I Scream for Ice Cream

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

My soon-to-be-80-year-old father-in-law–and, wow, wasn’t that a lot of hyphens?!–enjoys him some ice cream. He’ll eat it, a quart at a time, twice a day. His wife does the same, although at a slower pace. These people have actually considered keeping a separate freezer just for ice cream.

Never mind that this man is diabetic or that this woman is frustrated with her weight and the health problems that attend it. They just keep eating the ice cream. And why not? Isn’t that what Solomon was talking about in today’s passage?

Here is what I have seen to be good: It is appropriate to eat, drink, and experience good in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of his life God has given him, because that is his reward. Furthermore, everyone to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also allowed him to enjoy them, take his reward, and rejoice in his labor. This is a gift of God, for he does not often consider the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the joy of his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Eat, Drink, and Enjoy!

These family members of mine follow the directions that Ecclesiastes seems to lay out so clearly. They eat ice cream. That’s not all they eat, but they definitely put the ice cream away. They drink. They’re not consumers of alcohol, so they pour large amounts of coffee into themselves. They enjoy–or “experience good”–by watching endless reruns of Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show for him or bizarre reality shows, including something titled Dr. Pimple Popper, for her. That’s living large!

Clearly, my in-laws are in the midst of a season of “living biblically,” right? And this entire ending to chapter five provides a much-needed corrective to the parable of the rich fool. The farmer in that parable was called a fool by Jesus for kicking back to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself” (Luke 12:19). Where’s the difference? Have we discovered yet another of the contradictions that prove the ultimate untrustworthy nature of the Bible? Let’s not jump to that conclusion too quickly.

Both my in-laws and my initial reading of the Ecclesiastes passage missed a critical prepositional phrase. Solomon’s audience is encouraged to eat, drink, and enjoy in the labor one does under the sun. We’re not called to simply retire to our recliners and do nothing but entertain ourselves with ice cream and pimple popping. We’re called to labor.

Some would argue that, having put in a good many years of such labor under the sun, they have earned their rest. Rest is certainly a biblical idea. We’re supposed to get a day of rest at the end of every six days of labor. But we are enjoined to rest from our labors permanently only when we also rest from the ice cream–that is, when we’re dead.

Getting in Tune

I say all of this not to criticize my in-laws. They are responsible for their own doings. I’m saying this to criticize myself. You see, I have my own version of ice cream. Right now it’s a Five Guy’s cheeseburger, but in a while it’ll be something else. I have my own coffee, Diet Dr. Pepper, and my own Dr. Pimple Popper, which lately has been Stranger Things. Is there really any difference?

Some people have an inability to stop working. Their motor runs incessantly and they need to be reminded to take a break now and again. But most of us are oriented the other way. We tend to find rest our natural state. We need to be reminded to get ourselves off the couch or away from the computer and back to productive efforts.

Our food, drink, and entertainment should be sweet, but they’re only really sweet when they come after a good season of work. Otherwise, those things are simply a desperate attempt to escape the reality that death is lurking somewhere down the road.

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?

Gold Enough to Hurt

Ecclesiastes 5:13-15

Here’s a man with more money than Davey Crockett, as Forrest Gump put it. His money could, apparently, buy nearly anything, at least if the allegations against him are true.

Jeffrey Epstein, recently arrested for trafficking underage girls, has definitely bought his own private island and a swanky jet aircraft. He stands accused of taking girls as young as fourteen in that airplane to that island and paying them a pittance to do as he would with them.

When he was prosecuted a decade or so back, Epstein was found guilty for largely the same offense and sentenced to less than a person might get for burglary. It seems that Mr. Epstein’s money could not only buy him all the things mentioned above but perverted justice as well.

Surely this wasn’t what Solomon had in mind when he spoke of a sickening tragedy:

There is a sickening tragedy I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm. That wealth was lost in a bad venture, so when he fathered a son, he was empty-handed. As he came from his mother’s womb, so he will go again, naked as he came; he will take nothing for his efforts that he can carry in his hands.

Ecclesiastes 5:13-15

What If Accounting

Yesterday, I quoted from the song “Satisfied Mind.” Clearly, if the allegations are true, Jeffrey Epstein has not been able to purchase such satisfaction. In fact, his behavior evokes that of King David as he peered across the city and saw Bathsheba bathing. “I have all this, but I simply must have that. And I have the means to take it.”

Perverts of all sorts must look at the ultra-rich and think, “I could get away with so much if I were that person.” Epstein seems to prove this theory. Even today, as he has been arrested and charged, there’s no guarantee that his money, his notoriety, and his connections won’t get him out of the matter. His previous “slap on the wrist” outcome would seem to suggest that he will not feel the full weight of the law come down on him.

