The Winning Team

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

In 2008, I watched as my beloved KU Jayhawks basketball team won their fifth national championship. Mario Chalmers sank a clutch three-point shot at the end of regulation against the heavily favored Memphis Tigers. Then in overtime, the Jayhawks put their foot on the accelerator and won the game 75-68.

Not surprisingly, I was elated when I watched Chalmers’ shot pass through the net, delighted that it didn’t rattle around and out like Kirk Heinrich’s similar opportunity five years earlier. But then, as the Tigers fell apart and the outcome became clear during the overtime, I had strange thoughts pass my mind. A couple of these valuable players were seniors and others, the heart of the team, would almost certainly jump to the NBA.

Before the victory was in the bag, I found myself getting down about the next season. That’s where my mind goes as I consider the proverbs in today’s slice of Ecclesiastes:

Grief is better than laughter,
for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.
The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

Eeyore Has It Right

Perhaps nothing illustrates the truth of these verses better than sports. Just a few years ago, in 2015, all of Kansas City went berserk when the Royals won the World Series. Today, a scant four years later, that victory seems like a fantasy story as the current crew is steaming toward another 100-loss season.

How many times have we seen crowd shots at sporting events with screaming teen boys holding up an index finger: “We’re number one. Woo!” Never mind that their currently winning team is a perennial loser, mired in a lackluster conference, and almost guaranteed to lose the next contest. These fools are having a great time ignoring reality and hanging out in the house of pleasure.

Of course this transcends sports. Every birth is a necessary prelude to a death. Every rise to dominance comes before a decline and defeat. The zenith of every career suggests the inevitable end of the same. Even someone who triumphantly assumes the office of U.S. President has to know that in eight years the keys to the White House will be handed to someone else.

Aside from the pyramids, pretty much nothing that is built lasts. For us to exult in the well-built career, the well-weeded garden, or the well-coiffed hair as if any of them might last forever is foolish.

Getting in Tune

If all of what I’ve said here is correct, if every good thing under the sun is truly going to decline and decay, then what is the sensible follower of Jesus to do? Let me be clear that while I suggested above that Eeyore has it right, I do not advocate his attitude.

When I pin my hopes to my favorite sports teams, I’m doomed to disappointment far too often. When I depend on a house or a job or another person or anything else under the sun, I am guaranteeing that my happiness, if it comes at all, will be temporary.

That doesn’t mean that I need to go around moping and failing to enjoy the moment. If the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl next year, I’ll celebrate like a madman, but I’ll keep in mind that it is only for the one year and means very little. I’ll know that in the midst of all that “yes” is the seed and root of a great deal of “no.”

We need to set our sights on the team whose winning streak will never end, whose players will never decline or depart, whose player-coach is always the MVP. Anything else is just a moment.

Cause of Death

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Phil is dying. That’s the short form of the story. We’d heard that this man, whom we’ve known for about 10 years, had experienced some serious health problems, but as of yesterday we know a great deal more detail, and that detail adds up to a grim reality: short of a miracle, Phil will be gone within a year or two.

The diagnosis involves complicated and unfamiliar words, the sort of words that an oncologist would know, but it boils down to brain cancer: inoperable brain cancer. As I said before, Phil is dying. But then so am I, and so was Solomon when he wrote these words:

This too is a sickening tragedy: exactly as he comes, so he will go. What does the one gain who struggles for the wind? What is more, he eats in darkness all his days, with much frustration, sickness, and anger.

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Medical Certainty

Doctors of all sorts have undoubtedly poked and probed at Phil. They’ve stared thoughtfully at CT scan results and stroked their chins while considering lab results. They’ve listened to his chest and squinted into a microscope at biopsy matter. They all agree. He’s going to die.

But then again, so am I. The question is when we’re going to die. Certainly someone without inoperable brain cancer can be expected to live longer than somebody without that issue, but death is down the road. At 56 years old, I can be pretty certain that this vacation of life is more than half over. And even if I did live to be 112, having looked at some of the truly old people in my life, I’m not sure that would be a good thing.

We are going to die, and there’s not a single thing we can do to keep that from happening, despite the pronouncements of various medical visionaries. My consciousness will not be transferred into another body or grafted onto some sort of cyborg.

