Ep.306: Trudging Through Ecclesiastes.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In our last episode, we looked at Ecclesiastes’ shock jock style of presentation. We heard the author complain about the elusive, vapor-like quality of life. But then he showed us the other side of his personality. Not the shock jock, but the quiet, reasonable teacher who makes constructive suggestions about how to live. 

The book of Ecclesiastes often stumps those who look for a single, consistent theme. That’s because if you listen when the author is shouting, if you focus on his tirades about life’s brevity, if you are shocked by his comparison that humans die and turn to dust like animals, you might miss what else he says. 

True, life is a one way trip to the grave. Nothing new there. And you know that luck and circumstances often trump wisdom. But when the author stops shouting, he presents a reasonable question: What might make life meaningful? Not stuff we can’t control like health, wealth, success, or a memorable legacy. Rather, meaning is found in a warm and loving home life, in the simple enjoyment of good people, good food, good wine, and God’s good creation. 

This positive theme is easy to underemphasize, or even miss entirely, because the book reads like a boy scout hike in the mountains. They trudge for 55 minutes, looking down at the rocky path, complaining about the heavy pack, aching muscles, dry throat, and tired feet. Then they take a 5-minute break for a drink and a snack. They see the awesome view behind them and the glorious mountains ahead. What’s not to enjoy?  

That’s how Ecclesiates is written. A long stretch plodding through pessimism and despair, then a quick break for hope and light, then back to the trudging.   

Let’s follow this pattern in chapters 1 and 2. The unhappy philosopher trudging on his rocky path opens Ecclesiastes with the complaint: “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless” (1:2), or as I prefer to translate it, “Vapor, smoke, and mirrors. All of life is vapor, smoke, and mirrors.” 

The trudging author recounts his search for something new. But there is nothing new to find. Been there, done that! He’s seen it all before. He thought wisdom would bring satisfaction, but it brought grief. He tried wine and folly, but no satisfaction there. He tried building a legacy of houses and gardens, but he realized a fool might get them and let his legacy rot.  

So he turns up the volume on his complaint lamenting, “I hated life, because the work done under the sun is grievous to me. It’s all futile, chasing after the wind” (Eccl 2:17). 

And then he takes a break. He looks around and catches the view. Completely changing his tone, he says, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work” (2:24), and he says, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness” (2:26). 

Don’t get hung up on the author saying he hated life. Yes, life passes like a vapor. Our work disappears in smoke and death. It’s an illusion that we can outrun the decay and win the race of life. That message is loud, and humbling, and realistic. 

But the author tells us what to do about it. Focus on the simple pleasures God gives, not on the emptiness of life, he says. Food and wine, family and friends are sources of enjoyment, antidotes to existential dread, a cure for world weariness and despair. Don’t spend your time resenting the futility of life or trying to overcome it; instead, be present in the moment, enjoy what God has given you. Let go of your need to control. 

Let’s pray. 

O father, we live in fear as war destroys cities, as natural and man-made disasters wreak havoc on creation, as our bodies age and our possessions decay and the world we know passes away in smoke and vapor. 

With the author of Ecclesiastes, we leave these big problems to you. We refresh ourselves with food instead of worry, with wine instead of angst, with pleasant conversation instead of fear, with trust instead of world-weariness. 

O you who created it all. Teach us in our fleeting lives to enjoy our time in these bodies of clay, to rejoice in our circle of friends and family, to love this planet that spins in your universe. And when our journey ends, may we find the forever home you promised. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.305: Biblical Shock Jock.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Have you ever listened to a shock jock? A disc jockey with outlandish opinions, offensive commentary, and melodramatic exaggerations? I think the author of Ecclesiastes may be part shock jock. 

Life is random, he yelps. Meaning is elusive, boys and girls! All ya get outta life is to die! 

Perhaps, like me, this author got tired of being told that everything works out for good. Maybe he felt his readers had fallen into mindless optimism. Perhaps he just enjoyed being contrarian. 

Whatever the motive, Ecclesiastes emphasizes a tired-of-life philosophy: negative and pessimistic. Seen it all before, he says. Nothing new under the sun. 

