I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
-Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NIV)
When I came to that Northwest Church of Christ, Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Bulls had only won three championships. O.J. Simpson, still a few months from his infamous slow-speed chase, was just a former football player. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective was the most popular movie in the nation. The song you were most likely to hear playing on the radio was I Will Always Love You. You were most likely reading The Client, The Bridges of Madison County, or maybe Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus. On TV, you probably caught Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Northern Exposure, or maybe Homicide: Life on the Street or Murder, She Wrote. Tom Brady was a high school senior still deciding whether to play pro baseball or go to college on a football scholarship. (He eventually decided on football.) A New York real estate company had acquired and was refurbishing the Gulf and Western building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which they would later rename Trump International Hotel and Tower.
I don’t know how significant my being at the same church for 25 years is for anyone else. Probably not all that, considering there are people there who have been around for twice that long or more. For me, though, it’s pretty significant. I’ve spent half my life there, literally. It's has been my church family for much longer than anywhere else. What I know about ministry, I learned there. What preaching voice I have, I found there. Many of my role models of faith are men and women I first encountered there. My son was born there, and came to his own faith in that community. I’ve been around for new births, baptisms, graduations, and weddings. I’ve also been around for funerals, grief, illness, lost jobs, moves, and divorces — though not always like I should have been, I know.
That’s the thing, I guess; you don’t get points for just being around. I don’t know, maybe you get a few. But we sometimes celebrate longevity as though just staying in one place for a length of time is a big achievement. I still remember something someone who’s always been honest with me said, years ago, at a time when my being at my church for a long time wasn’t yet an accomplished fact, and was maybe even a little hard to imagine. He told me he hoped I’d stay…"not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” I’ve thought about that clause a lot over the years — “not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” There have been times — not a few of them — when I’ve wondered if the best thing I could have done would have been to just get out of the way and make room for that “someone else,” whoever that might be. I guess God hasn’t been unequivocal about that, though, nor has anyone else, so I’ve stayed.
I’m reminded of something Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I hope I’m not a villain, and I definitely don’t have a death wish, but I remember 25 years ago being impatient with some folks who were holding on to old ways that I was sure needed to change. I hope now that the focus of my impatience hasn’t shifted to those as sure that things need to change as I was back then. It’s so easy, when you’ve been around somewhere for a while, to get so invested in Things As They Are that it’s hard to see Things As They Ought To Be.
The book of the Jewish Scriptures called Ecclesiastes is one of the more interesting books in the Bible. It’s also, oddly, one of the books you hear the least from in church. In it, the book’s writer (some say King Solomon, but the book itself never explicitly claims his authorship) turns his attention to the “meaninglessness” of life. “How do you live a life of faithfulness, productivity, and joy,” he wants to know, “when so much of life is random, arbitrary, and unfair?” The writer even has a phrase that captures life as he knows it: “under the sun.”
That phrase literally has to do with life in this world; all of it is lived out “under the sun.” But there seems to be more to it in Ecclesiastes — or, maybe, less. “Under the sun” characterizes life as it is, divorced of things like context, meaning, transcendence, beauty, and so forth. Dolly Parton sang about working “nine to five,” and the writer of Ecclesiastes could probably relate. When we talk about “punching the clock” or “putting in our time,” we’re getting close to the meaning of “under the sun.” That big, bright, yellow ball rises and sets, day after day, and we get up and go to bed, day after day, and in between we live our lives and do our jobs, and time passes and maybe we get something out of it and maybe we don’t. In a 1988 Life magazine article that asked people from various walks of life to address the question Why are we here?, composer John Cage captured the essence of that phrase “under the sun:” “No why. Just here.”
In the same article, though, Chicago writer Studs Terkel answered, “To make a dent.” The writer of Ecclesiastes definitely understands the John Cage view. But he wants — and he wants us to want — to make a dent. “If nothing else,” he says, “enjoy life, and do your work, and know that even if you don’t understand the whys of it, the days you’ve been given “under the sun” have come from your Creator’s hands. Given that belief, we know we aren’t just here to take up space and mark time.
Maybe we don’t say much about Ecclesiastes because the church has not typically been interested in teaching the enjoyment of life “under the sun.” Let’s be honest: we’ve tended to emphasize enjoyment of the life to come, with life “under the sun” being seen as something to grit our teeth and slog through until then. One of the reasons we need to know the Old Testament is to help us unlearn the prejudice that physical can’t be spiritual. Eating, drinking, and celebrating can be spiritual things, Ecclesiastes reminds us. So can showing up and doing our jobs. So can caring for your family, or playing with a child, or intimacy with your spouse, or sharing grief, or playing music, or pushing back against or even just enduring the injustices that we see “under the sun.” Life is transformed when we start trying to live as though all its moments have meaning — even when we can’t see what the meaning of a given moment might be. It’s in those moments, sometimes unforeseen and unplanned but lived well, that we do indeed find ourselves making dents.
God has given you a certain number of days “under the sun.” Through Jesus, he has infused those days with a sense of meaning and purpose that the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t have imagined. Those days might be mostly spent in one place, with a relatively small circle of people. They might be divided up among many jobs, homes, and communities. Either way, it’s up to you to live them as if they have meaning: to enjoy them when you can, to spend them doing your work, to make the most of them, to sleep well at night, and to know that it’s finally only to God that you’re accountable for the way you spend those days.
“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Some of us want to be successful. Some of us want to live lives of significance. Some of us just want to survive.
May all of us find what we want in living out our days “under the sun” with joy and faithfulness.