Wink TV

There’s a Chance–Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

You’re probably not going to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In fact, it is almost certain that you won’t win. Think about it. These people have been using all manner of advertisements to sell magazines and, more recently, gather information for big data for years. Do you know anyone who has won even a dollar? Do you know anyone who knows anyone? Right. You’re probably not going to win.

But there is, like Jim Carrey had at the end of Dumb and Dumber, still a chance.

You could win. And he could wind up with Lauren Holly by his side. You’d hate to miss out on winning if you were destined to do so, right? But you’re not going to win.

That seems to be the message that Solomon brings today. He suggests that since we can’t know that we have a better after-death fate than the animals, we should just live for today.

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. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust. Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

Solomon’s advice in this passage sounds almost identical to what Epicurus taught several hundred years later. Since we can’t tell whether there’s any reward for right living after we die, then we should just focus on today.

Don’t pursue what you can’t see

Is Solomon on the level with these claims? Or is he making provocative statements that we’re supposed to knock down? Let’s do a little thought experiment. My daughter bought some chickens, as I shared recently. These birds are perhaps half grown now. To date, they have not laid any eggs. Soon, Emily will start checking the nest box for eggs, hoping to see some little protein orbs lying there. But why should she check? Since no one can enable her to see what will be in the nest box, why should she look? Isn’t that the sort of logic that Solomon employs?

Let’s consider some of the people who rejected this sort of thinking:

  • Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.–Genesis 15:6
  • By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.–Hebrews 11:7
  • Jesus said [to Thomas], “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” –John 20:29

Getting in Tune

The paradox of Christian life is that we should live joyfully in the present with full confidence that the future, which we cannot see, will be better. Maybe, on second thought, that isn’t really a paradox. Maybe we are to live joyfully today because of our hope, our confidence, in eternity. It’s not a “chance.” It’s a certainty. Without that hope, I’d have a hard time enjoying my activities and accepting them as my reward. With that hope, I can face today and tomorrow.

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.

Surviving the Night of the Living Dead

This is the one that started it all. A low-budget, star-starved film, Night of the Living Dead came along in 1968 to change the landscape of horror films and introduce the world to an apparently endless stream of additions to the genre. The Fount of All Knowledge has a list that includes over 400 such movies, and that doesn’t include the various television series.

In the original George Romero film, which referred not to zombies but “ghouls,” seven people find themselves holed up in a farm house as an inexplicable number of recently deceased people find themselves laying siege to the place. As you might imagine, there are internal squabbles and–a cliché of later zombie flicks–the living wind up being just as dangerous as the dead.

An after-action discussion could have been held by the people in that farmhouse. “How could we have been more successful?” That’s what you do after a major project, right? So how might they have avoided the problems that they eventually had. [Shameless spoilers ahead, but the movie’s over 50 years old!]

We find our cast assembled around a table discussing the situation they have just endured.

Harry Cooper: If you had all just listened to me and come down to the basement, everything would have been just peachy.

Helen Cooper: Harry, they might have taken you more seriously if you had helped them when they first got here instead of hiding downstairs.

Harry: Shut up, Helen!

Helen: That’s right. You’re a bully until you face something truly frightening. Then you’re a coward.

Barbra: Johnny has the keys.

Judy: You could have kept your wits about you, Barbra.

Tom: Give her a break, Judy. You shouldn’t have panicked and come to the truck.

Judy: And you shouldn’t have slopped gasoline around to make the truck explode.

Ben: Now we know that Tom didn’t mean to start that fire and barbeque you two.

Harry: This wouldn’t have happened if you had all come down to the basement.

Ben: Why should we have listened to you, because you’re older . . . and white?

Harry: Why should we have listened to you, because you have a full head of hair?

Ben: You’re a racist!

Harry: And you shot me.

Karen: I ate Daddy.

Helen: Quiet dear.

Tom: Actually, let her talk. What would have happened if we’d all been in the cellar when she turned into a ghoul?

Harry: Uh . . .

Judy: That’s right, Mr. Cooper. Would you have killed your own daughter?

Barbra: Johnny has the keys.

Tom: Maybe we should have found Johnny, gotten the keys, and then made a break for it to the cemetery to find the car.

Judy: I can’t believe I ever liked you, Tom.

Ben: Maybe you should have all listened to me and strengthened the house.

Harry: We see how well that turned out.

Ben: It worked out fine for me.

Harry: After you shot me and after you hid out in the cellar, just like I suggested from the start.

Helen: He does have a point there.

Ben: But then I got shot.

Judy: Did you never think to say something to those men? One word would have kept you from being shot.

Ben: But . . . uh . . .

Karen: I’m hungry.

So as we leave the Farmhouse Seven to squabble, what have we learned here? Ultimately, we all die. But when we die, we do not spring back into motion seeking out human flesh. Instead, the dead will all rise, not as a terror but some in rightful terror.

I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.–Revelation 20:12

None of those who took refuge in that farmhouse can hope to remain standing, judged positively on their merits.

