18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
All you do here on earth is really in vain. All your hard work for nothing. You work and work for success and in the end everything will just go to someone who hadn’t done anything to earn it. That’s a pretty fatalistic attitude old Qoheleth has today. It’s pretty short sighted, and yet, he raises one of the most fundamental questions we all have to ask ourselves eventually. Is it all worth it? What’s truly important and how should we be living our lives? Jesus says to store up the things that matter to God, but what does that mean?
I recently had some conversations with a gentleman that really made me think about these questions. Craig, a friend of a friend of mine, was a highly successful lawyer in Salt Lake City who was dying of brain cancer. He had spent his entire life as an active member of another faith, and he was scared. He found himself at the very end of his life questioning every tenant of his faith, even if there is an afterlife and whether or not he would go there. He had been raised to believe that heaven was something a person could earn, and he felt that he had fallen so short in how he had lived up to the Christian ideal. He felt his life – and death – had no real purpose. Everything seemed in vain to him.
We sat for several hours and talked about all these things in detail. We landed on the doctrine of grace – that ultimately whatever we do in life our invitation into heaven is up to God alone, that we cannot earn our way there. It is pure gift. And we delved into the concept of mercy. Once he was able to accept that his sense of purpose was established. Nothing in life is in vain if we understand the gift and love the giver.
Whenever someone we love is dying, especially if it is a long, slow, painful process, we struggle to retain their, and our, dignity amongst all the medications and equipment and medical personnel and dirty linens and family squabbles and tears of joy and pain. But most of all we are forced to see our loved ones as fragile and weak and helpless. And we feel useless and the whole process seems to be in vain as we wrestle with our conflicting feelings. Like Craig, we may wonder what the purpose of our lives has been, and what is the purpose of the suffering we all go through. We wonder if it is all worth it, and we are humbled by the sight of what our loved ones have been reduced to.
But in the middle of the night, when we sit in vigil around the bedside, we are confronted by our thoughts and get ourselves focused on what is truly important in our lives, and it’s not all the things we thought were important before. All the peripheral stuff does seem to be vanity. It is our relationships that last. It is our relationships that give our lives meaning.
Not all material things in life are vanity, and all things we possess are not empty and worthless. We all have possessions. The thing is not what we possess, but what possesses us. Jesus didn’t say that possessions are bad, he said we shouldn’t make them the focus of our lives. He was talking about greed. We should avoid things that hurt our relationships and that take our eyes off the Kingdom of God. We can and do use our possessions and success for good, but we shouldn’t let them worry us.
I know some very successful people who make a lot of money who wake up in a cold sweat at night worrying about this deal or that, what the market is doing, or some detail they missed at work. They have more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and yet they are never at peace. I think the main reason is that they feel they must be self-reliant, that their success is all their own doing and responsibility. It may not even be greed; it may be the stress they put on themselves to provide a good life for their family. It may be the sense of purpose they get out of success, or the thrill of the win or to be number one. I think all those things are vanity. And they place their reliance in the wrong place. It shouldn’t be on themselves and their own abilities and responsibilities, but on humbly realizing that it is God who is the one who gives them everything they have and who has given them the talents and strengths to achieve so much. And that we are called to do everything in our lives for the glory of God.
Remember the gospel from last week? Rabbi, teach us to pray. Jesus said that the Father wants us to ask him for everything we need. Give us each day our daily bread. Just enough for today, Lord. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And if we who are wicked know how to give our children good things, how much more will our Heavenly Father give to those who ask him? Why won’t we ask? Why can’t we trust?
It can be so easy to receive the gifts but not the hand that offers them. Once I was visiting one of my little ladies at the nursing home, and we were discussing how much things had changed for her since she had fallen and broken her hip. She no longer could do things for herself but needed help with even the simplest tasks. It was forcing her daughter to spend more and more time with her, and she felt guilty that she was taking her away from her family so much.
I asked her to think of when her children were little, of all she and her husband had sacrificed for them. I asked her to remember all the long nights sitting with them when they were scared or sick. I told her to recall all the times it was difficult to be parents, of all the joy and pain her children had given her. Was she ever resentful of those times? Did she love her children less because of them or did her sacrifice actually strengthen her love? Did she ever regret any time she was there to pick them up when they needed help? Of course not. Those times are often the ones she cherished the most. Why should she deny her daughter the same experience now?
Now her sacrifice for her children is to accept their help. Maybe the sacrifice we need to make is to submit to the fact that we need God and we need other people. We will all need to rely on our relationships at some time or other, when we are stripped of all the trappings of life and all we have is ourselves and those who love us. And we need to accept their help with humility and grace. Because they also have the need to help us. It’s not payback for all the times we helped them. We all have the deep seated need to sacrifice for those we love. Because we love them. We need to give and we need to receive with the same grace.
Someday it will be us in that bed and our families will be gathered around us in vigil. How we react to that situation will determine how well we die. In that way the gift and the reception of the gift are sacrament, and our death bed an altar. That is what I had tried to tell my friend Craig and what he had such a hard time accepting.
I once read a book, Evidence of the Afterlife, written by Jeffrey Long, a medical doctor who claims to be an atheist. While in medical school he was struck by the fact that there had been no formal research done on near death experiences, and so he performed a ten year study on over six thousand people of all nations, races, ages and cultures who claimed to have had near death experiences and out-of-body experiences. One of his findings stood out to me. Virtually all the people who had what were considered true dying experiences, you know the white light, the tunnel, etc., also had an experience of a “judgment”. What they all had in common was that they saw their entire lives flash before their eyes in an instant, and what they saw was how all their actions and their inactions had affected other people. Even people who they didn’t really know very well were affected positively or negatively by what they themselves had done. It stunned many of them to see just how important other people were in their lives and how important they were in the lives of others.
I shared that story and gave that book to Craig a month before he died, and he said that simple revelation gave him more comfort and peace than 70 years following his religion. He saw his purpose and it allowed him to die in peace.
We will be judged on our relationships. How we have treated other people, not on what we have accomplished nor on the legacies we have left behind. Jesus said so. It is not all in vain. Jesus said so. We all touch other people in ways we never even realize. We are all building storage facilities for the stuff that really matters, whether we are aware of it or not. Those storage facilities are the hearts of those we touch.
What is in your storehouses? Are they filled with pretty baubles and toys, thinking that’s what will be your legacy? If so, maybe you need to tear them down every once in a while and start over. Fill them with all those little things that affect others. The gentle smiles, the small hugs, the thoughtful cards, the simple kindnesses we do along with the great sacrifices we make that we may not realize mean the world to others.
It would be a shame for us to live our lives without ever storing up the things that build up relationships. But it would also be a shame for us to never stop and realize that we are doing it. We need to step back and take the time to examine our lives every once in a while to acknowledge the good we have done and see the deficiencies. And see the hope in our lives.
It may be easier to give up like the fatalist Qoheleth, to see everything as shallow vanity. To live just for the moment’s pleasure. Or to see no purpose to life or death. I choose not to.