I Scream for Ice Cream

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

My soon-to-be-80-year-old father-in-law–and, wow, wasn’t that a lot of hyphens?!–enjoys him some ice cream. He’ll eat it, a quart at a time, twice a day. His wife does the same, although at a slower pace. These people have actually considered keeping a separate freezer just for ice cream.

Never mind that this man is diabetic or that this woman is frustrated with her weight and the health problems that attend it. They just keep eating the ice cream. And why not? Isn’t that what Solomon was talking about in today’s passage?

Here is what I have seen to be good: It is appropriate to eat, drink, and experience good in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of his life God has given him, because that is his reward. Furthermore, everyone to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also allowed him to enjoy them, take his reward, and rejoice in his labor. This is a gift of God, for he does not often consider the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the joy of his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Eat, Drink, and Enjoy!

These family members of mine follow the directions that Ecclesiastes seems to lay out so clearly. They eat ice cream. That’s not all they eat, but they definitely put the ice cream away. They drink. They’re not consumers of alcohol, so they pour large amounts of coffee into themselves. They enjoy–or “experience good”–by watching endless reruns of Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show for him or bizarre reality shows, including something titled Dr. Pimple Popper, for her. That’s living large!

Clearly, my in-laws are in the midst of a season of “living biblically,” right? And this entire ending to chapter five provides a much-needed corrective to the parable of the rich fool. The farmer in that parable was called a fool by Jesus for kicking back to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself” (Luke 12:19). Where’s the difference? Have we discovered yet another of the contradictions that prove the ultimate untrustworthy nature of the Bible? Let’s not jump to that conclusion too quickly.

Both my in-laws and my initial reading of the Ecclesiastes passage missed a critical prepositional phrase. Solomon’s audience is encouraged to eat, drink, and enjoy in the labor one does under the sun. We’re not called to simply retire to our recliners and do nothing but entertain ourselves with ice cream and pimple popping. We’re called to labor.

Some would argue that, having put in a good many years of such labor under the sun, they have earned their rest. Rest is certainly a biblical idea. We’re supposed to get a day of rest at the end of every six days of labor. But we are enjoined to rest from our labors permanently only when we also rest from the ice cream–that is, when we’re dead.

Getting in Tune

I say all of this not to criticize my in-laws. They are responsible for their own doings. I’m saying this to criticize myself. You see, I have my own version of ice cream. Right now it’s a Five Guy’s cheeseburger, but in a while it’ll be something else. I have my own coffee, Diet Dr. Pepper, and my own Dr. Pimple Popper, which lately has been Stranger Things. Is there really any difference?

Some people have an inability to stop working. Their motor runs incessantly and they need to be reminded to take a break now and again. But most of us are oriented the other way. We tend to find rest our natural state. We need to be reminded to get ourselves off the couch or away from the computer and back to productive efforts.

Our food, drink, and entertainment should be sweet, but they’re only really sweet when they come after a good season of work. Otherwise, those things are simply a desperate attempt to escape the reality that death is lurking somewhere down the road.

Work is a Four-Letter Word–Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Driving east out of Kansas City on I-70, you can exit at Sterling Avenue. Where the off-ramp ends, you’ll always see one or several people holding signs that indicate their needs and particular pleas for assistance. In the rain, the snow, the baking sun, I don’t believe I have ever seen that corner empty. It must be a productive spot.

One of the reasons that these apparently homeless people frequent that intersection is that a little camp exists in the brush of a gully between the off-ramp and the interstate. You can’t see them from the road unless you look at just the right moment as you zoom by on I-70.

Yesterday, Solomon seemed to be praising people like these. If all labor is just driven by and the source of envy and strife, then aren’t those who don’t labor the most righteous? But today, he seems to cut back the other way.

The fool folds his arms
and consumes his own flesh.
Better one handful with rest
than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Those lines of poetry are a bit confusing. The first two appear to criticize that person on the corner. Those grubby folks with their signs, living rough and risky, are consuming their own flesh.

The second pair of lines, however, goes the other direction on first glance. Is the lazy person foolish or wise, choosing one handful? Or are these two lines in the voice of the lazy fool? I’m not sure, but certainly there’s some conflict in these verses.

So which is it, Solomon? Is work wisdom or folly? In Proverbs, we hear an unequivocal condemnation of laziness:

a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest,
and your poverty will come like a robber,
and your need, like a bandit.

Proverbs 24:33-34

Why Work?

What does work do for us? Sure, it puts money into the bank account, but it also fills our time and uses up our energy. When I think about my work, I see myself grading bad freshman essays for more than 30 years. It’s mind numbing and keeps a body indoors. Why do I do it? My hope is that as I continue toward retirement, I’ll build up finances that will allow me to live however I want in those later years. Great plan.

But then I see my in-laws with their deteriorating health. I see a cousin who is recently retired and dying from cancer. I see others who get to retirement financially set but without a clue as to how they might spend their time and money. Some retirees seem determined to use RVs and lottery tickets to fuel their happiness.

