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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 9

Ecclesiastes 4:7-12

7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8 There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. "For whom am I toiling," he asked, "and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?" This too is meaningless-- a miserable business! 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: 10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
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There are few things in life more important than friendship.  C.S. Lewis said that there is no greater pleasure than sitting next to a fire with his friends.  He talked about friends as one of those things that you don't need to survive by saying that they don't have any survival value, but they do add value to survival.  I like those thoughts.

The author makes a point when he broaches the topic of friendship.  There is something very meaningless about being all alone.  Even when you're experiencing something great, it doesn't seem to carry meaning when you're all by yourself.  Community is kingdom-critical.

I wrote something about 9 years ago that I've never really forgotten.  It speaks of what this passage touches on.  


I just learned a fearful thing…

I don’t live in community.
There isn’t a friend I know that I can’t live without (other than my wife).
Sounds spiritual…but it’s not.
I’ve grown to not need anyone.

Religion has become the fight to survive without contact with others.
Life is filled with twists and turns
Where occasionally I intersect with another
In such a way that it leaves me overjoyed.
But over time, schedule and the basic patterns of life
Remove me from that person and I’m alone again.
Bursts of rapture and rays of joy split this dark world
But in the end, what they awaken with their entrance
Is soon closed with their departure.

I laid my eyes on a journal entry today that made my heart seize.
I was looking for encouragement and I found community.

My spirit was filled with the pangs of loneliness
Knowing that my life is filled with activity,
but little intimacy.
I don’t have time to do absolutely nothing with someone else
There has to be a hitch, a purpose, and a program.

So much happens in Christianity
It’s hard to knock the fact that it does give people something to do with themselves.
But Christianity and Community aren’t good friends.
If they ever get to know each other
It’s usually an accident, a freak twist of fate.
It saddens my heart that I spend so much time with people
and so little time in people.
It’s not the lack of contact; it’s the lack of connection.

Loneliness isn’t being alone,
It’s being with people and not finding a fit.
It’s talking and not being heard.
It’s listening and not remembering.
And the worst thing is this…
I’m getting used to it.

I’m getting used to sharing superficially
I’m getting used to editing my true feelings
I’m getting used to talking to myself
I’m getting used to compartmentalizing my life
I’m getting used to getting used to things
I don’t take life as personally anymore.

But the inescapable reality is this…life is boring without people.
It’s pointless without others to share it with.
It’s like watching a funny movie by yourself.
It’s like shooting a hole in one all alone.
Without someone to share it with…it dies.
People are the only thing that makes life live.
They take everything else and give it meaning.

I’m bound to my need for others.
Denial only prolongs the agony.
I can’t live without deep friendship.
I can’t grow without true fellowship.
I can’t survive without brotherhood.
Standing alone isn’t strength; it’s weakness.
Independence isn’t maturity; it’s insecurity.

Getting accustomed to friendless living
Is like getting used to walking with a rock in your shoe.
You can walk, but not with quality of life.
You can ignore the pain or endure the discomfort,
But after a while you have to ask the question,
“Is this the way it is supposed to be?”
The answer is a hearty, “No!”

In our haste to fulfill our desires,
We’ve forgotten an important ingredient,
“It is not good for man to be alone!”
That’s before sin…that’s including God.
A man and God are not enough.
Man needs another…someone else.
He’s can’t live without communion…
He was created for community.
He was born for brotherhood.

And so my heart looks for brothers…
Strong men who aren’t afraid to show weakness.
Godly men who aren’t afraid to disclose sin.
Skilled men who aren’t afraid to fail.
Serious men who aren’t afraid to laugh.
Brave men who aren’t afraid to face danger.
Passionate men who aren’t afraid to look stupid.
Confident men who aren’t afraid of other men.
Humble men who aren’t afraid to grow.

I know they’re out there.
I know they want just what I want…community.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 8

Ecclesiastes 4:1-6

1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-- and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-- and they have no comforter. 2 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. 4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 5 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. 6 Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
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Oppression.

There is a way that Solomon talks about the tears and fears of the oppressed that put into words a nameless gnawing that has chewed away at my own heart.  The power being on the side of the oppressors and the longing for a comforter that never comes can cause a cave-in on days.

