On a beautiful, sunny, afternoon on a beach vacation a few years ago, I noticed some kids, about twelve, skim boarding. That’s where you throw a small surf board looking thing out in front of you along the wake and jump on it to slide across the wake. I told Dana it looked like tons of fun and that I should go try it out. She warned me that I’m not twelve, that my center of gravity is much higher and would make skim boarding much harder. I took that call to caution, to accept the limitations of my adult body, as a challenge.
So I ran back to our rental, grabbed the skim board that had come with it, and threw it out on the wake. I know that, when I jumped, my feet landed on the board, but only for a split second. My feet went out from under me, over my head, and I hit the hard sand head first.
The result was my first concussion, which nine days later resulted in post-concussion syndrome, the feeling of having a mock stroke, which stuck me in bed in a dark room with no screens for about a week.
All because I wanted to have some fun. I should have accepted my limitations.
Vanity. This also is vanity.
Such is the nature of the scripture for our time together this morning. Qoheleth, the Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, has some wisdom to share about human limitations. Hear now Ecclesiastes 8:14-17
I think Qoheleth would be amused by our twenty-four hour news cycle. We constantly have, at our finger tips or the end of our remotes, access to all the latest developments in the sagas that grip our attention. I listen all the time in my car, I read the newspaper every morning, I stay on top of all the news. I want to know what’s going on with North Korea. What is Kim Jong-un up to with rolling back his nuclear testing program? I want to know what the latest is in the Russia investigation. I want to know what’s going on in Syria. And I want to know how the midterm elections are shaping up, regularly checking websites like Real Clear Politics and the Five Thirty Eight.
I want to be informed because I want to feel like I have some sense of understanding, some way of making sense of the world around me. I want to find some hope in the midst of the desperation the news all too often brings into my life. I want to feel like I have some control over the world around me by understanding.
Vanity. This also is vanity.
In a moment of significant disappointment in my life, I struggled to accept the disappointing reality, wanting to both understand why it happened and wanting to figure out a way to fix it. Those two things relate well to my personality: I’m a stubborn fixer. If I believe in something, it’s going to happen. If there’s a way to fix something, I’m going to figure out how to fix it. And if there’s understanding to be had, I’m going to understand it. That’s my personality. And it can be a tremendous asset and is why I tend to gain a reputation as one who gets things done.
But it’s also a liability. I don’t know when to stop. I have run myself ragged trying, with increasing desperation, to understand the disappointment. Why did it happen? Is there a flaw with me? Is there a flaw with the system? Wherever there’s a flaw, there must be a solution, so how can I fix it? Can I read this book or go to that conference? Can I find errors in my skillset and then address those errors? Can mentors in my life or trusted counsel point out where I’m needing improvement, whether personally or professionally?
Vanity. This also is vanity.
For me, it’s easy to not accept my limits, to stubbornly say that I am capable and that I can do it on my own. I have a tough time believing that there’s anything beyond my understanding, whether it’s skim boarding, the national news, or why grave disappointments happen to me. I feel almost incapable of knowing that there are things I cannot fix. I strive and I fight and I struggle and I work hard and wear myself out trying to exceed my limits, trying to be god of my own life. And when I fail over and over again, I get up and fight some more, which makes me sullen, grumpy, withdrawn, and tired.
And yet, I keep fighting. I keep trying to understand. I keep trying to fix. Perhaps you can relate. I think we all have a propensity to act in just this way when financial downturns come, cancer diagnoses occur, people act to harm us, relatives cause drama, disappointment comes our way, car accidents happen, or deep frustrations implant themselves in our minds. And on a personal level, I think we engage in the same fixing behavior, the same quest for deeper understanding, whenever we gain new reasons for our insecurities or we struggle against poor reputations in town or we fear the world around us or we fear what others think of us or whenever we hate our own body, worried about how we look.
These are real problems, things we struggle with, and in the face of them, what are we to do? Very often, the answer we first think of, the very first thing that comes to mind, is to be more disciplined in our relationship with God. That will make us feel better. That will solve the issues. That will bring us release. The pursuit of righteousness will address the difficult, miserable, things of life when they come.
But vanity, Qoheleth says. This also is vanity.
I certainly ascribe to the need for discipline. I’m nothing if not disciplined and my life reflects that. Discipline keeps me going. Without my usual morning routine, I’m lost. If I’m unable to follow my usual sermon writing schedule, I panic a bit. If I’m not exercising on a regular basis, I feel it in my body and soul as both yearn for the release of running. Discipline makes my world go round.
