Saturday, September 02, 2006

the meaninglessness of life in the face of the inevitability of death

We're spending (most of) the Labor Day weekend at Mount Hermon, a Christian conference facility in the Santa Cruz mountains. There are beautiful redwoods here, we heard some great teaching from the Bible last night, but the compelling reason for coming is to be with a family we've known for a long time -- we met back when we were all single!

We came to family camp last year at this time, too, and one of our speakers talked about Ecclesiastes -- which is, you guessed it, is today's Old Testament reading. Ecclesiastes starts off on this cheery note:

"Meaningless! Meaningless" says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaninglesss! Everything is meaningless."

(Ecclesiastes 1.2)

Accordingly, last year's teacher introduced his talk by saying, "Come to family camp and hear about the meaninglessness of life in the face of the inevitability of death!"

"Wait," you may be thinking. "Was this a Christian speaker? He sounds more like a nihilist existentialist or something!" (He didn't sound like Camus or Sartre, though, because being from Australia, he didn't have the right accent.)

Yes, he absolutely was a Christian speaker. His point, of course, was that attempts to find meaning in life are doomed unless we know God and focus our lives on him. Which is actually the point of Ecclesiastes. The author of Ecclesiastes tries all kinds of other things:
"Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.
Ecclesiastes 2.2-6
Laughter, drugs, landscaping, architecture -- and so on. Livestock, riches, beauty, sex. These are fun while they last, but what is the ultimate meaning? There isn't any.

And, whereas he says that wisdom is better than folly, the same fate overtakes them both.
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 2.16-17
Heavy stuff! Our speaker at that camp last year said he felt rather like a trespasser in this book, "because I have not lived long enough to understand it." In a sense we are all too young to try to explain it fully.

But -- one theme is abundantly clear. All the science and technology in the world (the text uses the word "projects") may be interesting -- fascinating, even -- and nice. Jet airplanes make it possible to travel great distances safely in a few hours, rather than dangerously in weeks. This is great, but do they make us better people? More specifically, does it make you or me a better person? Is your life ultimately more satisfying or meaningful because of a 767 or whatever?

We enjoy our cell phones, our ipods, our computers (when we aren't fighting them) but do they make our lives worth living? I don't think so.

How about knowledge? Success? Those are OK, but there are people who "have it all" and find their lives meaningless. One is in Morley's The Man in the Mirror. We heard about another from Alistair Begg as he taught this weekend on John 9. He mentioned a fellow, a very successful attorney I think, who came to him and said "I have absolutely no basis for my existence."

This was a great conversation. Alistair asked him to talk about himself a bit, and after a while asked him if he'd ever read the Bible. (He hadn't.) "You're in there," he said.

"Am I?"

"Sure you are. Right here: 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? See? You're right there!"

"Is that really in there?"

"Sure it is; do you think I'm making it up?"

There was much laughter in the audience, but the point is that modern (or postmodern) man doesn't have a basis for existence because we have by and large forgotten to think about where we sit with God, and whether we're following him. Are we his partners or his enemies, in other words?

Alas, most of what we do at the office for the organization isn't intrinsically meaningful. Even if we create the greatest product or service, what bit of meaning will it add to anyone's life? None! But that's not why we go to work, is it? Well, it's not the only reason you and I go to work (creating better products/services) -- it's also to be a blessing, to exude the fragrance of Christ to those around us, to do productive work and provide for ourselves (and our families if we have them) and not to be a burden on society.

But when we think that the actual task list at the office has ultimate intrinsic value... well, for me that's the easy thing to go off the rails on, because if I forget to be patient and kind, if I forget to build up and encourage and teach because of the task list, then well, I'm off the track.

So that's my challenge - to work diligently but not to base my life on it, not to forget that the ultimate point is to be who God wants me to be and do what he wants me to do. Which usually isn't the task list.

posted Sept. 4

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