Sometimes Wish I’d Never Been Born at All

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Ages ago, when I worked summers at Mt. Washington Cemetery, my brother, the supervisor, came in his Jeep and summoned me to join him. “Where are we going?” I asked as I walked away from Eddy and the work we were doing.

“Just get in the Jeep,” he said before heading to a different part of the property. En route I noticed a box in the back of the Jeep. When we arrived, we found a small party assembled near a new-dug grave. That’s when I realized that the box contained Michael, a two-year-old incomprehensibly stabbed to death by his mother because “the devil was going to get him.”

Dennis and I carried the box to that grave. Michael’s mother stood there, handcuffed to a detective. His father and the remainder of the family clustered across the grave, weeping.

Looking back on that as a father and a husband, I cannot imagine the grief that father must have experienced. He must have felt, like the character in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that he’d “sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” That’s perhaps the sort of despair we encounter in today’s text:

A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Careful Reading

That day in the cemetery affected me. In fact, it continues to affect me. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Michael’s grave, reflecting. Surely the boy’s father, probably around 60 now, also thinks about what might have been, perhaps every day. But I hope he has managed to get on with a life despite that grim memory. I hope he’s able to be satisfied by good things.

As we read those verses attentively, we’ll see that Solomon is not telling us that having lots of kids and living a long life are prescriptions for despair. Instead, he inserts an “if.” “If he is not satisfied by good things,” the passage says. In other words, merely having a quiver full of sons and a long life will not solve the problems of life under the sun without that “if.”

The longer we live, the more opportunities we have for bad things to afflict us. The more children one has, the greater chance there is that one of them will go completely off the rails and create a full measure of heartache. That’s why we need to be able to take joy in the good things. Only by focusing on the good things can Michael’s father get past the horrible tragedy of losing wife and son in one awful moment.

Getting in Tune

Freddy Mercury closed his song with “Nothing really matters to me,” which is clearly not even something that he could take seriously. The problem with this world is that many things do matter. If we’re going to live in this world, if we’re going to complicate our lives with family, then we are going to have pain and tragedy. Probably our tragedy will not rise to the level of the murder of a two-year-old, but we will have something that, at the time, seems that great.

Our only hope, under the sun, is that we take joy in the good things. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in John 10:10 when He indicated that He had come to give us life and to give it abundantly. By focusing ourselves on Jesus as the ultimate good thing, we can get through the worst days of our lives.

Children’s Hour

Kids are cute? Who says? Kids cry. They argue and fuss and fume. Kids are often dirty, often impatient, often demanding. Honestly, the only thing worse than kids is the adults they grow into!

A church that I attended early in my adult life, during years that I had small children at home, used to have that “kids are cute” mentality etched onto their brains. Mostly this attitude was maintained by grandparents and other people who didn’t have kids at home. These people didn’t attempt to teach kids in Sunday School, they didn’t sit with kids during service, and they didn’t struggle to coax cooperation out of kids 168 hours during the week. Those people would smile and parrot back a particular teaching of Jesus without giving much thought to the paradoxical nature of it.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child and had him stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.–Matthew 18:1-4

I can remember people from the “Kids are Cute” Church stroking their chins and affecting a look of profound wisdom. “And why are children great in the kingdom of heaven?” they would ask. They’d pause for effect. “Because children are humble.” Then they’d look at you as if they’d just imparted the most amazing truth. Never mind that the idea of humility is right there in the passage.

The people at that long-ago church were nice enough, but they were a little too enamored of their own learning. They knew better than all these foolish teachings of the old fashioned Christianity. They tended toward the “Serene Jones” view of the gospel. And that fact gets me to my takeaway for this teaching on the kingdom of heaven.

  • The kingdom does require humility and a childlike level of dependance. Just as a child would have a very difficult time surviving without adult help, the child of the kingdom cannot hope to survive with God’s provision.
  • The kingdom, on the other hand, does not require a great deal of knowledge.

As a person with many years of education, with a number of letters stringing off behind my name, I’m eager to believe that you really have to know a lot to enter the kingdom. But if a child can do it, then the knowledge must not be the key. Children know very little. They can’t read. They can’t explain the difference between free will and predestination. They certainly cannot intelligently discuss the concept of penal substitution.

Yet there they are in the front row of the kingdom.

When we seek the kingdom, we are not primarily seeking knowledge. Knowledge is good, and Jesus never suggests that His followers remain as unknowledgeable as those children. You can learn a great deal, but when your learning causes you to move out of childlike dependance on God, you’ll be drawn to that former church of mine.

Doctors, Dribblers, and Dreamers

Muddy kidThis morning, I went to my grandkids’ school to take part in a sort of career fair, meeting with 5th through 7th graders in small groups. One of the things that we did as we met each group was to ask them what they wanted to be professionally. If their answers are to be any guide, the world will soon have an overabundance of doctors and professional athletes.

Reality will almost certainly set in over the coming years for these kids. Let’s look at what the NCAA predicts for high school soccer players. According to their figures, 417,000 high school boys are playing soccer. Of those 5.7% will play in college. That’s 23,769 college players. And of those, the NCAA predicts that 1.4%  or 332 will be drafted by the MLS. If those numbers are correct, then the average high school soccer player has a .08% chance of being drafted by MLS. That’s not quite 1 in 10,000 or 1 out of every 500 high school teams. The odds are even worse when it comes to basketball.

