Thursday, August 8, 2013

Reflections on Ecclesiastes at a Gazillion Feet (Approx.)

southwest airlines, plane, tail, sky, sunrise, airplane, clouds

by JaneAnn Kenney

Flying has always helped me put my life back into perspective, which might be why I waited until now, on a Southwest flight headed west, to begin writing again. I sit with strangers and sometimes I hope for an extrovert (not the magazine-wielding lass who showed up today). Why? Why do I want Tyler Durden’s single-serving friend? Because I long for a story; I want to hear a new story, to swap stories. 

I need to be reminded that I am not an automaton when I board a plane, even though my entire body is suspended in space, as human bodies were never meant to be. My concerns remain real and are, perhaps, even pressing, but while in flight there is nothing to be done about them; they must wait patiently.

Perspective: everyone on this airplane is the lead actor in the plot of their lives. All of those tiny houses below in West Tennessee hold lives and problems which seem highly important to those within, but affect me not at all, just as mine are of no concern to them. I feel like a vanilla person in flight; certainly I’ve got flaws, and gifts as well, but no one here knows them. They may suspect, based on my appearance or my brief interactions, but they cannot know. 

At times like this, the Teacher’s admonition to be neither too wise nor a fool comes to mind (Ecc. 7:16-17 for the curious). It seems that both wisdom and folly lead to death, so a mixture of the two must be the recipe for life. Or else, perhaps the recipe of life is to be fully human, embracing our fallenness, since we cannot escape it except in death. In this embrace, we begin to understand how far we are from being God.

It’s not just that we die alone and are forgotten; we also live so much alone. If Adam and Eve were created to be in relationship with one another and with God, then the fact of human isolation constitutes a major flaw in the world, and perhaps even the major flaw. Ecclesiastes speaks directly to my post-modern American soul. (I would say Christian, but the Teacher would appreciate that I can confess to frequently being more American than I am Christian.) We are so busy with our own lives that we forget God and we forget one another. 

This is not a purely American problem, of course, but I see the brokenness of the world most clearly in my own culture. And I see the Teacher as speaking this culture’s native tongue: he refuses to give a straight answer to anything, preferring the grey areas to which we have become so accustomed.

wing, plane, airplane, sky, clouds, window, insideI find the Teacher’s words easier to consider as an American woman than as a Christian. I feel less guilty for hopelessness, for trudging through life without a clear aim, than if I am supposed to be praising Jesus on an infinite loop. Qohelet (Hebrew for “the Teacher”) addresses the issues that the church in the USA avoids, namely, if God is on my side, why do I feel so lethargic or bumbling or useless? If the Holy Spirit is within me, why do I still want what I should not have and reach for what I cannot receive? 

Perhaps the life of faith hasn’t changed so much in the last 2500 years; even “knowing God and keeping his commands” can leave us listless and frustrated, especially on those days we’ve done all we can and life continues just as senselessly as the day before. Our histories never leave us, and so sorrows abound from past experiences, sins, and injustices, returning to us in new and unexpected ways.

But we don’t like this story; we want life to make sense, to have meaning and a happy ending. So we tell ourselves different stories in an attempt to drown out the truth. Perhaps the best example is the romantic comedy, a stalwart barrier against Real Life. We all know the recipe for romantic comedies; we see the characters spinning ever closer to an appropriate, satisfying end. 

Imagine a director or writer straying from the tried-and-true script. See the male lead—say he’s a bike messenger—always dashing around on two wheels, rather oblivious to both interpersonal and vehicular signals. As he races to the bus stop to prevent his female counterpart from boarding and leaving him forever, to confess his true love (which we know she shares—see the tears in her eyes as she thinks, he’s not coming), as he speeds through an intersection, he is hit by a car because he wasn’t looking where he was pedaling, and now he lies dead in a pool of blood. This isn’t how the story was meant to go! the audience protests, and yet part of us knows that this unsatisfying end is truer to life than their kiss ever could have been.

His death is the natural consequence of a lifetime of haphazard actions. He died because he was never looking where he went, checking left and right and then left again. We dislike it, but we have to admit it made sense. And what of a teenager in a dark hoodie killed because a man felt threatened by his gait? What of a movie theater massacre or—God forbid!—a school shooting? Qohelet protests: These things are not in God’s script, were never in God’s script! 

Any appeal to creation is an appeal to the way the world was designed to work rather than how we see it working. We gnash our teeth over the ridiculous salaries paid to baseball players, yet we pay our $20 to go to the game and cheer for our team (and believe me, I am guilty of this). Qohelet’s appeal to creation is a plea for God to restore order so that old men are not forgotten by their children nor is a stillborn child better off than the man full of years. He yearns for the day when finding one good woman in a thousand would be senselessly easy: they are all quality, and so are the men.

sunset, wing, plane, sky, clouds, airplanePerspective: I could die today in this airplane, whether because of an electrical malfunction or a terrorist act or my very body fatally betraying me. It is unlikely that I will die today, simply because I will only die the one time, and that time is already a very small percentage of my life.

Yet in this plane I face mortality and think: This is a bad time to go. Is the timing ever right, or is there no such thing? It can only be one or the other, really. In any case, there are loose ends in Oklahoma that I’m hoping to mend (not tear apart). My parents are still alive. I’ve never been married or (more importantly) raised a child. My degree isn’t finished, my brother can’t pay rent on his own, I am good at my job… the Teacher might even agree with me that, if I died today, it would be astoundingly senseless, and yet he would not be surprised.

It may be appropriate how self-centered I’ve been in considering the implications of Ecclesiastes in life today, and I know it’s appropriate that I’ve offered no real answers. The Teacher’s search, while on behalf of the community, was a path he walked alone. There was no Watson to his Sherlock, no Robin to his Batman, no Stewart to his Colbert (or should this last be reversed?). When I look at my life, I too see the dreariness, the endless wandering, the cycles of cycles and photocopies of days on end. And yet, 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge & shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.

-G. Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”

You can ask JaneAnn about: Nashville, theology, cats. Baseball. Glacial rivers. Her stance on the color purple, and then again the existence of the word "purple." General frivolity and terrible music (for the DANCING!!). Old Stephen King novels, time zones, and toll roads in Oklahoma. She will not, however, answer any questions about that thing living in her fridge. You can follow her on Twitter @JAKof3Ts.

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