Life is Not a Movie Cliché

Ecclesiastes 7:15

I’ve been on this earth, living this futile life, long enough to have seen some pretty revolting things. A couple of years ago, I watched two good men die long before they should have from the same disease: pancreatic cancer.

Mike was about 60. He’d done all the right things in life. After serving in the Navy, he got married and raised three children. He worked hard and well building and maintaining roads in Kansas. Mike doted on his grandkids, kept his house in good repair, and grew some of the most stunning flowers you’d ever hope to see. He volunteered with the preschool kids at church and spent countless hours cutting out things and otherwise preparing for his and other classes on Sunday mornings.

George was in his 40s. A police detective, he wasn’t a guy who would ever rise to become the chief, but he also wasn’t the sort who would embarrass himself and his profession in some dreadful video. George worked his duty, but he tried to make the world better even as he arrested people. He left behind a loving wife and two teen sons, who, along with their baseball teams, sorely miss his presence.

I think of these two, who died in the same year, when I read today’s verse:

In my futile life I have seen everything: someone righteous perishes in spite of his righteousness, and someone wicked lives long in spite of his evil.

Ecclesiastes 7:15

WWHD?

Although Hollywood has long made films that shock us with their ambivalent or even tragic endings, most of their fare and the TV stories that followed, has run against what the verse above suggests. What would Hollywood do? Think Walker, Texas Ranger. A bad guy does bad things. Ideally the bad guy does really bad things to really good people. Maybe he highjacks a bus load of nuns and little kids. He punches women and tells the kids that Santa isn’t real. This villain is a nasty fellow.

And in the end, Walker overcomes long odds to kick said bad guy in the face, preferably a number of times. There’s catharsis and a sense of cosmic justice. The little kids get ice cream, the nuns get whatever nuns want, and Walker’s crew winds up laughing around a table. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

That’s what Hollywood used to always do and what they mostly do today. Even when a beloved character dies at the close of a film today, it’s usually framed in a positive or understandable light. In 90 percent or more of Hollywood’s offerings, the world has to make sense.

But Ecclesiastes notes the reality that good men die young from cancer while dreadful people make billions of dollars at the expense of all manner of good and decent things. Life is, after all, futile.

Getting in Tune

So how does the follower of Jesus deal with these very un-Hollywood storylines? How do we reconcile ourselves to terrible people prospering while fine people suffer? I’d suggest three thoughts that can help us retain our confidence in a good and loving God even as things stink.

First, let’s never forget that Genesis 3 happened. We live in a fallen and sin-drenched world. From God’s holy perspective, Mike and George were filthy sinners. Anything good that happens to anyone should really be what surprises us and seems unfair, but of course we don’t want to look at ourselves that way.

Second, we mustn’t ignore the fact that we can’t see the entire playbook that God is using. We can’t know the causes, natural and supernatural, behind these events. We can’t know, and we shouldn’t pretend to know.

Third, we need to recall that our ultimate reward will not be meted out in this mortal life. I’m confident that even though people like Hitler and Stalin seemed to escape true justice, they will be dealt with in the proper manner.

None of that makes the loss of Mike or George any easier. But nobody said that this futile life would be easy.

Is the Last First?

I wonder if my siblings think the arrangement is fair? I’m the youngest of four in my family, and we’re spread out over 20 years. That means that my sister has invested 20 more years of life with our parents than I have. She had 20 more years with our father when he died and she’ll have 20 more with our mother at the end of her run. My brothers, then, have 15 and 10 years additional.

Despite this, our mother’s will stipulates that everything be split four ways. Does that seem fair? Shouldn’t I get less, having fewer years of service to claim? Maybe that’s why, when it came time to choose an executor for that will, both of my brothers pointed at me.