And such is how we’re taught we’re supposed to be. Discipline makes things better. Not only by providing stability and the comfort of routine in life, but also because it makes us better disciples. After all, the root word of disciple is discipline. To really follow Christ, to grow in righteousness, as we’re called to do, is to be disciplined.
Many weeks, I stand up here and I call us, myself included, to deeper discipline and thus deeper righteousness. During Lent, I called us to deepen our prayer lives and offered opportunity to engage in prayer rituals. For our confirmands, who will come before us to take ownership of their faith in just two weeks, Leigh and I are calling them to deeper discipline that they may learn how to grow themselves in righteousness.
We all want to be more righteous. That’s part of why we come to church. It’s why we’re disciplined. It’s why we have expectations of ourselves and why we hold ourselves to those expectations of discipline and growing in righteousness.
And when we fail to live up to our own expectations, or the expectations you hear from this pulpit, or the expectations we’ve grown up having, we tend to feel guilty. At an impromptu lunch earlier this week, three of us sat around talking about our earliest conceptions of the church, a fascinating conversation. For me, it’s a call to discipline, to live up to certain expectations that God has for me. At the time, I believed that where I failed to live up to those expectations, I failed God, and that was reason for despair.
How often are we like that, believing that we must uphold certain expectations of the faith? We must read our bibles daily, we must pray daily, we must come to church, or else we’ve failed God. Which means we fail God all the time. And not only do we fail God, but we also believe that if we’re engaged in these behaviors, if we’re growing in righteousness, then better things are supposed to happen to us. Or, at least, we’re supposed to be better able to withstand the storms of life when they come because of our discipline. Righteousness, we think, prepares us for dealing with the difficult moments of life and, perhaps, serves as a bulwark against the forces of evil when they come to attack.
This is how we think. This is how I still sometimes think. And that’s why I struggled to write this sermon.
Qoheleth argues decisively against this line of thought. In our scripture this morning, Qoheleth says that the righteous get treated like the wicked and the wicked like the righteous. This is just the way of things in the world. He’s like your grumpy old uncle who, after you describe your problems, says, “Life’s a jerk.” Qoheleth would readily agree with that sentiment and add that “life’s trouble and then you die,” or agree with the phrase, appropriate for this past week, that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes.
Why life is this way is ultimately, according to Qoheleth, inscrutable, inexplicable, beyond our comprehension. It’s just a way of life, he says at the end of our scripture. No matter how hard we study God’s ways, and no matter how wise some become in the ways of God, none of us will ever have full understanding, we will not, in his words, “find it out.” God’s ways are beyond our ways, God’s rationale for why the righteous are treated as the wicked and vise versa are beyond our comprehension, and so we are simply resigned to this fact: that life is just this way.
Which is why Qoheleth says vanity. This also is vanity.
This ought to strike us as odd because we tend to think of ourselves as highly capable people. Certainly I think of myself that way. We’re taught that we can do anything we put our minds to. We’re taught that if we study hard enough, we can understand anything. But Qoheleth says to us that it’s in vanity we do so because we refuse, at a certain level, to accept our limits. That’s what Qoheleth has to say to us this morning: we have limits. We cannot comprehend why a good God allows the righteous to be treated as the wicked and vise versa. No matter how wise we may become, we cannot understand the ways of God. They are ultimately inscrutable, unknowable, out of our reach.
And so, it’s often in vanity, we try and fix cancer diagnoses. In vanity, we strive to undo financial downturns. In vanity, we seek to change others hearts and minds. In vanity, we try and fix injustices or disappointments or evil things that have happened to us. In vanity, we attack people, trying to create justice. In vanity, we try and regain wealth squandered. In vanity, we try and mend broken relationships. In vanity, we try and change people who have hurt us. In vanity, we labor to fix ourselves when we’ve proven unacceptable. In vanity, we beat ourselves up over how we look.
It’s in vanity because when we push back against our limits, when we try to understand the things that we can’t and we try and fix the things we have no power to fix, we play God. That’s why it’s vanity: it’s us trying to do what only God can do. This doesn’t mean we don’t try and we don’t seek wisdom. No, in order to know where our limits are, we must first try to fix the problems in life, try to understand and comprehend the way of things. We must seek after God through discipline to grow in righteousness, for there are moments in life where that yields a fix or wisdom.
