Archive for May, 2013

The Trouble Is…

May 17, 2013

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun:  The same destiny overtakes all.  The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.  Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.  Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.  Ecclesiastes 9:3-6.

 

I grew up memorizing verse 5 because my denomination believed in soul sleep or unawareness in death’s state.  Since then I’ve puzzled over the two or three basic interpretations of this passage in conjunction with others that seem to say the exact opposite.  I’ve concluded I just don’t have any definitive answers as to what happens to the dead once they die.  What the state of the dead is, as in where their spirits/souls go at death, we only have clues but no concrete enough evidence for a verdict.  I know, I know, there are plenty of stories about people who have had visions of heaven on the operating table but these stories could be based on chemical or a dying brain’s hallucinations fed by preconceptions.  I’ve also met and heard of people who have had visions or dreams, which could be inspired by desire more than actual visions.  I’m not cynical just merely pointing out the human capacity to interpret experience as fact even when it’s illusion.

So here’s my take on it and you can do what you will with it:  I don’t necessarily buy into purgatory but I do believe the soul goes back to God who gave it.  I also believe that the dead are barred from contacting the living again because of two passages, Isaiah 8:19-22 and Luke 16:31.  The first passage talks about consulting mediums, spiritists and witches to contact the dead, which in our modern setting is equivalent to a séance or psychic.  The second comes from the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man where the rich man begs Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers about his suffering.  Abraham refuses and tells him, “If they won’t listen to Moses and prophets, they won’t listen even if one comes back from the dead.”  Jesus gave them clues they missed because when He was resurrected they displayed their firm disbelief—or you could call it rebellion—by claiming the disciples stole His body while the soldiers slept.  They refused to believe even when One came back from the dead.

What I get out of these is that death is a final goodbye to being involved in everything done under the sun.  At this point in my Christian journey I worry very little about the state of the dead, the afterlife or rewards and punishments.  I do have my opinions, obviously, but I’m not worried about being right about them since I know the rules above are universal.  Yet all that said I believe what matters most about our reward in eternity is how we live right now between birth and death.  I don’t believe God worries as much about all our victories and defeats as He does the continuous trend which dominates the journey while we live.

I like Solomon’s conclusion in every point he makes, since his emphasis pushes the idea that eternity is in God’s hands so what we do now is what matters.  None of us knows what comes next really.  Oh we can claim we know by faith, which is a valid argument to me, but actual factual (that rhymed) knowledge is non-existent.  I was growing up with the view that if I didn’t have all my facts straight before I died or Jesus comes, my salvation would be in question.  Then I realized the very people teaching me this “fact” worried about whether they had their facts straight all the time.  Some flat out didn’t include all the evidence available to draw the conclusion they preached.  That last issue disturbed me.

I am now at a point where I allow myself to care about truth but don’t worry about my grasp of it as much, since I know I don’t have all my facts straight anyway.  Paul and the rest of the apostles claimed we were growing in our knowledge of Jesus and the truth of the gospel.  I take it from this none of us have our ducks in a row where truth is concerned—even them.  Growth implies immaturity or a need to become, so if the apostles were growing, what can I expect for myself or others?  Getting all the facts lined up doesn’t mean anything if we sequence them wrong.

I want to explore this a little more so bear with me please.  I watched a movie years ago (and own it now) where a scientist was working on a formula for renewable energy based on cold fusion.  The protagonist in the story wondered why she hadn’t published her findings and she said, “I have to work out the sequence first.”  The formula was intact but the sequence made a difference.  As far as I can see the truth about our dominant characteristic, humanity barely gets their facts complete before they draw conclusions about what they mean.  This is dangerous because then we have a Galileo problem on our hands all over again.  You know the problem?  Galileo discovers the sun doesn’t really move around us but we move around the sun yet the opinions based on the known facts of the day put his life in jeopardy to the point where he has to retract his claims.

He was right of course and the people threatening him were dead wrong.  Those who fight against truth are…?

Most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves evil because of the connotation we put on the word.  Our interpretation of it comes from extreme examples such as Hitler, Genghis Khan, Ted Bundy, or pick your favorite example from history and modern times we would all agree committed great crimes.  The Bible calls anything outside the character of God evil, which means that Adam and Eve became evil the moment they ate the fruit.  This doesn’t imply they were mass murderers or heinous people (though through their one act of disobedience they guaranteed the death of everyone) rather it signifies a departure from the character of God.

One of my favorite sayings follows Solomon’s assertion about madness above:  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  Humanity keeps attempting to solve its problems by dent of human effort, planning or philosophy.  Oddly enough (insert sarcasm here), history has never demonstrated a period where their efforts, planning or philosophy actually worked but we keep trying.

This is madness.

Humanity is basically insane with ignorance, superstition and pride.  Our ignorance remains in spite of the leaps in knowledge we have made over the last century.  We struggle with panic attacks in our collective psyche because we are ignorant of the outcome.  We have a few facts for example about climate change yet without an historical precedent we don’t really know what they mean.  Every scientist I’ve listened to recently gives the disclaimer “This is our best guess” about the facts they have uncovered.  This should inform the rest of us that they are making educated guesses from the facts based on their ability to assess them not from conclusive historical or even empirical evidence.  The heated arguments over what the facts mean dominate our public forum.  Very few voices are reasoning for a moderate approach—that of taking care of pollution while not being paranoid about it.

