Archive for February, 2012

Both Sides of the Coin

February 27, 2012

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.  This too is meaningless.

The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich man permits him no sleep.  Ecclesiastes 5:10, 12.

From verse 8 on to the end of the chapter Solomon troubleshoots the issues surrounding poverty and wealth, exploring the outcomes within each.  His efforts are not to dis wealth, rather he simply points out the dichotomy of having it.

A person with their basic needs already met can sleep peacefully since he or she have very little to worry them or keep them up at night.  I’ve noticed those with power (a form of wealth) do almost anything to keep it.  Politicians make promises as part of the campaign they certainly know they won’t be able to keep, especially in a democracy where compromise and negotiation takes center stage.  This means they knowingly speak a lie when they claim to be able to change laws or rules of governing.  If they told the people they planned to fight for an ideal and win as much ground as possible for it, then that would be the truth.  If these people compromise while gaining key issues, they are using their resources of negotiation to win.

A person in lust with money (I’m not calling it “love” that would demean love) never has enough of it.  When these types of people get a bundle of it, they want more, though it does them no good except to know they have it.  I once heard a Wall St. investor say that making money was a way of keeping score; the interviewer sarcastically returned, “Sure, but what you can do with it isn’t lost on you either.”  There are no altruistic motives for lust.  Though the word “lust” has become synonymous with sex, it originally pointed to having a very strong desire to obtain something.

Like I said before, the laborer can be just as lustful as the wealthy person.  It comes down to the attitude with which they live.  If they believe the only way to be happy is with more, then they will strive till the kill themselves to obtain more.  The only cure for this mental condition is a change of heart, which as far as I know comes only through a crisis of some sort which shakes the current paradigm we work from to its foundations.  The only true solution to lust comes through Jesus.

Paul’s assertion that those eager to get rich fall into a trap and a snare should give everyone pause.  The rich are already supplied, it’s those who don’t have it that are eager to get it.  So claiming the wealthy are the only greedy bad guys out there ignores the problem on our end.  Jesus warned His disciples not to worry about anything and later Paul claimed he had learned the secret of being content with plenty or lack, whether well fed or hungry.  He also took it a step further and exhorted his readers do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition present your requests to God; and the God of peace will be with your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

I consider the greatest wealth available to us to be peace of mind which leads us to be content with what we have at hand.  This kind of peace doesn’t exclude striving for better circumstances or working hard, instead it fuels our determination to be diligent.  At the same time we don’t do so out of anxiety or worry but because we care.

Here’s some facts/truth for us to remember:  We don’t bring anything into the world so taking anything with us is probably not on the negotiating table.  We might be born and end up with a life, but at the moment one out of one dies, so no one really has any advantage over another.  All the goods we seem to think we “own” were here long before any of us ever came on the scene.  The fruits, grains, nuts, animals, etc. were created before us as provision and our first father and mother rejected the One who created it.  Ever since the human race has been trying to reclaim or simply lay claim to what we did not create or work for to the point that we think being a god means we get to hoard everything we gain for ourselves without sharing it.

Ironic isn’t it that those who reject God for being a tyrant strive to be just like the image they have of him.  I doubt very many people will admit it but our take on God is colored by our own motives.  We are the ones who starve our enemies to hoard the wealth; we are the ones who rule with cruelty and selfish intent.  We continue to blame God for all the problems on earth but refuse to solve our own natures which cause nearly every single one of them.  It’s almost funny (if it weren’t so tragic) how we throw blame around like rocks shattering lives and breaking up even good things just to keep the spotlight off ourselves.  Unfortunately, the spotlight will become a reality for everyone—even those who were really good at hiding the truth.

The kings from our distant past who thought they could take their wealth into the afterlife are now on display, along with the wealth they stored, in a local museum or two.  Thieves looted almost every grave the Pharaohs built and ancient tombs around the world.  The penny should drop the moment I said that last sentence but I doubt it does for most.  These powerful characters hurt their own people to build magnificent tombs to transition them into whatever afterlife they considered to be waiting, but ended up being bones and leather.  All that stuff became priceless history for us but none of it transitioned into the afterlife with them.  Their hearse carried more wealth than most people will ever see in their lifetime and it sat in their graves rotting until treasure hunters looted it or archeologists found it.

This too is a grievous evil:  As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?  All his days he eats in darkness with great frustration, affliction and anger.  Ecclesiastes 5:16, 17.

