A Sorry State of Wisdom–Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

The electric bill comes in the mail toward the end of a long, hot July. You know that the number on that bill is going to look like the national debt of Costa Rica, and you know that you spent far too much money on fireworks and meat to throw on the grill. As you hold the envelope in your hand, it feels heavier than a couple pieces of paper could possibly be.

I no longer get bills in the mailbox, and I haven’t had a budgetary crisis like that one for many years, but I’ve been to that place, holding that envelope. And what did I do with that beastly thing? I threw it into a pile of other unopened mail. If I didn’t open it, then somehow it wasn’t quite real. If I didn’t open it, then I could pretend that it wasn’t about to be a budget implosion for me.

That scenario is what comes to mind when I read the remainder of Ecclesiastes 1:

I said to myself, “See, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind.
    For with much wisdom is much sorrow;
    as knowledge increases, grief increases. –Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

Wasn’t it Solomon who said so many good things about wisdom? We’re supposed to gather wisdom and make it our constant companion. So what has happened to this guy? How does he go from saying that gaining wisdom should be job one to associating wisdom with sorrow. How is this not a colossal contradiction that once and for all proves that the Bible is just a pile of nonsense that needn’t be taken seriously?

To answer that question, we have to look at Ecclesiastes in a manner quite unlike the piecemeal approach that I’m taking. We have to consider the entire context of the book and then broaden out even more to see the broader context of the book within the canon of scripture.

Would it be painful for the recipient of that inflated electric bill to open the envelope? Of course it would. But is that person better off living in ignorance of the unhappy truth of his debt? Of course not.

Similarly, can it be painful to possess great amounts of wisdom and knowledge? Indeed it can. In fact, just yesterday, my wife and I became aware of some knowledge that brought us pain. And our understanding of God’s wisdom made that knowledge painful when people who didn’t possess that wisdom would have brushed off the information. So wisdom and knowledge bring pain, but are we better off not having those things?

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve opted for knowledge and “wisdom” by listening to the serpent. Their route to knowledge bypassed–in fact ran against–God. Similarly for us, wisdom and knowledge gained in the absence of God are indeed sorrowful “achievements.”

Seeking God’s kingdom first, means placing the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom second or below. Only then can it be a blessing.

Bird-Brained People

This morning, my daughter hurried my day along by calling me as I got dressed. “Our chickens are here! I have a meeting in half an hour. Can you come over and set things up?”

If you haven’t experienced the joy of raising chickens, you might not know that they arrive in the post office a day or two after they’re hatched, peeping and cheeping enough that the postal service puts them at the top of the priority list. Emily expected her birds to arrive tomorrow, but they miraculously showed up today.

I headed to her new house and pulled up in front just as Emily got into her van. Inside, Isa, her middle son, stood prepared to help me get things rolling. He showed me the supplies and the small, cheeping box.

A few minutes later, we had bedding in the bottom of a large storage tub and a heat lamp clamped to the side. We lifted the chicks, one by one, from the box and deposited them in the tub, dipping each one’s beak into the water to teach it to drink.

After we had all 17 of the 15 chicks in the tub–that’s hatchery math by the way–I gave Isa the five-minute tutorial on keeping the chicks alive and well until Mom came home from work. “If they’re all bunched up right here where the light is hottest, then they’re cold. You need to move the light in more. If they’re all over here where the light isn’t reaching, then they’re hot. You need to move the light away.”

Chickens, you see, even at only two days of age, have more sense than humans do. When they’re cold, they try to get warm. When they’re hot, they move away from the heat. In short, the chickens seem to know what’s good for them. They’ll drink water when they’re thirsty. They’ll eat until they’re full and then stop.

People, on the other hand, don’t have that kind of sense. We (I) drink caffeine-loaded beverages to such an extent that the kidneys are working in overdrive and we’re constantly running to the restroom. We don’t stop eating when we’re full. Sometimes we don’t even have the sense to move toward the warm or cool areas. In short, we don’t seem to know what’s good for us. Or more accurately, we know what’s good for us, but we don’t do it. Paul seemed to recognize this in Romans 7:15:

For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.

So far Emily’s birds are doing nicely. I’m less confident that Isa is behaving wisely. Time will tell.

