This morning we read from the Book of Ecclesiastes – a truly amazing piece of literature. Its author identifies himself as Qoheleth – Hebrew for “the teacher”, or one who speaks to an assembly. Today we might call him a preacher. Qoheleth’s wide-ranging sermon probes big questions about the meaning of life. It is spellbindingly honest in its description and heartfelt in how it identifies our emotional response to all that happens to us.
Today he ponders all the work he is doing and all the effort he has put forth in life to make something of himself and wonders if it has been worthwhile or not. “I must leave it to those who come after me,” he says, “and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” He despairs that those who have done nothing to earn it will benefit from his labors. He considers whether all his hard work and even his restless nights have been for naught. And, famously, he calls all of it “vanity”. The effort, the despair, the worry about what others will do with what he will pass on to them – all of it is vanity.
Biblical scholars have written a great deal about what the word Hebrew hebel means. It was the King James Bible that first translated it as ‘vanity’ and the word seems to have stuck. But is the teacher’s understanding of vanity the same as ours? Some suggest he means “meaningless.” All of our toils are meaningless. Others suggest futility or useless. Hebel carries with it the sense of breath or vapor – things that are short-lived, transitory. My favorite translation is “shepherding the wind” – an evocative image that, like our phrase “herding cats”, suggests we have set ourselves to an impossible task and pursuit.
The teacher has spent his life trying to shepherd the wind. Will he give up on this endeavor? If so, what will take its place?
On 14th of January in the year 1869, on what I can only assume was a very cold and snowy day, Agnes Davidson married Hugh Emerson in Potsdam, NY. This bible may have been a gift they received or something they purchased for themselves.
There is a beautiful certificate in it commemorating their marriage, which each signed. The following pages record my family’s genealogical beginning with the names of their children, their dates of birth, and marriages. The same information follows for their grandchildren, then great-grandchildren – my generation. The information on the newest two generations is not up-to-date and needs tending.
Beyond needing updating and being large and heavy and falling apart, The Emerson Family Bible weighs on me for another reason. It is in my possession because it has been passed down to the youngest male Emerson of each generation under the theory we would 1) outlive our brothers and 2) pass on our last name. It weighs on me because I do not have a son with whom to entrust it. I have only one male cousin and he does not have any children. I look at this bible and realize the Emerson name passed down from Agnes and Hugh ends with me. I don’t lose sleep about it, but it is something I carry with me. And it is just one of the tangible ways I identify with the teacher and his sense of hebel. Try as hard as I might, the wind eludes my efforts to shepherd it.
What does letting the wind be the wind look like?
In today’s gospel reading Jesus encounters a person who wants him to intercede in a family squabble. He wants Jesus to instruct his brother to divide the family inheritance and give him half. Jesus refuses to get involved, but uses the opportunity to issue a warning about greed. He tells a parable about a person who keeps doing more and more, becoming wealthier and wealthier as time goes by, but has an impoverished soul. He is not, as Jesus puts it, “rich toward God.” His simple plan for life is to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. What could go wrong with that? Well, its Jesus' story so het gets to tell any way he wants to and so the man will die that very night and have nothing to show for his life because he spent it focused on the material and never once made an investment in the spiritual – in what will endure in the life to come.
Years ago I was present to hear an elderly bishop address a clergy gathering on the topic of retirement. It changed my perspective on life in at least one way. He described one challenge we clergy will face. Clergy, he pointed out, are prone to collect many, many, many, many books over the years. It is an occupational hazard for sure. When he retired he moved all of his things out of his church office, including boxes and boxes and boxes of books. He had lived all his life in houses provided by the churches he served so retirement also meant he and his wife had to find a place to live. As they looked around he quickly realized there would be no room for the vast majority of his books. Disposing of them created one of the biggest challenges of retirement and I have not bought a book since then that I didn’t think about the bishop’s talk. All the stuff of my life eventually will need to go somewhere where I can’t take it.
Jesus highlights how our material possessions are not who we are and someday will become a burden to how we move forward in life. And yet they can be all we work for. They become our heart’s desire and the focus of all we are about. Bigger and bigger. More and more. Better and better. Did you know you can now buy a refrigerator with a camera inside you can access from your smart phone? Is it really that hard to remember you need to buy some milk when you are at the grocery store?
In Jesus’ parable God calls the man building bigger barns a ‘fool’, which is not exactly how I hope to hear God address me. But in truth, most of us come to this realization on our own somewhere down the road of life. Why did I buy all these books? What was I thinking when I spent thousands of dollars for an appliance I could see on my iPhone? Look at all this stuff I have accumulated. Does any of it mean anything?
Should we be invested in future generations? Should we focus on building wealth and material possessions? Today’s readings raise questions as contemporary as our very lives.
I have always been fascinated with Erik Erikson’s work on developmental tasks associated with each of life’s stages and I find his thinking to be a helpful lens through which to examine today’s readings. Erikson labeled the major developmental challenge during the ages of 45-65 ‘generativity v. stagnation.’ Generativity is a marked “concern for establishing and guiding the next generation… It is a matter of caring for whatever is being generated, attending to its nurture and growth… It involves a continuing emotional investment in what is being generated.” For those of us in this age range our on-going work is to contribute to the common good rather than to retreat from it (an action Erikson labels “stagnation”).
Do you hear in today’s reading how the teacher is weighing generativity and stagnation? Erikson would say he is making the shift to the final developmental stage in life, which typically begins around the time one turns 65. He labels this challenge ‘integrity v. despair.’ By integrity Erikson means the following:
· Being faithful to the image-bearers of the past.
· Accepting your place in the life cycle.
· Accepting the people who have played a significant role in your life – for good or for ill.
· Accepting responsibility for how your life has turned out.
Despair, on the other hand, arises when a person is unable to accept that life is too short to go back and “get it right.” Because time no longer permits one to “start over”, we are tempted to surrender to deep feelings of regret. Such despair, one author writes, is “often hidden behind a show of disgust… or a chronic contemptuous displeasure with particular institutions and particular people – a disgust and displeasure which [ultimately]… signify the individual’s contempt for himself.”
So, rather than shepherding wind or building bigger barns, Erikson suggests that the vast swath of our adult years involves a continued giving of ourselves to others and to life. It is a project of producing what you are passionate about; “caring” and “emotional investment”. And, it is about accepting who you are and who you are not; about accepting what you have done and what you have not been able to do. It is about accepting yourself for who you are and not defining yourself by the winds you could not shepherd. It is about locating your life in principles bigger than yourself; timeless principles not bound to our current age.
St. Paul describes it as “as seeking the things that are above, where Christ is” and knowing your life is “hidden in Christ.” Contrast this with the person in Jesus’ parable who “thinks [only] to himself”, and speaks only in the first person singular: “I will tear down”, “I will build”, “I will store”, and “I will say to my soul”. When the only conversation you have is with yourself, how startling must it be to hear the voice of God speak to you, especially if God says “You fool!”?
So, about my family bible. Here is what I am thinking of doing. The idea that the youngest son of the youngest son must pass it along to his youngest son is arbitrary at best, burdensome at worst, and more than a tad sexist. What matters about it is that we decedents of Agnes and Hugh know from where we have come. What matters is how this bible connects us together and across generations. I need to get the information up to date and talk with my siblings, cousins, nephews, and nieces to see who would like to carry this task forward and to see how we might make this bible common to all and not just a possession of mine. As opposed to shepherding wind, this seems both manageable and meaningful. Thank you, teacher, for your sermon. In this small way I have learned how to let go of shepherding the wind.