Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Realist And The Optimist

2 Cor 1:8
8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. (NKJ)

Some may be surprised to know this verse is even in the bible. Even more surprising is that these words were spoken by the Apostle Paul himself. But I'm very thankful that they are included in the canon of scripture. They have the power to resonate with each and every one of us at various times and seasons of our lives. I'm sure I've been guilty of throwing out some cliche' such as "He'll never put more on you than you can bear". Theologically this may be true, but Paul gives us a "real world" scenario. There are three phrases here I want to look at in more detail.

Paul tells the Corinthians that he and his companions were "burdened beyond measure". He literally felt as though the burden was so heavy, it was beyond what words can express. The next phrase is "above strength". Literally, it was more than they felt that they could physically (and probably emotionally) handle. Next, Paul says that they "despaired even of life". There really is no way to sugar-coat the situation. Paul says that realistically it looked like they were not going to make it! Here is where many of us struggle with emotional honesty and transparency.

Paul was anything but a pessimist. Some of his most encouraging words were spoken to others during times of his own imprisonment. And in the midst of that, Paul never refers to himself as the prisoner of Caesar (or any other human leader)- but always the "prisoner of Jesus Christ". Paul was a man of tremendous faith and belief in the sovereignty of God. And yet he is honest enough to assess the situation without some facade of faith which denies reality. Paul admitted that things were so bad, they seemed hopeless in the natural. Luke made a similar declaration in the book of Acts while he and Paul were aboard a ship during a terrible storm (see Acts 27:20).

God delivered Paul (on both occasions) from what seemed like impossible perils. This gave Paul the ability to remain optimistic despite the "realities" of his situation(s). Notice his words in subsequent verses:

2 Cor 1:9-10
9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,
10 who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, (NKJ)

And now we gain some insight into why God (at times) allows us to go through such trials of faith. Through these instances, we learn who is really in charge. Most of us are hardwired to be self-sufficient. This thinking overlaps into our spiritual lives as well. We become tempted to be self-reliant and to think we have "arrived". These situations are often painful and uncomfortable (Heb 12:11), but they remind us to look to the One who is able to raise the dead!

Notice the tenses in verse 10 (pasted above). God delivered (past tense) Paul from his trouble. God is even now (present tense) at work delivering Paul (and us)- even if we don't see the outward evidences. And finally, there is hope (and faith) that God will yet (future tense) deliver you and me. You may feel that you are in a place right now where things look bleak. Maybe you feel (just like Paul) that you're not going to make it through. But try to remember the miraculous interventions of the past. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God has already delivered you from the worst possible fate (eternal death!). God is at work in your life now. He is working behind the scenes, causing things to work together for good if you are called by God and love Jesus Christ! (Rom 8:28). And you can trust that the same One who saved you and is presently at work in your life, will be faithful to complete the work He has started in you! (Phil 1:6).

So in summation- don't be a religious phony who wears a pretentious mask of faith. If things are bad, you're not going to make it worse by being honest about it. But by the same token, don't let your realism become an opportunity for pessimism and despair. Yes, things are bad, but believe that better days are ahead. If you are a believer in the Lord, this is absolutely the truth- the best is yet to come!!!!

Until next time....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Conclusion of the Matter

Ecc 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Ecc 12:14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

Today, we conclude our series of blogs on the book of Ecclesiastes. In verses 1-6, Solomon gives a really insightful metaphor for the aging process and then gives the final outcome: dust (our bodies) returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecc 12:7). Since we are all headed for the same physical outcome then we should take heed to the final words of the Preacher. The only thing that really matters is living a life marked by the fear of God and a mindset to let our works align with His commands.

To really appreciate Solomon's words, we need to take just a moment to reflect on Solomon's life and what it should have been. In these last words, we basically here Solomon telling us "don't do things like I did them!". So where did Solomon go wrong? It wasn't any one thing that he did, but rather a series of bad (sinful) decisions. In Deuteronomy 17, God outlines the requirements of the Israelite king. He (the king) is forbidden from multiplying horses and chariots, amassing huge amounts of gold, and multiplying wives unto himself. And yet I Kings 10 & 11 record that Solomon did exactly what was forbidden. Solomon had many horses and chariots (I Kings 10:26, 28-29), acquired tons of gold (I Kings 10:14-25), and had many wives and concubines (I Kings 11:1-8). He eventually worshiped other gods

Chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes really illustrates Solomon's pursuit of happiness "under the sun". He tried laughter, women, wine, song, accomplishments, achievements, and basically any thing his eyes wanted, he took (Ecclesiastes 2:10)! But none of these things made him happy. Ironically, the wisest man in the world who had everything he could ever want (and then some) came to this conclusion...."I hated life"!!!!!! (Ecc 2:17a emphasis mine). Why did Solomon hate his life? Because he took all of the commands that God had given him....and did exactly the opposite!!! Many of us go through life with such frustration. We feel that "if only... (fill in the blank)" would happen, then we could be happy. But here is a man who got everything he ever wanted and realized that it wasn't enough! And I wonder how many of us get what we wanted and then realize that it really wasn't what we wanted after all? That's one of the great lies of Satan. He has been telling this lie ever since the Garden of Eden. The lie is this- you would be much happier if you just had the thing that God withheld from you. Adam and Eve got what they "wanted". And they quickly realized that it wasn't what they really wanted at all. God gave them the command to save their lives, not to withhold pleasure from them.

Solomon realized at the end, that the only things that matter have to do with living life with God as the focus, not on the periphery. His admonition to "fear God" is one that we should not take lightly. I think we (preachers) have really tried to soften these words by saying "you shouldn't be afraid of God". Well, obviously there is a sense in which we are to come boldly before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4), but there is another dynamic and facet to God's character; holiness. When Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were more afraid of Him then, than when the seas and winds were raging. When John (the disciple that Jesus loved...the one who leaned on his breast at the Last Supper) saw Jesus on the isle of Patmos- he fell at His feet as a dead man (Rev 1:17a). Any time men had encounters with God in the bible, they were notably and visibly shaken. The point is, that we need to live our lives with a reverential fear of the LORD which is the beginning of wisdom.

Finally, Solomon concludes with a reminder about judgment. There are two notable judgments in scripture: one for the believer in Christ, and one for the unbeliever. The believer will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10-12 & II Corinthians 5:9-10) to receive reward or loss for the things done in the body (good or bad). Those who have rejected Christ and His words will appear at the White Throne judgment, described in Revelation 20:11-15. This will not be a place to make plea bargains or make final appeals to be granted entrance into heaven. This will merely be a sentencing event. Those whose names are not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. These are somber words, but they are intended to be. Ecclesiastes ends without folly or vanity. We are encouraged to enjoy the life that God has given to us. We are admonished to make the most of our youth (while remembering our Creator), to enjoy companionship with the people we love, and we've received quite a bit of good practical advice; everything ranging from financial matters to interpersonal communications. But in the end, we are reminded that life is short, death is certain, and we will all stand before God one day. And in the end, that's all that really matters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Don't Wait Until Everything's Perfect

Ecc 11:4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. (ESV)

We are quickly reaching the climax of The Preacher's sermon to us. These last few chapters are deeply emotional and charged with reflective moments. There are few things as gripping as the final words of wisdom from godly men. I feel much the same way when I read some of Paul's final words to Timothy. Especially when he urges him to "come before winter" (II Tim 4:21). I'm not exactly sure how old Solomon is at this point, but one certainly infers that these words are informed by years of experience. Unfortunately, much of it being bad experience. But before we talk about Solomon's failures (we'll likely do some of that next time), let's take some of his parting advice.

