Discover more from Heather Weber- Dear Exiles
When Everything Is Meaningless, It's Still Not Meaningless
A Meditation on Ecclesiastes
Now all has been heard,
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
“What should I do with my life given that we’re all going to die?”
I managed to gasp this question in between sobs. My husband and I were lying on top of the covers of our bed in the middle of an ordinary weekday afternoon. The kids were at school. The mail truck signaled its proximity as it churned through the neighborhood, pausing at each street-side box. And, in advance of dinner prep, a pound of pork sausage was defrosting on the kitchen counter.
I was having an existential crisis.
The routine and rhythm of my life had come to an abrupt stop many weeks before when the Lord led me to resign from the lead pastorate of the church I planted. There was no clear next step, and yet I knew I was supposed to step off the path I’d been on for nearly 8 years–since the moment I experienced God’s invitation and call to start the church.
I’d experienced it in the same bedroom I was now sobbing in. A sense of wonder, clarity and holiness had defined the moment as I sat on my carpet in shock. The call to start a church in a section of our city that historically gave little esteem to churches had felt like the call of Abram (Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.), except that instead of leaving the ancestral home, I would be exiting a staff position at a young church that was just beginning to feel established and secure–a security I measured in large part by my monthly paycheck and by the fact that the church was moving into a new building where we staff would finally get our own offices instead of having to make do with a shared kitchen table in a shared workroom.
There was no audible voice of God, no external vision on the day I was called–just an inward picture of a dark and sticky bar in the city’s downtown brick-paved center, a homeless man sitting outside on a Sunday morning, and an odd assortment of students, professors, artists, and the wintertime transient gathering for services either because they followed Jesus or because they needed care. My heart yawned open with aching, which bloomed and led me through a 16-month period of discernment, exploration, evaluation, team building, and–finally–public services. I pastored the team/congregation for six and a half years.
But after resigning–as is the case when our loved ones die, when debilitating illness sets in, or when all-consuming seasons come to a sudden halt–I was disoriented by the emptiness and so very tired. After waking with such a profound sense of purpose (and Sunday deadlines and pressure!) for seven years, what could possibly fill that void? I had contemplated various options in the weeks that followed. But what could matter enough to fill it?
The girl I once was filled pages of her journal with romantic, searching questions. She was full of wonder, optimism, and hope, ready to arrive at the future. But now, I was asking questions about the future with a cynicism that might horrify her. My soul screamed along with the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes:
Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?...What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Back to me and my husband on the weekday afternoon: What should I do with my life given that we’re all going to die? The question was real, raw, grating.
There are layers of reality and truth in this universe. There’s the truth that a child dies of starvation every few minutes, that one of my daughter’s junior high classmates lost his immigrant mother in a car accident four days ago and his teen-aged sister remains in a coma, and the reality that I will never know much about the legacy of my third great-grandfather who emigrated from Bohemia (and if the former generations did not remember him, who will remember what I choose to do with my “one wild and precious life”?).Our hearts contain unsolved and unfixable riddles, unknowable answers to our most burning questions.
My husband asked (had the audacity to ask!), “Have you figured anything out–about what you should do?” With tears streaming down my face, I knew the obvious answer was, of course, the first and greatest commandment, and the second, which is like it:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’… ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
The reality that supersedes unsolved riddles and despair over a world in disrepair is that the Creator God has already ascribed meaning to our lives and asked for our participation.
“Love people?” I whispered in a mousy, strangled voice.
On his own and with his own privileged means, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes plumbed the depths of human experience and came up empty. On its own, everything was meaningless. It was only reverence for God that made sense of the Teacher’s existence and makes sense of ours: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
“Ultimately, the way out of this riddled existence is not agnosticism, skepticism, or trying to acquire forbidden wisdom; it is through the fear of the Lord.”To fear God is to love him; to love him is to obey him. To obey him is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
When we’re vocationally adrift, unmoored from primary relationships, anguished by the evils of child abuse, or distressed over the chemical spill in Ohio, the war in Ukraine, and the earthquake survivors wintering outside in Syria and Turkey, when our hearts are ready to break open and despair– love for God and neighbor, along with God’s love for us, cannot fail.
Of all things, love remains–when you, at your wit’s end, patiently listen to the child who is distracted from chores by the story he wants to share with you. Love remains when you take the extra moments at the mailbox to talk with your elderly neighbor, knowing the companionship will ease her loneliness. Love remains when we decide against Starbucks, or that unnecessary Amazon order, so we can give to the family reeling from unbearable tragedy or to rescue efforts that are going on half a world away. When we lay ourselves down for God and for others, love remains.
Likewise, God’s love remains with and for the world. It stretches across time, from the declaration of our creational goodness in the Garden to his ever-present determination to draw all of humanity to himself. “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,” humbling himself as human and submitting to crucifixion.Rather than destroy his enemies, he gave them a revelation–about love.
God has not asked me or you or any one of us for a doctoral thesis on the meaning of life. Before the Teacher started asking existential questions, God had imbued the world with significance and placed us–intentionally–within it. He has not laid on us the burdensome task of justifying our comings and goings, wakings and sleeping, and vocational wildernesses. Fear God and keep his commandments. The Teacher’s conclusion is a savory relief to all humankind.
Hey! I’m a book-obsessed pastor, author, and holistic life and leadership coach. Find out more about coaching and my other creative projects at www.heatherweber.org. For blog posts that come straight to your inbox, subscribe to my Dear Exiles newsletter in the subscription box below. Fun fact: I’m the author of Dear Boy:, An Episotlary Memoir and the host of the Your Pastor Reads Books podcast.
Heather Weber- Dear Exiles is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Gen. 12:1 NIV
Ecc. 12 NIV
Mary Oliver, “Summer Day.”
Ecc. 12:13 NIV
Stephen Dempster, Old Testament Theology: Dynasty and Dominion, p. 207.
1 Cor. 13