Explosive Matters

Harry T. Moore celebrated Christmas and his wedding anniversary on the same day in 1951. Retiring to bed at 10:30, he and his family had their sleep interrupted by a bomb that shattered the house and ultimately killed Harry and his wife Harriette. What was Harry’s offense? Had he whistled at a white woman? Did he have the temerity to work on his own account rather than toiling in the orange groves? Was he just at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Apparently, Harry’s death came because he had angered the wrong people by insisting on justice for Florida’s African-American citizens. Probably the most aggressive thing the man did was write letters to the governor as the state head of the NAACP.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King, and this morning’s installment involved the events described above. In fact, I haven’t even gotten as far as Harriette’s death but felt compelled to write these things.

As a child of the 1960s, someone who has lived through any number of After-School Specials, documentaries, and dramas about the Civil Rights Movement, I know a lot of these stories. I’ve heard about Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church girls. I’ve seen the events portrayed in newsreel footage and dramatized.

So why is this book making me feel so much more strongly? Why am I more outraged at this account of 70-year-old injustices than I have, I think, ever been before? At least once a year, I teach Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” the first chapter in Invisible Man, and I am struck by the masterful way that Ellison presents the complexities of segregated life and his psychological response to it. I think that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but, despite its power, I’ve never had it bother me as much as King’s book. Why?

Something has changed, and it clearly isn’t the events. Although the “Groveland Boys” case is not one I knew previously, it’s not remarkably different from many others I do know. So what has changed? There are perhaps two reasons for my different response.

First, the writer might have changed. Gilbert King might just be that good of a writer. He did win a Pulitzer Prize after all. Maybe he  has just reached into my mind and touched all the right synapses to stir my heart like these things never have. (Should I be bothered that it took a white man’s account to stir me, a white man?) Frankly, I don’t think that’s the explanation.

Second, the reader has changed. I’d like to think that I have been a caring and empathetic person for all of my adult life. I’d like to think that I never would have taken the ordeals faced by people like Moore lightly. In reality, I’m pretty sure that I can think those things, but I’m not sure that I’ve always felt them as deeply as I should.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to expand his hearers’ vision of who their neighbors were. Like that expert in the Law, I might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps my neighbor is simply the person whose suffering I cannot witness without being moved. Perhaps my neighbor is Harry T. Moore.

Jesus: Introvert, Part 1

The job applicant, K., came in and made such a tepid impression on me that I assumed we were wasting our time listening to her for the next hour. By the time she finished a teaching demonstration and answers to our questions, she’d moved to the top of my list.

K., you see, is an introvert, doing her best work inside her own head, relating to the world in quiet but profound ways. The glad-handing and networking necessary to get a good academic job are things that she simply has to grit her teeth and struggle through. She’s far too smart not to do that, but it does not come easily.

8520610I’m an introvert as well, although you wouldn’t know it from my teaching. When I walk into the classroom, I bring the bells and whistles, but that is a studied act. I, like K., do my best work inside my own head. It was this aspect of my personality that drew me to Susan Cain’s book Quiet when a friend mentioned it. Cain discusses the powers of introverts and the way that they are misperceived in (especially American) culture.

As I read the book, a question bounced around my mind. Was Jesus an introvert? I almost feel heretical suggesting such a question, but that feeling gets to some of the thoughts that Cain explores in Quiet. We have a tendency to assume that Jesus was an extrovert and to think that introversion is somehow problematic, even pathological. So maybe we can sneak up on the question by rephrasing it: Did Jesus have introvert tendencies or behaviors?

To begin to answer that question, let’s all agree that Simon Peter is definitely an extrovert. Peter is the guy who, on the Day of Pentecost, does not seem to hesitate a moment before jumping up and launching into his famous impromptu sermon beginning at Acts 2:14. I can imagine the other eleven standing there and looking at each other, knowing that somebody had to say something. I can also imagine the introverts among the eleven being greatly relieved when Peter opened his mouth.

Peter is the guy who, as a former pastor of mine said, “Only took his foot out of his mouth long enough to put the other one in.” Peter’s motto seemed to be “Speak first; think later.” He’s the one who tries to lop off a guy’s head in Gethsemane. It’s Peter who wants to step out of the boat in Matthew 14:28-30:

 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus.

No introvert would have done that. They might have thought it. They might have even envied Peter his boldness, but they wouldn’t have done it.

So yes, Peter was an extrovert, and I believe that Jesus chose him for those qualities, but that really does not answer the question suggested in the title. Before we do that, we’ll need to look at another disciple who, I’d suggest, shows more introversion. But that’s tomorrow.

Work with Your Hands

I don’t mind confessing that my hands hurt. This morning, I spent several hours trying to make some semblance of order in my mother’s disaster of a backyard. Then, after a trip to Costco, we did a couple of tasks in the garden. First, we weighed the eight rabbits that we bought this week. One of the beasts drew blood as I held it for a close and rather personal inspection. That rabbit, which we affectionately dubbed #4, is female if you’re curious.

