Tale of Two Levines–Ecclesiastes 3:9-11

Yesterday on Facebook, my (soon-to-be) former pastor shared a graphic from a preacher named Luke Levine. Essentially, the post trumpeted the power of social media as a communication tool and questioned Christians who would waste it on themselves rather than using it to spread the gospel. In trying to locate that image, I searched “Luke Levine social media” and was greeted, mostly, with images of a shirtless Adam Levine during Maroon 5’s Super Bowl performance. It seemed oddly appropriate.

What does the worker gain from his struggles? I have seen the task that God has given the children of Adam to keep them occupied. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-11

What do we gain from our struggles? If you’re Adam Levine at the peak of your band’s popularity, you gain a ton of money. If you’re an ordinary person, you gain enough money to pay your bills. I know that Jesus tells us not to worry about food and clothes, but he certainly doesn’t tell us to quit our jobs or fail to plant our fields. Work is a good thing, an appropriate thing, something the Torah says we should do six days out of seven.

Work is a good thing but it is a limited thing. I even enjoy listening to Maroon 5 (provided that I don’t pay too close of attention to the lyrics), but if Adam Levine and company believe that they’re accomplishing anything more than earning a bunch of money, then they’re sorely mistaken.

I know, you have some music that you grew up hearing and still love. Bachman-Turner Overdrive was playing on Spotify for me this morning. That music makes people happy. The food you cook makes people happy. The clothes you sell make people happy. The air conditioner you repair makes people happy. Happiness is good, isn’t it?

While we attend to the necessary things of the flesh, we have to remember eternity

In general, happiness is good so long as it isn’t based on something destructive, but happiness or mere survival are very temporary things. You don’t starve to death this month, which is good, but that doesn’t mean you won’t die in 40 years. Happiness and survival will come to an end.

But God has put eternity in our hearts. He has let us know that we’re meant for something bigger and more important than what is “under the sun.” He’s hardwired us to recognize that there’s something more than what we do when we go about our average day.

I would hazard to guess that even this Luke Levine guy spends more time dealing with matters of a temporal nature than of a spiritual nature. That’s the way it is when we inhabit this flesh. Even the greatest prayer warriors need to keep themselves clothed and fed and housed and hydrated.

The problem comes when we believe that this temporal and temporary stuff is all there is or is the most important part of what is. Solomon has spent a good deal of time systematically claiming that everything “under the sun” is pointless. But he didn’t say it wasn’t necessary.

While we attend to the necessary things of the flesh, we have to remember eternity, whether with our music, our social media, or something else.

J’Accuse, Turkey Hunter!

I call you out, Jason! You missed church Sunday. You didn’t fill your appointed role in children’s ministry. And why? What was more important that playing some silly game in the large group? You were sitting in the woods prepared to blow the head off of a perfectly innocent tom turkey. You’re on a fast track to perdition, my friend. Haven’t you read this:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Let’s continue our examination of Matthew 6:33 with a look at the word “first.” I love the Greek word that is translated as “first” here. It’s proton. Honestly, doesn’t that sound like it ought to be a minor superhero appearing in the next series of Marvel movies? But seriously, proton, in Greek, means pretty much what “first” does in English. For something to be meaningfully first, then something else must be second and third and so on.

A few years ago, I ran my first 10K race. It was a fairly small affair in Odessa, Missouri, and most of the participants opted for the 5K course. But not me. I ran out from the town, onto several miles of gravel roads and then came back. I came in first for my age and gender group. And how many men finished after me? Exactly zero. I was the one and only entrant in his fifties and the dead-last man in the field. The only woman in the race came across a few minutes behind me and won first among women. Cool.

Understandably, I don’t treasure the medal I received for that race. When you’re both first and last, it’s not something on which to brag. I’m much more proud of a second-place finish in a much larger race.

When Jesus tells us to seek God’s kingdom first, he’s not saying that we should seek it only. When I went to a Kansas City Chiefs football game with my son last fall (and missed church in the process, I must add), I wasn’t seeking God’s kingdom. When I bought a new “Browning” ball cap yesterday, it didn’t do the slightest to seek God’s kingdom. Happily, I’m comfortable in believing that so long as I seek the kingdom first, then I’m doing right.

