Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Vanity of Pleasures

This week in our small group Bible study, we’ll be looking at Ecclesiastes  2.

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.  And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Eccl 2:9-11 (ESV)

Two things stand out to me about Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure.  The first is that he tied pleasure to success.  The verses that precede this are a list of all the ways Solomon sought to please himself – gardens, fountains, wine, women, a private orchestra.  And he sums it up by saying, “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me . . .”  In other words, he who dies with the most toys wins.  All the grandeur of his palace and all the pleasures of his (overstocked) harem were meant to promote Solomon’s greatness as a king.  Yes, it was fun, but it was also about public image as the biggest man in the kingdom.  The problem was that Solomon got no satisfaction whatsoever out of the pleasure his “toys” gave him or the bigshot image he was able to project.

The second thing I see is a sense of entitlement — “and this was my reward for all my toil.”  Solomon has a point that work should have rewards, and certainly there should be enjoyment in the fruit of our labors as Solomon states later in the book.    The problem is that this can be used to excuse all kinds of destructive behavior.  I wonder how many honest or good people have fallen into pits of sin by thinking that the system owed them one.  “I’ve done so much for them, isn’t it my turn to be happy?”  Or the ever-growing number of politicians who seem to think that power and success entitle them to do whatever they want.  How many important men have we seen on the news looking completely shell-shocked that they didn’t get away with whatever they thought they were powerful enough to do?

It seems to me that these two motives behind Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure are part of the reason why it didn’t work.  Pleasure as a way of showing off success is going to be really shallow pleasure.  Why?  Because it’s not about having fun.  It’s about looking like you’re having fun.  It’s about looking like you’re having more fun than the next guy, whether you really are or not.  Perhaps, the celebrities we see continuously in the news for their excessive merry-making really are having a blast.  Maybe they are getting a high that’s high enough to make the sudden crashes and hangovers seem worthwhile.  But I suspect it has a lot more to do with showing the world that they have the money and mojo to live like the dickens and get away with it.  I’m no psychologist, but you have to wonder if the point of the party isn’t as much about being a “freaking rock star from Mars,” as it is about actually getting some enjoyment from life.

Likewise, pleasure by entitlement strikes me as a tricky thing at best.  After all, some of the best things in life are the things that no one deserves.  Like sunsets, the love of small children, birthday presents, and the frozen watermelon lemonade they let me sample at the coffee shop today.  Feelings of entitlement have a way of poisoning things like these.  Part of the pleasure of life lies in the happiness you get that you didn’t plan for, didn’t expect, and feel blessed to have received.  On the other hand, who wants to be continually keeping score about whether or not you got what (you think) you deserved.  That is surely the path to bitterness and resentment – the two most joy-killing feelings in the world.

Scripture suggests another kind of pleasure:  “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).  In whose presence?  In God’s presence.  And they are forever pleasures – the kind that don’t fade away or get used up.  He’s the one with the glory and the fame, and He’s the one who is worthy.  For you and me, it is enough to be wherever He is – to live in His presence.  That’s where the life really is.

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Remember When

My grand-neice graduated last Friday night.  I should add that she graduated from pre-school, so I’m not quite as old as that first sentence suggests.

Actually, I’m every bit as old as that first sentence suggests.  Unlike most kids, I never thought mid-30s was ancient when I was little, mainly because I was the surprise child of older parents, and most of the people we knew had long since left their 30s behind.  Now that I have attained the age of 35, however, I’m beginning to realize just how far up the hill I actually am, and how much nearer I am getting to going over it.  I can tell this by the growing stock of memories that occasionally crowd to the front of my brain.  I know I’m getting a ways up the mountain because of the extensive view I now have when I look back.

Friday night was certainly an occasion for remembering the past.  The preschool our little princess attended is run by the Christian school that I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Her preschool graduation included some of the same songs and Bible verses that I remembered from my early education, and — who knows?  Those might have even been the same caps and gowns.  They certainly looked the same.  Above all, there were the people that I knew, that I had worked with in the past.  These were people I had done ministry with in Christian education, and whose testimony and service to the kingdom are so very precious to me.

