When I started this column last October, I started with a series on Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3. My editor never thought I would get as many columns out of it as I did, but I have to admit getting stuck on one passage. It wasn’t until this week that I really unraveled it for myself.
09 – What does the worker gain from his toil?
10 – I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
11 – He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of aaaamen; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
12 – I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.
13 – That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil-this is the gift of God.
Usually when ministers get stuck on a passage, they go to a commentary and they tell us what we are supposed to think about the passages. Ministers use commentaries when they want to add to what they are writing – which is where we get the 45 minute sermon – or we use them when they are stuck and don’t want to go out a limb by venturing a guess as to what the passage might mean.
Verse 9 was the one that stuck me. It asks what profit does a worker have in his labors? I get that. The writer is asking what good is work? What do you get out of it? He concludes the chapter by letting us know that we all die. It feels like he maybe telling us that there should be nothing better to define us as human than the pride of our own works and accomplishments.
I guess I get that too – maybe even much better than I would like to get it. It means that if my work doesn’t leave something after I am gone – it isn’t worth much. And since sweat evaporates, then I guess the only part of us left in our work is our spirit.
In a Texas hospital, it was a spirited order that one particular patient issued to the doctors and nurses standing by his bed. “Give this guy some room, ”the patient commanded, vigorously using his IV arm to invite me into the room.
“Come on in, Chaplain,” he begged. “Everyone, I want you to meet the guy that saved my life.” Not the kind of introduction to which I was accustomed. Especially in the presence of, and almost to the exclusion of, of medical staff.
Tom had come onto the cardiac ward the week before. He was between jobs and had no insurance. Ours was a for-profit hospital and this was not the kind of patient for which we usually rolled out the carpet, but I was privileged to work with a team that made no distinction when it came to saving lives.
Tom was a lucky man who had survived a heart attack. Like most men his age, his denial allowed him to drive himself to the emergency room and when I met him, his denial had escalated into a full-blown case.
Immediately after he was admitted, doctors told him that he needed immediate surgery. Tom begin to insist that the doctors let him leave the hospital to make a job interview in which he was sure to be hired – and therefore insured.
Job interviews are fun, aren’t they? I’ve been told that I interview fairly well. I flew to California last year to interview for jobs. Just seconds before my first interview, I discovered my fly was open. If I had not discovered that little fact in time, it’ would have matted how well I interviewed. So, it also seems to me that if Tom had not discovered this little fact about his need for surgery, it also would not have mattered how well he interviewed.
Anyway, Tom had no intention of owing a hospital and especially no intention of dying before he could get the necessary surgery. Nursing staff asked me to intervene before Tom decided to walk away AMA. (Against Medical Advice.)
Tom and I immediately established a report. His job was installing airport computer systems. Known by my friends as the “techie chaplain,” I found great interest in what he did. I valued his work and talked about what protecting the lives of thousands of passengers must mean.
Over the next few hours, Tom began to revive his own vision on how he fit into this world. Suddenly he became more aware of his responsibility to his part in this world as well as to his family. He decided to stay for the surgery.
A few days after his surgery, I found him in his room with medical staff gathered around him doting on his miraculous recovery. That’s when he began introducing me as the person who saved his life.
At the time, it felt embarrassing, but now, I see he was just trying to reflect back to me the lesson we had both discovered that day – our work had rewards. We both fit into a larger picture of what God was trying to do in our world.
The Ecclesiastes passage compares our works with the way God works. Everything God creates becomes beautiful in its own time. The writer asks the question how can we know what good will come out of work after we die? It seems as though he is saying only God can know. Sometimes, we are blessed with a small peek at the good things our work has brought, but much of the time we won’t know.
It may have to simply be good enough to understand that he has put eternity in our hearts. That means that we have the ability to know that our works can live beyond the finite line that we draw for our lives and it can encircle a larger more infinite universe and return to bless the lives of the many.