Archive for February, 2011

Come Up To Me

What follows is my meditation from this morning’s Monmouth College Chapel Service.

“Come Up To Me”

Exodus 24:12-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2011

Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?

In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.

Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.[1]

Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”[2]

According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions.  It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.)  It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today.  And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place.[3] So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.

After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there.  I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain.  The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence.  But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit.  We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain.  I still treasure the pictures I took from there.  But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.

Climbing mountains is hard work!  And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.

I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen.  It takes some work on our part.  Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God.  Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God.  Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.

When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship.  I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work.  It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity.  It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance.  Worship is hard work.  And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship.  For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater.  With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience.  So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship.  But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong.  Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God.  As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God.  We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God.  And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.

I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois.  It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place.  And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come!  Come up to me!”

Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19: 11-12

[2] Matthew 17: 1-9

[3] Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.

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Do Not Worry

What follows is my meditation on Matthew 6:24-34 from the Monmouth College Chapel Service.

“Do Not Worry”

Matthew 6: 24-34

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 21st, 2011 – MC Chapel Service

I am the type of person who can be easily distracted.  I may be physically present somewhere (bodily present) but sometimes my mind and my attention are elsewhere.  And this, of course, has its consequences.

For instance, I may be at home with my children but in my mind I am still here at work worrying and thinking about our next chapel service, or about a prayer I am trying to write, or about a conversation that I had…only to wake up and realize that my 3-year-old son has just given himself a “haircut” with the kitchen scissors.

Or, I may be sitting somewhere playing with my Iphone, obsessively checking my email, only to wake up and realize that I was missing the most beautiful sunset.

Or, I might be at a party or a reception thinking that I really needed to talk to the person across the room, only to wake up and realize that the person I was with was actually saying something really interesting and that I was missing an opportunity to connect with her.

So I sort of constantly have these moments where I “wake-up” and realize what I am missing when I allow myself to get distracted, or when I allow worry to carry me away from the present moment.

One such “wake-up” moment in particular stands out in my mind because my daughter really got my attention.  I was at home, but I wasn’t really at home, because my mind was still here at work….when all of a sudden Ella (our 1 ½ year-old daughter) crawls into my lap, takes my face in her chubby little hands, puts her nose to my nose, and with big, wide, attentive eyes, starts saying, “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”  Well, needless to say, she definitely got my attention.

At last Friday’s “Meaning of Life” discussion in the Weeks House, Corbin Beastrom, a freshman, caught our attention by quoting a story by Leo Tolstoy.  In this story an emperor goes in search of the answer to what he felt were life’s most important questions:  What is the best time to do each thing?  Who are the most important people to work with?  What is the most important thing to do at all times?  The emperor’s search ultimately takes him to an old hermit who lives high on a mountain and who was known to be an enlightened man.  The hermit didn’t answer the emperor’s questions immediately, though, instead he asked for his help in digging a garden outside of his hut because the earth was hard and he was an old hermit.  Then, while the emperor was helping the old hermit with his garden, a man suddenly runs up to them with a life-threatening wound.  So the emperor attends to the man and his wound and saves his life.  After all of this, it is very late and the emperor decides to go home thinking that the hermit does not have the answers to his questions.  But then the hermit surprises him by saying, “But your questions have already been answered.  The most important time is now, he said.  The most important person is the person you are with.  And the most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy…for that is the pursuit of life.”[1]

I think Jesus would agree with this.  In today’s text Jesus says to us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own…But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  In today’s text Jesus reminds us that we are alive today!  Tomorrow doesn’t even exist yet….but today….today is a gift….today is full of potential…today is full of beauty, and grace, and God.  So don’t take today for granted.  Don’t let worry carry you away from today.

I can hear Jesus now, “Don’t let worry carry you away from loving your children and being attentive to your children today.  Don’t let worry distract you from that beautiful sunset, or that bright red cardinal singing in the tree, or the feel of the earth under your feet, or the way the clouds dance across the sky.  Don’t let worry carry you away from the person sitting next to you, from the potential to touch a life with your attention, from the potential to make a new friend.  Don’t let worry seclude you so much in your own little world that you fail to recognize the plight of others…that you fail to recognize those who are poor…or those who are pushed aside…or those who are feeling unwelcome and unnoticed.”

