The Green Grass Grows

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

I can’t write too much today. There’s a lot to do. I have to mow the grass, especially after that big soaking rain we had a few days ago. Before I do that, I need to air up that leaky tire on the mower. I really should repair the tire, but that would involve getting a jack and a lug wrench and all my tire repair supplies. Frankly, as slow as the leak is, it’s easier just to switch on the air compressor and top off the tire.

To properly groom the yard, I need to use my rider, a push mower, and a weed-eater. The problem I had last week was that the weed-eater wouldn’t run reliably. It started, ran for a few seconds, and then died. I’m guessing I have some sort of fuel problem, but I’m an English teacher rather than a small-engine mechanic.

The sad irony of all these tasks is that they don’t have any sort of permanence. The grass will need to be mowed again next week and every week until probably October, and my equipment can be counted on to require maintenance or replacement. It’s endless, which is what Solomon pointed to:

And if a person lives a thousand years twice, but does not experience happiness, do not both go to the same place?
All of a person’s labor is for his stomach,
yet the appetite is never satisfied.
What advantage then does the wise person have over the fool? What advantage is there for the poor person who knows how to conduct himself before others? Better what the eyes see than wandering desire. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

It’s Just Gonna Grow Again

Why do we work? According to Ecclesiastes, all of our “labor is for the stomach.” Obviously I don’t literally eat all of my labor’s products, but basically I work in order to consume in various ways. And when I give away some of my income, I’m providing for someone else’s stomach.

I eat and eat or consume and consume, and is the appetite ever killed off? Not at all. Wisdom might mean that I can more efficiently or effectively labor and therefore have more to consume. That’s the economic idea behind getting a good education. You go to school so that you can get a better job and then consume more. But whether someone has a little or a lot, they almost universally want more. The appetite is never satisfied.

Getting in Tune

So does all of this mean that we should stop mowing the grass and drop out of school? Should we cease to work and shun wisdom? I don’t think that’s the message to take from this passage. But if we think that we’re going to achieve some sort of permanent bliss by working hard and acquiring knowledge, we’re deceiving ourselves.

Wealth and wisdom are virtues, but they are not ends in themselves. If my work and my learning do not lead me to happiness, then I might as well be poor and stupid. In fact, I might be better off poor and stupid, since I won’t have as much to lose or as much awareness of my unhappiness.

Of course then we get into the nature of happiness, but that’s a matter for another day.

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?

Better off Dead–Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

According to that great philosopher, Bert the chimney sweep (from Mary Poppins), “Life’s a rum go, guvner, and that’s the truth.” Good old Bert works hard at half a dozen jobs attempting to cobble together a living. He’s disrespected by the respectable and watches as the rain, no respecter of men, washes away his chalk sidewalk pictures. What does he have to show for it as he grinds at that grindstone? A few pieces of copper coinage, a smudge of soot on his face, and the suspicious looks of those around him.

Granted, had I wanted to present a poster child for the oppressed of this world, I might have done better than Bert. I could have gone to the people who have their livelihood stolen from them in Sudan or Thailand. I could have pointed to the victims of human trafficking or the ones caught in the crossfire of the drug trade. I could have used any of several people I know personally, people who have, through little or no fault of their own, found themselves caught in a situation with no apparent exit.

These people might join with Solomon in believing that they’d be better off dead or even better yet to have never been born.

Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I commended the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

In 2017, over 47,000 people in the U.S. took feelings like these to their logical end, killing themselves. That’s a large body of people, but in a population of well over 300 million, it’s not quite as awful as we might expect, coming in at about .015% of the population. If we factor in the apparent suicide attempts, then we see that percentage rise to about .15% or about one and a half out of every thousand people.

I don’t throw those statistics out to minimize suicide, but to suggest that if Solomon is right and people really feel this way, the numbers would be higher. Even when we recognize that miserable people still often fear death, we see that the vast bulk of suffering individuals find some reason to hang on to this mortal life.

