searching for meaning

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

Ecclesiastes 1

My go to book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites, anyhow) is an acknowledgment in part of the futility of life, and of thinking that one can find any real meaning under the sun. The idea ends up simply enjoying what is, to the fullest, and not taking it too seriously, since in the end it will all be gone.

But there’s some stealth thoughts interjected along the way, such as the fact that God will judge, which is roundly stated in the end. And that we shouldn’t say much when we enter into the space where God is present for worship, but simply be silent. Those are clues that there may be more to this, to life than what often meets the eye. And in the end again, the charge to fear God and keep his commandments caps what has been an interesting read.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to what we regularly profess and confess. We need to let the weight of the narrative in Ecclesiastes have its affect on us. That is the way we’re to read scripture. And preferably with others.

I think it’s best to embrace the reality of how all these means which are made to be ends are not ends themselves at all. They have usefulness, to be sure, their place in life “under the sun.” But none of them in themselves can fulfill what only God and the promise of God in the grace and kingdom come in Jesus can. But we need to feel the full weight of the emptiness of the endless pursuit of humanity to arrive and achieve. While some satisfaction might be found in it, it will end, and then what? (Another theme in Ecclesiastes.)

We have to look “above” (or beyond) the sun to find meaning in life “under the sun.” The meaning we find won’t be in what is done in this life, but the transcendence which is imminent, and therefore gives meaning either to or in the midst of all that happens here and now. So that while these things in the present are empty and meaningless in themselves, they derive meaning and fullness in the Creator God, and the covenant God makes with humans. A covenant fulfilled in Jesus, full of meaning, which then translates to all the emptiness and meaninglessness down here. In and through Jesus.

pay close attention (and don’t let up)

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Hebrews 2

I’m not sure exactly what it is, although surely it’s a combination of things. The message of scripture and the gospel is fascinating, powerful, and frankly spellbinding, in human terms, but it’s much more than that, since it’s nothing less than a word from God. I find once in a while something like an undertow which might carry a swimmer in the water through what are called rip currents, so that they are pulled out deep into the lake to drown, something which reminds me of that, seems to be not only at work in my spiritual life, but prevailing.

Certain factors can be involved, like being tired. Two Sundays in a row at church I’ve fallen asleep during a good part of the sermon, so that I didn’t get much out of it. But thankfully for me, I’m able to catch it online later, and was much blessed last night with hearing (and seeing as best I can on this tablet) it again, including the large chunk (maybe half of it, more or less) I missed. I want to catch this past Sunday’s message soon. But it seemed like more was at work then simply being tired, which itself should be addressed with more disciplined, regular sleep.

Surely at work in all of this is something diabolical, yes from the devil itself, the demonic. The words of scripture seemed empty, remote, and God seemed distant as well. I just didn’t seem to be connecting well.

Let me suggest that this is not just something which can happen, but is always present with us, which the Spirit through Jesus helps us overcome. Which is in large part why we need to pay the most careful attention to God’s word and the gospel which is at the heart of it, to avoid the dangers the book of Hebrews warns us about (read the entire book; one could start with the link above). That pull is always present, something we must resist, so that we can feed on God’s words and Word, and come close to God.

Paying the most careful attention is the hearing which in scripture is linked to a response by faith, a doing. This ends up being a trust and obey kind of practice, otherwise, we’re not really paying the kind of close attention called for in this text.

So if you sense you’re adrift, then cry out to God, and see this as a part of spiritual warfare. And let’s work to maintain a life that is disciplined in hearing and in faith obeying the word of God in and through Jesus.

doing the same thing over and over again

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs 6

In Jeff Manion’s new book, Dream Big, Think Small: Living an Extraordinary Life One Day at a Time, in his chapter entitled, “Ant Power,” Jeff competently and pastorally writes about the power of doing the good, right little things over and over again, so that over the long haul, such can make all the difference. Although doing something big at a certain point in time, for example going to a weekend for marriage enrichment, might be huge in changing the course of a failing marriage, only doing the same things over and over again, even from such a time, will make the difference needed.

This has to do with simply plugging away, day after day, in often thankless tasks that seem to go at least largely unnoticed, maybe apparent to no one, and which may seem in themselves quite mundane. But so much of that is not necessarily trivial. Whether we feel like it or not, we open the Bible day after day, and throughout the day, and we keep reading and pondering. Over time, since it is the word of God, that will make a big difference, of course our response to it being crucial (James 1).

We can’t let up, and we have to continue on, even if there seems to be little or no fruit coming out of it. Let God decide, or bring to pass whatever, but for sure the most important thing will be happening: our character is being shaped and will be forged. As we do this with each other in Jesus, the same things over and over again, to transform us more and more into the image and likeness of our Lord.

another take on James 5:16b on the prayer of the righteous

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:16b

Without backing down at all on what I wrote on yesterday’s post, I want to briefly consider another possibility in line with the other way of interpreting, and thus translating this passage. Remember that all translation involves interpretation, say from German to English and back. Which is largely why we have differences in our Bible translations, which together make no impact at all on basic Christian doctrine.

