Maggie slammed the laptop shut, a little harder than she meant to. She had just finished reading her email, and it had lit another fire under her. Each morning, her routine was the same. Pour a cup of coffee. Read the paper until the political news and the local city updates boiled her blood. Pour another cup of coffee. Watch the cable news until the video of the candidates and pundits she hated the most made her even angrier. Pour another cup of coffee. Catch up on her email, angrily reading out loud the political forwards he received during the day and overnight, forward as many of them as she could to like-minded friends and family (and even those who were not quite to like-minded.) Stomp into the kitchen for her last cup of coffee.
That was about when Richard, who had patiently been working on his crossword puzzle or reading his morning devotions, all the while sipping on his first cup of tea, wondered aloud, “do you think you’ve had enough?” Maggie wasn’t sure if he meant the politics or the coffee. Or both. But she was always too angry to ask.
At this point in the morning rant, she didn’t even get full sentences out:
“Not that way in my day…”
“…world coming to?”
“Hell in a handbasket, that’s what I’d say.”
Woe to the family member or next door neighbor who called during the morning rant. They knew that Maggie was not to be bothered during the morning. Later in the afternoon, after the caffeine buzz had worn off, and a couple of hours of putting together jigsaw puzzles in the basement away from the TV, she was human again. But until then, steer clear! They had even learned to not even pick up the phone when she called! They knew the conversation would be at least an hour, and would be more of a monologue than a conversation.
Maggie’s life was a fractured one. Look at the patterns that set her life: reacting and responding to stimuli designed to make her angry! To create emotional reactivity. These were the things that created pattern in her life. So, of course, her life was fractured, for she constantly invited the hammer to break apart her life in angrier and more reactive pieces. So her heart was fractured. Her relationships were fractured. Her mind was fractured.
Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about stages of emotional and internal development. He suggested that the last of life’s great challenges is to navigate the emotional choice between integrity and despair. If one is to reach integrity, they will find a way to locate themselves and their purpose within the world around them, and integrate their life and identity in context with those around them. Regardless of what happens in the world, they know who they are and are comfortable in their own skin. According to Erikson, if one cannot reach this level of integrity, they are stuck in the realm of despair. There is disdain for those around them. There is angst that the world is not as they would have it to be. There is despair. Maggie’s fractured life is one of hopelessness, frustrated despair.
Some read from today’s book of Scripture and find a writer lost in the depths of despair. In fact, some of the old rabbinical teachings suggest that three of our wisdom literature books were written by one man: King Solomon. They imagine that a young Solomon wrote Song of Songs, full of life and energy and vitality and sensuality. And then a wizened, thoughtful middle-aged Solomon wrote Proverbs. Finally, a frustrated, empty shell of a man Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” It would not take too much psychoanalysis to suggest that some of the passages in Ecclesiastes come from an author struggling between integrity and (leaning toward) despair.
Now, modern scholarship doesn’t necessarily agree with this assessment. Scholars point to the fact that the text does not claim to be written by Solomon, only by Qoheleth, or the Teacher. It is from the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scripture, as is Song of Songs and Proverbs and Job. And like all of the books from that tradition, it is difficult to name a clear author and context, mostly because of its timelessness and general application to every time and place. If Erikson can suggest that every human being goes through this process, regardless of setting and personality and culture, then the words of Qoheleth are equally, if not more timeless.
But is Qoheleth really the disillusioned, angry “Maggie” that some have suggested he was? I am not sure that he (or she) was. I like the way that Eugene Peterson talks about Ecclesiastes. He does not see the teacher as a helpless, angry, bitter old man. Instead, he sees Qoheleth as a wise sage who has learned the meaninglessness of meaningless things. The author of Ecclesiastes has learned not to chase and run after the wrong things. In his introduction to the book, Peterson says this:
“Ecclesiastes challenges the naïve optimism that sets a goal that appeals to us and then goes after it with gusto, expecting the result to be a good life. The author’s cool skepticism, a refreshing negation to the lush and seductive suggestions swirling around us, promising everything but delivering nothing, clears the air. And once the air is cleared we are ready for reality – for God.”
I think that Peterson is right, that Ecclesiastes is not about helpless despair in all things. Instead, it is a realization that so many of things of this world that we want to bring us happiness and hope and clarity of focus simply will not. According to the author of the book, that is God’s task. And God’s gift to us. “Once the air is cleared, we are ready for reality – for God.”
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” says the author of Ecclesiastes. Our two-way conversation on Wednesday night was another profound one. In wrestling with this text, they came to a realization that it is more observational than instructional. Viewing this passage like a to-do list would be maddening, wouldn’t it? I wept. So now I will laugh. I kept silence. So now I will speak. I kept that knick-knack, so I guess I have to throw this next one way. Do this; do that. But the wise teacher is not instructing us what to do next.