Getting in Tune

Frankly, I find human life, stripped of the hope we have through Christ, utterly dismal. If I had to watch the suffering and oppression of this world without believing that the Creator God would eventually put things right, I’d probably struggle to go on.

The true futility in life, though, is to live a life as either an oppressor or as one who watches the oppression and sees nothing wrong. That is a life wasted. My efforts will not put an end to whatever ills I see today, but I can point the way to the only genuine hope this world possesses. Yes, I will be better off when I’m dead, but I needn’t be in a hurry to reach that destination.

The Sleeping Man–Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

A few minutes ago, Bo the Poodle and I took our daily drive to QuikTrip. Bo stands in the back seat, his head out the window, making strange noises at squirrels, while I use the trip to refill my soda cup with Diet Dr. Pepper.

This morning, as I parked at the end of the store, I saw someone whose trip was not progressing quick–or quickly. In years past, many people placed little racially insensitive “decorations” in their yards: a sleeping Mexican, seated with his sombrero covering his head and knees. The guy at QuikTrip, minus the sombrero, looked very much like this figure as he apparently slept on the sidewalk, his back leaning on the building.

So now, a few minutes later, I wonder if this sleeping guy, who I’m going to assume doesn’t have an air-conditioned home and pillow-top bed, is really the smart one. Let’s look at what Ecclesiastes has to say about the work that people do.

There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from him? For to the person who is pleasing in his sight, he gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and accumulating in order to give to the one who is pleasing in God’s sight. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

–Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

Here I am writing this. Later, I’ll write an adult lesson for church. Then I really need to get started on a month of curriculum for children, due in a few weeks. And somewhere along the line, I’ll have to start grading my summer school students’ work. Around the house, I have a wheelbarrow of dirt that needs to find a home and some ivy, ripped off an old tree, that should be cleaned up.

Without God, everything is a vanity, a futility, a vapor.

What will the sleeping man at QT have done at the end of the day? Unless I miss my guess, he’ll have shuffled aimlessly around town and picked up handouts and leftovers wherever he can. He’ll probably have to sleep somewhere else tonight to avoid a run-in with the authorities. This might prove his hardest task for the day.

So is today’s passage telling me that God is better pleased with this man who is eating what others gather and accumulate? I don’t think so, unless he is also given “wisdom, knowledge, and joy.” But it does tell us that if our activities do not bring us those things, then we’re doing something wrong. It does tell us that if we cannot enjoy our work, then perhaps we’re in the wrong line.

Ecclesiastes does not call us to sleepwalk through our lives, but there is more than one way to sleep through life. You can waste your life sleeping on a convenience store porch or you can waste it slaving away at work that no one will care about six months hence.

Finally Koheleth has brought God into the picture. Without Him, everything is a vanity, a futility, a vapor. Only when we center our lives humbly around what comes from God’s hand can we truly wake up and transcend the futility.

A Reason for Sunday–Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

Yesterday, I mentioned the work that Jim performed, transforming a 110-year-old dairy barn into a wonderful home. About a week back, I spoke about the ramp that I was building to allow handicapped access to the deck and therefore the interior of that home. Yesterday, I completed that ramp, applying two sets of boards between the railing and the floor to keep particularly careless scooter drivers from plunging to their deaths off the side.

So, aside from the momentary praise of my wife–which isn’t a bad thing–what do I get out of all the work that I put in on that ramp. For one thing, my bank account is several hundred dollars lighter. For another, and more lasting outcome, I’ll probably see a procession of people with blue handicapped placards in their cars parking at the foot of the ramp and rolling up to bless my home with their presence. Already, my mother-in-law has used the ramp to come over for lunch. What other travails await me?

My biggest chore yesterday was not the installation of those last 12 boards. They went in with little challenge. No, the biggest chore was getting all of the leftover wood and the vast array of tools and screws picked up and taken back to their dwelling place in the basement. As I did all of that, I had some time to think on my ramp.

