All is Vanity & what is of real value – Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14 & 2:18-23 (10th Sunday after Trinity)

Today I’m going to focus on the reading from Ecclesiastes; with an opening line like “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” how could I not? In the chosen verses which follow we are presented with some very forthright questions and observations which are as pertinent to us today as they were to the people who were around at the time they were written. What do we work for when we strive to acquire things be they material, intellectual or status? We can’t take them with us when we die! Others will inherit all that we have worked for! Will they use it wisely or unwisely? These last two questions are ones we cannot answer because we cannot know or control what happens after we die, even with the best ”Will” in the world. What they should do is make us really consider the first question, what are we working for? Is it to become wealthy and have a lot of possessions? Is it to become very knowledgeable in some sphere which may give us authority, influence and power? Does all this make us feel safer or more worthy of respect and admiration?
The intention of asking these questions is not to knock the understandable desire to benefit from our work and to provide for ourselves and our families or to suggest that we shouldn’t seek knowledge; without it how could we act wisely or organise the societies in which we live? I think what we being asked to do is consider what is really of value and work for that rather than wasting our efforts and our time on things that are not really of value. If we spend all our lives working to the point of exhaustion or worrying so much that we are constantly distracted or unable to sleep at night shouldn’t we ask ourselves what is it really for and just as importantly what is the price we and perhaps others are paying for it? What are we missing out on in order to gain this prize that we can’t take with us? What would God think of our actions and motivations?
I don’t know if any of you have seen the film “Hook” which was made in 1991. It is a re-telling of the Peter Pan story. I saw it lots of times because it was one of my son’s favourites. In it the brilliant actor, Robin Williams, plays a high flying lawyer who is so immersed in his corporate world that he can’t see how his wife and children need him and want his attention. He always means to pay attention to them but somehow work always comes first and it is only when he starts to lose them and has to revert to his childhood character of Peter Pan that he is able to realise what he has done and what he has almost thrown away. Fortunately the story has a happy ending and he not only gets his family back but he learns how to enjoy his own life again. Just in time he learns that what he already had was the real prize, not the things he was chasing after.
Losing what is of real value because we stop noticing it or fail to pay attention to it when we should is a trap any of us can easily fall into if we are not mindful and I would include our relationship with God here. Don’t keep putting off what is really important for stuff that isn’t! This is especially true of our relationships with children. We might not think so at the time but they aren’t little for very long. An added bonus of being around them is a chance to enjoy being silly all over again and we can learn a lot from them.
Sadly I have been to too many funerals recently. One was for a friend’s husband who died far too young and with very little warning and it definitely wasn’t fair. He was a nice man, a good man and what came across loud and clear at the service was that he had known what was of true value and he had paid attention and cherished it. His sons spoke of what a loving husband and dad he had been and how they hoped to follow his example in their own relationships. I think all of us were moved to tears by what they said. The sentiment that sticks in my mind from them was this “We didn’t have much money. We don’t remember what was bought for us but we remember was what was done for us. We couldn’t wait for six o’clock when we’d hear dad’s car pull in and he’d take us on an adventure such as walking in Rivelin Valley or finding frog spawn or making a Tarzan swing”. In later years he was both professionally and financially successful and this was rightly acknowledged but what he is remembered for by a huge number of people is the kind of man he was. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what we would hope to be remembered for and if necessary adjust our lives accordingly. I have definitely wasted too much of mine worrying, often about things that I couldn’t do anything about or that weren’t worth it in the first place. This has got in the way of appreciating what was around me and even spoiled times I should have enjoyed being with the people I love. As the saying goes, can anyone by worrying add an inch to their height or an hour to their span! I think I am finally learning my lesson with this, and enjoying the simple pleasures of what I have is now far more important than worrying about what I haven’t done or got or achieved.
If you have never read the book of Ecclesiastes I would recommend that you do; probably the Good News version which is easier to understand, at least it was for me, although it doesn’t have the great “All is Vanity” opening line! It’s not a jolly or cheerful book, in fact the writer, who at first sounds like King Solomon but wasn’t apparently, often seems like a bit of a misery guts. He is however, a very good observer and commentator on the human condition and there is a great deal of wisdom in what he says which is worth at least considering.
God gives us life and an incredibly beautiful world in which to live it. Yes bad things happen to us, we all go through testing times, truly terrible things happen in the world and we lose people we love and none of this has anything to do with fairness. But at the same time there is much that is good and wonderful and incredible and worthwhile. I think the message from the writer of Ecclesiastes, whoever he was, is that we should work sensibly to provide for our needs and those of others when we can, try to think and act wisely for everyone’s sake but also enjoy the simple pleasures of our lives as much as we can for as long as we can and that this is alright with God. If I can add a thought of my own, I think it would be ungrateful and ungracious not to.

Kath Boyd – Reader