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....