Captain Bertrand Rockwell

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

What do you think about a person who hangs out in graveyards? I’m sorry, but I am such a person. One of my favorite places is Mt. Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri. Years ago, perhaps even before the couple of summers when I worked at the place, I discovered the grave marker of Bertrand Rockwell. It’s of him that I think when I read the next verses from Ecclesiastes.

I saw all the living, who move about under the sun, follow a second youth who succeeds him. There is no limit to all the people who were before them, yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

You’ll recall that these verses come on the heels of comments about an aged, foolish king. That’s the “him” mentioned here.

Captain Kid

All I remembered from that gravestone was that Rockwell was a Civil War captain. Visiting it recently, I marveled at something that hadn’t occurred to me in the past: his age. The Civil War began in 1861 when Rockwell was all of 17 years old. When it came to an end in 1865, he found himself 21 and a captain.

Captains tend to command companies within a regiment. I haven’t dug into this fellow enough to know what company he commanded, and his easily obtainable records show that he served in several companies, always within the 34th Iowa Infantry. I also don’t know when he was promoted. Rockwell came into the army as a private. Somewhere along the line he distinguished himself sufficiently to move into the officer ranks at a young age and then to advance to the rank of captain and the command of as many as 100 men.

Can you imagine the attitudes of some of the old hands in this company when they were informed that their new company commander only needed to shave every couple of days? Don’t you know that there were older men questioning how someone of 19 or 20 could possibly fill that role? Don’t you imagine there were many who thought, “they should have made me an officer instead of that upstart!”

Granted, officers needed to be able to read and write, which was no given in the Civil War, but I’m sure that at least some resentment must have arisen. But what does all that have to do with Solomon and Ecclesiastes and an old king or a “second youth”?

Getting in Tune

I’ll assume that Bertrand Rockwell became an officer at a very young age because of his merits, but others would follow along behind him. In that same war, the long-time American military hero Winfield Scott began the conflict in command of the armies, but a succession of younger men quickly came along to replace him, when he proved unequal to the task. Ulysees S. Grant had not quite reached his 43rd birthday when Lee surrendered.

If we believe that our efforts and accomplishments are in any way permanent, we need only wander to a grave marker in Mt. Washington Cemetery to be corrected. Wealth, position, and reputation are soon taken by someone else.

Nothing endures under the sun. That’s why we need to focus ourselves on the things beyond the sun.

Solvent as Sears?

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

My mother’s first job was with Sears and Roebuck. She worked in the catalog department in the huge warehouse and store that used to stand just east of Kansas City’s downtown. Her favorite tale of those times is handling a return of some chickens that had died in transit. Sears doesn’t issue a catalog anymore. They don’t sell chickens or much of anything these days.

But there was a time when they were the big roosters in the retail barnyard. The slogan, “Solid as Sears,” was not a punchline in those days. Fifty years ago they were the biggest retailer in the world. Today, much diminished even after merging with another former giant, K-Mart, they’ve sold off most of their brand assets like Craftsman and Kenmore, and seem to be circling the drain. The question is when, not if, they will eventually collapse completely.

Since we don’t have kings these days, we can maybe apply Solomon’s ideas to companies–or maybe to ourselves.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

Multi-Variable Math

It’s interesting to me that this text introduces three variables. He might have said it’s better to be poor and young than rich and old. Instead, he throws in that wisdom variable. Is it better to be a wise old king than a poor wise youth? I’m not sure, but clearly your wealth and position won’t help you if you are a fool.

Is it better to be young than old, all other things being equal? I think I’d opt for that, although I’m not sure Solomon would agree. Is it better to be rich than poor? We needn’t dignify that question with an answer. Clearly it is better to be wise than foolish. It’s the combination of these things that makes this passage a little tricky.

No Fool Like an Old Fool

Sears seems to have behaved foolishly, or maybe they’re just going the way that companies go after a 125 years. And what about people? Is it natural for people to become foolish, utterly stuck in their ways and resting on whatever success and position they have accrued over their lives? It certainly seems common, but there’s no reason to believe it to be natural.

From an early age, we are urged to do the right things. Stay in school. Work hard. Don’t do drugs. Save for retirement. Maintain a financial reserve. Floss. We’re admonished that if we do all of these things, then we will enjoy success. By and large, that advice is solid.

