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EVERYTHING IS MEANINGFUL
THE HUMAN NEED FOR STORY
Michael Chandler and his associates at the University of British Columbia . . . canvassed Native communities through much of western Canada. What struck them almost immediately was the astounding suicide rate among teenagers—500 to 800 times the national average—infecting many of these communities. But not all of them. Some Native communities reported . . . a low of zero (true for 6 tribal councils) to a high of 633 suicides per 100,000. What could possibly make the difference between places where teens had nothing to live for and those where teens had nothing to die for?
The researchers began talking to the kids. They collected stories. They asked teens to talk about their lives, about their goals, and about their futures. What they found was that young people from the high-suicide communities didn’t have stories to tell. They were incapable of talking about their lives in any coherent, organized way. They had no clear sense of their past, their childhood, and the generations preceding them. And their attempts to outline possible futures were empty of form and meaning. Unlike the other children, they could not see their lives as narratives, as stories. Their attempts to answer questions about their life stories were punctuated by long pauses and unfinished sentences. They had nothing but the present, nothing to look forward to, so many of them took their own lives.
The Biology of Desire, Marc Lewis
Imagine waking up one day with severe amnesia—no memories of the past, no idea where you are or who you are. This means you don’t have a place to call home; you can’t identify friends who can reorient you; you’re unable to know even in which direction you ought to take the next step. Dr. Michael Chandler reports that something like this has happened on a much larger scale in certain First Nations communities. Teens are suffering from narrative amnesia: They have “no clear sense of their past, their childhood,” and with no understanding of how they fit in the past, their future is “empty of form and meaning,” that is, they’re unable to know even in which direction to take the next step.
We can talk about the many reasons this narrative amnesia affects particularly First Nations peoples and communities: they are literally a displaced people with no home; for many their histories have been largely forgotten, and education is often dramatically lower than in comparative socio-economic communities. And these statistics have been a call to action for Canadians (and ought to be for Americans as well). Isn’t it interesting, though, how this study focuses on the importance of narrative in a person’s life? There is no hope for the future and so no way of conceiving things as ending well (except maybe by pure chance). If you have no story, you have no purpose. And if you don’t see yourself as having a purpose, then why even go through the purposeless suffering of life?
I am using this study as an analogy. I am not saying the reason these suicides are taking place is because these kids aren’t reading Ecclesiastes or aren’t Christian. I am saying this study (and there are others like it) makes clear that seeing ourselves in a story matters. The researchers have put their finger on the fact that within these communities, no story equals no feelings of purpose for these teenagers. The same holds true when it comes to one’s spiritual purpose and seeing one’s life within a cosmic narrative, an overarching story for this universe, the metanarrative.
Ecclesiastes is meant to be just that, a demonstration of the deep need for seeing ourselves within the overarching story of God’s plan. If we only view things “under the sun,” that is, if we see things independent of God’s will and purpose, seeing only the daily grind, a collection of cold facts, the bad choices we make—if that’s all we see, the logical conclusion is that there’s “nothing but the present, nothing to look forward to,” nothing but a life empty of cosmic and transcendent meaning. But if we see our lives over the sun, that is, in light of God’s metanarrative, everything changes: We know that everything is infused with purpose, whether or not we know what that purpose is. We know that everything has its part to play in the grand story, whether or not we know how. We know everything is meaningful.
How can seeing one’s life within a story have this dramatic effect? Because not only how we see ourselves but also how we see the world around us are shaped by the story we see ourselves within. In other words, we can picture the biblical metanarrative as not only a story but also a worldview, that is, a lens for how we interpret the world. It’s to this aspect of metanarrative we turn next.
THE OVERVIEW EFFECT AND
THE “UNDER/OVER THE SUN” EFFECT
In the previous chapter, I quoted astronaut Edgar Mitchell in an interview filmed for the documentary Planetary. The film was an expansion of a short film titled The Overview Effect, which was produced in anniversary of the space flights that sent back to Earth the very first images of our planet from space. According to the scholars in the documentary, this marked a new moment in our shared consciousness as humans. We had known for some time that we were a planet floating in space, but it’s another thing to actually see us floating out there, all of our world unified as one small orb in an infinity of dark. This shift of perspective they labeled as the overview effect.
