Nothing But Smoke

Excerpts from Ecclesiastes
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Fabio Bonizzoni is a conductor featured recently on a website called “All of Bach.” He conducted a Bach cantata called, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke” which translates to “I am content with my luck.” In an interview afterward, Bonizzoni explains what Bach means by that title.

“[Other composers of the period, such as Handel,” he says, “try to distract us, in sublime fashion, from the ills of life.] Bach, on the other hand, succeeds in taking away the ills of life, but he does it by talking about them. And the impressive thing is that where [Handel takes us to another dimension and lets us live in a dream,] Bach allows us to experience that painful dimension but alters it by means of his music. Which offers more consolation, I feel.”

Bonizzoni believes that both Handel and Bach are addressing in their music a central question that all of us ask — what do we do with the reality of suffering in life? — but they come up with two different answers. Handel tries to distract us from it but Bach immerses us in it and in doing so, transforms it.

For those who are not classical music fans, a more modern analogy might be the difference between bluegrass music and the music of Janis Ian. On the one hand, if you listen to the lyrics of many bluegrass songs, you will hear that they often describe the hardships of our lives on earth but then encourage us to focus instead on the glory we will receive when we reach the great beyond. For example, the song “I’ll Fly Away” says,

“When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away.
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away.”

The lyrics acknowledge the hardship of our mortal existence — “the shadows of this life , the prison walls,” — but encourage us to concentrate on our future reward, and as the lyrics shift from the present suffering to the future promise of peace, the melody soars toward heaven.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Compare that to this song from Janis Ian:

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth.

Rather than distracting us from the present sufferings of life, Janis Ian’s lyrics immerse us in them, even wallow in them, as she lists all of the heartaches of adolescence in depressing detail. Later in the song, those high school beauty queens grow up to live lives of meaningless desperation, but the lyrics never promise that the ugly ducklings turn into swans. There is no great reversal: at the end of the song; everyone is left sad and empty.

“I’ve seen it all,” Ecclesiastes says, “And it’s nothing but smoke — smoke and spitting into the wind.”

While Handel and Bluegrass try to lift us out of our suffering by distracting us from it, by shifting our focus to future realms of perfect happiness, Bach and Janis Ian and the writer of Ecclesiastes sit down beside us in our suffering and say, “Yeah, it really stinks to be you right now, doesn’t it?”

The wisdom writers of the Bible struggle with the question that many of us struggle with still today, namely, “How do we make sense of the suffering of our mortal lives?” And most of the Biblical writers take Handel’s approach: they try to turn our eyes away from today’s suffering to focus instead on a future glory.

One typical way for example, that some of the biblical writers and a lot of Christians today, do this is by promising that the good who suffer today will be given a heavenly reward tomorrow while the wicked who prosper will be thrown into eternal torment. In other words, they try to distract us from our suffering by assuring us that some day our wicked neighbors will be roasting in eternal flames while we are kicking back with a margarita floating on sublime clouds.

Unfortunately, besides painting a portrait of a God that I don’t particularly like, many have found that the promise of heaven for the good and hell for the bad doesn’t really help when you are suffering. If anything, as Jesus reminds us, vengeful thoughts about our enemies generally just stir up our anger and leave us less able to find peace.

Amanda and Nick Wilcox lost their college-aged daughter, Laura when a man walked into the clinic where she was working and opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun. He shot Laura four times, killing her instantly. The Wilcox’s write, “In the days after Laura was killed, we were searching to find sense and meaning. It was incomprehensible that someone as good and innocent as our dear Laura could be killed by an act of violence. Comments such as ‘Fry the Bastard’ or ‘I hope he gets what he deserves’ were loudly expressed in our community, but did not comfort us. We were in need of a restored faith in the goodness of people. [It was ] the support, care, and concern of friends and strangers [that] warmed our hearts and rekindled our faith.”

Trying to make sense of suffering by promises of an eternal reward for the good and eternal torment for the wicked may feed our desire for vengeance but in the end, it doesn’t bring peace.

