Posts Tagged ‘trust in Jesus’

Juxtaposed

April 3, 2014

James does a great job of presenting the contrast in wisdom:

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. (James 3:13-18 HCSB)

The key phrase is But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart…for it spells out what is going on behind the scenes of the play we write for public consumption. Notice the principle characteristics of heavenly wisdom tie in nicely with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23. Human wisdom hates hypocrisy when it’s made public and someone else but practices it without batting an eye when the spotlight is diverted. Those exposed as acting (which is what hypocrisy means) in public displays of righteousness while being somewhat or wholly other than in private are crucified on the cross of public opinion and scorned. Unfortunately, many doing the crucifying and scorning hide similar or even worse attributes behind their stage curtains and backdrops. Which means they are using the misfortune of someone else to divert attention away from themselves.
The believer lives out in the open for the most part. Oh, we shouldn’t trust just any person off the street with our hearts or inner struggles since the world has a tendency to turn on anyone who displays weakness. Jesus declared, “By their fruit you will know them.” If we display the characteristics of the world’s desire for blood when dealing with sinners, then we are no different. It’s no wonder so many people become bitter about the message of the gospel when its self-proclaimed practitioners fail to show the key ingredients grace and mercy.
Yet here’s the kicker: What do we expect out of sinners? What do we expect out of even those sinners washed in the blood and saved by grace?
Our expectations set us up for disappointment when applied to fallible, fallen and recovering sinners, even those saved by grace. What we believe should almost always stand juxtaposed with what is. Again, what we believe ought to be the norm often flies in the face of what exists and has never changed since the beginning of the world.
Those who follow my blog might remember the entry from Ecclesiastes where Solomon declared, Don’t be excessively righteous, and don’t be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Don’t be excessively wicked, and don’t be foolish. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp the one and do not let the other slip from your hand. For the one who fears God will end up with both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 HCSB) What else can this mean except that we should acknowledge both traits reside in us–albeit not peacefully. Paul claimed the two natures were at war with one another (see Romans 7:22, 23). If this is the state of every follower of the Way, then who has any advantage over anyone else? And if the Word of God declares all sold under sin and no one righteous without the blood of Jesus, who has the right to condemn anyone else?
This being the case does this mean we throw in the towel and give up trying to change ourselves or the world for the better? No. Yet neither does it mean we expect the impossible. Where sin affects the reasoning power the perspective skews to a lesser or greater degree. It’s impossible this side of glorification to find an un-skewed POV anywhere on the planet because everyone’s affected–or infected might be a better term. The moment someone begins their advice to me or anyone else within my hearing with words like “If the world or church would just…” I realize I’m listening to either a power-monger or an idealist.
According to the gospel, in order to get rid of oppression we must get rid of sin; to get rid of sin we must purify the human race. How do we purge the sin out of a race of practicing sinners? What sin goes first? Who’s sin gets targeted as the worst of offenses?
Again, to get rid of lying, cheating, murder, sexual deviancy, abuse, or any other evil infecting the human race to its ruin we don’t get rid of the people, ideology, or make stricter laws governing behavior but focus on the core cause of these. Behavior grows out of the thought life and inner reality a person is either educated to or chooses to believe. Culture is just a name we put on a lifestyle/modus operandi for a group of people who live in a region. They (and we in our own) develop beliefs, ethics and social structures based on the most powerful and, thus, influential voices among them.
Understandably we don’t think of the historical development of our culture because it happens so gradually the changes appears natural–or as naturally as those in control of an area present it. I’m not being cynical merely as realistic as I know how to be in order to point out what makes things “right” or “wrong” in a given context. I am amazed how little we notice the reasons for the changes made in society. For instance, why do women wear burkas in certain Middle East cultures? We could say it’s because they come from Muslim backgrounds and that’s what that religion/culture does, but that would be inaccurate since some Muslims don’t make their women wear it.
So what would be the reason behind a burka or dress style in any given culture? Many different factors could contribute to a current style or pattern. The climate, religious affiliation, family ties, government structure, and a host of other factors contribute to said culture. Now take into consideration the fact that those in power are just as often capricious, willful, self-absorbed, conceited, highly opinionated and, in some cases, ignorant in a cosmopolitan world sense, as they are just, well informed and open to diversity and you have the makings for oppression and ignorance being dictated to the ruled. What if one of the early advocates of the burka realized that his wives didn’t get noticed and stolen as often? Quite understandably that leader would be anxious to protect his “property”, posterity and sexual outlet. Look at the reasons why the ultraconservative leaders of the Islam object to an uncovered woman and you’ll see lust at the bottom. Just like blaming the woman for the gender of the child, the determination of which has been proven beyond a doubt to reside in the male sperm, blaming lust on a them removes responsibility for a man’s behavior or choices and puts it on others.
American Christianity is no different since there are sects who declare “modesty” is the best prevention of lust. If I, as a man, don’t have a problem with lust, a woman should be able to go naked in front of me and cause no alarm. But men lust after women with clothes on so it’s a no go situation and completely not the woman’s fault. I’ve seen women dress conservatively and still get lustful looks from men. So blaming others for my internal attitudes, once I have the reasoning power to choose what I will believe, is a lie.
Still, the burka could have started out as a way for women to protect their skin from the harsh desert sun. The poetry of ancient Arabic cultures speak of the milky tint of a woman’s skin as desirable so it would follow that the early Bedouin women would probably have begun wearing a scarf to cover all but their eyes in order to preserve their skin. It’s not that farfetched to reason some of the attitudes about women began quite innocently only to develop into laws of decency much later.
Just take a moment to think of habits, family traditions or accepted norms within the society or subculture in which we were raised. The reasons might not have meaning or any good purpose other than preference behind them. Which, in hindsight, almost takes the joy out of some of our most cherished traditions, making them seem shallow in light of how seriously we hold to them now as the “right way” in contrast to others. In this context our vehement defense of our methodology or tradition as “just the way it’s done” is defensible only as it pertains to a harmless practice of preferences but really contains no moral authority over those who live differently. Yet we will defend the imposition of our ethic, social structure or religious belief to the death and often decide to go to war with those who believe a diametrically opposed viewpoint as means of conforming the world to our preferences.
Comfort has a lot to do with our actions. We have no way of knowing if the person doing the dictating might be mentally disabled, the child of violence or sexual abuse, or a lack of education resulting in holding onto superstitious beliefs based on a hallucination or drug induced vision. How do we know? The aristocracy of Europe were, for the most part, the only ones educated to read and write, yet look at the atrocities and oppression they brought about.
In the church I come from the “prophet” was hit in the face by a rock when she was young which left her sick for a long time. During the 1840s she had visions which might or might not have been really from God but since the evidence of her past points to brain damage it’s more likely these were brought on by a damaged frontal lobe. I honestly don’t know at this point, neither will I argue for or against her visions because my point is we give trust to the outspoken far too easily.
The moment someone declares a revelation from God I start looking for the motivation behind it. What’s in it for them? Prestige? Power? Pleasure? Redemption? Hope? There’s an old saying which goes something like this, “When a preacher shakes your hand keep the other hand on your wallet.”
You see, humans don’t do anything from uncomplicated motives. Even the best of us, if we’re willing to delve into our psyche, make our choices out of a mixed bag of motives or reasons. Even if no hidden agenda can be discovered, the reasons we choose to go with one option over another grows out of a history of choices, biases, teaching and socioeconomic pressures.
The only thing to rescue us from bent choices is heavenly wisdom. Of course receiving daily doses of it and immersing ourselves in the source manual doesn’t guarantee we will be wise for that takes submission–coming under the mission of–to Christ and what He stands for. We can be defeated before we are even out of the starting gate by latching onto meanings without fact checking or testing the spirit with which we came to our conclusion.
Pure wisdom from heaven filters through human minds which are full of distorted images and misdirected truths to be interpreted by our biases. Denying the possibility is unwise; denying it happens with all of us is downright foolhardy, a lie we first tell ourselves then foist on others. If you don’t believe me, just count not only the number of denominations within the supposedly “unified” church of Christ but all the world religions and try to find some unifying factor. The only common thread will far too often be a complicated reasoning based on obscure motives. Almost always people accept or reject a “truth” based on their bias of the moment. The few who actually do their homework might escape it but usually default to whatever thought process fits their current comfort zone.
A believer who values truth above everything else will admit the biases and prejudices which run him or her. The only people I trust to give me good advice are the ones who I know recognize their own faults and are in the process of taking steps to grow away from them. Anyone who displays the pride of comparison or condescension not only loses my respect (for the their opinion not as a person) but my trust. When I see someone abusing the authority which God established (again, not specifically for them but the benefit of all) that person will lose both my respect for their authority and counsel.
The servant of Christ is a purveyor of peace and gentleness. One who preaches purity or any other truth without these traits has the form of godliness but without the power of the Spirit.