So what did we say when these 5th through 7th graders–all of them boys, by the way–indicated a desire to play professional sports? Did we say, “You’re an idiot! You’re not going to be good enough to do that. Even if your body does hold up through college, it’s probably not strong enough to do what you want to do”? Of course not. We asked them, politely, if they had a back-up plan in case that didn’t work out.

But then there’s the whole doctor thing. Just as some kids will simply not have the physical ability to play professional sports–forget about the mental habits–some kids won’t have the mental powers to make medical school happen. These kids will need good grades in reasonably demanding classes, plus they’ll need to do a decent job on the MCAT. I don’t have exact numbers like those provided by the NCAA for athletes, but I do know that in 2013, only about 40% of the 48,000 students who applied to medical school got in. We have to remember that not too many students who are clearly not med school material will be applying. Of those who do get in, perhaps 85% will graduate, but some of these middle-school would-be-doctors will simply not have what it takes.

Whether we are talking about our body or of our mind, the reality for most of us is that we typically ask too little of it rather than too much. What if those two 5th graders who proclaimed their intention to play professional soccer don’t make it? What if they only play on a high school team and have fun? Would that be terrible? What if they get some college scholarship money and get to play a game they enjoy at the same time? Wouldn’t that be awful?

Or what if the med school wannabes wash out and “only” become nurses or physical therapists? Terrible, right? What if their push to become doctors simply helps them to get better grades? I can think of many worse outcomes.

The problem that most of these kids will face, if they are typical, is that they’ll probably never know whether they were strong enough or smart enough to make those dreams a reality. They’ll probably quit on themselves at some point along the way, deciding that playing soccer or practicing medicine just isn’t worth the effort each day.

They might make that decision, but I’m not ever going to be the one to help them quit on themselves.

The Cheapest Home Gym

I love the idea of effectively multitasking. A lot of supposed multitasking just involves task shifting. But there are things we can do while performing some mindless task. I’ve been contemplating a “Standing Desk Workout” for some time. Now along comes Kyle James with “10 Ways to Get a Good Workout…Even with Kids.”

My favorite of these ten ways is dropping to do push-ups while giving the kids a bath. Seriously!

While the kids are in the bath, grab 10 quick push-ups on the bathroom floor. When I first started doing this, I had a hard time doing more than five so I modified the exercise by doing push-ups from my knees. After a couple weeks, I was able to throw in some standard push-ups as well. Once you are able to do more of them, switch to “sets” of push-ups. Three sets of 10, several times a week, will quickly strengthen your abs, backs, triceps, and core all while your child splashes in the tub.

If you don’t mind the general oddness of that, I’m pretty sure that you can manage to do a set of push-ups while simultaneously making sure the kids don’t drown. That’s multitasking and a good stewardship of your time.

Watch TV, Kids, and Get Fat!

Shocking Scientific Finding: Kids who watch a lot of TV get fatter!

I’m being flippant. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you’d like to change the channel on me. But the remote is across the room, so you’ll have to hear me out.

A new study suggests that kids who watch as much as one hour of TV a day have a significantly increased incidence of overweight and obesity.

“Children watching one to two hours were heavier than those watching less than one hour, and were almost as heavy as those watching greater than two hours daily,” the study’s author, Dr. Mark DeBoer of the University of Virginia, told Newsweek.

Why would this be, especially when playing video games and using the computer did not lead to similar increases. The researchers did not get to that result, but other studies have suggested that the steady barrage of (junk) food ads during children’s programming could account for some of the problem.

My experience suggests that the passivity of TV is a bigger key. It’s pretty tough to play XBox when you have your hand stuffed into a bag of Doritos, and typing while eating Cheetos leaves that orange crud all over the keyboard.

Brother or Parent? (Hebrews 2:13)

And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” (Hebrews 2:13)

As I write this, I am entering the end-of-semester grading version of the Bataan Death March. Papers have accumulated on my desk and in my email inbox. I run a very real risk of having a pile of term papers topple over and pin me to the floor. A week from now, though, this ordeal will be nearly ended. I will have tamed the paper beast to a reasonable nuisance. By the end of next week, I’ll be dealing with a few whining, stumbling stragglers.

When it all ends, I will have brought 50 people through Composition I, 25 through Composition II, 1 through World Literature, 25 through Drama, 25 through Bible as Literature, and 10 through American Literature. Yes, it’s been a full semester. In a sense, these students are my intellectual or at least academic children. Some of them, like some normal children, don’t much appreciate my efforts at scholastic parentage. Others, happily, do.

Yesterday, I saw a former student–I’m pretty sure he was a former student–at Burger King. I couldn’t put a name to him and he showed no sign of recognizing me. That’s pretty poor parenthood, wouldn’t you say.

Jesus, it seems, is not simply our brother, the firstborn of God’s family, but is a parent as well. Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor, but no metaphor can contain the fullness of God’s being. As such a parent, he brings uncounted sons and daughters to holiness and glory. He will not forget us, nor will he think the labor too much. In fact, the labor–the “paper grading”–has been finished for centuries.