Faith Lessons from a Cynic - Reservoir Church
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Faith Lessons from a Cynic

Lydia Shiu

Aug 04, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23:

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

1:12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,

1:13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

1:14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

2:18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me

2:19 –and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

2:20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,

2:21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

2:22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?

2:23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I went on a mission trip to Mali, Africa for 2 weeks. While I was there I remember one day, I was kneeling and praying in a room, sweating in the heat of the summer, asking God to show up and meet me, that I wanted to experience God in a real way while I was on this mission trip. I mean I came all the way to Africa! Don’t miracles happen on mission fields? So I prayed and prayed. And suddenly I felt this gust of wind and felt chills run throughout my body and I gasped and turned around and it was the fan air.

We’re following a Bible reading guide called the Lectionary during the summer to preach from. And today’s text, from Ecclesiastes, calls life, vanity. Vanities of vanities. The word, sometimes translated vanity and sometimes meaningless, is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “breath”, “vapor “ or “light wind”. Passing wind. Like my mission trip, just fan air. Vanity, a chasing after wind. That’s what the author pretty much says what life is. It’s quite a cynical view of the world.

I’ve always been a bit confused by this book. When I’ve always learned from good Christians that ‘there’s a meaning for everything’ or ‘things aren’t just chance’, that ‘there’s a purpose driven life’ for everyone! So this book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes that has the these statement of “everything is meaningless”, well what’s the meaning of that?! I wanted to know. Like, it’s so negative vibes! That’s not faithful. It’s a downer book. Especially in these chosen verses for today, which it looks like it chose verses here and there from chapters 1 and 2, that doesn’t even include some of the conclusive lessons or takeaways from the book. Like, I can’t preach a sermon that’s titled, ‘everything is meaningless’ okay? And be done. We’d get some constructive criticism feedback on our Welcome Cards and emails tomorrow!

So, why. Why is this book in the Bible?

Let me just read you a few other lines/translations from the book, “I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race.” (1:13) “I conclude the the dead are better off than the living”. (4:2) and “And the day you die is better than the day you are born. Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies” (7:1-2) Oh, comon! You don’t like birthday parties? Something is wrong with you mister! Why is such a perspective in the Bible though? How can such words contribute to our faith journey?

There is some wisdom here. Some truth. Harsh truth. Maybe there’s some truth behind people who are emo, or goth, this dark cynical view of the world. There might be a reason why biblical counsels have decided again and again to include this in, what’s called the “canon” meaning, the carefully selected book collection that make up the Bible. (By the way there are other books that have been considered, and not included for this or that reason– some team of folks decided on that. Just saying. It’s an intentional, hard work and process that goes into putting the Bible together with a team of people. It didn’t just happen magically or drop from the sky. And God works through human efforts, critical thinking and process that uses literary tools and strategy–and despite it too! Anyways.)

So let’s take a look at what this book is saying. Why he’s saying these such negative cynical things about life. And why it’s in the Bible. I’ve titled this sermon, Faith Lessons from a Cynic, because I think such perspective does have something to offer to us.

It’s hard to consider it. Because sometimes we’re taught that there’s good and bad, and that’s it. But this book, Ecclesiates is a mix. Positive, hopeful attitude is how we’re supposed to be. Trust God always. That’s how you be a good Christian. Christian CULTURE and other cultures of our time has taught us certain values are worthwhile, well accepted, therefore valid, while others are not. Like we make it so black and white. But the Bible is more comfortable with a mix of feelings. With the process of various feeling throughout the faith journey, that’s not always full of optimism and hope in life and in God. It’s comfortable with saying that’s it’s not always as clear or evident and things are not going the way that they’re supposed to go. Even the writer of this, commonly known as Solomon, though the text isn’t clear, is a mix of personalities and wonderings. We can’t pick out only the heights of one’s faith journey and let it be goal for us to follow.

As a child growing up in church in Sunday school, I learned the Bible in simplistic ways. And at first, when you learn anything you learn the simple ways. I learned that David fought the giant Goliath because David was brave. Be like David. Not knowing the many pitfalls and mistakes David had made in other parts of his life. Or Esther saved the Jewish people with her courage. Be like Esther. Leaving out the parts where she’s one of the many women that were taken to the king for beauty treatments. We sometimes make biblical characters to be elevated to be saints, blameless and perfect, not realizing that in is in fact through their very story of their whole lives, that had twists and turns and not all together always ‘faithful’ and ‘good’, that God chose them and worked through them. Actually in the places of detours is where God used them.

So even this book of wisdom from Solomon, are mixed in with his passions, disappointments, resolves, and exclamations of random things, like “only one out of a thousand men is virtuous but not one woman!” (7:28) Haha, sounds like he had women issues… Why are we listening to this guy? And yet, I think there are things we can learn from one’s full range of journeys, in and through their impassioned lives. Sometimes, their extreme way of putting things, I think can provide a fresh perspective.

