The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells how he tried all the things which in his time were thought to be fulfilling. One by one he dismisses his experience with a phrase that runs like a thread through the whole book and that was like chasing the wind.
Most of us can identify with much of what he wrote. I can. Change the names, dates, and places and it's our story too. We all spent more time than we would like to admit chasing things that we thought we wanted and avoiding things we thought we did not need. And so much of it turned out to be like chasing the wind or worse.
Can we find a way to get loose from the things that we have chased and caught which have made us miss the main meaning of life? Can we find courage and strength to turn and face the things from which we have been running? Is there a way to re-direct our energy from running to waiting? It won't be easy, but it is possible, and, trust me, it is worth the effort.
That's what I want to talk about today. It appears that the writer of Ecclesiastes came slowly and painfully to the saving insight with which he ends his story. We can hear his disappointment at the end of each frustrating experience. We can sense the emotional and spiritual woundedness each time some grand experiment left him feeling empty. Yet he was persistent and stubborn. He tried it all! All of us who have lived very long understand that. We have been there. Some of us are still there. Insight tends to come slowly. Very few people get to see a blinding light on the road to Damascus. We keep on trying the same things over and over, hoping to get a different result until finally it dawns on us that we have been looking for meaning in all the wrong places-chasing the wind.
The writer of Ecclesiastes leaves us with the pervading feeling that it is important to stand up to life courageously and to reach for whatever joy and happiness circumstances may offer at a given time, but that this should not be regarded as the central purpose of life. We need not be overwhelmed by failure and defeat, for this is a common experience of humankind, neither should we become arrogant or vain in our successes and victories for these, too, are temporary.
The wise man of Ecclesiastes warns of the folly of running from reality by chasing after things that do not really matter. An endless round of trivial activity on a broad front almost always denotes a subconscious flight from something about life in general or oneself in particular. It is chasing the wind.
Sam Keen, in his autobiography which he titles "Beginnings Without End," succinctly reminds us that in any flight from reality he who runs fastest gets nowhere first.
God help us when we begin to catch up with some of the things we're chasing. During the great depression, my brothers and I used to enjoy catching butterflies, lightning bugs, and all sorts of flying creatures. One day we were out in the back yard trying to catch a bumblebee. Our father had warned us to be sure that the bee had a white spot on its head, else it would sting. We chased that bumblebee all over the back yard and finally he buzzed by my brother, who grabbed the bee and missed. I caught him-but I had forgotten to see if he had a white spot on his head. I suspect that there never was a bumblebee held in captivity by a small boy for a shorter period of time, and the sound of my turning him loose could be heard for a mile. God help us when we catch some of the things we chase.
In the absence of a cohesive center in our personal lives, we tend to direct our attention to marginal matters. If God is not the center of our lives, then we are likely consumed by trivial pursuits, some of which may be good, but far from the best. We are like the modern cowboy in Texas who got up out on the range each morning, cooked his breakfast on a Coleman stove. One morning he made his coffee first-like any good cowboy-but he ran out of gas before he could cook his bacon. So he struck a match and lighted the thin, dry grass and followed it with his skillet of bacon. When his bacon was done, he was a half-mile from his coffee. It is easy to get too far from the main purpose in life.
We have all been there. Some of us will die with-if not from-some of the things that we have chased and unfortunately caught. We have made lifetime mistakes that we were too proud to admit.
I grew up with a boy in rural South Alabama who was invited to a dinner party at Evergreen, the county seat. His training and table etiquette was limited, but he was doing fine until they brought coffee at the end of the meal. It did not appear to be hot, but it was, and he spat a mouthful of hot coffee right back into the cup. Every head turned toward him. He looked around the table at all the shocked guests and finally said, "You know, there are some people who would have been fool enough to swallow that." There are some things we should spit out in embarrassingly poor taste rather than swallow them with painful pride. Prides gets most of us.
Some of us have been more than half-wrong and we knew it early on, but we were too proud to admit it, and we swallowed it, and it has just about eaten us up.
Several years ago, Dr. Fred Craddock, then professor of homiletics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, told a touching story from his own life experience. He said that when he was growing up in north Tennessee, his father refused to attend church. He was always at home fussing about lunch being late on Sunday. Occasionally, the minister would come and try to talk to Mr. Craddock, but he was rough on the minister. He would say, "I know what you fellows down at the church want. You want another name and another pledge, right? Isn't that the business that you're in? Another name and another pledge?" This embarrassed Dr. Craddock's mother. She would go to the kitchen and cry while the preacher was there. Every now and then an evangelist would come with the minister and they would double-team old Craddock. Even the two of them could not get through to him. He would always say something like, "You don't care about me. You want another member and another pledge. That's how the church operates. You don't care about me." Dr. Craddock said that his father must have said that a thousand times, but there was one time he did not say it.
It was in a veterans' hospital. Fred Craddock rushed across the country to see his father who was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out his throat, but it was too late. Radiation therapy had burned him badly. They had put in a tube so that he could breathe, but he couldn't speak. Dr. Craddock said that he looked around the room, and there were flowers everywhere-on the table, in the windows, and even on the floor. He looked at the cards attached to the flowers and they read: Men's Bible Class, Women's Society, Youth Fellowship, Children's Division, Pastor-every organization in the church. Old Mr. Craddock saw his son looking at the cards. Unable to speak, he picked up a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet:
"In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story."
