How to have the right mindset during the difficult times of life – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Part 5

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There was a period of consecutive months where eight people from Faith Church died, at least one per month.  I listened to and counseled their eight grieving families, officiating each of the funerals.  This weighed heavy on me, as I was thinking about death constantly. I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about death, and that freaked me out.  The last few verses in our study this week, Ecclesiastes 3:12-15, helped me begin to resolve that struggle. Go ahead and read those verses.

Do you hear the joy in what the Teacher says? 

The Teacher says we can be joyful and do good during the time we have, no matter the circumstance or the season.  Rather than be upset that we can’t know it all, we can be satisfied and even happy with what we do know, the life and work and relationships that God has given us.  Dorsey notes that the word the Teacher uses, which the NIV translates “happy,” is not the temporary emotion of happiness, but joy, a deep abiding joy.  We can experience joy, even in the midst of the fleeting life we all live. Even in the midst of difficult times.

That is what really helped me when all I could think about was death, and how much I didn’t want to die.  I could take the Teacher and God at his word, and enjoy the life God has given me.  The Teacher expands on this in verse 13.  We can enjoy the life God has given us, including the basics of eating, drinking and, yes, even finding satisfaction in our work.  In fact, the Teacher says, this is a gift of God.

Imagine a world where even eating and drinking would be horrible.  Where what you need to do to survive is horrible. Surely for some people in our world, this is their reality, and we need to be sensitive to that.  One of pastoral colleagues has a son with pervasive allergies to foods, and they have struggled to keep him healthy.  But for most of us, eating is a distinct pleasure.  Even in places without a variety of foods, I have noticed people appreciate the pleasure of eating and drinking.  I did a missionary internship in Guyana, South America, in the summer between my junior and senior year of college. At one point in the summer, I joined my Guyanese friends on a brief trip to the capital city of Guyana for a church conference.  I was so excited because there was a KFC restaurant in the capital.  American-style fast food was not available in the more remote area where I was serving.  You know what my Guyanese friends said as we were eating our fried chicken?  KFC was nice, but they missed their rice.  They had rice every single meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day!  Bland rice!  And they missed rice!!!  But that is the joy God has given us!  Even the joy of eating rice.

And we would do well to live joyfully that way!  Instead of fixating on the shortness of life, instead of feeling freaked out by death, I learned to change my thinking to enjoy the life that God has given me. 

This is hard, quite frankly, in the USA, because we are taught to be dissatisfied.  I was recently listening to a podcast where the speakers were talking about how consumerism has impacted Christians in the USA.  They said that we used to hear how the USA is pretty much the greatest place to be a Christian with our freedom of religion and our many opportunities.  But in recent years that viewpoint is changing.  The one person on the podcast was talking about how he learned that people were reviewing his church on Google.  And not all the reviews were positive!  People are used to going out to eat, and then posting a review on Google or Yelp, describing what they think of the restaurant.  “My sandwich was too cold.  My bacon wasn’t crispy enough.  The décor was old.”   You can do that for churches too.  “I didn’t get the sermon that I wanted.  Or the projection system wasn’t bright enough.  I’m only giving you 3 stars out of 5.”

Think about the mindset of that.  I’m not saying that churches should have a blank check to do whatever they want. I’m also not saying that we should be free from evaluation.  But what I am saying is that we need to be aware that we can bring a consumerist mindset to our faith, and that can work powerfully within us to make us dissatisfied about many elements of our faith.  The result is a lack of joy. 

What the Teacher is advocating for, then in Ecclesiastes 3:12-15, is a view of life that trusts in God to answer the big picture questions, and for humans to live simply and joyfully.  That brings great meaning to life.  That’s a life that we can enjoy and share and pursue the flourishing of all people.

This had me thinking of a woman in our church who passed away this spring.  As we walked with them this past year of her ovarian cancer diagnosis, treatments, and the ups and downs of this battle of cancer, there were most certainly times of sorrow.  But they always carried their sorrow with a deep joy.  They had an assurance of God’s goodness even in the midst of the pain, the questions, the ups and downs.  We spent time in the ER, with them all at the hospital, and while there were questions and sorrow, there was still deep assurance and peace. During her final week, my wife Michelle and I both spent time at their house.  Yes, they expressed tears and sorrow, and they also shared smiles, and even laughter.  There was deep sadness, but deep comfort and joy in the Lord.  And never a complaint from our friend as she passed away. 

This reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4. There he talks about what we should let our mind think on: whatever is true, good, noble, right and pure.  Fixing our minds this way will help us keep the different seasons of life in proper perspective.  So where is your mind during times of good and during times of not so good?  It does not mean we never feel sad.  But what we choose to fix our mind on, in the midst of the ups and downs, in the midst of the normal seasons of life, changes how we handle those season.

