Vanity, The Old Old Story, and the Good Life

If you drive south out of Anchorage, you find yourself on the Seward Highway, a thin Alaska. Turnagain Arm near Anchorage at low tide, Chugach Mts in distance.ribbon of asphalt suspended between the steep rise of the Chugach range on your left and the silted mudflats of the Turnagain Arm on your right. In the summer, the dusting of snow at the tippy tops of those mountains doesn’t reach sea level, and so you have green things growing all along the road. The fuchsia of the fireweed and the purple of the lupins bend in the wake of the steady stream of traffic creeping along the highway. Drivers keep one eye on the cliffs above, watching for mountain goats and Dahl sheep, and one eye on the waters below, watching for beluga whales and salmon and the hoards of bald eagles that hunt them. Which leaves no eyes to watch the road and the moose that inevitably wander in front of the car that wasn’t paying attention.

At the end of the Turnagain Arm, the highway curves to the right and heads up Turnagain Pass, and down onto the Kenai Peninsula, toward Homer and Seward. But if you choose to, you can turn off the highway and keep going straight up the valley toward the Portage Glacier. Or what remains of it. A hundred years ago, the Portage Glacier filled the end of the valley all the way up to where the current visitor’s center sits. Now, in its place, there is a lake, and the glacier is not visible from the parking lot. It has receded dozens of yards Aerial view of Portage Valley and the Seward Highway, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.just in the 20 years since I first visited. But this makes the Portage Valley a remarkable place to visit. As you drive in, toward the glacier, you go back in time. At the mouth of the valley, you find huge trees, plenty of vegetation, enough topsoil to plant a garden, and campsites that you can count on. Just a mile in the scenery begins to change. The trees get smaller and smaller, until eventually only small scrubby shrubs have any purchase in the rocky ground. Then they disappear altogether, and only grasses and small plants can get their roots into the rocks that have been stripped bare by the ice of the glacier. As you get closer to the glacier you find only rocks with lichens clinging to them, working to break down the rock into soil so that future generations of plantlike can gain purchase on the steep walls of the valley. As you move into the valley, campsites become less reliable, as creek beds are still finding their way into existence, and groundwater runs wherever it can. What one day might be a dry comfortable level spot for a tent might the next day be the middle of a rushing stream of glacial runoff, diverted by some shift in the landscape or the overnight work of a family of beavers. By the time you have taken the boat ride to the face of the glacier, where the wind whips freezing blasts even in the heat of the midsummer sun, the rocks around you bear the unmistakably marks of the glacier that has scraped across them for millennia, gouging and grinding them, scouring them and rubbing them raw, reshaping the landscape with ice, forming lakes and valleys and piles of scree, sending silt down the rivers into the Turnagain Arm, where it builds into mudflats to suck at the feet of unsuspecting moose and the occasional tourist who ignores the signs.

Driving out of the Portage Valley, from the glacier to the ocean, is like being in the middle of a 3-dimensional time-lapse film, where you can see hundreds, maybe thousands of years of geological activity in the course of 14 miles. It is awe-inspiring and, at the same time, humbling, and at the same time, disheartening. It would be easy to walk away from the experience muttering the words of Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

We are told at the beginning of the book that these are again the words of King Solomon, as the Book of Proverbs claims also to be. But again, scholarship argues that this book was written long after Solomon’s time, and pulls together sayings and poems from a variety of sources, all under the Hebrew title Qohelet, which means the Teacher or the Preacher. Tradition holds that this is the writing of Solomon in his old age, disillusioned and jaded and tired of the world. Perhaps it is the collected wisdom of a group like this one, retired teachers and preachers and doctors and nurses and others who have seen much of the world and are getting tired of hearing the same old stories told in different lives but with the same themes: themes of fear, greed, power, loss; themes of brokenness and addiction and alienation; themes of violence and oppression and prejudice. Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity! Or a better translation, and maybe more in keeping with our mood, “fleeting and transitory! everything is ephemeral!” There is nothing new under the sun. Or as the Message Bible has it, “It’s business as usual for old planet earth.”