The rendering adopted by the NIV (see NRSVNET, etc.) might be correct, and is certainly possible. The emphasis then would be simply on the prayer of a righteous person being powerful and effective. Even if the other way of translating is getting more to the original writing’s intent (I don’t know), what is said in this post still holds significance. And maybe a bit more so, if the NIV rendering happens to be more accurate.

A righteous person, or the righteous, in meaning is probably a bit different in the book of James then it is in Paul’s writings. The righteous in Paul, are those who are “in Christ,” who share in Christ’s righteousness, whether it’s an alien imputed righteousness, or not. The emphasis is that this righteousness comes from Christ, and is not part of the Law. And that it comes by grace through faith, as well as through baptism. It is worked into one’s life by the Spirit, and thus imparted by God through Christ to the one who has faith. So it’s not like it isn’t worked into real life. It’s just that the emphasis is on faith, and that faith in and of Christ.

In James, righteousness is different. Which is why Martin Luther disliked the letter, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” Paul referred to Abraham as simply believing God’s word, and thus being credited righteousness. James refers to Abraham being obedient so that he was considered righteous (NIV) or justified by what he did, so that James says justification is therefore by works, as well as faith, and not by faith alone. Actually we don’t see James contradicting Paul at all. It’s a different perspective, which is present but expressed in a different way in Paul’s letters. We could say that his faith produced works, and therefore was shown to be genuine faith. Through Paul and elsewhere we learn that we can’t save ourselves through our works, that we can only trust and have faith in God’s word, and specifically in the message of the good news in Jesus. Through hearing that message, and believing, like Abraham, we are justified, made or declared righteous. But if we are saved by grace through faith, we are saved for the good works which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The righteous in James are those who live by the royal law that gives freedom, namely “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that makes a difference not merely in what they believe (the demons believe God is one, and they shudder, says James), but in what they say and do. Certainly belief is important to James, but faith must be accompanied with works to prove its authenticity. Without works, faith is dead.

And so to the passage. The righteous person’s prayer is one who adheres to righteousness as spelled out in this relatively short book. They don’t just listen to the word, but they do what it says. They have humbly accepted the word planted in them, so that they are being saved. True religion includes keeping a tight rein on their tongue, helping orphans and widows (the needy) in their distress, and keeping themselves from being polluted by the world. And echoing Jesus, which James probably does more than Paul, and perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the poor seem to be more inclined toward faith than the rich, and thus are rich themselves in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of God, promised to those who love God.

And so if you are righteous according to James, that’s saying something. The focus should never be on us, but to be righteous according to James, Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and the First/Old Testament prophets means to have a change of heart, a change of life. And right down into the nitty gritty of where we live, in what we say (and don’t say), as well as what we do (and don’t do), in good works or deeds for others.

If we are righteous in the way James describes as part of our faith, then our prayer can make a difference, in fact actually is powerful and effective. And the good takeaway here is that it isn’t just the emotionally charged, heartfelt prayer, but any prayer at all from the lips and heart of a righteous person. Of course all of this possible only through the faith that is ours in Jesus.

either God’s word, or our default

Something I have more or less known for some time, but it has come across to me like a fresh revelation, just now: I realize that if I’m not in God’s word, the heart of that word of course being the gospel, but with all the ins and outs involved in it, then I will always lapse into my default. Which for me is primarily glass half empty, grueling existence, but can be a number of things which scripture warns us about. Note the “seven deadly sins.”

I have known for some time that being in the word daily and regularly helps me to be in what seems to me to be a kind of interactivity with God. And also that it helps me avoid pitfalls along the way, which are not right, good, or helpful. Of course being in the word means seeking to apply it to our lives, to live by it. The only proper response to God’s word is to hear, believe, and obey it. And all of this is of course only in and through Jesus.

A good revelation to have, and to hold on to, in and through Jesus.

light and darkness and faith

I am at last slowly reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and though it is a bit on the heavy philosophical side (though I think I agree that it’s not essentially philosophical), it seems to me to be essentially (to use that term again) about faith, and the primacy of faith. I may post again on the book I’m finished with it. Kirkegaard was an imaginative, as well as challenging writer.

Fear and Trembling (original Danish title: Frygt og Bæven) is a philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio (John of the Silence). The title is a reference to a line from Philippians 2:12, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” — itself a probable reference to Psalms 55:5,[1] “Fear and trembling came upon me…” (the Greek is identical).

Wikipedia

It is about Abraham’s ascent to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his only son, the son of God’s promise, Isaac, in obedience to God’s command to do so (Genesis 22). How Abraham, after that three day journey, bound Isaac, and drew the knife to kill his beloved son, just about to do so, before God stayed his hand, commanding him not to. It is certainly not G-rated reading, and I think we tend to gloss over it, thinking of it in terms of the gospel, and having easy ready answers, while not considering the breadth and depth and significance of it, well enough. Kirkegaard meets it head on, from the standpoint, C. Stephen Evans says, of one who unlike Kirkegaard (I think), did not have faith, but very much admired it, and even seemed to hold it in highest esteem, that it is a leap into the absurd (this Kirkegaard in context did believe), which by that enters into infinity, but for finity, or one maybe could say also, into the eternal, but within and for the temporal. All that aside, I want to share one impression the book seems to be making on me as I slowly work through the New Testament/Psalms and Proverbs, which I carry around.