Think of it like this: When you were three or four years old, maybe 99 percent of your experiences were extremely localized: your house, your relatives’ house, the library, some select stores, a few playgroups. You knew there were other kids and people out there, that there were other places, but you never really experienced them. When you started kindergarten, all of a sudden you were exposed to many more cultures—types of people, again, you maybe knew existed but had never experienced. And with this new experience, your view of the world changed. When you traveled outside your own city for the first time, your view of the world changed. You already knew there were other cities, but now you knew it in a way you didn’t before, and it changed you as a person. The same follows for the first time you traveled great distances, became friends with very different people, etc. You might have had head knowledge of all this before experiencing it firsthand, but experiencing it firsthand somehow changes you and how you view the world.
This is what happened to us as a species when we received those first photographs of Earth from space. Our worldview changed, seeing firsthand how interrelated and networked everything was on our planet. The folks that produced Planetary see it as their mission to constantly remind us of this. In fact, their Facebook page is subtitled: “Planetary Collective is a creative organization dedicated to Worldview Interruption.” They want us to think a certain way, and seeing our planet from more than 200,000 miles away certainly jolts the thinking.
Analogously, Solomon is interested in “worldview interruption.” He wants us to see the stark difference of life “under the sun” with life, we might say, beyond the sun. The book of Ecclesiastes creates in us, rather than the overview effect, what we’ve been calling the under/over the sun effect. From the limited perspective of someone simply taking in the empirical data that we see around us, who can be sure that anything has meaning? There’s a longing within us that on some level knows life really is meaningful, but how that’s possible isn’t obvious or apparent “under the sun.” But when a person takes in the Bible and is exposed to God’s metanarrative for the first time, it can literally change everything. It’s a worldview interruption, because now you truly experience things from a different perspective, seeing how interrelated and networked everything really is in the universe as part of God’s overarching story of love and redemption.
A shift takes place: On some level you knew human life had transcendent value, but now you really know it because you now see human life within the metanarrative of humankind deserting God’s love and then being restored to it through God literally giving his own life for his created children.
On some level you knew that what we do and learn is important, but now you really know it because you see how God has created us with purpose and roles to play in the metanarrative, designing us to explore, to discover, to love, and to help one another.
On some level you knew there was more to life than what was obvious under the sun, but now you really know it because you know there is a good God working out all things for the good of you, his child.
This is the effect Solomon wanted his final confession to have on his successor, his son, and on the coming generations of the kingdom that his sins were about to sunder. This is the effect God wants his Word (through Solomon) to have on you: he wants you to see how utterly empty this world is of transcendent value, how utterly empty it is of fixed meaning without the God of the Bible, that is, “under the sun.” He wants to interrupt your thinking with this emptiness. And then what? If meaning doesn’t come from learning, luxury, lovemaking, or laughter, or from accomplishments or so-called progress, should we give up on finding it?
Rather, we should look for it harder than ever.
God wants you to find transcendent value and fixed meaning over the sun, in him. His Story gives a new view of the world. It injects value, purpose, hope, and meaning into everything. This is Solomon’s answer. His alternative. Something to chase after instead of just the wind. Near the end of Ecclesiastes, we find the three most important words in the whole book, the only way back out of the darkness of meaninglessness: Solomon says, “Remember your Creator” (12:1).
REMEMBER YOUR CREATOR
Solomon tells us, “Remember your Creator,” and then he launches into a lyrical tour de force of moments in life when remembering our God and his salvation metanarrative are crucial. Solomon expects his readers to have all of God’s divinely revealed knowledge in Scripture at their fingertips to remember from and to draw on for their picture of what God is like and how God helps them through all these crucial moments. For example:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
If the Bible is true, and if the salvation metanarrative is true, this is something we want to learn from as young of an age as possible, and we want to learn it well. Because the Bible says that life will get rough and painful. People will hate you and hurt you. There will be times when all feels lost, when there seems to be no chance you’ll make it through the darkness. There will be times when you say, “I take no pleasure at all in my life.” At that time you must remember that you can only see a part of the story and then turn to the Bible to be reminded of what God says about himself: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8).
“Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone” (Lamentations 3:32,33). Our God is a good God, and he is working out for us a good story. And we might not be able to see it, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like life is heading toward it, but there is a good ending. Solomon bids us to begin remembering, that is, learning as much as possible, as early as possible in life, that God is good.
Before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets . . . (Ecclesiastes 12:2-5)
Solomon begins in our youth, and he now moves on through life, again touching on the transitory nature of everything. The band Death Cab for Cutie meditates on the coming of death in their haunting song “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” singing, “The time for sleep is now / But it’s nothing to cry about / ‘Cause we’ll hold each other soon in the blackest of rooms.” There is a very real darkness, when your sun and moon and stars will go dark permanently. For the writer of that song, there’s nothing but infinite blackness waiting, and the only comfort found is that you’ll be in that infinite blackness with another person. But of course it’s tempting to forget that you won’t be conscious, you won’t experience anyone else ever again, and you as a person will be permanently gone—“in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In short, your life is simply one thing in this universe that arrived and will depart, one out of a great number of transitory things—like the songs of this world that will grow faint and the workers who will eventually become exhausted and their grinding stop. Is everything transitory? Is there nothing permanent?
Compare that to what one biblical poet writes, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). Things might pass away in this world, but there is one thing permanent, unmoving, holding all things together. And Solomon says, at this time in your life, remember him. And if there is an eternal God that is good, might that God desire to spend eternity with someone?
The Bible teaches that that someone is you. Jesus once said to his students, and he says to you too, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends. . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:15,16). Jesus invites you to believe that he has chosen you to be his companion for all eternity. And if he has chosen you for eternity, then despite how transitory everything seems in this world, you know that you are not transitory, that you will never enter the blackest of rooms, that the songs of the birds might fade but your own songs will never.
. . . when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets. (Ecclesiastes 12:5)
Solomon describes the winding down of the harvest seasons, when winter is coming and death along with it, when the insects slow and disappear, when the blossoms bloom only to fade and fall dead off the trees. This is all metaphor, of course, for “when people go to their eternal home,” for when your own season of life will come to an end. Why must we remember our Creator when we face death? Because without the biblical God, the evil, pain, suffering, and death of this world will win. Unless there’s another option, death will win.
But there is another option. The Bible teaches that death will not win.
“Remember your Creator” who revealed this about himself: “God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:8,9). Here is God’s greatest display of love: His very heart, his mirror image came into this place of dying so that we might live. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). All of our shortcomings and flaws and the evil within us—that is not what defines us. God has not abandoned us to our preference for empty self-direction. Instead, he sacrificed his own Son, the Fullness and Light of God, to pay for all our beclouded, empty ways. The climax of God’s salvation narrative is when God’s divine and beloved Son died for us. The climax of salvation history is God’s ultimate act of love for you and me.
If you want to know the metanarrative, to be bowled over by the Story, by the love, look to Jesus. Look to the Creator’s eternal voice become flesh, his very glory come to earth. Yes, look to his cross—complete forgiveness there. And also look to everything else about him. But most of all, look to the meaning of life he brings: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
And so, when you are ready to go to your eternal home, Solomon bids you to “remember your Creator.” Remember that this is not the end. Jesus has turned your own death into a passage, a door. And he waits for you there. The Bible describes a Creator who is eternal, perfect, transcendent, absolutely good, and, most important, love. Through his love he sent his treasured, majestic, and only Son to die for us. He calls us back to him from our fallen state. And now he gives our lives eternal value and the work of our lives eternal value—eternal because it is the value of a soul that has an eternity, either with God or separated from him. The only thing that gives life-lasting (cosmic) meaning is remembering this Creator who gives us eternal value and an eternal future with him through Jesus.
