"All Is Vanity"

“It Looks Like He May Be Right” McDowell


Our Preacher, Jeff, preached a fine sermon using Ecclesiastes as his text. He reminded us that it is an often neglected book. For some folks Ecclesiastes seems to take such a gloomy view of life that they doubt the spiritual value of reading it or even wondering if it belongs in the Bible at all. But perhaps it is honest about the troubles of life. Maybe we should read it because it asks the biggest and hardest questions that people still have today.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanities! All is vanity.” With these encapsulating superlatives, Qoheleth takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless. Then he takes the next 12 chapters to prove his point in painful detail, after which he returns to the same statement: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.”

Take for instance the topic of death. When I passed the mid-life passage I began to think differently about death. Thirty years before that I could spit in its eye. I could talk about death, teach it, preach it, make fun of it and yes, God forbid, laugh at it. I was a preacher. I was 22. White shoes, matching belt and tie, leisure suit. Nobody in his right mind ought to be 22. I now tremble at the thought of death, which enters my train of consciousness only a few dozen times each day. Like when I feel a gas pain (heart attack I figure), have a sore back (leukemia for sure), blurred vision (tumor), or shortness of breath (cancer).

I’m a faithless coward. And you’re not?

Talk on preacher. Tell us how the victory’s won, and he is better off now, and we shouldn’t cry, and the Lord called him home . . . and, all I can hear is “My God!!! Why? Why have you left me now?” And it scares the beejeebies out of me.

Death is getting on my nerves. I don’t like it. I don’t pretend to. I’m afraid of it. I think about it. I’m getting paranoid. I have hopes of living at least another year but I doubt I’ll see another playoff game. I pretend not to notice but I tremble at night in the still darkness when I am supposed to be asleep. I hear my wife breathing and turning contentedly in bed. Am I the only one on earth who is awake and scared?

Everything is vain – futility. I find it hard to believe but it is. The Preacher said so. It’s all a very unfunny joke. What good does it do to get born? And go through high school and learn to drive, take your immunization shots, learn to diagram sentences, enroll in college, go through the turmoil of starting a career and getting married and raising children and buying insurance and going to one zillion church services and then … boom! Everybody just dies off.

Another group comes on the scene, a new generation and they have their turn and do the very same thing, fully believing they discovered it for the first time. That generation thinks it was the most important, the worst, or the sinfullest or the best or the lostest or the happiest, ad infinitum. Stupid. Only the earth remains. The sun, the wind, the rivers do their bit, big deal. What difference does it make? None.

Churchill dead! Kennedy dead! Will Rogers dead! C.S. Lewis dead! Babe Ruth dead! Hemingway, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Twain, Joyce, Anderson, all dead! Thurmon Munson dead! Batsell Barrett Baxter dead! Tony Lema dead! Bobby Jones dead! Carl Rogers dead! Virginia Satir dead!

I read on a bathroom wall “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.” Very funny, veeee – re funny. Probably written by a 22 year old preacher with white shoes and matching belt and tie in a leisure suit.

Only a fool can pretend he does not fear and tremble in the face of death. Or maybe someone who has yet to be touched by it. I read in Saroyan’s stuff about his long preoccupation with death and I understand. I read in Ecclesiastes, a book that is making more and more sense all the time, about death and how we’re all going to turn to dust. I read of others who fear it, respect it, fight it, contend it, and I say Amen.

I find that it is the very young, your teen group, who laughs at death, the middle-agers who fear it the most, and then the wise and ancient who say, “Ah, what the heck, I’ve had my share.”

Marilyn Monroe dead! Clark Gable dead! John Wayne dead! Elvis?? Davy Crockett dead! Solomon dead! Einstein dead! Washington dead! Rockwell dead! Dizzy Dean dead!

“For there no remembrance of the wise more than the fool forever: seeing that which now is in the days to come shall be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? As the fool. Therefore, I hated life,” Ecclesiastes chapter three.

Modern translation: “It is a strange thing that God hath wrought upon a man to endure. ‘Tis all vexation and vanity … (then you got your bad news). ‘Tis a burden to be born, ‘tis an unknown-God-forsaken-dead-end street to die, ‘tis some kind of pure hell in between” Bill McDowell.

If nothing makes sense and all is vanity and vexation and void, there is no wisdom under the sun and so it will be apropos to conclude with a rush of pure folly, or is it pure wisdom?

          “To be, is to do!” Nietzsche.

          “To do, is to be.” Sartre.

          “To be, do be do.” Sinatra.

Is there no one who can answer? Don’t we have one single person among the entire race who will go for us? Is there no one somewhere, sometime, somehow who has borne our kind of miserable sorrow? One, who is fully acquainted with my kind of gut wrenching, insomnia causing, nauseating enraged grief? Is there no one who has broken the vain cycle of nothingness called life?

Ah, Yes.