The Incredible Shrinking House

Ecclesiastes 7:10

“That used to be a big house.” That’s one of the stranger things that I’ve heard my mother say as I drive around the area of northeast Independence, Missouri where she grew up.

Part of me wants to turn to her and ask, “Did the house shrink?” but I bite my tongue. There’s no point to questioning this or any of the various statements that she makes, each one suggesting that things are different and not for the better. I’d definitely be wasting my time to share this:

Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” 
since it is not wise of you to ask this.

Ecclesiastes 7:10

The Good Old Days

Why does it seem natural for us to believe that we’re living in an time that falls short of some by-gone golden age. Since my mother just turned ninety-nine, I find it very easy to see this tendency in her. She constantly laments how much things cost. “I can remember when bread was a nickel a loaf.” She probably can’t, but when she bought bread for 20 cents in 1940, she also worked at Sears and Roebuck, a good job, for $15 a week. That means that she could have purchased 75 loaves of bread a week.

Today, someone in a similar job might be making $10 an hour or about $400 a week. If they buy the cheap bread at Walmart, they might be able to bring home around 250 loaves at minimum. But the good old days were better.

But lest I do nothing but pick on my mother, let me consider myself. When I fire up Spotify, I mostly listen to music from years gone by. “They just don’t write them like that anymore.” When I go to church, I think about the glory years when we packed the place and seemed to be able to do no wrong. Of course, that music only seems better because it’s familiar. Those glory years at the church were laced with their fair share of frustration as well.

Is today better or worse than yesterday? Yes. Having lived the last 20 years or so online, I hate the idea of going back to a time when we had to write checks and address envelopes to pay our bills, go to the library to investigate questions, and fumble with DVDs to watch movies.

On the other hand, we didn’t need to worry nearly as much about privacy and cyber security in those days. We could have much greater confidence in the quality of the information we discovered at the library, and the entire nation had a shared sense of culture rather than the fragmented audiences and shattered attention spans of today.

Getting in Tune

Again, is today better or worse than yesterday? It’s really a foolish question to ask. How do you measure the better or worse quality of a time period? Some of us get misty eyed looking backward at a nostalgic day that never existed. Some people look longingly at a progressive utopia that will never materialize as they imagine. And today is just today.

With its good and its bad, today is today. With its own yesterday and tomorrow, today is today. Today, like every today that came before, has its promises and pitfalls, and it looks forward to “that day,” the Day of the Lord, spoken of by most of the prophets.

We’re foolish to look at today and think it inferior to yesterday. Whether it is better or worse is irrelevant. Instead, we need to live today with an awareness of “that day,” which will surely come.

In that day
the mountains will drip with sweet wine,
and the hills will flow with milk.
All the streams of Judah will flow with water,
and a spring will issue from the Lord’s house,
watering the Valley of Acacias.

Joel 3:18

Solvent as Sears?

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

My mother’s first job was with Sears and Roebuck. She worked in the catalog department in the huge warehouse and store that used to stand just east of Kansas City’s downtown. Her favorite tale of those times is handling a return of some chickens that had died in transit. Sears doesn’t issue a catalog anymore. They don’t sell chickens or much of anything these days.

But there was a time when they were the big roosters in the retail barnyard. The slogan, “Solid as Sears,” was not a punchline in those days. Fifty years ago they were the biggest retailer in the world. Today, much diminished even after merging with another former giant, K-Mart, they’ve sold off most of their brand assets like Craftsman and Kenmore, and seem to be circling the drain. The question is when, not if, they will eventually collapse completely.

Since we don’t have kings these days, we can maybe apply Solomon’s ideas to companies–or maybe to ourselves.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

Multi-Variable Math

It’s interesting to me that this text introduces three variables. He might have said it’s better to be poor and young than rich and old. Instead, he throws in that wisdom variable. Is it better to be a wise old king than a poor wise youth? I’m not sure, but clearly your wealth and position won’t help you if you are a fool.

Is it better to be young than old, all other things being equal? I think I’d opt for that, although I’m not sure Solomon would agree. Is it better to be rich than poor? We needn’t dignify that question with an answer. Clearly it is better to be wise than foolish. It’s the combination of these things that makes this passage a little tricky.

No Fool Like an Old Fool

Sears seems to have behaved foolishly, or maybe they’re just going the way that companies go after a 125 years. And what about people? Is it natural for people to become foolish, utterly stuck in their ways and resting on whatever success and position they have accrued over their lives? It certainly seems common, but there’s no reason to believe it to be natural.

From an early age, we are urged to do the right things. Stay in school. Work hard. Don’t do drugs. Save for retirement. Maintain a financial reserve. Floss. We’re admonished that if we do all of these things, then we will enjoy success. By and large, that advice is solid.

What a shame then that people follow that advice, attain a position of influence and respect, accumulate sufficient financial status to not worry, and then cease to listen to anyone around them. Such people wind up losing their influence and believing that their assets will render them important. If it doesn’t work for a king, it won’t work for mere commoners.

Getting in Tune

Most people who read this are not millennials. You’re mostly O4Cs (Over 40 Christians), and many of you have done a lot of the things that were impressed upon you over the years. Perhaps you have a secure job, good benefits, money in the bank, and all your own teeth. Congratulations.

Now that you have arrived or can at least see the destination to which you’re en route, don’t stop listening to wise counsel, especially the counsel of God. Solomon urges us to be wise, suggesting that whatever we have gained over the years, even to a crown, will likely be squandered if we’re not heeding warnings any longer.

Today, Sears stock is selling for $.29 a share. In 2005 if was over $50. Be glad if that wasn’t in your 401K.