You can have joy in the midst of hard times – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Part 4

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Do you ever struggle to find joy in life? I’m writing this in September 2020, and it feels difficult to have joy. We’ve been in a global pandemic, Covid-19, and nearing 200,000 deaths since March. Wildfires ravaged the west coast of the USA, while hurricanes flood the south. Partisan politics have made the presidential election a bitter contest, and the country feels deeply divided. Racial injustice is all around us, revealing the original sin of a nation.

Life has its ups and its downs. This year feels like a major downer. In the previous post we talked about how generally life follows a pattern of down times that follower times of joy. This is called the Law of Undulation. But what we do when it seems we cannot break out of a negative view of life? What do we do when we struggle to have joy? In other words, how do we respond to the Law of Undulation?

The Teacher tells us. Let’s take a closer look at Ecclesiastes 3, verses 9-15, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

In verse 9, after his poem, he transitions with a question about the poem: “what does a worker gain?”  Or as Dorsey translates it, “What is the ultimate significance of all these activities?”  He has answered this question numerous times already in Ecclesiastes chapters 1 and 2, so he doesn’t need to answer it again here.  What is ultimate significance of life’s extremes?  The answer is, “not much, if anything at all.”  In the poem (verses 1-8), we can certainly understand that there is an appropriate time and place for all kinds of things.  But we can’t understand their ultimate significance.    

So in verse 10, the Teacher says that this is a heavy burden God has placed on us. Not very joyful yet, is he?  Dorsey’s translation is different, and I think very helpful, because the NIV’s translation is perhaps unnecessarily negative in its view on God.  Here’s how Dorsey translates verse 10, “I thought about all that God gives humans to do to occupy them.”  See the difference in that? It’s not so much that God has placed a heavy burden on us, but that the Teacher is thinking about how God has given us a life that is cyclical and fleeting. The Teacher is reflecting on the poem in verses 1-8.  All those opposites.  The Teacher is thinking about them. But what does he think about them?

He tells us in verse 11, and again Dorsey’s translation is very helpful. Let me try to set it up: When the Teacher, in verse 10 says that he thought about all that God gives humans to do to occupy them, now he goes to say in verse 11 (Dorsey’s translation), “I could see that God has designed each activity so that it has an appropriate time to be done.  But God has also placed in the human heart a sense that there is a greater overall plan for all things.  Nevertheless, he has not given human beings the ability to perceive this greater plan, or to understand God’s agenda from beginning to end.”

In other words, God has placed us in a world of opposites.  We have a desire to know that larger picture, but we ultimately cannot know it because it is only God’s to know.  So what should we do?  Are we just destined to be caught in a fog all our lives? Where is the joy I promised?

Read verses 12-13. Does it sound familiar? What the Teacher has to say in verses 12-13 is very similar to what we heard him teach in 2:24-26 which we studied last week.  2:24-26 was his conclusion to the seven personalities or roles that people utilize in their search for the meaning of life.  There he said in 2:24, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” 

Now in verse 3:12-13, he says, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.” 

His teaching in 2:24-26 and 3:12-13 is nearly identical. So the Teacher is clearly connecting these two passages.  He is developing a theme, and here it is: “While life is cyclical and fleeting, and we may never be able to fully understand all of God’s purposes, God has given us a pathway for joy.” 

We are starting to see why my Old Testament professor, Dave Dorsey, said that the book of Ecclesiastes has often gotten a bad rap as the most depressing book of the Bible.  He pointed out that the Teacher actually has more references to joy and happiness than the book of Philippians, which is considered to be the Joy book of the Bible.  Of course Ecclesiastes is a lot longer than Philippians, but the point remains.  Ecclesiastes has an incredibly joyful approach to the meaning of life. 

There is another way to look at life, and verses 12-15, present that other view, one that I am very thankful for.  Check back tomorrow, as I’ll talk about how Ecclesiastes 3:12-15 was such a help to me in the middle of that dark time.

Surfing, the Law of Undulation, and how to handle life’s extremes – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Part 3

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I’ve never been surfing, but it looks really fun. Riding a wave must be thrilling. I imagine, though, that successful attempts only follow many failed ones. Ups and downs, like the waves. I suspect that surfing is a study in extremes, from the bliss of great ride, to the suffering of a rough crash. In our blog series this week on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, the Teacher is saying we should not be surprised at life’s extremes. 

