You Smell Good

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Here comes the bride. If she’s the typical, wedding-obsessed woman, she’ll have spent eons choosing the perfect dress. An army of family and attendants will have labored over her hair and makeup for hours. After all, it is her wedding day and she has to look perfect. Never mind that the guy waiting at the end of the aisle could see her in an off-the-rack sundress with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and go weak in the knees. She still wants to look great.

Everybody looks good–or at least as good as they can–on their wedding day. They want to project an image, an aura that says, “I’m fabulous.” In fact, although I haven’t done any research, I’d guess that nearly everyone smells good on their wedding day. The reason isn’t hard to understand.

A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
since that is the end of all mankind,
and the living should take it to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

Real Reputation

The purpose behind all that fixing-up for the wedding kind of baffles me. From the bride’s side, it essentially says to the groom, “You’ve never seen me look better than this, and you’ll never see me this good again.” Am I being cynical?

We all know that the typical wedding attempts to project an image that isn’t particularly attached to reality. If you doubt me on that, then how many times does the bride obsess that much over a million details? The wedding, including the participants’ appearance, seems to say, “This how I want you to think that I am, but we all know that I’m not.” Frequently, I find, something will undercut that whole attempt at name-projecting. There’s the bride, hair, makeup, and dress perfect, but she’s chewing gum.

Just like perfume can make people seem more attractive than they really are, all that wedding fussing and fretting can put on a fairly convincing veneer. Such an image, however, just can’t last. For some people the wedding image they attempt to project doesn’t even survive the reception.

I have nothing against weddings, but I’m much more impressed with marriages. Weddings are perfume, but marriages, which have survived the ups and downs, are the proof, the good name. The day of our death is the day that we can no longer mess up our marriage.

Getting in Tune

What does all of this have to do with your life and with Ecclesiastes? Hopefully you can connect the dots that I’ve laid down. We all spend time in our lives applying perfume, doing things that are intended to make us look, sound, and smell good to those who are around. Just yesterday, I spent a good part of the afternoon mowing my grass, which can be a major “perfume” action.

These aren’t bad things. We shouldn’t go about our lives stinking, after all. But if we attend to these surface matters and ignore the things that create an enduring reputation, a good name, then people will think that we stink, no matter how good we smell.

As believers in Christ, inhabited by the Holy Spirit and created in the image of God, that stink doesn’t just reflect on us.

Captain Bertrand Rockwell

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

What do you think about a person who hangs out in graveyards? I’m sorry, but I am such a person. One of my favorite places is Mt. Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri. Years ago, perhaps even before the couple of summers when I worked at the place, I discovered the grave marker of Bertrand Rockwell. It’s of him that I think when I read the next verses from Ecclesiastes.

I saw all the living, who move about under the sun, follow a second youth who succeeds him. There is no limit to all the people who were before them, yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

You’ll recall that these verses come on the heels of comments about an aged, foolish king. That’s the “him” mentioned here.

Captain Kid

All I remembered from that gravestone was that Rockwell was a Civil War captain. Visiting it recently, I marveled at something that hadn’t occurred to me in the past: his age. The Civil War began in 1861 when Rockwell was all of 17 years old. When it came to an end in 1865, he found himself 21 and a captain.

Captains tend to command companies within a regiment. I haven’t dug into this fellow enough to know what company he commanded, and his easily obtainable records show that he served in several companies, always within the 34th Iowa Infantry. I also don’t know when he was promoted. Rockwell came into the army as a private. Somewhere along the line he distinguished himself sufficiently to move into the officer ranks at a young age and then to advance to the rank of captain and the command of as many as 100 men.

Can you imagine the attitudes of some of the old hands in this company when they were informed that their new company commander only needed to shave every couple of days? Don’t you know that there were older men questioning how someone of 19 or 20 could possibly fill that role? Don’t you imagine there were many who thought, “they should have made me an officer instead of that upstart!”

Granted, officers needed to be able to read and write, which was no given in the Civil War, but I’m sure that at least some resentment must have arisen. But what does all that have to do with Solomon and Ecclesiastes and an old king or a “second youth”?