This is the main point that Qohelet makes, repeating this one word over and over again, hevel. Hevel! Hevel! Everything is hevel! What does a human lifetime amount to when compared with the vastness of God’s works? “4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” “3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” It all passes away, it all leads us to death. And maybe we work hard and hoard enough to pass on something to the next generation, maybe we manage to build a bigger barn and store it all up. Qohelet has lived long enough to see that, too. He has seen people pass on wealth to the next generation. And he has seen that generation squander it on more hevel, more fleeting things – fancy cars, parties, swamp land in Florida – it’s always the same. The sun comes up and the sun goes down, and people do stupid things in hopes of holding off the inevitable, but the inevitable comes, as it inevitably will, and Qohelet grows weary and jaded with the sheer inevitability of it all. There is nothing new under the sun. Standing in the Portage Valley, you realize the sheer vastness of God’s creation, and the tiny insignificance of a human lifespan in the midst of it, and it is easy to read Qohelet as a nihilist, and when he says, “eat, drink, and be merry,” we echo the sentiment, “sure, why not just live for the now.” YOLO, as the kids are saying, you only live once, so you might as well live for yourself. Nothing we do matters anyway.

Why would our forebears include a book like this in the midst of the Scriptures? A book that drags us down every further into a place of disillusionment and despair that I was getting to just fine on my own, thanks, without the Bible’s help? The daily news was enough to get me there without Qohelet to urge me ever deeper into nihilistic skepticism. I am already growing numb to the constant onslaught of death and destruction and the same old story that the media dishes out in a 24-hour unceasing stream of pollution and poison and depravity.

Why put this in the canon of Scripture? I think it is to remind us that we are not the first to have felt this way, and we will not be the last. Our stories are, in fact, caught up in a long tradition of those who stand in the floor of the valley and wonder what it is all about, and whether it is all worth it. And even in his jaded disillusionment, Qohelet’s response is worth hearing again, the same response as we heard from Proverbs (maybe this is Solomon’s wisdom after all): God is God, and we are not. And this is good news.

Because the reason for our despair in the face of all of this, the reason why we are tempted to nihilism as we stand on the floor of the valley, as we watch the onslaught of daily news, as we hear the same old story told over and over again, is because we want to be in control. We want to be the heroes of this story. We want to fix it. But God is God. And we are not. The fact is that all of this, all of our work, all of our effort, all of our toil, all of our living, is all going to end in death. There is no other ending to the human story. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

But have you seen what God can do with death? Have you seen what God will do with a cross and a tomb? God is God. And we are not. And this is good news. Because God’s work starts where our work ends. While our old old story is the story of helplessness in the face of death and destruction, while our human history is the ongoing repetition of the same old mistakes, the same old oppressions, the same old wars, the same old crosses and tombs, God’s old old story is different. God picks up at the cross, and turns the cross into a story of Jesus and his love. God steps into the tomb and empties it, leaves it standing wide open, leaves it wide open to a different future, a future that is not dictated by the nihilistic certainties of our jaded despair. A future that is not dictated by the refrain of Qohelet, vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Because there is something new under the sun. It is just not of our making. God is God. And we are not. And that is good news. That is the best news. Because that means that there is a long story arc to this business of life, and that our good life is lived in the flow of that story arc, so that what feels insignificant to us becomes a part of a larger work, a work that we may never see come to fruition. The lichen on the rocks begin the work of breaking it down, turning it from rock into soil. Then one day, long after that lichen is gone, a grass seed takes hold, and its roots dig in a little further, and the rock breaks down a bit more, and eventually a shrub gets in there, and a ledge forms where once there was no foothold, and now a tree takes root and then a stream comes down and finds a bed and a beaver family moves in and the valley that dwarfed us and overshadowed us and made us feel insignificant becomes the valley that shelters life, a haven and a home.