Having finished the warmup acts, Penny and I attacked the main event. She wants to set out her tomato plants tomorrow and she wasn’t happy with the support system that we had installed. The new arrangement involved pulling up ten t-posts and re-setting eight of them. Then we arched three cow panels, sixteen-foot-long grids of heavy welded wire and attempted to wire them to the posts. The idea seems fairly simple. It turned out rather complicated, and I’m pretty sure that our procedure was not the most efficient we could have followed.

Now my back aches from pounding in posts and my fingers ache from twisting wire. I also smell a little ripe as the day is warm. And did I mention that I was wounded in action trying to handle a rabbit?

It is at moments like this that I understand why both of my grandfathers, born toward the end of the 19th century, made their way from the farming that had supported their ancestors back into the mists of history and toward anything else. These men, when they were on the farm, would have laughed at my day as a light load.

So why would I, a person who doesn’t have to do heavy lifting outside, choose to encounter these chores. I understand that lots of well educated people piddle in the garden, but most of them don’t wrestle with cow panels. They wrestle with hosta bulbs.

There’s something to be said for being physically tired at the end of the day, to have your work involve less email and more perspiration. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul gives some instructions for daily life to his readers:

But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.–1 Thessalonians 4:10-11

Work with your own hands. I like that, even though I’ve pretty much always earned my living throughout my life by jobs far from manual labor. Was Paul a fool, urging people to take on mundane jobs? Was he encouraging the Thessalonians to settle for less than they could be if they engaged in some extracurricular activities and studied for the SAT?

My colleagues at school think that I’m underselling my talents raising rabbits and putting in a large garden. They also think I’m being foolish investing my writing skills creating children’s Bible study curriculum. But that is the work of these hands.

The Tip of the Spear

I have asparagus! Over a month ago, I mentioned that I had planted 18 asparagus crowns in a row out on the edge of our yard. Yesterday, I saw the first sign of life from those plants. When I say I have asparagus, I more accurately have only one plant definitely growing, but that is asparagus. I’m confident that the others will come along presently. And some of those that sprout later might wind up producing far more spears for me. Who knows?

Who knows indeed. Last night, I scanned that asparagus trench looking for more of the little fern-like fingers poking up amidst the clover and bluegrass that lap over into the dirt. I didn’t find any more, but I’m convinced that within a few days, more shoots will be above the ground. I’m convinced that by summer’s end, I’ll have all 18 plants growing. Maybe it’ll be fewer, but I have a hope for 18.

Gardening is an act of delayed gratification. You place a seed into soil and wait for it to sprout. You then carefully nurture it, believing that it will grow. When it’s nearly time to set that plant out into the wild, open world of the garden, you expose the plants to the sun for a few hours over several days to harden them off, believing that the sun and the wind won’t destroy them. Then you put them into the garden bed prepared for them, train them up, keep pests off, pull weeds, and, perhaps 80 days later, you begin to pluck fruit.

Some vegetables yield more quickly. I’m convinced that you can plant radishes in the morning and harvest in the evening. Others take nearly the entire season, but all of them require time and hope. You bury something in the ground, you place it outside where all manner of things can attack it, you invest your time in caring for it, and all the while you believe that there will be tomatoes or squash or beans or something good produced. Paul could have been speaking of gardening when he wrote this:

So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.–2 Corinthians 4:18

There’s a parable in my single asparagus plant. I felt joy when I saw that frail, ferny stalk emerging from the soil. That joy, however, is just a tiny glimmer of the joy (and good food) that will eventually follow from that row of plants. More profoundly, all the blessings of today are a down payment on the incalculable riches that await us in eternity.

We plant. We wait. We have hope, and the outcome will be amazing. And until that day comes, at least we can grill some asparagus.

Nazis in Canada

Flag burning in Canada? In a small town in Saskatchewan, Caleb Pelletier recently had enough of his neighbor’s Nazi flag, so he tore it down and burned it. The neighbor, being an equal-opportunity fool, also flew a Confederate flag, which apparently didn’t incur enough of Pelletier’s wrath to receive the same treatment.

Given that Canadians suffered nearly 100,000 casualties, including 42,000 deaths in World War II, one can imagine that the wounds might be raw when seeing that flag. But Pelletier’s reaction leaves me asking a question. What level of offense do we require before we have the right to tear something off our neighbor’s house and burn it?