But the author states another point of view. One that doesn’t jump off the page and slap or shock us. A quieter message, more positive and hopeful. He introduces it with the phrase, “There is nothing better for a person than to do this. . .“, and then he tells us what to do. 

If you are studying Ecclesiastes to find the author’s single consistent message you will probably pick those shocking negatives. But not so fast. Don’t miss the affirming positives like this: Eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun” (9:7-9).  

When my brother was dying of cancer, and his days were fleeting, he and his wife celebrated the small joys of life and they used their best china every day. 

That’s the spirit Ecclesiastes encourages. Don’t waste time and energy moaning about life’s unfairness, the lack of progress, or an inability to leave a legacy. The author says, Life is fleeting, but it can be good.  Enjoy your work. Dress up occasionally. Celebrate with food and wine. Enjoy your family and friends. Use your best china now and then. 

Get a life!

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we envy those who are happier, healthier, wiser, and more successful. We resent the shortness of life, the difficulty of getting ahead, the confusion trying to understand what to do. 

Thank you for Ecclesiastes’ advice. For its warning that disappointment follows those who work too hard, study too diligently, and plan too incessantly. 

Thank you for the encouragement to be quietly present to the good gifts life gives. To joyful relationships with imperfect people. To work that gives simple contentment. To food and wine that offer brief but satisfying pleasure.

O father, our life is fleeting, its meaning is elusive. Help us in our years under the sun to live wisely and to enjoy the gifts you give.   

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.304: Evil and Madness.

Ep.303: Evil and Madness.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Last week we looked at Ecclesiastes’ comment about randomness. “Not to the swift is the race, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl 9:11). Indeed. Sometimes luck trumps speed and strength, sometimes evil overcomes good, sometimes our best plans fail. 

But it’s not only time and chance that make life random. One outcome is certain: We all die. However many breaths we breathe, however much stuff we collect, life will soon end and we will lose everything. 

Remember that bumper sticker? “The one with the most toys when he dies wins.” Perhaps. But what, exactly, has he won?   

Ecclesiastes says,
  The fool and I share the same fate.
        Neither will be long remembered;
        Both will be forgotten.
  Like the fool, the wise die too. (Eccl 2:15-16) 

And all we’ve worked for, all we’ve won, all we’ve collected, all we’ve built–we leave it all behind (Eccl 2:17-21). After my father died, we cashed in his little coin collection and used his stamp collection to mail letters. My small library means a lot to me, but will my family care? Value Village, here we come. 

The famous poem from Ecclesiastes says:
  There is a time for everything
      and a season for each activity:
      a time to be born and a time to die (Eccl. 3:1). 

But later, the author expresses regret at the leveling effect of death: “Surely the fate of human beings is like the fate of animals. Humans have no advantage. All come from dust, to dust all return.” (Eccl 3:20). 

We  die, we are buried, the worms eat us. A dog dies, it is buried, the worms eat it. Who wins? Man or dog?

Hardly an optimistic philosophy, you say? No, but realistic. As Ecclesiastes summarizes, “People are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterwards they join the dead” (Eccl 9:3). 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, Ecclesiastes relentlessly describes the problem of life: Evil and madness reign, then we die. And where are you in this troubled story? Do you supervise time and chance and death? Are they your servants

Teach us to value life, though it is temporary and random. Teach us to live rightly, not madly. Teach us to think soberly about death. As we journey briefly in this world, as our bodies decay, as we submit to time and chance–teach us to hope in your promises. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.303: Time and Chance Happen to Them All.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Last week, we looked at Ecclesiastes and the meaning of chess. To humans, chess is a game. To a computer, it’s just another program. The author of Ecclesiastes programmed himself for maximum wisdom, pleasure, and wealth. But nothing satisfied. 

Part of his disappointment was discovering that time disintegrates what we build and the randomness of life sucks the joy out of success. 

The author says, “I hated all the things I toiled for under the sun, because I have to leave them to someone. Who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet, they will control the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill.” 

