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