He tells us to cast our bread upon the waters, for we will find it after many days. Much could be said about this, but a general principle is that liberality and generosity are never a waste of time. When we reach the end of our journey, it is doubtful any of us will regret any acts of generosity. Furthermore, very few men on their deathbeds wish that they had spent more time at the office, or that they had made a few more dollars. There is a spiritual principle in the bible often referred to as the "law of sowing and reaping". This is certainly in view here, as we see that the bread we cast upon the waters will come back to us.

In verse 4 Solomon instructs us not to wait for all conditions to be favorable before taking actions. Solomon was certainly not known as a procrastinator,and was responsible for the creation of many projects and proverbs. There are very few things in life that come with 100 percent guarantees of success. There is risk involved in almost anything and everything. Some young people are waiting to get married "until they can afford it". Still, others are waiting until they are "more financially secure" before having children. I'm certainly not advocating a high-risk scenario where we live beyond our means in the name of faith. But how many of us that are married with children were actually truly prepared for the challenges? Honestly, some lessons are learned in the school of hard knocks. Some people are waiting to do ministry until everything falls into place. I once heard a wise minister say "never forget that the Promised Land was not a vacation for the children of Israel". While they wandered in the wilderness, one of the greatest challenges for the children of Israel was overcoming their own issues. However, when they came into the land of promise, there were all kinds of opposing nations that had to be subdued. And so it is with life- God doesn't remove all of the obstacles in our way before issuing directives to us.

In verse 5, we are reminded that God is in control. All of our forecasting and predictions come with limitations. Truly, only God knows the future. We are still seeing through a glass dimly. I like to summarize verse 6 by the old adage "don't put all your eggs in one basket". Solomon advises diligence in many matters, because we never know what will prosper, what won't, or if two different options will both prosper. Many view diversification as a lack of faith. But we are constantly reminded in scripture that God's will supercedes even the best of plans and intentions. It's a good idea to be skilled in as many areas as possible and to broaden every possible horizon. Not only does this make sense in the natural, but it also opens other doors for God to use your life in different ways. Many ministers end up in financial ruin because their areas of study are so specialized and they never learn any useful (to the secular world) skills or trades. When their ministry comes to an end (either by retirement or by some unforeseen unfortunate event!) they are often left unprepared.

Verse 8 is somber, yet real and truthful advice. "The days of darkness" will be many. We can make every attempt to avoid risk and harm, but life has a way of dealing us crushing blows in spite of that. Actually, God makes every attempt to remind us that we are just "passing through". Peter reminds us that we are "strangers and pilgrims" here on earth, and Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven. The brightest days are ahead of us. But here on earth, the days of darkness will be many. Solomon is not really trying to be pessimistic here though, for in verse 7 he says "light is sweet". We need to celebrate the good times and remember them fondly, because they can be few and far between.

I seem to be making a habit of summarizing some of these verses, and if you will allow me, I'm going to do it one more time. The end of chapter 11 reads to me as if Solomon is saying "enjoy your life, just remember to remember God!". When we're young, we feel invincible. Old age and death seem so far removed from us. Many of us put off things that need to be done now (not just unpleasant tasks, but even fruitful endeavors) because we feel like there is plenty of time to do it later. Solomon's advice is- don't wait- enjoy your life now. But make sure you enjoy it in a way that glorifies God. Because one day, we are all going to give an account.

We'll talk more about that next time....

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Fly In The Ointment

Ecc 10:1 Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.(KJV)

We are nearing the end of our series of blog entries on Ecclesiastes. Chapter 10 contains some great pithy sayings as well as good old-fashioned common sense. As I mentioned earlier, one of the great appeals of wisdom literature is the universal application of these principles. We can read the words of Solomon and they resonate with us, because we are just like him. Well, maybe not in the sense that we're the wisest people of our day, or that we're royalty. But we're like Solomon in the sense that we are all human beings with common interests and conflicts. Paul says that there is no temptation that we face except that which is "common to man". Solomon says basically the same thing with the phrase "there is no new thing under the sun." So let's begin a brief look at chapter 10.

The Preacher begins with a parable about the fly in the ointment. It only takes one dead fly to ruin costly and precious perfume. Similarly, it only takes one blemish or moral failure to undo a lifetime of work. Sadly, many wonderful Christian men and women will be remembered only for their mistakes. There is a saying that goes something like this: "the bigger they are, the harder they fall". In the end, our gifts, talents, and abilities won't be what we will be remembered most for. Instead, we will be known for our character. No doubt Solomon did some wonderful things. He built a temple for God, wrote many proverbs, possessed great wisdom. Unfortunately some of the things we remember most about him deal with his multiple wives, worship of other gods, and over-the-top lavish lifestyle.

In verses 2 & 3 Solomon extols the value of wisdom. Those who are wise value wisdom at the "right hand"- a place of dignity, honor, power, and authority. Consequently, foolish people don't put a premium on wisdom, and publish their folly for the whole world to see. It is difficult to hide foolishness. One might be able to hide it for a while if they remain silent, but eventually the truth becomes evident. In verse 4, we are given some great advice on how to deal with angry superiors. We are told to "yield" and "leave not thy place". There is a verse in Proverbs that tells us that a soft answer turns away wrath. A similar thought is conveyed here, but with even more specifics. Whereas the exhortation to give a soft answer applies to everyone, here Solomon gives advice on how to deal with those who are over you. There are times when our superiors become displeased with us (sometimes deservedly so, perhaps other times not so). The temptation is to "leave our place". Many quit and throw in the proverbial towel at the first sign of discomfort or displeasure. Most relationships in life survive not because of an absence of conflict, but because of the ability to find compromise.

In verses 5 through 7 Solomon observes how the world is sometimes "upside down" from the way it should be. Often folly or foolishness is set in high places of authority and renown, while wisdom is not regarded and treated with contempt. Verses 8 & 9 are admonitions to respect the feelings and property of others. We can be sure that if we seek to harm our neighbor without provocation, we will reap the same calamity that we have sown, if not worse!

Verse 10 is a call to "sharpen the axe". We sometimes confuse frantic activity with productivity. There is an old parable about two men who were in the woods cutting down trees- a young man, and an older gentleman. The younger man was much stronger, faster, and vibrant. Yet at the end of the day, the older man had cut down many more trees than the young man. Puzzled by the day's results, the young man asked the old man what was his secret. The old man smiled and replied:

"You were working very hard today. In fact, I watched you and you never once took a break. But here we are at the end of the day, and I've cut down many more trees than you did. You want to know my secret? While you were frantically working, I would sit down and sharpen my axe. I took several breaks throughout the day and sharpened the axe while I sat.. It took much less effort for me to fell the trees because my blade was razor sharp. You worked very hard, but cut down little because you were swinging a dull axe!"

Verses 11 through 14 deal with the tongue. The babbler is compared to a serpent. The bible has much to say about the topic of the tongue so I won't go into great detail here. Foolish men are easy to spot because they are the ones who are always talking. In particular, Solomon seems to be admonishing those who love to make great predictions about everything (know anyone like that?). We might call such a person a "know-it-all". But the Preacher reminds us that only God truly knows the future.

In verses 16 & 17 we get a lesson about priorities and maturity. He says "woe to thee O land when thy king is a child". Now at first glance, we might interrupt with "but wasn't Solomon a child when he began to reign?". The Jewish historian Josephus records that Solomon was 12 years old when he began to rule. So obviously Solomon isn't speaking chronologically. Instead, he's speaking of maturity. We probably all know someone who is biologically an adult, but a child in terms of maturity. This is confirmed because (as Solomon states in this passage) the immature princes "eat in the morning". In contrast with this- the mature ruler does his business in the morning and eats in the evening- and even then- not for drunkenness (10:17b).

