The Gatherer: ‘where’s God in all this?’

Untitled1I have a strange admiration for this Old Testament writer. He is so honest. He is so unwilling to rely on any answers but his own. He has a one word for this existence.

‘Vanity’

It describes what he has discovered in life. Life is full of futility. We believe that we understand then it is taken away from us. Anything that satisfies us does not last.

Life is all smoke and mirrors …

I was watching a candle as it came to life. It had been lit earlier the same. It had flamed into life and had burnt steadily as we discussed and prayed. Now the day was coming to its close and so was the candle. Slowly the flame became smaller and smaller until it ceased and all that was left was a fitful trail of smoke with no light and heat.

This was what the Gatherer meant by vanity. Life is empty. It is all smoke and mirrors. All elusive shapes, no substance.

A companion from the last century

Untitled2Do you know of Ettie Hillesum? She was a Dutch Jew who died in Auschwitz. In her diaries An Interrupted Life she reveals a similar honesty to that of the Gatherer.

It started last night; the turbulence began to swirl up inside me, as vapour swirls in the swamp – I still lack a basic tune; a steady undercurrent; the inner source that feeds me from drying up and, worse still, I think too much.

She like the Gatherer acknowledges that she needs a core stability but nothing delivers this. She like him knows that she cannot escape the mist; the sense of futility that can cloud our achievements.

Listen to the Gatherer

What do people gain from all the toil they go through under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

He then describes the ceaseless round of the sun and the weather and then comments

All things are wearisome; more than anyone can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What will be, will be; there is nothing new under the sun.

And finally he provides a commentary on Hillesum’s words

Knowledge is like chasing the wind. Life is a like a corkscrew that can’t be straightened. Much learning earns you much trouble. The more you know the more you hurt.

But what I admire is that at no point does he advocate walking away from God. In fact this is a way to walk to God or with God.

Dissatisfaction is a way to find God and it is also a way to live by faith in God.

The Gatherer looks at what people think is important – popularity, having work, acquiring wisdom, avoiding pain and being religious – he recognises some positives but does not believe that they add up to much.

I suggest you read Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7 and then Jesus speaking in Matthew 6:1-6

Jesus and the Gatherer have no time for a casual relationship with God. Neither does the Gatherer think much of people who try to put God in his place.

Times get difficult. You believe in God. It’s very easy to get into the attitude which thinks: time for God to deliver.

We think our faith must have gained us some advantage. These days it’s popular; I’ve done it myself – to advise people to be angry with God.

There’s a positive and a negative in this:

  • Positively it means that we can bring before God anything that we want to say or what we are feeling. He is not indifferent.
  • Negatively we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we can pin down God, make a deal and earn some sympathy for a life of faith.

It is an attitude that corrodes faith and reveals we haven’t really got to know God.

The Gatherer knows about this. A relationship with God that is based on manipulative grievance is going nowhere.

A relationship that is based on our limitations is truthful and gives God space to respond.

How people treat God who should no better

The Gatherer has been doing some thinking about how people treat God and comes up with observations that are timeless. Here’s how Eugene Petersen translates the beginning of Ecclesiastes 5:

Watch your step when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly putting some cash in the plate. That does more harm than good – God doesn’t need casual subscriptions.

Don’t shoot off your mouth or speak before you think. Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear.

God’s in charge, not you – the less you speak, the better.

He’s not trying to silence the curious seeker he is trying to rein in the believer who thinks they can talk back to God. We show our respect for God or how much we believe in God by a humble reticence when it comes to expressing our faith.

Worship can be a load of vanity when it makes the worshipper think that they have demonstrated what great faith they have having mouthed off hymns and prayers.

Dave Tomlinson has suggested that churches should provide services of disenchantment. They would be an opportunity for worshippers to express their disappointment with their Faith tradition and the way in which God can cloak his presence in obscurity. I think the Gatherer would approve. For his writing is one long lament over human fatuous arrogance in the face of life’s deepest dilemmas.

There is the need at all time and all places for communities of faith to offer themselves and others a hospitality:

which accepts our uncertainties about God

that gives us time to contemplate all that’s happening which questions all we rely on

and draws us down into a silence where we may discover the Mystery in the Muddle.

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