Archive for March, 2012

Too Much is as Good as Nothing

March 27, 2012

Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he.  The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?  Ecclesiastes 6:10, 11.

 

For years now that last sentence has haunted me.  I’m a talker, as anyone who knows me locally can tell you, and the verbiage can run on and on.  But as I was looking at various translations of this passage it started to look like Solomon made a statement more about naming things than just talking too much—though I’m sure this principle still holds even there.

The context suggests that increasing the names of whatever exists or who man is doesn’t mean anything; for it doesn’t change who we are.  Today’s names mean less than nothing to us.  We don’t name a child for heritage most of the time, nor do we give them names because they represent something about our lives or the future of our children.  We give them exotic sounding names or good, solid traditional ones for the sound of it.  The reasons hold no depth, no life, no identity, merely a nice way of getting someone’s attention.

Solomon is not only suggesting but emphatically proclaiming that the names humanity gives things matter very little because God has already identified them.  In our modern societies (and this holds mostly for the western nations) we don’t give depth, history or identity to much of anything.  In fact, in all our pursuit of self-actualization and –realization this is the one area we’ve abandoned.  From my perch up on this soapbox I see Americans and Europeans alike obsessed with knowledge and information but rarely about the true meaning of individual identity.  Oh, we’re lonelier and more isolated than ever, for sure, but the more “individual” we become, the less part of the tribe, family or nation we feel or behave.  On the other hand, genealogy is very popular as way of connecting us to our past but deriving much in the way of meaning about lives today.  Whereas in God’s view we are who we have become precisely because of where come from and from whom we are descended.

I’ve often passed by a stream or river and wondered how it got its name.  I mean, living in Portland, Oregon, there are lots of those names running around too.  Just thinking about the name “Portland” makes me stop to consider why it was named this.  Was it just because someone liked the name?  I mean Maine has a city named “Portland” too, which is much older than ours.  Does that mean anything?  Yes.  Ports were places were goods were loaded and unloaded.  “Port land” is a landing spot for goods and services on the Willamette river several miles up from the Columbia river.  What started out as a docking place in a river or beach because a community of traders and whatnot, which turned into a village, then a town, then a city.

I find it strange, now that I know Scripture fairly well, how we lost this tradition of identity through one’s name.  In Hebrew literature a name meant being known for oneself and finding a place within the community.  In a lot of ways this sounds limiting because societies tend towards conformity to the point of pain if we don’t.  Yet in a healthier sense it is about belonging to a family group, tribe and nation.  John tells his readers in Revelation we will all be given new names that only God and we know.  A name is our identity; the more we name things different out of new traditions or convenience, the more they lose their meaning for us as monuments to our past, which plays into our identity.  David met up with a man named “Nabal” meaning “fool”.  I’m sure it wasn’t his given name but one which his reputation warranted.  In our era to call someone a fool is to imply they are stupid and can’t learn, in David’s era it pointed to a person’s lifestyle morally and ethically.

So the more names we give our memorial stones (a tradition Israel had of remembering important events by piling stones up) the less we remember the meaning.  Part of this is due to the language changes over the centuries and especially in the twentieth century.  Five hundred years ago the language adjusted every hundred or so years; today it does so every five to ten (the latter time might be off because the article I read about it is probably two years old).  This means global communication affects how language is used.  Technology changes how words and some names are applied now more than ever.  For thousands of years the abacus was the most sophisticated common “computer” known to mankind; now it is a relic.

How does this affect our subject?

Simply this:  when we change the use of a name or word we affect society’s reaction and understanding of it.  The most we increase the names and rhetoric around a subject or person the less either of those mean to us.  I believe the enemy of our souls knows this and is using an abundance of literature to cloud the person and name of Jesus.  Those who refuse to believe His teachings or in Him as the Son of God will look for and find other explanations for the gospels and Jesus’ life.  The more the words the less the meaning, which ends up not benefiting anyone.  If we truly want to grasp Jesus as He and the disciples presented His message, we must go back to the original language intent on finding words in our own which will as accurately as we can convey His meaning.

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Continuing a Theme

March 21, 2012

I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men:  God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead.  This is meaningless, a grievous evil.  Ecclesiastes 6:1, 2.

 

Do you hear Solomon refer to God as the one who doesn’t allow the man to enjoy his wealth and honor?  It sounds like God has a direct hand in this man’s misery doesn’t it.   But let’s turn the stone and look at it from another angle.

