Approval

Yes, I’ve been off the blog for a while.  In my defense, I’ve been writing a dissertation, which finally looks to be going somewhere.

I came across an interesting quote last night as I was doing some research.  Months ago, while writing about Edmund Spenser, I found an allusion to Mary Magdalene in The Faerie Queene that nobody seems to have written about before, and I’ve been trying to figure out what Mary Magdalene is doing in this particular place in the narrative. So, I did what one usually should do when a Protestant from this historical period does something unusual with Scripture.  I checked the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible (1560) was the most popular English translation of its day.  Even after the KJV was published (1611), people continued to use the Geneva Bible, partly for the marginal notes that explained the text and added cross-references.  In a sense, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible, and it was used for personal and family devotions.

John 20 is the only place in the gospels where we read about Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb – the one where she laments that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where to find him. When she realizes that she is speaking to a risen and living Jesus, she immediately grabs hold of Him, only to have Jesus tell her that she must not hold onto Him, as He has not yet ascended to His Father.  The Geneva Bible adds this note:  “Because she was too much addicted to the corporal presence, Christ teacheth her to lift up her mind by faith into heaven, where only after His ascension he remaineth, & where we sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.”

I have to say, this set off some fireworks in my brain.  We often think about our salvation in terms of Christ dying for us, and rightly so, since there is no forgiveness of sins without the atoning sacrifice (Heb. 9:22).  But my research into Reformation teaching has shown me a different emphasis.  Luther and Calvin frequently spoke of the sufficiency or righteousness of Christ.  His sacrifice is important as the way that this righteousness is transferred to us.  When I stand before God, I will be saved, not just because Jesus died, but because His death has given me a righteousness without which God cannot find me acceptable.

For this reason, just as I remember the cross and empty tomb, it is equally important that I think of heaven when I think of Christ.  He occupies the place of ultimate approval — at the right hand of God.  Those who are “in Christ,” those who share the rewards of His suffering, also occupy this place of approval as Christ represents us and intercedes for us to His Father.  For this reason, Jesus says to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17, ESV).  To call Him our God and Father is a privilege that Christ gives us through His own good standing, the approval that God gives Christ is extended over you and me as a holy covering.

For this reason, Paul states, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34, ESV).  I think believers cannot hear this enough.  We constantly reproach ourselves (usually with good reason), and our adversary, Satan, is always the accuser of the brethren.  But Christ does not accuse us.  He is as gracious to us as He was to the adulterous women when He sent her accusers packing and refused to lift so much as a pebble Himself.  He stands between us and judgment, then His Spirit gives us the power to go and sin no more.

I wonder, when we confess our sins to God (as indeed we must), how would it change our prayers if we were not trying to earn approval or acceptance?  Christ has won approval for us.  Rather, we must seek God’s grace to mend the broken places in us, and the power and the filling of the Spirit to transform our deepest longings and ambitions.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1).

 

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Weird Things

I remember the first time I realized that God has a masculine sense of humor.  I was reading about sea cucumbers, nondescript little blobs of animals that are at the bottom of the ocean food chain.  They are mostly sedentary, but if threatened can defend themselves by ejecting part of their internal organs.  This is called eviscerating.  While a predator is munching the jetsam, the sea cucumber can swim to safety and regrow its organs.  Another weapon in its arsenal is a toxic substance that it can eject, which poisons creatures nearby.  According to Wikipedia, the toxin is similar to soap.  Apparently, some creatures that live underwater cannot tolerate soap.  Go figure.

So, as I was saying, they are sea blobs that shoot out part of their insides and, when they’re really mad, they spit soap.  You know that’s a guy joke.

My new favorite animal is equally bizarre.  This is the cuttlefish, which I knew nothing about until I watched the Nova special (“Kings of Camouflage”) online.  Apparently, cuttlefish not only change colors, they are shape-shifters as well.  They’re invertebrates, and their outrageously flexible skin can stretch into different shapes and change colors at will.  According to Wikipedia, they have layers of skin pigmentation with 200 specialized pigment cells per square inch, which is about 350 dpi.  In other words, their skin has about the same resolution quality as an inkjet printer, and they can mimic patterns in their environment as well as basic colors.