Yes, I can hear Jesus now, and I can feel him, taking my face, your face, our faces in his hands, putting his nose to our nose, and saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”  You are alive today!  Today is a gift!  Do not worry!  Instead, strive for the Kingdom of God.

So…let us take a moment…this moment…to follow Jesus’ advice….to be present in this space….to notice the beauty that is here waiting for us….to notice the person sitting beside us…to hear the music that is calling to us….to notice the God who is here for us….in this moment….in this hour of worship…in this day….that we have been given as a gift to treasure and as an opportunity to realize…..

Now to the God who calls us to be fully present in this moment be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] As told by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1975), pgs. 69-75.

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Perfect Love

“Perfect Love”

Matthew 5:38-48

Daniel J. Ott


You can learn a lot about human nature by watching a three-year-old.  My three-year-old knows all the rules.  He can recite them.  He especially likes to recite the rules when it is his sister who is breaking one of the rules.  To his credit, sometimes he will recite a rule to keep himself out of trouble.  But quite often, even though he knows the rules, he has to be reminded of the rules, usually because he has broken one.

I’ve noticed, though, that sometimes he seems almost compelled to break the rule against his own better judgment.  Three-year-olds need to push the limits a little.  They’re not only learning the rules, but they have to test and see what happens when you break the rules.  Sometimes it seems like my little guy wants to do good.  He knows the rule and wants to follow it, but he’s at odds with himself and he has to test the boundaries.  Perhaps there’s a little of that three-year-old in all of us.

But Jesus doesn’t want us to be at odds with ourselves.  He wants us to know the rules and follow them.  Actually, he says he wants us to be perfect with respect to the rules. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That’s startling, isn’t it?  What does Jesus mean by asking us to be perfect as God is perfect?  Does he mean that we should be completely holy as God is holy?  Wouldn’t we have to be all-knowing and all-wise like God, in order to be all-holy like God?  Was Jesus asking the impossible?

Perhaps not.  The Hebrew equivalent of the word translated “perfect” here is the word “tamim.”  Tamim means wholeness.  Jesus is asking us here in the Sermon on the Mount to be ethically whole, to be wholehearted, to be single-minded.  He’s encouraging us to stop being at odds with ourselves.  In order to do this, though, we must transcend mere adherence to the law.

We call this section of the Sermon on the Mount “The Six Antitheses.”  Each of these antitheses asks us to go beyond the law and penetrate to the spirit of the law.  Not only should we not murder, but we should also learn to deal with our anger and reconcile with people who offend us.  Not only should we not commit adultery, but we must also learn to see people as children of God rather than mere objects of our desire.  Not only should we be fair in divorce, but we should also work to heal our marriages and renew our commitments.  Not only should we be truthful when the stakes are high, but we should be people who are always dependable and trustworthy in our speech.  Not only should we refrain from violence, but we should also sow seeds of peace.  Not only should we love our neighbor, but also our enemy.

All of these antitheses teach us that not only are we called to know the law and obey the law, but also we are to be holy in our inward being. We need to write the law on our hearts and minds. We can’t just follow the rules.  We need to allow the spirit of Christ to transform us inwardly so that we can do what we know to be good and right and loving.   Not only should we follow the rules, but we should be whole, perfect.

Now, of course, being perfect isn’t easy, not even when it comes to doing something that sounds like it should be easy like loving.  Perfect love is far from easy.  This comes into sharp contrast when we hear Jesus tell us that perfect love requires that we love our enemies.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Notice what Jesus does not say here.  He doesn’t say, “You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love everybody.” I think it might have been easier to hear if Jesus had left it general like that.  But Jesus makes it very specific:  “I say love your enemies.  Love and pray for the ones who do you harm.”  Can you hear him saying to us today, “Love the terrorist and the jihadist.  Pray for the Taliban.  Love Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il.  Pray for Osama bin Laden.  Love the communists in China.  Pray for dictators.  Liberals love conservatives.  Republicans love Democrats.”

