A few months ago, I found myself expressing that I was in a particularly “Ecclesiastes” mood.
Perhaps it was the postpartum depression, or maybe the disorientation brought on by the difficulties of the year we were leaving behind… But, I felt particularly attached to the idea of everything in life being “vanity.”
My life has always been characterized by “go,” and “figure it all out,” since I was a young girl. Be it birth order, my raising, genetics, or culture (probably all of the above?), there has long been a battle for control in my spirit.
This spirit has been met with Bible studies, moments of conviction, the words of correction and guidance from friends and mentors in the faith, but it mostly remained untouched and automatic despite my best efforts (ha, see what I did there?); surely destined to become a thorn in my side for the long haul of my faith.
This past year, though, life and mothering got the best of me and I was finally brought to the complete end of myself. There was no more rope to hold on to, just me, God, and the long expanse of unknown surrender stretched out below me. Instead of my usual shape of extroverted energy and can-do spirit, I found myself weary, disoriented, and walking around in a sort-of all-encompassing fog.
And so, it was in this place of weariness and disorientation that I entered the book of Ecclesiastes.
I think, maybe, I was searching for some validation in my prickly thoughts about life; hoping to squash all silver-linings-perspectives, and give rebuttal to anyone trying to encourage me to “consider it all joy.” (Yeah, postpartum depression will take you to some weird, dark and twisty places).
What I found, though, was not as prickly as I remembered thinking in previous reads, but instead some refreshing and profound truth that shifted my mindset and carried me forward with hope.
I have heard it taught that the teachings of this book are only “redeemed” in hindsight– that only through the lens of Christ can we look back and say, “See, that teacher didn’t know what he was talking about… Life isn’t meaningless!”
And while I will give way to the point that through Christ we have a clearer view of our mission and purpose, I don’t believe that the book of Ecclesiastes is blind to the true meaning of our lives: partnership with God to bring about His kingdom. There is rich truth in this book that is beautifully confirmed in the message of Christ, rather than discredited.
When the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says “Everything is….” The English translations really have a hard time nailing down the best meaning for the Hebrew word used by the Teacher. “Meaningless, vanity, futility, and pointless” are the range of available translations from the Hebrew word “hevel,” but all of these fall short in really capturing the essence of what the teacher is communicating.
Note: For a deeper look at these linguistic nuances, check out The Bible Project’s podcast on Ecclesiastes as well as Exploring My Strange Bible.
Instead of meaningless (having no purpose or reason), the visual image conjured by the Hebrew word “hevel” is that of smoke. Having substance, able to be seen and conceptualized, but not able to be grasped or nailed down. As I read the verses surrounding this word, I realized that the Teacher being quoted in this book was drawing us to release our attempts to grasp on to real life.
Through one example after another, my heart and hands felt a pull to open and one phrase continued to rise to the forefront of my mind as I leaned into the teacher’s words:
Hold. It. Loosely.
Life being like “smoke” or “vapor” doesn’t mean that it’s not worth anything, but rather that our attempts to systematize, operationalize, and nail down assurance about the essence of life and godliness will leave us more frustrated than fulfilled.
The teacher eloquently and definitively shows us through an abundance of examples that the futility lies in locking into one message, one truth, one goal, one platform, one boundary or obligation.
He warns against being overly foolish… And overly righteous.
He warns against working too hard… And not working enough.
He assures us of the benefit of community, joy, contentment, and ultimately the pursuit of knowing God.
He calls us to realize that when we become so ingrained in our efforts to organize and systematize our life, we will miss the opportunity to be led by the Spirit into true joy, we may alienate people in the process, and we will probably burn ourselves out fighting for causes.
One handful. Not folding our hands and giving up, but also not grasping with both hands, fists closed. Instead he calls us to an open and engaged posture to life. Holding our boundaries, experiences, beliefs about what we should or shouldn’t do, convictions about how to do life, in our open palm stretched out and upward in a posture of willing surrender and openness to the Creator.