Monika is a young woman whom I pastor and to whom I have spent many years teaching the biblical metanarrative. She’s been part of many of my group conversations about the meaning of life. On our church website we have a series of articles written by church members about what their faith means to them. Monika wrote one of these articles, sharing her experiences of leaving home to go away to a new university. She writes:
I started doubting everything: my decision to have moved away from home, my choice in university, and eventually, I also started to doubt God. I had never up to that point experienced such loneliness and sadness so I didn’t understand why he would let this happen. During those four months, I talked to God constantly. I turned to passages, read so many times that once used to only be words, but now all of a sudden had so much more meaning. I started looking at his word in a whole new light, and when the suffering finally eased, I realized that I had never been as close to him as I am now. Once again, I saw his hand at work and I was reminded that there’s a bigger and better plan unfolding than ours. “‘For I know the plans I have for you’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘Plans for your welfare, not for disaster, plans to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11). And there’s a certain sense of relief when I think that no matter what happens in my life, good or bad, it is all part of God’s plan.
Jesus, through God’s biblical metanarrative, gave Monika peace in the face of her troubles. She realized that her sufferings were not meaningless or purposeless but rather that God was working them into his plan, her story within his Story. Her sufferings had meaning. She was valued by her Creator. And she felt relieved. It’s this relief we can feel even now in the midst of trials that we turn to next.
THE END OF ALL THINGS
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark [tower] high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
When we stand within a storm, we often cannot see the edges; it looks as if the lightning and rain go on infinitely in every direction. It looks as if the storm will never end. That is not unlike life “under the sun,” although at times it may feel more like life under the storm clouds—clouds of darkness cast by our wrong choices, stubborn hearts, and shortsighted eyes. And it seems as if it’s never ending, that this is the history of humanity and will be until the race becomes extinct. The Bible is for us that shaft of starlight that pierces through, even if for a moment, reminding us that this world, our experiences, our sufferings and sorrows are but a passing thing. It reminds us that there is a far greater world, a much longer Story that stretches behind and before us. The Story began even before the beginning of time with a good God, and it ends in an eternity with a good God.
How do we know that “the Shadow” is only a passing thing, that God is working through the sufferings and sorrows of this life toward a good ending? A Christian leader (the apostle Paul) once encouraged a group of Bible believers (most of whom he had not even met yet) with this very truth—and notice he starts with the confident words “we know”:
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
This is the confidence we all want, isn’t it? We feel that we could easily be included in “those who love him” if we could only be confident that God were actually at work “in all things” for our good. It is a wonderful Story, if one could be sure of it.
And here we read the metanarrative one more time:
Before the creation of the world, before time and space came into existence, you already were there in the mind of God. Foreknown. Predestined.
His purpose for you: be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. That is, every day walk and talk and think and act like Jesus would, in unstoppable love.
His opinion of you in the meantime (while you often find yourself not as loving as Jesus, much at all): justified. You are declared right by the courts of heaven, for Jesus’ sake—already appearing to God as his perfect sons and daughters because two thousand years ago Jesus died for you, opening the path to God your Father for you.
His ending for you: glorified. You will be sharing in Jesus’ majesty, shining with his light, rejoicing over his Father’s love forever, as perfectly as Jesus does.
Your value first and foremost springs from this: You were in the mind of God in the deep infinite past, and you will be with God in heaven into the deep infinite future. Your future is made possible through the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on earth.
But how do we know? How can you be sure this Story is real? Three times that Christian leader uses the word “called.” If you’re already following Jesus, recall your baptism; on that day through water and God’s Word you were called into God’s family and made a brother or sister of Jesus himself. But we can go back further: You’re able to be called a child of God because two thousand years ago Jesus died for you, opening the path to God your Father for you. But we can go back further: Before your baptism, before the cross, before the creation of the world, before time and space came into existence, you already were there in the mind of God. God had been waiting a long time to baptize you.
And as you’ve been reading this book, God has been calling you. In fact, right now God is calling you. Concerning your sins, griefs, emptinesses, and troubles—all of them—Jesus says, Give me that weight. I’ve been waiting a long time for it. Before the world began, even before time and space began, I’ve been waiting to carry it, to carry you.
And so you hand it to him: your doubts, your feelings of worthlessness and of being lost and adrift in this world are handed over.
And in exchange he opens your eyes, not your physical eyes but your mind’s eye, and you see eternity with him.
End Chapter Six