The Confederate flag–which is a bizarre thing to have flying in Canada to my mind–apparently did not rise to that threshold, but perhaps someone else might have felt more strongly about it.

And what precisely factors into this offense? Was Pelletier driven by the local angle, knowing that Canadians died trying to defeat the forces who flew that flag? Was he motivated by the broader humanity of it, knowing that the Nazis led to the deaths of perhaps 10 million people total?

Would he have been justified in ripping down an old-school Soviet flag? A People’s Republic of China flag? What about a Japanese or Italian flag? How high does someone’s outrage need to bubble before boiling over into action?

I live just a few miles east of the Missouri-Kansas border, where a real-live shooting war was underway nearly a decade before the official beginning of the Civil War. Can I justify being triggered by my neighbor’s Kansas state flag because many Missourians in my area were deprived of their Civil rights under Order Number 11? Or might someone near my place of employment (in Kansas) look at my license plate and rip it from my car because of Quantrill’s murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas? Of course that’s silly, right? The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but then World War II ended more than 75 years ago. How long do we get to hold onto our grievances?

Back in Canada, the mental midget who flew Nazi and Confederate flags over his house might reasonably argue, “What harm does a flag do?” And it really doesn’t do any harm, does it? Shouldn’t we be able to see offensive things without attacking them? And if not, then we’re back to deciding how big the offense needs to be.

This is a tough matter to solve. I want to respect the rights of someone I disagree with but I want to live in a non-hostile community. What’s a thoughtful person to do? I find my guidance from Paul:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.–Romans 12:17-18

While I hold some unpopular opinions and am offended by other unpopular opinions, I don’t think I’m justified in inflicting my ideas onto others. It’s like this blog. If my words offend you, then you can turn from them.

Bernie the Millionaire?

Have you heard the latest? Hero to the millennials and democratic-socialist icon Bernie Sanders has made a startling confession. He is a millionaire. People on the right–and that’s where I typically see myself–have been having a field day pointing out the supposed hypocrisy of this thing. The item below is typical of some of the Twitter sentiment.

Let’s do a little bit of math. As a U.S. Senator, Sanders earns, this year, at age 77, $174,000. I assumed that he’s been working since age 25 and that his income has risen by about 3% annually. Then I assumed that Bernie has prudently set back a very conservative 5% of his income since day one. Over those 50-plus years, his savings would have accumulated, earning, let’s say, 6% per year, and, wonder of wonders, crossed the million-dollar threshold just this year.

I earn considerably less than $174,000 a year, and I set back a good bit more than 5% each year. If I earned the sort of money that Sanders is bringing in, even ignoring his book royalties, then I’m sure I’d be socking away considerably more than my suggested 5% amount.

The wonder of things, I would suggest, is not that Bernie Sanders is among the ranks of the millionaires. The wonder would be if he weren’t there. Of course it seems that his books have made him a great deal of money. Will we fault him for that? Should he have intentionally written bad books so that no one would buy them? I suppose he could donate his royalties to some charity, but he would still have the income.

So far, this post has not been terribly spiritual, but I share it because of the problematic things I encounter on social media from solid Christian brothers and sisters. When we get into that political realm, all that stuff about love and forgiveness seems to fly out the window. I see it on both sides of the political spectrum. Sweetness-and-light liberals become ravening savages when they speak of President Trump, while rock-solid conservatives want to disembowel Nancy Pelosi.

Stop it! We will disagree. That’s okay, but we need to continue to disagree together. In Galatians 2:11-12, Paul shares this intriguing tale:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. 

So Paul and Cephas (Peter) disagreed. How did they work out this issue, which they apparently did since they worked together later in life according to tradition? They were apparently able to do it because they stayed in touch. How else could Paul oppose Peter to his face unless they were still speaking?

Sarcasm and blame-fixing is beneath a follower of Jesus. Yes, we will disagree about the matters of this world. That’s completely acceptable, but if that disagreement places a wedge between us, then both parties lose. If we take seriously Jesus’ instruction to “seek first the Kingdom,” let me suggest that it’s not found in snarky social media.


Not-So-Family Feud

A certain person in my family listens to Family Feud at ear-rattling volume for about three hours a day. What is it that bothers me the most about this? It could be the sound pressure that would make Metallica jealous, but it’s really the incredibly tacky–and not terribly clever–questions and answers that make up the show. My theory is that for any given category, someone will answer “Your butt!”