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The Contrast

March 26, 2014

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? (1 Corinthians 1:20 HCSB)

To answer Paul’s questions as to where the philosopher, scholar and debater are in a modern context: everywhere. In his era probably not so much because education was limited to the wealthy and even many of those didn’t have any. But in our modern context we can’t take two steps forward without running into someone who thinks they understand the mysteries of the universe or the way the world really works. I’m not complaining, just making an observation. It’s good that people have this freedom.

So what has God made look foolish?

According to Paul He’s taken what the world counts on as constant truth/reality and uses the very thing they consider to be the ultimate defeat, death, to win the war. Of course this doesn’t mean God despises conventional wisdom otherwise we wouldn’t have Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. No, the point He is trying to make is not that commonsense is useless or foolish but that our conclusions about how to save ourselves misuse or misinterpret the facts. The path of iniquity is no less mysterious than that of God’s designs.

If the message of the gospel is so easy to explain, why do we have so many denominations? Could it be the Church (and by that I mean the people not the organizations) still have too much of the world’s wisdom locked inside our hearts to understand the simple wisdom of God? Is it even possible for us to understand?

My answer will probably disturb some of you: Yes, it’s possible but not very probable.

The people who like organization like organizations, who in turn like their ducks in a neat little row with labels and categorized (or in this instance probably canonized). While I see nothing wrong with this as a method, I do see a problem when we run organization up against something new, say like walking on water or feeding five thousand men (not counting women and children) with just five loaves and two fish. But, then, now that someone canonized the event we can accept it as a possibility, though not much of a probability.

When those who love routine come up against the deviation to whatever they set up to make their world function without further effort they balk. It makes no difference if the deviation is good or bad they will hesitate, balk, resist and sometimes destroy it out of preference for what they already know. The deviation might work better than their “tried-and-true” but can’t be accepted since it doesn’t fit in with what is already comfortable.

The other side of that coin, of course, is the idea that only the new has anything to say to us. You’ll hear this in certain churches where they will declare, “God is doing a new thing!” as if all the stuff He’s already done is useless or old hat and needs to be replaced. In studying the Bible I noticed the time distance between miracles in the stories. Sometimes hundreds of years would pass by without even a trace of God’s miraculous power being in evidence. My conclusion found its source in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20 HCSB)

The miracle of life is its own argument for God. Every planet, star, galaxy, meteor, tree, animal, and human argue for a divine design. When we look for miracles in the spectacular we often miss those around us in the everyday. Jesus warned miracle seekers, Jesus answered, “I assure you: You are looking for Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. (John 6:26 HCSB) Reading the whole story he finally tells them not to look for any sign other than Him. He is the biggest miracle God has ever performed.

And Jesus is enough, right?

Of course we want to see the healing, the walking on water, the storms stilled, and whatever else God can do. But many modern Christians either fixate on the miraculous or become staunchly theological. We’ve created a conundrum which holds no basis in the Word. God’s Word is whole not fractured, we can see the message of the cross in Genesis through Revelation. Which means the modern Christian has a conundrum to solve: if scripture is all one unified message and God breathed, then how do we relate to those things which seem out of character for our modern grasp of truth?

While I believe in progressive revelation, I don’t believe that the truth of the OT is cancelled completely now that we have a new revelation. Put another way just because Jesus has come in the flesh doesn’t mean the truths of OT are now useless to us. Look at every time Jesus quoted scripture and you won’t see a single one from the NT–He was in the process of creating it. All the truths He revealed to us about God the Father came directly from the OT.

It’s not truth that’s to blame for the misunderstanding but the perspective. At the same time we have to recognize all those people from the OT with no idea about NT theology were called righteous by God and named His. He not only accepted them but blessed their journey, all the while none of them understood the complete picture or even practiced whole truth. This last truth remains something to consider in our own era. Even though Paul told the Roman believers the veil has been lifted because of the Spirit ( see Romans 3:12-18) and that we anyone who turns to Jesus looks into the glory of God open faced, we still do not understand. The veil that hid the glory of God on Moses’ face might be gone but we continue to interpret what we see from our experience and bias instead of going back to square one to start over.

In this 21st century some modern theologians have even suggested that God was learning and growing too. They intimate that since the OT is so full of wrath and death-wielding judgments that God by the NT had figured out this didn’t work so changed His method. In other words the OT methods were God’s mistake. I believe the mistake they make with this reasoning is judging God’s grasp of things by ours.

We humans work hard to understand the truth of the universe and our place in it and far too often our perspective is so limited we forget to hold onto our opinions lightly. Truth is not progressive for it exists outside of our control, it’s our knowledge of the facts that grow and change. I find the condescension and arrogance of our current culture toward the ignorance of the past a little silly since the efforts and progress of the past brought us to where we find ourselves today. We stand on the shoulders of giants who challenged the norm of society to bring about the future.

I’ve read the OT over several times using different methods, e.g. from beginning to end, skipping around at random, and taking first a book from the OT then comparing it to one from the NT. What strikes me every time is how accepting our God is. The Law of Moses held strict guidelines for human interaction and worship yet God didn’t react harshly when they didn’t perform it to the letter. His response to David who ate of the holy bread was silence and later a declaration of his faithfulness. How can that be if God expected strict obedience and even a small deviation meant punishment or even worse, death?

When we were children our perspective of time differed greatly from what we now experience. Every kid who stood in the corner for five minutes felt like it lasted forever, but from the parent’s standpoint it seemed only a few seconds. This has to do with how we experience time not time itself. The same can be said of NT theology. The apostles revealed the Messiah’s teaching and mission all from the OT perspective. No one had a NT book to quote from since these very men were in the process of writing the NT. Anytime you read the word “scriptures” in the NT it refers to the OT writings.

This means every story, prophecy, book of wisdom or psalm holds a message about the gospel in one way or another. Jesus even reinforced this truth more poignantly by declaring, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.” (John 5:39 HCSB) I find it fascinating how we explain away what we don’t want to see or believe. It’s almost like we can’t stand for something to be true so we sabotage it in ourselves by ignoring it, which doesn’t make it any less true we just choose to be foolish.

If we refuse to be aware of our bias, it will ruin our ability to grasp the world around us and skew our perspective. The danger here isn’t necessarily the perspective we hold but what we do with it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when people with strongly held opinions follow with equally strong actions. It’s just that most of us have enough of our own faults and failings which should give us pause in our quest to recreate the world more to our way of thinking.

I’ve experienced, as I’m sure you have, the facade of sincerity some people use to get under my skin and find my weaknesses. Wisdom tells us to beware of these types but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee we will be able to always recognize them. The church of Jesus is overflowing with actors who want applause while refusing to expose their true nature behind the script or camera. The message of the gospel not only encourages us to be authentic but demands us to be so; for the judgment will bring everything to light anyway.

Many believers are far too fond of applause and not interested in real change or authentic living. Oh, we praise the Lord at come-to-meeting-time then go home to forget or ignore the message until next time. The wisdom of the Word of God stands in stark contrast to the world: be authentic, honest, loving, true, respectful, defend the weak, stand for truth no matter what…I could go on. God might love humanity unconditionally but intimacy with His Spirit is based on our openness.

As a rule humans desire truth. The flip side of that coin or underbelly of our nature desires its own way in spite of the consequences–what our desires might do to us or someone else. The wisdom of the world centers around success and being well thought of, while the wisdom of God focuses on being itself. Who we are internally matters more to the way we will behave all the time than how we choose to act at any given moment. A person who is polite in public but rude or derisive in private is a rude or derisive person who knows how to play others for their own personal gain.

