Seth Patterson July 21, 2019
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:12–18
These two readings today bring into contrast two essential pieces of being a human. It illustrates a paradox in our lives. The excerpt from the address by the prophetically-speaking Rev. Dr. King illustrates so well the need and desire to act in our world. God calls us each to work together (and individually) to better our world, to enact justice, to live in compassion and to love the other as we love ourselves. We are creatures with agency and imagination, and we do what we are able to do to keep moving. No matter if we can fly, run, walk or crawl, we may see our life as an effort to leave the world better than we found it.
The reading of Ecclesiastes illuminates a very different piece of the human experience. Here we are reminded of the fact of constant change and of impermanence and the idea that “ignorance is bliss.” This piece of biblical wisdom writing states that the world is inherently meaningless. What is done cannot be undone and it will change in some way on its own eventually. “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” To try to understand the world’s deeper meanings is folly, it is—and I really love this phrase—like chasing after the wind. This is the wisdom of not seeking wisdom or action.
Which brings us to our lives and the decisions that we must make on a moment-to-moment basis. We wonder: Do I act? Or is doing something meaningless? Do I run, walk or crawl, or would that be like chasing the wind? No one wants our efforts to be wasted or misused, which leaves us often in this sort-of-paralyzed middle ground where we just wonder what we should do. I know I ask this a lot, and I have heard scores of people echo the same question publicly and privately. We want to do something, but we want it to be right and meaningful and worth our time and energy. We know there are too many things that we just cannot change because they are too big or too old or too far away.
The world, right now, can feel just too chaotic. There is too much to try and respond to, let alone act upon. I for one am sad and angry and scared. I am deeply saddened by the ways in which we consistently devalue and threaten people’s lives based on their gender, skin color, religion, birth place, sexuality and ability. I am terribly angry at the ways in which violence, hatred and greed are being lifted up as being almost virtues. I am angry at the ways that we do the gymnastics of justification to continue to ignore racist, violent and de-humanizing language. I am very scared for the children of our world. We are not responding to our environmental destruction and are handing over a changed and potentially broken earth. We are separating them from their families in deeply traumatic ways that could take generations to heal from. In our own cities and neighborhoods and street corners, we are perpetuating the systems of poverty, hunger and violence that pile up on our children. As Paula reminded us last week, all of the children are our children. These systems and these words are our systems and words. This earth is our earth. I do not get to divorce myself from this. We are all in this together, like it or not.
I often get a knot in my stomach when my wife Nora leaves the house. She is a brown-skinned, South American immigrant who has committed to only speaking Spanish to our daughter in order to teach her. And those aspects of her that cannot be hidden—being a woman, a Spanish-speaker, a person of color, an immigrant—are villainized in our culture right now. It doesn’t matter if she is a citizen when the authorities act first and ask questions later. It doesn’t matter what her status is when the pandora’s box of hatred, overt racism, xenophobia and violence has been opened the way it seems to have been. The family that I have married into, the family that I love deeply—they are terrified of black SUVs. They are terrified of not remembering their rights in exactly the proper way. They are terrified of being torn from their families and their homes. They are scared and angry and sad. And so am I.
This makes me want to retreat into the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. This is too big for me to handle, and to try and do anything is like chasing the wind. I cannot change this; it would be meaningless to even try. It makes me wish I knew less. I only have so much energy, I only have so much time, and I don’t have much money. I should just trust in the wisdom of God to fix this. While there is wisdom in this viewpoint, it can also make me feel helpless and hopeless.