What a shame then that people follow that advice, attain a position of influence and respect, accumulate sufficient financial status to not worry, and then cease to listen to anyone around them. Such people wind up losing their influence and believing that their assets will render them important. If it doesn’t work for a king, it won’t work for mere commoners.

Getting in Tune

Most people who read this are not millennials. You’re mostly O4Cs (Over 40 Christians), and many of you have done a lot of the things that were impressed upon you over the years. Perhaps you have a secure job, good benefits, money in the bank, and all your own teeth. Congratulations.

Now that you have arrived or can at least see the destination to which you’re en route, don’t stop listening to wise counsel, especially the counsel of God. Solomon urges us to be wise, suggesting that whatever we have gained over the years, even to a crown, will likely be squandered if we’re not heeding warnings any longer.

Today, Sears stock is selling for $.29 a share. In 2005 if was over $50. Be glad if that wasn’t in your 401K.

Halt and Catch Fire, Together

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Having survived the perils of the WordPress conference, mentioned yesterday, I am prepared to report back on my accomplishments. Since those accomplishments proved so minimal, I’d instead like to report on an apparently unrelated matter, the now-completed AMC program Halt and Catch Fire.

The four seasons of Halt and Catch Fire followed a small group of computer innovators as they explored pretty much every aspect of the PC explosion of the 1980s. In watching these people struggle through their efforts, I’m reminded of not just what I’ve heard at the WordPress camp but also Solomon’s continued comments on working together:

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

The Cardiff Giant

In that first season of the TV show, we have four main characters working together to create a terrific IBM clone computer. (If you’re younger than 40, you might need to be told that an IBM clone is one that runs PC programs without the limitations and cost of the IBM machines.) Those four are as follow:

  • Gordon is the primary hardware engineer. Without him, the Giant would have never been developed, but he completely lacked drive until he met
  • Joe, who knows virtually nothing about tech but who has a vision. Joe gets Gordon moving and continues, through methods fair and foul, advancing the project, but Joe cannot provide software without
  • Cameron, a college-dropout coding savant, who not only programs the BIOS for the Giant but develops an amazing and ahead-of-its-time operating system. Cameron is talented but she lacks the discipline of
  • Donna, Gordon’s wife, whose abilities in data recovery and hardware intricacies save the day on more than one occasion.

Take away any of these four and the Cardiff Giant computer never comes to market. Combined, they become a cord of four strands.

Similarly, as I sit here in the WordPress conference hearing people talk about dozens of tools and hardware matters that no single person could completely comprehend, I’m reminded of the essentially collaborative nature of most work.

Getting in Tune

As dismal as much of Ecclesiastes winds up being, we can definitely take heart from what it says here about working with others. The Christian life is never intended to be a solo endeavor. If we were supposed to be soloists, then we wouldn’t have so much attention paid to the interactions within the church. If we were supposed to do our thing by ourselves, then why, in John 13:34-35, would Jesus take the trouble to tell us to “love one another” as a special new command?

Our call today should be to reach out to create and improve the relationships that we have so that we can love each other more richly and be the church that Christ intended.

So who will you connect with today?

The Solo Crisis–Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

The lonely blogger is having an existential crisis today. After posting to this space for four months in a row, I determined to “sharpen the saw” and attend a WordPress conference. Over the last hour, I sat through a keynote address that left me thinking–and you have to imagine a powerful voice with reverb here–I am completely out of my depth.

I just want to write. I just want to share my struggles to discover wisdom with an audience. That’s it. But it sounds like, if I really want to accomplish this and get more than 13 hits a day, I’ll need to learn a hundred different technical factors or hire technically-minded people.

My crisis is this: I don’t always play well with others. That’s why I like teaching college English. They point me to a classroom and send me 24 students, expecting that I’ll achieve the course objectives and turn in grades 16 weeks later. That’s my perfect world, but the WordPress camp suggests that I’m doomed. I’m the “person without a companion” that Solomon mentions:

Again I saw futility under the sun. There is a person without a companion, without even a son or brother, and though there is no end to all his struggles, his eyes are still not content with riches. “Who am I struggling for,” he asks, “and depriving myself of good things?” This too is futile and a miserable task.

Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

Struggling Alone

As an introvert, I find this a frustrating and daunting couple of verses. Some of the people I know–I’d call them friends, but I don’t have all that many people who rise to that level–are natural extroverts and cooperators. These people maintain a vast network of contacts and know how to work with those people in a variety of ways.

But that’s not me. And I believe that even some of these extrovert networking types go into an introvert coma when the subject turns to matters of the spirit. Those extrovert people I know might go out with three complete strangers for a golf tournament and, by the end of nine holes, know the names of the other guys’ kids and have a skiing vacation planned for next January. But when one of those guys gets serious and says something like “Guys, I pray about it all the time, but I just can’t shake my porn habit,” the others will quickly steer the conversation back to golf or kids or skiing.

Getting in Tune

Many people–and I think it is men more than women–have a hard time talking about the serious issues of Christian discipleship. Instead, they tend to try to do a free-solo climb up the mountains of this world. But that’s not God’s plan for us.

In Luke 9, Jesus sends those first twelve disciples in pairs. That on-the-job training apparently yielded results, because in the next chapter, he’s sending out 72 disciples, again in pairs. Even Jesus Himself, the man I tried to describe as an introvert recently, took the disciples to support Him in Gethsemane.

Some things we have to do alone, but God gave us other people for a reason. We’ll grow more when we struggle together.

Work is a Four-Letter Word–Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Driving east out of Kansas City on I-70, you can exit at Sterling Avenue. Where the off-ramp ends, you’ll always see one or several people holding signs that indicate their needs and particular pleas for assistance. In the rain, the snow, the baking sun, I don’t believe I have ever seen that corner empty. It must be a productive spot.

One of the reasons that these apparently homeless people frequent that intersection is that a little camp exists in the brush of a gully between the off-ramp and the interstate. You can’t see them from the road unless you look at just the right moment as you zoom by on I-70.

Yesterday, Solomon seemed to be praising people like these. If all labor is just driven by and the source of envy and strife, then aren’t those who don’t labor the most righteous? But today, he seems to cut back the other way.

The fool folds his arms
and consumes his own flesh.
Better one handful with rest
than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Those lines of poetry are a bit confusing. The first two appear to criticize that person on the corner. Those grubby folks with their signs, living rough and risky, are consuming their own flesh.

The second pair of lines, however, goes the other direction on first glance. Is the lazy person foolish or wise, choosing one handful? Or are these two lines in the voice of the lazy fool? I’m not sure, but certainly there’s some conflict in these verses.

So which is it, Solomon? Is work wisdom or folly? In Proverbs, we hear an unequivocal condemnation of laziness:

a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest,
and your poverty will come like a robber,
and your need, like a bandit.

Proverbs 24:33-34

Why Work?

What does work do for us? Sure, it puts money into the bank account, but it also fills our time and uses up our energy. When I think about my work, I see myself grading bad freshman essays for more than 30 years. It’s mind numbing and keeps a body indoors. Why do I do it? My hope is that as I continue toward retirement, I’ll build up finances that will allow me to live however I want in those later years. Great plan.

But then I see my in-laws with their deteriorating health. I see a cousin who is recently retired and dying from cancer. I see others who get to retirement financially set but without a clue as to how they might spend their time and money. Some retirees seem determined to use RVs and lottery tickets to fuel their happiness.

Let’s just face it: work seems to be something that causes problems if you do it and even bigger problems if you don’t.

Getting in Tune

So do you think that our man Solomon was aware that he was pulling on both ends of this rope? I’m guessing he saw it clearly. This work-or-no-work conundrum is one that every human needs to try to solve. And that, I’d argue, is the point.

Jesus does not call us to “seek first the kingdom of work,” but he also has harsh words for the rich fool with his self-indulgent retirement plan. When we read the accounts of the early church selling assets to help each other out, we know that if that generosity wasn’t accompanied by paying work, then the operation was not sustainable.

Clearly we’re called to find a “Goldilocks” approach to labor: not too little, not too much, but just right. In his wisdom, Solomon doesn’t tell us what “just right” is. Instead, he starts us thinking about the matter, so that we can get closer to our own “just right.”

So what’s your “just right”? Are you sure it’s right?