CS Lewis talks about this tendency in his book The Screwtape Letters, calling it the Law of Undulation. Undulation is a fancy word describing how waves of all kinds go up and they go down.  Whether we are talking about waves at the beach, or electromagnetic waves like microwaves, light waves or radio waves.  They have crests and they have troughs.  Crests are the peaks, the high points, and troughs are the low points.  The Law of Undulation states that a high point will follow a low point and after that another high point will arrive and then another low point, over and over and over, just like the unending waves on the seashore. 

Of course, life isn’t exactly like that.  We use the phrase, “When it rains, it pours,” to talk about how sometimes we get three or four low points in a row.  Or we get a number of high points in a row.  I wonder how history will remember 2020? 

Yet the law of Undulation remains true, because inevitably, the streak of bad will end, and something good will happen.  We can expect it, and know that it works both ways.  After a season of blessing, we might have a tragedy.  This is not a guarantee, by any means, but we can expect it.  In fact, Lewis says, we should expect it, so that we are not rocked by it, so that we are not thrown off kilter as if the tragedy that just happened was impossible. 

That’s one way we can learn from the Teacher’s poem: Do not be surprised at the ups and downs of life.  If you embrace the cyclical, fleeting nature of life, you will be much, much more prepared to handle difficult times when they come. 

Christians can become confounded by this tendency when we have an amazing spiritual experience.  It could be a youth retreat, a camp meeting, a men’s retreat, a particular worship service or a mission trip.  This could also be true in a non-spiritual sense with vacations.  On those special events, we can experience what we call a high, a feeling of deep emotional joy and excitement, and we love it!  We are riding the crest of the wave.  Maybe we experienced great musical worship, maybe we really enjoyed a speaker, maybe we had more time alone with God, or maybe our eyes were opened to a new culture halfway around the world.  Maybe it felt amazing to serve sacrificially.  There are many ways that we experience the wonder of the mountaintop. 

And then we come home.  We’re still very excited at home, and then we go back to work, back to school, back to the chores of dishes and laundry and the car breaking down.  What happens?  We can quickly crash into a serious disappointment, and we can start to call into question the validity of the high.  Maybe that mountaintop experience was false, we wonder.  It sure didn’t seem false at the time, but why, then, is it gone so quickly?  Shouldn’t a genuine spiritual experience last longer than that?  So we hunger for another mountaintop.  We seek another spiritual high.  We want a repeat.  It’s a lot like an addict who wants another hit.  It is very human of us to want nothing but the good stuff, the joys, the highs, the excitement, as if that is where truth is found.  As if the mountaintop experiences are what God wants us to have all the time. 

The Teacher, through the 7 couplets of opposites in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, reminds of the Law of Undulation.  Highs naturally lead to lows.  Rather than be frustrated by life, we can view the ups and downs as okay.  The opposite or extreme nature of life is to be expected.  When we come home from the powerful retreat, and we are faced with our struggles, and with boredom and with the daily grind of school and jobs and chores, if we start to feel like something is wrong with us, if we start to feel like failures, if we start to feel like spiritual nobodies, we can remember that nothing is wrong. Instead, the Law of Undulation is at work.  The troughs, the low points, will not last forever.  There is a time for joy, and there is a time for pain.  Life is cyclical.

So how do we respond to the Law of Undulation?

The teacher tells us, and we’ll discover what he says in our next post.

How our family pets taught us about the extremes in life – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Part 2

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When she was about 7 years old, we got our daughter Meagan a floppy-eared rabbit named Bun Bun which we kept in a hutch outside on our side deck.  Every day before school, Meg would go out there to peek on Bun Bun, say Hi, and see how her rabbit was doing.  There really wasn’t much work involved in taking care of Bun Bun, so I thought she was a great pet.  Feed her, fill up her water bottle, and clean out her hutch, which included giving her shredded paper she could burrow in on cold nights. Simple, and most of all, outside.

The only exception to how easy it was to care for Bun Bun was when the temperature dropped below freezing.  Then, just to be safe, we would move the entire hutch into the laundry room, and that was a fussy chore.  The hutch just barely fit through the door, took up almost all the floor space in the laundry room, and depending on how long it had been since we cleaned the hutch, it could stink really bad, especially if the cold weather lasted for a more than a few days.

My family was soon going to learn a personal lesson in what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 describes as “a season for everything under the sun.” In the previous post, I mentioned that the words of the Teacher’s poem illustrate the extremes in life. In verse 2, the Teacher describes what is perhaps the most foundational of those extremes, “there is a time to be born, and a time to die.”

After doing carting the rabbit hutch inside and outside throughout three winters, that verse became all too real.  One night, we looked at the weather report and it was going to be around freezing, and we thought, Bun Bun will be fine, she made it through other nights that were colder than this, so we didn’t move the hutch inside.