The desire for truth is not enough if we conform to the lies of cultural bias or religious traditions which obscure it. An incredibly intelligent person can still believe fables, myths, traditional interpretations outside of the facts, etc., etc. (do the names Plato, Aristotle, Newton ring a bell?). What we believe about the world colors our conclusions no matter what the evidence suggests to the contrary or in support. Unless we recognize this factor in our decision making process we will bring inaccuracies and fallacies into our reasoning which will lead our conclusions astray.

Absolute Futility? Really?

January 22, 2014

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“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 HCSB)

Too many of us fall prey to the notion that everything we do is futile. I’m in a situation right now where every investment (financial and work ethic energy) didn’t pay off, which means I lost the day and it’s time to leave the field. To be honest, I felt the need to change paths years ago but hated giving up before trying every avenue to make self-employment work.

It hasn’t.

Oddly though, I don’t sense futility or despair in its failure. Certainly I know feelings of frustration, loss, sadness and failure but no real sense that I didn’t give it my all. That said, I probably continued plowing through when I should have walked away a couple of years ago. I just didn’t know–did you?

The reason this blog is called Jonny’s Habit is because I make it a practice to study what I believe is God’s Word twice everyday even if it means just reading a verse without comprehension. Habits form our behaviors as well as influence our attitudes and outlooks. This blog entry probably sounds too personal for most but let me be clear that it was always intended to be. I am not someone who philosophically looks at life through a telescope at a safe distance because I don’t believe we can always be certain of our conclusions.

The last nearly twenty-odd years have been educational, humbling and revelatory for me. Through so many experiences I have come to realize personal limits and understand the world around me through that perspective. That said, I also realize someone else in my position would have made a better profit of the opportunity than I did because they have that knack.

I don’t.

Saying so doesn’t make me negative on myself nor does it mean I’m giving up on life. It does mean I recognize time and chance defeated certain goals while prospering others. Being honest about myself and others is about seeing life for what it is over dreaming of what could be. While the latter is great for moving forward, sometimes it limits the now and the hard choices we have to make. I have also learned I am more resourceful and able than I ever thought possible before now. Saying that doesn’t mean I think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread came into existence, rather I’m better at seeing where my abilities truly lie versus just guessing.

All that said you’ll now understand what I say next in context of Solomon’s declaration that everything is futile. I think I understand the truth of his words and where he’s coming from, but I don’t buy his conclusion as the final word on the subject.

“Resistance is useless,” the Vogon guard declared. I read Solomon’s solemn statement and laughed because the book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made them mindlessly true for the situation the protagonist, Arthur Dent and his companion found themselves in. This part their story was the very first thing that came to mind when I read Solomon’s conclusion. If you’ve ever read the series (there are 5 books in the trilogy–yes, I said five!), you’ll know how things turned out and that the seeming impossible took place. Hey, it’s a book where the impossible is probable, ok. The point is that we sometimes borrow trouble in the form of worry about the future when all we can do is plan as best we can for as many eventualities as possible and live in the now.

As much as any of us hate change it comes anyway, inexorably, steadily, yet sometimes so fast we don’t have much time to adjust while at other times so slow we don’t even realize it’s happening. The one thing time teaches is as much as things change much stays the same. As much as the cosmetics, methods and attitudes adjust, they are still variations on a theme which remains constant.

For example: We might have conquered certain forms of slavery but it still exists. Prejudice still operates strong in the light of human activity though it wears a disguise of acceptance in certain circles. If you’ve ever heard yourself or someone else say, “I accept everybody and can’t see why people don’t accept everyone too…”, you have just demonstrated why prejudice remains strongly entrenched in the human psyche. As another example, attitudes about providing basic necessities might have changed in the way we access it but the need is still there at the root.

Modern society only thinks itself different because we have procedures and styles our history didn’t–or did but we don’t recognize it.

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Concluding thought: The outcome of truth in Solomon’s paradigm is not in ours since the cross. Jesus changed our reality. It doesn’t make Solomon’s words any less true for his era, but it does change the outcome and hope for the future. A life merely lived for the now will be futile, one lived for Christ holds lasting promise. It also changes how the truth is perceived. Perception is the key here not just the words. Truth doesn’t change our understanding of it does. For instance the sun has always been something humans knew about but its place in the solar system (another unknown until recent history) was misunderstood. The truth of the sun didn’t change our perspective did.

Again, another example is the bread analogy. Basic flat bread is oil, water, salt and flour. The moment we add anything to the bread we change its consistency and possibly flavor. Solomon’s assertion of no afterlife in death, the futility of industry while we live and the need for us to go ahead and live anyway is like the basic flatbread. Jesus’ gospel adds yeast and honey to end up with something that rises and tastes good. We call both bread (truth) but the latter one changed the way we perceive what is possible.

The ingredients are basically the same in both Solomon’s and post-Jesus’ era except Jesus takes away the futility by adding eternity as a final outcome. This changes everything by adjusting our priorities. What we do on earth counts in heaven if we continue to live and think in the paradigm of Christ’s life and message.

The Story Behind the Song: I’ll Wait For You

January 17, 2014

I’ll Wait For You

Here in the darkness
I’m listening for Your Word
The silence gently whispers
but I still haven’t heard
what You want of me

I’ll wait for You
show me Your plan
I’ll wait for You
until I understand

Here in the quietness
I’m looking for a sign
Come show me, Lord,
and teach me
the depth of Your design
Your great love for me

I’ll wait for You
until the silence breaks
I’ll wait for You
for as long as it takes
(c)1993 Lyric Jonathan Varnell/Isaac Miller//Music: Isaac Miller/Jonathan Varnell

Isaac and I were getting ready for a church worship service one morning when he began to noodle on his keyboard. The chord riff for this song seemed to pop out of his fingers and I began to listen. I must have asked if I could write words to his chords because within about 20 minutes we had almost finished it. We sang it over a few times to commit it to memory, both excited at the power of it.
We never got to record it because life got in the way as it often does.

If I remember my state of mind at the time, Isaac and I were working on an album with a bunch of other guys in a band named Awake (I still have T shirts). Since then someone else appropriated the name and appear to have a certain amount of success. Anyway, all of us were in the throes of change with one thing or another so this subject seemed to be natural fodder for a song. It must have been on my mind quite a bit because the imagery remains so vivid to this day. Recently I got in touch with Isaac, not having spoken with him for a few years, about the song and found he couldn’t even remember writing it!

About the time Awake broke up (someone stole all our instruments from my van) Isaac taught me the chords and I memorized it. Fast forward 20 years, I began trying it on guitar. The fingering kinda’ challenged me since the first chord is shaped like a F2 add Maj7/Bb or, as a Bb chord it would probably be a Bbsus#4/6. So if you played an FM7 and dropped the A note to open up the G string then put a Bb on the bass, you’d have to use your 1st finger (index) on the Bb, 4th finger on F (D string), 2nd finger on C (B string) leaving open the G & high E strings. It took my head a while to wrap around this finger position–don’t know why I play a lot of hard chords in other songs. Now that I have it, of course, the chord feels natural.

My plan is to record it with acoustic driving it at first then to replace the notes with single notes on the electric guitar on the second verse. I’m not sure about the rest of the arrangement because all I have in my head’s ear is a feel–which means I’ll have to experiment. What I play on the video is a raw form powerful in it own right.

Reminder

January 16, 2014

 
So remember your Creator in the days of your youth: Before the days of adversity come, and the years approach when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; (Ecclesiastes 12:1 HCSB)

Perspective is the key to wisdom. From the viewpoint of the young life is an open book of possibility and dreams to come true. For those on the downhill slope to aging it becomes a place of “what if”, “if only”, and worst of all a litany of their past failures parading through the present as reminders of how they got where they find themselves now.