Verse 18 is a command against sloth and laziness. Solomon uses the analogy of a decaying building or a house that drops through. What caused this display of depreciation? Simply doing nothing! Many of us think that it takes some really willful act of disobedience to bring about spiritual ruin. But the truth is, spiritual destruction can take place if we simply do nothing. This is exactly the moral of the parable of the talents. The wicked man with one talent is not condemned for being a fornicator, a drunkard, and idolater, or anything like that. What was his sin? He simply did nothing!!!

The chapter ends with a warning not to curse the king- even in your thoughts. The powers that be are ordained of God. When we resist and curse them, we are actually holding God's ways in contempt. Again, this does not mean that every policy or ideology held by a government is sanctioned by Divine authority. But government and order are both products of the will of God.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Race Is Not To The Swift

I apologize for my delay in updating the blog. If you've been following along, you know that we are scheduled to talk about Ecclesiastes chapter 8 today. Because I'm already a week behind, I'm going to do a quick wrap-up on chapters 8 & 9 in hopes that I can finish on schedule. Chapter 8 has a few major themes. First, there is a discussion about how to interact with those to whom you answer. Paul reminds us in Romans that the "powers that be" are ordained of God. That doesn't mean that God approves of or sanctions the actions of governmental rulers, but it does mean that He is an advocate of order and justice. Solomon reminds us that there are some who rule over others to their own hurt (Ecc 8:9). The bottom line is this- we all answer to someone. We should respect those in authority over us and we should also be kind to those we are supposed to be leading. We all ultimately answer to the Highest authority. Paul says that one day "every knee will bow" and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The remainder of chapter 8 describes conditions of inequality and unfairness that exist in this present age. We have all lamented the fact that bad things happen to good people. And good things happen to bad people. But Solomon's advice is not to dwell on these things. Many are not in relationship with God because they are angry over the injustice and inequality that exists in this world. The bible makes no denial against this claim. As a matter of fact, the scriptures are filled with examples of "bad things" happening to "good people" (the relative goodness of any of us is possibly suspect since Paul says "there is none not one" in the book of Romans). Solomon's advice is to enjoy the life that God has given you (Ecc 8:15). Of course, Solomon desired to understand the mysteries of life and so he applied himself to "know wisdom" (verse 16). But in the end, he was content with the answer that there are some things that only God understands. And we would do well to take his advice regarding matters that we absolutely cannot make sense of.

Chapter 9 begins with a strong statement of the sovereignty of God. The Preacher says that our lives are in "the hand of God". This is both a comfort, and at the same time, a source of struggle for us. Struggle, I say, because there are times that we wish God would immediately intervene and remove our suffering or eradicate injustice. But as Solomon will explain, there are things that happen in life because people are at the right place at the right time. First, he laments that one event happens to everyone- good, bad, religious, agnostic, devoted or lazy. And that event is death. If there is one recurring theme in Ecclesiastes, it is the brevity of human life. James compares it to a vapor. Solomon frequently refers to it as a shadow. The wicked of this world are attempting to experience all of their joy in this present world. This attitude stems from a belief that this life is all there is.

Now if I can paraphrase verses 7-10 in chapter 9 it would be "take time to stop and smell the roses". There is an unfortunate and erroneous perception that many have regarding the nature of God. Some view Him as merely some far-removed deity who seeks to make men miserable. We get some clue about the nature of God from Jesus however. His decree on earth was that He had come to give life, and give it more abundantly (John 10:10b). Obviously Solomon understood this before the New Testament had even been penned. And so his instructions are to be happy, enjoy your food, enjoy your family, wear your nice clothes and good-smelling fragrances. And above all, be thankful because this is the portion that God has assigned to you. These simple things that bring us pleasure, are actually God's design for us. He doesn't want us simply to endure life- but to enjoy it!

He then describes something that we have all observed time and time again. The race is not to the swift. Sometimes the smartest guys don't make the most money. Sometimes the best team doesn't win on a given day. Sometimes people are simply the beneficiaries of being at the right place at the right time. Perhaps many of us have had the unfortunate experience of being passed over for something we felt deserving of. And maybe someone else got the very thing we desired because they had a relationship with the person with power to promote. And to top it all off, trouble seldom comes with adequate warning or notice. Solomon says that man "does not know his time" (vs 12). Just as an unsuspecting fish gets hooked or a bird gets snared in a net, so it is with us. Trials often come when we least expect them.

Next, Solomon inserts a parable about wisdom. He recounts a story of a poor wise man who (through his wisdom) was able to defend his little city with few people against a powerful king with a great army. When all was said and done, no one commended the poor man for his wisdom. Instead, his good deed was soon forgotten, and his wisdom unappreciated. So it is with us today. Godly wisdom is often scorned, while the "counsel of the ungodly" (Psalm 1) is praised. But regardless of how men fail to appreciate and perceive the value of wisdom, God (and Solomon) still champions the virtue and superiority of wisdom over might. On a rather somber note, the chapter ends with this truism: "one sinner destroys much good." It has been said that we should never underestimate the power of an individual. It's true- one man can do tremendous good. Some of the greatest leaders of mankind have had to stand when no one else was willing to stand with them. But the same is true of evil. You have probably heard an expression like "one bad apple..." or perhaps the scriptural phrase "a little leaven leavens the whole lump".

We are coming to the conclusion of our study, but I thank you for taking the time to read and study along with us. I look forward to sharing again with you soon!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Longing for the good old days?

Ecclesiastes 7:10 Don’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. (NLT)

Chapter 7 in Ecclesiastes is pretty long. It reads a lot like a chapter in the book of proverbs; filled with practical and eternal wisdom. I'm afraid that I could get really mired in a total summary of the chapter so I'm going to choose some select passages to apply today. The beginning of the chapter sets the tone for the rest of it. A "good name" is more valuable than anything else in life (vs 1). The following verses contrast the man with eternity on his mind and the man with partying on his mind. There is a time for celebration. Solomon had already said in chapter 3 that there is a time and a season for everything- including dancing and celebration. But here, he describes the man whose chief aim is to make life a big party. His waking hours are spent looking forward to the next one. The man with eternity on his mind however is likened to the man "in the house of mourning"(vs.4). Solomon doesn't mean that wise men just love to go to funerals. But the lesson here is that wise men are thinking about their mortality and where they will go in the days when life is over. We all have an appointment with death (Heb 9:27).

Solomon then gives some good advice about friendship and attitudes. Don't hang around with people who simply flatter you all the time. It's good to have some friends with wisdom who will tell you the truth even when it hurts. And don't be consumed with anger, because anger "lodges in the bosom of fools" (vs 9). The book of Proverbs also warns us not to choose people with angry dispositions as friends (Prov 22:24). Yes, we are all guilty of losing our tempers on occasion, but the point here is that some people are constantly angry (thus the phrase "lodges" in the bosom of fools- anger doesn't simply visit this man- it LIVES with him).

Then the Preacher instructs us not to long for the "good old days". I've already mentioned the "Egyptian Fever" that plagued the Israelites that God delivered from Pharaoh, so I won't revisit that story here. But many of us cannot embrace what God is doing in our lives in the present, because we are so preoccupied with the way things used to be. In verse 13, Solomon says "consider the work of God". We can't be obsessed with the past because God is doing something in our lives in the present- even if we can't appreciate it. Someone once told me (and they were probably quoting some other great theologian) "God is always at work redemptively in our lives- especially when we don't feel it". Lives are riddled with frustration because we are trying to "make straight what God has made crooked" (vs 13b). Sometimes (not always of course) the source of our frustration can be traced back to the fact that we do not consider or appreciate what God is doing. This is a lesson much easier for us to discuss than do though isn't it? Agreed.