Though I would wager most self-help gurus and NT Christians find these two verses to be wrong, I’d say they aren’t looking at the world through the right kind of lens.  Just because Jesus bought us hope through His death and resurrection doesn’t mean our lives have positive outcomes.  My dad suffered with a congenital nerve disorder all his life and it finally resulted in several heart attacks, four or five surgeries and health problems for the rest of his adult life.  Mom was one of the most godly people I’ve ever known yet she ended up not knowing herself or anyone else due to dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s.  The world will play the “cup half empty/half full” game with us but it feeds on darkness, frustration and anger just the same.  No amount of positive reasoning can make us accept the disasters which kill millions of people.  No amount of positive thinking can prevent genetic disorders or illnesses from hurting good people.  A woman I know whose life was an example to so many ended up with extensive cancer in both her breasts and a couple of other places.  She survived.  She didn’t “deserve” her illness or cure any more than you or I.

My point is a lot of our energy is spent on trying to solve the darkness surrounding and slowly encroaching on us.  Do what we might, we cannot deny the frustrations or anger life on earth inspires for it would be foolish to do so.

Life without hope is dark.

I am a follower of Jesus because, whatever He was—whether God’s Son or just a very sincerely good man, He spoke of living a life full of light.  His ideals have changed history.  Every freedom, privilege and right we enjoy in America today came because someone believed in the ideals Jesus preached.  The Golden Rule lived out in society produced change for millions.  Ecclesiastes might sound like a very negative book, but I disagree:  life without Jesus is hopeless.

A people without a vision perish.  Jesus gives us a vision of what life could be if we continue to live in the light.

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Surprise! There’s Injustice and Inequality in the World…

February 20, 2012

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one and over them both are others higher still.  The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.  Ecclesiastes 5:8, 9.

 

For the most part, I’m pretty disappointed in the human race—especially those who claim to be wise and in the “know”.  It seems very few people harbor any sense of realistic outlook on the world’s drama unfolding.  Living in Portland, constantly bombarded with social and environmental issues, I find some people care about these things to the exclusion of rational thinking.  Some get so concerned for the issue they fight for that their humanity becomes compromised.

Poverty is one of those issues.

It’s always frustrating to me when people act surprised by poverty.  In America we barely register the world’s definition of the word itself, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s not like there isn’t a cause for it.  Disaster, substance abuse, laziness, oppression, economic fluctuations, personal tragedy, etc. all contribute to the conditions of the poor.  Yet at least a few of the problems could be avoided if society cared more for people than they do about accomplishing great things for society or power mongering.  Of course, the US also knows poverty yet it’s an odd type of poverty.  Our poor have more goods than most poverty stricken people.  It’s hard to worry about a culture of poor people who can own a TV, car, iPods, get food stamps, shop for used clothing or whatever at discount places like Goodwill or Salvation Army, etc.  I don’t consider myself hard hearted towards them, rather I feel we have a whiner attitude which pervades a rather privileged culture.  To be blunt, while I acknowledge the under privileged and the children who go hungry in our country, we don’t have to with all the programs here.  The children who tend to go hungry here rarely do so because the programs to provide for them don’t exist.  It’s usually the fault of the parents who are strung out on drugs, alcohol or practice some form of abuse—neglect, physical or mental.

The wackiest problem we encounter as human societies is that of the hierarchy taking a lion’s share of the goods which come in from the “fields” where the food supply is grown.  I’ve dug ditches and must say that whatever the bosses say, those guys down doing the hard work deserve to be paid better than they are.  But it won’t ever happen.  Human nature being what it is those in charge believe in some odd sense they deserve a bigger cut of the profit than those actually doing the grunt work.  It’s a weird juxtaposition brought on by entitlement attitudes of the rich and educated.  Still, I get it, when a person owns a plot of land, the larger portion of the profit should go to them.  Otherwise they won’t have seed or enough income to maintain the property nor will they be able to weather disasters and market fluctuations.  That said, their workers must be paid a reasonable salary as well.

Yet the impoverished struggle with greed, envy, jealousy, lust and covetousness just as much as their rich counterparts.  Those who have money worry about losing it to some disaster or failure on their part; those without it worry about getting it.  Those impoverished or on the borderline of it lust after getting it.

I grew up in a lower middle class family.  This is not to say my folks weren’t educated, Mom went to college though Dad didn’t make it through third grade, still they were professional people after the style of the 50s and 60s.  Dad became a mechanic following a car accident which almost killed him, leaving one hip disjointed, two broken vertebrae, and crushing four disks.  I remember he could cut a car in half, weld a new half on and when he finished you wouldn’t know it had ever been damaged.  Mom turned out to be an exceptional nurse (this from those who worked with her), and I think she must have had a fairly intelligent mind because she could grasp abstracts pretty well.

