Jack Lewis, the Bible Study Dog, and I have been restless this past week (thus, no posts for a few days) for various reasons. One reason is the heat. I acknowledge that we had a few days last week that only rose to the 80s F, but now we are back in the 90s F. When we open the door we are met by a blast of heat. This reminds me of T-Bone Burnett’s lyric: “seven times hotter than fire”. When I go to check the mail box, the BSD accompanies me, like always, but now he stops in the shade and looks at me like I am crazy.
When Jack is in extreme misery or his desires are frustrated, he leaves my office and goes into another room or outside, and lets out a huge howl. Then comes back to my office, calm and collected, as eager to please as ever. He just needed to release his tension. Sometimes I join Jack in my heart and let out a silent howl.
One reason for my restlessness is that my foot surgery is coming up this week, followed by (I hope only) a week or two of incarceration and then another month or so of being non-weight-bearing. You know from previous posts, like “True Freedom” and “Making the Best of the Unendurable”, how I feel about confinement. I’m not worried about the surgery; whatever happens, happens. c’est la vie and all that. Besides, I seem to have a rather high pain threshold. I usually have courage and endurance, by the grace of God, for the big issues. It’s the small things, like lengthy confinement, that sometimes drive me crazy. Sometimes, in moments of clarity, I can see that I am not thinking straight. However, this hot button for me, confinement, can be easily pushed, with spectacular results.
What do I say to someone facing a difficult future? I talk about living in “day-tight compartments”, as I have in a previous post. Don’t let the past or the future bleed into today, that is, don’t dwell on regrets about the past or worries about the future. God has forgiven your past sins and he will also, eventually, heal your past hurts and wounds. God holds your future in his hands; leave it there and don’t worry. Jesus teaches that since God takes care of the flowers and the birds, and as creatures of more value because we are made in the image of God, God will certainly care for us. So Jesus concludes: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things well be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-34, ESV) In other words don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow. And also, as I like to say, you worry about God’s kingdom and God will worry about you. Not that God worries, but you get the idea. Or as I used to place on church bulletins, right below our mission statement, these words: LIVE FOR GOD. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
I also talk about how the overwhelming experience of the love and presence of God drives out fear and worry; there’s no room left for worry. Consider a Bible verse like this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18, ESV) I understand that this verse is focused on how the love of God drives out fear of punishment and the wrath of God. But I believe the text has a wider application. The knowledge and experience of the love of God tends to drive out all fears and worries. I like to say that the reverse is also true: perfect fear casts out love. We come to understand, if we live long enough and honestly, that: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10, ESV) If we leave out of our world-view the elephant in the room, the Creator of everything, who guides everything according to his will, who is in the process of renewing all of creation that can be saved (unfortunately some humans refuse to be saved and to acknowledge God) we miss the most important reality. We also learn by experience that: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” (Proverbs 29:25, ESV) To be pulled continually by the opinions of others, is to lose a coherent centered sense of self, to lose integrity. To sum up: fear the LORD, bow the knee in your heart and reverence him (this is not servile, cringing fear or terror!) OR fear everyone and everything. We need to be reminded of this daily, even moment-by-moment. I will try to remember this as often as I can in the weeks ahead.
However, here is my problem. I am not worried about the unknown. I will trust God to be in control and that he is weaving the tapestry of my life into something finally good and beautiful. I’m not worried about the unknown; I’m bracing for what I know. I have been here before: unable to walk for a year in 2003-04, being non-weight-bearing in 2013 for about four months and a few other incarcerations. I may be deluding myself that this is not just a lack of trust in my Father. Like I said, sometimes I see that I’m not thinking straight, but tonight I will wrestle with this sense of bracing for what I seem to know.
It’s time to bring out the big gun, and for me, that’s the book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, says the Preacher” are words that you may have heard before. The Hebrew word ‘hebel’ is often translated in English as ‘vanity’, it means literally something like a vapor or mist or almost a nothingness. ‘Vanity’ leads us to think of ‘useless’ or ‘meaningless’, but ‘vanity’ is not a necessary translation of ‘hebel’. If we translate ‘hebel’ as ‘vapor’ we can think of the fleeting nature of human achievements and pleasures, of how, in certain moods, we are able to see that everything is unsubstantial, in a way, and that from a pessimistic human point of view, nothing really lasts except our relationship with God, and no one can finally be depended upon except God. The Preacher/Teacher points to many reasons for pessimism (I won’t say despair). What we build and pass on to another, might just go to a fool. A wise man, that through his wisdom saves a city, is soon forgotten. Magnificent achievements, like the building of palaces and vast gardens can lead to ennui, boredom, a sense of meaninglessness. One could update the list of achievements for the 21st century. The pleasures of massive amounts of sex, with many wives and concubines, leaves the Preacher jaded. Other areas of life are treated from this perspective and you can check them out in Ecclesiastes 1-10. But for our purposes, I can sum up what we will wrestle with in these words: “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” (Eccl. 10:1, ESV) I take this to mean that there are beautiful and wonderful realities in our lives; but there is something in life that seems to pull everything south, or one can think of entropy, that without constant infusions of energy and creativity, energy becomes more diffuse and everything tends toward chaos. I am tempted to give you my hard-earned theory of programs and organizations here, but that will have to wait for another time.