What could be better than that?  How about three hearts, green-blue blood, and eight arms coming out of their heads.  As I watched Nova, I got the distinct impression that God was amusing Himself when He invented cuttlefish.  They put on a show that Hollywood couldn’t top with CGI and special effects.

We so seldom think of God as being entertained by His creation.  Perhaps that would sound more pious if I said that He is delighted with His creation.  Fallen and imperfect as the world most definitely is, there must still be endless moments when God takes pleasure in gazing at what He has made.

May I suggest that we might be better people if we learned to do the same.  Friday was a heavy day for me, full of anxiety and concern.  Today, I find myself back in the hospital with a loved one.  And yet I was thrilled and delighted yesterday by a program about cuttlefish, as if God were letting me take a time-out from life while He delighted me with something playful and amusing that only He could invent.  We get so bowed down and aged by life that we forget that we are, after all, only children of our Father.  Do we imagine that God has no time for playing in the nursery?  Once I would have thought so, but the older I get the younger I act.

 

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The Wisdom of God

Our ladies group finished our study of Ecclesiastes last night, and I have to admit that I’m relieved.  We’ve had fun with the study, but this is surely one intimidating book to teach.  It’s  full of hard questions and tough topics, and it requires a lot of cross-referencing to other books of the Bible.  There’s not a single aspect of the human experience that Solomon (a.k.a. Mr. Sunshine) can’t sum up with the line, “This too is meaningless!”

One comes to the end of Ecclesiastes wondering if, after all, there really is any use in human reason or logic.  The answer is yes, of course.  We can do our work wisely and well.  We can use our tongues and our good sense to get along with other people and help the communities that we live in.  We can use our time on earth to do our duty:  honor God and live according to His commandments.  Even in this, however, we are limited.  Solomon raises huge questions about oppression, injustice, pain and death.  Sometimes, these come from human  folly.  Sometimes, the most heinous suffering comes from nothing other than the human failure to act wisely.

A breakthrough (for me) came when I saw the definition of wisdom in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  Specifically, Easton’s defines wisdom as a matter of morality rather than intellect.   Anyone who has endured a college philosophy class knows that there is no harder word for an academic to define than the word “wisdom” (unless it’s the word “truth”).  Perhaps, the reason for this is that we have been trying to define wisdom as an intellectual property when we should have been speaking of it as a virtue.  The validity of this may be easily tested:  is a foolish act and a wicked act the same thing?  I wouldn’t bet on the answer always being “yes”, but I’m guessing that it would be most of the time.

What really rocked my thinking on the subject was one of the references Easton’s recommended on wisdom, I Cor. 1:24:  “But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (NLT).  According to this verse, if we want to truly define wisdom, we cannot describe what it is.  We must describe who it is.  Christ, as God in human flesh, is wisdom.  Further, Galatians 3:27 states that when we became believers we “put on Christ.”  Putting on Christ is New Testament speak for holiness.

So here is what unfolded:  Wisdom is a virtue that Christ personifies.  To put on Christ-likeness is to put on wisdom, as one would put on a garment.  Therefore, to pursue holiness and to pursue wisdom is the same thing.  Both holiness and wisdom are terms that describe a life lived rightly and lived well.

I think this reading will stand in the light of 2 Peter 1:3:  “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (NLT).  It is knowledge of God that equips us to live godly (holy) lives, and the application of that knowledge may be properly called wisdom.

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Pause to Admire

For those of you who didn’t travel this holiday weekend – good for you!

I took my mother and brother to meet with family in Blowing Rock on Saturday, and the traffic was something else altogether.   It took us thirty minutes to drive through Elk Park because we found ourselves behind the town parade.  For those of you who have never been to Elk Park, I will indicate the size to you by noting that we might have passed all of twenty people lined up to watch the said parade.  Apparently, everyone else in town was in the parade, and that’s why it took them thirty minutes to do it.  Then we tried to take our usual route over Grandfather Mountain, but had to turn back because there were about fifty cars (and I’m not kidding) lined up outside the entrance gates to the park.