Eccl 7:14
14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. (NIV)

I think we ought to celebrate our victories. I love to acknowledge when good things happen. And I love to hear when someone else receives a breakthrough. One of the reasons I believe we should celebrate these times is because they don't last forever (despite what some false teachers would have you believe). In fact, God has ordained that we also have times that are not so pleasant. If your theology is such that you believe God is only at work in your life when everything is going great, you will become disillusioned when trouble arises. The LORD meant what He said when He promised to never leave us nor forsake us. That includes even the most difficult of times and circumstances.

Now I want to take a moment and appreciate some of the humor in the bible. I do find humor there- whether it's intentional or completely unintentional- look at Solomon's advice:

Eccl 7:21-22
21 Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you--22 for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others. (NIV)

Someone once told me- the person who will gossip to you will also gossip about you. But perhaps the focus of Solomon here is not to pay too much attention to what people are saying about you. Regardless of how good you are (whether in theory or in actuality), you are going to have some critics. And rest assured, if you are really striving to accomplish something- someone is either going to envy you or criticize's just part of the human experience. But Solomon gives us what I think is a humorous dose of reality- there have been times when every one of us have been critical of someone else.

Ecc 7:29 Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions. (KJV)

It's unfortunate but the Creator receives much blame for things that He had nothing to do with. The Garden of Eden is a picture of God's design and desire for humanity. The suffering, injustice, and tragedy that is all too common to the human experience actually has its origins with mankind- not God.

Rom 5:12
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-- (NIV)

Sin entered the world through man. And death (and all of things that accompany death- sorrow, sickness, tragedy, violence, malevolence, etc.) came on the heels of sin. Paul reminds us not to be too hard on Adam because "all sinned"- yes that means you and me!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Happy Easter!

Mat 28:6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. (KJV)

I wanted to take a moment and wish everyone a wonderful and glorious Easter Sunday! I'm about to preach a sermon entitled "Resurrection" at my home church (Liberty Worship Center). I'll attempt to get the audio of the service online sometime soon.

Jesus is Alive!!!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Enjoy Your Life

I'm a little behind in giving an update from Ecclesiastes, so I thought I'd combine a couple of chapters so that I can (hopefully) post some content relative to Passion week. This week, we will (very briefly) summarize chapters 5 & 6. We continue to see this phrase "under the sun" popping up throughout the book. Most commentators and theologians use this term in a negative sense, but there is a sense in which we are all "under the sun". That's one of the great things about Ecclesiastes, and wisdom literature in general. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament deals with universal themes. They ring true and resonate with us because we share in this common experience known as "life". I have to be careful because there is so much practical and pragmatic advice contained in the wisdom writings, it's tempting to stay there and neglect the other portions of scripture.

Chapter 5 begins with an admonition to let our words be few in the house of God. New Testament Christians don't typically worship in a synagogue or Jewish Temple, but there is a universal principle we can expand on here. The book of James says we should be "swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath". Our mouths are often the greatest source of our trouble(s). The Preacher advises that we should follow through on commitments made to God. This really isn't the focus of the text, but as a footnote on letting our "words be few", I think we could take this idea into the prayer closet. Prayer often becomes a monologue, filled with lengthy petitions and little time for pause. I wonder how many times I've missed out on hearing important instructions because I never stopped to listen. (note to self: less monologue...more dialogue).

Solomon then describes the man who seeks fulfillment in "stuff". He frames it within the context of silver ("he that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver" Ecc 5:10a). Whatever we decide to make as an object of affection in place of God, will surely disappoint. Moreover, the more stuff we have, the more people tend to surround us to help us consume (v. 11). Conversely, the man who has learned to work honestly and find a place of contentment has sweet sleep (v.12). The end of chapter 5 is almost a parting of the clouds. Solomon describes the ideal life "under the sun"- one that is lived with contentment and a sense of gratefulness for the gift(s) of God:

Ecc 5:18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. (ESV)

Life is short. James says it's merely a vapor (James 4:14). Chapter 6 of Ecclesiastes contrasts the man who enjoys and makes the most of his life with the one who wastes it. Whereas it is fitting for a man or woman to enjoy the blessings of life- it is sad to think that so many will live a life of regret. This theme of regret dominates chapter 6. There are some very moving and compelling phrases found in this chapter. I want to mention a couple of them I find particularly noteworthy:

Ecc 6:9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit. (KJV)

I want to look at that phrase "the wandering of the desire". This is exactly how so many people in this world spend their time on earth. People are obsessed with wanting things they don't (or can't) have. I personally know scores of people just like this. They literally "wander" through life- never finding any contentment- never putting any "roots" down- never stopping to smell the proverbial roses all around them. They always envision some future scenario where they will be happier than they are now. Or they spend the majority of their time wondering "what might have been....if only...". I probably run the risk of offending some of my preacher friends, but when was the last time you heard a sermon on being content? I teased my congregation recently that I was going to preach a sermon entitled "Got clothes? Got food? Get happy!". I'm sure that will go over like a hot potato- but it's biblical!

Heb 13:5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." (ESV)

1Ti 6:6 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment,
1Ti 6:7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.
1Ti 6:8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. (ESV)

One last phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, and we'll conclude for this week's study.

Ecc 6:12 For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun? (KJV)

James compared life to a vapor. I think it was Peter who compared life to a blade of grass. Now Solomon compares it to a shadow. We might all hope to live to be over a hundred years old. But even if we do, it is a very short space of time in the big picture or grand scheme of things. The clock is ticking for all of us. We all have an appointment that we must keep. We will one day face the One who created us. And we will give an account. After death, there are no more opportunities for redemption. The message of salvation and repentance is always urgent- and it's always "today".

Heb 3:7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, " (ESV)

I hope to have some thoughts posted for you before Sunday for Easter. And I hope you are enjoying this look at this wonderful book of the Old Testament.

Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Two Are Better Than One

Ecc 4:9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. (KJV)

Today, we continue our look at the book of Ecclesiastes. By my count, we are in chapter 4 this week. My focus in this chapter summary will be relationships. The beginning of this chapter opens with The Preacher feeling compassion for those who are/were oppressed (and dismay at the strength of their oppressors). This really shouldn't surprise us about Solomon, because the Lord did give him (as the KJV translates) "largeness of heart" (I Kings 4:29). Among his first petitions to God was that he would be given an understanding heart (I Kings 3:9).

Suffering is a reality in this present age. Most of us come to terms with the concept that life isn't fair at some point or another. Regardless of our stature or standing in this world, we ought to never lose the capacity to feel compassion for those who are oppressed. For all of Solomon's faults (and yes, he had a few), this is certainly something for which he should be commended. And it is a great lesson for all who are in leadership or places of authority.

Next, Solomon contrasts two types of people. Those who are obsessed with work, and those who are obsessed with avoiding it. We'll start with the latter and then discuss the former. The bible, and in particular the book of Proverbs, takes a harsh position against slothfulness or laziness. The sluggard is often characterized as someone who hates work so badly, he can't stand to lift a fork to even put food in his mouth. One of my favorite excuses that people use to avoid work is also found in the book of Proverbs:

Pro 22:13 The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!" (ESV)

Why not try that excuse next time you feel like taking a day off from work? No seriously, don't try it! And please don't tell the boss that I told you to do it. But while the lazy man is starving himself by refusing to work, the overly ambitious man is starving himself of something just as important as food- meaningful relationships! The bible commends the man or woman that works to make an honest living. But there is a point at which we are no longer working to provide a living for our families. We can become consumed with working simply to acquire more "stuff". It is not for me (or anyone else for that matter) to judge what an appropriate amount of labor is for an individual. But here is a helpful gauge; when you reach the place that you no longer have any meaningful interaction with friends and family (or God) because you are "too busy", then you are indeed "too busy". One of the most difficult challenges in life is to find a place of balance.