Instead, the teacher is simply observing from within our midst what the world is actually like. There are changes. There are rhythms. There are times to do some things, followed by times to do others. And at the end of the day, or perhaps near the end of one’s life, we realize that we are not in control of everything. We are not in control of these rhythms of life. And that perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps that is a gift. To receive the patterns and rhythms of life that God has set before us: life/death; sowing/reaping; laughing/weeping. These are the patterns of reality that God has created and our task is to observe God at work and delight in God’s presence. The good news of Ecclesiastes is that instead of toiling to achieve, we can receive God’s good and gracious gift of an ordered and rhythmic life.
But how many of us are like Maggie, running from one anger-inducing catalyst to another, allowing them to fracture our souls and our worlds?
How many times does Maggie in her daily rant, run back and forth past her Bible, choosing to run around untethered instead of tethering herself to the rhythms of daily reading of Scripture? Ironically, she may say that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because we have forgotten the Bible. But does she ever take the time to stop and read it herself as she patterns her life?
How many times does Maggie seek wisdom in the meaninglessness of talking heads, choosing to run around untethered instead of tethering herself to the rhythms of prayer? Ironically, she may say that God is the answer to the world’s problems. But does she ever take the time to allow God to be the answer to her problems?
How many times does Maggie run from one distraction to another, choosing to live an un-meditated and un-contemplated life? Ironically, there are other people in her life modeling that for her, but she merely complains that they don’t care as much as she does.
How many times does she allow a fractured life to be her guide, instead of allowing God to put together the pieces for her? To receive a life of peace, instead of working so hard to achieve perfection or righteousness.
How many of us are at a place that we could say with Qoheleth that regardless of who is elected in November, God will still reign? Is our trust deep enough that we could say that even this year’s elections are meaningless, because we know who’s on the throne? Are we rready to receive God’s good grace, regardless of what happens in the world around us?
Now, of course, I am not saying that we have to stick our heads in the sand and ignore important ideological or political conversations. Of course not. Qoheleth isn’t saying that either, I don’t believe. But what he (or perhaps she) is saying is that when we have those conversations, recognize their temporal quality. Remember that even their toil and fury is, at one level, meaningless. Seek something greater and larger. Seek to tether yourself to God in the midst of those conversations. For only that will bring you peace.
Again, it was a quote from the Two-way that I have been ruminating on the rest of the week: “We are all in the same boat. Why is it that we insist on hitting each over the head with the oars?” May we instead put them in the water and together row to the next great adventure!
Let us not return over and again to the swamp of despair, when the clear channel to integrity lies ahead!
Charlotte picked up the phone. She knew it was a mistake, but she did it anyway. Maggie’s name was right there on her caller ID, and she knew that Maggie would be on her high horse about something. But, something told her to put down the book of poetry that she had been reading and answer the phone. She was immediately regretful. Maggie launched into a tirade against…well, everything. Her kids. The political candidate she hated so much. The church. The City Commission. The Dancing with the Stars vote that she knew had to be rigged!
Charlotte quietly listened through it all. She had known Maggie for years and knew what she was like. At one point in her life, she had tried to reason with her. Tried to follow her arguments and address the ones that seemed wrong-headed. But now, she just listened. Talking back hadn’t worked anyway. For Charlotte, it was a labor of love.
Eventually, Maggie stopped to take a breath. About 45 minutes in, she thought to ask Charlotte how her day was going. Here was Charlotte’s chance. Arguing with Maggie wouldn’t work, but modeling a different way for her might.
“I have had such a wonderful morning. I got up early to call my grandson and sing happy birthday to him. I walked through garden and pulled a few weeds. I gave the dog a bath. I read some of my favorite passages from Ecclesiastes, and now I am reading a book of poetry. In fact, I just read a great poem, and I wonder if I could read it aloud to you.”
She could almost audibly hear Maggie roll her eyes through the phone, so Charlotte didn’t pause long before she continued, “this poem was just now helping me to pause and let God govern my day, instead of charging after everything that has gone wrong in the world. It has helped to center me on God and the things of Christ. I wonder if I could read it to you.” And she did:
I’m happy Boss happy as a bird
hopping on a branch just a little branch
on one of your little trees that’s all
it takes for me no wage no deeds
just the day-in day-out same old thing
it’s okay by me you keep the sun
on its string that’s all I need that’s
enough for me but also water O
every breath I draw I make
a little picture Boss a little bird
with a whistle in its bones hopping
on a branch like there’s no tomorrow
no end in sight you might even say
every day is like the day before
Maurice Manning, XXXVIII, from Bucolics
May we all turn our hearts to the Boss who keeps the sun on its string, and receive the peace that only God can give.
Featured Image by April Griffin