Maybe we should bring it even closer to home.  Can you picture that person who has really done you harm?  Perhaps that person told lies about you, or broke your heart, or hurt you in business, or betrayed your trust.  Jesus says love even that person.  Love your enemies… tough stuff.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood well Jesus’ call to love enemies and pray for persecutors.  He wrote, “In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns.  To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world.  Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.  This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”[1] King taught that we love people not because we necessarily approve of their ways and ideals; but we love people, even our enemies, because God loves them.  This is whole love.  This is perfect love.  Perfect love transcends hatred.  Perfect love cuts off the chain of hate.

But what does this perfect love look like?  What does it mean to love our enemies?  Does this mean that we let our enemies walk all over us?  Does this mean that we smile and nod as ruthless people do terrible things to us or to others?

No, perfect love does not demand that we all become wet noodles.  It certainly does not mean that we stand idly by while injustice is done.  But it does mean that we adopt a different strategy from the “eye for an eye” strategy that is so prominent in the violent and vicious world in which we live.

Jesus says that perfect love requires that we turn the other cheek.  He gives us some examples of what this looks like and the examples are much more active and radical that they might at first appear.  He says that if someone sues you for your coat, that you should give your cloak as well.  If you were to follow Jesus’ teaching literally here, you’d be standing in court naked.  Do you think that might rattle the cage of a litigious adversary?  Jesus says, “If one of these hotshot Roman soldiers conscripts you to carry his equipment for a mile. Don’t stop there. Keep going.  Carry it a second mile.  Carry it until you keel over, maybe then his conscience will be pricked.”

Albert Winn calls this strategy “reverse fighting” and he sees a portrait of the reverse fighter in Isaiah.  “The reverse fighter is the servant of [God]… This servant, however, is no warrior… He gives his back to those who strike him and his cheeks to those who pull out his beard, not hiding his face from insult and spitting.  He knows contempt and rejection, suffering and infirmity, wounds and bruises, oppression and injustice.  In all this he does no violence, makes no complaint.  Yet he wins the victory!  The reverse fighter is honored in the sight of [God].  God becomes his strength.  Kings stand up in his presence; princes prostrate themselves.  He prospers, is exalted and lifted up, startles many nations; kings shut their mouths because of him.”[2]

Mohandas Gandhi was a reverse fighter.  The little man from India dressed only in a loincloth stood up to the great English Empire armed only with the weapons of peaceful demonstration, fasting and the conviction of the power of truth.  The result was indeed that Kings bowed low and Gandhi fathered a nation.  Martin Luther King was a reverse fighter.  The young preacher from Atlanta took on the powers of racism and white-supremacy armed only with the weapons of boycott, powerful oratory and an abiding faith in perfect love.

Jesus was a reverse fighter.  He didn’t choose the violent way of the Zealots.  He didn’t retreat to the desert to merely pray.  He didn’t strike a deal with the Roman powers to keep them out of his hair like the temple priests did.  Instead Jesus chose to be a reverse fighter.  He chose the way of perfect love.  He chose the way of the cross.  John Howard Yoder writes, “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who, being rich became poor, who gave his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.”[3]

By now I’m sure you’re saying, “But, Dan, what about me? I’m no Gandhi or King.  I’m surely no Jesus. What am I supposed to do?”  And you’d be justified in asking, I think.  But remember, Jesus did call us to be perfect.

So let me turn the question back to you.  What can you do, reverse fighters?  What can you do to oppose racism in our community?  What can you say or do the next time you hear racist comments about our Mexican neighbors?  What can our church do to oppose white supremacy and foster racial reconciliation?

What can you do to counter violence in our community?  How will you get involved to prevent bullying in our schools?  How can you help the victims of spousal abuse?  How can you help shelter our children from the idolization of violence in video games and TV?  What can we do to insist that our leaders seek non-violent solutions to international conflict?

What can you do to enact perfect love and stand with the poor and the oppressed?  How can we reach out to the jobless?  How can we welcome the poor into our churches and help them to feel a real part of our community?  How can we lend what little power we have to the truly powerless?

The answers to these questions are not easy.   But I’m sure that as I’ve asked these questions, you have thought about some things that you can do – some things that we can do.  Perhaps you thought of some small thing that you can do or perhaps you had a grand vision.  In either case, let me encourage you, reverse fighters, to be bold and courageous, because God has given you the only weapon you’ll need to fight the good fight, the weapon of perfect love.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” in A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. p. 8.

