This excerpt comes from Lisa Nichols Hickman’s recently-published book, Mercy & Melons: Praying the Alphabet. This collection of lyrical meditations encourages readers to pray the alphabet, by focusing each chapter on a letter of the alphabet and an accompanying spiritual practice. The chapter below highlights the letter “F”, and discusses frogs, futility, faith, and flourishing.
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
— Ecclesiastes 1:2 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Riding my bike with a friend this week, she said, “I’ve been asking myself the strangest things. What is the point of it all?” To be clear, this is one of the most gracious and luminous friends I have. She is sunshine, sea breeze, and absolute grace. She’s been caring for sick friends and family members, and, in the midst of changing bandages and sorting out the accumulation of stuff in basements, has been building up the deep sighs of thoughts and questions that are so hard to voice, let alone to answer. Is it all futile? I hear her wonder.
I tell her that is why we have Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and that the constellation of concerns that create Scripture would not be complete without the attempts of the teacher to understand futility. This is the book that begins, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, Common English Bible). I’m not sure this gives hope to my friend, but after our breathless ride uphill, we are finally able to coast just a bit.
My Finnish grandfather was not nearly as eloquent as Qoheleth, the teacher in Ecclesiastes. Scanning through the typewritten notes he has gathered of the stories he remembered from his childhood, I come across this gem: “At Tikkipoppa’s house,” he writes, “the only thing that goes to waste is farts and smoke.” Leave it to a Finn to so poignantly suggest that nothing important in life is futile.
I’m praying and thinking about futility, not because I’m trying to hold on to my farts and smoke, but because I’m thinking about this usually spirited friend who feels dispirited. Futile comes from the Latin word futilis and literally means “pouring out easily.” Think: leaky, unreliable, easily dismissed, poured out without end. How do you flourish when everything feels futile?
In pondering this, two faces come to mind. First, a woman I saw working at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Used to the constant flow of visitors, she worked without catching our eye. But she stood memorable to us, bright even against the jewel-toned icons filling the sanctuary, in her floral headscarf and vibrant flowing work clothes. She filled her bucket, mopped the floor, poured out the bucket by the back door, and then refilled to begin again with clean water in another part of the sanctuary. We were mesmerized by her steadfast work. Would the floor be in need of cleaning again tomorrow? Absolutely. Would clueless visitors trespass through her sacred halls once again? Of course. But she made futility flowery. She flourished. I remember simply the beauty and focus of her hard work, which would, of course, be dirtied within the hour.
Then I remember a young man from Guatemala working in the tourist shop at the Mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson. The salesclerk, a handsome young man with a smile brighter than the relenting heat outside, was outfitted in blue jeans and black T-shirt complemented by silver and turquoise jewelry. A large silver disk on his ring flashed as he added up my purchases.
Daily, he too greeted the tourists, sharing the incredible handicrafts of the Tohono in the middle of a maze. We started talking as I asked him about the symbols on the crafts surrounding us. He commented, “I came to Tucson for rehab. But that’s not what changed my life.”
He told me that the Native American culture saved his life. He had grown up, and lost siblings, during the violence that plagued Guatemala for many years. Facing disillusionment and grief, he fled to the States. When he landed on the Indian reservation, he was struck by the wisdom of the elders, who combined the Tohono O’odham culture with the Catholicity of the mission. He learned wisdom from their tradition: You only cry when you’re born. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite. You have to think like a frog: have you ever seen a frog jump backward? My thinking had to catch up to his revelations; then I understood he was speaking about futility. Keep moving forward, he had learned from the tradition, even when faced with futility.
You have to think like a frog. I didn’t even know frogs thought. I pictured my grandmother’s bathroom in Oklahoma City, one that I frequented while growing up, the walls and shelves of the room covered with frogs. I wondered if she ever thought, Think like a frog. Have you ever seen a frog jump backward?
Two pastor friends of mine collect frogs. For Bill, the collection has come to mean one thing: Fully Rely on God. For those of you who needed an acronym for the letters F–R–O–G, now you have one. Each frog in his collection is another petition in that prayer. For Tom, one who knows the real effect of human sin on all of us, the collection is his differing but not cynical statement about ministry: “All ministry,” Tom says, “is kissing frogs.”
All of us have to face the question of futility at some point in our careers, our marriages, and our own sense of well-being. Fostering a new sense of meaning beyond that point of futility is one of the functions of adulthood. “Fully rely on God,” Bill says. We do that once we’ve faced futility. “Kiss frogs,” Tom says. We do that once we’ve known failure and yet keep trying. “Keep jumping forward,” my friend at the mission shop says as he shares the wisdom he has learned from the elders. We do that once we’ve tried a step backward and realized that it is always more futile than another faithful step forward.
The young man at the mission pulled out one of the larger images of I’itoi, the man in the maze. To be clear, the symbol reveals a man standing at the dead center of a confusing maze. While he seems stuck, those who gaze on it understand that the man will not only move through this mess of a maze, but he will become a new creation in the process. It was clear as the young man shared his story that this symbol was salvific to him. I listened closely. “The man in the maze is what changed my life. I was lost in addiction. Came here for rehab. But I found hope in the maze.”
The man who came to Tucson for rehab knew a few things about life’s mazes. His story was a labyrinth of loss, addiction, grief, and alienation. He had every reason to want to push against his circumstances. Either he could succumb to a sense of futility, or, perhaps, he could become a new creation.
As I turned to leave the shop, the clerk said, “You know what you get when you turn the maze upside down?” I have to admit I had not looked at the image upside down. At first glance, I saw an eagle with wings flying outstretched and beak tucked down.
The image became clearer as I heard him ask, “Do you see the cross?”
Then I could see as he turned the disk upside down and thrust it before me. “Do you see it?” It took a moment, but I saw a cross with arms outstretched, surrounded by the spectrum of an overarching sunset. The man in the maze, turned upside down, seemed to lie on the ground marveling at the scene. He confessed, “When I saw Christ in the maze of my life, that changed everything for me.”
I’ll remember the young sales clerk for flipping futility around and inviting instead a new faith, an invitation to follow. Have you ever seen a frog jump backward? The frog knows that anything but moving forward is futile.