In short, I had the same experience that often comes to us when we go back to a place (a house, a school, a church) we once knew well but have not seen in a long time.  It is not just a familiar sight, but a familiar feeling that washes over us and soaks into the heart.  I had never been inside the church that hosted Sam’s graduation before Friday, but there was that feeling all the same because the program was familiar and so were the people:

I remember on the night of my kindergarten graduation, I wore a white flouncy dress and a big red mark right in the middle of my forehead.  The red mark was from the camera I had been playing with before we left for the event.  It was a really old Kodak camera (old even for 1980), and it had a square flash bulb that you bought separately and screwed into the top of the camera.  I was fascinated by this device, and I longed to take a picture with it.  When no one was looking, I held it up to my eyes (as I thought had seen the big people do) and clicked. 

What I remember next is a blinding and burning flash of light that must have made me yell because everyone came running.  As it turns out, I had been holding the camera backwards, and the burning sensation was from the flash bulb going off against my forehead.  It didn’t hurt much, but I couldn’t convince the grown-ups that I hadn’t been trying to take a picture of myself, and it must have left quite a mark because all my friends asked me about it.

I remember, too, that some of the graduates got special awards that night, and I never could figure out what they were for.  My mother commented afterwards that they must have been the students who made “straight A’s.”  This made me rather indignant.  I had been in kindergarten for a whole year, and I did not make crooked A’s.  Why hadn’t anyone told me my A’s weren’t straight enough?

I bring up these childish memories because they are an indication of how our perspectives change over time.  I honestly have no idea what Samantha will remember about preschool or the teachers who taught her.  I don’t know what she’ll remember about her graduation night, or even what she’ll someday remember about me or the rest of the family members who came to share her big event.

I do hope that she remembers what she learned.  I hope she remembers, not just the books of the Bible, but to read the Bible and give its precepts an honored place in her life.  I hope she remembers those Sunday School songs about Jesus because they are true — every one of them.  I hope she remembers that she is part of our family of aunts, uncle, sister, Mom, and grandparents.  But I also hope she learns and remembers that she is part of a bigger family of believers that meet together, learn together, love each other and serve each other with gladness.

And I hope, too, that she will someday have the joy that I have continuously, of meeting her fellow believers and remembering the work they did together that had eternal weight and glory.  I am in a season of transition right now, and much of what I do is still new and strange to me, but I can say moving forward that the best memories I have of the past are those that involve “kingdom collaboration” — God’s work done with God’s people.  I hope my neices find that happiness as well.

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The Arc of His Mercy

We are studying tonight at Barnes & Noble in Johnson City, and this is the view from the patio outside:

Check out this arch:

No fragment of a rainbow this.  It was a complete arch and with vivid hues.  The pictures don’t do it justice, especially since I couldn’t get the whole arch in one frame.

You can kind of see from the last picture that there was a double rainbow, with another arch (less bright) just visible at the top.

So there you have it.  God has been painting this evening.  Or rather, playing with His optical illusions and reminding us that what emerges from a storm is often just a matter of perspective.

Christians often describe the chaos and disasters of life as “storms” that pass over us.  It is important to remember that, as believers, we don’t look for silver linings in our clouds.  Some things that happen to us are thoroughly bad.  There is no silver lining to divorce, death, bankruptcy, child abuse or many other evil things that occur in a broken world.  What we do look for are “rainbows” – the multi-hued loveliness that appears when God’s presence shines on the darkness in our lives.  The white light of his glory breaks upon our tears, and a whole spectrum of colors shine in brilliant contrast to the clouds covering us.  Such beauty reminds us that the question, “Why did this happen to me?”, frequently evokes an answer that finds no expression in words.  In the presence of God, we walk in a light of truth that often cannot be articulated.

When God showed Noah the first rainbow, He offered it as a dazzling symbol of His mercy.  It is the bow of his wrath, unstrung and resting.  It reminds us that God’s promises to us never expire.  He is faithful to them for all eternity.  So, as we gaze in admiration on the beauty of the Lord’s character as well as His creation, let us remember the words of the psalmist:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always chide,

nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.

Psalms 103:8-13 (ESV)

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Sine Qua Non

Sine Qua Non

Love is not exhausted

Though pushed to the edge,

Worn to a frazzle,

And tired beyond measure.

