Perhaps I do like a good old whinge now and again but now and again as good as I think I am at this particular pastime I am put to shame by an expert, an expert I occasionally meet when I'm out for a walk or just doing the shopping. I was in supermarket the other day when I met this expert - I've known him for years. I mean he is a miserable so-and-so. Anyway he was just leaving the check-out as I was heading towards the automated check out. "How are you Nick?" I called out to him and he looked at me in his characteristic world weary way and replied. "Well I'm still breathing which is about as much as I can hope for." "I think you can hope for a bit more than that!" I called after him as he plodded out of the building under his own exquisite cloud of despondency. I recalled as I watched him leave, that I had rarely if ever had a joyful conversation with Nick. But in one short sentence, that morning in the supermarket he had excelled himself in his capacity for gloom and doom; taking self-pitying pessimism to new heights. At such times I am wont to remember that quote attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer which goes, "
One of the things, I feel, about pessimism and negativity is that it gets everywhere, whether it's simply an underlying doubt or the party pooper that rains on your parade, marring even the happiest occasion. And if miserable-ism can find an 'in' into your life it will; especially if you let it. I reckon that's what we have with this book in the Old Testament, the book of Ecclesiastes which begins with these words "Vanity of vanities sayeth the preacher all is vanity" and then it proceeds to tell us that there is "nothing new under the sun" - "Is there anything of which it may be said, See, this is new”? The writer tells us that everything is a repeat performance of the last event, that we are merely the actors who must go along with a predetermined script and that we will die sooner or later and it matters not whether we are virtuous and live our lives with integrity or not. We all inevitably meet our deaths sooner or later. It's a grim outlook, the book is not entirely joyless for it does exhort us in the absence of anything beyond the material facts of our existence, to get on with it, make the best of it and enjoy it. Ecclesiastes makes the point though, that all of life is meaningless and denies the existence of any kind of divine justice. I think that the book would probably never have got into the Bible if the scholars of the time had realised that the author was not Solomon the Jewish King and realised that this book was probably written in around 200 BC and not around 935 BC late in Solomon's life. So rather by error than anything else Ecclesiastes managed to slip into the canon, into the Old Testament.
Like my friend Nick, this book is grumpy and cynical. Maybe, on the other hand perhaps we could say that Ecclesiastes negativity is a useful counter to the starry eyed optimism of Jewish and Christian believers, who are of course believers in the providence of God. And sometimes we are apt to agree with this view that there is nothing new under the sun.
The alternative reality is that God does make everything new; each moment actually does come to us as new as does each day and each century that has passed since the book of Ecclesiastes was written have been unique. This drab ink-sketch presenting a hopeless commentary on life offers very little in terms of spiritual sustenance and so I would rather reflect on the words of Goethe who said, “All theory is grey, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.”
This life we have been given can be viewed though the filter of any lens that we choose. So why should we settle for two dimensional black and white when we can have the full glory of it all in three dimensional Technicolor. We know that bad things can and do happen in this life nobody can live free of pain and loss but we know that virtue does have its rewards for example, through abstinence from alcohol and drugs and by exercising integrity in personal relationships and our business affairs. Last week I visited an old friend two days before he died, he talked about his death and how his life's energy would returning to the source from whence it came. A couple of days ago I was looking through some old papers and found some notes written by another friend, the Rev. David Monk. David was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease and in acceptance of his condition wrote these words.
"It is important to go with the impermanence of our mortal structure - every body dies physically. Buddha stated that the first condition of existence as impermanence and I love one of his quotes: "The person who can embrace the temporality of his existence is as free as a bird in the sky"
Months later just before he died he reprinted these words from Indian Scripture;
"As rivers flowing into the ocean find their final peace and their name and form disappear, even so, the wise become free from name and form and enter into the radiance of the Supreme Spirit."
The realisation of the impermanence of life is what should give us the urgency to live it to the full, to strive to be happy, to live for others as much as for ourselves and to understand the power of love who is God, the divine presence that is at the heart of all there is. Therefore we should say that, "This is the day the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it." Let us not walk around supermarkets bemoaning our existence, let us not ungraciously complain by saying that there is nothing new under the sun, let us lift the veil of despondency and see the cosmic dance of life and join in, let us praise God all the days of our lives and in all our ways let us acknowledge him.