Picture the writer building his legacy: houses and land, lucrative investments, a book on his habits of success. But how long will his legacy last? What if some fool takes over his business, and runs it into the ground? His book may be briefly popular, but it will soon go into the bargain bin, followed shortly by the blue recycling bag. 

The author feels pain at life’s randomness, the chances he can’t control, the unexpected events that make or break his plans. Ecclesiastes says:
    The race is not to the swift
      nor the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise
      or wealth to the brilliant
      or favor to the learned;
    but time and chance happen to them all (Eccl 9:11).

Yes! There’s the element of dumb luck that contributes to everyone’s outcomes.

The author also says,
  Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
      As fish are caught in a cruel net,
            or birds are taken in a snare,
      so people are trapped by evil times
            that fall unexpectedly upon them (Eccl 9:12).

People sit long hours at gambling tables, hoping time and chance will favor them. But it’s not only gamblers who roll the dice. Life itself is a gamble. 

Our best laid plans run amuck. Amazon and Netflix stock surged in two years of pandemic, and now they are falling down. Under Bush, the  Taliban were evicted from Afghanistan; now they’re back under Biden. A friend’s parents planned a lovely retirement–but one of them got Alzheimers. 

Time and chance happen to all of us. There are no hot tips in life’s horse race, no sure-fire medicines, no safe harbors for my finances. 

What to do? Should I factor luck and the clock into my life plan? Or is there a better way of going about living? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we hoped you would control the randomness of the world for us, that you would stop the tsunamis and protect your people from war and make us free to serve you. But time and chance happen to us all. 

Teach us to be patient with ourselves, with others, with the world around us. Help us lose our overwhelming need to control. Help us go with the flow in good times and evil. 

Teach us how to live in this world you have given us. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.302: Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Chess.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today we continue our series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Last week, I questioned the New International Version’s translation which says, “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless.” 

Today, let’s think about meaning by asking, What’s the meaning of chess? 

It was a big deal in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue chess program beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion. It was a major victory for artificial intelligence, and a huge win for IBM’s technical skills. But many chess players resented IBM’s arrogant intrusion into their favorite game because chess is a human game. The goal isn’t just to capture the opposing army. If all I want is to sacrifice pawns and kill the king, I can pitch my opponent’s pieces in the fire. 

Chess is a game, a microcosm of human civilization and war. It evokes the emotions of a thousand years of knights and castles, of medieval bishops, queens, and kings. Chess asks me, “Am I a pawn in this game of life? Will the church and politicians and army sacrifice me for their bigger aims?” 

Chess is recreation, a mental challenge, a battle of wits, an opportunity to develop skill. It is also a spectator sport. 

Computers that play chess don’t understand that. They have no memories of love and war, of victory and defeat. They just process information and execute a programmed strategy. 

Computer chess reminds me of a satellite navigation unit I had. Whenever I made a wrong turn the unit said with an annoyed tone, “Recalculating, recalculating.” I was on a journey, but my GPS wasn’t enjoying the trip. All it cared about was the math. 

So what does this have to do with Ecclesiastes and meaninglessness? 

The author of Ecclesiastes applied his “mathematical” mind, his computer mind, to the search for meaning. 

He tried gaining wisdom. But he discovered that “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge increases pain” (1:17-18). 

He tried maximum pleasure: wine, music, dancing, women. But he found no lasting satisfaction, no meaning there (2:1-9). 

He became obscenely wealthy and he used his money to build houses and vineyards and gardens and parks (2:4-7). But his life continued to fail the test of meaning.  

The problem was that the author played life like a computer program plays chess, like my GPS goes on a journey. He defined the goal played to win, but when he did, he didn’t know what the game meant. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are players in this game of life. How often we have computed that better health, more money, better social connections, or more wisdom would give us a richer, fuller life. And maybe, just maybe, answer our nagging questions about meaning. 

But now we confess with the author of Ecclesiastes that a meaningful life is not gained by strategy and design. As the author discovered, all our accomplishments and all our experiences can leave us empty and dissatisfied.

Teach us then the true source of meaning. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube