So the Daily Mirror leads today’s front page as “best-selling author Terry Pratchett tweets the story of his dying moments.”
The Independent, as you would expect, is more upmarket. It leads with one his quotes: “’Don’t think of it as dying,’ said Death. “Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”
I hadn’t realized how successful and prolific an author Pratchett was, selling some 85 million books worldwide. So popular, in fact, that in Britain his books were consistently number one in the shoplifters’ league table.
Pratchett had a unique mix; in many ways he created his own genre. For most of his extensive writing career, he focused almost entirely on fantasy, with a mix of humour and satire, explaining, “It is easier to bend the universe around the story.
He was a grim realist, seeing no obvious purpose in life. In the event of there being any god, the divine would be detached and aloof, even cruel. As in this quote:
“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players (i.e. everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”
However, in 2008 soon after his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, he had a numinous experience. “I’m certainly not a man of faith, but as I was rushing down the stairs one day… it was very strange. I suddenly knew that everything was okay, that what I was doing was right, and I didn’t know why.”
At the moment I am ploughing my way through Ecclesiastes, which comes just after Proverbs. A strange book.
So this morning I read in chapter 5
“All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage have the wise over fools? And what do the poor have who know how to conduct themselves before the living?
“Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
And that about summarises the whole book. To say the least God does not come over as a loving creator who delights in his children: the very opposite. How it got into the Bible, no one is quite sure. No wonder that it is not quoted in the New Testament, not by Jesus, not by Paul, not by anyone.
Most people know Ecclesiastes through Pete Seeger’s 1962 song “Turn, turn, turn,” lifted from chapter 3.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
But what do these words mean? Is this the cyclical way of life described in the previous chapter and we should just learn to adapt to what life brings to us, both good and sad? Just get on with it.
Last night at Alpha Jacqui produced a wonderful quote from Archbishop Michael Ramsey “We state and commend the faith only in so far as we go out and put ourselves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubters, the questions of the questioners, and the loneliness of those who have lost the way.”
And this is what gives the book of Ecclesiastes such power – it seeks to address the mind of those who are disillusioned and world-weary, to those of our contemporaries like Pratchett angry with God for not existing. The writer enters the doubts of the doubters and the loneliness of the lost in our alienated culture. It stands where they are – and points to a better reality.
“God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (3:11)
So God calls us to enter other people’s worlds with the good news of his astonishing love and unbelievable friendship. As the good shepherd, Jesus enters our wilderness to seek out the lost in lonely places.