Fred Craddock read it and said to his father, "Dad, what is your story?" And the speechless man took the Kleenex box back and wrote a three-word confession:
"I was wrong!"
Can you hear that?
Any insightful theologian could make a good case for the hypothesis that flight from ourselves is really running from God. What a frightening road map our footprints make when we see how much of a flight our pursuits have been!
The only comfort that we can take, if any, is that it's not just us. The Bible is replete with examples of persons whose futile chasing the wind constituted nothing less than running from God. Remember the fleet-footed Jacob in the Old Testament, who took a protracted excursion to Haran to get away from his brother, from God, and from himself? And there was Jonah! Didn't he run! In the New Testament there was the fun-loving Prodigal Son, whose brief but intense fling in the "far country" brought him full circle and face-to-face with his father from whose presence he had so arrogantly fled. Adam and Eve tried to hide themselves from God with a fig leaf, and Saul of Tarsus busied himself chasing down Christians until one day on the Road to Damascus he met Jesus face to face in the middle of the road and he had no place to run.
They all ran. Each, in his own way and with whatever fig leaf they could find tried to seclude themselves from God. Sometimes while they were running, like us, they have said, "We're trying to find God." What a shift-what a reversing of roles! For if anything redemptive ever happens in our lives, if we ever encounter truth and do it, or encounter love and are saved by it, or really find ourselves in the tangled morass of this ambivalent world, it will happen because there is a love that will not let us go. Wherever we hide ourselves, in whatever dark corner we may be, there is a love that whispers and reaches and touches us with wounded hands and gently leads us. I could not wish you more than that this redemptive experience crown your life.
It does not matter how far we flee out into the bush and the bramble of life, ever and anon, we hear the trumpet call of heaven, telling us who we are and whose we are and what our destiny was meant to be.
We have all done some running. Perhaps we will do some more. Run, then, if you must, for there are some aspects of truth and insight that are too hard for the average person to face without doing some back-pedaling. As T. S. Elliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." Run, but do it on a limited scale. Be insightful enough to understand that running is what you are doing. Stay within sight of reality even if you cannot abide its presence. But, remember, however far you run, that's how far you will have to come back before you will achieve at last a manageable grasp on life.
The wise one of Ecclesiastes has a word of warning for people who think they know everything. Everybody is ignorant about something. Wise people are not cocky and self-assured about what they know. Bertram Russell was once asked if he would be willing to die for his beliefs, and he quickly said, "Of course not-I could be wrong." It is prudent to be modest about what we know or think we know.
There is a kind of learning that is more important than factual knowledge, as important as facts may be in the scheme of things. There is a kind of learning that is more essential than the frailty of human reasoning, as important as reasoning may be. It does not defy reason; it confounds it because it surpasses it. It is akin to faith, it resembles insight, and it approaches intuition.
Many years ago, I heard Professor William Muehl tell a story that tells it well. This is the story:
Back in the days when New Bedford, Massachusetts, was a major seaport, scores of ships involved in the whaling industry went out from there each year. They often spent years away from their home base. Of all the captains made famous for their seamanship, none was more highly regarded than Elieazar Hull. He went out further, stayed longer, brought back more whale oil, and lost fewer men than anyone. When asked to explain his almost uncanny gift of navigation, Captain Hull would answer, "Oh, I just go up on the deck. I listen to the wind in the rigging. I get the drift of the sea. I take a long look at the stars, and then I set my course." Well, times changed as they always do, and the owners of Captain Hull's vessel were informed that the insurance underwriters would no longer agree to cover a vessel that did not carry aboard a fully trained and certified navigator. They were then confronted with the problem of how to break the news to Captain Hull. He must either sign on some young upstart fresh out of school or go to navigation school himself. When they broke the news to Captain Hull, he greeted the announcement with no particular emotion. He said that he had always been curious about this newfangled business of scientific navigation and that he'd be glad to have a chance to study it. At the expense of the company, he went to navigation school; he graduated at the top of his class, then shipped out for two years.
The day Captain Hull returned to port after his first voyage, half the population of New Bedford was on the docks to greet him. The first question was how he liked the experience of navigating by scientific means. He said, "It was wonderful. I don't know how I've gotten on without it all these years. Whenever I want to know my location and how to get from where I am to where I want to go, I go to my cabin, I get out my charts and tables and I work the proper equations, and then after about an hour, I set my course with scientific precision." And then he said, "Then I go up on the deck and I listen to the wind in the rigging. I get the drift of the sea. I take a long look at the stars, and then I go back and correct my course for errors in computation." If you do not know about the wind in the rigging, the drift of the sea, and the long look at the stars, you suffer a kind of ignorance that no amount of education can cure.
The Bible often uses the word wind as a code word for Spirit. The wind that blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. And so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Instead of chasing the wind, listen to the wind. The wind of the Spirit. In this perplexing world where so much of life is a puzzle and many voices clamor for your attention, "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind." Listen.
Let us pray.
O God, whose ways are not our ways and whose nature is beyond human comprehension, strip us of our pretensions and vanities, expose to the strong their weakness and to the wise their folly, and to the weak their strength. Set in our hearts an unconquerable hope, and in your own way, fulfill it. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.