Getting in Tune

I’ll assume that Bertrand Rockwell became an officer at a very young age because of his merits, but others would follow along behind him. In that same war, the long-time American military hero Winfield Scott began the conflict in command of the armies, but a succession of younger men quickly came along to replace him, when he proved unequal to the task. Ulysees S. Grant had not quite reached his 43rd birthday when Lee surrendered.

If we believe that our efforts and accomplishments are in any way permanent, we need only wander to a grave marker in Mt. Washington Cemetery to be corrected. Wealth, position, and reputation are soon taken by someone else.

Nothing endures under the sun. That’s why we need to focus ourselves on the things beyond the sun.

Why We Do What We Do–Ecclesiastes 4:4

Bad things will happen if I don’t get some grading done today. I’m teaching two sections of Comp I online this summer, and I will confess that I am behind on my grading. What happens if I get too far behind? My students will start to complain. They’ll start by bothering me: “Where’s my grade?” “I don’t have a grade for X!” Then, should I not respond, they might begin to complain to my dean. He would contact me, and I would have to explain my behavior. I suppose if I totally fell apart, I could conceivably lose my job. That’s why I will get that grading done today.

Or maybe that’s not why I will do the grading. Instead, I will do it because it is the right thing to do. I take a healthy amount of pride in being a productive and ethical writing teacher. I believe that my remarks on a student’s paper, if thoughtfully considered, will help that student become a more capable communicator and thus a more successful person. That’s why I will do that grading today.

Either of those motivations makes sense, but I can, with great confidence, say that there’s not one bit of jealousy driving me to put comments on papers today. Frankly, I don’t care what David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan are doing or how they look to others. That’s why I’m confused by our text today.

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

What if “all” isn’t all?

Perhaps my problem with these verses is in that pesky word “all,” which pops up twice in the first sentence. Once I accept that Solomon is using hyperbole–exaggeration for effect–then the verse makes a lot of sense. Certainly my grading efforts today won’t be done out of envy, and they won’t provoke envy. On the other hand, a great deal of what we do is motivated by appearances and the desire to have what others have, including status and reputation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy my positive reputation among students. When I hear that student X recommended me to student Y, it warms my heart a bit. And I really don’t want my dean to think that David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan is better than me.

Perhaps not “all” of my labor and striving is born out of jealousy of someone else. Perhaps not “all” of it will be apt to create jealousy, but some of it can and does. When Nathan spends much of the summer in Southeast Asia, I wonder why my bank account won’t support that sort of travel.

Getting in Tune

At least before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were a muddled bunch. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John asks that her boys sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. These guys, it seems, were serving Jesus to “work on their résumés,” to establish their credentials and raise themselves up above their peers.

What we do, whether it be in the church or in our jobs, should be done, as much as we can manage it, without any comparison to another. It should be done without any desire for self promotion. That’s hard to achieve in a world that values followers and likes and shares, but the defeat of envy will help us stop pursuing the wind.

Did Robert Robinson Go Untuned?

Sometimes I feel like everybody’s a heretic. Maybe that isn’t the best way to put what I mean, but it seems like two groups are inclined to jettison people from the ranks of the orthodox. On the one hand, we have those who don’t want anybody to be orthodox. They’ll find any little foible from an historical figure and use that as a way to call their faith into question: “Abraham Lincoln expressed some doubts once, so he wasn’t really a believer.”

On the other hand, you have people from within the church who point accusing fingers at anybody who, even for just a brief season, shows some weakness. “Abraham Lincoln expressed some doubts once, so he wasn’t really a believer.”

The first group seeks to diminish the church by excluding potential members. The second desires to improve the church by setting the bar for its members impossibly high.

I’ve heard Ulysses S. Grant presumed among the pagans because of his infrequent attendance at church, while various Founding Fathers have been categorized with the infidels because they once read Voltaire. Recently, I took up the topic of the once-orthodox Michael Gungor who is now at least questionable. Perhaps I was unwittingly joining that second group.

What brought this into my mind today was an excellent article about Robert Robinson. Robinson wrote one of my favorite hymns, the one that gives this site its name, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” After coming to Christ as a young adult, Robinson spent many years as a successful pastor, but there is question as to how orthodox he remained in his waning days.