Earlier in Ecclesiastes we read the reason everything is meaningless is because after a lifetime of striving, someone else gets to spend the results of our efforts.  Why?  Think about why this is true.  What is God doing?  What is the situation in which the person striving finds futility and emptiness at the end of their life?  As far as I can tell, it isn’t God who makes us miserable it’s us.  If all anyone ever does is work without enjoying the gains they have made, they have no one but themselves to blame for the lack of joy they find at the end of the day.

It’s in the programming, in my estimation.  If we give into worry, anxiety and fretting about security and provision, we can’t feel confident our gains will last long enough for us to enjoy them.  It’s a mindset brought on either by our cultural or sub-cultural habits.  For instance a culture could be created by the king or ruler that 60% of all anyone produces goes to the government.  In this case, the seed for next year’s crop, livestock breeding pairs and whatever else we use to earn our way has to come out of the 40% left.  Out of this we also have to make a profit enough to feed, clothe and house ourselves.  Frugality becomes the name of the game and eventually all we know.

Dad was young boy in 1929, roughly 7 or 8, I believe.  The poverty of his family formed his character, pursuits and perception of what it meant to have “enough” because they ended up eating squirrels, possums and rattlesnakes sometimes, just to survive.  I asked him once how his family afforded bullets and gunpowder when they were so dirt poor.  He gave me a crooked grin and said, “I had to become a crackshot, that’s how.”  Every time he shot something he would save the bullet if he could find it as well as the shell, reform it and fill the cartridge again.  Later, my brother, Tom, and he shot a jackrabbit on the run without actually taking careful aim; they just brought the gun to their shoulders, pointed it at the rabbit and shot.  Those who were there said every time they shot, the jackrabbit jumped—meaning it was hit.  Economy developed Dad’s sense of precision and frugality.

Years later, I took him and Mom to an Italian restaurant for dinner.  Dad looked the menu over, picked something and we ordered.  Before the waitress picked up the menus, however, he glanced at the prices and went red in the face.  I guess the dish he ordered was $11 or something like that, which made him squirm and gag.  He refused to eat something that expensive because no food should cost that much.  I ate it for dinner later.

Conditioning is a powerful thing.  People grow up poor who only later in life become prosperous develop certain ticks and habits which affect the way they reason and live.  A man who is afraid of losing his prosperity will work himself into the ground to put as much cushion as possible between him and the feared eventuality.

Taking care of our wealth is scriptural.  Worry and anxiety about it isn’t.

 

Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  Ecclesiastes 6:9.

 

I think the word described is contentment.  Satisfied would be another good one.

Yet the problem with what we call “contentment” is that some people see it as complacency.  It’s not, of course, but it’s sometimes interpreted that way.  Being satisfied with what we have—i.e. being content—doesn’t imply by default a lack of initiative or inventiveness.  Creative endeavor just for the sake of more or craving what someone else has falls under lust and covetousness not true creativity for its own sake.

On the other hand, if we don’t use our curiosity to invent, we don’t improve or change or grow.  This brings up a conundrum for me.  Where’s the middle ground on this?  I mean, if we are to be content with what we have, does that mean our lives and situations cannot be improved?  Think about it for a minute.  On the one hand we have the Bible preaching contentment, then on the other it teaches us to accomplish.  What’s the perfect balance of these two sides?

To my mind it’s more about attitude than anything else.  In cold climates we need to heat our homes during the winter, wear clothing which is insulated and generally get around in slick conditions.  A person moving from a tropical climate could not survive the weather “being content” with what they wore in warmer weather.  So Paul and Jesus must be saying something else.

The attitude of lust gets misdirected to sex alone for most people.  If I mention (which I just did) the word, most people think of porn, promiscuity or extramarital affairs.  Rarely do we take into account the nature of lust is to crave what we don’t have or obsess about what we do.

Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite.

Wanting what we have means having what we want.  At the same time, I see no problem with wanting a flat screen TV, new car or better kitchen, if the old ones are about done—or even if they aren’t.  Lust isn’t about wanting new things but being overwhelmed with the desire for them.  In other words, it becomes all we think about.  Covetousness and greed fall under lust, in my estimation.  When we constantly want other things besides what we have, we become like children who obsess over the toy they haven’t got rather than playing with the ones they already have.

It’s one of the problems with giving children or anybody too much.  Ever seen a picture of a little girl or boy with only one toy?  Notice they value their treasure very much and protect it so they can play with it for a long time.  I don’t know that “content” necessarily describes most children in this instance but it’s something along that line of thinking.

