HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 15, 2017
Ecclesiastes 2: 1-11 (CEB)
I said to myself, Come, I will make you experience pleasure; enjoy what is good! But this too was pointless! 2Merriment, I thought, is madness; pleasure, of no use at all. 3I tried cheering myself with wine and by embracing folly—with wisdom still guiding me—until I might see what is really worth doing in the few days that human beings have under heaven.
4I took on great projects: I built houses for myself, planted vineyards for myself. 5I made gardens and parks for myself, planting every kind of fruit tree in them. 6I made reservoirs for myself to water my lush groves. 7I acquired male servants and female servants; I even had slaves born in my house. I also had great herds of cattle and sheep, more than any who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8I amassed silver and gold for myself, the treasures of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers for myself, along with every human luxury, treasure chests galore!
9So I became far greater than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Moreover, my wisdom stood by me. 10I refrained from nothing that my eyes desired. I refused my heart no pleasure. Indeed, my heart found pleasure from the results of my hard work; that was the reward from all my hard work. 11But when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had worked so hard to achieve, I realized that it was pointless—a chasing after wind. Nothing is to be gained under the sun.
There is a spectacular poem by Robert Frost titled, “The Road Not Taken.” It is a poem I have long adored, and I’m sure many of you are familiar with it as well. It goes like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Of course, on the surface level, Frost is talking about a walk in the woods. But on the metaphorical level, the poet is talking about life. Life is this series of choices: this path, or that path. Sometimes, we have the opportunity to try both paths for a time. Sometimes, once the decision is made, there is no turning back. Sometimes these paths lead to great and wonderful things, and sometimes the path leads to nothing but suffering and destruction. And of course, there are times when there is no decision at all; some circumstance beyond our control sends our lives in a certain direction beyond any choice of our own making. The thing I think Robert Frost captures so well is the truth that with nearly every path chosen, there is always at least some sense of wonder and perhaps even regret (but also sometimes rejoicing) that the other path wasn’t taken.
And as we consider our scripture readings this morning, and look at what constitutes “the good life,” I think one of the things we need to acknowledge is that with each decision to follow a certain path, there is also a decision to sacrifice something else, to choose one outcome over another. Some of those decisions will lead to great joy, others to great heartache. But ultimately, when it comes to building the good life, what is most important is keeping the right outcome in mind. We have to get our priorities straight so that at each crossroads, the path we choose is based in God’s will, not in worldly ways. When we have the right perspective, no matter what bumps, hurdles, or road blocks we might encounter, no matter what wonder or regret we might feel about the path not taken, we will still be on the path to the good life.
So let’s think for a minute about the good life we desire. I think it’s fair to say that when any of us think of the good life, what comes to mind is tranquility, peace, joy, happiness, health. How each of us defines those ideas might vary some, and what brings peace for one might be stressful for another. But still I think there is that question that has nagged at humanity from the beginning of time, “How do I achieve tranquility, peace, joy, happiness, health? How do I get to the good life?”
For some people, the answer to that question is, “more stuff.” This is what we see in our scripture reading this morning. This book of Ecclesiastes is reflections from King Solomon. As you know, Solomon was the son of David. He ruled over Israel in a very prosperous time, under him the first Temple was built, and he was extremely wealthy. As he writes, he is reflecting on his efforts to experience greater pleasure and enjoyment in life. He talks about building houses, and vineyards, gardens that were more like parks, and then reservoirs to water those gardens. He had numerous servants and countless herds. He collected treasures of silver and gold. By his own admission, King Solomon denied himself nothing. But in the end, Solomon reflects, “it was [all] pointless [meaningless]—a chasing after the wind.” This is not unlike the conclusion of Christ in the parable we heard from Luke’s gospel earlier. In the end, no matter what wealth or possessions we have amassed, we die, and all that stuff we have is useless.
Yet, there is still this draw, is there not? This feeling that if we just had this or that, our lives would be better. That’s kind of what the story of the Fall is about. God creates Adam and Eve and sets them into this beautiful, luscious garden full of everything they need. And the only instruction God gives them, the only rule they have to follow, is to avoid eating the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden. But in the end, the draw is too much, despite the fact that they have all they need, they want more. And because they ate that fruit, they ended up dealing with shame and disappointment that they hadn’t experienced before, which is what always happens when we seek fulfillment in “stuff.” There’s even a psychological description of this feeling called “hedonic adaptation.” Hedonic adaptation means that achieving what you desire is never as satisfying as you were expecting. So, then, we end up pursuing something bigger or better, which leads to greater disappointment still, and we get caught repeatedly choosing the wrong path that leads not to a good life, but to a lot of disappointment.
So, then, how do we find the good life? There is one writer who says the key to the good life is to “want what you have.” In other words, rather than always thinking “the grass is greener on the other side,” rather than trying to always amass new “stuff,” we need to be thankful for what we do have. We will be happier and healthier when we are grateful for each of life’s blessings. In fact, medical studies are now showing that people who engage regularly in practices of gratitude, like keeping a gratitude journal, are healthier than people who are not intentional about gratitude. Even the simple practice of saying grace before each meal can improve our lives, moving us toward happier, more fulfilled, and flourishing lives.
And I know, I know, that there are times in our lives when we cannot feel grateful. There are times when we are set on a path either of our own choosing or not, and there is no turning back. And we hate it. We wish there was some other way, but it’s too late, or we’re too far in, or whatever. I realize that it sounds very naïve and even flippant of me to suggest that even in those moments we should be grateful, because sometimes it’s just not possible. But know this: God wants you to be happy. Jesus came to give life abundantly. Even when everything in life feels bad, God still desires good for us, God is still working for good in our lives. So we can’t just give up. When gratitude seems an impossible task, we can remember God’s hope for each of us. But that also means following God’s direction for our lives.
Our lives have meaning and purpose. We are the children of God and as such, God has plans for us. Things won’t always go as planned. Sometimes we’ll get distracted and head down the wrong path and things might be messed up for a little while. We’ll have sorrows and regrets, and times where we can’t muster even an ounce of gratitude for anything in our lives. And in those moments we will grieve and we will rage. But no matter what happens, we will still have value in God’s eyes. We will still have meaning and purpose. And so it is that not only must we make gratitude a priority, we must also make pursuing God’s purpose a priority. We have to figure out what God wants and then do it. And I think we always make that more complicated than it is. Jesus taught us everything we need to know about how to live our lives. He challenged us to be salt and light. He instructed us to “do to others as we would have them do to us.” And ultimately, in what he laid out as the greatest commandment, he taught us to “love God…and love [our] neighbors.” Our lives have meaning and purpose, our lives find their greatest fulfillment when we love the Lord and serve one another. This is the cause we must pursue with our greatest efforts and energy. This is the good life.
Now, as I’ve said so many times already. We know that life is not always going to be perfect. We know that despite our best efforts to build the good life, even by God’s standards, we are still going to be frustrated and disappointed. But I realized something really wonderful about these two priorities this week. First, even in those moments when we are not able to practice gratitude, when everything is wrong and nothing is right; even in those moments, there is still the possibility of joy as we dedicate our lives to pursuing God’s purpose for each us. And, on the flip side, in those days when we are tired and worn-out and feel like we’ve done enough purpose work, we can sit down and give thanks for the many blessings of our lives.
These are the priorities; these are the resolutions that should take the forefront in our lives if what we desire is “the good life.” I truly believe that if we keep our focus on being grateful and pursuing our purpose, then we will find ourselves on the path to the good life, the path “that makes all the difference.”