In the fall of 1971 Dad almost died from three heart attacks while setting chokers and bundling logs.  We were a couple hours flight from Ketchikan, Alaska, so when this happened they had to first get a plane to pick him up, leaving Mom, my brother Tracy and I to worry.  I honestly don’t remember much about that day at all.  I can remember parts of scenes, but nothing much beyond snatches.  We moved to town, found an apartment in the least raunchy of the housing projects across from the ferry docks and Mom began hunting for a job.  Unfortunately for us Dad couldn’t get insurance because of a preexisting heart condition (which turned out to be something else entirely), so money was so tight we had to live on the last of his wages and severance pay from the logging camp.

I don’t remember the move to our new apartment; the next clear memory is going to school then a trip to the Post Office.  We heard from Dad somewhere in that timeframe and the lead doctor assured us he would recover if he took it easy and didn’t overstrain himself.  Turns out his heart was in perfect condition up to the heart attacks, but he had a rare condition known as Wolfgang-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a nerve disorder which caused fibrillation and dizziness.  He came home two (?) months later and would never be able to work again full time—or even part time for that matter.  Social Security kicked in as did the food stamps, without which we wouldn’t have made it.

Before Dad came back we boys needed new coats, since it was September or October when it all went down.  Mom prayed for exactly $60.00 to pay for new coats and the utilities, which were scheduled to be shut off, telling no one about our situation.  A little while later on one of our trips to the Post Office, she began to cry and hold up a letter, telling me to look inside it, and there was exactly $60.00.

I ended up going to a private Christian grade school and when I reached hi school, began working to pay for both Tracy’s and my school bills.  We didn’t know poverty on the level of people from second or third world countries, but it was pretty tight.  Mom attempted to get her RN when I was 14-16 years old, but her health gave out two months before she could finish school and she ended up getting a job at a college in Washington.  She couldn’t go back to nursing for several years because of the burnout.  The stress of Dad’s health and lack of resources caused her to become allergic to all sorts of things—even her own skin.

I am not one of those who will cite the “tragedies” in my past for sympathy; instead I want people to understand I get it.  I know what it means to go without to a point.  I didn’t even own a car until I was 27, and that was given to me by my brother.  And all this just to say, the conditions in America rival the middle class of most countries.

Yet this doesn’t detract from the problem of the rich abusing their power and taking a lion’s share of the wealth.  Everyone profits from the field and should be grateful for the people who do the back breaking work it takes to put that food on the table.  We should also be thankful for the people in the market who take care of our goods in a way which allows us to be free from diseases or bacteria.  God expects us to share the wealth and give to those who are underprivileged, while at the same time making sure we do our best to never enable those who refuse to work.

The wealthy who take advantage of the poor will pay the price eventually.  A person can’t abuse the system which brings them profit then expect that system to remain stable.  If we break the hand that feeds us, we can’t expect it to work for us until it heals.

A tough path to negotiate.

Dream Talk

February 13, 2012

As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.

Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.  Therefore stand in awe of God.  Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7.

 

Whenever we see a repeated phrase in Scripture, we must sit up and pay attention because there’s always something to learn.

Solomon uses the natural to illustrate the artificial.  Weird dreams come as a side effect to stress or intense situations, be they good or bad, since the brain is trying to process whatever is causing it.  The dreams hold significance only in so far as they come naturally and, in our modern understanding, demonstrate the mind’s ability to analyze and store the information pouring in.  Unfortunately for those who would like to place more emphasis on them than they warrant, these dreams don’t mean anything profound (outside of the fact that the brain is an amazing organ) because our brains do the same thing a computer does when it updates files and organizes them (where do you think humans got the idea from?).  So ultimately they are meaningless, which means we can’t put much stock in anything we see in them.

As with these types of dreams, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.  A person who lacks understanding uses a cascade of words to convince or impress, all the while unaware it results in the exact opposite effect.

Mom used to tell stories about her kids as little tykes often enough that many of them became family legends.  One of them her and Dad would laugh about every chance they got was of me at the age of 2 or 3.  At the time we attended one of the local churches where there was an older gentleman serving as an elder.  As luck would have it, he prayed the longest prayers anyone could, and if you know anything about Protestant church traditions, this would be the prayer just before the sermon where all the requests were brought to the alter.  Everyone loved the old guy but Dad told me he was “windy”, meaning he talked a lot.  From what I remember of the story it seems these prayers were up to 10 or 15 minutes long.

This one Sabbath during the pastoral prayer (did I mention this was a “kneeling” time as well) he began his liturgy in full force.  As time went by the little red headed boy kneeling next to his dad began to wiggle, then squirm then open one eye and whisper,  “Now, Daddy, now?”  “Shhhh, no not yet.”  This went on for the longest time, and from what the folks told me, it was probably one of his longest prayers.  At this point everyone was a little bored and/or annoyed with kneeling so long, just wishing he’d quit.  “Now, Daddy?”  “No, no, shhh, just a minute or two more.”

