Ecclesiates 06 – Juneteenth and Christian Humanism

12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Getting reacquainted with Ecclesiastes

Time to circle back to Ecclesiastes, the book I promised I’d finish back in May (ha, ha). I want to return to it though, because I find it to be both comforting and grounding, and we all could use more of that right now. There’s an urgency and a gentleness to Ecclesiastes, and there seems no better time to tie that, Christian Humanism, and Juneteenth all together.

Let’s start by reacquainting ourselves with the book: It is a wisdom text attributed to Solomon. A wisdom text shares wisdom with us (surprise!), and differs from earlier narrative books (like Genesis) and later prophetic books (like Isaiah) in that being its focus. Throughout Ecclesiastes the author is referred to as Qohelet, which generally means teacher (more about author in my post on Chapter One.) It’s a short book, and we’re smack in the middle with chapter six, which is all about setting up a question that is answered by the wisdom poems in the following chapters. Basically the question asked is this: what is the best way for humans to spend their short time on earth?

The short-answer to this question is in chapter eight: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (vv. 8:7,10) Herein lies the gentleness and urgency: Qohelet wishes us joy and happiness, but also needs us to make the most of our work, whatever it may be.

One of the most disturbing things to Qohelet is the man who cannot enjoy himself, even though God has given him everything he needs for a good life, as discussed in vv. 3-6 of this chapter. Such a person’s lack of happiness could be argued as an affront to God and all Xyr generosity: they have the means, but cannot be satisfied.  (A quick aside: I don’t think this is a condemnation of depression or mental health concerns.  These readings refer to people who have everything at their fingertips, but still have an insatiability and discontentment of their own making.)  Happiness may be our God-given right, and, as Eunny Lee points out in her book The Vitality of Enjoyment in Qohelet’s Theological Rhetoric, it may be our God-given responsibility as well. Indeed, we are ordered in the passage from chapter eight (and elsewhere) to “go and be glad” or some words to that effect.

Christian Humanism: Hope and Immediacy Combined

Which brings me to Christian Humanism, something I’ve discussed before. The more I’m at this Bible reading project, the more I feel “Christian Humanist” is probably the best summation of my beliefs.  I hate falling back on Wikipedia as a source, but I can’t deny their summation is an excellent one: “Christian humanism regards humanist principles like universal human dignity, individual freedom and the importance of happiness as essential and principal components of the teachings of Jesus.” If we are to follow Qohelet’s lead, personal happiness is of the utmost importance to a full Christian life: we are to go and eat our food with gladness, drink our wine with a joyful heart. But personal happiness does not just mean our own personal happiness, it means everyone’s personal happiness. And that is where the working with all our might comes in: we are called to end things that may get in the way of other people’s happiness: racism, sexism, environmental exploitation, economic exploitation-anything that infringes upon the rights and human dignity of another person has got to go.

The Humanist Society of New York states “we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.”  While different from Christian charity in its origin (and also hopefully free of some of the worst lingering effects of colonialism and racism), both Humanist and Christian charities are trying to make a better world for the people who live in it, here and now.  Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, so this is our one shot, and I kind of like that urgency. I think Qohelet would appreciate it, as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great hope in the coming resurrection and find much comfort in contemplating Jesus returning to make it all right. But shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can, now?  Maybe my hokey cleaning house analogy will help:  We might not be able to do everything a professional cleaning company can do, like steam the rugs and squeegee the the second-floor windows, but we can do a lot to make things nice before the professionals get there.  Just because we can’t steam the rugs and squeegee the windows doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything.  No, we tackle the messes that we can, and it does makes a difference. The return of Jesus may wipe away the tears from every eye, but we need begin ending sorrow, now.

Juneteenth

So what’s all this have to do with Juneteenth? Let’s back up; what the heck is Juneteenth? Juneteenth commemorates the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX – a final strong-hold of white slave-owners (and their slaves) – to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This happened a full year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, but that’s the soonest Union Forces had enough power to back up the law. I, personally, think that Juneteenth should take on all the celebratory nature that July 4 currently has; And July 4 should become a day of service and remembrance, when we work to make the ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers come true, while acknowledging the fact that these ideals have never been lived up to by or available to everyone in this country. But that’s just my opinion.