Take back that thing I was saying about Solomon turning a corner...we're back in the abyss. 

This is an abyss I can't so easily dismiss.  I can fight against his feelings of meaninglessness when he's slamming stuff that is easily defended, but it's hard to miss the fact that life crushes people along the way.  It has a way of crushing the ones who are weak and vulnerable and impoverished the most and it's a double damnation when you see the oppressors smiling with the power found on their side. (that phrase in the text about makes my blood boil.)

So when he speaks of being dead as a coveted luxury to the living, there's something to say for that flight of fancy.  Paul doesn't say for me to live is Christ and to die is gain for nothin'.  John does say, "Lord Jesus, come quickly" because his life is too good to be true.  And here's a couple other green apples to chew on...right now millions of people on this planet are praying for the Lord's return because they are starving, being raped, being persecuted, being beaten, being imprisoned and living with the imminent danger of death all around them.  We as Americans can think it strange someone would want to die rather than face another day, but even in our country the oppression that hovers like an ominous cloud over some people's lives is unbearable and unbelievable.

The author goes even further in his diatribe against life when he says the only thing better than the happiness of death being better than the vexation of life is to have never been born in the first place.  Man, we're on a slippery slope of suicidal thinking that is almost dangerous to entertain.  I feel that as a pastor I almost don't want people to read this stuff for fear that is will confirm their suspicions and push them over the edge they are already so close to throwing themselves off of to begin with.

But Solomon does move from that thought into something worth wondering about.  He claims that man's hard work and achievement is often motivated by his or her envy of their neighbor.  Before rushing past that wonderment, I have to sit with that a second.  Without much thought and self-examination, I would have to agree that even in my own life, a great deal of my success has been driven by my desire to be like or better than someone else.  Even in ministry I will witness someone else's glossy growth and it will drive me to be better, do more, get going or make things happen.  You don't want to be left in the dust or outmoded, so you strive...or as the author refers to it "chase".  

Your life is chasing, chasing, chasing.  Like greyhounds chasing the mechanical bunny around the track, your life is constant motion and movement while the thing you're after keeps evading your clutches.  Always chasing, never catching.  It's exhausting and a good deal of the chasing comes from keeping up with someone else.  I hate how much of my past success is nothing but the wood, hay, and stubble of envious drivenness borne out of jealousy.

He at least ends this section with a powerful acknowledgement: "Better one handful with tranquility then two handfuls with told."  I couldn't agree more.  Is there anything more desirable than perfect peace.  What I wouldn't give or give up to have my heart at rest, enjoying the calm of quiet contentment.  Chasing and striving and struggling eclipsed by tranquility.  This is the author drawing conclusions about what is truly satisfactory when a day is done.  If you have gained the world and yet lost your soul...what does it profit a man?  If you have achieved great exploits but are racked with anxiety, what's the use?  Come to think of it, I've met oppressed people in third world countries that are happier than their oppressors because they have come to terms with what's really important.  They smile with a handful while I cringe with two.  What is wrong with that picture?  What is right with that picture?

All I know is that I believe that life is not found in what we think it is.  The tranquility that we seek is not found in power or prestige, popularity or possessions...it's hard to believe but peace--real peace--is found in the ability to be happy with less.  To relish the one handful.  To take great joy in the one car and the one house, the one spouse and the one family, the one vacation and the one hobby.  

Really, it comes down to being ok with having one God.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 7

Ecclesiastes 3:12-22

12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil--this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. 15 Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. 16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment--wickedness was there, in the place of justice--wickedness was there. 17 I thought in my heart, "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed." 18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?" 22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
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I feel like I'm on a sea-saw.  On the one hand Solomon is elevating his conversation about himself and humankind to an eternal place.  He speaks of the uniqueness of humanity and the beauty placed in the human heart by God.  Even in this section of Scripture, he begins with such positivity and possibility.  The turbulence of his trajectory seems to be gradually correcting, his ship being righted.  Or maybe not...