The word picture Solomon paints above is poignant in its description of aging when life becomes difficult because the body no longer responds or has the strength to accomplish what we set out to do. The eyesight grows dim, sounds grows faint and pleasures become few. As death approaches people tend to reflect on what happens next with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Which dominates will depend on their beliefs about the afterlife. Inevitably the thoughts turn to either God and what He designed life to be or resignation and reflection. The God-fearing section of earth’s theater grow more spiritual as the days pass whereas the other side of the isle usually look back on their lives to see any significance to their existence.

Everyone has a certain perspective on life which depends on their view of the world–not necessarily a physical one, though this aspect can affect us. A man or woman raised with a condemning, demanding culture will see their gods/God from that light. A person raised in an environment where everything in their lives is free will expect the same once they fly from the nest–if they ever do. The fork in the road of our understanding becomes crucial to how we experience and ultimately end our lives.

I’ve been thinking about perspective quite a bit lately. What a person believes to be true makes all the difference in the world to how they act and react to what’s around them. I am not an Anthropologist so studying humans isn’t my job but a crucial (for me) hobby so I tend to think about the “why” of humanity quite a bit. Right or wrong: the skinhead believes a certain way about the human race and how it should be partitioned. The humanist believes certain things ought to be in place. The religious believe their god/gods or God ought to be in charge, and some take forceful steps to make that happen. In my observation of history each and every opinion/viewpoint of human design or supposedly god-given mandate has been used to uplift or subjugate/oppress–often at the same time.

What I find is that a select cross section of the populace, usually all those agreeing to the perspective rising in power, grow out of their poverty, “ignorance” and oppression first. Whether or not the rest of those outside this select few experiences the overflow of benefits depends on the leadership, of course. In America oppression becomes less about keeping people in poverty, which downgrades their work skills and worth to the wealthy, and becomes more about giving them lots of toys to distract them from what’s going on behind the scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no conspiracy theorist or believer, but I do believe the powerful mandate the laws more than we like to believe. Justice for the wealthy trickles down in a lesser form as justice for the not so rich and sometimes even for those in poverty.

Privilege brings on a certain perspective to all we do.

When George Bush Jr. became President I recognized in him the mentality of the privileged. He wasn’t a bad president but he responded to the world from the perspective of one who looks down from his plenty and feels sorry for those who don’t. Not bad, just ignorant.

Thus all his solutions were from the viewpoint of someone who has never known want or real loss (losing an investment where daddy rescues your butt doesn’t count). I’m not criticizing because the guy created some real cool policy for the poor but also did some real damage to the country too.

Fast forward to Obama. His outlook comes from someone who has known a lower middle class lifestyle and gone on to become wealthy. How it affects his actions is seen in his efforts to raise up the lower and middle classes to the privileges of the wealthy. The problem he’s facing, and anyone will face, is that the a large portion of the wealthy didn’t get to their current state by being generous. If you’ve ever listened to the privileged middle class talk about those with less, you’ll know what I mean.

The POV that hard work and educated calculation are all it takes to get ahead is trumpeted by far too many. My dad worked hard even after his three heart attacks nearly killed him and didn’t ever make it out of his lower middle class status. Of course, his education totaled 2 months into his 3rd grade year, so may be that had something to do with it, although history would beg to differ. Nothing guarantees success–or failure.

I will say that the more money one has the more one is able to make. Be that as it may, the wealthy sacrifice many things for their position–more often than not ethics and love for others along the way. The business ethic of the Industrial Revolution latched onto Darwin’s survival of the fittest, treating the workers as drones to be pushed as hard as the boss’s desire for profit could. The only reason we have safeguards in place for the workers in factories and services is because some very wealthy powerful people with a conscience fought a

media/propaganda campaign to force the others to capitulate. As it stands, however, justice still has plenty of loopholes. For instance, a man who rapes a kid will serve 12 to 15 years maximum, and statistics demonstrate he often repeats his offense. Bernie Madoff ripped off the wealthy and received a 150 year sentence with no hope of parole. Is this justice? Of a sorts, but it shows where our values in America really lie.

Whatever our views about truth we respond to all around us from that paradigm. Changing perspectives may take a lifetime of reprogramming one’s mind and habits to reflect the new values bought through blood, sweat and tears to replace perceived faulty ones. It becomes a work in progress for all of us to create the world we envision.

One of the more recent crashing in on my awareness is that of point of view.
I mentioned skinheads a few paragraphs back in order to pull in the extremes, but I could’ve just as easily brought up the Hindu Untouchables, conservative Christianity or Muslim extremists. How we are programmed is critical to how we look at the world. Take just the simple idea that God is a hard nosed, righteousness obsessed deity into account when looking at the world and everything we do will reflect how we act–or don’t act. I hear a lot of Americans, who have never had to think outside their box much less tried to understand any other POV other than their own, condemn extremists the world over.

The feminist cries foul looking at how third world women live and spends her entire existence marching on Washington to change these injustices. The religious right fight for their particular gospel from the comforts of their pews according to whatever they believe their god/gods to be. The free market entrepreneur fights for trade agreements between our country and others to expand sales and market shares. Those out for social justice come from each of these listed and several other places besides, confusing the hue and cry for equality, living standards, and religious freedom. Each believes fervently their fight is going to change the world for the better, or at the very least their own prospects. None of them pay enough attention to the trends of history which do little to support this viewpoint.

Here’s the problem: When we subtract human nature–call it the dark side of humanity or sin–we become an optimistic humanist championing the good in people and fighting for everyone to experience life their way. When a person sees evil everywhere they champion stricter societal boundaries and we end up with a police state based on a religion, humanist ethic or mixture of both. When we see the world through the eyes of psychology/psychiatry the solutions are therapy or drugs.

The list could go on a couple of chapters and I still wouldn’t be able to speak all the ways human thinking affects how they act.

A few chapters back (in this blog) I noted our optional choices made a difference in the outcome. So it is with perspective. A person, like me, who grew up with lower income will see the world either through the lens of acquisition, resignation/despair, or a hippy-esque denial of all things financial. Someone, like my son, who grows up solidly middle class will look around the world and wonder why people don’t just live the way he does. The former people might work hard and become a success, after which many turn around to either lend a helping hand to those with similar backgrounds or chide those whom they consider to be “lazy” people for not being more industrious.

Do you see the problem here?

The moment we subtract time and chance we set ourselves and everyone else up for judgment–human in origin. The moment we subtract the negative side of humanity from the natural expressions and choices we all make–call it human nature or sin, take your pick–we set ourselves up for unrealistic goals and, I dare say, frustration by the end of our efforts. The moment we begin to see everyone as depravity waiting to happen every good action we see becomes suspect.

The biggest mistake humans make is believing everyone shares or should share our POV. The next mistake usually equals us trying to convince by argument of “reason”, and if that fails, force of arms. Neither of which work for the truly convinced. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “A man convince against his will is of the same opinion still.” Zealots of every stripe would rather die heroes championing their cause than give up.

How does this affect our view of God then?

Simply put we attribute to God (I am now speaking directly to the Christ follower here) whatever paradigm we buy into. A legalistic believer sees the world from a host of rules and weighs sins against righteousness, repentance and restitution. One who follows grace alone cannot bear to exclude even the worst humanity produces. And there are an unlimited supply of combinations of grace/law opinions and practices out there.

We don’t have to go far to see how Christians have affected the world. We also don’t have to look too hard to see how a specific POV affects how they act in public. The Christian Right are not afraid to get their hands dirty with politics, protests and media blasting. For the record I don’t find threatening people who don’t believe in Christ much less an afterlife with hell fire very effective. Convincing someone who already thinks we’re over the top and crazy just makes us sound that much more insane. Again, bombing abortion clinics might sound godly but it really is using humanistic reasoning and earthbound methods to accomplish God’s “work” on earth. If saving the unborn is such a big problem, why are these same people not taking over Hindu and Buddhist dominated countries where the practice is rampant?

No, perspective and firmly held beliefs affect everything we do.

Changing the world may not be an option in a macro sense, but changing it in microcosm might be. Our outlook should be about discipleship not war. The weapons of our warfare are not of earthly origin therefore our methods of campaigning must reflect this or we step outside our mandate from Christ Himself. In the Great Commission we are told to go make disciples not take over nations. The historical practice of fighting the enemy through the force of arms leaves a long and bloody trail for the unbeliever to decry our message of hope. God demonstrated very efficiently how effective war is through Israel’s history. That is to say, not at all. It didn’t stop evil nor stem the tide of selfish ambition.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6 HCSB)

The gospel is clear, no effort of human origin will quell the nature of sin, only faith working through love will accomplish the Utopia we all so long for.