The Preacher goes on to describe what life is like for the man who is consumed with his work and leaves room for nothing (or no one) else:

Ecc 4:8 Here is someone who lives alone. He has no son, no brother, yet he is always working, never satisfied with the wealth he has. For whom is he working so hard and denying himself any pleasure? This is useless, too---and a miserable way to live. (GNB)

Sounds like a certain character from a Charles Dickens novel doesn't it? There is a tragic irony for the man (or woman) in this predicament. He is working hard- but never has enough; he has acquired a certain lifestyle- but he can't enjoy it- he may be working to earn the respect of his peers- but has no one to share his accomplishments with- how tragic!!!

God created us for community. The Garden of Eden was an earthly paradise of sorts. Adam had the whole pristine world to himself. There was no death, no sickness, disease, or any other tragedy or anxiety to weigh down Adam's soul. He could fellowship with God and enjoy what many would consider an ideal situation. But God looked upon it, and thought "something's wrong":

Gen 2:18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. (KJV)

Eden was not complete for Adam until he had someone to share it with. And we need meaningful interaction with other people too. I worry about the isolation of society and how we have become so individualized. I enjoy dabbling with social media and networking with friends over the internet. But that is no substitute for "real life" interactions. Some of us may have thousands of "friends" or "followers" on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. etc., but how many of those relationships involve meaningful interaction? No doubt, some of those friendships are genuine and do involve interactions beyond "liking" someone's status update or tagging them in a photo. The point is not to bash social media (I enjoy a good status update as much as the next guy!) but to make sure that we are intentional about having deep connections with other human beings- especially those closest to us.

The final thoughts of this chapter revolve around the fickleness of humanity (honestly, I'm not sure if fickleness is a word....I think it is). Today's rising stars will be the "back page" news of tomorrow. Solomon advises us not to become unteachable. He says that a poor and wise young person is better off than a king who refuses to learn anything or take advice (verse 13). I remember when I used to know everything. It happened twice I think- once when I was 16, and then again the first year I started preaching on a regular basis. Now, I'm far less sure of myself. Oh, I'm sure of God's word. But I'm less sure that I know everything. And I think that's probably a good thing. At least Solomon seems to think so. And he was the wisest man of his day, so I think he was right when he told us to maintain (what I call) a "teachable spirit".

Verses 15 and 16 really resonate with me for some reason. I think I'll post them here, just in case some people actually read my blog but don't check the scriptures to see if I'm telling the truth:

Eccl 4:15-16
15 I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king's successor.
16 There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (NIV)

No matter how irreplaceable we think we are.....someone is going to replace us. It may seem as if that company won't be able to continue in your absence, but they will likely continue to operate and do business just fine without your assistance. There may be a time when some consider you a hero for your leadership. But if you stay around long enough, you may live to see yourself become the villain (in their eyes). If you live your life for the approval and applause of men, you will eventually be disappointed. There's a reason they have a "flavor of the month" at your local ice cream store. Next month, the people will want something different. We are approaching "Palm Sunday" on the liturgical calendar. Many were hailing the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem with cries of "Hosanna, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the LORD" (Matt 21:9, Mark 11:9, John 12:13). Just a little while later He would hear these awful words:

Luk 23:18 And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas:
Luk 23:19 (Who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.)
Luk 23:20 Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them.
Luk 23:21 But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. (KJV)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

There Is A Season

Ecc 3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven (KJV)

Of all the wisdom in Ecclesiastes, this is perhaps the most well-known and repeated refrain. Ironically, it's one of the concepts that we often have the most difficulty embracing. One of my favorite pieces in our home is a cross-stitched picture of a flower that has been framed. It reads, "Bloom where God has planted you". Sadly, many of us wish we were somewhere else....maybe even "anywhere but here". Maybe we are in an uncomfortable place because of our own decisions. I'm reminded of a verse in Proverbs:

Prov 19:3 The foolishness of a man twists his way, and his heart frets against the LORD. (NKJ)

We can become bitter and blame others (even God!) because we are reaping the consequences of our own poor choices. But I want to talk to you today about contentment. This book we've been talking about for the past few weeks deals a lot with the subject of contentment and fulfillment. Part of learning to be content is learning to embrace the seasons of life. Many are stuck in the past. They long for the "good old" days to come back again. I suppose this is human nature. Remember the children of Israel and the story of the Exodus? They were miserable in Egyptian bondage and cried for deliverance. God saw their misery and answered their pleas. But a (not so) funny thing happened once they crossed the Red Sea. They started longing for the "good old days" of Egypt:

Num 11:5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: Num 11:6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. (KJV)

They couldn't embrace the current season of their lives. They were eating angel's food as free men and women, but they longed for the days when they ate fish as slaves. We have a tendency to remember things better than they really were. For the children of Israel, the wilderness and the supply of manna was what God intended for them in that season. God had their best interests at heart. But they couldn't see beyond where they were at the moment and couldn't appreciate that this was all part of "the journey". Life is not just a series of mountaintops and summits to reach. It is a journey- one that we ought to enjoy and appreciate.

On the other hand, some are preoccupied with the future. I remember the longest year of my life. Boy, time sure seems to fly now (Mom & Dad always said it would when I got older....guess they were right after all!). But I think the longest year recorded in human history was between my 15th and 16th birthdays. I just knew that once I was able to drive a car all by myself, I would be the happiest guy on the planet. Guys can you relate to what I'm saying? And I'm not going to lie- that 16th birthday was pretty special!!! On a more serious note however, many believers cannot enjoy the present because of an inordinate fascination with the future. Jesus gave us an indication about how we are to live. We are not to worry about the future- all the worrying in the world, won't change it! And most likely, if you cannot find a place of contentment will elude you in the future as well!

The Apostle Paul made a statement about contentment that provides a great model for all of us:

Php 4:11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. Php 4:12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Php 4:13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (ESV)

I'm not going to go on a huge rabbit trail here (at least I hope not!) but here is where "bible promise" theology falls short. Philippians 4:13 would surely be among the top 20- maybe top 10 of all-time favorite bible verses- and rightly so! But part of doing "all things" through Christ involves learning to be content. I'm thankful that Paul says that he "learned" to be content in any situation. That means quite possibly, that it didn't come natural for him, even though he was an Apostle. These words become all the more powerful, when you realize that Paul wrote them as a prisoner. Paul knew what it was to be hungry, to go through "lean" seasons of life. He knew how to face adversity and (in his own words) to "be brought low". It is not only erroneous theology, but it's just not logical to expect that every season of life will be pleasant. One of the most unpleasant things I ever experienced was watching my grandfather die a painful death from acute leukemia. But even in that, the bible says there is "a time to die". And even in my sadness, I know it's only temporal, because I'll see him again!

The Preacher says these words:

Ecc 3:11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. (KJV)

There is something beautiful about appreciating the season of life you're in. I have a "reasoning" brain- I'm always trying to make sense of every situation. I like to know the answer(s) to the "why" question(s). Frankly, some situations just don't make sense! Some people will make shipwreck of their faith because they're trying to make sense of something that only God understands fully. To this day, there are seasons of my life that simply don't make sense to me. Perhaps in eternity they will be explained. Or maybe, it won't even be a concern then. But I'm learning (....and admittedly, I'm not completely there yet) to be content in the different seasons of my life. Thankfully, God knows exactly what He's doing, and we can trust Him with the outcomes even while we're still learning.