What does our work give us other than a few dollars that buy transitory things and illusory security?

It will never look better than it does right now. It will never be stronger than it is right now. It will never be more plumb and level than it is right now. If I’m lucky, I won’t have to perform any adjustments, repairs, or reinforcements to the ramp for five years, but those tasks will come. The moment you put wood, even pressure-treated wood, out into the elements, it begins changing, and not for the better. I don’t know if that’s what Solomon had in mind, but it’s what pops into my mind when I read Ecclesiastes 2:22-23:

For what does a person get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful; even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile.

Part of me wants to accuse Solomon of being melodramatic. “You were the king, man! Snap out of this gloomy routine!” I want to shout. I understand what he is saying, but I feel as if he overplays his point. On the other hand, I’ve never been a king.

An old country song might describe the perils of being a king, whose mind does not rest:

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.

It seems that most people work at either mind-numbing or back-breaking jobs, or if their work is more in the head, then they can’t lay it down when the end of the shift comes along. And what does our work give us other than a few dollars that buy transitory things and illusory security?

Perhaps the real glory of the Sabbath is that it allows us to take a time out from this pointless work “under the sun” so that we can focus on the One who is beyond the sun.

The On-Ramp to Pleasure Mountain–Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

I’ve been “ramping up” lately. What I mean by that is probably not what you mean. In reality, I’ve been building a ramp so that people in wheelchairs, power chairs, walkers, or other conveyances can get onto my deck and, from there, into the house without navigating the incredibly challenging steps–two of them–that lead into the front door.

If I sound bitter, it’s because Penny has talked me into spending a good chunk of money and a fair measure of my bodily well being getting this project, literally, off the ground. This sort of construction is not much fun. My body aches from two solid days of sawing and measuring and filling and digging, not necessarily in that order. What’s more, this not-fun project won’t lead to fun. It’s not like I’m building some sort of backyard roller coaster. I’m making my house more accessible for people who aren’t exactly the life of any party, ever.

Who ever said that life was supposed to be full of fun, though? All too often, I hear people–kids mostly–who complain about something, saying, “That’s no fun,” as if this were some sort of premium argument clincher. I’m becoming convinced, as my life proceeds apace, that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I suppose I could join the Koheleth fan club.

I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” I explored with my mind the pull of wine on my body—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to grasp folly, until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. –Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

I enjoy pleasure as much as the next person. Good food is good. Good music is musical. Laughter can be a good deal of fun, but when we’re living for pleasure, then we have to ask ourselves where the actual point is. I know people who absolutely live for fancy food experiences. Others live to cram as much of any sort of food–Pizza Street, I’m thinking of you–into their mouths as possible. And it is all madness.

What’s your pleasure addiction? I’m not talking about traditional addictions. Someone needn’t be a bona fide alcoholic to be addicted the pleasures of fine wine or microbrewed beers. The foodie doesn’t have to be a glutton. Others have pleasure addictions for sports or art, for music or travel. These aren’t bad things, but they shouldn’t be an end in themselves.

This brings me back to that cursed ramp. My body hurts from unaccustomed labor, and I’m not building anything fun. My fingers, as they type these words, ache from gripping a variety of tools, but I’m not increasing the value of my home. So what’s the point? Ecclesiastes would say that there’s no point to anything under the sun, so maybe all I’ve accomplished is to give myself something to write about. But if I take pleasure in that, then again there’s futility.

It seems there’s no way out of this thing.

 

Which Circle of Life?–Ecclesiastes 1:5-8

Can you hear the song playing? If you can’t, you’ll probably have it stuck in your head after this:

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love.

Apparently, Solomon didn’t see it like this. As we progress deeper into Ecclesiastes, we find “the Preacher” using some of the same imagery that The Lion King made inspiring in its opening song. But where Disney brought a tear to our eye with that imagery, Solomon makes it a pointless, purely mechanistic universe.