Needless to say, I was a bit chuffed by the time we and the traffic (finally) moseyed into downtown Blowing Rock and set about to find a parking space.  For those of you who think I should have just stayed home, I agree with you.  However, when one is meeting family, one does not always have the luxury of choosing the appointed day.  One should, however, try to avoid showing up in a bad mood.  I have to say that I was finding that hard to do.

That was when I saw something that delighted me.  Keep in mind that I am easily amused.

Isn’t he beautiful?  I think he decided to drop in for a photo shoot.  I got several pictures before he flew away.

I wish I could think of something more profound to say than, “Look at that symmetry!”  On the other hand, perhaps we are never more profound than when we simply pause to admire.

The day offered me another gift in the form of the rhododendron which are in full bloom in the mountains.  I do not know what dreary and unpoetic soul named them “rhododendron” (one of the ugliest words in the botanical lexicon), but they don’t deserve it.  Rhododendron grow in shady places, out of the sunlight.  They are hardy shrubs that thrive in the cooler weather of the mountains, and when they are not in bloom, they appear to be nothing more than tough, scrubby bushes.  Then summer comes, and they produce a blossom that is truly a lady among flowers.

It is hard to imagine how a shrub can grow such tough leaves and such delicate blooms at the same time, but here is another angle.

We all know that God grows some of his finest people in out of the way places and unpromising circumstances.  My mother is one of those people.  You cannot imagine more barren soil than what her childhood seemed to offer.  But Jesus himself was a “tender root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53).  Like rhododendron in the winter, His appearance had no particular beauty, no distinguishing loveliness to set Him apart from the other people He mingled with on a daily basis.  Yet those who measured His quality by the roughness of His exterior missed the incomparable glory of His godhead that those closest to Him were privileged to see.  His disciples saw the dead raised and the lame dance and the deaf hear and the blind see, and three of them saw Christ in his heavenly glory, shining like the sun.

All this we know from Scripture, but we forget over and over again to apply it to the reality of our lives.  We are angry at the traffic, frustrated with our loved ones, tired of the humid weather, weary at work, and a hundred other things.  Yet, God continually shines through His creation with an unspeakable beauty, and He reminds us that it was not beneath Him to come and share the ordinariness of our lives.  Indeed, He breathes upon that ordinariness, and it blossoms into “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

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A Marvelous Machine

The July issue of Scientific American is out, and I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy.  For one thing, it’s hard not to notice a cover with a large picture of a human brain on it.  For another, the caption was an attention grabber.  The headline is “The Physics of Intelligence,” but they followed this up with a question:   “Evolution has packed 100 billion neurons into our three-pound brain.  Can we get any smarter?”

Setting aside the question of whether or not evolution is the means by which our brains came into existence, there remains the fact that evolution can only be a means.  It is a process not a cause.  Atheists in the scientific community are often guilty of academic provincialism, assuming that because science can demonstrate a how, that it can also explain the why and the what next without any recourse to philosophy or religion.  Atheists assume that science has already rendered religion obsolete when, in fact, science can answer very few of the questions that religion and philosophy pose.  Even if evolution is how the brain developed, it does not prove that there wasn’t a who developing it.

This matters to a discussion of the article in Scientific American because of the question that article raises:  Can we get any smarter?  This is neither gloating nor arrogance on the part of the editors.  Rather, it is a question that challenges one of the core assumptions of evolution, and that is that change over time continuously results in an increasingly better product.  Survival of the fittest is the process by which the best and strongest survive to pass on their genes, and the weakest are wiped out of the gene pool by their failure to adapt.

Ever since Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, atheists have counted on evolution to improve on the human race.  The whole idea of a superman is predicated on the idea that humans, as a species, will continue to get stronger and smarter as natural selection weeds out weaknesses and abnormalities.  If an atheist has hope for the future, it surely lies in the expectation that human beings will get better at solving problems that currently seem insurmountable.  Even our ability to survive the possible death of our planet depends on our finding new ways of transporting a lot of people over great distances in space – a prospect that is currently impossible by any technology we can now conceive of.  I don’t just mean that we can’t build the technology; I mean that we haven’t even imagined a solution that would really be feasible.  In order to fulfill the kind of destiny that Darwinism offers us, we need to get a whole lot smarter.