The bible is filled with examples of men at different seasons in life. Joseph's story is incredible- Hollywood could not script a story with more twists and turns. But through it all, God was with him. And we could go on and on- Moses who had three very significant seasons of life- in 40 year spans (read Acts 7:20-36 if you get a chance), Paul's life , etc. etc. Life was meant to be enjoyed; not simply endured! I realize that even as I type this, some of you are suffering. Perhaps you've just lost a loved one. Maybe you're going through some type of physical infirmity. Or maybe you're just in a spiritual slump and feel depressed. It's been an exceptionally cold and wet winter here in North Carolina this year. But I guarantee you that I will appreciate Spring that much more when it arrives. You may be in your winter season right now, but rest assured- spring is coming!

Psa 30:5 For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (ESV)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The World Is Not Enough

Ecc 2:11 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. (ESV)

Today, we're continuing our look at the sermon by "The Preacher" from the book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 2 reads like a biography of my generation: "we've tried it all, and we're still not happy". Solomon is uniquely qualified to teach us about greener pastures. After all, his pasture was the greenest before "going green" was even considered cool. This man was living (what most would consider) the dream life. And since he was the wisest man of his day, it stands to reason that we ought to listen to him when he speaks. Solomon dispels the "if only..." myth that seems to drive so many of us. What is the "if only" myth you ask? In short, it's the idea that your life would be better- and you would be happy.....if only (fill-in-the-blank) would happen. Let's look at some of the basic tenets of the "if only" myth.

First he speaks of pleasure. He looks for fulfillment in amusement, wine, and laughter/entertainment. His conclusion? All is vanity. None of those things have the power to fill the longing of the soul. Very seldom do I share much autobiographical information in these blogs except for the occasional confession (humility is good for the soul). Here might be a good opportunity for me to let you peer into my past for just a moment. There was a time when I looked for fulfillment in all the wrong places. Many of you are aware that I'm a musician. But there was a time when I looked for music (in particular, the music industry) to bring me a sense of fulfillment. I never had what anyone would consider commercial success, but I still had dreams and goals just like anyone else. I played before big crowds, and small ones too. I played guitar in large venues and in some places that were pretty far under the radar. But all of those experiences had one thing in common; an inability to satisfy that deepest longing within my heart, and a real sense of purpose in life. I can remember vividly coming home after a certain performance where things went particularly well. The band was well-received, and applause was in no short supply. But after the lights went down and everyone went home, I was still left with a question ; " is this ALL there is to life?".

Solomon then speaks of some of his accomplishments. He was involved in massive building projects. Not the least of which was a magnificent temple for God. Here is a great warning for all of those who seek to find fulfillment in their ministry instead of their relationship with God. Solomon accomplished what even his father, the great King David was not able to do- build a temple for the Most High God! His own palace was magnificent too, some 13 years in the making (I Kings 7:1). He had knowledge about forestry, zoology, and could probably speak knowledgeably in most any environment . People came from all over the world to hear what he had to say (see I Kings 4:29-34). Did this make him happy? Apparently not.

And what about his love life? I Kings 11:3 records that he had 700 wives (princesses) and 300 concubines. These eventually led him away from devotion to the Lord and became a stumbling block to him. Solomon describes his acclamation of wealth and how he had the ability to feast with the best of them- with the finest of musicians and singers to provide entertainment at his bidding. By all accounts, The Preacher was living the dream. By his own admission- he declares that he was "the man":

Ecc 2:9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. (ESV)

He was living at the top of the social stratosphere. And unlike many of today's celebrities and larger-than-life personalities- he was able to maintain his sensibilities. His wisdom remained with him. He was enjoying the best that life had to offer, and he had enough sense not to allow excess to be the ruin of his mind. Now to put an exclamation point on all of this- Solomon makes a confession that few of us (if any) can relate to:

Ecc 2:10 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. (ESV)

He basically tells us that he got everything that he ever wanted. I really don't think we can appreciate the full weight and import of what Solomon has just told us. Literally- not figuratively- the man has everything that money can buy- and whatever that leaves out, he was able to acquire through wisdom and power/influence. So, was this enough to make the man happy?

Ecc 2:11 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. (ESV)

No, he then tells us that even the world was not enough! The rest of the chapter is pretty much summarized by Solomon's lamentations over the brevity of life. All the wisdom, money, and power in the world could not prevent his death. And furthermore, his death guaranteed that he had no control over what would be done with his assets and accomplishments in his absence. So what does that mean for us? What lessons can we glean from the Preacher this week?

I'm sure there are many lessons that can be learned, but I'll briefly summarize my thoughts. Here is a man who had it all, and realized it wasn't enough. There is nothing necessarily wrong with amusement, entertainment, and enjoyment as long as they do not become idols. After all, Jesus came to give us life and to give it more abundantly (or to the full!). We are told that God has given us things in life that we might enjoy them (I Tim 6:17). But they don't have the power to provide the sense of purpose and fulfillment that we were created for. That can only be found in a person. And His name is Jesus Christ.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to sharing more with you from this awesome book in the near future!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

What is lacking cannot be numbered

Eccl 1:15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. (NKJV)

I'm somewhat reluctant to make a commitment like this, but I'm going to attempt to blog my way through the book of Ecclesiastes. That means that most of these entries are not going to be very lengthy. They will be mostly summations of each chapter. Just as a disclaimer, I may preempt this series if there's something else that I deem blog-worthy during the week(s). So having said all of that, let's make some remarks about Ecclesiastes chapter 1.

The author of Ecclesiastes refers to himself as "The Preacher". It's fitting because this book definitely reads like a sermon. I think the general consensus is that Solomon is the author of this book. I share this opinion, and he just seems to be a perfect fit based on the biographical information we know about him from the bible. A recurring theme here (and throughout the book) is the phrase "vanity of vanities". Another repeated refrain is "under the sun". This is probably an expression that describes a philosophy. Most likely, this refers to what a world without God's direct intervention or without an eternal perspective looks like. Unfortunately, this is the paradigm through which much of society views the world......meaningless!

The Preacher then goes on to describe the cyclical nature of humanity and the earth. No matter how indispensable we think our lives are- regardless of how much of an impact we make while we're here- the world goes on after we're gone. That's not to say the world wouldn't be a different place in our absence. Even secular tales like "It's A Wonderful Life" beautifully illustrate the impact that one man's life can make in the world. Don't ever underestimate the power of one person to make a difference in the world. But also don't fool yourself into thinking that the world will stop turning when you're gone. The Preacher comes to this realization, and it produces in him a feeling of meaninglessness.

Solomon really wounds our pride by saying that "there is no remembrance of former things " (verse 11). Many of us are driven by a deep desire to leave behind a legacy. Truly, we have a responsibility to pass on a godly heritage to our posterity. Hopefully, we make some contribution that makes the world a better place while we're here, and even after we're gone. But the Preacher reminds us that even the greatest achievements are forgotten as generations come and go. If our ambition in life is simply "to be remembered" for our accomplishments or achievements, then we are living with an "under the sun" mentality- and we'll ultimately be disappointed.

He then begins to speak about the pursuit of wisdom (vs 13). Again, there's nothing wrong with this, tempered with faith in God. As a matter of fact, we know that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom". But the mere pursuit of wisdom, won't provide happiness. The Preacher reveals that exactly the opposite is what happens. He describes it as "trevail" and "vanity and vexation of spirit". At the end of this pursuit, he came to this conclusion:

Ecc 1:15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. (KJV)

What a revelation! Being the wisest man in the world provided more problems than solutions. His conclusion was this- the human condition is irreparably broken without God's intervention. All of the education in the world won't solve this problem- all of the money in the world- the acquisition of wealth- the accomplishment of great goals- none of this can repair what is broken in this world. And none of those things can satisfy the longing in the soul that each man and woman in this world is desperately seeking. I have mentioned in other blogs that man was created with the propensity to worship. If we do not worship God, we will almost assuredly look elsewhere or inward- to worship the creation as opposed to the Creator.