So back to why I want to close out my post talking about happiness and Christian Humanism with a nod to Juneteenth is this: it is a holiday that has a duality to it. Just as Ecclesiastes is both gentle and urgent, just as Christian Humanism is both hopeful and immediate, Juneteenth is both celebratory and bittersweet: we have come so far, yet we still have so far to go. We have work to do, as Qohelet reminds us, as Black Lives Matter reminds us. Oh, yes, do we have some work to do! But we can celebrate at the same time. Let’s celebrate our victories, like marveling at just how many people took to the streets in protest and solidarity in the past weeks, and in last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that expands protection for LGBTQ workers, and, on a much smaller scale but of personal importance to me: how many of you have expressed interest in helping end police discrimination through my nascent lobbying campaign (details on my Instagram). Please don’t get me wrong: there is a time for anger, a time for sadness (as Qohelet so elegantly reminds us in Chapter Three), and I’m not trying to tone-police anyone here. But even this hard work is work we can do joyfully.

I hope your Juneteenth was a celebratory day. And if you missed it, may it be a celebratory day for you next year. We cannot know what will happen under the sun after we are gone. We cannot know what next year or even tomorrow holds for us, but I feel a joy, a conviction, that we are moving in the right direction. Let us all do our work, and be glad.

Ecclesiastes 05 – The Peace of Acceptance

18 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Remember my post on Chapter Two where I talked about the author’s journey to wisdom?  Today’s chapter is where Qohelet (the author, whom I discuss in Chapter One) solidly establishes a mentality of acceptance –  and manifests the peace and wisdom that brings.  So it seems appropriate to talk about finding and practicing acceptance in our own lives today.  But what a tricky post this is to write, for I am no expert! Acceptance is very much a skill I am still learning, and slowly.  I must admit I feel like a bit of an impostor making it the subject of a blog post.  But perhaps, in writing it, we can all learn together, so I’ll forge ahead.

What acceptance isn’t

Let’s start with talking about what acceptance is not, because I think that has helped most in my journey to practicing acceptance.  Acceptance is not resignation or agreement.  By accepting a situation for what it is, you are not abdicating any of your own power, but rather fully recognizing reality and thwarting denial.  Acceptance is also not wallowing in your feelings forever.  By accepting feelings you may wish to avoid, you acknowledge them and give yourself the freedom to move forward.

Accepting the bad: working through an example

As an example: let’s say you worked really hard to get a promotion and felt confident in your ability to achieve it, only to be passed over for a coworker you feel doesn’t deserve it.  This is a painful situation: disappointment, inadequacy, anger, and frustration are all perfectly normal feelings to have.  It is good to acknowledge (aka, accept) them instead of trying to push them down.  By giving yourself a chance to feel these emotions in a safe, controlled environment (such as over the weekend, or even a handful of weekends, at home with loved ones supporting you) you lessen the risk of them spilling out in a detrimental manner at work.  If there is one part of acceptance I have mastered, it’s having a good cry.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told Chris “I just need to be sad right now,” and then sobbed into my pillow for ten minutes, feeling much better after just giving into that sadness instead of trying to have a stiff upper lip.  Poor Chris, he rolls with it even though I think it still freaks him out.

After accepting your feelings, you can look at the situation critically, accepting the reality of it.  On first blush this sounds like resignation, but it’s really the first step in seeing where your power truly lies.  When you’re able to neutrally observe this newly-promoted coworker, maybe you’ll see that maybe they had skills you didn’t realize, and the boss really knew what they were doing.  This realization can lead to a new mentorship, a productive discussion with the boss, and perhaps a future promotion.  Also possible: you may realize that you work in a dysfunctional environment where cronyism is more at play than rewarding hard work, and you need to either learn to play the game or get out.  It sounds harsh, but realizing something like that is better than resisting reality, or trying to make a reality (like a dysfunctional workplace) bend to your ideal (one where hard work is rewarded) – because that isn’t going to happen and will only lead to further frustration.