The sun rises and the sun sets;
panting, it returns to the place
where it rises.
Gusting to the south,
turning to the north,
turning, turning, goes the wind,
and the wind returns in its cycles.
All the streams flow to the sea,
yet the sea is never full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.–Ecclesiastes 1:5-7

So what’s the difference? Although I’m not going to completely affirm The Lion King’s theology, the difference between that film and what Ecclesiastes seems to be saying hinges on the fact that the Disney product actually has something like a theology and a point to the universe, unless we’re supposed to believe that the sudden burst of sunlight at 3:32 in the video is just a coincidence. “Till we find our place,” the song proclaims, the clouds allowing the sun through on “place.”

What is our place? If we take the opening verses of Ecclesiastes at face value, then we might be listening to the likes of Richard Dawkins, people who claim that we live in a completely unguided, completely accidental world. Why do we have creatures as diverse and wonderful as a lion and a baboon? According to them, it is pure random chance, spiced up with natural selection.

The Preacher points to the sun, wind, and streams. They seem to be going somewhere, but that appearance of purpose is like the appearance of design in life. It’s just an illusion. In fact, those three forces wind up right back where they started their cycles. In these verses, the “circle of life” has no more point than the spinning horses on a carousel.

If we were to buy into the idea that nothing has a point, then really the only rational way of life would seem to be the pursuit of pleasure espoused by Epicureanism. If there’s nothing bigger than me, if the cycles of nature are indeed going nowhere, then why shouldn’t I be as selfish as I want? Why shouldn’t I hate my neighbor and my enemy if it suits me? Why shouldn’t I take and take to get as much of what I want as I can get?

If we believe that the circle of life is of no more significance than the spinning of a pinwheel, which seems to be where Solomon is taking us, then why wouldn’t we be mired in despair, moaning about everything being pointless?

Without God, the circle of life is spiraling toward the death of the sun and the depletion of our natural resources. I’ll opt for Simba’s circle above that, but God has a better one still.

The Girl’s a Star

The weirdest thing happened recently. My wife, Penny, took our granddaughter to a swanky retail establishment, Dollar General. They were looking to buy something of incredible import, but that has nothing to do with what happened.

As they waited in line, they heard this mother and her two daughters talking excitedly behind them. The weird part was that they seemed to be talking about our granddaughter.

“Excuse me,” the mom finally said. “Are you on Tik Tok?”

If you, like me, live outside the mainstream of the social media ecosystem, you might not know Tik Tok, an app that allows people to upload and share short music videos of three to fifteen seconds or looping videos that go up to a minute. What can you do in 15 seconds? Not much. Most the videos are millennials doing goofy things. It’s basically Vine with a slightly longer time limit.

If you’re old enough to remember the old TV ads for compilation albums from K-Tel, then you could imagine Tik Tok. Here’s a snippet of Elton John followed by a couple of seconds of Tony Orlando and then a few notes of Rod Stewart. It seems that my favorite 15-year-old has found her place between Vickie Lawrence and Bill Withers.

When the mom asked, our girl turned and replied, dramatically, “Maybe.” What followed was absurd. The mom and daughters took photos with her. They expressed their admiration. Afterward, we learned that our little celeb has a huge following–something like half a million people–on the platform. She’s a Tik Tok star, and she now gets recognized from time to time when she’s out living her life. She has received a number of different pieces of fan art and is currently filling 200 orders for merchandise. In short, she’s turning this into a paying gig.

But here’s where I trip up. What sort of hollow life does someone have that makes them enjoy watching tiny little blips of video of a girl acting silly, perhaps lip-syncing to some song or busting into a dance move? In fact, these people don’t just enjoy watching these absurd little clips, but they get excited to meet the “artist” who filmed herself eating a bagel or forcing out a belch. They draw portraits of her. They buy hoodies with her name or image or something plastered on them. It’s just too weird.