But our discipline and righteousness eventually reach their limits. Spiritual maturity, the kind that grows under discipline and life shared with God, should lead us to know where those limits are and be accepting of them, believing that God will be God, however inscrutable God may be, but always good.
And so the reality is that we can either fight against our God-given limits, trying hard to fix or understand what is beyond our ability, or we can let God be God. When we have done everything we can do, when we have sought all the wisdom there is to know and it has yet failed us, when we have tried every fix imaginable and it’s not worked, it’s time to let go, it’s time for release, it’s time to declare that life is just that way and we will perhaps never, in the words of Qoheleth, “find it out.” Life sometimes comes with things we cannot control, we cannot understand, we cannot fix; things we cannot work our way out of.
To continue to try and push past our limits is vanity. It’s our attempt to play God.
This can sound like reason for resignation, to be resigned to our fate, to sit and be sullen. But there’s great power in releasing ourselves from believing that we have the power to fix, that we have the power to control, and that we have the power to comprehend. There’s great power in accepting our limitations as humans and great power in allowing God to be God. There’s amazing power in accepting the wisdom that life is sometimes just a jerk to us and there’s nothing we on our own can do about it.
For when we choose to accept this fact, when we choose to release, when we choose to accept our limits and say, “Ok, God, I’ve done all I can do,” we discover the wisdom of Qoheleth: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days life God gives them under the sun.”
Instead of fighting so hard to fix, instead of striving so hard to understand, when we have naturally reached our limits, God says through Qoheleth this morning: it’s time to go be happy. It’s time to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s time to engage in the things that God has given us that bring us joy.
God has designed us for joy. We had a wonderful reminder of that last Sunday morning during the 11am children’s sermon. When Leigh said, “God doesn’t want us to be scared,” Ellie Cobb piped up and said, “God wants us to be happy!”
And so it is. God wants us to be happy. Qoheleth’s call, and indeed God’s call on us, is to eat, drink, and be merry. The thing that brings us the most despair in life is when we try and do what only God can do. The thing that causes the most exhaustion in life is when we try and fix what only God can fix. The thing that causes the greatest frustration and angst and depression in life is trying to control what only God can control.
When we admit that we cannot, we discover that we can, in the midst of the difficult things in life, find joy in the things God has made us to enjoy.
When bad news comes that we cannot understand, it’s time to pour our favorite drink and sit with a close friend. When family or friends cause drama, it’s time to go engage with our favorite hobby. When life is just crappy, it’s time to go fish. When people are mean, it’s time to go play golf. When someone makes you angry, it’s time to go bike riding. And when life gives you great disappointments, it’s time to go eat some of your favorite food.
Eat, drink, and be merry isn’t a call to drown sorrows in food, drink, or partying; it’s a reminder that we’re made for joy. In joy, God made us, including giving us certain things we naturally enjoy. This means, no matter the difficulties of life, joy is offered to us. There are things we naturally enjoy doing, there are activities that give us great joy and peace and restore our souls. The call, when we have reached our limits, is to go and engage with those.
God offers a different path for me, and for any of us this morning who sound like me. Instead of fighting, striving, struggling, wearing ourselves into exhaustion, to understand what we never will, or to fix what we cannot, or to control the uncontrollable, we’re called to go and delight in the things that bring us joy. We’re called to let God be God: both in accepting our limitations and in believing that God desires for us to live a life full of joy.
To phrase it another way, we shouldn’t let the hardships of life rob us of our joy.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to understand what you cannot, or fix what is unfixable, or to control the uncontrollable, simply say to yourself as I have learned to do, “vanity, all is vanity.” After you’ve done your best and still come up short, forgive yourself for having limits, forgive yourself for not being God, give yourself permission to go and engage with the joy God has destined for us.
Accept your limits. Let God be God. To be disciplined and to pursue righteousness is not a magic formula that somehow makes our lives easier. No, part of discipline, part of pursuing righteousness, is accepting our limitations and choosing to engage with the joys of our lives. It’s accepting that we are not God, we do not have control over everything nor do we have the ability to understand all things. At some point, we all reach our limit, and the disciplined thing to do, the righteous thing to do, is to go have some fun.
I’m of the conviction that we do not have enough fun in life. God has called us to eat, drink, and be merry, because, even in the face of some of the most difficult things in life, God has offered us joy.
So no matter the hardships you encounter nor the limitations you face, eat, drink, and be merry, for “this will go well with [you] in [your] toil through the days of life that God gives [you] under the sun.”