Little boys have ants in their pants according to my parents, so you can imagine me as a little red headed bundle of energy sitting still for anything more than two minutes as a miracle.

“…And, Lord, we thank Thee for hearing our supplications and answering our prayers.  Ahhhhhhmen.”

The little red headed boy jumped up and exclaimed in a voice only toddler’s have, “Aaaamen!”

Mom could never tell that story without beginning to giggle and by the time she was finished with my “Aaaaamen!” she was in full hysterics remembering how the congregation burst out laughing partly from relief, partly from the fact that it was a child who spoke. It could only happen with the perfect timing of a little boy expressing what they all felt but were too respectful and steeped in tradition to say anything.  To be honest, I don’t remember doing it at all.

While I respect the old man’s relationship with God and his desire to speak the needs of his brothers and sisters, in the public setting he ignored the attention span of those listening, which resulted in something less than a blessing.  In this context his earnest, sincere and wholly appropriate prayer in a solitary place became meaningless and something of a burden to the congregation.  Was he a fool?  Not really, but even if his words had meaning to God, who probably looked down with affection for this old patriarch in his idiosyncratic and somewhat misguided fervor, after 5 minutes the message held no meaning for his fellow church members.

If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us are fools at one time or another.  We speak when we should be silent or listen, are silent when we should speak, and the problem cycles back around for the rest of our lives.  It isn’t that some don’t have a sense of timing about speaking or silence, it’s just that most of us follow our urges more often than wisdom.

In the context of our passage above we must think carefully about timing, for God is in heaven and we are on earth.  He is wholly other, holy (meaning set apart and special), distinct and worthy of respect as well as reverence.  I don’t think He minds us pouring our hearts out to Him, whether in joy or sadness or some mix in between, but I do believe He expects to be treated differently than we would a human king or president.

 

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.  Proverbs 29:18.  (NIV)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.  Proverbs 29:18.  (KJV)

 

Dreams of this sort in Proverbs are not the point Solomon’s trying to make; although, I would argue that far too often people who ache to do something important dream up revelations from God.  I’ve had people approach me with “a word from the Lord” which was so far off base that I wondered how to break it to them.  A person who receives a word from the Lord will hesitate before saying anything because revelation only comes through prayer, fasting and change in the attitude of the one called to speak, folks.  Anyone who lives outside of this regimen is dreaming about being prophetic instead of the real thing.  I would go so far as to say that anyone who snaps off revelations without first a lifestyle of being in the Word, meditating in the Spirit and giving themselves over the change that brings has nothing to say but is the fool who multiplies empty words.

I say this because I’ve been that fool.

I also believe that many of us want to see miracle in action, so we attempt to manufacture it or conjure it up through impressions we have about others.  A word from God must be validated through the testimony of at least one or two others.  To confirm that it is actually the Spirit we have to be careful that we are taking the time to test our own spirits.  This is to confirm the Word of God is being revealed and not some vendetta or prideful power grab or something in the line of pushing Him into doing what we think should be done.  This is not magic, folks, we don’t dictate the outcomes of anything but are simply the conduits of His will.  What we reveal or know must be founded on the wisdom that comes down from heaven or it is of human origin—even if it is scriptural.  Misapplied Scripture is as good as lie, for the father of lies misquotes the Word of God even to God Himself.  We would do well to take warning from Satan’s temptation of Christ in the desert.

One of my nephews tells me I’m missing that room where people bounce thoughts around before expressing them.  He thinks I go straight from thought to words without any form of deliberation in between.  Though this is not always true, it is something I’ve had to develop.  It isn’t that my folks didn’t try to teach me discretion, on the contrary, they tried very hard.  It’s really more about a decision I made early on to be open and authentic; not realizing how harmful full disclosure could be to those who don’t practice it.  Most people aren’t authentic, let’s just be honest with ourselves.  Even I am reticent to speak to certain realities in my internal life for fear of censure instead of help or sympathy.

My point isn’t about authenticity, however, it’s about speaking too much.  I use lots of words in order to convince people to believe me, which has the exact opposite effect.  The more the words, the less the meaning and it doesn’t benefit anyone.  I’m learning to choose my words, edit my thinking so that when whatever I say becomes succinct and poignant rather than confusing.

When approaching God, however, we are not merely speaking to an equal.  Our speech must be tempered with reverence, awe and respect.  God is not common.  God is special, beyond the pale and deserving.  I doubt I know how to speak to Him properly anymore than anyone else, but as I grow to know Him my respect and sense of difference does too.