Honestly when I read this book, I see a man who has been sorely disappointed in his life. A man dissatisfied, discontent, and even at the brink of losing hope, (can any of us relate?) but working it through, talking it out, trying to journal his way through the state of life. It seems that he’s not happy with his kids. “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled 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?” (2:19) He had worries that kept him up at night. “even at night minds do not rest.”(2:23) He’s seen incongruence in life: “I’ve seen wicked people buried with honor.” (8:10) He’s presumptuous. “I have seen everything in this meaningless life.” Have you though Solomon? He’s passionate. “including death of good young people and the long life of wicked people. So don’t be too good or too wise!” Ha, don’t be too good! Bold advice! Cynical. But yeah, he’s got some wisdom in there.

Cynical people get bad rep in our culture or like just brushed off as, ah go vent, complainer, or why are you so angry. Cynicism: “An attitude characterized by general distrust of others’ motives. A cynic may have general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people…” according to Wikipedia. Cynics sometimes point out the painful and realist’s view of the world that is often times disappointing, life parts that left us out to dry, spitting us back out after hopeful prayer after hopeful prayer go unanswered. But maybe, I think maybe, cynics have an angle on life that we can take into consideration, as one of our conversation partners, that might be a helpful tool for our faith journey. Like when Steve talked about Doubt as a companion a few months back. A kind of conversation partner. The cynic within you maybe, doesn’t have to be disregarded, considered invalid, but a genuine emotion to be honored and taken into account for our faith journey. Maybe it might have some wisdom to shed on faith. Because the LORD knows, sometimes in life, we get cynical. And God’s okay with that. The Bible is. It’s also a pedagogical tool. Like sarcasm that pierces to truth. Or satire that exposes. Or tragic comedy theater that brings to life one’s perplexing untieable-with-a-nice-bow-on-a-box experience. I’m just saying, that when there are parts of you that feel hardened or cynical or defeated by hope, those parts of you don’t just have to disregarded and talked over with, “oh just get over it and smile”. They have something to teach you. Something to contribute to your conversation about life.

The ways we’ve been taught or understood what the faith journey has been so intertwined with actually, our culture. Being able to take apart, what is cultural norms that were meshed into faith teachings is a way to sift through theology or the gospel the way you would with flour that’s been sitting for a while when you bake. We’ve been sitting on a kind of thinking for a while, and what does it look like to shake things up a bit. Because it is the case that every religion in every time and place has been learned and given in a container that is culture.

Let me give you an example. South Korea received a big wave of American missionaries around the end of world war II. It’s also around the same time it experienced liberation from colonization, post-trauma of a nation becoming close to being wiped out. It also had economic, military, and political help from Americans. Along came Christianity with capitalism, democracy, and a rebirth of a nation (leaving behind same people in North Korea on the other side of the border). And South Korea can be seen as a “success” story. However you feel about overseas intervention of US, just know that it’s complicated. I’m personally ever so grateful to the veterans who fought in Korean War. But it’s a mix you know? Cause Korea boomed with Christianity. And it boomed economically. But also it grew too quickly. There was a time in the 90’s when Korea realized some of the buildings went up too quickly. A large beautiful mall had collapsed. Christianity in Korea grew for a while and then it became a tool for keeping people in line. The gospel of the good news was entangled with european theology and sometimes it didn’t fit. And it mixed with Korean culture too. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the example for how you should sacrifice for your family.

Here’s another example. The other day I saw a meme that said:
“How to know you’ve internalized capitalism:
– you determine your worth based on your productivity
– you feel guilty for resting
– your primary concern is to make yourself profitable
– you neglect your health
– you think ‘hard work’ is what brings happiness”
Tweet by fatima @_r0sewater

And I have, and many of my friends both Koreans and Americans have definitely internalized this. It’s seeped into our theology. Even though the Gospel talks so much about grace, we were constantly trying to become better Christians with our own efforts.

Solomon is being cynical about this very concept. We werk werk werk werk werk. For money. For pleasure. For pursuit of happiness! It’s a core value.

What if, what if our core value is wrong. Or okay, okay what if your core value that is in opposition to another’s core value, what if we’re supposed to hold them lightly and be in conversation with them about it.

In moments like this, cynics are so fun to talk to. Like you can’t offend them, they’ll offend you maybe, but they’re like, “it is what it is”. It’s like that friend that will always keep things kind of extreme, kind of real. You take what they say with a grain of salt, but she keeps it real!
Like the friend that watches you chasing after name brand education, breaking my back studying, pressuring myself for applications after applications, and she says to you– dude, like what if you worked at not Google or Facebook. Who would really see you differently? I wouldn’t. You’re not that big of a deal. And you don’t have to be. I’d still love you even if you whatever, fail! Not enough people say this to us.

Solomon is saying to himself, I’m not that big of a deal. Well, cause I was and I have had all the deals and like they were whatever! I’ve had all the money, all the wisdom, all the knowledge, all the women, all the pleasures and like, it was all meaningless.
He reminds us that “The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise osmetime go hungry and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives.” (9:11) A great reminder! But we’re DRIVEN by this. It’s a popular, what we assume is the most well accepted notion of what is good. Run hard, work hard, be strong, be educated, get the degree, get the skill, get that money, hustle, be busy. What is worthwhile. What is valuable. What is meaningful.