He died just after spending time with Joseph Priestley, one of the most infamous political and theological radicals of the late eighteenth century. Priestley and his fellow Unitarians (who denied the deity of Christ) were quick to claim Robinson as one of their own.

Is this a case of Priestly and his ilk trying to co-opt Robinson or attempting to discredit him? Or is the knock on Robinson–if there truly is one of consequence–the action of the over-zealous faithful seeing the speck in their brother’s eye despite the beam in theirs.

In the long run, of course, the important thing is not whether I can categorize Robert Robinson, Brooks Robinson, or Smoky Robinson as to their orthodoxy. What matters is that I maintain myself where the Spirit wants me to be. The rest, God can attend to.

Avoiding Clay Feet

When I decide to retire from my job, I wonder if some of my coworkers will hear the news and say, “It’s about time!” Who knows, some of them might think that I already checked out.

What brings this to mind is something that happened at my church recently. The pastor, near the beginning of his sermon, announced that a new addition was being made to the staff. What makes this hire different from pretty much any that we’ve ever had is that the lucky guy, Clay, has already worked at the church in the past, having departed about six years back. In fact, Clay grew up in our church

When the pastor made the announcement, there was an audible and very positive gasp. Obviously, a large number of people in the room remembered Clay and welcomed his return to the fold. Having been privy to the announcement ahead of time–because I’m just super important, you know–it gave me great pleasure to hear that positive response. I’m sure there’s somebody in the membership who thinks that Clay’s return is a disaster, but they did not make themselves known that Sunday.

This got me to thinking about the legacy that we leave behind. What will people think about me when I hang up my teaching hat for the last time? Will they be relieved or will they think that I should have done it earlier? When I shuttle off this mortal coil, will my children and grandchildren be relieved not to have to mess with me anymore or will they legitimately grieve?

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon speaks to these questions, offering one proverb that seems obvious and another that causes confusion:

A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

It’s obvious that Clay has a good name. He left a good taste in the mouths of the people who knew him at our church on his previous stop. But what about this idea of the day of death being better than the day of birth? I think what this verse is trying to say is that on the day we die, we don’t have any more chances to mess things up, while on the day we’re born, our opportunities for foul-ups are virtually limitless.

To put this in the context of Clay, he, like many ministers, probably started well. People typically give the new guy the benefit of the doubt. They want him to succeed. The day of one’s occupational birth should be good, but if you’ve held things together until the day you leave, the day you retire, then you’ve really accomplished something. We don’t have to hang around churches very long to see people who did great things, sometimes for years, only to fail spectacularly at the end of their run.

I’d like to think that people will feel about me the way that they feel about Clay at the end of my course on this earth. I don’t really need their approval. I don’t need that audible response, but that sort of response would indicate that I’ve probably done something good along the way.

So when I choose to retire from Johnson County Community College, I pray people won’t respond by saying, “Finally!”

Dressed for Success–Galatians 3:27

 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. –Galatians 3:27

When I was younger, I liked to root through the mud, play in the creek, slide on the grass, and do all those other fool things that little kids are wont to do. Why not? I was young and the world was a giant adventure, a playground for my friends and me.

Muddy kidInvariably, though, my mother would flip out when I ripped the knees out of my best pants, smeared grass stain on my new jeans, or otherwise befouled and besmirched my clothing. “Why don’t you wait until you have on rough clothes for that?” she would ask. I never thought to point out that she never let me out of the house in “rough clothes.”

Today, I manage my own clothes. I try to take care of my better things, and I most always dress appropriately to the situation. But reading this verse from Galatians recently, I was struck by the fact that, as a believer in Jesus, I am constantly clothed with him. These are spiritual clothes that will serve just as readily when cutting a widow’s grass or preaching the gospel. I might look ridiculous wearing my best suit to change the oil in a friend’s car, but the apparel of Christ is not out of place.

My concern, however, is how I look when doing things that I shouldn’t do. Would I get snippy to a store employee while wearing a Christian T-shirt or the logo of my employer?  Probably not, but I am wearing Christ every single day. Every action that I take reflects on Him.

Where I go, what I say, what I do, how I react, what I eat, what I drink, how I treat others–these are all things that reflect on my clothing. May I never bring dishonor on the great designer of my most durable outfit.