Love does not abandon the hopeless.

Love and Pain are one flesh

And sweet are the offspring:

Patience, Mercy,

Truth, Endurance,

Forgiveness.

Joy is strength,

But Love bears all things.

Faith is the evidence,

But Love believes all things.

Love is the mother of Hope.

Love is the abiding place of every virtue,

And no darkness escapes it

For Love is God.

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A Landscape for the Soul

My meditations lately have been on themes in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It occurred to me this morning that the central idea of Ecclesiastes is a familiar one to the culture in which we live – a journey away from the safe and ordinary in order to find some meaning and purpose for life.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I understand that Eat, Pray, Love took up this theme. So did Under the Tuscan Sun, and the idea of running away to an older, more beautiful and transforming culture is central to the novels of Henry James.

I have to wonder what it is that makes travel seem like the cure for a weary spirit.  During our small group Bible study last week, the ladies present discussed the places they had always wanted to see –  Italy, Paris, England, Australia.  Good choices all. The thing is, we weren’t necessarily talking about travel.  We were talking about the things we always wanted to do “when we grew up.”  It turns out that what we always wanted to do was escape the ordinary, to have adventures and to see something great and lovely.

There is something in us that is convinced, like the psalmist, that green pastures could restore our souls.  That a timeless and beautiful landscape could feed our souls.  That some indefinable thing long buried inside us might burst into bloom if only we were in an environment where we could nurture it.  That we could be creative and brilliant and articulate and satisfied if only we could find the right place to grow into ourselves.  Something within us knows that we were made to be pilgrims and sojourners in the land.

Of course, we have a citizenship in heaven.  Of course, we wait for the New Jerusalem that God is constructing for us.

But this heavenly citizenship is not just something for a future time.  We hold it here on earth, where we are strangers and aliens in a culture that is familiar, but not friendly.  We enjoy that citizenship at every church fellowship and communion, when we open a new worship CD, or the latest book by a Christian author.  We broaden our experience of it when we reach back in time to the works of great Christians who have lived and ministered and written and composed long before we were born.  We hear it in Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  We sing it in the hymn stanzas of Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby.  We read it in Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, and The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life.  We experience it in the autobiography of St. Augustine and the celebrations of the life of St. Patrick.  We see it in most of the art and architecture that has been produced by Western Civilization for the last two thousand years – much of it sponsored by the Church and inspired by Scripture.  We ponder it in the thoughtful writings of apologists like Tertullian, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel.  We marvel at the revelation of God in creation through the work of God-fearing scientists like Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Francis Collins.

If we are longing for some experience of culture, it is at our fingertips.  We have only to reach out for it to know that we are citizens of a mighty and beautiful City of God, that we are the inheritors of a long, creative and timeless tradition built over centuries by the people of God.  Generation after generation, the Church has been cultivating a landscape for the soul upon which we can feed our minds and hearts from the truth of God’s Word.

So, here is my recommendation for the day.  Go find a book by a Christian on a topic that interests you.  Like to read about people?  Try Augustine’s Confessions or C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or one of the hundreds of Christian biographies that are available.  Interested in science?  Read The Fingerprints of God by Francis Collins.  Need some new music?  Classical can be an acquired taste, and I don’t know of any better way to acquire it than with a CD of The Messiah and a KJV Bible to follow along with the libretto.  Like to travel?  Try a magazine about archeology and see what they are digging up that confirms God’s Word.  There is an exciting debate going on over new discoveries in Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land that may or may not date to the time of David and Solomon.  Go to pbs.org and watch the Secrets of the Dead episode on King Solomon’s mines.  Are you into fairy tales?  Last time I checked, the Johnson City Public Library had some of George MacDonald’s fairy tales.  Like fiction and need encouragement?  Try Hinds’ Feet on High Places or In His Steps.  Like to goof off online?  Look up some images of famous cathedrals and churches and marvel at the architectural monuments that have been built to God’s glory.  And, yes, find some pictures of stained glass windows.  And you don’t have to buy any of it.  If it’s not online, the public library probably has it.