Again, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  I celebrate the increases of knowledge and understanding but I see our inability to deal with our ignorance as a liability.  Circumspection is a good way to live.  Surrounding ourselves with as much perspective as possible allows us to see the facts differently while at the same time giving us the freedom to forgo conclusions which might be more harmful than helpful.

Humanity in general is mad—in every sense of that word.  We are angry about our ignorance, helplessness against the elements, state of being and general luck of the draw.  We resent being out of the loop, relegated to the fallible, stumbling, and often times devastating efforts on our part to solve our problems.  Death is a cold comfort for most, while a few welcome it with open arms.  Yet even those who welcome it do so in ignorance, thinking death as a better alternative to their life on earth.  That’s not guaranteed.

All this is to say, in my opinion there is no solution but God alone through Jesus Christ.  All other solutions might be part of God’s method but without Him to guide our efforts we are going to blow ourselves up.

The Great Equalizer

May 4, 2013

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.  All share a common destiny—the righteous and wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.  As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.  Ecclesiastes 9:1, 2.

 

After nursing school and a stent in Alaska working in an alcohol center’s detox unit, I ended up as a nurse assistant between the spring and fall quarters at college.  During my tenure there I met a man who, from all accounts, had been one of the most influential and well-to-do men in the area.  I don’t recall his name because, you know, he was a patient and it’s been 30 years or more, but what I do remember is he was dying a slow painful death from prostate cancer.  As a nursing assistant they would assign me a wing or set number of rooms to take care of and I’d be pretty busy keeping up with all the patients.  Even so, there would be lulls in the craziness where I could go talk to my friend/patient for a while.

As I got to know him I found out he was a believer.  This set us up for many cool, thoughtful discussions.  The day before he died he asked me to read Scripture to him.  I chose Psalm 71 since it spoke to old age and death a bit with hope.  I watched as the words washed over him bringing peace in his physical agony.  The next day he died and for the next month or more I chewed on the significance of a life lived well.

In the end it really doesn’t matter who we’ve been or how brilliant our career, life or family connections were, death takes us all.  The great disaster among the greatest disasters of all time levels the playing field to the point of dust.  I mean, we hear this pretty much all our lives without probably taking it in.  Until, of course, someone close to us dies or we face death ourselves, then life takes on a whole new meaning and value.  My friend/patient spent all his money on a cure, then, once the cure failed, the rest of his money went to the health support system to ease his pain while he died.  Everything he worked for came down to spending it on his death in the end.

Solomon calls death’s equalizing effect a great evil.  In a sense it definitely is, on the other hand, I’m kind of glad death sets limits on us.  Think of it:  what if some of the most despotic rulers lived eternally?  What would the world be like if they had been able to not only continue in their power grab but had no end in sight for their rule?  At the same time, many good people who blessed the world with their wisdom, kindness, generosity and good example also died.  Almost everybody agrees that evil people should die but good people?  It seems a shame.

We humans enjoy being self-actualizing beings.  As wacky as it sounds on paper (or in this case a blog entry in cyberspace) even the more righteous among us love self-determination.  Weird isn’t it?  We say we believe in a God who set the limits of the heavens and boundaries around our lives all the while taking the reigns of life’s horse by worry, anxiety and often just pushing our way through the crowds to whatever we call success.  All our accomplishments will be forgotten as likely as not before one generation past us dies out, yet we still fight to make a mark.

Working to be remembered is good, I believe.  The entire law and history in the Bible stories tells of men and women who will be remembered.  David grew humbled and thankful when God told him his line would be remembered for not only his deeds but those of future generations in his line.  While I’m sure most of us in America barely grasp the significance of that experience, we do however get the need to be known, recognized and canonized in history.  A Jew of David’s era found his or her identity in their nationality, customs and family traits.  David’s progeny took their identity and pride of heritage from Israel’s greatest king—him—as a means of value, claim to power and generally their relationship to others in the world at large.

Yet David died, so all we have now are stories. Nothing remains of his possessions and even the stories get garbled or distorted as we project our modern grasp of life onto the past.  His historical value continues to be contemplated in books, articles, documentaries and movies, each of these, in turn, adding myth to the legend.

Death, the equalizer, leaves us with only one perfect memory, God’s.  I think this is why Jesus taught so fiercely about seeking God’s will, opinion and perspective over other people’s viewpoints.  If I’m concerned with God’s view of me over all the others, my decisions will reflect it; how I live will reflect it.  Jesus came to bring reconciliation between God and mankind, and then to have that peace overflow to humanity.  The world is not a peaceful place as of this writing, to my knowledge.  The sheer hate demonstrated by people of different faiths, ethnicities and tribes is still very evident and clear.  I don’t think I will see peace in the world in my lifetime unless Jesus comes back to take over.

But, no matter.  The truth of death’s great leveling agent cannot be denied.  If we believe in God, a god or just mankind as an accident of evolution, we are all in the same situation:  we will all die.

So, what do we do with this fact?

Frankly, not much besides use it to inspire us to live.  What we do between birth and death, however, can make the difference for those who come after us as well as our own lives.  Here’s the deal breaker for me:  Life isn’t about birth or death, it’s about what we do with ourselves while we breathe.  What happens between the lines is often more important than the lines themselves, you know what I mean?

When Solomon declares there is nothing more that a person can do but to eat, drink and enjoy one’s life while we got it, I think he establishes another pure fact of God’s design.  I know, I know, Evangelical Christianity constantly harps on the verses which declare we must glorify God, but that’s just it—everything I am and do can be a part of that process—especially my happiness.