Of course, this sort of thought process can lead us into self-delusion. What if I buy season tickets to the Chiefs and miss eight Sundays? Is that okay? What if I spend my money on a lot of frivolous things and am not able to tithe or do other God-honoring things? What if my golf game gets in the way of my ministry game?

First is a pretty easy thing to define in a race, but it is much more slippery in the complexities of life. Still, my wife knows when I’m not putting her first. I know when she isn’t putting me first. How much more does God know that He’s not first? And deep down, I think that generally we all know when our secondary interests are creeping into first place. We just don’t like to admit it.

So I suppose I can allow Jason to take a Sunday to hunt turkeys without assuming that sin is going to gobble him up.

Time for Pie!

Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

I can’t recall where I heard that, but I appreciate the sentiment. Wouldn’t you hate to deny yourself to get in shape and then have a truck run over you?.

Seriously, though, if  you have five things on your to-do list for the day, which one do you get done first. I recall a grade-school teacher I had who always did math first thing. We thought it was because she wanted to torture us. Instead, I learned much later, math was her least favorite subject. She figured that if she got the worst thing for the day done, then everything else would be easier.

That’s one method for planning your priorities. Another popular one is to do the most important thing first. That, I think, is what lies behind what I take to be the single most important verse for Christian living, Matthew 6:33:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Lest you think that I’m an anti-evangelical heretic who doesn’t put John 3:16 at the top of the hit parade, let me explain the way I view the act of Christianity. To my mind, this thing has two parts:

  1. Becoming a Christian–which is where John 3:16 comes in, and
  2. Being a Christian, where Matthew 6:33 holds sway.

It is vital that we become believers in Jesus, but it is also important that we live out our Christianity. How do we do that? We put first things first. We live by faith by seeking God’s kingdom first.

Matthew 6:33 tells us that life is not uncertain and that we need not eat dessert first. It tells us instead to cut God a big slice of that lemon meringue pie right up front and then trust that something even better will come our way. Maybe it won’t be lemon meringue pie. Maybe it won’t even be dessert, but it will be precisely what we need and even more than we need. It will be better than what we would have gotten had we grabbed the whole pie for ourselves.

It takes confidence for us to seek God’s kingdom ahead of our own kingdom. We have to truly believe, to truly rely on His goodness and His faithfulness. It takes the sort of belief that is at the heart of that verse I sidestepped earlier.

Believing in Jesus, in the sense it is intended in John 3:16 involves a great deal more than just an intellectual assent. I believe in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve been there a couple of times. I trust that if I drove north on I-29, I’d get to that city, but my belief does not mean that I depend on Omaha in the slightest. My belief in my home town is greater, but if Independence, Missouri were to suddenly announce its closing, I could still function. John 3:16-level belief is more.

And so is the action behind Matthew 6:33. It’s an act of faith to put God first, to set aside my priorities for God’s. It means eating dessert last with confidence that there’s something better in store. Christian life, you see, is sweet!

The Magic Word

I love you. Frank loves you. I love Frank. I despise you.

In that little sentence, “I love you,” the change of any of the three words drastically changes the sentence. Were I to ask, “Which word in that sentence is the most important?” You’d be hard-pressed to answer, opting perhaps for “All of them.”

That’s the question that I’d like to ask about Psalm 118:24. After plodding through, word-by-word almost, that verse, let’s consider which word is the most significant. Certainly as is always the case in language, the change of any word alters the meaning of the sentence. For example, if I go from “She ate dinner” to “She gobbled dinner,” the change of the verb is significant even while the action being described is precisely the same. I would argue that changing “dinner” to “supper” would create a smaller change. “Dinner” is less important.

But what about with our verse:

This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

What’s the most important word there? I have a nomination that came out of my understanding of how this verse hasn’t been acting on my life. The word is “LORD.”

I have encountered people having good days that the Lord gave them recently.

  • Alyson got a new car.
  • Emily bought a fine house.
  • Dan received a new kidney.
  • Jim finished that huge project.
  • Tom got to eat at Fogo de Chao.