This question draws me to another of Jesus’ kingdom parables, this one in Matthew 20:1-16. Here, he tells the story of a vineyard owner (God) hiring people (believers) to work in his vineyard. He promises the early-morning hires a denarius. Then he keeps hiring more people throughout the day, adding some just before quitting time. In the end, he pays all of them a denarius, regardless of how long they worked. The all-day workers are incensed, complaining of the unfair treatment. The vineyard owner’s response fills the last few verses of the passage:

“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this story of the vineyard. If that’s the case, then what do we learn about the kingdom from this account? Does it indicate that absolutely everybody who enters into the kingdom will receive the same reward?

If that’s what Jesus is saying then it seems to run counter to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Although the metaphor is different there–building instead of vineyard-tending–the ideas coexist. The all-day vineyard workers (or quality builders) can look at the work they have done as well as at the pay in their hands as a reward.

So what are our takeaways from this parable?

  • The kingdom involves labor in this life and then payment at the end of the “day.”
  • The kingdom rewards all of its subjects equally, regardless of their term of service.
  • The kingdom, therefore, excludes the pride of being the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
  • The kingdom’s work, intuited from 1 Corinthians 3, can be its own reward for the most dedicated workers.

I’d write more, but in a few minutes I have to go to my mother’s house and drive her to her hair appointment. Most likely I’ll need to fix something she’s done to her computer. Tonight, after the rain, I’ll think about her leaky basement. Maybe I am earning that full share among my siblings after all.

 

 

Those Lousy, Greedy CEO Types, Part II

It’s time for me to talk about my boss again.

The president of my college, Johnson County Community College, earns just more than .1 MRE, a monetary measurement I explained yesterday in part one of this post. If you’re not clued in on how all the cool people are talking, then that’s $325,000. Without oversharing, I will state that this is considerably more than they pay me.

But the question really is not whether Dr. Sopcich should earn more than me. I think it’s pretty reasonable that the person at the top of the org chart has the biggest paycheck. The question is whether he earns too much or too little. If I were to argue that this guy, or my direct supervisor or anyone else, makes too much or too little, then it would seem reasonable that I should be able to come up with the Goldilocks number–the one that’s “just right” for this job.

So how much should the president of the largest community college in Kansas earn? How much should someone be given to keep the place solvent and growing and relevant? How much should he receive for putting up with students and taxpayers and trustees and faculty and a host of other sometimes overlapping constituencies? Can you put a number on it?

If you can’t set a number, then how can you say that $325,000 is the wrong number? If you don’t know how the directors at Disney decided that $65.7 million (2.19 MREs) was the right compensation for Robert Iger, if you haven’t a clue how much profit Disney made last year, if you haven’t pored over the latest annual report, then I think you’re forming an opinion based much more on feeling.

Yesterday, I suggested that I would remedy the non-Tune-My-Heart-ish nature of this discussion, so I had better get after it. You see, I don’t really care very much how athletes and singers and actors and CEOs are paid. I do care about the attitudes that people have toward God.

Just like people claim that Mike Trout or Robert Iger are grossly overpaid despite those who opine having very little knowledge to back that up, people like to make judgments about God. You know the type.

  • If God is real, why would He allow so much evil in the world.
  • God must really disapprove of (insert name of country or region) because of the (insert recent disaster).
  • God will have a few choice words for Robert Iger for taking that ridiculous salary!

That’s the sort of self-satisfied conclusion-forming that Job’s friends brought to the table. God’s response is priceless:

Who is this who obscures my counsel
with ignorant words?
Get ready to answer me like a man;
when I question you, you will inform me.
Where were you when I established the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.–Job 38:2-4

Where were you when God established the earth? Do you really have enough knowledge to draw any meaningful conclusion, to reach anything like certainty? If you can’t even tell me how much a Kansas community-college president should earn, how can you pretend to know what the God who created the universe should do?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Those Lousy, Greedy CEO Types!

This morning I read a piece from the Wall Street Journal comparing the pay of CEOs with various athlete-actor-musician celebrities.Basically, the article, in the form of an infographic, suggested that the top people in each category make a ton of money and that the non-CEOs tend to make more. It prominently displays Howard Stern at $90 million a year with Robert Iger, CEO of Disney at $65.7 million. That’s a lot of money, any way you slice it.

