Dear Hyde Park Family,
I have fond memories of a church member named Mary Carter during my years as an associate pastor here. She was a grand and spunky Southern gem from South Carolina and a member of our Altar Guild. The candles that we light on All Saints’ Sunday were purchased under her direction, and I think about her every time I see them.
Mary and I shared a special connection in our love for the book of Ecclesiastes. We talked about how the book is often misperceived as hopelessly nihilistic, rather than a realistic, relevant, and authentic portrayal of the complexities of the human condition. We agreed that, in each other, we had found a rare, mutual admiration for the book.
One time she came to my office, gift in hand, wanting to talk more about Ecclesiastes. She gave me a beautifully bound, antiquarian copy of a collection of poems called The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam. “This,” she said, “is one of my favorite books. And it’s just like Ecclesiastes.” She had spent months locating a copy for me. I treasure it to this day.
Kayyam was an eleventh-century Persian astrologer, philosopher, scientist, and poet at heart. The Rubaiyat is his most famous collection of poetry, and his reflections on the pursuit of happiness, and his exploration of wisdom and love to make sense of the world seem to be lifted from the pages of Ecclesiastes itself:
On the Pursuit of Happiness (and Mary’s Love for Good Wine!)
Ecclesiastes 2:1-3: “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine – my mind still guiding me with wisdom – and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”
How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.
On the Nature of Time and Eternity (and My Favorite Passage in Ecclesiastes)
Ecclesiastes 3:11-13: “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TO-MORROW and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet!
On the Finiteness of Life
Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!
THIS SUNDAY: ECCLESIASTES
What Mary and I appreciated most about Ecclesiastes is that it challenges us to engage spiritual matters beyond pious platitudes and rote religious formulas. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes serves as our immersion journalist, digging deeply into issues of life and death, hope and despair, promise and pain. What results is a narrative that creates space and freedom for you to face your own skepticism, and perhaps even your cynicism. And it might even suggest to you that the only way to find ultimate meaning and purpose in God is to stretch yourself to the limits of your own humanity.
For all of these reasons, Ecclesiastes is my favorite book in the Old Testament.
I look forward to sharing more insights with you this Sunday, as part of our year through the Bible, and I hope you will join us. Until then, I’ll raise a glass to Mary Carter, giving thanks for the way she modeled how to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all her toil.”
Grace and Peace,