Accepting the good – permission to rest

Surprisingly, I think a lot of Americans have just as much trouble practicing acceptance with the good in their lives as the bad, starting with down-time.  Collectively, we resist, mock, or deny rest.  As this pandemic has made painfully apparent, many workers (especially low-wage workers) are expected to show up for work even when sick, and are oftentimes punished – even to the point of firing – if they stay home to take care of themselves.  In more white-collar jobs, it is often a point of pride to be the one coming in early to the office or staying late, the one who has the most meetings or biggest workload.  This nose-to-the-grindstone mentality keeps even those that have the ability to rest (in the form of paid vacation and set office hours) from it.  And my personal example: our three farm employees live with us at the moment, and I still feel the urge to jump up and be productive whenever one of them shows up, because I feel guilty if I’m sitting down in the middle of the day.  I constantly have to remind myself that my work is different from theirs: when they’re slowing down in the evening is when I’m revving up with making dinner and the bedtime routine. But even here do you see how I’m justifying rest with subsequent work?  I seriously thought about deleting these last few sentences, but I’m going to leave them here to demonstrate just how pathological our resistance to rest is, even when it’s readily available to us.  To rest is good and acceptable.  There’s even a commandment about not toiling on the Sabbath.  We need to accept rest into our lives, and create a culture where everyone can access rest, as well.

Accepting the good – not everything has to make money

Now let’s talk about the side hustle! As a mostly stay at home mom I really feel the pressure for the side-hustle.  I work hard, especially now with quarantine: I’m the cook and grocery shopper for the family, and now the teacher and therapist as well as all the other duties that running a household requires, like laundry, bill pay, cleaning, and child-care.  But it is unpaid work, and without that paycheck, I must remind myself that this work, too, has real value.  It’s an uphill battle: my IG feed is littered with sponsored ads for online seminars that promise to “turn your passion into a six-figure enterprise” or how you can “make money during naptime doing what you love,” insidiously implying that I’m not doing enough, and that money is the only acceptable end-goal.  Also, while compliments like “you’re so good at [baking, knitting, writing, drawing, or whatever other hobby you may have], you should start a business!” are, truly, meant as compliments, they show where our collective value lies: not in the enjoyment of the craft, but in the potential cash flow that craft could maybe, possibly, bring.

Now I’m not going to lie, I would be delighted if this blog started generating a little cash for me. I definitely have my Patreon and Venmo accounts set up, should you feel so moved.  But more than anything I write this because it is a way for me to connect and define my faith, and share a message of love that I fear is severely lacking in broader Christianity.  And as for my other hobbies, like quilting or mending?  Those are definitely just for me, and the people I gift things to, because they bring me joy, even without a dollar sign attached to them.

Accepting the good – compliments

Why, when someone gives us a compliment, do we feel the need to downplay it?  Real examples from my own life:

“The house is so clean!” “Thanks, it’s still got a ways to go, but it’s better than it was.”

“Wow, your garden is really coming along!” “Thanks, I’m happy I got the greens in but I still have a lot of work to do.”

“You’re hair is so cute today!” “Thank you, but I really need to get it cut.”

You know the expression there’s a silver lining to every cloud? It’s almost like we need the perverse opposite when someone compliments us: a thunderstorm behind every rainbow.  Why can’t we acknowledge our gifts without sounding boastful?  Why can’t we accept a compliment with just a simple “thank you.”  Some people are certainly better than others at it, but it’s another thing I’m trying to work on.  I want to enjoy my clean house, my garden growing, my good hair days. If we follow the Ecclesiastes call to joy, we begin to see and accept that God wants us to enjoy these things and more, as well.

