when discouragement sets in (Ecclesiastes)

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The end of a fascinating book helps us keep straight what we have to keep our eyes on as we live life “under the sun.” Tremper Longman is helpful here:

The second wise man commends Qohelet as an example of honest thinking about life “under the sun.” In essence he’s saying, “Son, Qohelet is 100 percent correct. Under the sun, life is difficult and then you die.”

However, the second wise man goes on to encourage his son toward what we might call an “above the sun” perspective: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of humanity. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (12:13–14).

I’m not qualified to offer my opinion on Longman’s overall interpretation of Ecclesiastes (see his commentary), along with other interpretations, or to offer my own. I think his quote above certainly rings true.

What is helpful to me is the plain point that when all is said and done we’re to simply fear God and keep his commandments, keeping in mind our accountability to God, how we will have to answer to him.

I don’t at all write off the rest of the book as having no value for us. We run up against its truth all the time in the difficulties we face and see everywhere. And I think interspersed throughout Qohelet’s (“the Teacher’s”) words are glimmers of light that see beyond the perspective of “life under the sun.”

That is the perspective we need if we’re to carry on well in God’s eyes. We have to get past the inevitable discouragement which faces here, all the problems, not to mention tragedy, and realize that even in the best scenario of “life under the sun,” there is a sense of not arriving, of futility, even a sense of meaninglessness.

What we need in this world is to see beyond that to the God who gives meaning in the midst of the madness. Who keeps us in his way, as we see him for who he is, and seek to walk in line with his will. In and through Jesus.

 

glimmers of light in our darkness

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-14

Ecclesiastes is a remarkable book and makes a remarkable contribution in the Book. But much of it is hard to really get hold of, and it’s interesting how Bible scholars interpret it differently. It seems to me to speak much truth in the midst of mystery, in the struggle to understand life. It is a reflective and pessimistic view of life, considering human toil and the actual result: how everything comes and goes over and over again.

The idea of God placing eternity, or a sense of the present and future (NRSV), or even darkness as in ignorance (NETNIV footnote) in the human heart, that humans can’t understand what God is up to. That leaves us hanging a bit, but either way life ends up being a mystery. Either darkness, or with a sense of much more, yet not being able to come up with what that is on our own. Ecclesiastes to me seems to echo that last thought, frustration over the seeming randomness and senselessness, indeed meaninglessness of life. But with glimmers of light here and there, even as seen in the above passage. Even the idea that God has placed darkness as in ignorance in the human heart is itself a revelation, and therefore oddly enough, a light.

We have revelation and a sense of so much more, and yet we walk around in darkness. A part of our lives now. Which should help us reach out all the more, maybe even grope, but push and pull all the harder to look to God to live faithfully in his will in and through Jesus.

 

 

 

the true meaning of life found only in Jesus and the gospel (and yes, even in the church)

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

There’s an interesting article in which it’s stated that 4 out of every 10 Americans sense no purpose or meaning to life. Given the words in Ecclesiastes I am not surprised at all (see that entire book, one of my favorites if I can say that about a biblical book, unique in the wisdom genre). And that reflects my own experience. I’ve had years in the past and moments in the present when I seriously think, “What’s the point?” Of course if we settle for very little (as C. S. Lewis said) so that if we can just get a few kicks along the way, we are set and good to go, then we are settling for something far less which in the end and often (in a sense always) even on the way to the end will leave us high and dry.

Only in the gospel, the good news of God in King Jesus and God’s grace and kingdom come in him is the true meaning of life found, and no where else. In fact that even gives scripture its true meaning. Scripture as God’s written word is the story of God fulfilled in Jesus, finding its true meaning in King Jesus and God’s grace and kingdom come in him. Read all of it and don’t skip the oftentimes troubling and monotonous part on Israel which is one key to understanding the whole. God’s coming in Jesus in the his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Spirit and the promise to return and “set the world to rights” and make all things new.

We enter into the kingdom by simple faith, the faith of a child, accepting God at his word. And we become disciples, learners as in apprentices in following Jesus in the fellowship of the church in mission to the world. We follow the way of Jesus but we do that together as his body the church, in word and sacrament, by the power of the Spirit being God’s witnesses to the world. The “Jesus Creed” of loving God and our neighbor being the heartbeat of all we do.

This and this alone gives life its real and true meaning and nothing else at all, as good as the other things can be. Everything good has its place, but can find its only proper place in relation to this. This is the true hope of the world and the end of the story. A fullness to which there is no end.

what’s the point?

It is wonderful to run for running’s sake, and there’s a good number of people who like to do that. Perhaps for fitness and also for competition as in track and field. I never enjoyed running, unless it was part one of the three big games I regularly played as a kid: basketball, baseball and football (not necessarily in any order of preference). I could run and run and run and be quite happy and oftentimes tuckered out, because the running took on a significance within the framework of the game. For me running in those contexts was not only tolerable, but fun only because it was part of the game.

