New Years Sermon: On Meaninglessness and Setting Goals

Let me start with a story. This is taken from Caesura Letters.

Philosophies for Sale is a clever dialogue written by Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist. It is a story about an auction organized by Zeus and Hermes. The gods present prospective buyers with the great philosophers of the past, whose theories are questioned and scrutinized by the shoppers. The discussion reads something like a classical Greek version of Saturday Night Live, as the most revered heroes of philosophy are comically lampooned one after another.

Heraclitus and Democritus (We will call them Heratio and Demo) are brought to the auction block together “” a two for one deal! But they are an odd pair, because Heratio is sobbing bitterly, and Demo is laughing uncontrollably. A curious buyer questions the duo, “What is the matter with you two?”

“To me,” says Demo, “all the affairs of man are laughable. You yourself are a joke! Everything about life is a hollow mockery, a drifting sea of atoms stretching into infinity. Nothing really matters, which makes this whole state of affairs hilarious!”

“No,” says Heratio, “the situation of humanity is woeful and tearful. Nothing about existence is not already foredoomed. I pity and grieve for man. He foolishly ignores that nothing in his universe is stable. Everything is stirred up into a porridge: joy and joylessness, wisdom and unwisdom, great and small are all but the same, circling about, up and down, and interchanging in the great game of Eternity.”

The buyer, utterly frustrated, refuses to make the purchase, saying that Demo is an “infinite ass” and that Heratio “is not far removed from insanity.” What good is a philosophical system if it just leaves you immobilized, either keeled over laughing or curled up in a mire of depression?

Demo and Heratio had been respectively caricatured as the “laughing philosopher” and the “weeping philosopher” long before they became the source material for Lucian’s satirical antics. Indeed, the weeping/laughing myth developed over the centuries after their deaths, hundreds of years before Lucian.

Earlier, Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) tells us that whenever Heratio left his house he would weep over the wretchedness of life, because “all the joyous and happy people he met stirred his pity.” On the other hand, Demo “never appeared in public without laughing; so little did the serious pursuits of men seem serious to him.” (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Anger 2.10.5)

A few hundred years later, in the third century CE, biographer Diogenes Laërtius explained that Heratio grew so weary of humanity that he eventually wandered off alone into the wilderness like a hermit. He also suggests that Heratio did not finish several of his works due to severe melancholy. (Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IX.1.6)

The reason I tell this story is because I think New years brings us to the tension of this reality sometimes.

New years always brings interesting conversations. You get people talking about their new years resolutions, or what they are going to change from last year. It’s generally a time of new beginnings and excitement for what is to come. For some, like myself, I think what the new year does for me is put me in two different frames of mind. On the one hand it makes me nostalgic, reflecting back on what has happened, where I’ve come from and how everything was and sometimes this can make me really happy or really sad. On the other, it reorients me toward the future and what is to come. I set goals and try to meet them and improve who I am and all this can make me really happy or really sad. I feel like there is a wrestling match going on between these two philosophers trying to dictate what my next steps will be. Will I be oriented out of never-ending grief or never-ending hilarity?

The author of Ecclesiastes asks the same questions about the meaning of life. What in the world is the point of it all? We all end up dead, so why do we bother? I think it’s because all of these conversations have an underlying assumption of the overall meaningfulness of the universe and our place in it. We are all heading towards something that is coming and each year we remind ourselves of what that is. For some of us we want to become smarter, or lose weight, or go somewhere – all of it rests on the assumption that we have a picture of what the greater good is that we are heading towards and that the actions we take have meaning to getting us there.

Biblical authors seems to have a range on where they land on such issues. When you start to get into the New Testament you see the authors talking about hope again and excitement for what God is going to do. But here in Ecclesiastes it’s a bit more grim.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil?
I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.
He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;
moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

I’ve always resonated with Ecclesiastes and the angst that the author feels and his conclusions that he lands on. I always get here around New Years as well. It seems to be this weird paradoxical time of throwing up my hands in the air screaming what in the world is the point of all this and everything is meaningless and yet still longing for growth and newness and something to look forward to. Here the author though seems to have more of a conclusion for us. We should take pleasure in all our toil, we should enjoy ourselves as long as we live.

This is one of the things that I love about the authors in the Bible. That there is a sense of honesty here and struggle like I go through every day. It isn’t just taking one side and running with it without acknowledging the other side.

