“My husband only buys me fake flowers,” Sarah proudly declared as she looked upon the bundle of fresh flowers sitting on my kitchen counter. “He says that fake flowers will live forever, just like his love for me. Real flowers just die!” I forced a smile, choosing to overlook her discourteous remark as I quietly considered her flower logic. On the one hand, she had made an important observation: fresh flowers die. In fact, they are dying before you even get them home to put in a vase! Yet, if I had to choose between a vase full of fragrant, delicate, natural flowers, or a vase full of dusty silk fibers woven into the shape of flowers, there would be no competition. But, why? Why buy fresh flowers when we know that they are dying?
This question found its way into the back of my mind last month. My husband is a chef, and works in a high-functioning kitchen that feeds approximately 3,500 people a day. If you want to find the most economically, racially, religiously, politically diverse place in your city, go to a kitchen. Many of my husband’s coworkers are not affiliated with any church, so a few of them have claimed me as their default minister. One such coworker lost her mother to cancer last month, so her family was instantly absorbed into my ragtag parish. I was asked to officiate the funeral—my first funeral to ever officiate. As I sat with her family in their home looking through photos of her mother, listening to memories, hugging through tears, the question roared in my head: Why buy fresh flowers? Why love somebody who is dying? Why invest in life when death is always imminent? Could there possibly be any meaning or value in life, when life is so brief?
As I processed the senseless loss of my parishioner’s mother, I silently recalled the first senseless death in the biblical narrative. In Genesis 4, Abel is murdered by his brother Cain. His blood is spilled on the ground, and it cries up to God—perhaps crying out from the deep sorrow of his namesake, the Hebrew word hebel. The word hebel is most closely associated with Ecclesiastes—the collected teachings of Qohelet, or the Teacher. In Ecclesiastes, the word occurs 38 times (most famously in Ecclesiastes 1) and has been translated as, “vanity,” “meaningless,” “useless,” “absurd,” “futility,” “breath,” “vapor,” and many other words that ultimately grasp at the same reality: life is short and enigmatic. When you are confronted with the reality of death and the brevity of life, you brush up against that which cannot be fully comprehended by any level of intellect or human experience. Life and death seem useless in the broader spectrum of time and creation, yet we manage to love so deeply, make memories so boldly, and live so fully. How could all of this fullness of life lead to something so abrupt and unwelcome as death? Here alongside Qohelet, we survey a world of freshly cut flowers, a world of beauty and order that is often rendered meaningless.
So what to do with all of this hebel? In the face of death, most humans develop death denial. We distance ourselves from its intolerable and incomprehensible reality. We buy the fake flowers. And while deep down we know that the sacredness of a flower is found in its delicate life, we prefer a cheapened and fabricated answer to the problem of death. I cannot envy my friend’s fake flowers, although I am happy for the love that her husband expresses towards her. I cannot envy the fake flowers because they lack the value of my fresh cut flowers. Somehow, mysteriously, the blossoming before the withering possesses more value than a million years of fake flowers. Her fake flowers represented to me a certain attempt at cheating death, cheating life, cheating hebel. She took comfort in a plan that did away with the death of flowers, but her plan was a mirage—death remained.
But perhaps in this seemingly grim acceptance of the enigma of life and death, we find our portal into what the Wisdom Literature of the Bible calls “fear of the LORD.” In this recognizing of hebel we are given the opportunity to glimpse the enormity and vastness of the sovereign creator God, and we begin to embrace a proper posture of humility before the great mystery of God. When we are properly aligned to our place before God, wisdom for how to navigate life soon follows (Prov 9:10). Like Job in the presence of God, we do not receive the answers we crave, but we are enveloped by the greatness of God—and that is more than enough. In this moment, seeing the hebel of it all, and yet the enormity of God, we become a little less neurotic, a little less impatient, a little less self-serving. We are awakened to the value of a brief life, and the fullness of each breath. We choose the fresh flowers every time; we choose to love in the face of imminent loss. We forego attempts at cheating death, and we opt for a life that engages the greater mysteries because we have found comfort and hope in the One who is sovereign beyond the grave—the One who can resurrect and restore.