Take your new discovery, get yourself a cappuccino, and open up a new landscape.  If you want to feel really cultured, pick up some pasta and olive oil at the grocery store and try a new recipe.  You can get that online too.

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A Question of Justice

It was late Sunday night when I finished watching a DVD and decided to flip through the channels to see if there was anything on television worth watching.  Within a few minutes, I was in my mother’s room informing her that the U.S. had found and killed Osama bin Laden.  The president made his official announcement, and the newscast showed thousands of Americans beginning to gather in the streets outside the White House and in New York to cheer and celebrate the death of a national enemy.

I’ve read through a number of blogs since then, as people try to come to terms with what this means for us as a nation.  Is this the death knell of al-Qaeda or are there other leaders to take his place?  Is this America’s comeback after a decade of hard knocks and apparent decline?  What does this do for Obama’s chances of re-election?  Is there light at the end of the long tunnel of war in Afghanistan?

Some Christian bloggers, though, seem concerned with quite a different set of questions and rightly so.  There is something disturbing, from a Christian point of view, about seeing people cheering a death as though it were a hard-won goal in a football game.  I am reminded of the execution of Ted Bundy in the late 80s, when people gathered outside the prison where he was electrocuted holding signs that said things like, “Tuesday is FRYday.” Yes, there is great satisfaction in seeing cruelty answered with justice, but shouldn’t justice demand a different response?  One that is quiet and reverent, especially when the price of justice is the life of a human being, however reprehensible?

And then there is that uncomfortable matter of praying for one’s enemies and the declaration of God that He does not rejoice when the wicked die (Ezek. 18:32).

But isn’t there good reason to celebrate here?  This was a man who had no regard for human life himself.  He apparently felt no remorse for the enormous suffering he caused, and there was something infuriating about the smug assurance of his own righteousness, even as he violated moral laws that are recognized by virtually every religion on the planet.  His vision of how the world should be was repellent, and his methods of pursuing it even more so.  I agree that a block party is the wrong response to his demise, but isn’t there room for some gladness and relief?

I want to be careful how I address that last question, but here is how I am meditating on this event in my own heart this morning:

Lord, I cannot be a disciple of Jesus and rejoice in the death of my enemy.  Everything that I have been taught as a believer restrains me from celebrating, especially since I believe in Your justice.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and it is in Your court of justice that this man’s crimes will ultimately come to an accounting.  As I desire Your mercy upon me, and Your forgiveness for my sins, give me the grace of forgiveness towards others.  Give me heart of such mercy that I can grieve, as surely You grieve, for a life misspent and lost.

But, Lord, there are some things today for which I can be thankful.  I thank You that You have in wisdom established government and law among us.  I am thankful for a nation that upholds the rule of law, and I am thankful for those You have placed in leadership among us who have the shrewdness and strength to find and deal with those who prey upon the innocent.  I am thankful that, in an age of shifting values and moral relativism, there is a still an awareness of justice and a need to see it done.  I thank You that evil never prospers, and that You have established such principles of justice that those who spread a net for others must sooner or later fall into it themselves.  I thank You for those who defend our freedom at great personal cost, and I ask You to bless them and their families for sacrificing their own comfort and safety for the freedom and safety of others.  I thank You for a country and a community where personal liberty and basic human dignity is respected and protected.  I thank You for those who make it possible for me to write to You and of You publicly and without fear of reprisal.

Lord, my heart is full today for my country and for all that it has represented in the last two hundred years of our history.  No one knows more than You how often we have been wrong in our goals and our methods.  If You should mark iniquities, Oh Lord, who could stand?  But with You there is forgiveness that You may be feared.  And so the Psalmist says, Lord, that Your forgiveness – Your grace and Your mercy – may as surely create reverence and fear in us as Your judgment.  Oh my Father, give America the blessing of that forgiveness.  Shed such mercy and grace upon us as shall bring about a mighty awakening!  Let us stand in awe of the works of the Lord in our day.  And upon Your Church in America, let it be said that here is a people with whom the Spirit of God dwells.

As the National Day of Prayer approaches, Father, turn all sinful gloating and boastful pride into quiet gratitude for Your hand of protection.  Be glorified and exalted among us, now and through all ages.

In Jesus Name,

Amen.

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