The article in Scientific American (“The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox) would seem to throw a monkey-wrench into this vision of our future.  The size of our brains could increase, but then they would get slower because information would have longer distances to travel across our neural network.  If we grew more neural connections, they would take up more space, plus they would consume more energy and our brains already use up about 80% of the energy we burn on a daily basis.  (Can I turn that into a diet plan?  Think more, eat less?)  On top of this, more neural connections would mean more information traffic and more “background noise”.  The conclusion would seem to be that the human brain is as good as it’s going to get.

For those who do not believe in a higher power (i.e. we’re out here on our own), that has to be a depressing thought.  The article does not, however, leave them without a ray of hope.  Perhaps, we might find a solution in connectivity.  Perhaps, the development of technology that allows us to “pool our intelligence with others” (43) will prove to be the next great step in our evolution.  As a matter of fact, I think we should continue to develop that connectivity, as long as we are aware that information technology has the potential to make us all dumber together instead of making us all smarter together depending upon how we use it.  (See the previous post on PBS’ special Digital_Nation.)  I applaud the new definition of polity that seems to be developing in countries like Egypt and Syria where the governments have too long been Hobbesian Leviathans devouring their own people.  Instead, the internet, through tools like Facebook and Twitter, has become the new Leviathan, the new embodiment of the will of the people.  I think there is great hope that this will ultimately (perhaps, not instantly) produce more democratic societies, and history has shown that democratic societies tend to be more just and innovative.

But I don’t think this revolution is attributable to evolution.  We have always been wired to live in communities, to pool our resources and abilities, and to depend on those around us to help us get things done.  We have certainly invented new ways of doing this, but it is not a fundamental change in us as a species.  It is simply a new and more efficient way of doing what we have always done.   Those of us who espouse a worldview that includes a Creator have always assumed that any being who could design and wire the human brain must be unimaginably brilliant.  If he has given us the best possible brain within the natural laws he established, why should we find that surprising?  We always knew that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. Moreover, our minds were created by a God who designed us to live in relationship with himself and with other people.  God alone possesses the absolute power of self-definition.  The rest of us have always learned who and what we were through our interactions with those around us.  If we are getting better at creating and facilitating those interactions, it does not create a new destiny for us.  It simply makes us better at fulfilling the destiny our Creator gave us from the very beginning of Time.

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An Exercise in Irony

I have been plugging away at teaching composition courses this summer, and I am now on the second week of a course in research and argumentation.   For the class I am currently teaching, the topic is technology, and how it is transforming the world around us.  We kicked off the course last week by viewing the PBS special, Digital_Nation.

What we know for certain is that technology is not just changing what we think about (everything from instant news to an explosion of pornography), it is also changing how we think.  We are becoming more visual and more vocal now that anyone with a computer has a tool of mass communication.   We have also rapidly adapted to getting information in bits and bytes.  With more information to think about, we have ever less time to think deeply.

What we don’t know for certain is how exactly this is going to change us as a society.  The Jasmine Revolution suggests that the internet has the power to transform political realities in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation.  Among the potentially positive effects is that political apathy will decline as young people recognize the empowerment technology offers when it is used wisely.

Digital_Nation also exposes what the producers might consider the darker side of technology — video game addiction, for example, or sexting.  Yet I can’t help thinking that these are not so much the darker side of technology, as they are new expressions of the darker side of human nature.   There is the tendency to construct fantasies for ourselves and to cling to them desperately,  and the pride that wants to define and enlarge ourselves as individuals at the expense  of community.  Above all else, there is the repeated denial of dependence – the insistence that we are completely in control even when we are not.

The most striking example of this in Digital_Nation was the discussion of multitasking that came at the beginning of the program.  The interviewers asked students at MIT how good they were at multitasking.  Everyone insisted that they were effective multitaskers, and most students expressed indignation at the refusal of professors to recognize that they were perfectly capable of performing tasks online while taking in lectures.  Yet, the brain scans performed by scientists offered undeniable proof that multitasking doesn’t work.  The brain is  not designed to do more than one thing at a time.  We have plenty of devices designed to boost our productivity, but the more we use them, the less productive we become.