[2] Albert Curry Winn, Ain’t Gonna Study War No More:  Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War, p. 99.

[3] As quoted by Albert Curry Winn, Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, p. 145.


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Life and Death, Death and Life

“Life and Death, Death and Life”

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10

Daniel J. Ott

February 6, 2011 – Faith United Presbyterian Church


“Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall beyond all others, violent, splendid, a wild bull of a man,”[1] Gilgamesh, the great king of the ancient Mesopotamian city Uruk, was two-thirds divine and one-third human.  He was so fierce that he only among mortals dared to fight the terrible monster Humbaba who guarded the cedar forest.  He laid his axe into Humbaba’s neck and then proceeded to cut down every tree in the forest just to punctuate his victory.  Gilgamesh was so wise and confident that he withstood the advances of Ishtar, the goddess of love.  And when enraged at being rebuffed, Ishtar called down the Bull of Heaven, of course Gilgamesh took it by the horns and ripped out its heart.

But when his dear friend and comrade in arms, Enkidu, grew deathly ill, Gilgamesh was finally halted.  He tried to plead with the gods.  He went into denial.  He even abandoned his friend on his deathbed.  He returned only in time to hear the death rattle, at which he cried out, “Beloved wait, don’t leave me.  Dearest of men, don’t die…”[2] And his weeping and wailing continued for many days, until in his agony he blurted out the true reason for his protestation,   “Must I die too?  Must I be lifeless as Enkidu?”[3]

With this started Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality.  He raced the sun to the other side of the world to consult the only man who had beaten death.  He dove deep into the sea to find the secret of eternal youth.  But in the end the secret eluded him like a snake in the grass as he learned that too soon we all drop our guard, fall a sleep and death comes to take her toll.

Perhaps we’re all on a quest like Gilgamesh’s.  Death is a great and terrible force in our lives and we have to find some way to cope.  Ernest Becker the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, the Denial of Death, argues that perhaps this denial of death is not all bad.  It may be a key drive to our creativity.  All of us, like Gilgamesh, are slaying monsters, building cities, struggling with gods in order to find immortality.  We take on projects and become the heroes of our own stories so that we might forget for a while that we are only dust in the wind.   We can’t sit around contemplating death all day, we have to get on with our lives.  If we dwell on death too much, we will become depressed and inert.

But I worry that we Christians are more likely to make our mistake swinging in the other direction.  We are more likely to gloss over death and we are sometimes a little too close to dissociating ourselves from the reality of death.  We’re too quick to tell a friend that her loved one has gone to a better place.  We’re often hesitant even to utter the word death and we replace it with euphemisms like “she passed away” or the much more churchy “he entered the church triumphant.”  Our funerals are sometimes a little too cheery and our visions of the after-life a little too dreamy.  Our hope of resurrection becomes a glossing over of death as we forget or avoid the fact that death is a harsh and final reality that we all must face.

It’s for this reason that I think its important that we remember to turn our ears to the preacher of Ecclesiastes who reminds us that the same fate awaits all.  The righteous will die and the wicked will die.  The evil will die and the good will die.  The religious will die and the irreligious will die.  The not-so-holy and the holy both die.  The wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, the uneducated and the educated, the rich and the poor; we all go down to the place of the dead where all riches and wisdom and righteousness pass away.  “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.”

Now probably if I were to pause here and poll you for a response, the response would be a resounding, “Ugghh!”  But hang in there, there’s hope.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes is ready to shine a little light, “But whosever is joined with the living has hope,” he proclaims, “for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”  Well… I said there was hope, I didn’t say that there was a lot of hope.   But there is great wisdom here.

Many monks and nuns make it a part of their daily prayer practices to contemplate Jesus on the cross.  They meditate on the death of Jesus and by extension they meditate on their own deaths.  This is done so that they can remember just how precious a gift life is.  Contemplating death inspires them to be joined with the living.

