Ecclesiastes: My Life-raft

 This post is being written to be a part of Diana Trautwein’s weekly series, “Living the Question.”  This weeks question is:  How do I make all the pieces fit?

 

When I was a youth, in Jr. College, my head was full of big thoughts, and my heart was full of big feelings, but I didn’t know how to talk about anything.  I didn’t have the words or the syntax or the context to express myself, or defend my beliefs or my behavior.  The part of the Bible that was the most comforting to me was the Book of Ecclesiastes. “’Vanity of vanity’ saith the preacher, ‘All is vanity.”   I latched on to this phrase.  It was my life raft.  I might not have been albe to express myself, but I didn’t have to be swamped by all of the smooth talking expert sounding talk of others.  “They don’t really know anything either,” is what Ecclesiastes said to me.  

Our church was becoming more evangelical.  “Lead others to Christ,” was what I was told a Christian should do.  I was uncomfortable in this role.  At school I was taking all of the required liberal arts courses taught by young arrogant professors whose mission seemed to be “shaking the faith of the kiddies” who were their captive audience.    “Vanity of vanity’ saith the preacher, ‘all is vanity.”  I hung on to that phrase for dear life – literally – for my inner life. 

I don’t know how it came about, but I have a vivid memory of me sitting in a booth at the recreation center of Forest Home, the Presbyterian summer camp in Southern California.  I was surrounded by people listening to me as I read out loud the Book of Eclesiastes – the whole book.  It was that important to me.

I have always had an active inner life.  I wrote music as a profession and it was a good fit for me.  But as a youth, my inner life was a constant conversation with God.  The one image I have retained throughout my life is that I am a child of God.  As a youth, with that confidence, and with Ecclesiastes, I could face the world and chart my own course.  I never expected things to go smoothly.  Maybe I was and still am arrogant, but I never paid attention to what others said about how things “should be.”  I have experienced pain and loss and disappointment, but I never blamed it on God.  God was always with me, if I cared to talk or listen.  Somehow I missed the lesson, or more likely, wasn’t listening, when I was told that God would make everything work out alright. 

My image of God was about “the good stuff” love, beauty, deep human relationships.  “The bad stuff,” like cancer, doesn’t change anything that is really important.

Some time after I left Jr. College I read a lot of Alfred North Whitehead.  I liked his image of God as a “subjective aim:”  A God who lures us into goodness – or Denise Levertov’s lines: 

“The wings of the morning brush through our blood

As Cloud shadows brush the land.” 

Imagine God nudging the world as gently as cloud shadows brushing the land. 

 I think we miss the point of the third chapter of Eccliastes – There is a time and place for everything under the sun.  This chapter is usually used as a consoling text – take heart, it all fits together.  What is usually not understood is that the point of Eccliastes is that we will never know how it fits together.  What this chapter is doing is listing all of the contradictions of life: birth, death, war, peace – they are all a part of the human experience.   There may be a time for each experience, but it is not given to us to know when that time is. “ Vanity of vanity’, saith the preacher,’ all is vanity.”   

In Diana’s post she always has pictures of the ocean at Santa Barbara, so I thought I’d conclude with my own pictures of the ocean at Santa Barbara, forty-four years ago.  My friend, Henri, his girlfriend, Connie, and I converted this old fishing boat into a sailboat.  I look with nostalgia at Diana’s photos

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About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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10 Responses to Ecclesiastes: My Life-raft

  1. ElenaLee says:

    I find post soothing, somehow, Newell. And I especially love these lines: “My image of God was about ‘the good stuff’ love, beauty, deep human relationships. ‘The bad stuff,’ like cancer, doesn’t change anything that is really important.” Also, your boat looks like it was very cool!

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    • It was good for me to write this post – to remember those times of my youth. And the boat was cool. I wrote a story about it. It’s in my book that should be coming out in about 2 months.

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    • Elena, I have read your last two posts and really enjoyed your writing and clarity of thought. I tried to comment on both through my wordpress identity (if that is what that is) but I was rejected, or not approved. Anyway, I will keep reading your words and wanted you to know you are appreciated.

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  2. Juliet says:

    ‘I have experienced pain and loss and disappointment, but I never blamed it on God. God was always with me, if I cared to talk or listen. Somehow I missed the lesson, or more likely, wasn’t listening, when I was told that God would make everything work out alright. ‘

    I think we need to do whatever we can to put things right in this world. It is a necessary part of kingdom building. But some pain and suffering will always be with us, as long as death separates us from those we love for instance. God will put this right, in his own time. We must do our bit, in ours. As you say, we won’t know how all these things fit together – but that they will all fit together is something we can be sure of.

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    • Juliet, Yes, we do need to continue working toward the reign of God. When I have been part of activist groups, I always gravitated toward the education side of the work. One can never measure or know the effect of one’s effots, but if you believe in God, then you don’t need to be the one who sees the results. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  3. poetry joy says:

    Newell, I love the positive thoughts you have maintained about God even during times of personal struggle and suffering. So many are quick to point a finger of blame at Him for all that goes wrong in their lives and fail to notice how their own decisions may have contributed to problems occurring, or how much of what happens to us is randomness caused by living in a fallen, sinful world.

    At heart, we rejoice in how God works for the good of those who are in Christ and called according to His purpose. Nothing in our lives need be viewed as meaningless or wasted in the light of this knowledge. “The wings of the morning brush through our blood” and waken desire to know more. Our curiousity is piqued. Questions need answers. Investigation draws us to God’s side. And there we discover that God requires us to have faith and trust in Him and relax in the rays of His loving Presence.

    Ecclesiastes concludes with, “The last and final word is this:Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 The Message) and it seems to sum up all that is required of us when it comes to trying to figure out how to fit all the pieces together.

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    • Joy; I had thought of including that final passage of Ecclesiastes in my post. The part I remembered most was “of the writing of many books there will be no end, and much study is a wearibess of flesh” (or something like that). But to love God and keep God’s commandments is enough to know, and that has kept me in good spirits most of my life. I am truly blessed by my family and church conmmunity, and on my birthday (today) I am feeling especially blessed. Thanks for your wiring. I enjoy reading your writing on Diana Trautwein’s blog. She is an old friend from my church in high school. We recently connected on line after 50 years of no contact. Newell

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  4. pastordt says:

    Look at the wonderful conversation this rich post has stirred, Newell! Thank you so much for this one, old friend. Ecclesiastes is a perfect place for this question to land, I think. It’s not up to us to find answers, it’s up to us to live faithfully and trust that God will reveal what we need to know when we need to know it. I love those old photos, too! I’m not a boat person myself (though I love river boats), primarily because my husband gets terribly seasick, so we’ve not spent much time on boats at all. But these shots make me wish I’d done a bit more of it in my life. Thanks so much for linking this one up this week – always glad to read your words.

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    • And thank you for the space and forum to have this conversation. I still love the book of Ecclesiastes. A woman friend at church and I are going to sing the Pete Seger version of “For Every season, turn, turn, turn.” next month at our cabaret. She lost her husband to cancer last year and they always did a duet at the cabaret. So Ecclesiastes will poke it’s passages up into the congregation in that song. Glad you enjoyed the pictures of Santa Barbara in 1970.

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  5. Pingback: Q & A: Tuesday Wrap-Up – Week Six

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