  • Harry is not sufficiently decent.
  • Helen is not sufficiently maternal.
  • Judy is not sufficiently loyal and loving.
  • Tom is not sufficiently fearless and forthright.
  • Karen is not sufficiently young and innocent.
  • Barbra is not sufficiently clueless and damaged.
  • Ben is not sufficiently noble and brave.

All of them have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. They were, from the outset, the living dead.

Easter Zombies

You never thought you’d hear those two words together, did you? I determined to put that sentence down as my lead, and then thought it might be fun to do a Google search for that phrase. And it turns out that “easter zombies” has appeared in several guises including on an anti-religious “deist” site, which mocks Matthew 27:52-53:

The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

In fairness, that is a surprising pair of verses, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a preacher take that as his central text. We shouldn’t be surprised that a skeptic, someone leaning wholly on human reason, would fasten on this as a problem point in the gospels.

But those are not the “zombies” I’m talking about. In popular culture, zombies are the bodies of dead people that are reanimated, somehow, inexplicably, and that wander around the countryside attempting to eat people who are still living. In many versions, these zombies are obsessed with eating brains.

These aren’t my Easter zombies either. The Easter zombies are those people staggering into the church on that one spring morning, more out of a sense of habit or compulsion than from any true devotion to God. Maybe going to church is the price they pay to enjoy peacefully a family dinner and Easter-egg hunt during the afternoon.

The problem with these people is that, like the zombies on TV, they’re dead. Maybe they’re truly spiritually dead, or maybe they have that spark of Christian life within but they’re so wrapped up in dead works that they might as well, from an outward appearance, be still lost in their sins.

Two times in Hebrews we read about people who are dealing with dead works, and in Hebrews 9:14, the writer urges us to “cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God.”

The Easter zombies don’t serve the living God. They’ll think more of jelly beans than Jesus, more of Peeps than God’s people.

While some of them are, as noted before, spiritually dead, some of them are technically believers but the sort who Paul describes, in 1 Corinthians 3:12, as building on Christ’s foundation with “wood, hay, or straw.” But then don’t we all do that now and again? Sure I might build with precious materials, I might serve the living God 90% of the time, but what of the other 10%. Should I look at your 80%/20% split or the bona fide Easter zombie’s 5%/95% split and boast? Aren’t we all really zombies to one degree or another?

I will walk into my church service this morning with a grateful and joyful heart because I am, like every other person wrapped up in this body of death, a little bit zombie. It is not for me to judge those who are more zombie, more far gone than me. It is for me, for us, beloved, to pray for them and to love them. It’s our place to believe in the truth that these bones can live again.

You will know that I am the Lord, my people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.–Ezekiel 37:13

He is risen! And He can make the dead alive again. Praise the Lord of the Easter zombies.

Although I Do Not Hope–Ash Wednesday

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

t-s-eliot-people-page-2In 1930, three years after his 1927 conversion to Christianity, poet T.S. Eliot published Ash Wednesday. Like his more celebrated work The Waste Land (which I believe is actually a Christian poem as well), this one is extremely evocative and endlessly difficult. Where a contemporary American poet, Robert Frost, wrote exceptionally clear poems layered with literal and figurative meaning, Eliot mostly wrote works that defy any sort of absolute interpretation. In Ash Wednesday, he clearly alludes to various elements in a broader cultural vocabulary, but these words do not easily add up to form totally coherent sentences.

At the top of the first and last sections of the poem, we encounter repeated lines, which themselves repeat with variations.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Written after his “turn” or conversion to high-church Anglicanism, the first line can be read to indicate that Eliot does not want to turn again, to turn away the object of his faith. In that sense, the poem begins (and ends) with a bit of pious orthodoxy, yet the second line cuts back on it, lopping off three words to give us a sentence of despair: “Although I do not hope.” The third line suggests a lack of hope for change. Given that the poem is named for the first day of the penitential season of Lent, which meant more to Eliot than to people of my tradition, we might read these lines as a statement of faith but at the same time a confession of a fleshly, sinful nature.

Throughout this work, Eliot embraces the difficulty of human existence. As spiritual creatures, we strive upward, but as flesh-bound creatures, we know ourselves and that our inclination seems to always return downward. We might hope to turn toward God, but we know that such turning will ever be imperfect. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

That battle between spirit and flesh is what creates the “tension between dying and birth,” which we saw above. The beauty of our faith is not that we get it right or that we ever manage to win that battle. The beauty is that while we live in that time of tension, while we struggle with an inability (on one level) to hope, we know that on another level, hope is alive and invincible.

How do we win? We don’t. I do not hope to turn, but I don’t have to turn, for I have been turned. Like the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea, I don’t have to fight. Instead, I can know that, allowing God to fight for me, I can be delivered from the “Egyptians” who afflict me.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

There is the answer. We don’t have to answer all the questions so long as we do not mock ourselves with self-delusion. We don’t have to act, except to act by sitting still. Eliot reminds us, as we reflect on our sin, to care and not to care. This isn’t him simply playing with words. We are indeed to care and not to care. We must care about our sin but not care about our inability to triumph over it. We must care that we fall short of God’s holiness but not care that we are not God.

In the end, the final line of the poem is our best prayer:

And let my cry come unto Thee.

