I encountered Ecclesiastes long before I knew much about God. My honors English teacher forced our roomful of ambitious high school juniors to dig through the King James text to figure out what the word vanity means.
“Vanity of vanities … all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2, KJV).
Meaningless was among the synonyms our class came up with, proving that we were, indeed, honor students. But what in the world was this author talking about? As we updated the text, it would have read much like a 20th-century translation:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? … I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind (Eccl. 1:1-3, 14, NIV).
To teenagers, honor students, this made no sense. Our lives were all about striving toward goals: the right college admission, then maybe grad school, certainly the right career, the right city, the right spouse, and family. And, all of this was supposed to be both meaningful and possible. If we were chasing after the wind, we were doing it with our sails set to capture every puff so that we could propel our lives forward into the futures we envisioned.
Many in our class created truly remarkable lives, and it’s easy to feel less than accomplished in their company. Yet, like my peers, I chose goals and was often proud to attain them. I graduated from high school at the top of my class—valedictorian, National Merit Scholar, Presidential Scholar—and headed for the state university of my mother’s choice.
College has a way of changing dreams, and eventually, my vision shifted from my mother’s dream for me—that I would teach school, raise a family, and write children’s books—to an ambition of my own. A local weekly published a little article I wrote about a disabled athlete who would be “running” the Boston Marathon on a recumbent bicycle. And suddenly, I knew what I was going to do. I was not going to make a career of teaching other people to achieve things. I would make a career in which I myself would achieve things. I would become a journalist.
Organized Toward an Ambition
I organized my last three college terms toward my ambition. I kept selling articles to build a portfolio. When the campus newspaper offered me an editorship, I negotiated State House reporter instead—a role in which I would meet lots of reporters from the state’s dailies. One of those daily newspaper reporters recommended me to her editor toward the end of my senior year.
The job interview was almost comical. I was in a pale brown silk suit and light yellow blouse, my hair wrapped tidily at the back of my head. The editor’s yellow shirt was rumpled, his untrimmed hair was scrambled, and he plopped into a chair with the announcement, “I really don’t have time to interview you today.”
He reached for my portfolio, flipped through a few pages, and noted that I’d been writing for a large Boston weekly. He announced, “The Phoenix is a good paper.”
Then he looked up and said, “Marjorie says you’re good. Marjorie’s always right.”
Then he asked the single question of the only interview I went through to obtain my first professional job, “Do you play softball?”
To work at a daily newspaper? Yes, I would play softball.
And that was how I arranged the beginning of my ambitious career.
Ambitions Approved by God
Filmmaker Woody Allen paraphrased an old Yiddish proverb when he said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
But, God seems to have spent many years laughing with me instead as I hit professional goal after professional goal. At 24, I swapped reporting for the copy desk to get a raise so big that my new salary matched my father’s lifetime earning peak. At 29, I became communications director for a regional Christian ministry. At 31, Tom Brokaw interviewed me on the NBC Nightly News about Pat Robertson’s presidential bid. At 42, I was fastest to make associate in the history of the national consulting firm I’d joined.
In my ambition to serve God through the local church, the story went differently.
I was in services every Sunday, at small group every week, usually in a Bible study. I held babies in the nursery, taught children’s church, sang in a choir. During one missions conference, when church members in “full-time Christian service” were highlighted, my full-time regional ministry role was overlooked. A male pastor repeatedly sidelined me because I “needed to stop striving.”
Then, I married an elder. That elevated me to front-facing responsibilities. I got to serve coffee for two years. For a while, a friend and I taught a class on budgeting. Then it was back to the choir.
I had applied to seminary early in my Christian life, at the urging of my pastor. The admissions interview startled me. The male program head referenced a new direction he’d taken in his scholarly pursuits, then told me: “My wife thinks I’m throwing away all the good work I’ve done by heading off this way. What do you think?”
My overwhelming “thought” was a feeling of panic. This was a trap. I was being asked, in a professional interview, to step into a family dispute. If I agreed with his wife, I would be putting in question my “evangelical” credentials as a woman who recognized the importance of male leadership.
Whatever answer I stuttered, it didn’t win me admission.
So, I continued to hold responsible jobs. I would write and edit marketing content and funding proposals, lead large teams in communications and in marketing projects. I taught family education programs for a mental health nonprofit. I supplied bake sales with tens of dozens of cookies.
When checks started to come from my share of my family’s farm, I began to feel connected with the woman of Proverbs 31. My “ministry” was to support my husband’s ministry. He was an elder and worship leader. I earned very good wages, kept house, cooked, cleaned, shopped, and supervised repairmen. Like the woman in Proverbs 31, I served God by providing for my household. At church, I sat. Or sang. Or poured coffee.