Other people try to comfort the suffering by shifting their eyes from their present pain toward some greater plan that we can’t see right now.

“God is using your pain to teach you lessons that you need to know,” someone says to you. “or God wants to use your suffering to bring you closer to God and learn to depend only on him.”

People who say these sorts of things are like the pastor in the story of the farmers and the rattlesnake.

There was a farmer who had three sons: Ron, Don and Little John. They lived in a small town and had been baptized into the local church but they never attended services. One day, Don was bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Don, but the outlook for his recovery was very dim indeed. The family called the pastor and asked him to come and pray for Don, hoping that God could heal what the doctor could not. When the pastor arrived, he knelt at Don’s bedside and prayed,

“O wise and righteous Father, we thank you that in your wisdom you sent this rattlesnake to bite Don. He hasn’t been inside the church in years and has shown little interest in You. We trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead to his genuine repentance. And now, O Father, please send another rattlesnake to bite Ron, and another to bite Little John, and another really big one to bite the old man. For years we have done everything we know to get them to get serious with you, and so we thank you dear Lord, for rattlesnakes.”

One imagines that Don, Ron, Little John, and the old man found little comfort in their pastor’s prayer; just as most of us find little comfort when friends assure us that our cancer is a gift sent by God to bring us closer to God, or that our suffering is a chance to evaluate all of the things we need to change in our lives.

Like Bluegrass music, friends often turn to these sorts of platitudes hoping to distract us from our suffering, and sometimes the distractions do bring us a momentary relief. I love to sing bluegrass music; it sets our toes tapping and our hands clapping and sometimes, just for a moment it’s nice to forget about Isis and world hunger and police brutality and the Greek bailout and the warming oceans and the countless hardships of life and sing instead about some distant day when everyone will be at peace. Handel and Bluegrass and promises of heaven’s bliss have their place.

But sometimes our heartache is so acute and our wounds so deep that we cannot be distracted from them. To try to gloss over our pain with glib promises of a future bliss feels not only impossible but cruel rather than comforting. What we need in those times are friends who do not give us platitudes and bandaids but who will say, “I have no idea why this has happened to you. I can’t make any sense of it. But I can promise you that I will be here with you, and hold you while you cry.”

There is a reason that Janis Ian’s song “At Seventeen” reached number one on the Billboard charts in 1975. Teenagers know instinctively that sometimes the best comfort for our sorrow is to immerse ourselves in it a while. Maybe you never listened to Janis Ian, but I’m guessing that there was some song that you wore out in your youth because it so perfectly expressed your teenage angst and heartache. Ironically, those sad songs helped us to move on, because as painful as it may be, it is ultimately more healing to acknowledge our suffering and to allow ourselves to experience it rather than to avoid it, run away from it, medicate it, or even try to make sense of it.

The author of Ecclesiastes expresses our despair when he says, “Life is nothing but smoke, and spitting into the wind.” For twelve chapters, we wallow with him in the suffering of our mortal existence until finally at the end, he opens a crack in the door to let in just a tiny bit of light:

“Even if you live a long time,” he says. don’t take a single day for granted. Take delight in each light-filled hour,” and then he returns to his Eeyore voice and adds, “remembering that there will also be many dark days and that most of what comes your way is smoke.”

And so this is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, a word that seems bleak at first but is in the end a word of healing for the broken-hearted.

Let your pain be your pain and don’t try to run away from it. Recognize that suffering is part of our mortal existence, often unexplainable and unfair.

But remember as well that it is not the totality of our mortal existence. There is beauty to life; there will be days drenched in sunlight, and times of laughter, and moments when the goodness of strangers anoints your heart with hope. Hold on to those days tightly and give thanks when they come.

But right now, when your day is dark and hurting, when your tears insist on pouring forth, let them, trusting that God will sit with you and hold you while you cry.

1. from an interview called “Richness in Poverty” posted to the “All of Bach” website;