The next morning Meg woke up, went out to check on Bun Bun, and came right back in screaming that Bun Bun was not moving.  I thought, Can’t be…  Well, to use the words of verse 2, this was a time to die.  Bun Bun was frozen stiff.  We felt awful.  Meg was a mess. For Meg, to use the words of verse 4, it was a time to mourn. 

Soon enough the sadness passed, and Meg got a new idea.  She proposed that we get a guinea pig.  We had previously had a hamster, and it ran on its wheel nonstop and smelled, so I wasn’t too keen on a guinea pig.  I didn’t grow up with pets, and am totally fine without them.  For me, I should have followed the words of verse 7, a time to be silent.  But for whatever reason, I decided it was a time to speak.  As Meg was asking for a guinea pig, I opened my mouth and said, “I would rather us get a dog, than a guinea pig.”  All of sudden, for Meg, it was verse 4, a time for laughing and dancing.  I think it was also, verse 5, a time to embrace, as I got some hugs out of that. 

I don’t know what got into me.  Why did I say that?  I think all I was doing was illustrating that I didn’t want another animal inside the house.  But I couldn’t take back my words, as my daughter was elated. That launched Michelle and Meg into verse 6, a time for searching.  They made a list of all the qualities they were looking for in a dog.  Then they visited the humane league and the ASPCA and they looked online and searched and searched for just the right dog that fit the list.  After much looking they finally found Bentley.  Though it is not precisely the words of verse 2, a time to be born, because we adopted Bentley when he was two years old, there was still a sense that he was born anew into our family.  Very quickly it was just like verse 8, a time to love, as my family loves Bentley. 

But not so much for me.  Like I said, I did not grow up in a pet family.  We would have pets, but they never lasted long.  And remember how I didn’t want another animal in the house?  Now we this fairly large animal walking around our house all the time, needing to go out, barking super loud when anyone comes in the driveway, and shedding everywhere!  So for me, back in verse 8, it was more like a time to hate, though that is perhaps a bit strong. 

You know the crazy part? From nearly the first moment I walked in the house on the day Michelle and Meg brought Bentley home, he seems to have decided that I was his person!  He would follow me around everywhere, and often still does.  If I would go to the bathroom, he waited outside the door.  I was not a fan of all this following.  But in a couple weeks I decided to see how he would do if I took him on a run.  I run quite a bit, and that was the beginning of something new.  In the nearly four years that we have had Bentley, we have logged a lot of miles together.  Now four years later, I can honestly say he has grown on me.  Back to verse 8, it is a time to love.  It is interesting how animals and people can grow on you.  From hate to love.

Life is so often a study in opposites, isn’t it?  Put another way, life is often about extremes.  So what the Teacher is describing for us is no surprise.  When we read this poem in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, we instinctively know it to be true, because it is our daily experience.  In other words, the Teacher is saying, we should not be surprised at life’s extremes. 

Yet we are still often caught off guard by the ups and especially by the downs of life, aren’t we? Is there something we can do to better prepare ourselves? Check by tomorrow!

What song is the number one hit with the oldest lyrics in the history of the US Billboard charts? – Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Part 1

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How many of you have felt the tension that life in 2020 is leaving you pulled in opposing directions?  For example, we have the most advanced medical technology in history, and yet a global pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands.  Or we could be considered the most relationally-connected society in history, especially considering internet and global communications, and yet many people feel isolated and alone because of quarantine?  We have a plethora of options for entertainment and yet how many feel bored? 

How should we live in a world of extremes? 

To try to answer that, I have a trivia question for you.  What song holds the distinction of the being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics in all the history of the US Billboard charts?  I asked this question when I preached this sermon live, and someone answered Amazing Grace, which is a strong answer. I don’t know that a rendition of Amazing Grace ever made it on the Billboard charts, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Amazing Grace is a very old song, but the lyrics of song that holds the record is far, far older. Someone else answered, “Mozart or Beethoven,” both of whom are quite older than the Billboard charts, but I doubt either of them have a version of one of their works on the charts. And still, the record-holder’s lyrics are thousands of years older than the classical masters.

What do you think is Billboard #1 with the oldest lyrics?

The song itself was first written in the 1950s, but the lyrics are much, much older.  Do you know the song?  Its lyrics are around 2500 years old! 

In fact the lyrics are from a poem in the passage we are studying this week on the blog.  Turn to Ecclesiastes 3, and look at verses 1-8.  Instead of me reading this passage to you, let’s listen to the song Turn, Turn, Turn by Pete Seeger. Over the years, others have made 80+ renditions of Seeger’s song.  Perhaps the most famous version, a cover by The Byrds, hit number one on the US charts in December 1965.  Follow along as The Birds sing verses 1-8 for us, describing our world of extremes.

