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.

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.

When the Judge is Crooked–Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

What happens when a high-schooler publicly insults the assistant principal on social media? When this happened in Judge Mark Ciavarella’s courtroom, the offender was sent to a juvenile detention facility. The problem with this “tough judge” was that he was receiving kick-backs from the owner of the for-profit detention facility. That might be the sort of thing Solomon had in mind when he spoke of “wickedness at the place of judgment”:

I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness. I said to myself, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.” I said to myself, “This happens so that God may test the children of Adam and they may see for themselves that they are like animals.”

Ecclesiastes 3:16-18

Lest we within the church grow too full of ourselves as we look at the corruption in government and justice systems, we need to remember that lots of bad things, not all of them newsworthy, have taken place on the church’s watch. From the unfathomable sin of sexual abuse by a senior pastor to the church member swiping a box of pens from the supply room, the “wickedness at the place of righteousness” is all too real.

Where are the hypocrites?

Hypocrites can be found in courtrooms and church-house for a very simple reason. People go to those places. There’s wickedness everywhere.

  • The climate advocates who fly around on private jets.
  • The free immigration advocates who build walls around their houses.
  • The actors who preach being happy with the simple life in multi-million-dollar roles.
  • The bank that claims to be on your side until you really need their help.

And of course there is hypocritical wickedness in your heart as well. At least I assume there is since there is such stuff in mine. And before you start judging me, we need to remember that the Apostle Paul had the same problem in Romans 7:15:

For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate.

Why is everything such a mess?

Turn on the television news–something that I almost never do willingly–and you’re almost sure to see some story of incomprehensible wickedness. Again, it could be a woman being shot when she tried to break up a fight, a bunch of idiot adults brawling at a kids’ baseball game, or vandalism of the World War I memorial in Kansas City.

These stories leave a lot of people shaking their heads and asking a pointless question: What would make people do something like that?

What WOULD make people do something like that?

I called that question pointless because we all know the answer. People do unpleasant stuff because they are sinful. In the verse before the one quoted above, Paul provided a solid answer: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold as a slave to sin.–Romans 7:14. Specifically, we’re slaves to

  • Pride
  • Covetousness
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Greed

That’s five of the “seven deadly sins,” and I’m pretty sure that gluttony and sloth cause some of our public wickedness as well, but they’re just not quite so active.

Just like in Solomon’s day, the flesh is “under the sun.” As long as we are “under the sun” and in the flesh, we’re going to see this wickedness.

Getting in Tune

Rather than shaking our head at the wickedness we see around us, we need to acknowledge what this text says. We are like animals, and similar, although perhaps less visible, wickedness abounds in us.

Your prayer should be that God will more and more reveal your wickedness and help you to overcome it. If millions of Christians were to take that seriously, then the contrast with the Judge Ciavarellas of this world would become more pronounced and perhaps they’d not get away with their wickedness quite so long.

How to Ruin a Person

Give strong, talented, entitled young men a huge pile of money and endless streams of adulation, and what do you get? Apparently you get athletes behaving badly. Most recently, this has been my hometown football team’s jet-propelled receiver, Tyreek Hill. Back in March we learned that Hill was somehow involved in a domestic abuse investigation. As it turned out, his three-year-old son had a broken arm that seemed suspicious. Medical personnel, it turns out, have pretty good radar at distinguishing between a fall on the trampoline and an arm twisted too far.

Wednesday, the Johnson County, Kansas DA announced that no charges would be filed in this case. You could practically hear this guy trying to get the bad taste out of his mouth:

We have a heightened responsibility to protect those individuals (who can’t protect themselves), and so it bothers us when we see something that’s happened to a child like this and we can’t do anything about it.

If I understand the DA’s words properly, he was basically saying that he thinks somebody hurt this child, but when dad says mom didn’t do it and mom says dad didn’t do it, what are you going to do?

And then yesterday, the plot turned in a bizarre way. A recording, secretly made by “mom,” Hill’s apparently permanent fiancé and the boy’s mother, surfaced. Why would this woman release the recording now? Why would she give it to a local TV news reporter rather than law enforcement? Why, when it seems to include among a lot of really unpleasant stuff, her admitting to lying to investigators, would she release it at all? These are all questions that remain to be answered.

Of course, the experts who populate the Internet have already launched into full opinion-spewing. Some condemn the Chiefs for ever drafting Hill since he had issues while in college. Some think that they should immediately fire the man. Some think that nothing should happen. Some blame a thuggish culture in the NFL. Some blame the fiancé. A few are so short-sighted that they can only think about what this means to the team’s chances next year, thanking their lucky stars that the story broke before their fantasy draft.

But who’s thinking about a three-year-old little boy?

Who is thinking about a boy who is apparently afraid of his father’s discipline? Is it the mother who has stayed with a man whom she knew was abusive for years? Chiefs fans have offered token thoughts about the child before charging ahead to opine on the weightier matters of football.

To his credit, the Johnson County DA does seem to be thinking about the child.

What happens when we treat a game as if it were life and death? What happens when we place strong, talented young men onto a level that far exceeds their real significance? Sometimes nothing bad, but sometimes this is what happens. And what happens to the child of that twisted psyche? Perhaps he’ll be a professional athlete. We can only hope.

How Great a Salvation (Hebrews 2:3)

how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. (Hebrews 2:3)

As I write this entry, a week before it appears on the site, I wake to the news that Osama Bin Laden is no more. One of my Facebook friends suggested that the man died of “natural causes.” After all, he thought, if you attack this nation, it’s only natural that such a thing would happen. Such nationalistic chest thumping seems to be going around today.

While I have no affection for Bin Laden, I’m not all that celebratory this morning. His death is not our salvation just as the end of World War II did not prove our salvation. News such as today’s does provide some relief. Stop the killing in Darfur. Stop the dying from cancer. Shelter the victims of the Alabama tornados. These are all worthy goals, but they’re only intermediate goals.

Perhaps the death of Bin Laden has saved lives of potential victims. As positive as that is, those victims will still die. Similarly, any saved in Darfur, cured of cancer, or protected in Alabama will succumb to a greater threat: death itself.

Only Christ provides the great salvation spoken of by the author of Hebrews and required by each of us. Only Christ provides a salvation that does not expire with time. Only Christ provides a salvation that allows a new threat to rise in the place of the old threat. Only Christ provides a salvation not dependent on our abilities.

Some measure of justice has been achieved for the victims of 9/11, but in reality their need was not for justice but for mercy. Each of them lived as a sinner in need of redemption. As tempting as it might be today to trust in military might, political leadership, or nationalistic fervor, all of these pale next to the salvation provided by Jesus Christ.