How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving Dinner, or My Week with Ecclesiastes

grinch-roast

Imagine you could invite three people from the Bible to eat Thanksgiving dinner with you.  It could be anyone you wanted, and they would spend the entire day with you and your extended family passing the turkey, sharing the pumpkin pie, and feeling fat and happy afterwards.  You’d probably play it safe and pick people you know would be friendly and warm, who would make the day of giving thanks even better.  You know, people like Jesus or Mary (or Mary or Mary) or John or Abraham or Ruth.  Maybe if you were brave and wanted someone to add some life to the party you might invite David or Peter.

I bet there are people you definitely wouldn’t put on your list.  You wouldn’t invite anyone who was notoriously violent into your home.  Sorry, Samson.  You’d also probably leave the notoriously evil off the list too.  Can’t have any bad influences around the kids, you know.  Sorry, Ahab and Judas.  And you would absolutely, positively leave the pessimist off the list.  Nobody wants to sit next to a Grinch at Thanksgiving dinner.  Sorry, Qohelet.

Qohelet is the name that the author of Ecclesiastes gives himself.  Traditionally identified as Solomon (although this is only suggested in the text), the name Qohelet is a Hebrew word which means “the Preacher.”  He is famous for teaching that the world is meaningless, and he seems to have a knack for taking something we think is good and turning it on its head.  If everyone at thanksgiving dinner were oohing and ahhing over a new baby, Qohelet would be that guy who reminds everyone that the baby is just going to die someday.

So, yeah…definitely leaving Qohelet off the invitation list.  What a Grinch.

Qohelet wouldn’t be on my list either, especially not at a time when I am trying to feel grateful for all the good things God has done for me.  But this year, he showed up at my door uninvited, and I’ve been having an interesting week trying to balance his constant pessimism ever since.

I’m in a Wisdom Literature class this semester, and over Thanksgiving break I have to translate six chapters of Ecclesiastes.  Every day of break I have waded through a mire of pointlessness and meaninglessness and absurdity, and after a little while I sort of started to see things from Qohelet’s point of view.  It’s frightening when you catch yourself saying, “Amen!” to something like this: “I hated all my toil in which I had labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” (Ec. 2:18-19)

How can you feel thankful when you are overwhelmed by the absurd realities of life?  How can you find meaning in a day of celebration when your heart screams against the injustice of good lives cut short and wicked lives that go on and on and on?

The truth is I often see absurdity in much of life as well.  I see absurdity in a young person full of promise and potential who dies before they can really touch the world.  I see absurdity in the fact that almost everyone is forgotten after they have been dead for a little while.  Accomplishments fade, records are broken, gravestones are polished smooth by the wind and the rain until your last desperate grasp at being remembered in stone disappears along with your flesh.  Unless you are one in a million and get your name in a footnote in a history book, you will be forgotten.

Moments like this, when I feel like nothing matters and nothing makes sense, I have to look past the pessimism and ask God if he sees things the same way as Qohelet does.  Yeah, sometimes things don’t make sense to me, but do they to God?  Why does he stick us here in a world where we may never live to see the results of our hard work, where we will soon be forgotten once we are gone?  Should these things matter?

The people who built Europe’s great cathedrals didn’t think so.  Motivated to do something great for God, they began building projects that they knew they would not live to see finished.  Sometimes those cathedrals took hundreds of years to complete. Multiple generations worked to see something completed that was bigger than any of them, something that stands long after the nameless nobles and peasants have faded from memory.

So I find myself here today, working on the great Cathedral of Christianity; I did not see the beginning and I will likely be gone and forgotten before the end.  And if the world revolves around me, this is absurd, and I should take the advice of Qohelet and eat my turkey and enjoy the company and give up on getting anything meaningful out of life.

But that’s where I depart from the old grump.  I don’t think the world revolves around me.  I find by the grace of God I am a part of something much bigger than me, and the purpose I find overshadows the absurdity I so often feel.

I don’t know if Qohelet could ever truly celebrate thanksgiving, because I don’t know if you can be thankful for something you find meaningless.  He is the Thanksgiving Grinch, with a heart two sizes too small to feel gratefulness.  While I can empathize with him, I can’t follow him down that dark path, and I hope that by the time I complete my translations this weekend, I find that he sees a little light at the end of the tunnel as well.

I’m thankful for so many things.  Life is so good, and the joy I find in the Lord never lets me think like the pessimist for too long.  Who cares if we are forgotten someday?  This life is about something much bigger than any one of us individually.  I’m thankful for that, and I’m thankful that, even if everyone else forgets my name, Jesus won’t forget it.  One day he will call it, and I will rise again and give thanks.

Hopefully this wasn’t the most depressing Thanksgiving devotional ever.  Hopefully you can see that I’m really not a Grinch.  Hopefully I’m still invited to Thanksgiving dinner!

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, except to love God and serve him alone.” – Thomas a’Kempis

Give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his faithful love endures forever.  Has the LORD redeemed you?  Then speak out!  Tell others he has redeemed you from your enemies.” –Psalm 107:1-2

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3 responses to “How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving Dinner, or My Week with Ecclesiastes

  1. Love your post, Kirk. It would be slightly an exaggeration, and even a little morbid, to say that Ecclesiastes is my favorite book. But it is definitely the one that I keep coming back to over the years and finding more and more value in. I definitely like the questions that it makes me ask, both about the nature of the Bible, and the nature of this life, with this humanity and this God.

    I also just delivered three lessons on it recently as part of a 12 week series on the book in the young adults Sunday school class at my church, so it’s fresh.

    One of the epiphanies I’ve had though, is that Qoheleth is not saying life is “vanity of vanities,” or perhaps worse, “meaningless of meaninglessnesses” or something. I’ve always heard, and read in so many translations, that “hevel” means “vanity” or something similar, and I had taken it for granted. So, I assumed, I must largely disagree with what he says in his book. But then I finally realized that that meaning does not come directly from the image the word relates, and that it doesn’t even fit it at all really.

    I see Qoheleth using hevel to refer to life’s transitoriness, the fact that it cannot be grasped, retained, or even understood fully. That it is fleeting. Which is all different from saying it’s meaningless.

    There are even places where the meaning “meaningless” would make no sense. In chapters 11-12, he is telling the youth to find the value in youth and in having a life ahead of you before the dark days of death come. And then he says 11:8 that youth is hevel. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to say that youth is meaningless because that’s the exact opposite of what he means here! And again, in 12:8 at the conclusion of his teaching, to say that everything is meaningless or vanity makes no sense in light of the tragedy of mortality and decay. If life was meaningless, death wouldn’t be a problem. But death is the major problem for Qoheleth.

    Anyway, just wanted to see what you thought.

  2. Hey Nathan! I agree, I’ve always had a strange fascination with this book, even though I alternate between agreeing with him and feeling shocked at his audacity. Figuring out what ‘hevel’ means is so difficult, and you make a good point that context sometimes keeps it from meaning vanity/meaningless. In class today we talked about the images in 1:4-7, and how these things are constantly in motion but make no progress. The sun always rises in the same place, the oceans never fill up. And this too is hevel.

    I wonder if maybe combining this idea of no progress with what you said about ‘fleetingness’ doesn’t give a better understanding of what Qohelet is getting at? Nothing gets done and nothing lasts. Its really hard to nail down, but I am more and more convinced that meaningless doesn’t really work here. And I’m glad it doesn’t.

    The other idea I like is that hevel means absurdity, and I like this rather than meaningless because it suggests that life doesn’t make sense to me, but it isn’t necessarily without meaning. Maybe that works, but I don’t really know yet.

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