He goes from talking about simple things being a gift of God and the desire of man to recognize these gifts resulting in reverence for their Creator to speaking of the equity at death between the righteous and wicked and the equity of animals and humans...both having breath in life and both facing death in the end.  This shifts the pendulum back to a place of mistaken and misplaced identity.  Just because the wicked and the righteous have death in common does not mean they will share the same everlasting fate, nor does the fact that animals breathe as we do and return to dust as we do make them equal to us in dignity or destiny. (Nothing against animals, but they don't have eternity set in their hearts.)  

He ends by asking some questions peppered with debilitating doubt.  Who knows if a man's spirit goes upward and an animal's spirit goes downward?  His faith is wavering.  His curiosity about the afterlife plagues him once again.  His second question speaks again of his desire to see what will happen after he is gone.  This guy wants to see what will happen when all is said and done.  I wish I could say I've never gone there...but doubt about the future, specifically as it relates to eternity has a way of pestering us all I'm afraid.  And the fear that our lives will mean nothing when we're gone does have a way of stopping us dead in our tracks.

I learn a great deal from Solomon's oscillating and vacillating heart.  It grants me the permission to entertain the idea that our hearts struggle to stabilize on this earth.  They seek certitude and concrete commitment, but often they are tossed about on the waves of weakness.  I want to think I'm above such restlessness and rebellion, but my heart has turned against me a time or two down through the years.  I can find myself wrestling with my heart trying to determine what is fiction and non-fiction.  The lines blur especially in the watches of the night.  I wonder if a good bit of this text was written in the dark and lonely hours between midnight and 3am in the morning.  

I can in one moment feel chosen, loved, purposed, fulfilled, gifted and graced, only to be surprised by opposite and opposing feelings almost in the same day/hour.  Part of me feels "more than a conquerer" and another part of me "less than a conquerer".  In the end, I'm left battling my feelings with God's truth.  Sometimes I just have to talk it out with someone, or write it out...something to get it off my chest.  Other times I cry out in the night asking for light.  I know my fragile emotions can't be trusted, but in the moment they feel so true.  I feel this tug of war to be universal among humanity.  Though the immensity and intensity of it varies, the tension is there.

The more I'm caught up in the world, the more at risk I feel to these cold seasons of the soul.  The less I'm tethered to vain ambitions, the less vulnerable I am to feelings of futility and fatality.  I'm not defeatist, instead, I'm living with hope.  This is where I want to be.  It's not always where I am, which is why I think God inspired Solomon to write out what he actually felt instead of what he knew he should feel.  I'm thankful God chose to do that.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 6


Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

A Time for Everything

1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, 3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, 4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, 5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, 6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, 8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. 9 What does the worker gain from his toil? 10I have seen the burden God has laid on men. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
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I love to look at life as a cycle of seasons.  When this is my lens I cope with the ups and downs and ins and outs with a stride that equips me for a methodical marathon instead of isolated spastic sprints.  I see things less statically and more dynamically.  

The author has just come out of a pretty raw commentary on the meaningless of life and is starting to change his tone and tune.  It's interesting that when someone is approaching life with better perspective we call that a "seasoned approach".  We witness Solomon talking in terms of seasons indicating that his sanity has returned and a bit of wisdom with it.  Instead of seeing life one-dimensionally, he begins to step back and widen his gaze a bit.

When you see activities set within seasons set within time, you stand the best chance of interpreting the events of your life with the most accuracy.  You won't find yourself laughing at funerals and mourning at weddings.  You realize each emotion has its time and place, and depending on the season, each is appropriate.  It's not either/or, it's both/and.  Everything depends upon seasons and settings.  

A time to be born and a time to die - Dealing with the tension of the womb and the tomb
A time to plant and a time to uproot - Dealing with the tension of seeds and weeds.
A time to kill and a time to heal - Dealing with the tension of ending life and preserving life.
A time to tear down and a time to build up - Dealing with the tension of deconstruction and reconstruction.
A time to weep and a time to laugh - Dealing with the tension of agony and ecstasy.
A time to mourn and a time to dance - Dealing with the tension of failure and success.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them - Dealing with the tension of scattering and gathering.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain - Dealing with the tension of freedom and restriction.
A time to search and a time to give up - Dealing with the tension of movement and contentment.
A time to keep and a time to throw away - Dealing with the tension of holding on and letting go.
A time to tear and a time to mend - Dealing with the tension of confronting and comforting.
A time to be silent and a time to speak - Dealing with the tension of contemplation and communication.
A time to love and a time to hate - Dealing with the tension of affection and anger.
A time for war and a time for peace - Dealing with the tension of fighting and forgiving.

