Of Sandcastles, Ecclesiastes, and Missions

We are currently getting some beach time here in Cameroon (one of the perks of living in the tropics). At the same time we have begun studying the book of Ecclesiastes as a family. These two facts have resulted in many great discussions with our kids. Just the other day we were out building a sandcastle together on the beach. Moats were dug, walls were mounted, and challenges were hurled at the sea. However, it did not take long for the ocean to riposte with a foamy wave of wrath. As our walls tumbled, Makyra, our oldest daughter, cried out: “It’s all meaningless!”

I was inspired by these events, and also by Carolyn Mahaney’s blog Every Day’s a Bad Day, to consider what Ecclesiastes says to missionaries. I came up with four lessons that have encouraged me to press on:

1. Missions is supposed to be hard

I was talking to a newer missionary not long ago about being sick. I have a particularly weak constitution, and I knew that my stomach would not deal well with life in Cameroon. In fact, I came expecting to be sick all of the time. When we arrived in Cameroon in 2014 I lost ~30 pounds in the first few months. But things got better, and I found out how to treat the new illnesses and I found myself sick only about half the time. The result: I rejoiced. My missionary friend did not consider himself to have a weak constitution, was not expecting to be sick at all, and was also sick half the time. The result for him: deep frustration.

I have found that expectations affect missionaries’ lives very deeply. I have known several missionaries who came to the field because they were in love with [insert culture here], but left frustrated. To missionaries the author of Ecclesiastes says,

“All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it…” Ecclesiastes 1:8a

“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

The truth is, missions (and all of life really) is supposed to be hard. No matter where you live, if you find yourself constantly weary, you are normal. That is how things are supposed to be. It is astounding to watch my poor neighbors wrestle with the earth day in and day out to provide food for their families. Then they spend many nights dancing at funerals trying to appease spirits. And I think that I am weary!? As far off from God’s original plan as this is, it is not surprising, it is not unexpected. But I think I can agree with the author that it is vanity, a striving after the wind.

Knowing these facts ahead of time is so helpful for missionaries because you can be better prepared for weariness if you expect it. But it also helps you to appreciate the good days. In Ecclesiastes 7, it says,

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other…” Ecclesiastes 7:14a

So, first of all, when we know that “all things are full of weariness” we can appreciate the day of prosperity. When we see little victories like people agreeing upon an alphabet, or a water fight with the neighbor kids, or (can we hope?!) someone coming to Christ, we can know these days are special. We can rejoice and thank God. And for all of the other frustrating, hard, sick days, we can know those come from God too. Ecclesiastes does not offer us a lot of reasons for why life is so hard, yet it still calls us to trust in the Designer of both the good and bad days.

2. Living among the dying is better

I have written about this before, but living in a Cameroonian village has really caused me to come face-to-face with death in a way that I have never before experienced. I have hauled bleeding, dying men to the hospital, helped dig graves for toddlers, and listened to my neighbors wail for their dead often. In contrast, in the US I rarely ever attended a funeral, and only a couple of times for people I knew well. When I arrived at these funerals the dead were prepared (made-up to still look living) or hidden behind a box. We prayed and cried, but I never touched death.

And to be honest, it is really hard to deal with death up close. It is hard to look at a dead child while her mother weeps beside her. I hate it. I hate death, I hate mourning. But to missionaries like me Ecclesiastes says,

“It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.” Ecclesiastes 7:2

Can you believe that? He tells me that it is better to be in the house of mourning than in the house of feasting. Why? Because it reminds us that we are all going to die. Moses says something similar in Psalm 90. After reminding us that we have short, difficult lives he calls upon God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Living in America it is easy to believe that we will never die. Sure, we know everyone dies, but practically speaking we just ignore it. Here in Cameroon, it is impossible not to think of death. And that is good. God wants us to think about our coming death and for us to gain wisdom from that knowledge. In the verse below, I think we get some insight into what the author of Ecclesiastes was really aiming for.

“I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” Ecclesiastes 2:3

This man was searching for something. He was trying everything he could do to figure out “what was good for the children of man to do under heaven for the few days of their life.” Is that not what missionaries want to know? Are we not searching for the best way to use our lives? Without a doubt, the book of Ecclesiastes tells us you can learn this lesson better when you live closer to the poor and dying. When you understand that life is hard, it is supposed to be hard, and that in the end we will all die, you can start to understand how to live for eternity.

3. We ought to live for eternity

One of the most striking revelations in reading through Ecclesiastes this week has been the realization that the author is looking for a life that has eternal weight. This is remarkable because “[t]raditionally Jews believed that after death people go to the world of the dead, Sheol, where there is no activity or mental reflection” (Ogden & Zogbo 1998: 7). The author reveals throughout this book that he is looking beyond the grave, beyond Sheol. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 3:11, he says:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

He is acknowledging that God has put it into our hearts to know that life is enduring, that there is an eternity. Now, he is frustrated with this, believing that while man is able to know eternity naturally, he “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” But I think that is what this book is all about. The author is contrasting mortal life on earth (“under the sun”) with a desire for an enduring “gain.” He is looking for meaning in our short lives and he does not find that meaning merely here and now.

We are surely fortunate to live in a day and age with heaps more revelation than the author of Ecclesiastes. I see the heart to live for eternity in the words of Christ in Matthew 6:19-21,

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus is calling us to live for eternity here, though in these verses he does not give any specifics. I have often wondered what he had in mind when he said this. I have heard applications to evangelism (“The only thing you can take with you is your friends!”), but I find it interesting to note that just a few verses earlier Jesus said,

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:2-4

Jesus’ application of this principle is giving to the needy in secret. That is how you store up treasures (rewards) in Heaven. I wish the author of Ecclesiastes knew then what we know now. But it is certain that he saw only one way to have a life of eternal worth:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

It is obedience to the Lord that leads to treasures in Heaven. And though this might sound legalistic and ominous, if you take the time to read the book of Ecclesiastes, you will find that the author did not see it that way.

4. You can enjoy it

One of the most reinforced truths in Ecclesiastes is that the best way to live our ephemeral lives on this temporary world is to enjoy what we have. This theme is scattered throughout, but this passage is one of the best:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” Ecclesiastes is 9:7-10

Honestly in the day-in-day-out life as a missionary, it is easy to forget joy. The truth is for all of our efforts, all of our love, there is no guarantee that anyone will believe. There are more days of frustration than rejoicing, more days of death than new life, more tears than laughing. And Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing better than for us to find enjoyment in our toil. This does not mean “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” The author is reminding us that enjoying God’s creation, his food, his drink, his people, is what God wants us to do. That is why he made food taste good, why he made us to want companionship. God wants missionaries to rejoice.

One thing I did not mention about our sandcastle building adventure is that when Makyra cried out “It’s all meaningless!” she said it giggling with glee. We all know when we build sandcastles that they are going to crumble, but we build them anyway, and enjoy the process. For me (the weak, often frustrated missionary) this is all a good reminder. Life is hard, it is supposed to be hard. Ever since the Fall this world has been wrought with death and pain. And realizing that life is short is good for me, it makes me want to live for something beyond this life. But in the midst of the difficult, death-reminding episodes of my daily life, I can experience great joy, if I only take the time to look for it.

*Ogden, Graham S. and Lynell Zogbo. 1998. A Handbook on Ecclesiastes.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.