And isn’t this the word we all need as mothers, wives, friends, church-goers, and Jesus-followers in the wake of all that this year brought into our lives? It was joy and sorrow, laughter and weeping, connection and isolation– I’ve tried to make sense of it all, to systematize it into lessons of good and bad, right and wrong in a desperate attempt to avoid going through that kind of pain again…
But it’s all hevel.
There are no definite answers. The last year of our lives wasn’t anything but what it was.
And God was there in it all. Comforting, guiding, allowing, causing, protecting, encouraging. I can’t nail it down, but I catch glimpses of his presence when I choose to hold it loosely.
I came into my mothering life with ideas, perspectives, thoughts on how I wanted to raise my children “in the way they should go.”
I (and you, too, I think) have idealized these thoughts, internally criticized the parenting practices of others, and read all the books in an effort to get it all right.
For me, though, the beginning of my mothering life has brought me face-to-face with the teachings in Ecclesiastes.
Probably sped by the collective experience of the events of the world, I have discovered that the things I thought were the essence of mothering well are not as water-tight as I might have hoped. I have been tempted to shame and guilt as my daughter ate more processed food than I thought, as she watched more TV than I thought, as my son spent more time alone than I thought, as I’ve considered weaning earlier than I thought…
I don’t think I’m alone in that temptation to shame.
Together, as mothers, we someday will all realize that the mom with the tantruming toddler in the grocery store was way more normal than we ignorantly judged before we had kids.
We marvel at her now, wondering how in the world she didn’t lose it right then and there.
Together we will come home to the realization that kids are actually whole people with whole personalities, not able to be controlled or systematized with the perfect blend of limited screen time, firm boundaries, and developmentally appropriate activities.
Maybe instead of shame, we’ve been tempted to completely drop the things we thought were good.
Screen time? Who cares!
Family Devotionals? Yeah Right!
Church? Time with God? Not a chance!
We realize the folly of our dreaming and planning, and resign to just throw in the towel and declare it too much to handle.
And girl, I’ve been there, too.
My prickly response to my loosening grasp on what I thought I knew was to be grumpy and jaded, diminishing the value of holding any sort of construct for what this life was supposed to look like.
But, thanks to the teacher in Ecclesiastes, I realized that even my prickly perspective wasn’t the final and absolute truth.
The Teacher is careful to remind us that prudence, wisdom, and hard work are still good things to pursue in life. The answer is not to completely drop our convictions, boundaries, thoughts and perspectives on parenting, or any other effort to systematize, organize, and operationalize our lives.
The answer is to hold it loosely.
The thing is that when we mothers hold our opinions and expectations of self and others too tightly, we risk losing our sensitivity to the Spirit of God and becoming more like the Pharisees than followers of Jesus.
We risk losing the joy of motherhood because instead of listening for God’s guidance in nurturing the little souls given to us, we become bound to the man-made “things under the sun” instead of co-workers with God in His grand kingdom.
I realize that this post lands squarely in the impractical and philosophical category of blog posts. You might be wishing that I had systematized my thinking, laid out a three-step plan, maybe included a downloadable PDF to be posted on your refrigerator. And we will get there, sort-of. This month we are going to chat about 3 specific areas of holding loosely that I think are common to mothers.
But today I didn’t want to give you a three-step plan, because life really can’t be operationalized into definitive steps. You may struggle with the things we’re chatting about later this month– frustration, scheduling and planning, or relationships with others.
But, maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s something else for you.
I encourage you to do some digging into the book of Ecclesiastes with this newfound understanding of the word “hevel.” Ask yourself what wisdom looks like to the Teacher, and decide how you might incorporate that truth into your life. Just a hint, I bet it looks more like letting go than doing something.
If you want an in-depth Bible study on the book of Ecclesiastes, make sure you’re signed up to receive emails from me. You can count on being invited into my virtual living room each Friday morning, with scriptures and resources that I share with my closest friends right in your inbox.
I promise one of the resources this month will be a guided meditation for letting go..
As you study or read this post, I’d love to know what resonates with you. Please let me know in the comments.
As always, in the thick of it with you,