Who would it excite you to stand in line with at Dollar General? I might find it fascinating to have a conversation with John Piper or N.T. Wright. A few months ago, I had my picture taken with Peter Furler, the former singer of Newsboys, but I did that for the benefit of my daughter. But who would excite me just for the sake of being able to say that I had a personal encounter with them? I’m hard-pressed to name anyone.

We like the idea of having a personal connection with the famous and significant, but in the end, the only connection worth having at Dollar General or elsewhere is a connection with Jesus, because anything else is just an exceptionally short video in the grand epic of eternity.

Keep Your Hand to the Clay–Jeremiah 18:3-4

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.–Jeremiah 18:3-4

potterEvery semester, as I calculate final grades, I encounter a handful of students who receive a grade that’s either lower than what they should have earned or an actual “F.” Occasionally a college student will fail because of a lack of ability, but far more often, those F’s (and the underperforming B’s, C’s, and D’s) come for a simple reason: the student simply did not do the work. Sometimes that lack of effort is shown in the grade book by a zero; other times, it will be camouflaged with a real grade that simply should have been higher. Just last week, I had a student who should have easily received a B but who scuttled his chances by knocking together a “research” paper that involved precious little research and even less thought.

The problem with a student like this is that he probably exchanged the time he should have spent studying and writing for time watching The Walking Dead or playing Minecraft. In short, if had had gone down to this student’s house, he wouldn’t have been studying. It would have been like Jeremiah  going to the potter’s house to find him not making pottery.

Just so I don’t sound too prideful, let me be clear. Most of my failures come from when I am not at whatever pottery wheel I should be tending. When my teaching is less than it should be or my writing assignments don’t get done on time, it’s not a lack of ability. Instead, I just haven’t had my hand on the clay enough.

Jeremiah’s potter was found at work, and the potter whom he represented, God, is also found always at work. Since His redeeming work is always going on, since He is always faithful to provide and protect and guide, shouldn’t we respond with the same measure of diligence? Can we honestly offer any less than to keep our hands on our clay?

 

Enduring Vanity

Vanitas PaintingRecently, I shared a few thoughts about the fleeting nature of human beauty, looking at 17th century Vanitas paintings and everyone’s favorite retired body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather than thinking further about Arnold, I’d like to revisit that painting for a moment, looking a bit more closely.

Take a look at the painting. Go ahead and click on it to get a bigger version. I’ll wait.

Remember that the idea of the vanitas painting was to play out the ideas of Ecclesiastes on the vanity of human endeavors. We all die, after all–which is the big, unsubtle message of the skull–and most anything we do is just vanity, just meaningless.

But is that the whole story? I suggested in the previous post that the purpose of the violin in this painting was to evoke the strains of music that are played and then fade away. Look, though, at what lies under the violin and the skull. That appears to be printed music. A song played today will fade away quickly, but a piece of music preserved in musical notation can be preserved for generations. Some of the hymns of the church have been sung for generations. Isn’t that a slight taste of cheating mortality?

Then look over to the left of the painting and the shiny ball. What is that? It looks like a giant pinball, but is, I believe, a convex mirror. A mirror can certainly be a symbol of vanity and the fleeting nature of things, but look at this particular mirror. What do you see? That’s apparently the image of the artist captured in the midst of creating the canvas. Although dead for more than 300 years, Pieter Claesz achieved a tiny bit of immortality by painting himself into that mirror and a bigger one through the enduring value of his paintings.

Besides reminding us of the folly of things that perish, the Vanitas paintings also underscore the value of those things that last. As I write this, I just finished watching the Kansas City Royals play a baseball game. Time well spent? I’d have to chalk that one up in the “meaningless” column, along with the overripe fruit and soon-to-wilt flowers. It is my hope that most of my time is passed on things that will have more enduring value than that.

We have each been allotted a certain number of days on this earth. We can pass them in pursuits that are meaningless or those that are meaningful. More than likely, we’ll have some in each category. But how is your day to be spent today? Which of the Vanitas painting’s messages will your day tell? That’s a question we should ask ourselves each time we roll out of or into bed.