Isn’t it fascinating that a poem which is at least 2500 years old is still so relevant?  Other than the line about stones in verse 5, it seems to me that every one of the 13 other couplets in this poem is very relatable, very much a part of our lives even in 2020.

The poem brings up many central themes of life such as the cycle of life, relationships, work, emotions, the stuff that we give most of our time to, and about which we care deeply.  The poem becomes another reflection on the cyclical, fleeting nature of life that the Teacher has been talking about from the very beginning of Ecclesiastes.  Specifically the teacher illustrates the cyclical, fleeting nature of life with 14 sets of opposites. 

Four years ago our family experienced this pattern of opposites quite vividly. Check back in tomorrow, and I’ll tell you the story.

The answer to the meaning of life – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, Part 5

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At the beginning of this five-part blog series on Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, I showed you Ed Ames’ song, “Who Will Answer?”, a song that is really asking, who brings meaning to life? 

As we have seen all week long, while humanity tries to answer that question many way, it is only God who has the answer.  And jumping to the New Testament, we see that Jesus is the answer.  But how?

We find true meaning in life through the abundant life that Jesus came to bring.  Jesus’ abundant life is a very different approach to life than what is often considered wise.  Just open up the sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7 and you’ll see pretty quickly what I mean. 

“Love your enemies”???  In what world is that wise, Jesus?  Your enemy can take you down!  You shouldn’t love them, you should neutralize them! 

Or take another famous saying of Jesus.  “Do not store up treasure on earth, but store up treasure in heaven.”  That doesn’t seem wise, either, Jesus. 

Give generously and sacrificially of you time, talent and treasure?  I often think of how much money I would have if I had never in my life given any to the Lord. 

But that was Jesus for you.  Upending the conventions of society, and he still sounds off his rocker today. 

So back to the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26.  Notice how the teacher’s perspective is in line with the way of Jesus. Focus on a life of joyfully serving the Lord.  That’s what brings meaning to life.  Choose love.  Love, as one poet says, is the only thing you can’t leave behind when you die. Choose to see God’s hand and goodness in things, even in the hard things of life.

Have you been stuck passionately pursuing someone or thing that has taken your eyes off Jesus?  Think about Jesus with me for a moment.  Can you say that you are passionate about him? 

I was recently studying Jesus’ trial in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Mark.  I found it fascinating to see the Jews so intensely passionate about killing Jesus.  And yet he was God.  How did they get it so wrong?  They were blinded by the perception of God that they had created, so when God showed up right in front of them, he wasn’t in line with that perception, and they could not see him.  Do we ever do that? 

We do.  Many ways.  The different personalities here show us the ways that we can miss seeing that God is right here with us, whether that is the Philosopher, who can get caught up in always questioning. Or it might be the Student trying to just educate themselves about God and the world.  Whether it is the Party Animal choosing to just have a great time and fully enjoy all of life.  Or maybe it is the Addict, numbing ourselves to what is going on by different kinds of addictions.  Maybe we are the Workaholic or maybe we are the Puritan just focusing on following all the rules. It might even be the Philanthropist!

Viewing and living life through these personalities can cause us to miss God.  We can miss out connecting to the one living, good God who loves and adores us.  He is the God who wants to connect with you and walk through the good and the bad with you.  He is the God who is real, active and has desires to be known by you.

When we choose to know him, not just know about him, that is where we find abundant meaningful life.  That is where it is at. 

We all go through seasons, sometimes feeling more connected to God than other times.  Which are these different “personality” themes do you lean towards?  Maybe more than one.  In what way can that personality instruct any changes that you might need to make to help you be able to connect more with God during this season? Talk about it with someone else. Develop an accountability relationship, cheering one another on to connect deeper with our God.   

Let us see Jesus as the answer. A vibrant, passionate life of following Jesus is what will bring meaning to that seemingly bottomless pit of emptiness that we can feel in our lives.  Pursue Jesus!

The downfall of the Philanthropist – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, Part 4

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I recently listened to a podcast about Walt Disney (episode 204), and it was fascinating to hear the story of how he grew his company from a few cartoon drawings into what is today one of the top ten companies in the world.  After Disney died, however, there was a massive court battled that raged among his descendants trying to get their piece of the family fortune. How must Walt have felt about that?

In this series of posts, The Teacher has been trying out various roles or personalities in life to try to discover the meaning of life. So far he is batting 0-6, but he has one more shot.  The seventh and final role is The Philanthropist, which he describes for us in Ecclesiastes 2:17-23.