All I can do is make the best of the time I have here, yet if that involves doing things for others, my kids for example, then I’m just passing the buck down the line. Nothing that I work for in this life can survive me or, at best, a couple of generations. So what’s the point?

Getting in Tune

Phil shared the point on Facebook yesterday. Humans were not created to die, but we all share the same cause of death: our sin. We can trace it back to Genesis 3, but I can just as easily trace it to a hateful thought I had this morning.

Toward the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter that he would be led somewhere he did not want to go. Indeed, Peter’s life would be shortened by his martyrdom. But by giving away his life in order to make disciples who would make disciples, Peter gained something that would outlive him. By giving away his life to share Christ with his family and then with anyone who would listen, Phil is leaving a legacy that is not just “struggling with the wind.”

So now the question for you and me, as we stare down the road to the inevitable death that is awaiting us, is not our ability to avoid that cause of death but our ability to transcend it. Only by giving our lives can we gain something of lasting value.

Do we need to wait until death is knocking at the door to take that seriously?

Better off Dead–Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

According to that great philosopher, Bert the chimney sweep (from Mary Poppins), “Life’s a rum go, guvner, and that’s the truth.” Good old Bert works hard at half a dozen jobs attempting to cobble together a living. He’s disrespected by the respectable and watches as the rain, no respecter of men, washes away his chalk sidewalk pictures. What does he have to show for it as he grinds at that grindstone? A few pieces of copper coinage, a smudge of soot on his face, and the suspicious looks of those around him.

Granted, had I wanted to present a poster child for the oppressed of this world, I might have done better than Bert. I could have gone to the people who have their livelihood stolen from them in Sudan or Thailand. I could have pointed to the victims of human trafficking or the ones caught in the crossfire of the drug trade. I could have used any of several people I know personally, people who have, through little or no fault of their own, found themselves caught in a situation with no apparent exit.

These people might join with Solomon in believing that they’d be better off dead or even better yet to have never been born.

Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

In 2017, over 47,000 people in the U.S. took feelings like these to their logical end, killing themselves. That’s a large body of people, but in a population of well over 300 million, it’s not quite as awful as we might expect, coming in at about .015% of the population. If we factor in the apparent suicide attempts, then we see that percentage rise to about .15% or about one and a half out of every thousand people.

I don’t throw those statistics out to minimize suicide, but to suggest that if Solomon is right and people really feel this way, the numbers would be higher. Even when we recognize that miserable people still often fear death, we see that the vast bulk of suffering individuals find some reason to hang on to this mortal life.

Getting in Tune

Frankly, I find human life, stripped of the hope we have through Christ, utterly dismal. If I had to watch the suffering and oppression of this world without believing that the Creator God would eventually put things right, I’d probably struggle to go on.

The true futility in life, though, is to live a life as either an oppressor or as one who watches the oppression and sees nothing wrong. That is a life wasted. My efforts will not put an end to whatever ills I see today, but I can point the way to the only genuine hope this world possesses. Yes, I will be better off when I’m dead, but I needn’t be in a hurry to reach that destination.

Dust to Dust–Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

My mother died a couple of days ago. Actually, she didn’t except for in my overwrought imagination. I called her house around supper time, when I knew she’d be home. After a series of rings, just about the time I expected voicemail to pick up, I heard the sound of a connection. Then a couple of bumps and clicks, as if someone were dropping the phone. And then nothing.

I called out and then listened, to see if I could hear a voice, but no voice ever came. Only a few more bumps and rattles came over the line. After a brief pause, I jumped in my car to check things out, imagining that I would find her incapacitated, an arm outstretched where it had just managed to knock the phone off the hook. I’d love to claim that I was thinking very philosophical thoughts, like today’s text from Koheleth:

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. 20 All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust.

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

The reality of human life is that it terminates in human death. We all know that, but we typically don’t like to talk about it. Instead, we use euphemisms and avoidance. T.S. Eliot picked up the truth in The Waste Land:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

We’re all dying with a little patience. No one wants to talk about it, but my three-month-old granddaughter is dying with a little patience. And there lies the ultimate futility of Ecclesiastes. Everything that makes up our lives is pointless, because we’re all dying. Everything we do for other people is pointless, because they’re all dying.

Our death, and the death of every person to appear before or after us on this earth, has been guaranteed since Genesis 3, when Eve and then Adam proved unable to walk by the one off-limits tree in the Garden. God had warned them:

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.

