My great-grandfather, John W. Browning, homesteaded land in Howell County, Missouri. Seven years on the land allowed him to fill out some paperwork and receive a title to the property. During those years, he and his wife, the marvelously named Illinois Inman Browning, lived in a 16-by-18-foot house with seven of their eventual ten children. And for seven years of hard work and improvement to the property, John and the family received ownership of 160 acres, worth some $250 to $300 (or roughly the value of the improvements he had made to the farm).
Sometime between receiving the land patent in 1894 and the the 1900 census, those Brownings moved off to Oklahoma where they lived for over 40 years, still tending the soil, watching as one child after another moved away. According to his obituary, John was a man of faith, but all indications are that the was unable to read, so he didn’t take in the next bit of Ecclesiastes:
What does a person gain for all his efforts
that he labors at under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.–Ecclesiastes 1:3-4
We can get exceptionally invested in the short term. I receive a raise at work or the price of Netflix stock rises. Suddenly I feel as if things are working out exceptionally well, but when we take that longer view, what does it matter? Take the case of William Rockhill Nelson. This businessman founded the Kansas City Star, amassing a very noteworthy fortune. And what did he gain? The newspaper business is circling the drain. Nelson’s family has died out. Yes, his name remains on the Nelson-Atkins Museum, but is that really gain for Mr. Nelson?
Work, it seems, is pointless. But of course I can’t just quit my job, because I really enjoy the money that they send. When Johnson County Community College first hired me, I threw myself down on the floor of my office at KU. This was my big break. Now, 27 years later, I’m not unhappy that they made that call, but I realize that at the end of the day, my retirement account will be the most lasting legacy of that employment. It might outlive me, but it won’t outlive my wife.
Today, somebody new is farming (or just living on) John Browning’s land in Howell County. New media has left the newspapers struggling for survival. Younger English teachers have filled in the ranks of my department at the college. “A generation goes and a generation comes.”
What “the preacher” does not say in these verses is that there is something that is not simply futile, something more than a vapor. Isaiah had it right:
“All humanity is grass,
and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flowers fade,
but the word of our God remains forever.”–Isaiah 40:6,8
The difficulty for us is to focus ourselves on something beyond the futile. We’re to look not on the grass and the flowers that constitute our work and life but on the word of God.