It is an old old story, one that stretches back into the mists of time beyond reckoning. The story of God’s creation, that is always happening, even right now, always turning chaos and death and ice and barren rock into order and life and growth and abundance. This is our generous God, who looks for the places in our lives where we are most in need, the places where our lives have been scoured and rubbed raw by the glacial bitterness of life, and makes those places God’s fertile ground. This is our God, who chooses our stories of grief and pain and brokenness as the place to plant God’s story, God’s old old story, of Jesus and his love.

Wisdom, Youth, and the Good Life

I’ve had several conversations lately that have turned to the subject of miracles. Specifically the miracle that any of us survive to the age of 20. A few of these conversations have centered around toddlers and the many predicaments they get themselves into, but more of them have been about young men. My friend Kristine, whose cabin Grace and I visited in Minnesota last week, raised three boys. Three extraordinarily adventurous boys. Her sons have done the more ordinary kinds of daredevil things, like skateboarding. But they have also bicycled across the US eating only what they found for free along the way; they have walked the Dalmatian Coastline from Italy to Albania; they have hopped freight trains across the country and made a movie about it; they have spent a month high in the Cascade mountains carrying nothing but a roll of duct tape and a fishing line. Twice. Her boys are now solidly into their 20s and 30s, and though their adventures continue, I think they approach them with a little more clarity and, dare I say, sense. But young people, and I will not restrict my comments to young men, young people have a blessed and blissful ignorance about the world that allows them to step out and take huge risks. Some of those risks are beautiful. My friends sons have become poets and created art out of their adventures. But some of those risks are less lyrical. Things I did in those years are not fit for publication, and it is honestly amazing to me on a daily basis that I survived at all, much less more or less mentally and physically intact.

This is the age group that Lady Wisdom is addressing in today’s reading. Because of the culture in which these verses were first written, she is specifically addressing young men. She is standing in the most public places she can find – at the market, in the gates of the city, at the crossroads – and she is speaking directly to the young men who pass. The young men who are still unformed, still finding their way into who they are, still likely to make some not-so-bright decisions; the young men who are in need of a miracle to make it to adulthood. And she talks to them right where they live – she speaks directly to their desires. She knows that young men (and young women) are driven by their desires – physical desires, yes, but not just those – desires for wealth, for fame, for a better life; desire for what is to come, for what might be; desire to make a difference in the world. When you’re young and impetuous and living more or less in your limbic system, in your emotions and potentials, it’s easy to give in to the calling of the world. So Lady Wisdom stands right in the midst of that world, right in the midst of all that the world has to offer. She stands at the gates of the city, where the powerful and influential gather to make decisions and debate matters of politics. She stands in the marketplace, where riches and economics rule, and the temptations of wealth hold sway. She stands at the crossroads, where anything is possible, where travel and adventure await, where the future stands wide open. And she calls,
10Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”

Wisdom calls them, not to abandon desire altogether, but to channel their desire. Channel it toward her, toward prudence, intelligence, truth, and straight talk. Toward God’s ways. Toward the Good Life we talked about last week. Toward wisdom.

But of course, we know that 19 year old boys are not the only ones likely to need this kind of encouragement. These kinds of temptations, these kinds of desires, silver, gold, jewels, power, worldly success, we are tempted by them because they offer us something. They offer us a sense of control, a sense of security, as sense that we are going to be the ones to change the world, that we are going to be the ones to escape the troubles and the hardships and the pains that the world throws at us. If we have enough, enough money, enough power, enough influence, enough whatever, then we can hide ourselves away from everything that is wrong with the world.