Why We Do What We Do–Ecclesiastes 4:4

Bad things will happen if I don’t get some grading done today. I’m teaching two sections of Comp I online this summer, and I will confess that I am behind on my grading. What happens if I get too far behind? My students will start to complain. They’ll start by bothering me: “Where’s my grade?” “I don’t have a grade for X!” Then, should I not respond, they might begin to complain to my dean. He would contact me, and I would have to explain my behavior. I suppose if I totally fell apart, I could conceivably lose my job. That’s why I will get that grading done today.

Or maybe that’s not why I will do the grading. Instead, I will do it because it is the right thing to do. I take a healthy amount of pride in being a productive and ethical writing teacher. I believe that my remarks on a student’s paper, if thoughtfully considered, will help that student become a more capable communicator and thus a more successful person. That’s why I will do that grading today.

Either of those motivations makes sense, but I can, with great confidence, say that there’s not one bit of jealousy driving me to put comments on papers today. Frankly, I don’t care what David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan are doing or how they look to others. That’s why I’m confused by our text today.

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

What if “all” isn’t all?

Perhaps my problem with these verses is in that pesky word “all,” which pops up twice in the first sentence. Once I accept that Solomon is using hyperbole–exaggeration for effect–then the verse makes a lot of sense. Certainly my grading efforts today won’t be done out of envy, and they won’t provoke envy. On the other hand, a great deal of what we do is motivated by appearances and the desire to have what others have, including status and reputation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy my positive reputation among students. When I hear that student X recommended me to student Y, it warms my heart a bit. And I really don’t want my dean to think that David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan is better than me.

Perhaps not “all” of my labor and striving is born out of jealousy of someone else. Perhaps not “all” of it will be apt to create jealousy, but some of it can and does. When Nathan spends much of the summer in Southeast Asia, I wonder why my bank account won’t support that sort of travel.

Getting in Tune

At least before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were a muddled bunch. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John asks that her boys sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. These guys, it seems, were serving Jesus to “work on their résumés,” to establish their credentials and raise themselves up above their peers.

What we do, whether it be in the church or in our jobs, should be done, as much as we can manage it, without any comparison to another. It should be done without any desire for self promotion. That’s hard to achieve in a world that values followers and likes and shares, but the defeat of envy will help us stop pursuing the wind.

Better off Dead–Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

According to that great philosopher, Bert the chimney sweep (from Mary Poppins), “Life’s a rum go, guvner, and that’s the truth.” Good old Bert works hard at half a dozen jobs attempting to cobble together a living. He’s disrespected by the respectable and watches as the rain, no respecter of men, washes away his chalk sidewalk pictures. What does he have to show for it as he grinds at that grindstone? A few pieces of copper coinage, a smudge of soot on his face, and the suspicious looks of those around him.

Granted, had I wanted to present a poster child for the oppressed of this world, I might have done better than Bert. I could have gone to the people who have their livelihood stolen from them in Sudan or Thailand. I could have pointed to the victims of human trafficking or the ones caught in the crossfire of the drug trade. I could have used any of several people I know personally, people who have, through little or no fault of their own, found themselves caught in a situation with no apparent exit.

These people might join with Solomon in believing that they’d be better off dead or even better yet to have never been born.

Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

In 2017, over 47,000 people in the U.S. took feelings like these to their logical end, killing themselves. That’s a large body of people, but in a population of well over 300 million, it’s not quite as awful as we might expect, coming in at about .015% of the population. If we factor in the apparent suicide attempts, then we see that percentage rise to about .15% or about one and a half out of every thousand people.

I don’t throw those statistics out to minimize suicide, but to suggest that if Solomon is right and people really feel this way, the numbers would be higher. Even when we recognize that miserable people still often fear death, we see that the vast bulk of suffering individuals find some reason to hang on to this mortal life.

Getting in Tune

Frankly, I find human life, stripped of the hope we have through Christ, utterly dismal. If I had to watch the suffering and oppression of this world without believing that the Creator God would eventually put things right, I’d probably struggle to go on.

The true futility in life, though, is to live a life as either an oppressor or as one who watches the oppression and sees nothing wrong. That is a life wasted. My efforts will not put an end to whatever ills I see today, but I can point the way to the only genuine hope this world possesses. Yes, I will be better off when I’m dead, but I needn’t be in a hurry to reach that destination.