The Philanthropist attempts to find the meaning of life by accomplishing and acquiring much, as a legacy for future generations.

This is the person who really is a hard worker and has a kind heart.  Think of Milton Hershey or Bill and Melinda Gates, people using their wealth by investing in future generations. 

But as I mentioned above about Disney, the Philanthropist’s plans don’t always work out well.  These kinds of battles don’t just happen with the uber-wealthy. Some of you have had similar battles in your families.

So, the Teacher concludes, who knows what the next generation or future generations will do with one’s accomplishments or gifts?  Others in the future may even use one gifts and legacy for folly and evil.  The teacher is right.  Do you know that your descendants will use the legacy you worked hard for in a way that is wise and honorable?  In fact, a possible outflow of your Christian faith could be how you handle your will and your estate.  Think about your last will and testament as it is currently written: does it all go to family members?  Why?  Will they use it in a way that is in line with way of Jesus?

Here’s an idea: consider writing your will so the distribution of your estate is a reverse tithe.  What if you would give 90% to the Kingdom of God and 10% to family members?  Don’t tell them about this while you’re alive, or it could create a tense situation in your family!  A reverse tithe would be one way to address the philanthropist’s concern.

So very much like the Puritan, while the Philanthropist attempts to do good with their life, in the end, they will die too.

What we see in the seven roles or personalities (if you want to read about the previous six personalities, start with #1 here, then #2-4 here, and #5-6 here), is that there are many ways people try to bring meaning to their lives, and they all fail at answering the question of what is the true meaning of life.   

So what should we do?  The Teacher tells us. Let’s read his conclusion in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26.

I love how Dorsey summarizes the Teacher’s conclusion, “One can neither discover nor achieve lasting significance for one’s life; nor can one discover life’s ultimate meaning; so abandon the futile effort and enjoy the gifts and work that God daily gives you.  Live in a way that pleases God; enjoy the happiness that comes from him as you live this life, the ultimate purpose of which you cannot perceive.”

Focus on joy today. This does not mean that wisdom is foolish and we should stop going to Costco and buying things in bulk and do all our shopping at the corner store.  Convenience stores are always going to be more expensive than wholesalers.  Also using coupons and shopping at discount stores is still wise!  What the Teacher is saying is that while wise living does have its purpose, it cannot ultimately bring the meaning the we so desperately seek.  Perhaps you know people like this.  People who use wise principles in various areas of life but they are still really struggling with understanding the purpose of life?

Maybe Tom Brady, the NFL quarterback, is an example. Brady was once asked after winning the Super Bowl, “How does it feel?  It must feel great to be the champion.”  Brady replied, “Yeah, it is great, but I want to win one more.”  Maybe that’s just Brady’s competitive personality coming out.  Or maybe his comment is evidence of the emptiness deep inside, and emptiness we can all feel, an emptiness that none of the seven roles can fill.

The only way we find true meaning in life is when we rest in God, when we follow his way of life.  In other words, to answer Ed Ames’ question in the song I mentioned in the first post in this series, “Who will answer?”, who brings meaning to life?  God does.  Jesus is the answer.  But how? Check back tomorrow for the next and final post in this series, as we’ll try to answer that question!

How work and wisdom fail to bring ultimate meaning to life – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, Part 3

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This week we’ve been following the Teacher in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes try out seven roles or personalities, all in an attempt to find the meaning of life. It’s a kind of ancient personality test. So far the Teacher has introduced us to the Philosopher, the Student, the Party Animal and the Addict, but none of them have provided the meaning of life. The Teacher, in the final three roles, definitely makes a turn toward roles that seem very positive, but as we’ll see, they have a dark side too.  The next role can be described two ways: either the Workaholic or the Aristocrat, as we read in Ecclesiastes 2:4-11.

This person attempts to find the meaning of life by accomplishing much, becoming wealthy, filling life with pleasures.

We Americans know this person well.  This is the person who seeks to find meaning in work, and they work and work and work. This person works on their days off, and they work on vacation.  They are checking their email all hours of the day and night.

This role is deceptive because people actually do gain from this.  The money is nice.  They know how to make money, and they do make money.  They work hard and they seek to provide meaning, not only from the accomplishments of the work, such as the promotions, the connections, and the power, but also through the purchases.  Nicer cars.  Nicer homes.  Nicer vacations. They are the people who upgrade their lives.  This is perhaps the epitome of American life, and we Christians, by and large, have bought in to this so-called American Dream, thinking it will bring meaning to our lives.