And there is a lot wrong with the world. A lot that would drive us to hide away, to cut ourselves off, to put up walls and seek control. People gather for prayer, and welcome a stranger, and die for their hospitality. A nation opens its borders and welcomes the world, and one they’ve welcomed turns a gun on those who seek to serve their welcoming nation. A young woman takes a road trip for a job interview and winds up hanging in a jail cell. Phones ring with bad news: diagnoses, deaths, tragedy. And we might get the idea that if we could only get a little more control, we might be able to fix it all. If we had power, we could free the enslaved; if we had wealth, we could buy the right medicines to hold off disease; if we had influence, we could convince the haters to stop hating. Or we could build a wall that would keep all of that out. We could shut our borders, lock the church doors, stay home or keep others out. We could make a safe haven for our own kind, those who agree with me. Those like us.

But Lady Wisdom is not interested in walls. Lady Wisdom in not calling us to put up barriers and cut ourselves off. Lady Wisdom is not hearing our stories of control and if only and self-salvation through self-protection. Lady Wisdom will not let us think that we are going to be the ones to save ourselves. Because she was there. She was there at the beginning, the firstborn of creation. She was there with God when God created everything, and she has seen what it is to be in charge. She was at God’s side as the earth was formed, as the mountains were built, as the seas were poured out, and she knows. She knows that wisdom is not to be found in wealth or power or fame. She knows that we are not going to save ourselves with our grasping and our hoarding and our holing up in factions. Our schisms and our disunity are not going to be our salvation.

There have been those over the years who have suggested that Lady Wisdom ChristSophialargeis another name for the Christ, before the Christ became incarnate in the human form of Jesus. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Certainly, Wisdom speaks in similar language to Jesus, especially when she says, “whoever finds me finds life.” But whether she was the One through whom all things were made, or whether Wisdom was watching as the Triune God brought forth creation, God’s Wisdom points us toward this truth, that God is God, and we are not. There is only One who created us, and there is only One who can save us. And we are not that One. All of our walls and barriers and factions and schisms are not going to save us. The only One who will save us is God’s own self, the One who delights in us, the One who has come into the world to be among us and to lift us up and to serve us, as an example of how we are to be together. Not alone, but together. Reaching out across boundaries, continuing to make ourselves vulnerable and powerless, even as Jesus was vulnerable and powerless on the cross, pouring himself out to the last breath for the sake of all of humanity. For the sake of reconciliation. For the sake of love.

This week, 30,000 Lutheran youth gathered in Detroit. Our congregation doesn’t have any young people of an age to attend this year, but these 30,000 were still there as our representatives. They prayed and they served and they crossed boundaries for the sake of the gospel. They responded to Lady Wisdom’s call at the crossroads, and they turned in to her house, and they reached out to their neighbors in love. The stories that were shared were remarkable. Stopping in to a store on their water walk, a pharmacist asked what they were doing. They told him they were working to raise $500,000 for ELCA water projects around the world. He replied, “This Muslim pharmacist wants to help.” And he gave them $10. In another part of town, groups of young people were working hard in the heat and the humidity, and one day in the rain, to clean up the abandoned lots that are such a huge problem in Detroit. They were picking up garbage and cutting down weeds, and the neighbors saw what they were doing, and came out to join them. Inside Ford Field, the kids heard sermons from some of the best preachers in the country, and learned how the gospel is at work in the world for them and through them. These 30,000 teenagers made a difference in the life of a city this weekend, and that city made a difference in the life of 30,000 teenagers. Because they refused to shut themselves off. They refused to allow division and difference to rule the day. Because a light shone in the darkness. Because Lady Wisdom stood at the crossroads, and at the gates of the city, and in the marketplace, and called them to something different.

This is our calling. This is our baptismal name. This is the Word that fills our mouths and nourishes our bodies, as we receive the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood, each and every week. It is a word of unity, a word of reconciliation, a word of forgiveness that frees us. We have a savior; we do not have to save ourselves. We are free! We can reach out across the barriers, we can tear down the walls, we can welcome each one as God’s own child, and let God’s light shine in the darkness. Let God’s Wisdom lead the way. This is God’s life, the Good Life, lived in each of us, new each day.