 

Banish the Thought, But…

January 7, 2014

 

Einstein's equation

Einstein’s equation

 

You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 10 NIV)

For youth and vigor are meaningless continues the theme Solomon laid out in the beginning. The strength, energy and vision of the youth really hold little significance to the outcome of their choices nor do these “gifts” of nature mean anything to the quality with which they live. Everything we accomplish can be demolished in an instant–with or without thought or prior intent. The overarching purpose the modern psyche obsesses about doesn’t exist within this context except in one form: Live with all your might!

Solomon might sound cynical, jaded and skeptical on life but I beg to differ. All my life, and I dare say this can be said of most people in general, I felt there had to be a purpose to my life. For some reason we believe (and teach) that everyone has a calling in life; that one thing they are or do which will fulfill their hearts and create contentment along the way as well as at the end.

The reality, Solomon argues, is much more broad than that, for in his view we are put on this earth with no special purpose other than to live and even that “purpose” is a mystery only God knows. What makes one person more special than another? Is it their good looks, charm or personality? Is it the inventiveness, talent and industry one brings to the table versus another? Or, could it be the character, love and benefit one blesses the world around them with unselfishly?

Yes.

In reality, the worker earning minimum wage brings to the table something the executive in the office can’t or won’t do. Without the thousands of people working in the factory–whether its their gift or not–the business model so celebrated in the world of finance would sink into obscurity as a failure. The visionary cannot get the “vision” off the ground without someone (or many someones) to finance it and others to implement it. No one sells the product unless buyers (be they brokers or customers) find it useful or attractive. It sounds clever to create a need where there wasn’t one before, but that’s exactly what a snake-oil salesperson does to get us to buy it. That said, a useless “need” will only last so long before people get bored and move onto the next one. Just think of how fast the human race went from wagons to trains to cars; or the change from vinyl to tapes (reel to 8-track to cassette) to CDs to iPods.

At the time of this very paragraph I’m looking at a new year, 2014, the date is January 2, and I’m looking back on 2013 with some sober eyes. I made a few choices which resulted in great successes and others which ended in disaster. 2014 becomes a year of changes for me because the past speaks loud and clear about my failures and results are in: the fails created bigger holes than the successes could fill in and now payment is due.

All my strengths did me no good in the end. As industrious and energetic as I have been people threw curve balls at me and I missed the hit. I also had two people cheat while playing the business game leaving me further in the hole and owing. I worked hard, did my best to be conscientious and honest then still lost. This doesn’t mean anything as to an overarching purpose in my life nor does it speak to my lack of resolve or willingness to change. What it does say about life in general is that if someone doesn’t want to pay, he or she won’t and nothing will make this person be honest.

Again, that said, I’m not trumpeting a method for success because the way is simple: provide for ourselves and the needs of others, work hard, be faithful to our promises and the rest will take care of itself.

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12 NIV)

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 NIV)

Notice Solomon said when God gives someone wealth and possessions not God gives everyone these things. The belief that God is the big Santa in the sky with a list and checking it twice to see who’s naughty or nice is a human twist on the truth. God desires to give us good things but not everyone receives the same commission. The word “submit” uses another form called “submission” which if taken apart is “sub” “mission”–sub- meaning to come under, and mission meaning one’s job, assignment, or purpose. We are to come under the mission of Christ, who had nowhere to lay His head.
It’s always interesting to me to listen to Christians discuss the Scripture. For whatever reason we take out of the message exactly what we most want to hear over what it actually says. Far too often the message of one passage is preferred over another to the hurt of not only the church but those who witness what we believe. In Ecclesiastes Solomon lays out a truth of creation within this paradigm: Life is unpredictable and not everyone wins. Oppression is the name of the game no matter what nation we live in. Freedom really means what is acceptable over what many proclaim as our rights; rights are what the law-makers and power-mongers tell us they are not what we know intrinsically to be true.

No one makes their future happen according to plan. I have watched over and over as people who appeared to be movers and shakers dwindled into obscurity and ineffectiveness because popular interest waned. Depending on a method did them no good; changing their method did them no good.

Youth, idealism, vigor and hard work are meaningless in the grand scheme of things because these principle gifts guarantee nothing to the outcome. Are they good gifts and great strategies for future success? Absolutely! But no gift guarantees the desired desired future.

Riding the ebb and flow of life with industry, careful thinking and a sense of the “market” society creates around itself will serve one better than almost anything else. In combination with youth, vigor and good work ethic the chances of success are greatly increased; but never guaranteed.

The hardest statement to reconcile in my modern mind is of course Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment, for it brings up an uncomfortable dilemma. Actually “conundrum” might be a better word, for what we believe in the modern mindset is that judgment is wrong because God doesn’t judge since love won’t encourage such a thing.

At 53 I realize how foolish this mindset is. Everything we choose in life holds consequences–good or bad. Even when we choose the good the results might be either less spectacular than we hoped or disastrous in the end. Both the former and latter may be the result of poor planning, the influence of social or market conditions outside our control. Or, our choices might have nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome since the rest of the input comes outside of our abilities.
Judgment isn’t a negative but a conclusion of sorts which gets written into our epitaph or eulogy when we’re done. We get no choice in the matter or what is said because we are not the ones who get to do the talking at our own funerals. Quite frankly, besides our husk of a body laying in the coffin or ashes in the urn we won’t be at our own funerals anyway.

For some of us we won’t even have to wait until death to find out what grade we get in life–sometimes life’s “school master” hands out the grade early, and I’m not talking about God. It depends of course on what we involve ourselves in but the reality remains the same: we will be graded on how we lived and what we did with our time here.

If I have learned one truth from Ecclesiastes, it’s the need to think our way through life instead of being thoughtless or careless of the outcome. In my experience every action has a reaction to a greater or lesser degree. I know, I know, E=MC2 works for energy, I just firmly believe the same principle applies to life in general as well.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where trees are taken for granted and rain happens a majority of the days out of the year. On the way to my brother, Tom’s, house the trees give way to high desert or miles and miles of flat grasslands. The wind down the Columbia Gorge is legendary–not to mention the ice during the winter. A good rancher/farmer will build a house surrounded by trees for a wind break. If you see these places, you will notice that the really big oaks, elms, etc. are far enough away from the house so as to avoid damage if they fall. Without those breaks the house would be colder from the windchill, hotter in the summer too. Someone in the past realized the need and planted various kinds of trees in an effort to preserve their living space.

A little forethought prevents great disasters later. That is, it can, provided extraneous factors don’t swoop in to destroy all those carefully laid plans.
Solomon doesn’t teach nor appear to believe wisdom prevents disaster or guarantees success. What he seems to be saying here, as far as I can determine, is wisdom will make the chances of success better while also making the darkest days better. We might not be able to guarantee the outcome but we can choose how we think about ourselves, our family and what we do. In the end this is all we really can guarantee, and though this might not be enough for the world’s judgmental eyes, it is for God, Who alone matters.

 

Turn On The Power

December 23, 2013

If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie. Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:3, 4 NIV)

Do you ever read a scripture which states the obvious like our text above and just go “duh!”? When we react like this we show we miss the opportunity to exercise our brains. Solomon points out a reality in our world to make a statement about life itself not just the mechanics of it. If I were to say it my way, it would go, “Yeah, yeah, the clouds rain when they get full, the wind blows too hard sometimes, whatever! A tree falls down and wherever it lands is where it stays…got it! If someone worries too much about what can go wrong, they will never get busy with the things that need to be done. How you think will determine where your path will lie. blah, blah, blah…” Yet if a tree stays in in the course of its fall, there is no changing the outcome later once its down without some pretty significant intervention. The same could be said for a course of action.