He then splices two words together that seem to be opposites, but they are not: Burden and Beauty.  He says that God has laid a huge burden on man...something that is actually very beautiful.  And it is this: We, as finite creatures, have the infinite beating inside our breasts.  We are special.  We have the image of God stamped upon our hearts, eternity has been set inside of us.  This is a burden; this is a beauty.  

It reminds me of the verse where Paul said, "To whom much is given, much is required."  When you receive such a gift as this, is is a blessing and a burden.  This is what it means to be human.  We have the ability to think abstractly about life, which is to say we aren't robots programmed to think one-dimensionally.  We can hold two truths that seem to oppose each other in both hands and apply one today and the other tomorrow depending on the setting and circumstances.  We can discern the season and interpret the activity in light of the context.  It is a burden to wake up each day and know the weight of our lives, but it is beautiful to have our hearts wired with the wonderful capacity to choose our responses to reality.  This a sublime gift from God.  I submit that it is our distinguishing feature as humans.

And even though we can't fathom the beginning from the end, we can fathom the eternal equilibrium of life and all that hangs in the balance.  And we can exercise our God-given consciences to see life in color instead of black and white.  This has been laid upon man and it is burdensome.  But this has also been laid within man and it is beautiful.  

Wow, eternity set within our hearts...seems meaningful to me.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 5


Ecclesiastes 2:17-26

Toil Is Meaningless


17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. 24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
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Solomon is finally starting to turn a corner.

As he's going off the handle and losing his marbles, he is stabbed with a realization: Things only become meaningful as you recognize them as gifts from the hand of God and engage them with the purpose of pleasing God.  He recognizes a cycle...they are from God and they are for God...His gifts to be enjoyed and employed for His glory.  The author is finally catching on.

But before we rush to the cozy conclusion, I want to appreciate the tension that Solomon is sharing under the inspiration of God.  He is addressing a very common feeling in the human soul...the seeming difficulty and futility of working hard.  He talked about hating life as he described how work had become to grievous to him.  Pain and grief accompanied every waking moment of work, but it wasn't so much what he was doing that drove him nuts, but the thought that all that he had worked for might be given to someone that wouldn't appreciate it because they didn't have to "work for it" themselves.  

It's possible that he looked at his children and was pained to know that they would be the benefactors of his life of labor.  Would they blow his money?  Would they have a work ethic like him and invest his investments?  Would they honor all the entrepreneurship, stewardship and leadership he poured into his earthly empire?  But here again, we see his phobia surfacing.  The thought that after he died that his legacy would not last.  His name would be forgotten.  His riches squandered.  His hard work flushed down the drain.  Real feelings that I think anyone can relate to.

I especially identify with him when he said "even at night his mind does not rest".  I have had many sleepless nights stewing and stirring over yesterday or tomorrow.  You're in your bed, but you're not sleeping.  You're tired, but you can't relax enough to rest.  You chest is tight, you head is crowded, and your blood is hot with dread.  Restlessness and Lessrestness.  The night's are long as you lie awake pre-playing and re-playing work scenarios in your mind.  I remember someone saying: "You know you're a leader when you're sleeping with decisions and results."  I remember working for someone else and I would just go home and chill 'cause someone else had to sleep with the decisions and results.  I was just a hired hand, they were the ones vexed with the weight of it all.  I never appreciated what it was to "sleep with the responsibility" until i was at the top.  Probably a more accurate way of saying it is "not sleeping with it" cause sleep was illusive.