The problem with discussing how technology changes us is that we are so immersed in it on a daily basis that we find it hard to step back and think about how our relationships have changed since they became digital, or how our work changed when we began to work with word processors instead of pens and notebooks. Even this discussion, an online post rather than a conversation around a dinner table, is an exercise in irony.  Still, I think that there are two things I can take away from Digital_Nation.

The first is to never take for granted my mastery over the tools I use.  The repeated insistence of tech users that they were in complete control even when they were obviously not begs a reference to Psalm 19:12, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (NLT).  Perhaps, we will be wiser in our use of technology if we pay attention to the feedback of others around us.  (Such as when my mother sarcastically refers to my laptop as “Anne’s beloved.”)  Or, perhaps, we might look to lesson two.

Lesson two is to recognize that our one-task-at-a-time brains are the invention of an all-wise God.  Rather than seeing our inability to multitask as a limitation, we should be grateful that God has given it to us as a safety net.  We are told by Jesus that our words and actions have deep roots in the thought life (Mt. 12:34).  We are also commanded in Scripture to meditate on God’s Word (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119).  God has designed us to make Him the single focus of our lives.  If we meditate on Scripture and interact with Him more persistently than we IM the people on our buddy list (I Thess. 5:17), we are going to have victory over the things that distract us spiritually and destroy our fruitfulness.  Why?  Because we can’t multitask spiritually.  A mind that is turned toward God can’t be turned toward sin and addiction at the same time.  God has made it physically impossible.  He has wired us for success if we only embrace the spiritual discipline of God-centeredness.

This is why Paul characterizes victory over sin as “taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2).  Technology has no power to overthrow the God-centered mind.  Rather, those who obey the first commandment to love God with all their minds are in a position to take technology captive to the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom, and that’s something worth plugging into.

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Going Hence

The evening before last, a precious saint of our church went home to be with the Lord.  She was what I like to call (from the song of Deborah) “a Mother in Israel” – one of those women who lead in every congregation by their wisdom and tireless example.  It doesn’t matter if your denomination ordains women or not, every congregation that’s worth anything has its Mothers in Israel.  They are the beating heart of the church family.  Agnes was just such a one.  A promoter of missions, an esteemed Sunday School teacher, and a bundle of life and energy even into her 92nd year.

I have watched with increasing sorrow, the departure of one after another of the older members of our church.  I have been reminded with each and every obituary of the words of John Donne, “Every man’s death diminishes me.”  When members of our community pass away, they take their experiences, memories and skills with them.  It is right that strangers should pause for funeral processions.  The whole community loses something with every departure.  Every grave of someone I know (including that of my own father) has become to me so much buried treasure hidden away from the world.  It would not be true at all to say that we no longer feel the benefits of those lives.  Their impact is all around us.  Rather, we feel the absence of what they could be doing among us now.

A certain fatalism tells us that, since it happens in nature, death must be natural.  Everyone dies, an inevitability so undeniable that Shakespeare makes it an imperative:  “Man must endure his going hence.”  But there is nothing that nature abhors more than death.  Nature is continuously regenerating, continuously bringing forth life, continuously struggling against the predator that stalks us.  You can say all you want to about the survival of the fittest, but even the weakest straggler in the herd runs from a lion.  There is something in all of us that longs for continued existence.  Solomon would say that it was “eternity in our hearts.”

If we feel hostility toward death, that agent of separation, and call it our enemy, we can know that we are in good company.   The Apostle Paul said, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”  When he tells us in I Thessalonians that we do not sorrow as those without hope, this is what he means.  When we see a life end in death, we are tempted to think that death is the last thing.  In reality, it is only the last thing to be destroyed.  Death shall die (to borrow more words from Donne), and then there will be no more death for anyone.  Revelation 21 tells us that God will cast both death and hell into the Lake of Fire.  He will throw them away, and seal the door of their prison forever.