Lake Itasca and the Good Life

IMG_3876Last weekend, I picked Grace up from camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, and we drove about 45 minutes south west, following the Mississippi River to its source. At Bemidji, the Mississippi is a river, though barely. It is narrow enough that I could chuck a rock across if I wanted to. It meanders rather than flows. But at the headwaters, at Lake Itasca, the mighty Mississippi is little more than a stream. It is a tiny little trickle, barely covering our toes. With a sandy bottom covered in tiny pebbles, itty bitty minnows nibbled our feet as we waded downstream. A few hundred yards later, we were ready to get out, as the waters quickly began to get deeper. By the time we hauled ourselves out at the bridge, the water was high enough that Elinor could not have stood in it. We were soaked to our waists, and ready for ice cream. But as we left, we crossed the Mississippi several more times. After just a few miles, it had grown to a sizable creek. By the time we reached St. Cloud 150 miles south, the river was wide enough to require a large bridge, and had an island in the middle. By the Twin Cities, the river is much wider, spanned by several bridges and bordered by levees and walls to help with the yearly flooding. And of course, by the time it reaches here, where it is joined by the Missouri River, the Mississippi is nearly a mile wide. By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, over 2300 miles from where it starts, the Mississippi gets to over 200 feet deep, and drops 1475 feet in elevation. It sheds water from 41% of the continental US, including 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. All starting with a tiny creek barely 15 feet wide, not even three feet deep. The headwaters.

This introduction to the Book of Proverbs tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Hebrew it is closer “the source of knowledge;” one might say, “The fear of the Lord is the headwaters of knowledge.” There are a lot of sayings, proverbs if you will, about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. For instance, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.” You can google ‘knowledge versus wisdom’ if you want to be bombarded with these sayings. Frankly, some of them are better than others. But the Scriptures make less of a distinction between the two. At least in the portions that we will be reading over the next few weeks in our series on Old Testament Wisdom and Poetry. We will read this month from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, three books traditionally attributed to King Solomon. In fact, you probably noticed at the beginning of today’s reading, the first verses of the book of Proverbs gives Solomon, son of David, as the author. The rabbis once taught that Solomon wrote the love poetry of the Song of Solomon in his impetuous youth, the thoughtful teachings of Proverbs in his seasoned middle age, and the more jaded Ecclesiastes in his disillusioned old age.

Of course, modern scholars have determined that these books were not literally written by Solomon himself. They are more likely collections of bits of wisdom and poetry written by a wide variety of authors, over the course of decades, maybe even centuries. They were pulled together long after Solomon’s time, gathered into one book, and edited for something like continuity. Although if you ever tried to read any of them straight through, especially Proverbs, you would be decidedly disappointed in the narrative drive. Because there isn’t any. But that’s okay. That’s not the point of these books. They’re not here to tell a story. They have another purpose. And for that purpose, attributing them to Solomon actually works pretty nicely. Because the purpose of these books, perhaps a better title for our 4-week sermon series this month, is Living the Good Life.

And the key verse to living the good life is right up front. The first seven verses of the book of Proverbs could almost be taken as one long sentence. One long run-on sentence that your high school English teacher would have busted you down to a C- for writing in any of his papers. Still, who’s going to argue with King Solomon? He can write a run-on sentence if he wants. Scholars actually believe these seven verses were written by the editor of this scroll when it was first pulled together. And what it says here in these seven verses, by way of introduction to the entire book of Proverbs, is that if you want to learn about wisdom and instruction,
if you want to understand words of insight,
if you want to gain instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
or to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young —
and don’t get the idea that anyone is exempt from this work,
because the wise also need to hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
everyone needs to know how to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

