Did you hear that news that actor Chadwick Boseman passed away on Friday? The star of Black Panther, and many other films, had secretly been battling colon cancer for years, and on Friday, at the age of 43 he passed away, shocking many. I tell you this because I saw a news report about Boseman’s passing, and the reporter said something that is often said about people who die young: “A life taken, too soon.”
Too soon. In ages past, if a person lived to 43 years, they were considered old. But in our day, we would agree with the news reporter that 43 is young, a tragedy because the person didn’t make it anywhere close to the CDC average life expectancy of Americans. You know what the average life expectancy is? 78.6 years.
As I think about that, though, I wish life expectancy was way higher! Not just 80 years. I remember my dad’s 40th birthday party, and the “over the hill” signs my uncle brought to decorate. 40 seemed so impossibly old that day from my perspective as a 15 year old. Today, I am 45 years. I have a married son who, by the way, celebrated his first anniversary already last month. Life now seems shorter and shorter. And while I agree that Boseman was young at 43, I’m starting to feel 80 is young too.
And that brings me to Ecclesiastes, a book that tells us the truth we might not want to hear.
I’ve been thinking about truth-telling lately. Actually I’ve been thinking about off and on since my sabbatical, and even before. What initiated this focus on truth-telling during my sabbatical was the EC Church’s Pastoral Assessment Center (PAC). Rewind three years ago to my sabbatical, and that year was the first time that Michelle served at PAC. What we have seen over the past three years serving at PAC is the need for telling people the truth. PAC is one big effort in truth telling. People come to PAC because they wonder if they should become pastors, and we evaluate them. Clearly some should not be pastors, and they need to hear the truth about why. Even the ones who should be pastors have areas in their lives they could learn about.
But let me bring this home a bit more. There are times when I really struggle with truth telling. Well, not all truth telling, just the truth telling that involves speaking truths that I believe will bring about conflict or disagreement. Truth telling that is something other than telling the person they are doing a great job.
When I preach, write (whether that is a church-wide email or a blog post) or am involved in large group meetings, I don’t struggle with truth-telling. In those settings, I feel a buffer between myself and the audience, a buffer that results in me feeling freedom to speak pretty much everything I believe needs to be spoken. It is a buffer of impersonality. What I mean is that my sermons or my church emails are not directed to any one person, but as much as possible I try to relate them to everyone. Of course sometimes people come up to me after a sermon saying “I needed to hear that,” but when I work on my sermons, I purposefully intend them to be broadly applicable to as many as possible. To accomplish that, sometimes I have to use applications for specific groups: the parents, the students, the employees, the men, the social media users, the sports enthusiasts, etc. But even then, I am thinking in terms of a group, and not individuals. As a result, I feel a sense of freedom to share what I believe needs to be shared.
So when do I struggle with truth-telling?
In my office, meeting with individuals or over coffee with a couple people, I can really, really struggle to tell a difficult or possibly confrontational the truth. I get nervous, I start shaking, my voice doesn’t work right, and I often can say far, far less than what I do believe needs to be said. Why? Because it is very personal. I am talking to one specific person about that person’s life and choices and viewpoints, and I believe that person needs some corrective. But I don’t tell the person nearly as much as I think, because it doesn’t feel safe. I get very afraid that I will offend them, and the person will be angry and hurt. Even if I have had a conversation with Michelle about the situation, and I try to psyche myself up to tell the truth; even if I go over the words in my mind, I will often leave significant portions of it unsaid. Maybe you know what I mean.
Well, get ready, because we are about the study a book that is an in-your-face truth-telling book: Ecclesiastes. Turn with me in your Bibles or Bible app to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, and get ready for some hard truth.
Read Verse 1, and you don’t see the word Ecclesiastes there. It’s not a name of a person or group or city or nation. So what does it mean? It is a title, not just of the book, but also of the person we just read about.
We read, “The words of the Teacher.” Ecclesiastes means “leader or speaker of the assembly,” and so in English it is translated “The Teacher” or “Preacher” in most Bibles.
But who was this teacher? We read that he was Son of David, King in Jerusalem. The Teacher could literally be the Son of David who was King in Jerusalem, Solomon. Because the book never identifies the name of the author, throughout the sermon series I will refer to the writer as the Teacher.
Whoever he was, he was very observant and wise. That’s why Ecclesiastes is categorized as wisdom literature, like Psalms, Proverbs, and a number of other books in the Old Testament. What we are reading, then, is one person’s ancient, down-to-earth wisdom. I say “ancient” because it is a very old book, written hundreds of years before Jesus was alive, and Jesus was alive 2000 years ago. Can this ancient wisdom tell the truth to us, even though we have learned so much through the centuries? Yes, it can.
But don’t we know better the ancients? In many ways, humanity has learned a lot that the ancients didn’t know. This week I was driving down the highway, 65 miles per hour, passing a huge 18 wheeler, wondering what the writer of Ecclesiastes would think if he could experience a modern highway, and maybe spend a few hours with me in 2020. (Sometimes I wonder what my teenage self could think spending a few hours in 2020!) My point is that in recent centuries our world has been changing at a dizzying pace. But just because we know more, it doesn’t mean we know better. Our scientific knowledge, our technological advancements in medicine, communication, and transportation are amazing, but we still need to hear the truth of ancient wisdom, though I’m thinking we might not want to because it starts off very dark. Look at verse 2.
When I read verse 2, the image I get is of Penn Square in the city of Lancaster, as a busy crowd on First Friday is crossing the plaza, walking from corner to crowded corner, enjoying food, music, and art. Right in the middle of the crowd, a street corner preacher has set up a microphone with a portable speaker, yelling over and over, “Meaningless! Meaningless!!! Your lives are meaningless, people! Everything in this world is meaningless!” I wonder how that would go over. He would probably get nasty stares. Probably get some feedback like “Go home! Shut up!” Maybe worse words than that.
Is that what the writer of Ecclesiastes is going for here? I used to think so. In fact, many people have thought so, claiming that this book is one of the most, if not the most, depressing book in the Bible because of the Teacher’s emphasis on declaring that life is meaningless. You wouldn’t think that kind of message should make it into the Bible! Well, it didn’t make it into the Bible. And we’ll talk about that in the next post!