My heart literally leaps up with joy as I write these words.  Christ did not just lie down on a cross and die.  He was raised up on it, and He caught Death in such a grip as a champion wrestler might use to hold his opponent.  He commended His soul to the Father and dragged Death down into hell with him.  And when He emerged from the grave again, He held authority both over the prison-house of the dead and over that old Jailer, Death, who had once had such power over the children of men.

He speaks to us today in the same words He used long ago to comfort a lonely, old man exiled on Patmos:  “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
And we answer our Champion in words that Paul taught us to say, “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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God’s Pleasures

My last post discussed the problems with Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure in Ecclesiastes 2.  I had a great moment Monday night as I was preparing to teach this lesson to my Wed. night Bible study.  I had one of those moments that come sometimes to teachers of Scripture when you think the lesson is going to be about one thing, but it takes a left turn and goes somewhere else.  When that happens, it is almost always because the Holy Spirit has taken the wheel and pointed you to the lesson He wants to teach rather than the one that you want to teach.

I thought I was going to teach a lesson on “good” pleasures.  Whereas, Solomon’s pleasures were all about his own power and importance, I was going to find the New Testament verses that tell us how to find God-pleasing pleasures.  After all, I love to quote Ps. 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  And haven’t C.S. Lewis and John Piper both written about a Christian hedonism that sees the glory of God in the joyful lives of His people?  Well, yes.  And I still think they’re on to something.

The problem is that, when I looked up NT references to “pleasure”, the results were disconcerting.  Far from describing the pleasures of the Christian life, every place in the NT that speaks of human pleasure does so in a negative context.  I’m talking about passages like 2 Thess. 2 that tells how those who choose pleasure over truth will be given over to a strong delusion.  Or James 5 which pronounces the judgment of God on those who live in luxury at the expense of the poor.   I mean, these are some verses that are seriously down on pleasure.

On the other hand, all the verses that present pleasure in a positive context talk about God’s pleasure or that God is pleased to do something.  Sometimes, it depends on the translation you are looking at (and I looked at several), but there seems to be something synonymous in the original Greek (which I haven’t studied) between what God wills and what gives Him pleasure.  Naturally, if God is omnipotent, He wills and does as He pleases.
There is some food for thought in that.  What gives God pleasure?  Are we somehow being left out in the cold by a sovereign God who pursues His own pleasures while condemning ours?

That’s where the lesson got really good because here is the list of pleasures I found:

Revelation 4:11 — We were created for God’s pleasure.  Why do I exist?  Because long before the world began (see Eph. 1), God thought of me, and the idea of me gave Him pleasure, so here I am.

Luke 10:21 — God is pleased to reveal Himself to His people.  Those who come to him with the faith of a child receive a revelation of God’s person that is hidden from those who are wise in their own opinions.

Luke 12:32-34 — It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  Not just a kingdom, but the kingdom, as in The Only Kingdom That Matters.  Solomon’s rich and mighty kingdom vanished.  Archeologists sit around their dirt holes and argue over whether or not it was ever actually there.  But God gives His people an eternal kingdom, and it is His pleasure to give.

Ephesians 1:5-11 — For His own good pleasure, God has adopted us and given us an inheritance.

1 Peter 2:19-20 — God takes pleasure in our patient endurance.  Not in our suffering, mind you, but in faith-filled endurance that overcomes that suffering.

Hebrews 11:6 — God is pleased with our faith, and without faith, it is impossible to please Him.  Specifically, He wants a faith that trusts Him to reward our pursuit of Him.

Philippians 2:13 — God receives pleasure from the results of His work in us as we learn to will and act in ways that honor Him.

All this left me wondering:  If God made me for His own pleasure, what is it about me that gives Him pleasure?  I know better than to think that it is my frequent bad attitude or sniping over whatever circumstance I’m in.  I know what God thinks of that!  But what is it I do that is pleasurable to Him?   I don’t just mean my good choices, but when I do the sort of work that He created me as an individual to do.  When does God look over my shoulder in enjoyment at what I’m engaged in?

I’m going to spend some time thinking about this because – whatever it is – I want to do more of it.

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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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