Let’s just face it: work seems to be something that causes problems if you do it and even bigger problems if you don’t.

Getting in Tune

So do you think that our man Solomon was aware that he was pulling on both ends of this rope? I’m guessing he saw it clearly. This work-or-no-work conundrum is one that every human needs to try to solve. And that, I’d argue, is the point.

Jesus does not call us to “seek first the kingdom of work,” but he also has harsh words for the rich fool with his self-indulgent retirement plan. When we read the accounts of the early church selling assets to help each other out, we know that if that generosity wasn’t accompanied by paying work, then the operation was not sustainable.

Clearly we’re called to find a “Goldilocks” approach to labor: not too little, not too much, but just right. In his wisdom, Solomon doesn’t tell us what “just right” is. Instead, he starts us thinking about the matter, so that we can get closer to our own “just right.”

So what’s your “just right”? Are you sure it’s right?

Did I Write Anything Today?

It’s 4:15pm as I type these words, recognizing that I haven’t written anything today. I shouldn’t feel bad, since I’m now about three months into a string of daily postings. In fact, I have actually written ahead some seven days (which explains why my entries each day seem so hopelessly out of date).

Why does it matter if I have written anything today? Wouldn’t it be okay for me to give things a rest for a day or so, what with the summer beginning and school out? I could offer a lengthy and thoroughly thought-out response to these questions, but instead, I’ll just pluck a two-word answer from Jesus’ own lips.

“You fool!”

In the parable of the rich fool, which I visited a little over a year ago, Jesus tells about the farmer who, after bringing in a bumper crop, decides to coast on his wealth, to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” All of this is lurking in Luke 12:13-21.

Back in 1998, I published my doctoral dissertation. That was nice, seeing a hardback book with my name on the cover. Feel free to pick up copy if you like: Haunted by Waters. I’m proud of that accomplishment, but 20 years later, I have to recognize that it doesn’t amount to a great deal today. The royalties stopped coming my way pretty soon after it was published, and you don’t find the title on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. If I were to point to this accomplishment when conferring with my dean for my annual review, he might well say,

“You fool!”

But he’s too polite for that. He’d just redirect my attention and ask me what I’ve done lately.

The sacrifice of Christ, was perfect, performed once and for all time:

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.–Hebrews 9:28

But my acts of worship, my living sacrifice, if it is going to have any real meaning, must be acknowledged as imperfect. It must be done day by day. In short, I need to write today.

Years ago, Penny struggled to recruit children’s Sunday School teachers in our former (not so enthusiastic) church. With call after call, she heard people say, “I’ve done my time.” In those people’s mind, they’d made their sacrifice, apparently perfecting it with a few years teaching the second graders. But there’s another answer to those people:

“You fool!”

My age of service should never end. My age of worship must never cease. It’s like that repeated line from the D-Day movie The Longest Day. When British glider troops capture a key bridge, they are ordered to “Hold until relieved.” My work with the children of my church should be done until I’m relieved. My service as a deacon should persist until I am relieved. I should pick up my pen (or my keyboard) and hold until relieved. Granted, God might shift my efforts to some other endeavor, but He has not set a date for my retirement that does not coincide with my inability, through death or disability, to function. To think otherwise, would earn a rightly scornful response:

“You fool!”

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!”

The Sabbath-Driven Life

News Update: I have not mowed the grass on a  Sunday since my previous post on the topic. I’m feeling good about that, but my wife and I are planning on driving a very long way on this coming Sunday.

Back to the matter at hand, though. At the beginning of this summer, I had a great lawn care plan pop into my head. Typically, I need to mow the grass for the first time in April and do it roughly once a week until about October. If my records are correct, I average twenty-four mowings per year. So this April, I decided to work ahead. I mowed on April 10 and then on April 12, April 13, twice on April 14, and once a day until I reached twenty. I figured that I could do the remaining four mowings on some cool October Saturday and call it a season.

This seemed like such a great plan, but then the guy from the city waded through the two-foot-tall bluegrass to come to the door and issue me a citation. Clearly, our civic leaders have no vision regarding alternative work patterns.

The reality of lawn care is that no matter how much work we try to do ahead of time, the task is never done until we don’t own the lawn any more. It doesn’t matter how many times I mowed last month, I still have to do the job this week and next week, and next month, and next year.

Similarly, we cannot complete our obligations to God ahead of time. I can’t observe “Sabbaths” seven days in a row and then have nearly two months to spend as I want. I can’t work my tail off serving God for a couple of years and then declare that I have “done my time” and go into retirement.

God has given us lives that we’re to work through just as surely as we care for our lawns. Ignoring the work to be done is not an option. Working ahead is not a real  possibility. Instead, we are to continue serving  and stewarding until relieved.

Paul understood this, although I don’t think he owned a lawnmower. In 2 Timothy 4:7, he doesn’t speak of running hard for part of the race or of struggling through part of a fight. Instead, he sees himself nearing the end of life but pushing through the finish line or the final bell.

I have mowed the good grass? I have finished the yard? Yes, but only until it needs it again.