In other words, if you want to live the good life, whether you are already well along in years, already learned and wise, or whether you are just starting out, The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; The fear of the Lord is the place to start. The fear of the Lord turns plain old knowledge into wisdom, into the good life. The 10 Commandments are this kind of knowledge. God’s gift of instruction to help us learn how to live a good life. And it’s interesting to note that Martin Luther began his explanations to each of the 10 Commandments by saying “We are to fear and love God so that…” We are to fear and love God so that we put God’s ways first; we are to fear and love God so that we put our neighbors needs before our own; we are to fear and love God so that we conduct ourselves wisely. We are to fear God because that means that we fear nothing else. Wherever our fear resides, that is what will control us. Whatever we fear, we will obey. Whatever we fear will become our god. Our lives will flow out of what we fear. So if we fear the Lord, the one who has created us and loved us and come into the world for our sakes, that is who we will obey. That is where our lives will begin. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

The fear of the Lord is the headwaters of the good life. It is the starting point. Out of that flows the wisdom and justice and righteousness that make for a stream that will grow in our lives to create something strong and beautiful and life-giving. And standing there, looking at the pebbles at the bottom of that stream that eventually grows into the mighty Mississippi, while the minnows swam around our toes, I got a sense of what that fear of the Lord means. It’s not the same fear that I have of heights, or a fear of getting injured, or even a fear of being judged. I suppose there is some of that kind of fear, the visceral fear for safety. Certainly once that stream has become a mighty river, there is fear to be had. The current can sweep you away, the river can be dangerous and overwhelming. But it is not only fear, not in that way. There is also awe. Wonder. A sense of admiration, fascination, and a bit of surprise that the same river I’ve met in New Orleans and Memphis and St. Louis and St. Paul could be this quiet little spot, where the dragonflies buzz, where even a canoe or a kayak would be too large for the depth. But in with that sense of wonder mixed with fear mixed with awe, there is a sense of mystery. A sense that there is something at work in the universe that is much bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing than I am. A glimmer of the notion that, even if I can wade in it now, I won’t be able to control it ever. Not here, at the beginning, and certainly not further along the way. It is a feeling that lands, not in my head, not in clear-cut words that can be created as dogma or creeds, but as a visceral feeling, that resides in my gut, that is a knowledge that isn’t entirely knowable, a wisdom that goes beyond proverbs and platitudes, an understanding that works its way into the bones, that God is God, and I am not. Standing at the headwaters of a mighty river that feeds and is fed by most of a continent, it becomes clear that the fear of the Lord is the source of the good life. Because the fear of the Lord is recognizing that God is in control, God is moving all things toward God’s promised and preferred future, and even the smallest things, even the minnows in the headwaters and the pebbles under our feet are a part of that work. It is giving ourselves entirely to the flow of God’s river, not allowing ourselves to be drawn off course by the temptations of firmer ground, the promises of security on shore, or the need to drive faster than God’s current will allow. It is knowing that the good life is lived in the flow of God’s wisdom, even when that wisdom seems like foolishness to humans, as it so often does.

And all of life is found in that stream. Everything. The beauty of these books of Wisdom is that in them we find God’s hand at work in everything. In every little thing. The proverbs cover every aspect of life, from cradle to grave. Not just the mighty and powerful lives of kings, not just the wealthy and opulent lives of the rich, or the preening and lavish lives of the famous. Ordinary lives. The lives of parents and children, the lives of husbands and wives, the lives of young and old. Your life. Like the stream of the Mississippi growing into a mighty flood, branching and breaking and coming back together in the deltas and bayous, the stream of God’s wisdom, of God’s loving care for every aspect of your life, becomes visible for all to see. This kind of wisdom is evident to everyone. It is right there, for everyone to see, in a life lived for others, in a life lived in love and awe and wonder and joy, even in the midst of hardship, in a life lived without fear of anything but God, and it sweeps others along in its tide, carrying them into the life of God, even as it grows you and nourishes you. Sometimes, there are droughts. Times when you run up on a sand bar and can’t find your way back into the stream. And yet the stream is always there, always flowing out from its source, always seeking a way to draw you back in, and to carry you forward, washing away the muck and the weariness of living, pointing you downstream, into God’s good life.