Genesis 2:17

We tend to read that verse as meaning that Adam and Eve should have died the day they ate the fruit, but what it actually means is that the day they ate of it, they were guaranteed that they would eventually die. Before the fruit, no death. After the fruit, certain death–with a little patience.

Getting in Tune

As it turned out, my mother was fine. Apparently it was my phone that was out of sorts. But eventually the end will come for her, just as it will come for me. Everything is futile.

There’s a reason, I think, that older people tend to turn their minds toward eternity and God. The nearer we get to the end of the road, the more we’re inclined to recognize the futility of the things that we pass along the road, the things that we try to make so important.

If we’re going to eventually recognize the futility of living for this life, wouldn’t it be sensible to beat the crowd and start focusing on eternity right away?

Turn, Turn, Turn–Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Out in our yard, you’ll find an enclosure, four foot by two foot, housing a small family of rabbits, momma and her six kittens. Just to let you know how true it is that rabbits breed like rabbits, the mother was born sometime in December of last year making her almost precisely six months old. Her first litter is about a month old now. Momma has been kept isolated from our lone buck because she was ready to get pregnant some 72 hours after giving birth. Once she weans this bunch, we’ll get them together again.

The kittens–you’d probably just call them bunnies–are adorable. Having been handled a good bit over the past few weeks, they’re growing quite accustomed to our approach. I enjoy them. Penny enjoys them. Bo the poodle is fascinated by them, but I’m not completely sure of his intentions. Everybody seems to love these little rabbits.

And in a couple of months, we will “process” them. That’s a euphemism for killing them, skinning them, and then preparing the meat for eating. We aim to give these rabbits a good life, but when the time comes, when they’ve reached their optimal size, we’ll thank them and end their lives without a second thought.

Some of you are thinking me a monster now. How can I murder those cute little bunnies? Shouldn’t we just focus our existence around the warm and fuzzy things of life, pushing away the grim ugliness, the conflict and destruction, at every opportunity? The answer to that is an emphatic “no.” Look at Solomon’s poem:

There is an occasion for everything,
and a time for every activity under heaven:
a time to give birth and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to tear down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance;
a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing;
a time to search and a time to count as lost;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to be silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

At least since sin entered human experience in the Garden, death and destruction have been necessary adjuncts to all the life and progress that humans can enjoy. Until sin is eliminated from our experience, an achievement that humans will never accomplish on our own, it will be our task to ensure that the destructive does not overwhelm the constructive. If we think we can eliminate the “bad” things, then we’ll be overrun by bunnies or by something else that will make this world just as unlivable as living under the boot of unfettered oppression.

So, with the Byrds, we just need to turn to the various activities at appropriate times.

Fame Like a Mist–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

For, just like the fool, there is no lasting remembrance of the wise, since in the days to come both will be forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies just like the fool? Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind.–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

The grounds of Mt. Washington Cemetery are littered with stones. Maybe I shouldn’t say “littered,” since that suggests that the stones are placed randomly and without good purpose. Instead, you’ll see stones in (mostly) neat rows, all placed to mark the burial spot of somebody. Having spent three summers in my youth working on those grounds and then visiting it numerous times because of my family buried there, I’m quite familiar with those stones.

When you walk the area near my family’s plot, you’ll see several impressive structures. One, marked “Byrd,” looks like a miniature version of Athens’ Parthenon. Another, over the hill, seems like a good-sized Medieval church perched on a hillside. No one, seeing these two mausoleums (mausolea?) would doubt that the people interred there came from families with a huge amount of money. The Byrds were involved in a thriving retail business a hundred years back. The one over the hill belongs to William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star.

What we can’t tell by looking at these grave markers is the relative wisdom and foolishness of the people commemorated there. When we throw out the extraordinary burial sites, we’ll find thousands of slabs of granite and marble that all look remarkably similar. They’ll have names and dates etched onto them. Some are larger and some are smaller, but in the end they’re all pretty similar.

Walk along those grounds thoughtfully. A couple of notions might strike your mind. First, the vast majority of these people are as utterly anonymous as the vast majority of people you encounter at the grocery store. Second, you can tell even less about these people here than you can typically tell about the ones at the grocery.