The Teacher, however, discovers it to be not a dream, but a nightmare.  One’s accomplishments and wealth, while enjoyable for a time, fail to provide lasting meaning or significance to life, and as so many in our day and age have found, leave us bitter and in ill health, wondering why we burned ourselves out all those years. Discovering the meaning of life goes beyond just responsibly holding a job.

That brings us to the sixth role the Teacher takes on, the Puritan in Ecclesiastes 2:12-16.

Perhaps the Teacher has finally found the role that can give him the meaning of life.  The Puritan attempts to find the meaning of life by living wisely.  Sure seems like this is the way to go: wisdom!

I once had a book called Life’s Little Instruction Book: 511 suggestions, observations and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life. On each page the author wrote a sentence or two of advice that he wanted to give his son who was headed to his freshman year of college.  It was a modern day book of Proverbs in the Bible. 

I’ve often thought about what I would write in a book like that if I was making one.  The first page would be “Wait to write a book of wisdom at least until you turn 40.”  There’s at least a slice of wisdom that only time and experience can provide.

Here are a couple of mine:  “At some point, delete your social media accounts, and go without them for a year.”   “Leave the USA at least once every 24 months, and visit a country where there is great poverty and choose to educate yourself on the systems and issues there.”  Or  “Leave your local community at least once every 24 months, and spend time serving in a ministry in a different city – for the purpose of understanding something new.”   “Eat foods from other countries and cultures on a regular basis.”  “Always be reading at least one book.  And mix it up between fiction book, biography, and the spiritual life…all the time.”   “Regularly hear from sources of media that you would normally disagree with.  If you’re a CNN kind of person, listen to Fox News too, and vice versa.  Make sure your social media feeds include both.”  “Build relationships with people of a different color.”  “In a conversation, listen more than you talk.”   

We would probably all do well to try to create a book like that to pass on to our kids and grandkids, right?  What would you include?  On the last page, though, after trying out the Puritan role, seeking wisdom, the Teacher would include: “trying to live a wise life is a dead end.”  Well, then, what’s the purpose of writing a wisdom book??? 

The Puritan is correct that trying to live wisely is generally advisable for anyone at any time.  The problem is trying to answer what wise living actually entails. There are so many disagreements, such as we see in our divided culture.  Should we live according to the conservative point of view, or should we live according to the liberal point of view?  There are disagreements about nearly everything.  Pro-choice vs. Pro-Life.  Gun laws.  Death penalty.  Jail sentencing.  Go into debt? Or don’t buy until you have the cash to pay in full? These disagreements are why it is called the culture war.

The Puritan is the one who believes extremely strongly in their own point of view as the right one.  You can be a puritan conservative or a puritan liberal.  You can be a puritan Christian, which is where the name comes from.  The pure ones. They were Protestants trying to live a faithful Christian life in Europe, but when they were persecuted, they emigrated to New England because there was freedom of religion in the Colonies. 

The problem with puritanism is that it often becomes self-righteous.  Elitist.  The person who says boldly, “My way is best, and unless you follow my way, you are wrong.”  “Guess what?” the Teacher says to the Puritan, “You will die, too.”  So while it is generally advantageous to seek to live wisely, in the end the result is the same.

The Teacher has one more shot.  The seventh and final role. Will he finally find the meaning of life? Check back in tomorrow to find out!

Can the Student, the Party Animal, or the Addict find the meaning of life – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, Part 2

Photo by Lukas Eggers on Unsplash

Are you searching for the meaning of life?

In Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, as we learned in the previous post, the Teacher tries out seven different roles, each one an attempt to find the meaning of life. So far, he has tried the Philosopher, and found it comes up empty. Now the Teacher takes on the role of the Student. Look at what he says about this role in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.

The Student attempts to find meaning in life by acquiring wisdom and knowledge.

How many of you are students?  I am a student, having just started the dissertation phase of doctoral studies. While the Student role is definitely related to those who like traditional academics, like the people who tear their hair out trying to get masters degrees and doctorates, many people are students in other ways.  You don’t have to go to school or have college degrees to be a student.  This is the reader, whether that is the newspaper, or articles online, or magazines, or blog posts or books of all kinds.  But there are other kinds of students who have a thirst to learn in different ways, such as the travelers, finding new places, or the person who watches documentaries, or listens to podcasts. 

But in this role, the Teacher says, the pursuit of the student is endless and fruitless.  There’s always more to learn!  As the phrase goes, “the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” 

Dorsey says that the role of the Student “only makes a person more painfully aware than ever of his or her abysmal ignorance to the point of life.”

So the Teacher said that he tried out the third role, the Party Animal, which he describes in Ecclesiastes 2:1-2.