The chapter ends on a rather dismal note. The more wisdom he acquired, the more miserable he became. Thankfully this is not the end of the story. So far, the Preacher has given us a brilliant introduction to the human condition. He will expound on it some more before providing us with the answer(s) to the problem. This book contains a great deal of practical wisdom. The older I get, the more deeply I appreciate the wisdom writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes). The bible is not merely a practical book, but I think it's great that it does address those issues which are surely universal; the need for fulfillment, satisfaction, meaning, purpose, and love. And those things are all found in a person- and His name is Jesus.

Until next time....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel

Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

These words resonate with me deeply. But every once in a while, I need to remind myself that these words are more than just something I say in the presence of those who believe just as I do. It takes little courage for me to boldly proclaim that I am not ashamed of the gospel in front of the congregation where I serve as pastor. They already accept that as a given. But what about saying it in the midst of an unbelieving world? Isn't that what the "gospel" (i.e, "good news") is all about? God wants to save everyone who believes. That truly is good news.

Paul declared that he was a debtor to all men in that he owed them a presentation of the gospel. He had an obligation. I realize Paul was an apostle, and not an ordinary guy like myself, but I'm a debtor too. You see, God transformed me and gave me new life. He demonstrated that even a person with a miserable past can be saved and actually become a useful part of the kingdom of God. What kind of person would I be, if I kept that all to myself? No, I believe I have a responsibility to share the testimony of this powerful transformation.

Paul goes on to say that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God and His saving activity. Believe it or not, salvation was God's idea all along. So why would anyone be ashamed of this good news? Well, if we continue to read the first chapter of Romans, we also learn that there's another side of the equation which is the wrath of God. It's difficult for some to reconcile the idea that a loving God who saves can also have wrath. But it is the holiness of God that illuminates our own unrighteousness and need for salvation. Paul would also say that God has revealed Himself to humanity. The creation of the world itself is a testimony to God's existence and power. Frankly, it takes much more faith than logic to believe that the world we live in came together due to a random explosion and fusion of molecules. Or that men gradually came out of the sea and eventually stood up on two legs and evolved from monkeys. That would truly require faith since no one has ever actually seen any of these supposed events take place; but I digress....

Men were created to worship. Each one of us comes into the world with a need to reach out to something bigger than ourselves. It is inevitable that we are going to worship something. Even though we may not call it "worship" or use religious semantics, we will devote ourselves to something- knowledge, power, possessions, pleasure. The letter to the Romans tells us that even a refusal to acknowledge the Creator doesn't mean that worship is abandoned. Instead, we will turn and worship the creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25). The results are always disastrous (just read Romans 1:26-32).

That brings me back to my original thought. I'm not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I have an obligation to share God's story of redemption with those in my life from every circle and sphere of influence. There are times when committing time to update this blog seems very burdensome. But I do it because I know there are some who will stumble upon it while surfing some random corner of the world-wide web. And hopefully when they do find it, they'll find Jesus too (and sometimes, believers need to be encouraged- hopefully this blog serves that purpose as well). I earned my degree in business management, but God saw fit to call me into full-time ministry. And now my "work" is to share the gospel each week and serve as a pastor to a local congregation. I'm in the process of working on several books, and the Lord has blessed me with musical abilities. I just completed work on my first CD entitled "Paradigm"- a collection of guitar-driven instrumentals. I love music. But my real hope is that people will not only enjoy the music, but hopefully look to the One who inspired the music within me. And if I can influence one person with the transforming good news of Jesus Christ, then it will all be worth it.

You see, I'm a debtor to all men, just like Paul. I may never stand before great men or travel to all the places that he did. Nevertheless, I must be faithful in the place that God has planted me. And I've got to use all the gifts and insights that he's allowed me to borrow while I'm here on this journey. And I can't just use them for myself and my own agenda. And I can't afford to be complacent and just hope that someone else will pick up the slack. The stakes are too high. Jesus is coming again. If you haven't figured it out already, today's blog was as much for me as it was for you. I need to be reminded why I'm here in this world, and what truly matters. Clearly Paul had his priorities straight. I'm not there yet, but He's still working on me! Until next time....

Friday, February 05, 2010

Making The Best of a Bad Situation

Jer 29:11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. (KJV)

I think it's a good idea to be familiar with the promises contained in the bible. This is probably one that many of us are familiar with. I would be willing to bet that out of all the things that Jeremiah wrote/prophesied about, this one stands alone as the best recognized (and most quoted). I often caution my readers and listeners about how they read and apply passages of the bible. We quickly embrace quotes like Jeremiah 29:11, but we are more hesitant to embrace Jesus' promise that we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33) or Paul's promise that godly people will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). I know what you're thinking..."Henry, are you trying to depress me worse than I already am?". Hang on, we'll get to the good stuff in just a moment.

Now Jeremiah 29:11 says that God is thinking thoughts about us (yes, I believe that we can broaden the application, and that these words are not just written for ancient Israel's encouragement). However, I do believe it's important to consider the context of this particular promise, because it will affect the meaning or the interpretation. In order to explore this further, we need to go to the beginning of the chapter.

Jer 29:4 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; (KJV)

So these words were being delivered unto Israelites who were now captives in Babylon. Now if the scripture went from verse 4 right to verse 11 there would be no need for this blog today. But because it doesn't, I think we owe it to ourselves to dig a little deeper. So let's continue:

Jer 29:5 Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
Jer 29:6 Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.
Jer 29:7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (KJV)

Now, wait just a minute. It sounds to me like the Lord is telling them to put down some roots where they are. I wonder if this is the prophetic word that they were hoping for? I can tell you that if they were like the average Christian in the year 2010, this is not the prophecy they would want to hear. Instead, we might hope to hear something like "hold on just a little longer, and I'm going to deliver you from Babylon and take you back to the promised land". After all, remember they are captives- they're not on a vacation (I resisted the temptation to use the popular buzzword "stay-cation" there). Instead of hearing that their deliverance was at hand, they were told to make themselves at home in Babylon. Furthermore, they are told to pray for the city and seek the peace of it. Now at this point, God cautions the people against receiving false prophecy.

Jer 29:8 For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed.
Jer 29:9 For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD.

Before I get into the content of the message of the false prophets, I want to make a few remarks. First of all, the people of God must always be vigilant about the truth. False teachers and prophets do not only function in times of prosperity, but (dare I say it) also in times of recession. Not everyone who claims to speak on behalf of the Lord is actually one of His messengers. Before I go off on a tangent about the nature of false prophecy, I had better give you the next verse in the passage:

Jer 29:10 For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.

So now, we are ready for Jeremiah 29:11. And we are better able to understand this promise within the context. The people that heard this great promise "I know the thoughts that I think toward you..." would likely never leave Babylon in their lifetime. It would be a full seventy years before the captivity would come to an end (and praise God, it finally did!). So why does the Lord warn against false teachers and "dreamers" in this passage? Well, we can only speculate as to the specifics, but we can generally discern (because of the verbiage in verse 10 "For thus saith the LORD") that God didn't want the people to believe lies about the time frame of Israel's deliverance. The false prophets were likely telling the people to expect deliverance from Babylon "just any day now". And God gave them a reality check which formed the basis for His promise in verse 11. On the one hand, they needed to go ahead and get established in Babylon; building homes, planting crops, having children, etc.etc. But on the other hand, they needed to realize that all of this did not mean God had abandoned them or forgotten them. His plans were still on schedule!