Faith for me, like Kirkegaard was getting at in this book, is a radical trust in a good God. It is the difference, no less, between light and darkness. If we have no faith, we might think we actually do have it by being religious, or making a profession of faith, all the while living in the status quo, or as a good member of society (again, I’m mixing my thoughts into what Kirkegaard may have been getting at). And in doing so, miss the radical nature of what trust in God in this life, in this world means.

For Abraham, it was certainly costly, and yet his entire life was already given to faith, and to the faith as he had received it, from a God who promised that all nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 12). So what took place in Genesis 22, was simply the culmination of his entire life. His choice to obey, as James tells us, was a kind of fulfillment of what he had been doing all along in simply believing God and God’s word, and living according to that.

So I’m left with what seems to be a dilemna, and is most certainly a choice, either to follow God through following Jesus, by the naked choice, and continued choosing, living day to day in that commitment. Or to proceed in my own way, what seems good and right to me, and is most certainly acceptable to others, even if it is not necessarily altogether wise, and above all not really trusting in God. We seem to have it hard pressed in our genes, that we ourselves have to take care of ourselves, and that it all depends on us, so that we take the place of God on our own agenda, or at least on our way of being on God’s agenda. Instead of simply trusting God and God’s word.

And the difference is between light and darkness both existentially, in our experience, but more basically in our lives. Yes, faith is not just a head matter, but what we call a heart matter, and something which we test in tasting along the way, comparing that with our basic, and actually broken, though to us comparably safe place, or way of living. And yet God calls us to the same faith which our father of faith, Abraham had. Of course God does so with much grace, and in much smaller measure. And none of us would ever ever be commanded to do anything like what Abraham was told to do in Genesis 22, fulfilled when God did not spare his only Son, Jesus. And remember, that even then Abraham never for one minute sacrificed his love for Isaac, even as he had the knife in hand, ready to plunge it into his son. A most disturbing story indeed. And our world will be shook up much the same, if we take God at God’s word and by faith obey. But the difference will be no less than light, as opposed to darkness. Something I’m aware of now in my own life, as I try to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, as God works in me (along with all others in Jesus) to will and act, to fulfill his good purpose in and through Jesus.

spiritual warfare

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

There was a morning last week when I got up late, and could hardly make my way around, a pall hanging over me. It wasn’t like I wasn’t able to do what I had to do, but that I seemed to be aware of a sinister presence, probably at least once removed from reality. I had remembered a dream from that night, which itself seemed pretty obviously almost as if evil itself was directed at me, at my wife, and really the entire family and I.

Finally at work the need to meditate on this passage, Ephesians 6:10-20 dawned on me. And as I began to do that, the pall lifted.

I’m wondering how many of us are aware of the spiritual warfare we in Jesus are in. I’m not talking about the idea of seeing a demon behind every tree, and in everything, along with a good number of people, so that we (mistakenly, in my view) begin to cast demons out of people. That, by the way, is a real phenomena, but thankfully seems confined only to a few. Those in ministry who are trained to deal with that kind of thing should be involved in that work. The rest of us can help others, and help in that in more indirect ways. Actually not that different from how we help ourselves when plagued with something of a choking, numbing darkness.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is not just about actual physical rulers and authorities as some Bible scholars have maintained. A straightforward reading of the text makes it clear that it’s not against humans at all, but the spiritual entitities which are behind humans, as well as those who are opposed to us. So that we are in a struggle.

What is given to us for this struggle is no less than the mighty power of God along with the full armor of God. “Put on the gospel armor, each part put on by prayer,” is from a hymn which is an apt summary of how this passage can be applied. Every part of the armor given to us in Christ, is related to the gospel, or good news, by which we stand. And stand is the right way to put it, we’re to stand firm and resist in the evil day. Whether we see evil day as in some sense including all of this time before our Lord’s return, or we see it as particularly some days along that space. I think both is a good way to take it.

Too often we’re too slipshod in our application of God’s inscripturated word through the Word, Jesus, so that when we’re having ongoing issues, or problems, we may well ask ourselves if we’re really doing what we’re hearing (James 1). It’s certainly not the word itself which is deficient.

And so that’s my goal right now: to seek to better understand, to hear more fully, so that I may better apply, and do what this passage is telling us to do. Familiarity might not breed contempt at every turn, but it may lend itself to the deception that just because we know certain concepts, that we actually understand them, and are putting that into practice.

It’s not like there’s one perfect way to put something into practice, in fact the Spirit will help each of us to do this according to our particular bent and circumstances, and in the will of an all wise God. And the point of Ephesians 6:10-20, in the fire, and after all the smoke has cleared, is to stand, to stand firm in the Lord, and in the gospel.

May God grant us the grace and wisdom from the Spirit to do this in and through the Lord Jesus.