The Party Animal attempts to find meaning in life by just having fun!  How many of you would admit to being the party animal???

This could certainly be the person who loves to throw actual parties or go dancing at the club.  But it is also the thrill seeker.  The sports enthusiast, the one who loves entertainment of all kinds.  Movies, TV shows, the great outdoors.  This is the comedian, the jokester and the prankster.  I watched a video this week of the magician David Blaine who tied himself to 50 huge helium balloons that carried him up over 20,000 feet.  He had to use a special breathing technique to make it through the high altitudes where oxygen is dangerously thin.  This is the person who seeks to see how far they can push their body, like those crazy marathon runners. 

The Teacher concludes that for the Party Animal, fun and laughter provide no meaning to life either, because after the party is over nothing has been gained.

So the Teacher continues, and he takes on the role of the Alcoholic.  Read Ecclesiastes 2:3.

This person attempts to escape the pain through wine.  Dorsey translates this verse like this, “I tried dulling my senses with wine and embracing folly, until I thought, ‘What good does this do during a person’s fleeting days?’ ”. 

So there is no doubt that alcoholics are in view here.  But it is not just alcohol.  In our day we might expand that a bit and call this role the Addict, because there are many ways that we try to dull our sense and escape and try to find meaning in the world.  Addiction comes in many shapes and sizes, doesn’t it?  TV shows, movies, sci-fi, fantasy, porn, exercise, dieting, nicotine, drugs, sex, shopping, you name it. 

This, too, the Teacher discovers is a dead end: the nagging question of the meaning of life cannot be silenced with wine or any other source of addiction.  There is an emptiness deep within that cannot be filled.

But what of a more productive method?  The Teacher, in the final three roles, definitely makes a turn toward roles that seem very positive, but they, too, have a dark side.

How an ancient personality test can help us discover the meaning of life – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26, Part 1

Ed Ames a provocative song in 1968 and it just might resonate with you today. Take a look:

In case you didn’t catch it clearly, here is the chorus:

If the soul is darkened by a fear it cannot name
If the mind is baffled when the rules don’t fit the game
Who will answer?
Who will answer?
Who will answer?

The song is asking, “How do we find meaning in life?”  In a world that is filled with so much pain and trouble and dark, difficult questions, how do we find meaning?  But the song stops short of an answer.  The song just asks the question.  Who will answer?

That question is exactly what the Teacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is asking.  Last week we studied chapter 1, verses 1-11, and the Teacher started off with the phrase “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”  Not an encouraging beginning to a book of ancient wisdom.  But as I wrote here, the Teacher almost certainly did not intend to tell us that life is meaningless.  Instead, he is describing how life is fleeting.  So that leaves us with a question: what is the meaning of life? 

Through the rest of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2, the Teacher plays seven different roles, seven people who each seek the meaning of life in their own way.  As we meet these seven kinds of people, I want you to know that I am indebted to my Old Testament professor, David Dorsey, for his explanation of this section.  Also, as we meet the seven seekers of meaning, what we will find is that this section of Ecclesiastes is almost like an ancient personality test.  Some of you have taken the Disc profile or the Enneagram or the Taylor-Johnson temperament analysis.  Well, think of this as the Ecclesiastes Profile, and see if you are like any of these seven. 

First, the Teacher takes on the role of the Philosopher.  Read Ecclesiastes 1:12-15.

The Teacher says that the Philosopher is the person who attempts to find meaning in life by discovering the big picture.  In Verse 13, he “explored by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”  That’s a pretty big picture.  

This person doesn’t have to be a classically trained philosopher.  Instead it might be the person who has the personality of a philosopher.  This person is a questioner, a person who is quick to examine below the surface of an issue, wondering if there is more to the story.  It might be the person who gets interested in conspiracy theories.  It might be the person who just wants to know “Why?” or “How?”  Philosophers are the curious ones, the ones who don’t like it when a situation or rationale doesn’t make sense.  The philosophers among us want to a world that fits together. So they ask even more questions:

How can God always have existed with no beginning?  How did the universe come into being? Do we have free will or is everything determined, and we just have the illusion of free will?  Why is there so much evil and pain in the world?  Couldn’t God have created a world free of all that hard stuff, or at least a lot less?  Why did Jesus have to die?  Was there not a better way to save the world?  And on and on the questions go.  In recent months the philosophers among us are asking, “Where is Jesus in the craziness that is 2020?”

In the end, the Teacher tells us that he found the role of the philosopher to be an impossible task, a heavy burden.  The big picture, the philosopher realizes, cannot be discovered.  There are so many unanswered questions. But maybe you are not the philosopher. Check back tomorrow as we see what role the Teacher tries out next!