Lying Awake at Night

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.

Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God. 
The house in Indianapolis where I lived out the earliest years of my childhood is directly across from the midway of the Indiana State Fair.
According to family mythology, we were the first people on Winthrop Avenue to park cars on our property.
An exasperated man, tired of waiting in traffic to enter the Fair, asked my dad if he could park in our yard for one dollar.  Thus began the annual family fundraiser of flagging Buicks and Oldsmobiles onto our grass.
My two brothers and I loved to prowl the midway by day.  Of course, it would have cost a small fortune to pay an entry fee every time.  So we devised a plan to get in free.  We crossed the street and stood by the Fair’s midway entrance, looking serene and well-behaved.  Whenever a young childless couple approached the gate we’d say, “Would it be all right if we walked in pretending to be your kids?”
Most young couples smiled and said, “Sure!” 
I was between four and six years old when I practiced this charade.  These days my parents (who knew all about it) might be brought up on charges by Child Protective Services.  But it was a different era.  Eisenhower was President, and it wasn’t unusual to see unaccompanied kids running around the midway.
We would stare longingly at the Ferris wheels and roller coasters, knowing we didn’t have enough money in our pockets to take a ride.  But we almost always had a few nickels.  That allowed us to play “A Poor Man’s Game,” which meant tossing nickels into a vast display of plates, cups and saucers – presumably discontinued items from a kitchen supply warehouse.  If your nickel bounced onto one of those plates, you got to take it home.  Shortly before Mom died a few years ago, we noticed she still had at least one of those plates in her kitchen cabinet. 
As the Indiana State Fair enters its final few days of 2023, I look back on those daytime visits to the midway as happy adventures. 
But when the sun went down, things were different.  We always got home before dark.  Looking across the street, the midway was gradually transformed into a place of bright lights, strange sounds, and, for a child, foreboding mystery.  
We had no air conditioning, so on hot August nights the windows in our duplex were always open.  I climbed into bed listening to the cacophony of the Fair.
There were occasional sirens.  And bells.  And the music of the merry-go-round.  And when the wind was just right, we could clearly hear the voices of the carnival barkers:  “Just knock down all the bottles and you win!  Come on, kid, don’t you want your girlfriend to go home with a prize?”
In the 1950s, sad to say, there were freak shows on the midway.  I remember hearing one of the barkers yelling, “Myrtle the Turtle Girl:  she walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”
That’s when a five-year-old boy pulls the covers over his head and tries to keep the big, strange, scary world at bay.
And if we’re perfectly honest, we all still do that from time to time.
Except now we’re lying awake at night worrying about the economy.  Or nuclear missiles pointed at Ukraine.  Or climate change.  Or this dispiriting election cycle.  Or uncharted asteroids heading toward Earth.  Or, as the late columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote, that scientists are going to discover that lettuce has been fattening all along. 
In many ways, Ecclesiastes portrays life “under the sun” as a State Fair midway. 
The world around us is noisy and distracting.  Politicians, self-help gurus, and social media influencers are like carnival hucksters.  Step right up and find happiness.  Come over here and try your luck at figuring out why you ever came into this world.  Solomon offers this brutal, recurring assessment:  It’s all meaningless.  A façade.  Cheap thrills masquerading as wisdom. 
Halfway through August, let’s pause to remember that this book is relentlessly steering us toward a conviction that can be expressed in six words:  Outside of God, Everything is Meaningless
Or as Solomon himself puts it in the opening words of his final chapter, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). 
God is variously described in the Bible as a strong tower, an impenetrable fortress, and a sheltering rock casting a cool shadow on a scorching day.  “God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him.  We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom, courageous in sea-storm and earthquake, before the rush and roar of oceans, the tremors that shift mountains” (Psalm 46:1-3, The Message).
When it feels as if the world is impossibly noisy, and its problems are too much to bear, God reminds us that he holds the world in the palm of his hand.
That assurance is more than enough to get us through sleepless nights.
And it lasts a whole lot longer than a deep-fried Snickers bar.