Have you ever thought that you could distinguish the wise and the fool as you browse the canned-goods aisle? I have. I’m sure I can’t do it with 100% accuracy, but I have fair confidence in many of these determinations. On the other hand, the people under the headstones are pretty much leveled.

Nobody etches “Fool” or “Terrible Mother” or “Spendthrift” or “Lazy” or “Easily Deceived” on the headstone of their family. The markers of veterans rarely differentiate between the hero and the coward. Instead, in death, everyone is a “Beloved mother and grandmother” or a “PFC, US ARMY, WORLD WAR II.”

So here’s the bottom line. Unless your wisdom or foolishness exists far out on the edges of the bell curve, it’s not likely to be remembered after your funeral flowers wilt. The things that seem so important to us today, will seem exceptionally small down the road. So again, even wisdom, which the Bible repeatedly urges us to pursue, will become a futile thing in the end–at least “under the sun.”


Vanity, Futility, Meaninglessness–Ecclesiastes 1:2

I wasn’t raised in a barn, but I live in one now. As I write this, I’m in the basement of a 110-year-old dairy barn, in the area where Fred Redburn used to milk his cows. Fred owned 80 acres of what is now suburban Independence, Missouri. His cows ranged from the present 35th to 39th Streets. That takes us back more than 100 years. If we go back 200 years, this land was most likely wooded. Missouri statehood lay two years in the future and no one had laid claim to this tract.

Today, although the barn is still standing strong, the rest of that 80 acres is dotted with several dozen houses, mostly built in the 1970s. The cows are long dead, and whatever milk they produced has been used up. All of the work that good craftsmen and laborers put in on this property has mostly faded into faint memory. That takes us back to Ecclesiastes.

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.
“Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”

That’s how the Christian Standard Bible renders Ecclesiastes 1:2. Others have gone different directions: “Meaningless!” (NIV), “Vanity of vanities” (KJV), “Nothing makes sense!” (CEV), “Pointless” (ISV), among others. That famous King James “Vanity of vanities follows the Hebrew, which employs a common biblical pattern of forming a superlative (the most extreme comparison) by saying “Song of songs” or “King of kings.” In other words, this “vanity” is the most “vanity-like” of all vanities.

But what on earth is vanity in this sense? Does it relate to somebody who is thinking way too highly of themselves? Is it that person who has to constantly coif their hair? Is it a piece of furniture with a mirror attached? None of our common usages of “vanity” capture the 1611 use of the word.

The Hebrew word, hebel, means, literally, vapor or breath. The metaphorical use of it is fairly easy to see. Like a vapor of condensation from my breath on a cold morning, anything that is a hebel will quickly fade away.

As I get older, I recognize that my works, for the most part, do not last very long. When I mow the grass, it immediately begins growing again. When I change my car’s oil, it will need changing again in a few months. And that car will, despite my best efforts at maintenance, eventually cease being useful. My most clever teaching ideas from the beginning of my career are useless today. My blog posts are read by a handful of people and then quickly forgotten. My improvements from diet and exercise, if not maintained, will quickly fade and even if they are maintained will gradually, as I age, disappear as my end is in the grave.

So we can see the futility of human life. Maybe I pass on good things to my children. That’s worthwhile, but they’re going to die eventually also. Everything and everyone is destined for death and decay. Futility, vanity, meaninglessness!

Ecclesiastes has introduced a demoralizing thesis statement. We have to ask ourselves why this book is in the Bible. But that’s a question for another day. For today, we should just reflect on the many futile things that make up our lives.

Having Strong Enemies is a Blessing.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle, born Ermias Davidson Asghedom, was shot to death outside a clothing store that he owned in Los Angeles. As I’m a fifty-something white midwesterner, it’s not all that shocking that I had never heard of this man until his violent death splashed him onto the news. Listening to a bit of his music this morning, I determined that it was, like most hip hop, not really my thing. That’s okay. His fans probably wouldn’t see in Doc Watson what I do. Different strokes and all that.

From all I can gather, this man was beloved within his community and in the wider world. People from the area, included in a CNN report on the crime, spoke of him as more than just a celebrity.

What caught my attention about Nipsey Hussle today was that last tweet that he sent out.