Look at film director Roman Polanski, a fugitive since 1978 after fleeing the country in the wake of his guilty plea for statutory rape. I’m not sure if it was Polanski’s wealth or his reputation as an artist that has allowed him to not only escape justice but to be rewarded with a Best Picture Oscar while on the lam.

But what if these guys do manage to use their considerable resources to cheat or at least minimize justice? Have they won? Of course they haven’t. I’m guessing that, at the last judgment, as many who have done horrible things and then repented are ushered into Christ’s presence, those who used their wealth to skate unrepentant like this will be herded off with the goats. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

Getting in Tune

I don’t have Jeffrey Epstein’s kind of money and neither do you. Instead, I have a decent sum in the bank. The bills are paid and tomorrow seems relatively secure. Honestly, that’s enough money for me to get myself into trouble, enough for me to keep to my own harm.

As infuriating and sickening as a news story like Epstein’s might be, it’s not our concern. Our concern is to hold whatever we have loosely enough that it does not cause us trouble.

It’s hard for the rich–even just the middle America type of rich–to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can do it even as we leave a legacy, both material and spiritual, to our children.

The Unsatisfied Mind

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

For some reason, I’m hearing Johnny Cash singing:

How many times have you heard someone say
“If I had his money, I could do things my way.”
But little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind

I think you’ll agree that it’s pretty easy to get to this song from the next piece of Ecclesiastes:

The one who loves silver is never satisfied with silver, and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile. When good things increase, the ones who consume them multiply; what, then, is the profit to the owner, except to gaze at them with his eyes? The sleep of the worker is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich permits him no sleep.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

Kid Entrepreneurs

Two of my grandsons are getting ready to go to Kids’ Camp this week. In their shameless capitalism, they have a plan. They’ve gathered up and pooled their money and are set to hit Costco before they leave, buying a box of individual serving chips. We were doing the math a few minutes ago. The box contains 40 bags of chips. Each bag will cost about 30 cents, while they plan to sell them for a dollar. That’s 70 cents profit, or a total of $28 if they sell the whole box. Not bad when you’re 11 years old.

In talking this operation over with the boys, I tried to explain to them why they weren’t simply being shameless opportunists in making a profit through these sales. After all, they got the chips there, invested their money up front, and are taking the risk.

“What if somebody steals your chips?” I asked Uri. He twitched at that idea. Clearly he hadn’t thought of it, but, having gone to this camp twice before, he knew that security was pretty hard to come by. Now he’ll probably lie awake worrying about his “business” walking away from him as some bold 3rd-grader stuffs Doritos in his mouth.

I don’t think that Solomon is trying to tell us that doing whatever was the equivalent of selling chips at Kids’ Camp in 1,000 B.C. is always a foolish thing. Instead, I believe that he’s pointing out the peril attached to it and the short-sightedness of depending on it.

Getting in Tune

If you’re an O4C (Over 40 Christian), then you’ve probably long ago learned the truth to today’s verses. We want that shiny new car, but then we have a shiny new car to worry about. We want to buy our own house and stop wasting money on a rental, but then we take on all the risks, responsibilities, and worries that come with home ownership. We might want a more responsible job or our own business, but then we get to fulfill those responsibilities and fret about the hundred bad things that could happen to our business.

We could add many other sources of worries. Parents, children, and grandchildren provide a steady stream of concerns. Bo the Poodle is going to the vet school to get his virility checked this week. We just learned this morning that some unidentified predator killed one of our baby bunnies. It’s a mean old world, you know.

All of those things of this world–businesses, poodles, and bunnies–are blessings, but they are blessings that come with their own built-in worries. It’s foolish for us to chase after those things without awareness of the downside.

But we can pursue the blessing that has no downside.

The Taxman Cheats

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

There’s a house in Jackson County, Missouri, the house where I grew up. On the county tax rolls, it is recorded as a three-bedroom home and taxed accordingly. I mention this because, if you were to count the bedrooms, you’d come up to five.

Why was a five-bedroom home recorded and taxed, for over fifty years now, as a three-bedroom one? From what I heard, my father had a friend on the assessment board when that house was being built. My dad didn’t ask this fellow to mis-record our house, but he did the favor anyhow.

I’m sure that this guy had some notion that my father, who owned a bank at the time, might do him a favor in return. I’m not sure if the quid ever got met with a quo, but I am confident that this house has been taxed too little for more than half a century. This takes me back to Ecclesiastes:

If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them. The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

Influence Peddling

Supposedly, some government official, accused of “influence peddling,” responded with this lovely quip: “What’s the point of having influence if you don’t peddle it?” And to some degree that makes sense. If you have the ability to make things change, then it only makes sense that you would make things change. It would be like having a perfectly operational car that you never drive anywhere.

