Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ecclesiastes and the perils of hope

Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’,
someone told me not to cry.

But now that I’m older,
my heart’s colder,
and I can see that it’s a lie.

Children wake up,
hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust.

If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little god’s causin rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.

- Arcade Fire, Wake Up (Funeral)
We’ve just recently finished a sermon series on Ecclesiastes at church, which I personally think was quite outstanding. (You can find mp3s of some of the talks here – just look for the sermon series ‘That’s life!’. I’m sure all of them will be uploaded eventually.) I don’t think I’ve been as continually surprised by a book as this one for a long time.

Basically, throughout the book, you find the fractured voice of the Teacher – his musings feel as if they’re in real-time, a stream of consciousness betraying an ambivalence about life as it is. It’s a thoroughly honest book; the Teacher makes no bones that despite some high points in his life, it has often been an exercise in frustration. From time to time, he points to an unfettered hope, to something bigger on the horizon, but often he lapses back into a refusal to acknowledge that there is any sort of transcendence in this world.

I’ve been thinking a little more on what it means to live in a fallen world, a world with pain, and I think Ecclesiastes paints a true picture of life. Granted, it was written pre-Jesus, but the fundamentals of life haven’t changed, certainly not those “under the sun”, that is, reality as we see it, feel it, touch it. There’s a certain kind of Christian piety that claims that one should be joyful at all times, all at the very least, have a “grin and bear it” mentality. Other Christians might shy away from such naïve triumphalism, but to sing in the minor key is still very much a daunting proposition.

The truth is, on the piano of life, there are minor keys, and they have to be played. They are necessary to enhance a musical piece which might not sound as majestic without it. By that, I mean that we all have to deeply wrestle with the pain and sorrow that inevitably will adorn all our lives at some point. And more than that, we have to wrestle not just with the world, not just with ourselves, not with the Devil, but with God. It sounds strange at first, since it seems to cast the circumstances in terms of an oppositional fight with God. But wrestling with God doesn’t mean fighting against God. The latter means to shut off your ears, to have already formed conclusions. To wrestle with God is to put oneself in a position of waiting, of honest listening, to try to understand Him more, even while in anguish. It’s not a passive “hope for the best”, but an active “I don’t understand, but even through my tears I won’t give up on hope”. Like the Teacher, life seems to be held together by a string of contradictions. During such times, we can’t deny the pain we feel. But we find it equally hard to deny God. It’s the reconciliation of the two which is the most difficult part of the recital, the nitty-gritty of the wrestling match.

The gospel narrative is a tragicomedy. That is, it progresses formally as a tragedy, with some comic elements, but it has a happy ending. Those of us schooled in worldview thinking will immediately recognize the Creation→Fall→Redemption→Consummation progression here. But at the risk of adopting an underrealised eschatology, I wonder if like in a tragicomedy, tragedy holds the dominant perspective in this current age. I don’t mean tragedy in the sense of a calamitous event or some great misfortune here, I simply mean that life in the daily grind is tough.

I think one of the most striking microcosms of this tragic-comic aspect of life is found in John 11:17-43. It’s the well-known story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Although he’s roughly about 20 miles away from Bethany, Jesus doesn’t immediately go to the sisters when they send word that Lazarus is ill. In fact, he deliberately kept away. By the time he comes, Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days. Martha comes out to meet Jesus, Mary is presumably too distraught to leave home. Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary will later say the same thing. Both certainly believed that Jesus could have kept their brother from dying. We know what happens next, but certainly not without a few tears shed on Jesus’ part. What’s going on here?

Firstly, Jesus stays away. He tells his disciples that this will end with him being glorified(v.4), but the sisters don’t know that. I doubt the disciples have any clue either. Think about what’s going through their minds – God is so near, yet so far. They know He is around, physically, in Israel, but that doesn’t change the fact that He’s not near enough, in Bethany! And anyway, isn’t distance a trivial barrier anyway? We’re not told how the sisters feel throughout this waiting process, but I suspect we instinctively know, and we can infer from their responses later anyhow. We know what it’s like to send word to God, to tell him about our circumstances. “Lord, the one you love is sick…”. Therefore, self-evidently, the thing to do is to come and heal him. C’mon, we know you’re more than capable! Except Jesus completely contravenes the rules of logic here. It’s as if he’s hiding. After all, Bethany is pretty near to Jerusalem, and the Jews weren’t exactly friendly to him there.

Then there’s Martha’s response. She meets Jesus, so it’s not as if she’s completely given up on him. But the experience has taught her that it’s not a good idea to expect too much. She’ll play the role of the faithful disciple, saying the right things: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” She hopes, but it’s a qualified hope. It’s not that she’s being hypocritical, it’s just that experience has stung. When Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again,.” she proceeds cautiously. It wouldn’t do to hope too much, not when she’s already been proven wrong once before. Again, she immediately, subconsciously adds a caveat: it’s a yes, but situation. There is absolutely no doubt that she is a true disciple of Jesus, with an amazingly clear confession of Jesus as the Christ, but she hasn’t quite grasped, in her limited understanding, what that means. She believes in the resurrection, but she hasn’t understood that Resurrection and Life is right there, right now. The kingdom of God, the reality of New Creation is about to break into her world.

How about Mary? I’m not sure why she stayed at home, it might be for entirely innocuous reasons. But she doesn’t hide her grief. She questions God, but I don’t think she blames Jesus. For now though, nothing can assuage her pain. v.35 really gets at me. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, but so much is packed into it. “Jesus wept.” But why? He knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Even if he wants to comfort Mary, well, there are plenty of other ways apart from weeping! But I think this speaks firstly, of Jesus’ complete humanity. John is insistent that He is the Word made Flesh, He really is human. But I think it also speaks of Jesus’ recognition of living in the present moment. Certainly, he is going to perform a miraculous act, but right now, it is a cause for weeping. His dear friend Lazarus is dead. The grief and pain is real for everyone at the scene. It doesn’t change the fact that there is going to be a happy ending, but right now, it is a tragedy. It is right for the expression of lament. It is right to weep.

Finally, there is Jesus as mediator. This little tragic-comic tale needs to be framed within the larger story of Jesus’ mission on earth. Ironically, this account of Lazarus’ resurrection turns out to be a tragic element in his own story. After the miracle, the Pharisees plan to kill him, with Caiaphas making the even more ironic statement that it is better for Jesus to die for the people. Jesus had made this clear with his prayer to the Father emphasizing his role as mediator, sent from the Father. As we ponder on our own stories, we need to see it in relation to the gospel narrative. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes recognizes this, that life without God is “meaningless – a striving after wind”, even though he finds it too difficult to think of an eternal life with God at many moments throughout.

I’m only 21. I don’t pretend to have any life experience, or to know what true suffering really is. I don’t even know if I’ll listen to my own words here. When I look back at my life thus far, though, I know there have been painful moments. It’s difficult to acknowledge them, acknowledging them only concretizes them, makes them more real. And they become ghosts as well, haunting me in the present. But if I acknowledge them, I expose the chains that bind me. And trusting God means that I acknowledge too that I can’t break them, but He can. It recognizes that salvation has three components – past, present and future. Remembering is important: we already have been saved, justified…but there is also a futuristic element to it: “[Jesus] will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

Ecclesiastes tells it like it is. It’s a great book to look at as we swim in deep waters. Just don’t miss the hints about what could be.

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