So the real hope in Jeremiah 29:11 for the children of Israel (and for us) is not that they were going to be immediately delivered from their troubles. Obviously, I'm not saying that we shouldn't pray or have faith that God will deliver us from our trials speedily- hopefully that goes without saying! But God was letting them know that their captivity was all part of a bigger plan. God was not going to forget about Israel. At some point (in their case, after 70 years had been accomplished) they were going to leave captivity. But they were not to spend the next few decades living in misery due to faulty expectations delivered by phony prophets. Instead, they were to live productively, rear godly children, pray for their communities, and prepare for the next generation.

Some of you today may be in difficult circumstances. But you can rest assured that God has not abandoned you. He knows exactly where you are. And He's thinking about you. And where you are now is not where you will always be. Only God knows the times and seasons of our trials and deliverance. Sometimes six months can feel like six years when we're going through a storm. But even when things don't make sense, people that love God and are called by Him have this assurance:

Rom 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

Until next time....

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Somewhere Right Here

1Co 7:20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. (KJV)

This is the time of year when many of us are more contemplative, reflective, and willing to take inventory of our lives. It's only natural for us to do so. A new calendar year is the equivalent of a clean slate. Some of us will make resolutions that will actually "stick". Others will start strong out of the gates, only to fade away within a few weeks. Many Christians, even entire congregations, begin the year with a special campaign of prayer and fasting. Renewed interest in spiritual disciplines like prayer, bible reading, and stewardship are also part of the typical vision for the new year. All of these are designed to help us better "hear from God" and clarify our vision for the upcoming year. In no way am I trying to diminish that, or dissuade you from exploring any of those disciplines. In fact, I encourage you to do so! But I do want to issue a caveat to accompany all of these great things. Be on guard against the "somewhere out there" mentality!

Even in the natural, our tendency is to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Is it any wonder that we apply the same logic to spiritual things? I'm going to offer a few suggestions today, but none of them are original. As a matter of fact, Paul already addressed them to a group of Christian converts in the ancient Greek world. But the same truth that set the Corinthians free will also liberate us today. And it will help us realize (if we've lost sight of the fact) that our ministry is not "somewhere out there"'s somewhere right here!

Paul's remarks in I Corinthians chapter 7 are largely in response to inquiries that they made to him in writing (verse 1a). It becomes clear from the context that some of them had the idea that their ministry was "out there" somewhere. Paul reminds them that they need not look far and wide for ministry opportunities; they were right before their very eyes! We'll look at three basic ministries that seldom get the publicity that citywide crusades demand. But their importance cannot be overstated. Where do we start? Where else? The home!!!

1Co 7:12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 1Co 7:13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (ESV)

New life, new wife? Not according to the scriptures. Paul addresses those who had become believers subsequent to their wedding vows. Were they now to live a life of celibacy, or perhaps try to find a suitable Christian mate to replace their pagan spouses? Paul answers with a resounding no! But Paul doesn't simply tell them that they shouldn't abandon these spouses- he reminds them of what's at stake.

1Co 7:16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (ESV)

Paul is not teaching salvation by osmosis. The idea that someone is saved simply by living in a Christian home or by being related to a believer is foreign to this text. Paul is, however, stating that for the Christian, marriage is ministry! Notice how he frames the idea within the context of calling and assignment:

1Co 7:17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (ESV)

Here's the truth about ministry- there's nothing glamorous about it! Unfortunately, we often think of high-profile "ministries" where leaders live opulent lifestyles, speak to large crowds in huge arenas and auditoriums, and are generally well-thought-of and admired (contrast this with the life of Jesus & the Apostles, but I digress....). When we think about ministry, we probably don't think about the day to day grind of rearing children, balancing a checkbook, holding down a stressful job, and striving to maintain healthy communication with our spouses. But God regards it as both a calling, and a solemn assignment! There's a ministry under your own roof. But there's also a ministry within your wider circle of influence.

1Co 7:18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 1Co 7:19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 1Co 7:20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. (ESV)

We often miss the forest for the trees when we read the bible. This text is not so much about circumcision (Paul himself says it's a non-issue in verse 19) as it is about the circles in which we run. What are the odds that the average Greek male came from a strong background of circumcision? I couldn't speak to that with much authority, but I'd be willing to bet that if compared with the average Hebrew male, there would be a different result. What point am I trying to make? I believe that Paul was letting them know that they shouldn't abandon all of their kinsman in order to assimilate into Messianic Judaism (Hebraic culture).

It has been said that within a few years of their conversion, many Christians have no significant relationships with people outside of their church friends/family. Of course there are always those that buck the trend, and sadly some Christians see no need for regular fellowship with other believers (the bible addresses this in Hebrews 10:25). This too, is unfortunate. But here we are specifically dealing with the issue of having friends outside of the community of faith. Jesus was intentional about having relationships with people outside of the "church" (I use the term "church" in a metaphorical sense here). He drew the ire of the religious elite of His day, and certainly we should expect no better treatment. But we cannot allow criticism to deter us from the calling at hand.

God has placed people in our lives for a reason. I used to live in almost an irrational fear that God would send me to some remote village somewhere to preach to another culture who speaks another language. Then one day it dawned on me, that God could use me right where I live- and He longs to do that in your life as well. Clearly the scriptures indicate that Jesus had friends outside of the religious community. Does this mean that because Jesus ate with the drunkards and harlots, that He condoned their lifestyle? No, and as offensive as this may sound, Jesus describes them as sick people who need a Physician (see Matt 9:12-13, Mark 2:16-17). Hebrews 4:15 clearly states that Jesus was tempted in every way just like us, yet never sinning. And now, let's discuss the third and final (for today) realm of ministry:

1Co 7:21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 1Co 7:22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 1Co 7:23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 1Co 7:24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (ESV)

As much as we may hate to admit it, our work is a ministry. An unfortunate trend has continued in American churches for years. I speak from personal experience, but my experience is not uncommon. Many clergy from around the nation share similar stories. Most who come to a decision (often in a church service setting) to "accept the call" to ministry have a very myopic view of ministry. For them, this typically means that they will meet with the pastor, elders, or ordination board, and it will be decided that they should a) quit their "secular" job, b) enroll in seminary/bible college, c) enter the realm of "full-time" vocational ministry. I'm not trying to diminish the role of salaried clergy (I'm one of them!). But I also think it's a gross misconception to believe that this is the only viable and legitimate form of ministry.

Most pastors/clergy spend a few hours (at most) with people each week. Now compare that with the amount of time you spend with your employer, employees, and co-workers. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that we spend considerable time with the people we work with/for. Because that time isn't spent in a "spiritual" setting (most likely, your employer didn't hire you to preach to the other employees all day!) there is a tendency to overlook that time as ministry time. But believe me, you are preaching even if you don't quote a single verse of scripture to them. Paul (writing to this same group of believers) says these words:

2Co 3:2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. (ESV)

The evangelism challenge we often face, is that our actions are preaching a message inconsistent with the words we speak. And what we do typically speaks louder than what we say. Today's blog is not intended to crush ministry dreams. Nor does it nullify the fact that God sometimes does send people far from home to do His work. To some, He gives a mandate to leave their current employment in exchange for full-time vocational ministry. And yes, there are those that God uses in exceptional ways, and they will reach great multitudes and speak before great crowds and spheres of influence that others only dream of (and we need not envy them, because to whom much is given, much is required!).

But I hope we will also look around us with greater appreciation for the opportunities to do ministry right where we live. I look forward to a great year with you in 2010!!! Until next time.....