Of course, influence can be used for good or ill. When my mother’s recent property assessment–in a house other than that one mentioned above–jumped by 35% this year, I not only filed the required appeal but contacted both of my county legislators. I knew that they were not likely to just go in and wipe away the increase, but I hoped that the complaint might do some good. As the news reporting has shared, there were apparently enough of these complaints that the legislature is looking for a way out of the mess.

But then there is the shadier dealing that goes on, only sometimes revealed to the public, when votes are bought, laws are amended to benefit somebody, prosecutions are quashed, and five-bedroom houses magically turn into three-bedroom ones.

Getting in Tune

What is Solomon saying with today’s passage? He’s not excusing corruption great and small, but then he’s not exactly condemning it either. What I hear him saying is that there is simply going to be corrupt behavior. Whenever people have power, whether they have power as employers, law enforcement, regulators, rulers, or anything else, some of them will use that power to defraud other people and line their own pockets.

We shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen. He’s not telling us to ignore it and think that it’s acceptable, but he is warning us not to be astonished.

We should work for justice and against oppression with a great deal of vigor, but we should not have the unreal notion that such work will ever produce a perfect result. Under the sun, there will be only an imperfect justice.

The Cookie Crumbles

Ecclesiastes 5:6-7

The cookies on the plate looked exceptionally good. Frankly, my bar for good-looking cookies is rarely all that high, but on one Thursday night, as I attended an evening meeting, there were chocolate-chip wonders calling out my name. “Eat us, Mark!”

I reached down and grabbed two. Popping one in my mouth and chewing, I discovered that it tasted every bit as good as its appearance suggested it might. I savored it for a moment before swallowing. Before the second one went to my mouth, a realization hit me.

“You’re fasting, you idiot!” my mind shouted out.

Indeed, I had determined that for one day each week, as my pastor had suggested, I would abstain from all solid food. Thursday was the day, and my day-long fast helped to explain why I had cookies talking to me.

I’d made a vow of sorts to God and then, with one movement of my hand, I broke it. I’m reminded of that as I continue into Ecclesiastes 5:

Do not let your mouth bring guilt on you, and do not say in the presence of the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands? For many dreams bring futility, so do many words. Therefore, fear God.

Ecclesiastes 5:6-7

A Vow Before God

In Numbers 6, we can read about the Nazirite vows that zealous Jews were encouraged to take for particular periods or, in the case of people like Samson or Samuel, for their entire lives. If you’re not familiar with it, the Nazirite vow required three things as markers of a period of increased holiness.

  • You couldn’t cut your hair for the duration.
  • You couldn’t consume any alcohol or even grapes.
  • You couldn’t make yourself unclean by touching dead things.

That seems pretty simple, but the most famous Nazirite of all, Samson, had a terrible time with it.

We all know that Samson fouled up the hair part of his oath when he told Delilah about his obligation. It wasn’t that Samson’s hair was magical, but his obedience to the vow did carry power. That Samson was stupid enough to blab his secret after all Delilah had already done is stunning.

But what about the other two vows? Samson famously killed a thousand Philistines with a “fresh jawbone of a donkey” (Judges 15:15). If your animal physiology isn’t strong, a fresh jawbone would be dead thing. Also, when Samson eats from the honey in the carcass of the lion he’d killed, he’s again breaking the “dead things” vow.

Finally, Samson isn’t said to drink any alcohol, but he did go to a seven-day Philistine feast and partake the entire time. The idea that Philistine partiers would go at it for a solid week without alcohol is a stretch, and Samson showed himself willing to get in the swing of their culture. I’m fairly sure he was drinking.

God created Samson with power and a great calling. As it turned out, he squandered a great deal of that power and only achieved a portion of his calling by bringing on his own death.

Getting in Tune

We don’t make a lot of formal vows these days. But we do make promises to God, even if we don’t phrase them in those terms. Any meaningful repentance carries the implication that we will do our best not to commit the sin again. But of course we fail. We start out well, and then, before long, we stick that cookie in our mouth.

To take our vows seriously, we probably need to make fewer of them and to reflect heavily before they are made. Before glibly promising that I’ll never speak rudely to my wife for the rest of my life, maybe I should consider the causes and effects of that action. Maybe I should see it for what it really is, something hurtful to her and an insult to God.

In short, we need to consider the cookies that tempt us more deeply before we allow our hand to begin moving.

Talking a Good Game

Ecclesiastes 5:3-5

Bo doesn’t say much. He’s standing here in my office right now, and not a single word has passed his mouth. This is probably a good thing, since Bo is a dog. And as dogs go, he’s generally a closed-mouth kind of guy.

