Treasures in Being and Doing

August 4, 2019

Cate Thorn

Ordinary Sunday 18     Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23     Luke 12:13-21

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Vanity of vanities and all is vanity! The Qoheleth, the teacher in Ecclesiastes declares. An elusive character, a teacher, perhaps more accurately one who summons and speaks to a gathering. The teacher, the Qoheleth’s assertion to be a Davidic king who ruled over Israel in Jerusalem is to intimate he’s Solomon. Sufficient scholarly doubt over this suggests this is most likely a ruse for credibility rather than a reality. “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” is his catch cry. “This too is vanity” is threaded through today’s reading. Vanity but perhaps not quite as we understand the word today. The “literal sense … is probably ‘breath of wind’ but it’s more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness or deceptiveness. A comparable phrase in Hosea suggests ‘pursuing the wind’ it’s probably used to evoke the sense of the frustration inherent in attempts to achieve the impossible.”

 

Seeking meaning, understanding, reason and rationale for the life and experience of the human journey of life, is it a chasing after the wind? For whether you’re rich or poor, good or evil, blessed or cursed the sun shines, the rain falls on each the same. We each come to life and we each die, of this we are certain “the same fate befalls each of them.” And much of life is toil. Life is hard, not relentlessly or mercilessly so, for there are times of joy, gladness and celebration. Yet for the large part life is experienced as plain plodding persistence.

 

So we look back upon the trail of our life and seek to discern a pattern to it. To gain sense that we, through life, have gained, grown, accumulated some measure of, what shall we say – wisdom? Some sense we've had purpose, that there's meaning to the sum of it, to the sum of us. We attribute qualities to our achievements, to where we have come, from where we began, as does the teacher of Ecclesiastes. That all our toil has merit because it’s been done with wisdom, knowledge and skill. For longevity, that all our effort, revealed in what we've produced, created, generated, is rewarded when those it passes to also live this way so honour the value and effort of our sincere, hard wrought labour. We desire for the sum of our time of striving, of our life to count for something, somehow. To have our value affirmed, known, revealed in the sum of our parts, in what we've acquired through our striving labour, through living righteously and honourably.

 

And yet, uneasily, we also know that when we die all we've gained, amassed, will pass from us to those who did not earn it. And we’ve no control, no way of knowing or determining the character of those who’ll gain from our toil. We also know, uncomfortably, that there are those who live amassing, gaining little or nothing. Who live perhaps dissolute and dishonourable lives under the same sky as us, the same sun and the same rain. They too have lived and will die and the memory of them will, like ours, pass.

 

Vanity of vanity and chasing the wind, how are we to live with this being so, how are we to live?

 

Such echo of this resounds in today's gospel. We might be accustomed to hearing this parable as a remonstration against wealth, against the amassing of resources beyond our need. And this may well be a part of the deal. Yet the focus seems to me to be more upon the rich man’s self-understanding. About the choices he makes based on his understanding of what secures him, what tells him who he is, what bestows upon him value and worth. The way the story is told this rich man understands he and his life are described, valued, known and successfully secured by the sum of his wealth. So yes, for sure, excessive wealth is part of the picture – somewhat incidental, yet curiously telling.

 

Wealth is a potent measure of success in our society, as doubtless it was in the time of Ecclesiastes. Wealth’s a measurable thing. In its varied forms it’s a resource for trading with in life so we could see it simply as a convenience, a necessity. However it’s also become a primary means by which we measure ourselves, by which we compare ourselves one to another.

 

But let me ask you, does such wealth, the means of trade with which you’ve negotiated and amassed resources for your life, does it tell you who you are in the essence of yourself? I’m not meaning by this what you can do, how clever, intelligent, useful you are and how this is recognised through financial reward. Rather does your wealth remind, redirect you to consider the wondrous uniqueness of you, your created “beingness”? Does it cause you to pause and notice this moment? Consider the immense unlikely improbability of this creation that is, upon which you are delicately and utterly dependent? And that none of it’s your doing?

 

Has our ‘most of the time toiling in life’ for wealth and our ‘all is vanity seeking for this toil to have purpose and meaning’ come to cause us to think of ourselves as the sum of a number of parts? Perhaps with careful attention we’ve pieced together, determined and created an intentioned life for ourselves. Put together the component parts of what we discern and determine is a good life and one that fits us. And we’ve stitched these parts together to be a whole.

 

It’s not that this is wrong but I wonder – in doing so has this stepped us away from remembering we each are a uniquely created whole? Holy, naturally fitted to take our place as participants in the life of the world. Each inherently inclined to creative, life bringing activity for the flourishing of life. Each desired and loved into being to take our place, to live, intimate companions of the divine, and to act in accord with this.

 

Thinking of this reminded me of a piece I read recently, from real life.

“A young Peace Corp. volunteer entered a small village to teach biology to the native children in Tanzania. After dissecting a frog one day and describing all the muscles and organs to the class so that they could “understand” a frog, he was confronted by a local elder who offered his way to understand the working of frog.

 

He set loose a second frog destined for dissection and crouched down in a frog-like position and began to move his head and body in synchronicity with the frog. The native elder paused and looked around as the frog paused, and hopped as the frog hopped. The elder increasingly joined into the experience of “frog” with the frog until the frog finally hopped off into the bush.

 

After many minutes had passed in the becoming one with the frog, the elder described what he had felt happening in his body and “mind” as if he “were” a frog. He reflected to the young volunteer that the young man understood the components of the frog – its muscles and organs – while the elder understood the working of the frog – its froggy moves and idiosyncrasies as a unique frog in its species surveyed in a given environment. He also added that in the native way of knowing about “frog” the frog lived to produce more frogs. Neither way is a more “right way” to know; each leads to different knowings.

 

In the “dissection” model the view of the world is more static and fixed in time. The world that is sorted into components and parts tends to be interpreted in isolation from other elements. [This] model allows us to gain knowledge about the function of elements of something. The “being” model sees the world as moving and changing. The world is more related and interactive.” [1]

 

Neither way is a more right way to know but each leads to different knowings. Having said that, from a frog point of view, one way definitely is more right, one way diminishes and destroys life, the other frees and enables life to flourish.

 

As we toil in life, we construct, stitch together meaningful lives. We identify, develop and grow our capacities, discern creative opportunities to contribute, to align with others. Depending on the context into which we’re born and perhaps a fair dose of providence along the way we may have chance to amass wealth. We’re tempted, in fact encouraged to keep this wealth for ourselves. Easily and soon it can become a measure of our worth, if we do not also hold the native elder’s way of knowing. A way that invites us to step free from these things, see them for what they are - that they’re not us and may well be binding us. A faith, religious perspective such as this, invites us to remember who we are. To learn to trust we can release our bindings, to pause and notice, pay attention, become one with God. Grow to understand the divine workings of God in the world, each of us, idiosyncratically, as unique individuals in our given environment. We can choose to be rich towards God, generous, openhanded, giving of our abundance, honouring so releasing the abundance of others, not just store up treasures for ourselves.

 

 

[1] Sanford, Carol Science Into Technique: a Systems Research and Development Process for Organizational Science InterOctave, 1991, 6, 7.

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