Qoheleth the Preacher wrote:
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 – June 5, 2012)
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The frustration of the Preacher is something I believe we’ve all experienced at one time or another. “What is the point of it all?” is a question every adult probably has asked at least once, if not several times. ~ In the past few days I’ve been part of two committees trying to schedule meetings in the same few days; coordinating the calendars of about twenty different people, all with work schedules and personal lives, is next to impossible and leads to precisely the kind of frustration Ecclesiastes voices. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain? ~ As our world gets more and more complex, the abilities to be flexible, to think in terms of alternatives, to see different potential outcomes as equally good (stop looking for the one, best answer), to share differing visions nonjudgmentally, to let go of personal involvement and trust others to do a good job in their own way even if it is not your way, to clearly communicate and consult with others about ideas, all these will help avoid the sense of futility evinced in these verses. Perhaps the most important skill is the one specifically alluded to here, the ability to turn off one’s mind at night! ~ One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given about those restless night-time thoughts was to write them down. If a thought persists, write it down. Then when it comes back again, look at it with disinterest; you’ve written it down and you will deal with it in the morning. Can’t do anything about it late at night, anyway; it’s all vanity. ~ The world is a rapidly changing and the rate of change is accelerating. Flexibility and a good night’s rest are essential survival skills.
Paul wrote to the Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 1:6 – June 4, 2012)
I’m very tempted to ask, “O come on, Paul! You really didn’t expect them to remember you after you’d gone, did you?” But, of course, he did! It seems to me that Paul here is very much like modern clergy. I think we all expect to have lasting impact on the places we serve, but the truth is most of us will not. Clergy are transients; in the past half-decade I’ve seen studies variously reporting the average length of a pastorate across denominations as somewhere between three and five years. That’s not much time to make much of an impact. ~ Now, there are exceptions. Every parish seems to have its sainted Father Usedtobehere, that one priest or pastor whom everyone remembers with great affection. He (it’s usually “he” in my denomination because we haven’t had women in the presbyterate long enough yet) was the best at visiting, best at preaching, best at organizing, best at presiding at the altar, best at remembering parishioners’ birthdays, best at whatever. He is remembered as the paragon of ministry even by people who came to the parish after he departed! There’s really no competing with such ghosts. One just has to accept that they are here and will live on in memory long after one has gone . . . and that it is unlikely that most of us will ever enjoy such exalted canonization. ~ However, I’m not suggesting that we clergy adopt the attitude of the Preacher whose writing is also included in today’s lectionary readings: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11) As unlikely as it may be that any of us attain the celebrated status of parish patron saint, it is equally likely that we will have an impact (usually through something we think of as mundane or insignificant) on the lives of one or two people, maybe more. Most of us may not be remembered by the whole congregation as the cream of the clergy crop; the majority of the parish may (as Paul complained) quickly desert us. But those few will remember . . . and here’s the rub (as Hamlet might have said) – we don’t know who they will be, nor what action or word of ours may make the difference. We just have to try to do the best we can in any given pastoral situation, in most of which we may feel woefully inadequate, because we never know. ~ That’s what Paul should have remembered; that’s what the Preacher should have remembered; that’s what each clergyperson should remember!