The days recently have been fuller than they ought to be. Obligations, activities, teachings, preparations, all good things in themselves, have been stacked, like smooth bricks, so tightly that you can’t fit a piece of paper between them. When this happens life becomes reactionary. When this happens margins disappear and life begins to feel like a video game, where stuff is just coming at me and I’m reacting.
The worst part of this is the toll it takes on the end of the day. When I come home from such fulness I feel too tired to do anything meaningful, with the result that in recent weeks I’d sometimes just sit down and turn on the TV. Because of the time I come home, it’s been the news – not weird stuff on the left or right, but Brian Williams, with some tiny headlines about Syria, or snow falling somewhere in the US, or Congress’s impotence, or another shooting. The ads tell me that young people don’t watch network news – at all. I’m told what to do for arthritic pain, erectile dysfunction, and high cholesterol. I smile, wondering how long taking vitamin D, acidophiles, and fish oil will continue to be enough for me to enjoy good health and an active lifestyle. Later, I’ll watch the Colbert Report and laugh at American culture and politics, served up mockingly as ‘news’ by this master entertainer.
Over time though, something was happening inside me that I didn’t like, and last week I reached a crisis. After another series of days filled with teaching, study, e-mails, prep, meetings, planning, and more, I came home and instead of turning on the TV, I lit a candle and opened Ecclesiastes.
I ponder the realities expressed so poignantly by the preacher, about how short life is, and how unjust, and how beautiful. He reminds me that there’s nothing new under the sun, that the oppression, and violence, and greed, and fear, and even the environmental degradation that are all paraded in front of our eyes every night on the news have been happening since the beginning. The names are changed, but who cares, because everyone’s going to die anyway, and when it’s over, nobody will remember either the robbers or the heroes. The earth goes round and round. People are born and die. Oppression, love, laughter, war, peace, hunger, feasting, sadness, joy – it’s all happening, all around us, all the time. It reminds me of this marvelous film, which reminds me that the world is gigantic and that every second there are joys and sorrows, joys and sorrows, flowering everywhere on earth.
What’s so astonishing about Ecclesiastes is that the author advocates that his readers respond to the realities of folly, injustice and suffering that are everywhere around us by….by…it’s hard to explain to Christians, intent as we are on changing the entire world. Here’s the advice that’s hard for modern Christ followers to receive:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil which which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God. – Ecc. 5:18-19
O, and there’s a bit more, very similar:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the women you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Ecc. 9:7-9
I’d summarize this guy’s advice this way: “Live a healthy joy filled life, because the best thing you can offer this broken, beautiful, weary world, isn’t a life of fervency that boarders on burnout, or a life of ambitious efforts to save the world, where your zeal leads only to the despair of ‘more to do’. The first and best thing you can offer this world is a life well lived. Start there.”
And, as has happened a few other times in my life when I read Ecclesiastes as a means of pushing the reset button on my soul, I said to myself, “Thank you… I think I will start there.”
That’s why I’ve basically (though not absolutely literally) stopped watching the news, and will continue my TV news fast through Lent. Don’t worry. I’ll still read news. I’ll still hear about Syria, gun-control, the new pope. But TV news, I’ve discovered, is especially depressing and dis-empowering, at least for me. The visuals, the editorials, the hand wringing, all tell me that I can’t do anything about any of what I’m watching.
What can I do at the end of a full day? I can converse with my wife, cook healthy life giving food, eat it with gratitude, enjoy a glass of wine and good book, listen to some creative music, write, go for walks, watch a good movie, call my daughter in Germany, invite my son and his wife over for a meal, exercise, write an encouraging word to someone, meditate on scripture, stretch, dream about the future, pray, sit under the redwood tree, watch a TED talk, play music, close my eyes and smell the earth, the plants, the trees.
All these things are life giving. The message of Ecclesiastes, in part at least, is that whether I watch the news or not, Syria’s still going to happen, and Sequestration too, and probably a lot of other S*** as well. The world is thus, and the more time and energy I spend worrying about things I can’t control, the less energy I have to actually live as a blessing right here, right now, in the midst of all that is my actual life.
It’s the preacher’s belief that this mindset and perspective, far from leading to disengagement, so fills us with life that find ourselves overflowing with the capacity to bless others. That’s why he also writes:
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth”.
I interpret this as “Live generously. You’re blessed? Actively bless others…maybe even seven or eight.”
This, of course, is going on all the time. This very day, there are people volunteering their time in scouts, Young Life, ski clubs, AA, support groups, community meals, homeless shelters. There are people gathering to eat good food and tell stories, laugh and cry together. There are people making music, and making movies, and teaching children. My suspicion, though I’ll never know this for fact, is that most of the people doing creative, awesome, life-imparting stuff, aren’t also sitting on their butts watching TV news at the end of the day, getting depressed about drone strikes and national debt. Instead, they’re casting their strength and life giving resources (their bread) on the waters of their real world, just because it’s better to give than hide your stuff under your pillow in a news induced paralyzing fear.
I like that kind of joyful generosity and creativity. I’ve known that before, and its awakening in me again. It started when I turned off the news and read Ecclesiastes.