When I was working at the University of Chicago, before I came here to Plymouth, I was asked to participate in conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. These were often eye-opening and powerful conversations that would twist me around and send me in directions I hadn’t even imagined. One such conversation was around the planning and implementation of a Martin Luther King Day celebration. We were discussing one of the good Reverend’s sermons, and many people were remarking that it was still poignant and powerful today. Many of the things that he spoke about are still unresolved and painful today. In this conversation about how little some things had changed in 50 years, I said aloud that this lack of movement, this lack of change, often left me feeling hopeless. It was an honest statement, and it felt vulnerable to admit this aloud. There were nods of agreement from the rest of the table, which was made up primarily of people of color. After a moment of silence, I noticed that one person was staring me right in the eye with some intensity. They then said to me, with deep weariness and frustration: “Mr. Seth, for you to lose hope is an act of great privilege. I am a queer black person and I cannot give up hope, because if I do, what do I have left? How do I survive? What right do you have to give up hope?” It hurt my pride and my ego to hear them say that to me, but I feel that they were right, and they gave me a wonderful gift with that honesty. I have not given up hope since. Not because it is easy, not because I don’t want to, not because I think that I can change things, but because anytime I feel like the tentacles of hopelessness are starting to wrap around me and pull me under, I remember these paradigm-shifting words: being hopeless is an act of privilege.
I have not given up hope since that moment, but to be honest with you, I have found it harder and harder to do so in recent months. I have had to dig deeper into my own resilience, practice my spiritual practices more diligently, rely on loved ones more vulnerably and trust in the goodness of God and the teachings on Jesus more authentically. Our hope is being tested regularly. My many conversations with you all and others in our communities remind me that I am not alone in feeling worn down by the world right now.
So, what do we do? We like to hear the words by the Rev. King about moving and acting no matter what. That is inspiring and powerful. The reality, though, is that we also know that our efforts are usually too small, too temporary and too under-resourced. We are just people trying to alter systems and cultures bigger and older than any of us. We are scared and angry and sad, and we don’t want to feel scared and angry and sad anymore. As Ecclesiastes says: “What a heavy burden God has laid on people! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
I wonder, then, if instead of sitting in the middle of this paradox and feeling paralyzed by not knowing the right things to do, we could instead live into both sides. We are complex creatures capable of holding opposites in tension. Why can’t we recognize this burden of folly and meaninglessness that God has put upon us—and also act? Can we fly, run, walk and crawl while also recognizing that we are likely just chasing the wind? Why don’t we chase the wind? Why don’t we act in whatever ways that we are capable of, knowing that it likely won’t change anything? Chase the wind! Live into the madness and folly of this wisdom and chase the wind!
A kite chases the wind and flies. Buddhist prayer flags only flutter when they are in the wind. An airplane flies into the wind in order for something that should be too heavy to fly to achieve flight. Chase the wind! Fly, run, walk or crawl and chase that wind. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be exactly right. It doesn’t need to have immediate impacts in order to keep doing it. We can fail and try again. Chase the wind. Go ahead, chase it. Chase it for the sake of chasing it and doing whatever you are capable of doing despite the folly of doing so. Chase the wind!
The writings say: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” The grief cannot be avoided; we cannot hide from discomfort and sadness and anger and fear. Those things are not a punishment, but rather a complicated gift that reminds us we are alive. So, instead of pretending it cannot touch us, what if we deepen our spiritual practices so that we can have something to fall back on when the grief hits? Build that safety net. Build your relationships with the people that are life-giving and practice the vulnerability of finding new friends. Sit in silence and practice contemplative prayer. Come to church and see the others who are trying to do the same thing. Read a book or take a class that opens your imagination and helps you encounter something new. Listen to music that stirs your soul and move your body to remember you are still alive. Stand in nature and feel small in the greatness of our earth. Find people that make you laugh, and laugh the laugh that you have had since you were born. Spend time with family, friends and strangers. Join a committee even if you hate meetings; you can be the one to help create an action. Be with children because they will help you remember what is truly important. Be with children whether you claim them as family or not. Chase the wind because it is part of being a human being. It is folly and madness and never perfect. Chase the wind because God has given each of us the power and responsibility to do so. God calls us to do so. Jesus models the madness of chasing the wind but also the power of action. Build up and deepen your spiritual practices so that you have something to hold you up when you are chasing the wind. The prophet [Rev. Dr. King] says:
“Keep moving, for it may well be that the greatest song has not yet been sung, the greatest book has not been written, the highest mountain has not been climbed. This is your challenge! Reach out and grab it and make it a part of your life. Reach up beyond cloud-filled skies of oppression and bring out blazing stars of inspiration. The basic thing is to keep moving. If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”
Chase the wind.