But something shifts in Solomon's mindset.  it was like a reset of mindset.  He started boiling things down to the simple joys of life, "Eating, drinking, and finding satisfaction in work."  He starting realizing that pleasures in their rawest and simplest form, when accepted as gifts from God and glory for God, brought satisfaction.  His "I can't get no satisfaction" changed to "God alone gives satisfaction".  This reboot began to wake him up to the enjoyment of employment.  He came to realize that when you participate in the pleasures of life with the mindset of pleasing God and lose the lust for controlling what happens with your memory and money after you die...this brings true joy.  

It's the first indication that Solomon was beginning to put two an two together.  After getting some unedited emotions off his chest, he was coming to terms with the x-factor of all satisfaction, meaning and significance.  Accepting everything as God's gift and doing everything for God's glory.  This is the core of a quality life.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Life is Meaningless? Part 4

Ecclesiastes 2:12-16
12 Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done? 13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. 14 The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. 15 Then I thought in my heart, "The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?" I said in my heart, "This too is meaningless." 16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!
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There are moments of weakness when you wonder if fighting the flesh and being good is worth the discipline.  At the end of the day and at the end of life will my discipline and self-denial and flesh-killing really set me apart.  Will my life mean any more than the one who shoots from the hip and "eats, drinks and makes merry" with his or her life?  

There is a good bit of energy expended each day not being naughty in thought, attitude and action.  I've told my wife before that some days it feels like I use half my strength just fighting off temptation and  enticing vices.  The other part of my energy is used trying to be productive, but a good bit of it is used up in avoiding being destructive.  It's exhausting and at times you wonder if it's worth it in the end.

But this author rushes to a conclusion that seems small-minded for the world's smartest man.  He talks about how the fate of each is the same, death, so it doesn't matter what you do prior to that, you're both headed to the same place, the grave.  He couples it with a theory he mentioned in the former chapter.  I want to call it an assurance of "endless fame" and a fear of "being forgotten".  I think his paranoia starts to set in that everything he has accumulated will be someone else's and he doesn't trust in the ability of man to "remember its origin".  One of the reasons I think this thought vexed him is that he already "forgetting" its origin.  God was the one who blessed him with wisdom and wealth and yet he speaks as though his good fortune and sharp intellect was of his own making.  He knows how little he remembered his roots and he fears the same will be said or not said of him.  This is the problem with shallow living is that you think everyone else is equally as shallow.  If you gossip, you think everyone's talking about you.  If you don't think about people when they're not around, you don't think anyone will think of you either.

But as you look around you, and don't obsess over being famous forever, but rather just invest in the friends and family God puts in your path, your life lives on.  Generational goodness is something I've witnessed firsthand.  A godly heritage is rare and when passed on, it provides a foundation that leaves a legacy.  It does no good thinking your choices and values and habits and ambitions don't effect the next generation, because the Bible promises they do and life itself speaks of this domino effect and/or collateral damage.  God talks of the sins of the former generation visiting the children to the 3rd and 4th generation and the wins of the former generation following the children to a 1000 generations.  It may not be fame, but it is far from being "forgotten".  People who are scared of being "forgotten" often are the same ones that want to make sure they are "known".

And the idea that he will be forgotten reveals a selfishness in Solomon that caused his manic depression.  He wanted to control life in this world and as he passed on, he wanted to control it into the next.  His lust for a guaranteed afterlife of fame and homage showed how he was over-thinking his own awesomeness.  When you're haunted by these thoughts, you start thinking of holidays named after you, statues erected in your honor and your name being forged on historic edifices.  You want to be remembered one way or another.

It can't believe how badly this guy wanted to be remembered after he died.  The knowledge that he may be forgotten threw him into a tailspin of futility.  Sure, both the fool and the wise die alike.  But they don't die in the lives of the people around them if they are selflessly divesting themselves in their short life on earth.  It has been said that the best form of flattery is plagiarism.  A more positive way of saying it is that the best way to be remembered is to be emulated by those you influence.  Your name might die, but your legacy will live on in the lives you've touched in significant or slight ways.  True legacy isn't left by people obsessing over leaving it, true legacy is left by people thinking so little of themselves that they almost unknowingly transfer their life to those around them.  Your life becomes re-incarnated in the next generation, so even if your name is forgotten, your life lives on.

The best way to be remembered when you die is to remember the power of each moment while you're alive.