There’s something to be said for that, although I’m not sure what was meant by the statement. It’s kind of a cliché amongst Christians that if Satan isn’t bothering you, then maybe you’re not really bothering him either. Therefore, if he’s a dedicated enemy, then you must be doing something to rile him up. In that case, “Having strong enemies is a blessing.” I’m pretty doubtful that this was what Nipsey Hussle had in mind.

But here’s the reality of the matter. This man, whatever his positive and negative qualities, had a very strong enemy, the enemy that all flesh shares together: death. Ever since Genesis 3, death has been the ultimate enemy, the strongest enemy of all humans. Death is one of the four horsemen. It comes for absolutely every person.

Death comes for some more quickly, more savagely than for others. In Nipsey Hussle’s area, the level of violence is far higher than in the decidedly suburban area where I live. We’d be callous beyond excuse to act like issues such as crime, poverty, racism, and disease don’t treat some people differently than others. But regardless of who you are, death comes for you.

That’s what makes the work, accomplished already but yet to be fully consummated, of Jesus Christ so powerful. Unlike anyone, prophet, priest, or king, rapper, actor, or cop, Jesus has set the wheels in motion that will, eventually, put an end to death. Paul sums it up in a simple but profound claim:

The last enemy to be abolished is death.–1 Corinthians 15:26

In the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, he goes into more detail on the matter.

When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?–1 Corinthians 15:54-55

To have strong enemies might arguably be a blessing, but it is even more of a blessing when we have a strong Friend who is capable and willing of putting our greatest, our most inescapable enemy to rout.

May the Circle Be Unbroken

Last night I ran into a friend whose mother, at the spry age of 103, had recently passed away. I offered him my condolences, knowing that this sympathy was different from that for someone who died unexpectedly or at a young age. He proceeded to share about ten minutes worth of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and the accompanying details. I was surprised at how deeply these events seemed to have struck him, but then, on reflection, why should I be surprised? At 73 or 83 or 103, she was his mother. Nobody wants their mother to die.

burial cemetery countryside cross
Photo by Mikes Photos on

This man is completely at peace with his mother’s current situation and with the assurance that he will be reunited with her at some point in the future, yet still he gets misty thinking about her last days and her absence. And so the question I’m left with is whether that response is appropriate. Is it right for Christians to mourn the loss of other Christians, especially when they have clearly lived a long life and the body is no longer cooperating.

In Matthew 5:4, Jesus helps us toward an answer:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Would Jesus have offered a beatitude for a behavior that is sinful or even just inappropriate? It doesn’t seem likely.

Toward the end of Revelation, we read this:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”–Revelation 21:4

The verb tense is important. He will end the mourning, the crying, and the pain. He will do it, but He hasn’t done it yet. Until He does that, I think it is fair to assume that there will continue to be pain, crying, and, yes, mourning. The Holy Spirit, Ephesians 1:14 assures us, is the deposit or guarantee of our inheritance, but it is not the entire treasure promised us.

But what about 1 Thessalonians 4:13, you ask? (We’ll just pretend that you immediately thought of that verse and its reference, okay?) That verse seems to forbid mourning.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Yes, Paul could be read as saying “don’t be like those others and mourn,” but I’m inclined to read it as “don’t grieve in the same manner as those others who have no hope.” It’s not the grief but the sort of grief Paul criticizes. After all, Jesus did not condemn mourning, so why should Paul?

Motivation 5Our mourning, our grief is different from that of non-believers because our grief coexists with hope. Yes, we miss the departed person. Our lives are changed as a result of their departure. We mourn their absence, and we grieve that our lives are slightly diminished by their deaths.

As much as I try to be a spiritual man, as much as I try to remember at all times that this world is not my home, I still exist in the flesh. I will be reunited with my Christian loved ones into eternity, and eternity, I’m told, is a really long time. However, as much I remember that the farther pleasure greatly outweighs the nearer pain, I still have to live in this body of death and that body cannot help but mourn.

Got Life?

Milk Bottle MotivationA bottle of milk has an expiration date. That doesn’t mean that the milk will magically turn into cottage cheese at midnight the day after the “Use By” date. Maybe it will go bad sooner; maybe later? But eventually it will go bad.

Life, like that bottle of milk, will expire as well. We are all destined to die. But just as you don’t leave your milk sitting out in on a hot counter, you should take pains to keep your life from expiring any sooner than it needs to.

Got life? Yes. Then take care of it.