18 Sep All Will be Well
Her life: She is a mother of two young boys in her mid-30s. A creative, a producer, and an achiever. Highly introverted. She popped in for a brief visit, and we now stand out on the roadside by her car. As she lovingly keeps one eye on her boys, we embark on a conversation that feels semi-sacred. Given all the considerations–the demands of parenting two extroverted boys, energy levels that seem to diminish by the day, and the desire to grow their small business–do she and her husband open themselves to the possibility of having another child?
His life: He is young, amiable, and capable. Having recently returned from overseas, he works part time to support his family while finishing his thesis—another piece of paper which he hopes will help secure him work in his desired field. While out for my evening walk, I pass their house and he hails me in from the balcony. We now sit in their lounge with his wife and newborn baby. He begins to talk about the decisions that need to be made in the months ahead and the goods he is weighing. How much time should he spend on his thesis? Should he continue to pursue work in his field, which would likely result in yet another move? Or, for a time, should he sacrifice his career to live among friends and give his wife and child stability?
My life: I find myself revisiting a conversation I have had many times before. I am in my 30s, unmarried, and have just a handful of friends in the same situation. While talking to one of those friends on the phone, a conversation about the unmarried life surfaces once again. We circle the mountain, hoping to inch our way up. There is a strong imagination for family life within Christian culture, and there are endless talks, programmes, and books on the matter. Family structures are well formed both within church and within our social patterns, but what is the Christian imagination for the unmarried life? What makes our lives plausible? And, what are the forms, limits, and boundaries of the unmarried life?
Tucked within the pages of the Old Testament is the Book of Ecclesiastes: 12 chapters of wisdom literature that pick up the question of how to live well. From Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8, we hear the single voice of ‘the teacher’ as he reflects on the world and explores the way of wisdom and the way of folly. The book opens and closes with the words of another, ‘the author’, who has gathered the teacher’s words and deemed it good that we hear them.
As listeners, we are given front row seats to the teacher’s grand enquiry. His musings go back and forth, sweeping across all manner of life. He makes acquisitions, becomes powerful, and applies wisdom, tasting every pleasure under the sun. He gives himself wholeheartedly to toil. He builds schemes by which to understand the world, and he tests them and considers the outcomes.
Time and again we hear him describe everything in life as hevel. This is the Hebrew word for smoke; vapor; something real but elusive–there one minute and gone the next. With life as hevel, nothing can be fully controlled and no end can be guaranteed. The teacher observes that knowledge, toil, and greatness lead different people to different ends. Some get what they want; others do not. Wisdom in all its fullness is unsearchable. “Deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (Eccl 7:24). In the end, wise or foolish, all humankind succumbs to time and chance and death.
For those of us looking for ready answers, the words of the teacher do not satisfy. Making plans and working hard don’t guarantee good outcomes. Some of the teacher’s statements might cause us to ask, if all of life is hevel, is there any point in seeking to live well?
But scattered among his writings are moments of divine order that beckon us to press on. Where there is injustice, God will bring judgement. Where life has been driven away, he will seek it out. We hear that it is God who has portioned out life and given humankind gifts. Beauty comes in God’s time and whatever he does endures forever. Therefore, we are called to receive fearfully what he has given us. We are to eat and drink, and find fulfilment in our toil—for this is God’s gift. Joy is commended, for it will go with us in our toil through all our days.
And, at the end of Ecclesiastes, the voice of the author is heard. He has sat with the words of the teacher and has heard and considered the teacher’s long enquiry. He concludes the book for us in this way:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13)
What he says can be misunderstood as simplistic. But although his conclusion is brief and clear, it is anything but simple. The author calls us to a life of relationship with God, to surrender and trust in his justice and goodness, even when his way remains hidden and difficult to grasp.
The stories that I started with are stories close to me: they are my friends’ stories and my story. We are all seeking to live well; to live faithful lives. I have no immediate answers to the questions. There are no Rubik’s Cube solutions to be had. But as I sit with Ecclesiastes and other parts of Scripture, I find some guidance.
Ecclesiastes shows us two ways: we can try to make our own way in the world, using our own facilities and building our own schemes; or we can seek to live by the way of God, fearing him, trusting him, keeping his commandments, and accepting his gifts and our limits.
For some of us, as we face challenges in life, the danger may be that we put undue effort and strength into building and securing our lives. Some of us may give up in despair or give ourselves over to folly. But for others, I wonder if our danger is in succumbing to fear and anxiety. We might think that God expects more of us, that we should be able to work out the schemes of life and put in place the means by which to live these out.
In Psalm 103 there is a verse that reminds us of our place before God: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” God has created us and he knows our limits; this is a very good thing. In this we can rest.
Finally, with Christ as our Lord, the question of living well draws us back to him. He came to teach us his ways and to show us what true life is and how to truly live well. Central to that life is a life of prayer. It is a life of divine communion with God, the source of all life. The depths of Christ’s life of prayer are a mystery; beyond our limits. But when his disciples said teach us to pray, he taught them words that were formed for our frame and our limitations, given as a gift from God. Though brief and clear, they are words we will never fully comprehend. They are words deep enough to sustain us all our days.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
E tō mātou Matua i te rangi
Kia tapu tōu Ingoa.
Kia tae mai tōu rangatiratanga.
Kia meatia tāu e pai ai
ki runga ki te whenua,
kia rite anō ki tō te rangi.
Hōmai ki a mātou āianei
he taro mā mātou mō tēnei rā.
Murua ō mātou hara,
Me mātou hoki e muru nei
i ō te hunga e hara ana ki a mātou.
Āua hoki mātou e kawea kia whakawaia;
Engari whakaorangia mātou i te kino.
And so, in the face of challenges and in the midst of questions, I find myself joining the chorus of those of faith who have gone before me, saying
“And it shall be well, and it will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Julian of Norwich, The Revelation of Divine Love
Author’s note: We’re often asked what books and material we’re reading in preparation for our teaching, writing, and presenting. In preparing for this article, these are the books that sat on my desk.
Psalms: Book 4
Our Father, Alexander Schmemann
O Death, Where is Thy Sting?, Alexander Schmemann
For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann
The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Michael Fox
Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, William P. Brown
The BibleProject: Wisdom Series and BibleProject Podcast
(Image: Andy Makely, CC Zero)