As reality sinks in for me I am beginning to be less and less given to railing against it. At the same time I do everything I can to change it when the open door seems to present itself. Some open doors lead me right into the worst problems I’ve ever faced in my life, others just work like cutting soft butter.
If we worry too much about the barriers to our goals, we will eventually be frozen into inaction. I find in myself all sorts of excuses to avoid the pain of certain relationships, work opportunities and a host of other steps which will move my life forward because I see (or imagine) all the things which will prevent me from accomplishing said options. Take the words weather and wind as metaphors to be replaced by political climate, social barriers or mores, physical limitations, and a host of intellectual facts we know and some we don’t know. If we let the known or unknown stop us from even attempting or carrying on to the goal, we are worrying about the “wind” and “weather” too much.

Let’s admit right up front that some things we want to attempt are impossible for us right now. As I’ve said before in this devotional, Edison used almost all his “failures” to make the lightbulb into semiconductors and tubes of various sorts. Each of those “failures” made him sound brilliant instead of foolish. He turned his failed efforts into patents and helped usher in the age of electronics as we know it. Of course, he wasn’t alone since people all over the world were working on similar projects.

Tesla, on the other hand, commonly credited for inventing the television, died broke and bitter because he was like an artist who doesn’t think about the salability of what he was doing. He just did it because he could and probably enjoyed it. Unfortunately, someone he knew ripped him off and took credit for it, leaving him destitute.

The difference between Edison and Tesla might take a better psychoanalyst than me to figure out where who went right or wrong. What I do know is that one turned his failure into a future while the other didn’t. Edison patented even his “failures” and started a company; Tesla trusted other people with this and was soundly abused for it, to the point of losing everything he worked for all his life.
Is there a lesson here to be learned? Certainly. Yet I can’t help thinking that if Tesla had someone with business savvy devoted to him, his life would have written a different story. Edison was no better at people skills except in public, from all accounts, neither was Henry Ford. What made them different was the drive to turn their skills into lucrative results. I don’t know Tesla’s motivation but the results speak loudly for a man fascinated by his passion for invention but who lacked the desire/sensibility/knack for thinking of these inventions in monetary terms. Unfortunately for him the world around him stripped him of the credit and ripped him off without even coffee in the morning or flowers.
The Tony Robbins (not the man but all those like him) of the world will look at Tesla with pity or disdain–admiration for his inventive mind but disparaging his lack of business sense. These same success gurus will point to Edison with high praise for his drive and determination. And may be they’re right by purely business savvy terms, but I think they are wrong in what makes a person successful.

Time and chance is not just a philosophical conundrum but a universal law of addition and subtraction. I speak to this constantly but want to again in order to emphasize its weight on the outcomes.

That Untouchable born in Bangladesh without an education or any means of changing their fortunes cannot be preached to by the Tony Robbins of this world. For one thing without the education and society to inform them of what is possible they won’t even consider being something other than what they are. Now take a culture steeped in Buddhist or Hindu belief both of which looks on one’s status as a progression to better things in multiple reincarnations and you have an apathetic society developing bent maintaining the status quo. Humans are basically lazy when it comes to truth, which means few put out the effort to discover or change what they believe, preferring instead to survive with what they know. A Tony Robbins wouldn’t even be able to get through to such a person without physical interference and lots of money to raise them up. The solutions for one may not equal the solutions for another if the latter have further to go.

For a person in the slums of a third world country to reach the heights of someone like Steve Jobs or Tony Robbins they must jump incredible hurdles and receive help in chance-based ways. No one becomes a success on their own for all success grows out of the community supporting them then their opportunities and reception in the world around them. Steve Jobs’ success grew out of a certain self-absorption, according to his own account. He fixed his eyes on that goal and went forward in spite of all the naysayers who would call him back to “reality”–whatever they thought it was at the time. Yet he also was not a nice man to be around a lot of the time.

I’ve known musicians, like myself, who worked their entire lives to earn a living at music only to find themselves broke and playing bars or churches of 5 people–most of whom are friends or relatives. Of these musicians many of them are as talented or more so than those in the spotlight already earning the accolades. The difference? Time and Chance.

Will Ferrel’s dad gave him some advice: “Well, if it was all based on talent, I wouldn’t worry about you. Because I’ve watched a lot of your shows, and I really think there’s something there. But you have to remember that there’s a lot of luck involved. And if you get to a certain point in 3 years, 4 years, 5 years and you just feel like it’s too hard, don’t worry about quitting. Don’t feel like you’ve failed and it’s okay to pick up and do something different.”

(Read more: http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2013/12/will-ferrell-marc-maron/#ixzz2nTDtNpzs Follow us: UPROXX on Facebook)

A saxophonist I met in San Francisco in the late 80s who worked for Kenny G at the time told me at one point when I expressed discouragement, “Jon, there are million guitarists out there better than you and they’re living on the streets or stuck in dead end jobs because they can’t catch a break.” Strange as it might seem to some of you reading the blog, that was a great comfort to me. He didn’t tell me to quit trying only that my current or future state wasn’t an abnormal experience.

Let me talk about what I know so you get the how crucial a community can be.
For a musician to be famous doesn’t always take exceptional talent or virtuoso performances. All that’s needed is crowd appeal and they’re off and running. Some appear timeless but we don’t see behind the scenes where a group of dedicated promotion and management people work to keep the artist in the spotlight. In almost ever instance these musicians reach a crisis point where their fame takes a turn for the better or worse. I could quote examples until the blog was full of stories about famous people who tried and failed–not once but several times. Bands broke up, only to get back together less effective because they shot themselves in the collective foot. Bands broke up and one or all of the musicians go on to great solo careers. Those who succeed tour nearly 300 days out of the year and the only time they take off is when they record an album or need a break.

We criticize artists for their use of drugs but fail to realize most of them start with struggling to sleep or anxiety from crossing time zones so much. We disparage them for their lack of self-control but forget how much we contribute to their current state of mind. A part of our community treats them like gods, the rest are looking for them to fail or fall. These people are in a constant state of crisis and without consistent friendship or community support they will fade into obscurity. Of course if they succeed or fail, books will be written and analysts will try to make sense of their lives and choices. I dare say that almost any famous musician we could name dealt with it in one or more unhealthy ways.

Jesus told us to love even our enemies, to support the good in others while refusing to turn a blind eye to their faults. Yet the “Golden Rule” doesn’t say our POV should just be looking outward but love your neighbor as you do yourself. For us to truly practice love we must love ourselves equally. Not more, not less but in the same way. Treat ourselves as others want us to treat them; treat others as we want to be treated. Now this moral guideline works unless we tend toward masochism or sadism; neither of which are healthy mindsets.

A part of success is being content within oneself and inspiring others to the same. It appears counterintuitive to be content when we believe in accomplishment, yet contentment doesn’t indicate laziness, lethargy, apathy or any sense of futility. On the contrary, contentment speaks to being satisfied with our accomplishments and what we have at hand. We can take pride in our accomplishments without comparing our lives with anyone else (see Galatians 6:4). Success is not based on self-absorption or self-centeredness but a sense of being true to our own nature as best we know how to. Discovering how and where we fit in the world around us brings contentment.

When we know our inner shape we also discover the ever evolving person inside and outside. The shape we take in our youth, for example, will not look exactly like what we grow into as we mature. Oh, the basic design remains the same but the exact fit will be different. Solomon’s warning about the weather changing unpredictably should give us a sense of our own evolution in the grand scheme of things. Humans adapt as part of their make up. We figure things out no matter what the circumstances and learn to live with some pretty challenging environments.

Life holds such mystery. If we live with encouragement, we will see the sunrise as a sign of good things to come–no matter what the day holds. If we live in an environment of discouragement, our world will see even the beauty of the flowers as a mockery of our hopes and dreams. Jesus gives us hope not only for the world to come but here and now. His assertion of the enemy’s plans contrasts with His own goals for us, The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows). (John 10:10 AMP)

Today is the day of salvation and hope. Solomon’s argument supports Christ’s declaration of His mission. We must seek life no matter what the weather is like, no matter what the climate is like, no matter where the tree falls. Our goal is to live the life Jesus came to give us starting now, letting our fears inform our choices with caution but never preventing us from attempting, striving or investing our all. We hold to the promise though everything around us opposes it, for our forward movement in the spiritual realm will never be subject to the earthbound circumstances set to hinder us.