My sister reminds me of this from time to time. Sometimes I’m so busy or worked up or trying so hard, and she’s like, Lydia, I’d love to just see you enjoy life. Be loved on and not have to feel like you have to carry the world on your shoulders.

In May, Forbes had an article titled, “Bringing your Whole Self to Work” interviewing the author Mike Robbins of book titled it. Showing up to work authentically with all parts of yourselves. It sounds not smart, cause you don’t want to bring home problems to work. But Robbins claims, “When we don’t bring our whole selves to work we suffer – lack of engagement, lack of productivity, and our well-being is diminished. We aren’t able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the “right” thing. For teams and organizations, this lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for the group or company to thrive and perform at their highest level because people are holding back some of who they really are.” It reminds me of Solomon saying, don’t be too good!

What if I said to our church. Don’t be too good Christians! Cause what if in doing so, the church “lacks the psychological safety making it difficult for the congregation or a person to thrive and perform at their highest (spiritual) level because people are holding back some of who they really are”? We’ve heard this, that sometimes church is not a safe place cause it looks like everyone has their act together! Everyone’s in the in crowd except me! When so many of us are feeling like, I don’t fit in, I’m struggling, I’m lonely, I’m the only one who’s done this, think that, or looks like this. Why do I feel like an imposter coming to church sometimes? Why don’t I feel like singing praise songs? Am I a bad church goer? Why am I sitting here so angry at God that I can’t hear anything good. Because we’ve all acted like we’re fine. We’re not cynical. We’re only full of hope and joy and love for Jesus! Good job Church!

And if this is not you, consider for a moment folks who might feel this way. What about those of us whose experience real loss or a real set back and are feeling really hopeless and paralyzed. Can anyone relate to me? Don’t tell me to just trust God. Or that God meant it for good. Just tell me, it sucks. Just tell me you have ever right to be angry. Just agree with me, that what I see and experience is messed up and it’s senseless, it is meaningless. That, THAT is how you minister to me. Don’t give me a solution, just show me that you see my problem as real and I’m not crazy.

In a book that our staff read together called A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak has a section subtitled, Rejecting the un-Christlike God. He talked about the “self-avowed ‘non-Christian’ such as satirist (cynical) Bill Maher. His primary attacks are not against Jesus at all, but against Christians whose religion does violence in the name of the Prince of Peace. He castigates:

He quotes Bill Maher:

“If you’re a Christian that supports killing your enemy and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourlsef. ‘Capping the enemy’ is not exactly what Jesus would do. For almost two thousand years, Christians have been lawyering the Bible to figure out how “Love thy neighbor’ can mean “hate thy neighbor”…
And not to put too fine a point on it, but nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark–kind of his big thing. To NOT follow that part of it is like joining Greenpeace and hating whales. There’s interpreting, and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture–as are more evangelical christians than any other religion. You’re supposed to look at that figure of Christ on the Cross and think, “how could a man suffer like that and forgive?”… I’m a non-Christian. Just like most Christians. If you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian–you’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans. And if you believe the Earth was given to you to kick butt on while gloating, you’re not really a Christian–you’re a Texan.”

Jersak says this about this Maher’s quote: “Maher’s unbelief is actually biting hatred directed against un-Christlike perversions of God, the projections of religious fundamentalists. Audiences find this commentary comedic because the irony is tragically accurate and laughably contradictory. Instead of reacting defensively or hanging our heads in silent shame, why not hear his indictment as a clarion call back to explicit Chrislikness…. “
He goes on to say that, “I wonder, In the case of the sardonic Bill Maher or the broken hearted Charles Darwin, the real culprit may actually be an un-Christlike image of God. Which is to say, not God at all. If so, I’m inclined to agree with Walter Wink, who affirms such atheism as first step toward true worship, because it represents the rejection of an idol. That is what like Maher and Darwin might be turning from — i.e. repenting. The next step, which I don’t pretend they have taken is a turning toward–i.e faith.”

He calls it TRUE WORSHIP. The comedic, the irony, the tragedy, the contradictions, the cynicism. A form of true worship. A form of telling the truth. About life. About religion. About ourselves.

Let’s learn from a cynic. Everything is meaningless he says. And in conclusion what does he say? Solomon says this, “Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them.” And “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life.” and “So go ahead. Eat your food with joy and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!”

Again, let me remind you Solomon is a character. He’s like Queer-Eyeing us! With a splash of cologne!

In the face of unanswered prayers and hopelessness. When we’re faced with the harsh realities of the meaninglessness of things in life, senseless and even confusing. Solomon invites us to simply enjoy the moment. Sound too simple? Oh don’t be cynical 😉

So my invitation to you this week is simple. Take a moment to just be. Sit and feel. Feel the sunlight on your skin. Bask. Nothing else really matters anyways, and you were simply meant to enjoy the delight of the present that has been given to you in that moment.

I’ll end with the spiritual practice invitation. We can try it now if you’d like. Just take a moment to close your eyes and don’t do, think, anything — just receive.
Enjoy. Just receive. Bask. Sit and be embraced by the sun rays. There’s nothing you need to do. Nothing you need to think. Just accept and receive the gift from God, God’s presence enveloping you with warmth. Bask in the presence. Be present.