Ambition, Arrogance, Humility
Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck grew up the child of missionaries and became a missionary herself in adulthood before divorcing and embarking on her full-time writing career. Under a male pseudonym, she published a family novel, The Long Love, describing the maturation of Edward and Margaret Haslett’s relationship over decades of marriage. In the middle chapters, she gives Margaret a moment to muse about the many ways she has adapted herself to accommodate her husband’s professional ambitions:
“What is it about marriage,” Margaret wonders, “that makes men arrogant and women humble?”
Those of us who have ambitions to serve God through God’s church might wonder something similar. Women listen to sermons full of sports and military metaphors. Men aren’t expected to comprehend parallels from baking and gardening. A new male head teacher can instantly replace a poorly written Sunday school curriculum that women teachers have tried for months to revise.
And yet, is there benefit to us, as women, in pushing ourselves forward toward our ambitions for service in the church? I find myself taking a parallel from early years of political action.
Living ‘As If’ the ‘Not Yet’ is Now
The hundreds of us who sought to stop a construction project in the late 1970s were Quaker-trained in nonviolent confrontation. We would return peace no matter what happened to us. And, we would also act “as if” what we wanted was going to occur. In this case, we acted “as if” construction vehicles would not access a property. We sat on the pavement and did not move until police dragged us away.
David Graeber describes the theory of nonviolent action in this way: “… direct action is the insistence, when facing structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one already is free.”
Part of women’s effectiveness in my generation has been simply to act “as if” we are free to be ambitious. We negotiate “as if” we deserve the same pay a man gets. We do our jobs “as if” it’s okay for a married woman to work the same 45- and 55-hour weeks as the married men. We build businesses “as if” it’s appropriate for a Christian woman to start a new industry or to transform a neighborhood by economic development. We apply to seminary “as if” it is reasonable for a woman to receive the same degree a man would.
Outside of church and seminary, we often advance. In church, not so much. How can we act “as if” we are free to follow our ambitions when we are also committed to following human authorities who remain committed to holding onto their historic leadership roles?
For many in my generation, the answer has been to achieve our ambitions for God outside of God’s church. We take on community leadership in public schools and social services agencies. We build networks of Christian businesswomen who give a tithe to our congregations and a portion of our hours to those who need our service and can’t pay.
In that vein, I’ve turned my ambition this year away from what seems unattainable in my church toward becoming a lay chaplain in our local hospital system.
Ambitious Goals with No Ambition Allowed
Ambition plays a puzzling role in the life of the chaplain. The chaplain who enters a hospital room with an intended outcome—to cheer up a patient, or to help her make peace with impending death—is almost guaranteed to fail. But, the chaplain who simply sits with the patient and follows wherever the patient wants to go … that chaplain will have the kind of results that can be measured in scientific research studies.
What is it that chaplains can do? In part, chaplains help patients already committed to their faith to remain connected while in the hospital. People who attend worship services at least weekly are 25-35 percent less likely to die in a given 15-year period than those who attend less often. Hospitals prefer patients not to die.
More surprisingly, chaplains alleviate pain. This matters to hospitals because when patients report pain on their discharge day, hospitals don’t get full reimbursement from key insurers. And, according to my chaplaincy instructor, current research indicates that spiritual care relieves pain in 15 percent of patients who report pain relief. (If you’re curious, medical interventions work for 60 percent and antidepressants for 15 percent. The remaining 10 percent whose pain is reduced are still a mystery.) This only adds new detail to a decade of high-quality research demonstrating that spiritual practices reduce pain.
Yet, to achieve ambitious goals of extending life, alleviating suffering (and improving insurance reimbursements), chaplains must do our work without ambition.
Our ambitions as women to achieve great things for God may likewise live in a part of God’s world where the relationship between effort and outcome is obscure. This is the lesson of Ecclesiastes that I couldn’t understand as a teen.
Ambitiously Chasing God’s Wind
We may have goals. We may or may not attain them. God directs the wind that we chase with our very lives. And, whether we achieve much or little by our own estimation, we are to be glad in it. “Enjoy life,” God says, “all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun” (Eccl. 9:9).
What is the meaning of this “meaningless” life spent chasing after wind? The meaning is simple: God gave this life.
So, I will keep chasing the wind with my “meaningless” ambitions. I’m bringing a kite and a picnic. There’s lunch for us all. God is the meaning. Enjoy.
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