Practicing acceptance

The first and biggest step to practicing acceptance is practicing mindfulness.  When we are mindful of our feelings and our circumstances, we are better able to react positively to both. When something bad happens, we can treat ourselves kindly instead of compounding any problems through our own resistance.  When something good happens, we can lean into the experience.  And this, I believe, is part of the spiritual maturity God wants for us and from us.  God wants us to be happy.  That doesn’t mean that any sorrow in our lives is evidence of God’s disinterest – bad things do happen.  (Which is another truth Qohelet recognizes throughout Ecclesiastes.)  But we have the formula for deep joy: to eat, to drink, and to find satisfaction in our labor.  If we are mindful and accepting while putting this formula into practice, joy and wisdom are within our grasp.

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Ecclesiastes 03 – Patience; Surrender; and Charity in Action.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

 

Patience and Surrender

Indeed, there is a time for everything.  A right time, a due time, for everything.  But that time is not for us to decide.  As v. 11 says: “we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  Things may not make sense now, but there is a divine plan at work.

Believing in this divine plan requires two very difficult virtues, some I’ll readily admit I’m not great at: Patience and Surrender. While related, I see them as two distinct practices.  Patience means we wait.  Surrender means we trust.  Putting those two virtues into practice means we must wait for the right time, trusting that God will bring that right time about – even trusting it to happen beyond our lifetime, if need be.

Charity

But patience and surrender do not mean we sit idly by.  There are many beautiful passages in this short chapter, but the one that had the most impact on me was vv. 12-13: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil — this is the gift of God.” Emphasis my own, because I want to make sure you see the inclusive nature of this language, the action that it calls us to: we are to do good so that everyone may find satisfaction.

Qohelet does not shrink from acknowledging the evil and indifference in the world. “In the place of judgement — wickedness was there, in the place of justice — wickedness was there,” reads v. 16.  He also acknowledges our base natures in vv. 18-19: “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals, the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath, man has no advantage over the animal.”

But even with these allowances to the harsh natural world, Qohelet realizes this: “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked.” Even believing in universal reconciliation as I do, I’d rather be lumped in with the righteous.  In order to be so lumped, it is our God-given duty to not only find enjoyment for ourselves, but to make sure we help others find that enjoyment, too.  I read this passage as a ringing endorsement of global human rights.  Everyone deserves the right to eat, drink, and find fulfillment in their work (which implies a safe working and home environment – otherwise enjoyment would be hard to come by).

A time to act

“Nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  This is a verse from chapter eight that I’ve already quoted once and will probably quote again, because I think it is the best summation of the vision Qohelet has for peaceful and prosperous living.  It is a goal that we should all be working towards, for ourselves and everyone living.  The time to act on that goal is now and always, until it is attained.  The time for different tactics may change, but the time for action does not.

So what does that action look like right now?  Now is an excellent time to call your representatives to say you want to see benefits like Medicaid and SNAP extended, small business loans un-fucked, and decarceration explored further.  It’s also an excellent time to buy giftcards from small businesses that may not be open right now but still have bills (or small businesses that are open, like my own Sylvanaqua Farms! Sorry, had to plug),  support creative entreprenuers (like my awesome cousin Abby who went from teaching Pilates classes in NYC to streaming Pilates classes from her childhood home in Connecticut), and make donations to food banks and other social safety net organizations.

But mainly, I think action means staying at home as much as you are able.  I do not begrudge (or envy) anyone who can’t abide by stay-at-home orders due to their jobs, or who may need to hire babysitters to come into their home, or send their kids to the daycares that are starting to re-open because they can’t miss any more work.  I don’t begrudge you patronizing restaurants with curbside pickup because you just can’t make one more meal, or going to Target for your groceries because then you can also pick out some clothes (I know I need to figure out getting my girls new shoes sometime soon) and maybe a little pick-me-up present for yourself.  Because sometimes what is classified as non-essential does, in some cases, actually become essential.  That rather long qualification aside, I’ll add my plea to the millions of others you’ve probably heard: if you can, please stay home.  Those with cancer, the elderly, the newborns, the chronically ill – not to mention the families and loved ones of all the aforementioned people – are relying upon all of us to abide by social distancing and vigilant hand washing so that they can live.  As Qohelet has made clear, we all have the right to eat, drink, and be glad; and we all have the responsibility to make sure everyone has that right, as well.

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