I want to stop lusting after the grass in the next field—even if my grass isn’t as good.  Which brings up another point:  Why is my grass sparse or dying?  Almost without fail the reason most of our own “fields” are in bad repair is because we ignore them for the sake of lusting after another.  In other words, we obsess so much about what we don’t have that someone else has that we aren’t able to appreciate what we do have.

The Bible has no problem with gaining more by being profitable through industriousness; nor does there seem to be any condemnation of owning lots of stuff.  What is frowned upon is wanting more “just because” to the point of stealing, defrauding or simply lusting.  Contentment in the biblical sense, therefore, must not imply gains from one’s holdings but gains desired or made at the expense of someone else.  Last thought:  Comparison is probably the culprit in most issues of this sort.  We see what another has and ours pales by comparison.  It could be that the other person has nothing more than what we have available to us, yet because we aren’t satisfied or content with what we have we think theirs is better.

Chasing after the Joneses is like a dog chasing its tail or a person chasing the wind.

The Art of Keeping Children Occupied

March 5, 2012

Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot.  Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.  He seldom reflects on the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.  Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.

 

I guess one could take the above statement as a psychological reading of why some people never really register how fortunate they are in the grand scheme of things.  Until I read this passage today, it never crossed my mind that sometimes people who are prosperous just can’t see how bad the world is because God keeps [them] occupied with gladness of heart.  Yet Solomon isn’t talking about the head-in-the-sand types but those few allowed to enjoy the contentment which comes from not needing anything—literally.

I must say, I have never experienced this type of contentment from abundance and I doubt very many have.  The reason is simple:  we resemble the previously mentioned type of people who worry about gaining or losing our wealth.  I have met, however, a few who match this description in our passage above.  They might be few and far between, but they do exist.

On the one hand it seems easy to be content once a person arrives at a certain supply volume.  On the other, human nature being what it is, we rarely see anyone with “enough” maintain it without stress.

Solomon is speaking to us about a gift of God.  A gift is something we can’t argue with as believers.  He also justifies these few with his declaration that they are unable to reflect on their lives because God gifts with gladness of heart.  So when we condemn those who are simply content and happy with life and seemingly unaware of the horrors in the world their abundance seems to flout, we are actually condemning God’s sovereignty.

To expand what he said here to the NT, Jesus claimed God rained His blessings down on the righteous and unrighteous alike.  If this gift of being able to enjoy our prosperity is a gift of God, and He shows no favoritism whatsoever, then we can conclude one possible reason we don’t experience this is the fault lies with us.  Again, if God gives equally to everyone, then the reason we are not glad of heart is our own fault not some cosmic curse.  Remember, the gift spoken of here is not merely wealth but gladness of heart.

Jesus commanded His followers to let go of worry about our food, water and shelter supplies.  Paul took it a step further by suggesting godliness with contentment is the greatest gain.  Paul also went so far as to give an illustration from his own experience when he wrote I have learned the secret of being content in any and all circumstances, whether in plenty or want, well fed or hungry…going on to point out we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.  This whole teaching flies in the face of the reality we deal with everyday.  At the same time, it seems to me one of the reasons why some people don’t register how bad things are in the world is because they are kept occupied with gladness of heart.

I lived in Walla Walla, Washington, for a few years where I witnessed people living in almost a dream state of contentment.  Now remember, this is from my outsider perspective so I wouldn’t know any of the personal issues going on inside the families.  What I saw was a real sense of arrogance on the part of these mostly educated people, and thus a subtle condescension for my family because Dad barely started third grade before he had to begin supporting his family.  He was only 12.  Few, if any, admired his determination for life, intelligence or sense of loyalty to his family as much as they looked on him with pity for being uneducated.  It wasn’t always overt, because it rarely is with people who have learned nuance and social decorum, but it was there.  Eventually, one of my friend’s mothers met with me and told me I wasn’t good enough to hang out with her kids.  I wouldn’t have thought to apply what she said to my family background except that she took pains to point out the nature of my family’s low station in the town.

In writing about this meeting I’m not hiding or displaying bitterness, just focusing on the facts.  I heard from several people later that she and a few other mothers actually talked about how odd I was, wishing I would just know my place and stay away from their kids—my friends.  Later I found out this very same lady came from the type of background she accused me of having, and through her children she apologized and tried to make amends in all our later meetings.  She’s actually quite a sweet person, just damaged.

