"...vanity of vanities; all is vanity." _Ecclesiastes 1:2
The whole first chapter of Ecclesiastes is a poetic declaration of its' second verse, just in case it wasn't enough. The author declares the meaninglessness of all the work we do and all the things into which we put so much energy. I have, in the past, taken this verse as a challenge to my emphasis on the importance of participating with God in His work of creation. I prefer to believe that what we do actually matters, it actually influences the world, I prefer to believe that the Church is a sacrament--the affection of God's grace into the world. But if all is vanity then it means that none of that work really matters... it's pointless.
But I have found new hope and new freedom through this verse by finding a different way of understanding the work of the Church. The Church as a sacrament escapes all the "normal" litmus tests of good work. We are not subject to the cultural and economic definitions of effectiveness and success. We are not judged by how much we accomplish... which is good since all success and accomplishment is meaningless anyway. The church is not to be effective, but affective. We are not trying to accomplish anything (in the traditional sense) we are responding to the breath of God. We are free from the chains and restrictions of effectiveness and we are invited to imagine the world how God imagines it without worrying about how "practical" or "effective" it might be... in fact, we don't ever have to worry about succeeding in this task because success is meaningless. What we may find when we begin living and imagining the world as God does, is that we are on a dead end path. Our path leads to a cross, the greatest symbol of ineffectiveness and the loudest declaration of the vanity of a life, but in walking that path we will find and see glimpses of the Kingdom of God. We will see that Kingdom of God manifest in our acts of martyrdom. We will find ironic victory as God begins to heal the world through the wounds of his body (remember also that the Church is the body of Christ), through all our meaningless work.
"...vanity of vanities; all is vanity."
It's all meaningless... all the things we work toward, our house payment, our national ranking, our budget, our respectability, all the things by which we so harshly judge ourselves. We have too often placed our identity in meaningless things... in a curse (Genesis 3:17). But the gospel is that "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 3:11) There is a piece of the imagination of God within us that is our true identity and it drives us toward the Kingdom of a crucified king. We are invited to identify ourselves and identify the work we do through the lens of eternity, through the lens of the imagination of God.
As we learn to imagine with such freedom we will begin to envision that the only appropriate response to the breath that fills our lungs is obedience to the breather of life. God judges our obedience much differently than we do. God judges with a much bigger imagination than any bar graph, grading system, or bank account can manage.
"Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity...”
"...Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." _Ecclesiastes 12:8-14