 

Investments

December 13, 2013

 

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. (Ecclesiastes 11:1, 2 NIV)

Every investment will show results–eventually. I often worry about spreading myself too thin from over commitment, which can be a problem, but the advice here is to invest. So, I do.
Yet, may be Solomon isn’t telling us to be so over-committed work related projects that we have no time for the rest of our lives. May be what he’s suggesting is we take advantage of every opportunity which comes our way within the parameters of good planning. In other words we are to invest in things for which we have the means and time without destroying the home crop, food for the winter or next year’s seed. These other pieces to our human psyche puzzle need attention as a form of wealth as well–metaphorically speaking. Every area of our lives takes an investment and exacts a price.
A healthy person recognizes he or she is made of many parts which all need to be maintained for that health to continue. An unhealthy person however makes great strides in one or a few areas and the rest suffers from either neglect or minimal time given. It’s easy to perceive the personae these highly “successful” people as the best means to everything we desire, but the dark underbelly of hyper-focus shows up after a while and we see the rest of their world begin to unravel. Whereas the healthy person invests in a wholeness approach–considering every aspect of themselves as important.
Solomon’s entire message here follows the theme of the rest of his book, namely laziness is foolishness and industry makes life interesting and fun. The repeated phrases in this small book (e.g. work with gladness of heart, enjoy time with your spouse, food, and friendships) add to our conclusion and when ignored or subtracted change our understanding of the message. Since time and chance happen to all, sitting on the sidelines watching or checking out through working long hours or partying just makes it worse. I’m sure most people can’t imagine how an ongoing feast could be bad but anything which takes without replacing eventually needs to restock. So if those in the party aren’t providing the food and fun, someone has to.
And right there is where oppression asserts itself into the situation. Those in power who are too lazy to do the work to supply their party take from those who already have to fund their fun. This continues until those who do the work are left with nothing at all for themselves, which angers the fools in charge. Of course their anger is unwarranted and selfish but they don’t care. What’s sad is these same leaders will tax their people into poverty then blame them for being destitute, all the while missing the irony.
Yet Solomon doesn’t let us off the hook just because we experience oppression or loss. Everything he’s said about life before this in Ecclesiastes comes into play at this point: Yes, life is unpredictable and the golden ticket doesn’t always go to those who seem to deserve it; yes, good people suffer when bad times happen and bad people often thrive; yes, oppressive kings exist and those who should be in power languish in obscurity; yes, everything we do might seem futile because death takes us all and we leave all we worked so hard for to someone who might squander it. BUT invest in life anyway since there is nothing guaranteed because one never knows what the outcome or rewards will be.
I don’t think Solomon is arguing for a sunny, always positive outlook on life. I do think he’s telling us reality sucks for some and not for others in unpredictable, wholly subject to time and chance ways except where God directly intervenes. His perspective seems to focus on what we can do about our reality rather than what we can’t. In other words when life gives you lemons make pie or lemonade and sell your product to whomever is buying. Don’t speak against those in power unless you have the power to do something about it, and if you do, be aware of the risk that you will be found out. It’s also a waste of time to rail against those in power when there’s absolutely nothing we can do about their abuses–outside of leading an insurrection that is.
But here’s a reality too: investment pays off one way or another. No one ever earns any profit off their product by storing it in barns; it takes risking the market to get the rewards. Sure we might fail, that’s what risk means, but it also means we might win. If we couple our risk with wisdom and follow the proven methods of others who have succeeded before us, we can at least be sure of putting the odds in our favor.
Here’s another reality: Some pay offs won’t be seen by us in our lifetime. In fact, I’d say much of what we do will only be seen by the next generation to appreciate as profit or learn from as a lesson of what to avoid.
As a follower of Jesus I believe in His word which says, “What a man sows, he will reap…” One way or another the “profit” of our investment will come back to us. If we sow grain(s) (both real and figuratively speaking), we most likely will see a harvest to be proud of–that is if the weather, war, illness, death or pests don’t take it out first. Knowing we did the best we could within the parameters we have at hand limits the negative outcomes but doesn’t subtract them completely. To paraphrase a discussion earlier in this book we are just one ingredient in life’s bread. The outcome depends on choices of others and unpredictable nature those choices as well as nature’s inherent input.
Railing against it, complaining, becoming bitter, holding onto anger or anything else which the powerless express in times of great calamity won’t solve it. Though it feels good to express our frustration, anger or hurt, remaining in that state of mind doesn’t move us forward.

Into the Unknowable

November 1, 2013

No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him?  Ecclesiastes 10:14b

 

…Yet we can kind of predict what might happen in the future by what we know to be true in the present.  For instance, the next verse says, A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town.  We know that last phrase reflects a more contemporary saying like he’s so stupid he can’t find the light switch or she’s so dumb she can’t find her way out of the shower.  It’s a general comment on someone’s ability to navigate life, which, once we know them, we can predict whether disaster or success will follow their choices.  I don’t know anyone who can forecast the details—and as the saying goes “The devil’s in the details.”  I like to watch people so I see many who look like they are on the road to the success crash and burn because they made a few “minor” mistakes.  Habits, whether small or large, often dictate the outcomes for us, since they become the building blocks of our routines.

Solomon follows up his declaration about the future and fools with this gem:  Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.  Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness.  Ecclesiastes 10:16, 17.  It appears to be a random statement thrown in but the Teacher has a purpose.  While we can’t predict the future or know what is to be after us, we can see trends which predict a general outcome.  Rulers who don’t take care of business or average people who fixate on foolish living both have poverty and decay on the horizon.  No may be able to predict for certain what will happen in the immediate future but we can  see plenty of examples for the outcomes of both to get a pretty good idea.

The fact that we can see trends in a person’s life doesn’t necessarily give us a crystal ball into the future.  So many different *ingredients* go into situations and circumstances (as we’ve discussed before) that it’s hard to predict with any accuracy what will be.  Far too often fools gain wealth or power only to begin to selling it their method as a brand to other people.  The equation for success should look like this:

 

Skill + Hard work = Success

 

In reality it looks more like:

 

Skill + Hard work + Clever Marketing + Time & Chance = Success

 

The first two are negotiable as far as the outcome is concerned.  I’ve seen people with minimal skills work just hard enough to get promoted because they were very good at marketing themselves and their successes.  Then we meet the type of people who don’t mind lying to get the job or golden ticket and who claim other people’s success as their own.  There are plenty of examples of people who made it in a business they were never that knowledgeable about, good at or even qualified for.  We all know of actors, for example, who really can’t act their way out of a paper bag but remain popular the world over.  And don’t get me started on the French voting Michael Stipe (lead singer of the rock band REM) as best male vocalist of the year in the 80s…

All this rhetoric works into the main point Solomon is touting as a reality in our world.  Yet all is not lost necessarily, merely unpredictable.  A man who gains wisdom, hones his skill set and works hard to increase not only his holdings but his contacts for life in general should find success in one form or another.  A person who takes care to do what is honest, right and wise has a much better chance of finding lasting success than one who cheats to get there.  Cheaters target the honest hard-working individual, which sets in motion bad results to varying degrees, depending on the level of fraud.  A wise person learns from these mistakes and uses these lessons to read prospective clientele or partners better.

Still, success in any of its forms can never be guaranteed.  Remember Solomon’s assertion time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:  As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.  Ecclesiastes 9:11c, 12.  Unless and until we can extricate ourselves from the world we remain subject to the choices of others who may or may not live wisely.  And even if someone does their level best to live a well ordered life with wisdom and love, there’s no guarantee they won’t come in contact with disaster in one form or another that makes them the first of many dominoes to fall.

I’m not saying that there is nothing we can predict but that even if we do have all our ducks in a row, the outcome remains uncertain until the curtain call.  Take some time to meditate on the more predictable outcomes and you’ll see what I mean.

Now a little blurb on success.

I am not a big fan of motivational speakers because, quite frankly, what they really sell us is themselves.  Where these people make their big money is often the ticket sales to their events and convincing us they have the answers to our success and happiness.  So literally they create their success off of selling how to be successful.  They go into great detail about how successful people make it to the top and what they do to stay there, almost as if it’s some kind of mystery (and it may be to some since they refuse to improve themselves).