But my point is sometimes we get so fixated on our good that we begin to think that anyone who doesn’t have what we do is somehow either less than, stupid or lazy—or, if you’re into this type of Christian doctrine, dealing with a family curse.  I’ve heard all sorts of people speak this way, including my own family.  It seems when humans are blessed in some way they begin to consider themselves above those who aren’t in their “blessed” space.  I get it, but it still doesn’t follow Scriptural common sense.

Solomon approaches this subject from pre-messianic point of view.  His conclusions aren’t wrong, merely lacking in the complete picture.  Yet the conclusion above holds part of the argument both Jesus and Paul presented in their discussion of worry, anxiety, trust in God and contentment.  I believe we should be content with our lot when we prosper.  No one should ever feel guilty about having plenty.  Living in Portland, OR, I hear a lot of resentment about the rich or even well to do people.  Those concerned with poverty seem to almost hate those with enough as if it’s their prosperity which caused the evil conditions elsewhere.  While it is certainly true that some wealthy people are responsible for the horrid conditions of others, most of the truth doesn’t lie with the well off.  It is a byproduct of either time and chance or oppression/sin.

In one discussion about the privileges even our poor Americans experience the person I spoke with looked with a jaundiced eye on my son’s Wii and many toys.  Without actually accusing me of being heartless towards the homeless children in my city, they pointed out my red headed boy’s abundance as if it were evil.  My next question came to me as an inspiration, “So tell me, do you think your impoverished street kids should have enough food, toys and even a Wii?”  My friend got quiet and looked conflicted.  So I went on:

I believe all people should have everything they need and be able to earn their “wants”.  The reason they don’t is because sin makes people insane about hoarding and controlling.  The children in the streets of Portland and whatever city we name are there because of oppression, poverty, abuse, the drug and alcohol problems of their parents or their own and a host of other issues.  In New Deli the problem is mostly political because the ruling class still sees the Untouchables as cursed by the god (take you pick as to which one because they have over 2500 gods).  The select slice of Christians who look on poverty as an evidence of a family curse (taken from the OT law, by the way, which was nailed to the cross) mirror this ethic of Hinduism, though I’m sure they don’t realize it, which can only be lifted by rites and ceremonies to one degree or another.

Oddly though, no one thinks that the curse is rarely a specific sin but the natural consequences of denying God His place in our lives.  We conclude it must have been a sin of the ancestors when someone has financial troubles, all the while forgetting (or perhaps not knowing) the passage in Ezekiel 18 where God basically does away with this type of punishment.  If a person repents of his or her own evil, they will not be held responsible for the sins of the ancestors.  It’s pretty evident, however, that we don’t read the entire Bible because too often we get half-baked theology running around causing incredible anxiety, despair, depression and, quite often discouragement.

Later in Ecclesiastes 9:11 we find out that we are subject to time and chance which explains some of God’s judgment against humanity.  What if, folks, a lot of the consequences we experience come as a result of bad habits developed in the family culture?  We know from the studies of anthropologists and psychologists humans basically learn through imitation more than scholastics.  If this is true, it’s no wonder God destroyed whole city states because the evil was in the DNA.  It’s been established in the last 50 years that alcoholics pass on the gene which makes their offspring susceptible to addiction up to the third or fourth generation.  So what does that tell us?  God is punishing the children for the sins of the parents; or, something more intrinsic about His design?

God doesn’t need to punish us overtly because the consequences of our actions will be felt in the natural outcomes of our bodies, minds and societies.  To think otherwise is to make Him out to be petty and small.  No, our bodies need water, if we deny them moisture, we will become dehydrated and eventually die.  This is not a “curse” but a very real natural consequence of design.  God designed us to operate a certain way, if we step out of the design specs, we suffer the consequences and oftentimes hurt others along the way.

God keeps some people occupied with gladness of heart because they aren’t able to cope with anything else or in order to demonstrate the promise of His love to those around them.  Either way, it works.  It’s like kids who can’t cope with scary things being given the gift of insulation from all the problems in the world.  God gives some this gift to keep them from falling away as much as He expects them to give out of their abundance.  The natural byproduct of being human steers them towards arrogance, however, and they begin to think there is something extra special about them when it could just be they are too weak to endure anything else or that God is demonstrating the promise of eternal blessings through them.

Yet some are given this gift because they can handle it with godliness and sensitivity.  These people see the world for what it is, remain humble and thankful for their blessings and continue to work toward lifting others up out of their degradation and oppression.  These few deserve both our admiration and applause…though I doubt they would be comfortable with either.

“From those given much, much will be expected; from those given little, little will be asked.”  Jesus of Nazareth