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.

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