the end of his living, confused still about the worth of a life. Not all the monuments or pyramids or songs could convince him that his life was worth anything more than that of any other animal.

Reading this as a young man, I wanted to rebel at the cynical emptiness of it all. Surely God has a great purpose for me- am I not part of his great plan? I am not the great part of his plan?

Now I find myself relaxing into it as truth- although like all of these things, only a partial truth.

Because if the legacy we leave on this earth is not about our youthful appetite for stuff, for power, for significance; if it is not about hard measurable, visible outcomes- a deeper, less quantifiable legacy might still be possible.

The measure of grace that we stain our situation with.

The love that we give and receive.

And for this, I turn from Solomon to Micah, chapter 6;

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walking humbly with God- this is the journey I now try to make.

Significantly.

Does maturity always require suffering?

This was the question we discussed in house group this evening, after listening to Richard Rohr speaking about the spirituality of the second half of life.

He felt that the answer was yes (probably) and quoted a psychologist, who was asked the same question- to which he replied “It is entirely theoretically possible to achieve maturity in life without some degree of suffering, but it is just that in 30 years as a clinical psychologist, I have never seen it.”

It makes sense. A similar argument can be made about any change- it tends to require some kind of crisis. Sure you can decide to change- and make some lifestyle choices- throw in a bit of life coaching and counselling to discover your inner onion, but mostly we just end up indulging in a bit of wish fulfillment whilst we move the furniture about the same old rooms.

Whereas real change tends to come upon us by necessity, through crisis, and suffering.

Is that why Jesus said ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall see God?”

The next question I suppose is- does suffering always lead to maturity? And the answer to this I think is- no. Suffering can lead to us constantly trying to rationalise it all- to the blame game and the guilt game. And so we become bitter and trapped in the shadow of the events that have befallen us.

Richard Rohr spoke about how suffering might contribute to maturity in a way that made some sense to me- about how we get beyond the need to know, to understand and to intellectually grasp the realities of God- and just begin to accept that

He is.

And we are.

Now- not yesterday or tomorrow.

Just now.

It is about being fully present, in the loving presence of God- and this being a place where the surface tension becomes less and less important in the awareness of all that deep green water below.

So am I mature? well- Not really. Does that mean that I might embrace the suffering that will surely come my way? Not likely. Rather I might hope that my dose of it is small- the odd tweaking of the scar tissue I already wear perhaps- rather than a screaming tunnel of hell that others experience and somehow still survive.