The Beauty of an Ordinary Life1
I've been leading the College & Career group through a study of the book of Ecclesiastes the last few weeks. Even though I'm a pastor, I'm almost embarassed to admit it's the first time I've really dug into the book of Ecclesiastes. Sure, I've read through it a few times before but never gave it any real attention (aside from a lecture or two during seminary).
I doubt I'm alone in this, though. I'm willing to bet that most Christians think like me: Ecclesiastes is a short book with a long (and hard-to-say) name deep in the Old Testament...how useful could it be? So we sort of shuffle around it or perhaps only read certain passages (like Eccl 3:2-8).
I've come to the conclusion that that's a shame.
True, the book can be confusing and at times seems to contradict itself (like Eccl 1:16 and 1:18; 2:12-13 and 2:15; 2:20 and 2:24; 2:21 and 2:26; 3:9 and 3:13) almost as if the author suffered from mood swings. Some of the things he writes would probably be considered heresy today if spoken from a pulpit (like Eccl 1:13). The book seems too philosophical, too deep to be of any practical use to Christians (for example, Eccl 1:18). On top of that, the content is (to be quite honest) depressing. Unlike K-LOVE, Ecclesiastes isn't known for being "positive and encouraging" (just read Eccl 1:2). In fact, at times the author seems like a nihilist.
I would in a sense agree; Ecclesiastes was written for the cynic, the skeptic, the person at his wit's end who is confounded and confused by the wreckage of life. Yet the author himself isn't any of those. He's more like a grandfather sitting with you on the front porch. As he sways back and forth in his rocking chair, he speaks from the heart about his experiences and tells you what's gotten him through it all.
The "secret" to the author's experience is two-fold. First, he's discovered that life is full of vanity. It's brief, fleeting, unjust, shattered by sin, and ultimately ends in death. He's proven it, using himself as a test case to see if there's anything at all that can give true happiness and purpose in life (Eccl 2:1). His results are conclusive: nothing under the sun can provide you with ultimate meaning. Eventually you'll die and be forgotten. It's the same idea which Shakespeare immortalized in Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But secondly, even though life is full of vanity, life is still good; everything is beautiful in its time (Eccl 3:11). It seems like a contradiction! But really the author is making a qualification. Sin has made life empty, meaningless, absurd even (see Rom 8:20). If you're trying to get ultimate meaning or happiness from this life, it's going to let you down. Eventually all your dreams and schemes are going to end in dusty death (Eccl 3:20). This is our lot under the sun (Eccl 3:22).
That seems depressing, but the author has a point. By recognizing this truth, we're actually freed from our frantic search for something we'll never find in this broken world. Ultimate meaning can only be found outside this life (Eccl 3:11). But that begs the question: What then are we supposed to do with our short, sin-scourged lives? How are we to live in this fallen world? (Can you get any more practical than that?)
Even though our lives are riddled with the effects of sin, everything we do is beautiful in its time (Eccl 3:11), and there's a time for everything (Eccl 3:1-8). This means that everything, especially the everyday activities of life, are gifts from God that we should rejoice in (Eccl 3:12-13), not discard (by committing suicide) or discount (by considering them unimportant). They're not eternal (they'll fade and be forgotten) but that's all right—they're good. They can't give ultimate happiness, but that's all right—they can give us an "ordinary" happiness if we appreciate them for what they are.
Leaning against our living room wall is a large faded wooden door from a Spanish mission near LA. The face of the door is hand-carved with dozens of intricate little wooden flowers all across it. When I look at that door and think of the time and effort that someone put into it—the hammering and etching and sanding, the splinters and sweat—I'm amazed. Why would that person work so hard to make something so beautiful, yet so impermanent, so unappreciated (it was removed and left to the elements)—for something so affected by vanity?
That's the question Ecclesiastes is answering. God is giving us permission to be human. He's given us skills and abilities that we should use for his glory; they're his good gifts that we should appreciate and take pleasure in. It's good and right to work hard to produce something beautiful but temporary. It's just the way life is in a world subjected to futility.
Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't live with hope for the future. Christ has changed everything. We know that this world is not our home; our dust-to-dust existence is a shadow of what we will one day be (1 Cor 15:47-49). But we still have daily life to live here and now. It's not wrong to be ordinary and do ordinary things, to die and be forgotten.
That means that while we are here in this broken world, we don't need to achieve greatness or be remembered for who we were. Far more important is how we live in the present. Are you at this moment using your ordinary skills in your ordinary activities to glorify God through an ordinary life?
"I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man." (Eccl 3:12-13)
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Gail Jansen Aug 21, 2014 @ 8:27 pm
I read Ecclesiastes this year as I am reading through the Bible in a year chronologically. Eugene Peterson says that the author's task "...is to expose our total incapacity to find the meaning and completion of our lives on our own". The way to meaning is to fear God and do what He commands. We know that thru Christ's atonement and the power of the Holy Spirit we are given grace to experience true meaning in life.