When Bo wants to go out, he’ll get antsy until we let him out. When he’s hungry–if we’ve neglected to feed him–he might nose at his bowl. Otherwise, he lets his actions speak for him. I admire that. He doesn’t sit around bragging about how he’s going to catch some squirrel in the yard. Instead, he waits until the opportunity arises and gives that squirrel a mighty run.

If only people could be more like Bo. Instead, our mouths tend to promise a great deal more than our hands can deliver. This isn’t a new thing. Solomon spoke of the same 3,000 years ago.

Just as dreams accompany much labor, so also a fool’s voice comes with many words. When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.

Ecclesiastes 5:3-5

The Empty Promise

I used to know a guy named Ralph. Ralph meant well, but his hopes and dreams ran far ahead of his ability to bring those to anything like a reality. He was a master of the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” school of accomplishment. One year, as the Scout troop readied itself to leave for summer camp, we realized that Ralph had taken some of the medical forms home and lost them in the mountain of papers that topped his desk. Happily, a half-hour’s excavation turned them up. It was then that I decided that the best thing you could hear out of Ralph’s mouth was two words: “I found . . .”

As I said before, Ralph meant well. He’d volunteer for things at church, and from time to time, he’d actually do them Normally, he procrastinated, alienating most of the people with whom he dealt. I learned to appreciate him, but I also learned never to depend on him.

If I were totally unlike Ralph, I could feel a little better about sharing these comments. But in reality, I’m all too often just like him, perhaps not to the same degree but with no more excuse.

Today, I’ve been working on a writing assignment–a paying gig that will land a nice sum in my bank account a few days after I submit it. I’ve had this assignment and known the deadline for about eight months, but I have of course put it off and allowed the date to sneak up on me until now I have to push myself to finish it in the next two days.

Getting in Tune

Today’s text warns us about making vows to God. We can sometimes fool people when we make pie-crust promises–easily made and easily broken. We can offer up pitiful excuses like “I never got that email” or “My computer ate it.” Eventually people figure us out, but we can get away with it for a while.

God, of course, knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we promise something whether or not we’ll get it done. Perhaps if we keep our mouths shut and listen to Him instead, He’ll help us learn to come through better.

The Hat Police

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

Clarence used to go around the auditorium of our church shaking hands with every single person he saw, but we all knew what his real objective was. He was the hat police. If Clarence saw some guy–women were okay–wearing any kind of head covering, he would politely but unyieldingly insist that they remove it.

Why exactly were hats verboten in church? I’m not sure, but that was then and this is now. Today, see all manner of things as I scan the church body. Some people dress to the nines, while others only get to the threes or fours. Hats are nothing these days. What would Clarence say?

I’m reminded of this as I continue reading Ecclesiastes:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Better to approach in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they ignorantly do wrong. Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Just as dreams accompany much labor, so also a fool’s voice comes with many words.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

Solomon admonishes us to guard our steps. That sounds like good advice, but how exactly does one guard one’s steps? In Psalm 119:34 we read, “Help me understand your instruction, and I will obey it and follow it with all my heart.” That makes sense. It’s pretty hard to follow the instructions if you don’t understand them. It’s pretty hard to dress appropriately if you don’t know exactly what constitutes appropriate.

And Then There’s the Talking

Besides people wearing hats, we have all sorts of people running their mouths. I’m not talking about people blurting out corrections in the middle of the sermon. That said, I did actually approach a guy and tell him his talking was distracting a few weeks back.

When I’m talking about people running their mouths, I mean the ones who have five opinions for every one fact that they actually possess. This type tends to say something like, “You know what the church ought to do?” But when the time comes to actually make that or anything else happen, they’re nowhere to be found. When it has all been said and done, there’s been a lot more said than done!

Solomon advises us to let our words be few, but how few? How much talk is too much talk? I’m sure those who I call big mouths don’t see themselves that way, and there are probably people who want me to shut up.

Getting in Tune

Human behavior frequently is organized into a bell curve. For example, some people keep their mouths clamped shut while others never stop talking. These people exist out toward the edges of the bell curve. When we find ourselves well out of the mainstream, more than a standard deviation from the mid-point, we should probably start asking questions.

We could do the same thing when it comes to what we wear or how we react in worship or several other behaviors. If everybody in your church wears swimsuits, then a swimsuit is the thing. If yours is a suit and tie sort of group, then your Pink Floyd t-shirt is probably not the right choice.

Knowing how to guard our steps is not as difficult as it might seem in the age of the Holy Spirit. When we actively seek wisdom and discernment, when we pay attention to others who are doing the same, then we’re likely to keep our feet on the path much more often than not.

As for me, I’m still not wearing a hat, but Clarence isn’t watching any more.