For instance, just two days ago I posted a link on my Facebook about the information that is starting to surface from the truth and reconciliation reports that are happening in Canada right now. The reports are saying that thousands upon thousands of aboriginal children died from mistreatment and neglect in the residential schools that Canada and church denominations created in order to attempt to assimilate aboriginal children into our country. It’s a dark page of our history. With the link I suggested that we think twice before celebrating our country. Typically these kinds of comments from myself stir up quite a storm towards me, even Barry defriended me this time!

What stood out to me in this conversation with a few people on there was their need for clarity and to remove all tension. “Just celebrate! We have a great immigration policy and we welcome foreigners” one would say. Which really is just an attempt to refuse to see one side, and only see the other side and then carry on in our merry way.

The reason I tell the story of the laughing and weeping philosopher is because I think the way they saw the world is powerful and can overtake all other emotions. The thing that inspires us to move in the world (or not move) is strong and in their story it cause both of them to be paralyzed. It seems that infinite joy and infinite sorrow is not a recipe for change.

So let me tie this back into this morning and New Years. The author of Ecclesiastes here is attempting to balance the sorrow of existence with the joy of existence. I think that New Years forces the same questions on us.

Q: Do you find it easier to be joyful or easier to be sorrowful? Is it difficult to be balanced between them? Does it feel like Ecclesiastes picks a side?

Let me give another example. I have a love hate relationship with self-improvement and God’s grace. Let me explain. On the one hand, I think we all should be striving for change and being better and growing and challenging ourselves and getting better. On the other hand, some of us just need to be encouraged and told everything is OK and we are loved regardless.

I tell this story of when Rachel and I went to go jogging together when we were first married. We were running and talking and she was feeling tired and I said “Ok, let’s push hard to the end of the block and then we will start walking, 1…2…3….” Instantly she stopped running and said “stop it, I’m done, I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was so confused. Rachel and I needed different things in that moment. She needs words of encouragement and told she is doing great, and I needed to be yelled at and told to push harder.

When I prepare my Sunday morning sermons, I am usually trying to put myself in the shoes of different kinds of people to understand how they would understand and react to some of the things that I am presenting. I’ll show you some different ideas/statements that trigger certain things in some people.

God loves everyone unconditionally and one day everyone will come to know God’s love.
The first reaction I might get here is one of excitement, finally someone is preaching about God’s love
The second one is the seeming lax-a-daisy attitude towards sin and God’s justice

God demands that you give 10% of your money to theStory
The first reaction would be that of guilt, for few of us do
Second reaction might be that of anger – how dare you tell me what to do with my money
A third reaction might be of satisfaction that finally I’m confirming your theological leanings

Everything is meaningless, so stop trying
Anger?
Release?
Helplessness?

God has a plan for your life, so live into it!

Depression?
Helplessness?
Satisfaction?

I feel like this when talking about things this morning, because I don’t really have an honest approach to it. Sometimes I feel utterly helpless and confused and depressed because I can’t find the answer, or the meaning to life, to my life, so my daily actions. But I feel like if I share that present place that I might trigger all sorts of bad responses and reactions from people that are in a different place. Other times though I feel alive and I want to encourage everyone to live into their calling, to improve and grow and take the world by storm. But sometimes, that kind of encouragement is false and it leads to false hopes and empty rhetoric or it is annoying because I’m invoking guilt or shame because you feel bad that you aren’t doing it. So it puts me in a weird position because well I waver like the opinions in this room waver and I can never make statements and walk away. However, at the same time, that is the beautiful part of theStory is that here it is not the person’s job up front to tell you what to think or what is the right way to look at things.

I think this is why I can go into this New Year’s seeing that there is no right or wrong way to approach this season and the newness that this brings. We all need different things in different places in our lives. Some of us will approach this optimistically and some of us pessimistically. Some of us will set goals and try to improve and some of us will wallow in the emptiness of it all. Some of us need to be challenged and some of us need to be loved.

Q: For you this new years, what do you need? Do you need to set goals and meet them? Do you need to be told it is OK not to meet any goals?

I’m not sure exactly how to end this morning. I don’t have answer for you on what the best way to go about New Years is. I can warn you to be careful about dreaming too hastily. I can warn you about the dangers of wallowing in self pity. We all need to see both sides.

So let me end with the words of the Ecclesiastes author and we’ll go from there!

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
A dream comes when there are many cares,
and many words mark the speech of a fool.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.

Therefore fear God.

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