Life is meaningless. Work is meaningless. Love and wealth and power and wisdom- it’s all just meaningless. So teaches the author of Ecclesiastes.
If you’re one of those people who opens your Bible to a random page, hoping for inspiration or encouragement, you’d do well to staple the pages of Ecclesiastes together.
“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is meaningless- chasing after wind,” (Ecc 1:14). You can put that quote on a beautiful picture of fall trees with a nice brush script font, and you still won’t be inspired. Ecclesiastes is the embodiment of Eeyore.
At Lighthouse this year, we’ve been focusing on the parts of the Bible that we tend to avoid, and I figured that midterms would be the perfect time to tackle Ecclesiastes’ nihilistic rants. When I asked students whether they were at all familiar the text, not a single hand went up. Perhaps that’s because meaninglessness “just don’t preach.”
The word that is often translated as “meaningless” or “vanity” throughout Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word, habel. A more literal translation of the word would be vapor, breath, or smoke. To be honest, I’m not sure that “meaningless” captures the intended meaning of those words, but perhaps “temporary” or “fleeting” might.
“Temporariness” rather than “meaninglessness” shifts the theme of the book quite a bit. Life is temporary. Wealth is fleeting. Power is just momentary. It’s all here for a second and gone the next. The things in your life that you spend years pursuing, and the things you most fear and most love, they are all equally fleeting… like vapor and breath.
Breath comes and goes. It has to. You can neither keep a breath nor avoid a breath without killing the body. Likewise, we can neither keep joy forever nor avoid pain. We can only let this breath fill our chest, and then let it out to make room for another.
When something is fleeting, we usually see it as meaning-full. We treasure the holidays, our childrens’ first years, and a hot cup of coffee because we know that holidays pass, children grow, and coffee cools.
College ministry is a temporary kind of ministry, a fleeting ministry. We have a narrow window of time to make an impact, and on graduation day that window always feels so small.
It is a unique and incredible window though. The potential for personal and spiritual growth is greater during these four years than during just about any other developmental stage. Here, in this small window of time, emerging adults choose a trajectory for the adults that they will become, and it is humbling to be present with students in that brief moment.
I am grateful to do this work with all of you: donors, families, alumni, friends, and churches. What we do here – it is indeed habel. And that is humbling, good news.