Actually, I have a thought on describing large sums of money. We should say that Stern makes 3 MREs per year, while Iger is just north of 2 MREs a year. An MRE, of course, is not a military field ration but a Mueller Report Expense. The Robert Mueller special counsel investigation reportedly cost American taxpayers $30 million. That’s roughly a dime for every one of us.

Howard Stern’s 3 MRE contract represents 30 cents for every American. Put that way, 3 MREs (or $90 million) doesn’t seem like quite as much.

Do these people get paid too much? To answer that, we need to consider what they add to their companies and to the economy as a whole. If Mike Trout weren’t making $35.5 million or more than an MRE, he’d not only not be drawing people to sit in the seats at Angels Stadium and not helping to sell Angels gear as he clubs home runs for the local team, he’d be helping some other team to win. Is he worth almost 1.2 MREs? That’s a question for Angels’ General Manager Brad Ausmus, who earns considerably less than an MRE each year.

I’m thinking about this question today because of the staggering number of people who hold determined positions on the pay of CEOs, athletes, actors, and so forth. Maybe you’re such a person, the sort of person who has determined opinions on these things but can’t understand that a reduced tax refund doesn’t necessarily indicate higher taxes. Here’s an apparently good but in the end irrelevant such person.

 

And then there are people who will defend one group of high earners at the expense of the others.

So if you have strong opinions on these matters, then let me ask you a few questions:

  1. How much should the best left-handed starting pitcher in baseball earn?
  2. How much is enough for somebody who presence on a movie poster draws in a considerably larger crowd?
  3. How much is enough for someone who can keep a Walmart moving in the direction of Amazon rather than in the direction of Sears?

These people might be overpaid, but can you prove that they are and quantify by how much? If  not, then perhaps you’re not ready to share such strong opinions.

If this entry doesn’t seem very Tune-My-Heart-ish, that’s by design. Wait until what I have tomorrow.

Stay in Bed and Avoid Problems: Ecclesiastes 10:8-9

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;

    whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
    whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.—Ecclesiastes 10:8-9
As I sit here this morning, taking a bit of slow start to the day, I have time to reflect on various things. It is 7:41. I didn’t get up at 6:00 or even at 7:00 today. Since I didn’t have to go to work and Olivia didn’t have to go to work, there was no rush. There’s been rain falling gently for the last 90 minutes or so, so my mind said, “Stay in bed and avoid problems.”
Life’s problems can be best avoided, I think, by doing nothing. Think about it. If I never mow my grass, then I will never risk injuring myself with the lawnmower. If I don’t drive anywhere, then I cannot get into an automobile accident. If I don’t brush my teeth, there’s no chance of me choking on toothpaste. I could go on.
In the verses quoted here, Solomon gives four examples of ways that work can seem to be foolishness. Is this to be read as saying that work is folly? I’m not going to dig a hole, because I might fall into it. Or is he simply pointing out that every worthwhile thing has its attendant dangers?
Life has its risks. If I go through life without risk, then it is really not life. I wrote recently about Dean Potter, a famous climber who died in a BASE jumping accident. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who risk their necks foolishly, but is such risk really worse than risking your life by not living it? Would you rather have your life cut short when you’re doing something or to have your life cut short because you spent it sitting on the couch watching reruns of MASH?
Throughout Ecclesiastes, you run into that word ‘meaningless.’ I try to make sense of that word by substituting “What’s up with that?”
Throughout this chapter and throughout life, we have a series of examples of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. But our job is not really to make sense of life and all of its details. If you cut stones you might get hurt by them. What’s up with that? No, it doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s just the way life is. Life under the sun doesn’t always make  sense, but that’s okay. We can’t hold out for sense. Instead, we just need to accept the risk. Then enjoy our food and drink and work. That’s the fate of man under the sun.