Steve Harvey: “Name something you wouldn’t want to leave on an airplane.”
Player: “Your butt!”
Rest of Family: “Good answer! Good answer!”
Audience: Howls of laughter.

If there’s an obvious sexual reference to make, then you make it. The more crude and middle-school-worthy, the better. And I’m not the only one to notice this. It wasn’t that long ago, 1960 to be precise, that Jack Paar got into a huge kettle of hot water over a truly clever bathroom joke that he delivered as host of The Tonight Show. That jokewhich played on a linguistic misunderstanding as to what the “WC” might be, “water closet” (restroom) or “wayside chapel,” wouldn’t even budge the taste meter among today’s comics.

Over the course of sixty years, we’ve gone from finding the W.C. joke to be unacceptably suggestive to seeing the steady diet of crass stuff on Family Feud as perfectly okay–or even desirable. Steve Harvey is apparently pulling in $12 million a year for that gig!

And before you start suggesting that I’m overreacting, let’s remember that Paar’s Tonight Show, like Jimmy Fallon’s, aired well after primetime and when the kids had presumably gone to bed. Family Feud runs in the daytime or for hours during the evening on whatever cable channel that is blasting loud enough for the neighbors to hear from my family member’s house.

We’ve seen a coarsening of taste and standards over those sixty years. Of course, you could point out that Shakespeare had some–or a lot of–suggestive jokes. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes had a whole play based on fairly lurid stuff. So what’s the difference? I’d point to a couple of differences. First, for all their naughty humor, both Shakespeare and Aristophanes mostly supported healthy sexual mores. Second, those writers were actually somewhat funny.

The stuff that masquerades as humor on that game show or coming from any number of mediocre comics is the verbal equivalent of fake vomit. Fake vomit isn’t really funny, but it can be shocking. To continue to draw laughter, it has to grow ever more shocking. And then we get to a place where a steady torrent of crudeness seems normal.

People don’t lose their sense of decency in one step. They don’t slide from Leave it to Beaver to Bob’s Burgers in a single move. Instead, they allow stuff, little by little, to come into their home and seem normal. And pretty soon, they’re wallowing in a cultural cesspool.

Where exactly should we draw the line? Is Leave it to Beaver edgy? I’m not going to try to establish a line, but I do believe that we need to take seriously the stuff we allow past our eyes and ears.

Steve Harvey: Finish this statement: When you’re mentally lazy, you sit on _______.
Player: Your butt.



The Needle Detector

Confession Time: I fled my house today in order to avoid a visit from the mother of my former son-in-law. Actually, I wasn’t exactly fleeing. I just didn’t want to be there when she arrived. (Wait–that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?)

Not to waste the time after vacating the house, I headed to one of my favorite haunts, the Midwest Genealogy Center, a top-flight genealogy library that just happens to be about two miles from my house. My current research is not so much tracking down the various ancestors who explain my presence on this earth as to learn the history of my new home and the land on which it stands. Today’s quarry was obituaries for the people who, I’m pretty sure, built the barn that now houses us: Fred and Bessie.

Having done some poking around, I knew death dates for both of these people. With that information in hand and given that they were Independence locals, finding the obituary shouldn’t be tough. I went to Fred’s death date, 27 November 1958, in the Independence Examiner and began scrolling forward through the microfilm. I gave up around 4 December with empty hands. Trying the same thing with Bessie’s death date, I had similarly crummy results.

Eventually, following this same process in the Kansas City Star, I located entries for both of these people, but I couldn’t help but think there might have been a fuller account in the hometown paper. On my way out of the library, I asked one of the expert staff. “We don’t have anything like an index for the Examiner do we?”

It turns out that we do. Punching in the appropriate surname, I received a quick 81 hits. That’s not to say that there were 81 articles since Bessie, for example, appeared in Fred’s obituary as well as her own. Still, by clicking on a link, I could see the date, page, and column on which the item appeared.

So here’s my choice. Spend an hour or more scrolling through a bunch a random pages and discovering the price of grapes at Milgrim’s in 1957, or talk to a librarian for two minutes and get easy and efficient access. You’d think that with all the years of research I’ve put in, I’d know better.

In Proverbs 11:14, we realize that my folly isn’t a new issue:

Without guidance, a people will fall,
but with many counselors there is deliverance.

The same idea is picked up a few chapters later in 15:22.

Plans fail when there is no counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.

Our culture encourages self reliance and rugged individualism. My maleness and introversion combine to make me even less inclined to seek out help. But with some outside help, my needle is suddenly located in a considerably smaller haystack.