Oftentimes we get lost in the details of life, lost I say not in the sense of missing those details themselves, but in missing the point of them, indeed the point of life. We may be like the writer of Ecclesiastes who decided that when all is said and done, all is in fact, meaningless: the world as he saw it, life under the sun. Although when all is said and done beyond that, his conclusion of the matter was that one should fear God and keep his commandments, that being the whole duty of humanity. That God would bring every work to light in judgment, whether it is good or evil.

I am thankful that even during those times when so much seems stacked against someone, and life seems both unrelentingly problem filled and disappointing in some respects, there is still always good reason to go on. And even if reason is weak, there is God’s grace at work to keep us going on. Too often I feel like I’m heading toward some breaking point, where I could just throw up my hands in despair and give up. But giving up is never an option, even if we feel shrouded in darkness. For us in Jesus the point is to glorify God in our relationship with God and with others. Work and all else we do is related and finds its true meaning in that.

I can think that all or much is lost, but I have to keep in mind that God is present and at work in and through Jesus. That God is working his purposes out in his good will, and that whatever I’m doing finds its meaning and fulfillment in that. So that I’m not just doing this or that, things which in themselves can be okay, like the analogy in my own case, running. But more than okay or tolerable when one looks at the bigger picture, and is reminded that it’s a part of something wonderful that is happening in the world.

All things finding their meaning and fulfillment in Jesus, and we in him together in that for the world.

true north

Oftentimes I can get offtrack probably in ways I don’t recognize as well as in ways I do. I laugh to myself if someone asks me how I am with the actual intention of finding out, unless I really am wanting to share something with them good or bad. Because really only God knows. And in a true sense how I am doesn’t depend on me at all.

True north for me is always Jesus. Of course in Jesus we have the revelation of God, of God’s will, of God’s love, of the true meaning to life. And Jesus is so much more than what people make of him, not that any of us can understand that all that well. We learn this in God’s written word, particularly in the New Testament, especially in the gospels with Acts and the letters (like Romans, etc.) helping us see how this is lived out here and now.

As I get older, I more and more realize that true spirituality does not depend on me, not even very much if at all in what I do, not that what I do or don’t do is unimportant. As to its source, true spirituality really depends entirely on Jesus. And our part is simply to come to recognize, acknowledge and come to live in sync with that through the Spirit.

Jesus is the true north which gives direction and the true meaning to everything. Our lives depend on that; really, the world depends on it.

And so we go on together in Jesus, the true north for us and for the world.

the sense of calling

Sometime back someone asked me why I blog. But I’ll add to that, why I go to work day after day, why I attend church gathering on Sunday, why I go to the nursing home on Sunday afternoons, why I try to be a faithful husband, father, and grandfather, why I seek to follow Jesus in all of life with others in Jesus.

I hope it is because of the sense of a calling from God. Our Pastor Jack was mentioning the importance of calling at the beginning of his message yesterday. The sense of being called and having a calling from God should drive our entire existence. Of course part of that calling is to rest, and even do some things out of sheer fun and enjoyment. But much of what we do we have to do, there is a sense of responsibility, indeed a sense of being called by God to do so.

To provide for my family, to be present for them and for friends, to be a witness to the world of the good news of King Jesus, this should all be a part of fulfilling our calling from God.

A calling is in the older understanding a vocation, or what one does to make a living, or provide for one’s family. Extended to that understanding is the idea of using one’s gifts from God in a responsible manner as a steward, out of love for God and for one’s neighbor.

Calling in scripture also extends to one’s salvation in and through Jesus. It is a call into blessing both to one’s self, and in scripture usually to one’s entire family, and to the blessing of others. We are blessed to be a blessing as part of the called in Jesus.

This is what keeps me going and doing what I do. Whether it’s blogging, or whatever else. I can think of blogging right now, because that is precisely what I’m doing. I’ll be doing a good number of things today all either a part of, or related to my calling.

Without that sense of coherence in a calling which brings all of life in the world under the lordship of King Jesus, meaning can be up for grabs. There will be a sense that all is meaningless under the sun, since it all comes and goes without any underlying purpose. Although the sense of calling seems built in us humans as part of our being made in the image of God. Indeed part and parcel of that calling in the beginning was to be rulers and priests of God to and for the world of creation. In Jesus that call awaits fulfillment when the children of God are revealed in a resurrection in which all of creation will share in the new creation through Jesus. But what we do now can anticipate and somehow be taken up into that change which is to come. Even as we seek to point human beings back to God’s story and how this story will at long at last be fulfilled in and through Jesus.

And so I go on, seeking to fulfill my calling from God for today. And wanting to grow in my understanding of that calling, together with others in Jesus for the world.