Here’s the reality:  The most wildly successful (financially) people are fairly single minded, ambitious, often times relentless in their pursuit and work 80+ hours a week.  Many of them sacrifice relationships with their families, friends and their own hearts to grasp the golden ticket.  At the end of the day most of them have health problems, divorce (one or several) and generally aren’t satisfied with what they achieve.  Eventually, the habit of long hours and “self” denial becomes the only thing that feeds them.  Rarely have I met anyone who experiences great success financially who isn’t on the brink of a personal collapse somewhere. At the same time several books in the Bible outline the formula to success and happiness in God’s view—which includes wealth in the form of money and possessions.

Sound like a negative take on wealth?  It’s not, merely a realistic take on what I see around me.  Success in its purest form is being able to live comfortably within the bounds of healthy relationships.  It also requires a certain big dose of knowing how to be content with what cannot be changed.  On the other hand, I know plenty of people who live within their means, work hard, continue to invest in family, friends and hobbies who are doing well financially.  So there isn’t a set-in-stone rule about it either, merely I believe we think the financial part to be the best evidence and I disagree.

I want to end this section with the very realistic Serenity Prayer:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.  Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.  Amen.

Word Useage

October 11, 2013

Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.  At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and fools multiply words.  Ecclesiastes 10:12, 13.

 

The word “but” is a comparative word, signaling a contrast or new direction.  In modern English we get what I’m going to call “the hard” comparisons where the contrast is obvious—a this-versus-that scenario.  I’ve noticed, however, Solomon’s contrasts are more descriptive and less obvious.

So if the wise use words tempered by grace, it follows that fools do not.  The hard contrast here cannot be missed really because the word “but” makes sure we see there is one.  At the same time what we are given is not the hard contrast but the wise person’s gracious words versus the fool’s outcome—consumed by their own lips.  Solomon then spends more time describing the fool’s use of words than he does the wise.

I looked up the word gracious and found it consistently used in both the KJV and NIV, although it can also be translated favor in another context.  In this context the translators used gracious intentionally since a wise man doesn’t always grant favor but does use gracious language.  What this means for the hard contrast then is the fool doesn’t use or seek to use gracious language and is consumed by the lack of grace in their interaction.  The wise set out to be full of grace and use words carefully so as to be certain of their reception or the listener’s grasp of the meaning.

If we were to paraphrase the last sentence a bit, it might go somewhat like this:  When fools start to speak the very words they use are silly, frivolous and ungracious; when they finish speaking the point of their conversation ends up being detrimental and devious.  And they use a lot of words either to disguise their intentions or to convince whoever is listening.  The intent for them is to get their way not to do what is best.  If we work or live around someone who constantly demonstrates a lack of concern for others and generally doesn’t care who they offend, we must be aware and beware of what could happen as a result of any interaction with them.

Of all the types of people we encounter as followers of Jesus the fool/careless person is the hardest to live around.  What’s strangely consistent is that these people permeate the church to a degree that they become the squeaky wheel rather than just an annoying subculture.  Not only are they careless in their words in the body of Christ but continue to “witness” to this attitude with full intensity outside it as well.  I’d say any negative rep the church has in the world stems mostly from the fools within it who use words to manipulate, subjugate and generally dominate others.

James called for the church to gain godly wisdom, proclaiming as one of its main ingredients being considerate (see James 3:17).  A follower of Jesus who submits to the lesson of the cross submits to the character of the Master.  Being considerate is an outgrowth of peace-loving and results in being full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

In full disclosure I have been the inconsiderate follower of Jesus.  Was I sincere in my desire?  Yup!  But I was (and still am in many ways) a fool.  I have hurt people and the rep of Jesus by being overbearing, pushy with my ideas and stingy with grace and mercy.  As hard as I try to be considerate, the moment I open my mouth to instruct someone I find long practiced habits take over without constant vigilance beforehand over my thoughts.  If I disagree with someone—even a fellow believer, it becomes apparent what my thought life is when I speak ungraciously.

We are all fools to one degree or another.  We all damage the reputation of Christ in the world by our behavior and sinful nature affecting our attitude and beliefs.  Unfortunately, if we are going to be growing Christians who deny the old nature for the new, we will fail to represent the Master properly.  It’s futile to believe anyone escapes this fool category for we are all simply too steeped in past habits and affected by the scars to be anything but fallible.

Sounds hopeless, huh?

What is impossible with man is possible with God.

Do we think God is surprised by the failure of the church to represent Him right?  Do we believe that if we just tweaked our message enough, we would be better witnesses?  Do we truly buy into the teaching that somehow we are going to get over our sin this side of glorification?

If you said “yes” to any of those questions, you have been fooled by the worst of the devil’s lies.

A child grows in stages of development not from full knowledge or experience but through incremental gains in both.  A believer is rightly called a newborn child of God at baptism, which should carry the weight of experiencing the corporeal growth as a metaphor for the spiritual.  We develop our understanding by failing and getting back up again to retry until we do it right by habit.  I don’t know anyone who is the epitome of Christ-like behavior or teaching—as if I would recognize it anyway given the bias we all share.  I am also not recommending any sort of throwing in the towel because that means an early death or a miserable life—neither of which speak from the heart of God.

Jesus promised an abundant life for those who followed His teaching.  To reiterate a point I’ve made before (sorry if I appear to harp on this) Jesus never said the truth by itself would set us free but “IF you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:32.  The world quotes this verse but leaves Jesus out of it; we Christians often quote it and leave Jesus’ teachings out of it too.  The world implies that there is some magical liberating component to truth itself— though not exactly an altogether wrong notion it’s not accurate either.  Knowing truth means light has shined on a dark subject revealing the reality hidden.  Understanding the truth will free us up to stop worrying about the unknown probably, but it doesn’t exactly follow that we will find less to be worried about in the long run.

Slavery for many people is a truth.  For instance the recent news of three women being held captive for more than a decade reveals how true this fact is.  The realization that they were sex slaves didn’t and never would set them free, although grasping the reality of it probably saved them a beating or few.  No amount of acknowledging their truth held any liberty in it for them at all.

Christ’s discipline is not about reward punishment rather it points to a practice of right/healthy living.  God designed the product (our bodies and psyche) and then wrote the operation manual.  Stepping outside that design is like pouring Coke on a computer keyboard—one can do it but shouldn’t complain when the known outcome happens.  Understanding what being a disciple is frees us to live our lives in ever increasing growth while experiencing setbacks, failures and generally being human.  While these negative experiences and attitudes might interfere with our goal of being like our Master they are simply obstacles which discipleship helps us address.

Anything outside the character of Jesus is foolishness, therefore being Christ-like is wisdom.  Jesus came to deliver us from foolishness; sin is foolish, make no mistake about it.  The wise use words which are gracious, I believe, precisely because they know what the alternative means.  Most wise people have been fools often enough to avoid it—if not out of wisdom exactly, then out of self-preservation.  God promises an abundant life IF we hold to the teachings of Jesus.  Only then will we know the truth and be set free.

The word most people miss is disciple, which points to following and adhering to the disciplines of the teaching.  A discipline is a practice one follows into a habit so that it becomes second nature rather than planned.  The freedom therefore must come from the continued practice of Jesus teachings.  Yet, later Jesus told the disciples (another derivative of the word “discipline”) “You can do nothing of yourselves; just like branches cannot bear fruit without being attached to the vine itself.”  He is the vine, we are the branches.  He provides the spiritual sap; we bear the fruit.  But notice we do something as a result of our attachment to Him.

The word “gracious” is a derivative of the root “grace”.  This means the wise are full of grace and their language reflects it.  The mouth speaks what the heart thinks; it naturally follows gracious words must emanate from grace filled thoughts.  Fools don’t think of grace so naturally it cannot be part of their vocabulary.  If you meet a Christ-follower who practices ungracious language, most likely they are either young in the Lord or not steeped in the discipline of Christ.  Christ is full of grace and mercy.  He did not come into the world to condemn it.  His intention was and is to save the world through His teachings and actions—the cross and resurrection.