At the close of day, those people probably all thanked God for the good day, the day He’d made. But what if the car was wrecked, the house sale fell through, the kidney was rejected, the big project failed, or the meat was overcooked? What if the weather on this day the Lord has made is crummy? What if I have to pay a ton of money to replace my car’s clutch? What if I go to work every day to do a job that I can’t quit but that I’m tired of? I could go on. Can I still rejoice and be glad?

When my rejoicing and gladness depend on the meals that I eat, on the income I make, on the convenience of my life, of health or friends or some other variable of mortal life, then I’m not always going to enjoy the day. When I take my delight from those things rather than from the Lord, then I sound a lot like the whiney Israelites in Exodus 16:3:

 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate all the bread we wanted. Instead, you brought us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of hunger!”

The problem with that gang was that they put something, namely their food, before God. Their modern-day counterparts are the people who say, “Yes, I love Jesus, but I wish the preacher didn’t talk so long.” They’re–we’re–not putting God first.

If what I mean when I repeat Psalm 118:24 is “This is the day the Lord has made (because He put such great stuff in it to make me happy),” then I’m altering the verse beyond recognition. This is the day the Lord has made, and I’m going to rejoice not because of what He did for me in it but because He made it. If I’m broke, sick, bored, tired, or persecuted, it doesn’t matter if the Lord made the day. Regardless of the bad, if the Lord is in the day, then we should rejoice and be glad.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Time-Running-OutSteve Kamb over at Nerd Fitness may be the most inspiring guy alive. He’s already got me rethinking my weightlifting strategy, but now he’s arrived in my sweet spot, with a post titled, “Why you should do less, or maybe even nothing at all.”

Hopefully you understand that I do not believe in exercising for the sake of spending time around sweaty people. I also do not believe reading for the sake of eye strain or using electronics for the joy of being able to keep all those batteries charged.

Like Steve, I believe that all of these things are a means to an end. For Steve, from the best I can gather, that end is having time to play video games and watch movies, while for me it is to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Despite what might seem like a rather trivial orientation, Steve seems to get the Bible’s ideas about Sabbath rest.

  • We burn ourselves out when we don’t take the time to actually recharge our batteries, so take time off.

  • Be unavailable when you’re not working.

  • When you’re on vacation or spending time not working, embrace itStay away from your computer, don’t check email, and spend time with friends and family.

If that seems like good sense, check out the rest of the article for his ideas about workouts, life, work, and so forth. I’d read it more carefully, but I need to write another post and I have to check out a problem with my online Composition class and I need to email my students and . . . oh my.

What’s on Your Plate?

“What’s for dinner?” Is any more important question ever passed between spouses during a Sunday morning lull in the sermon? What could be more spiritual than considering in advance the contents of your dinner plate? This morning, however, that sermon urged me to think not about literal food but about metaphorical food. “What’s on your plate?” in terms of responsibilities and projects.

plate 2

Over lunch today, I wrote down my priorities–the activities that I would hope would fill my life–on a paper plate. At the center of the plate I placed God. I’d hope any Christian would aim to put God at the center of life, even if He gets pushed off toward the Brussels sprouts from time to time.

Around the perimeter of my plate I arranged three items: Family, Writing, and Teaching. Those are my items. Yours, more than likely, will be different, perhaps Time Travel or Nuclear Fusion.

But then I sat back and thought about the amount of time that I spend running, biking, eating right, and doing other health maintenance activities. Should these things have gone alongside Family, Writing, and Teaching on the plate’s edge? I don’t believe they do go there. Instead, my fitness activities, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, serve those other items already written on my plate.

Think about it. By eating right and keeping my body reasonably fit, I’ll have more energy to teach, more years to write, and a greater ability to serve my family. Rather than sacrificing part of my plate to accommodate running and healthy eating, I recognize that these activities actually help me have a bigger plate.

Whatever you have on your plate, wherever God leads you to invest your time, good stewardship demands that fitness matters have a place on the platter. It’s not that controlling your blood pressure or eating more vegetables are ends in themselves. Similarly, sharpening your mind or increasing your emotional intelligence will strengthen you in all areas and help you to achieve more wherever God calls you.

What’s on your plate? Whatever it is, a serving of fitness will aid the digestion. Now if only that burrito I had for lunch would do the same.