 

A Time for Everything, but Especially…–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
–Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

It’s pretty much impossible for me to read Ecclesiastes 3 without hearing the Byrds singing. If you’re so inclined, you can click “play” and listen as you read on. (Or just listen. After all, it’s your time.)

I’d like to focus not on “a time to cast away stones,” which I know is the part of that passage that holds the greatest meaning for you, but on that first half of verse 2. “A time to give birth, and a time to die.” We tend to emphasize the first part of that pairing without acknowledging the inevitable second part. The moment we are born, we start dying. That’s a simple truth of mortal existence, but who wants to talk about the time for that particular event under heaven?

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and I would not be one to argue for accepting an early exit from this life. It’s easy for me, at age 52, to say, “I’ll be ready to go when I hit 90,” but I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel differently when I’m blowing out 89 candles on a cake.

There is, however, a difference between being ready and eager to die on the one hand and being open to the fact that death will one day arrive. Knowing that death will immediately put me into the presence of Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:8 makes clear, does not incline me to take an early trip in that direction.

Knowing that death will come one day should sober us to use each day that we have in a manner worthy of the God who gave us that day. Knowing that the first death will not be followed by the second death but instead by an eternity in a glorified resurrection body allows me to live those days I do have without fear.

What prompted the Byrds to record “Turn! Turn! Turn!” or Pete Seeger to write it? I’m not sure. Pete passed from this mortal coil in 2014, and I won’t speculate on his eternal fate. What I can state with confidence is that we all had a time to be born and will all have a time to die. Living with the hope of Christ makes the latter fact far less ominous.

The Problem with Tomorrowland

There’s nothing that seems to motivate a certain stripe of Hollywood star like the opportunity to wag their finger at all of us unwashed masses, shaming us for not agreeing with them on the cause du jour.

At the Oscars this year, it was Patricia Arquette opining in sound-bite fashion on the exceptionally complicated idea of gender pay inequity. This summer, in theaters, it is George Clooney preaching through Tomorrowland about global warming and other forces that threaten to put an end to civilization.

On first blush, nothing can seem more relevant to someone who is concerned with the Christian body than a force that threatens to kill off all of those bodies. But the problem here is that while the various human-destructive forces seem to continue growing in power and scope, the solution offered by the likes of Clooney is so anemic. As reviewer Kevin Fallon explains, Clooney’s character in Tomorrowland is a stand-in for the audience, for all of us.

He’s the one who, like all of us, is educated on the environmental issues and human behaviors that are leading to the destruction of the Earth and the end of civilization. He, like all of us, knows that we hold the power to fix these things, should we choose to do so. And he, like all of us, is resigned to not doing anything about it.

The world will expire, and all of us with it, unless we do something, right? Let’s all clap our hands and say, “I do believe in fairies!” Oh wait, that’s a different Disney vehicle and a different part of the Magic Kingdom.

If the threat of global warming is as bad as the experts have been predicting for so long, then it will not be halted by a few million earnest movie-goers “doing something about it.” We cannot protest our way out of the drought in California. We cannot petition our way past the threat of extinction. No matter how hard George Clooney works his “concerned” eyes–you know that look, don’t you?–fracking will still be driving Matt Damon bonkers.

If there is hope for a threatened world and our threatened bodies that live in that threatened world, it does not lie in the sanctimony of George Clooney. Whatever hope the world has lies in Jesus Christ.

But better yet, even if there is no hope for the world, even if we are all going to die through our own folly, our souls and our bodies still have a hope in Christ. That’s the only Tomorrowland worth my time.

A Light in the Tunnel (Hebrews 2:5-6)

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:    “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? (Hebrews 2:5-6)

This world is just no durn good. You’ve got tornados here and flooding there. People are protesting against the military and other people don’t care. The government taxes us too much and they don’t do enough for us. People are wasting far too much time watching TV and there’s nothing good on. Have I mentioned that they’re putting all sorts of chemicals in our food? I tell you, it’s a mean old world.

And if all of that weren’t bad enough, I’d mention–and I guess I am mentioning–the fact that everything seems to be getting worse. Take a look around you and you’ll see topsoil washing away, jobs moving to Indonesia, and families disintegrating. Just this morning gas prices jumped by 13 cents. If that isn’t a sure sign of the final collapse of American civilization, then I’m not sure what is.

I tell you, I look at my children and my grandchildren, and I worry about what sort of a world they’ll be inheriting. I figure that by the time Uri, the youngest, is 25, the ozone will be depleted, Social Security will be a dim memory, and the K.C. Royals will still be mediocre or worse. There’s just not much hope.

If all of that rant sounds anything like you, then I have to direct your eyes, ears, and heart to to the verse above. It is not angels to whom God has subjected the world. True, but that sentence suggests that the world, the awful, disintegrating world, has been subjected to somebody. To whom?

It’s here that we break out the All-Purpose-Sunday-School Answer: “Jesus.” I have to ask myself, when I get into a despairing mood, if any world that has been made subject to Jesus is truly headed for a complete and final disaster. A disaster? Yes, but neither complete nor final. That’s the hope I’ll hang on to when times are difficult.