Perhaps you’ve known somebody who became more alive when she learned that she was going to die soon.  I was sad to learn that singer /songwriter David Bailey died this last October.  David was diagnosed with cancer about fifteen years ago.  Shortly after being diagnosed, he left his corporate job and went back to his first love, music.  Perhaps you’ve heard his music or seen him perform.  Living in the shadow of death seemed to make David more alive than most.  He wrote songs about life and death and hope and being thankful for every day that we are joined with the living.  We need to hear that a living dog is better than a dead lion so that we remember to cherish being joined with the living.

A few years back, Teri and I attended an Ash Wednesday service.  It was a fairly traditional service in which the imposition of ashes was performed.  Traditionally, each person goes to the front of the sanctuary to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on his or her forehead.  Traditionally, the pastor repeats to each person the stark words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  At this service, though, there were two pastors imposing the ashes.  And we noticed that they were doing it quite differently.  The one pastor was doing it the traditional way.  The other pastor was spending a little more time with each person that came forward.  When we got close enough to hear, we discovered that the other pastor was giving a kind of personalized blessing to each that came forward.  She was calling them by name and enumerating their gifts, reminding them that they are special children of God.  Now to be sure, all of us need a special blessing now and again, but Teri and I left with the same thought, that the ones who received the traditional “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” might have been just as blessed, if not more.  For it is in confronting our death that we learn what a blessing it is to be joined with the living.

It is in being joined with the living that we find hope.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes implores us to cherish life.  And now we’ve come to my favorite part of the passage, because how often does a preacher get to stand in the pulpit and tell you to enjoy a good meal?  Have that second glass of wine – loosen up, enjoy!  Buy a nice outfit now and again.  Take a long bath – relax!  Enjoy your wife or your husband!  Have some romance!  Have a little more than romance!  Sure – go ahead and work hard, but remember to have a little playtime too.  When’s the last time you heard that from a preacher!

In Gilgamesh’s story, it’s not the preacher but the tavern keeper to the gods that gives him essentially the same message:  “Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?  You will never find what you seek.  Humans are born, they live, then they die, this is the order that the gods have decreed.  But until the end comes, enjoy life, spend it in happiness, not despair.  Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.  That is the best way for a person to live.”[4]

The tavern keeper and the preacher alike tell us to enjoy and cherish life.  But lest you think this is a call to gluttony and hedonism, notice what things we are told to enjoy.  These are everyday graces:  food and wine and companionship and music.  Not even the tavern keeper tells us to order surf and turf every night, or to buy a home we can’t afford, or to indulge in endless sensual delights.  That would be the way of despair not the way of happiness.  It is the one who finds no meaning or beauty or hope in life that becomes a sot and a sloth.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes is not calling us to despair.  He’s calling us to live.  But he does seem to leave us with one last ‘gotcha.’  In verse nine he says, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your VAIN life.”  Then again in verse ten he tells us to work hard, but remember “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (the place of the dead), to which you are going.”  So which is it? Is life vain or is it something beautiful to be enjoyed?  The key to understanding the preacher’s message might be in the translation of the Hebrew word hevel. Bible scholar Ellen Davis suggests that perhaps it would be better to translate hevel as “fleeting” rather than “vain.”  Throughout Ecclesiastes, the preacher reminds us that life is short.  The preacher wants us to understand, on the one hand, that we should be humble for we are dust in the wind.  We are like the grass that withers.  Life is brief and therefore we should keep our little lives in their proper perspective.  But on the other hand the preacher implores us to make the most of life.  Life is fleeting, therefore make it as beautiful as you can, because this brief life is all you got.

“Chaim Potok tells the story of a young Jewish boy, Ahser Lev.  One day on a walk with his father, he encountered a bird lying on its side by the curb near their home.

“Is it dead, Papa?”  I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes,” I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die.”



“You too Papa?  And Mama?”


“And me?”

“Yes,” he said.  Then he added in Yiddish, “But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher.”

I could not grasp it.  I forced myself to look at the bird.  Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s the way the Master of the Universe made the world, Asher.”


“So life would be precious, Asher.  Something that is yours forever is never precious.”[5]


[1] Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Edition, p. 71.

[2] Ibid., p. 150.

[3] Ibid., p. 159.

[4] Gilgamesh, p. 168-169.

[5] As quoted by Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, p. 213.


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