The Vanity of Turtles

Near my office, there’s a bridge that passes over a wide drainage channel with a meandering creek running down one side.  When I walk over that bridge to one of our usual lunchtime haunts, I almost always stop to take a look over the side to catch a glimpse of the wildlife below.  It’s common to see ducks paddling through the deeper puddles, cranes stalking among the rushes, and schools of little fish circling in the shallow green water.

(Can you find the crane?)

One day, I spotted a turtle swimming along  just beneath the walkway, its head just visible out of the water.  Over the next couple weeks, a few more members of this little turtle clan appeared.  Sometimes they were swimming in lazy circles around the rocks at the side of the creek.  Other times, they would sun themselves on the sloping concrete above the rocks.  For a few of us who frequented that bridge, stopping to check on the turtles became something of a ritual.  We were a little disappointed when we couldn’t spot them.

Rain comes only sporadically in the coastal desert climate of Orange County.  When the rains come, though, water runs out from the hills and the surrounding neighborhoods, collecting here and there in streams and rivulets on its way to the ocean.  From my office, I can watch as the drainage channel turns over the course of an hour or so from a little trickle to a raging torrent, forty yards wide and at least several feet deep.  Debris that has collected all along the channel over the course of weeks and months gets picked up and carried downstream.  When it’s all over, great drifts of brush and logs swept down by the storm pile up around the footings of the bridge.  The area in the middle of the channel is flattened and gouged by the sudden flood.

I remember the day the rains came to visit the turtles.  It was a grand storm — the kind that howls and beats against my office windows and fills the channel nearly to the brim.  The next day, I walked over the bridge and surveyed the scene.  I think I secretly hoped that the turtles had sensed the rising waters and wandered up on the sides to escape the coming flood.  When I looked over the edge of the bridge, I half expected to see the turtles wandering along in the muddy water like half-dazed survivors of some terrible disaster.  But they were nowhere to be seen.

For the next couple weeks, I would stop a little longer than usual on my way over the bridge to see if I could spot the turtles.  The ducks came back the next day and the little fish gradually reappeared, but those turtles never came back, and neither did any of their kin.  But really, would it have been better if a new little family of turtles showed up?  They would go on living their little turtle lives, unaware of the doom lurking just around the corner.  It would be just a matter of time before death rode in on a dark cloud.

Then recently, I read this in Ecclesiastes:

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.”  Ecc. 3:19.

All is vanity — so true for those hapless turtles living in the channel.  The same creek that sustained their lives eventually would wipe them out in an act of sudden devastation.  But the point of that verse is that the man and beast fares the same here on the earth.  We’re all just turtles in a channel, awaiting the inevitable visit from death.  Youth and health may make our bodies feel permanent, but that permanency is an illusion.  Life here under the sun is a fatal condition.

But that’s not the whole story, of course.  Life under the sun is vanity, but the life to come in God’s presence is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore.”  Psalm 16:11.  And if we belong to Jesus, God promises that all things in this otherwise vain life ultimately will work for our good.  Rom. 8:28.  Even the floods that inevitably will come, and even the one that eventually will sweep us away.

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