So is there a way to trust God for the future and to live wisely in a world described like this? I take my cue from parts of Ecclesiastes 11-12. The preacher counsels us to:
“Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” (Eccl. 11:1-2, ESV)
“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” (Eccl. 11:5, ESV)
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Eccl. 11:6, ESV)
At the most basic level these verses call us to act, rather than be paralyzed by the realities that the Preacher has described. And one can be paralyzed by demanding perfect circumstances before one acts: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Eccl. 11:4, ESV)
But at a deeper level, these verses ask us to live generously and expansively. I think the “bread” in 11:1-2 is a metaphor for human products; bread, after all is baked, produced by humans. The picture is of products sent on ships in the Mediterranean Sea, with some ships lost in storms, so that the more ships that are sent out, the greater the chance of success.
The spirit in verse 5, reminds me of Jesus (John 3) saying to the Pharisee Nicodemous that the Spirit is like the wind: one sees its effects, but doesn’t know where it came from or where it is going. God cannot be tamed, domesticated, put in a box or tied down. We do not see all that God is doing or all that he will do. In that sense, we do not know the future, but we still can trust God on the basis of what he has given us to know, including his revelation of his character in the Bible and in Jesus Christ.
The “seed” in verse 4, reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (or Four Soils). You might remember that the Sower threw his seed out broadcast style, as was the practice of the time. He sowed the seed generously and indiscriminately. The seed, representing the gospel of the kingdom of God, that Jesus preached, was thrown abroad into four kinds of soil, representing differing degrees of readiness for the gospel of the kingdom.
So the Preacher is recommending, in the face of a world that seems to be founded on vapor and a future that is uncertain, that we act boldly, and especially act generously, be generous. There is a long-standing practice, in Israel and in the Church, of generosity, and an equally long experience associated with that practice of the blessing of God. Here are a few texts to illustrate this:
“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed,
for he shares his bread with the poor.” (Prov. 22:0, ESV);
“[The excellent wife] opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.” (Prov. 31:20, ESV);
“Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him;
the LORD protects him and keeps him alive;
he is called blessed in the land;
you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.” (Psalm 41:1-2, ESV);
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10, ESV);
“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor. 9:6, ESV);
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor. 9:10-11, ESV);
Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.” (Luke 6:30, ESV);
And Jesus further said, “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38, ESV);
St Paul wrote, “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” (Phil. 4:16-17, ESV);
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19, ESV);
and finally this instruction to Christians, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:18-19, ESV)
Note that though we are called to be generous with money and material possessions, especially to the poor, we are promised that we “…will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way…” (2 Cor. 9:11, ESV) “Every way” includes encouragement to others around us, smiles, kindness, listening, time, prayer for others, help with spiritual and material difficulties, and for me, writing this blog, and so much more. And note also, that in this world which seems to be founded on vapor/air, as we live generously, we find that we are building “a foundation for the future” (1 Tim. 6:19, ESV). I make no apology for the fact that part of the treasure that we store up is to be received in the World to Come. After all we are creatures destined to live forever. So our perspective is much larger than the pessimistic view of life we started out with! We are destined for eternal joy.
What remains to be said? What other instruction does the Preacher have for us? Here is some of it:
“Life is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity [hebel, vapor]. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” (Eccl. 11:7-10, ESV);
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth…” (Eccl. 12:1a, ESV);
“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12b, ESV);
and finally, “Fear God and keep his commandments…” (Eccl.12:13b, ESV)
In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, let me suggest: work hard, sleep well and trust God. We have come full circle, and once again, we see that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” (Prov. 9:10a, ESV) The Preacher has looked unflinchingly at life, and yet, sometimes obliquely, has helped us to see how we can live confidently and wisely and with trust in God for our future.
With St. Paul I affirm that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28, ESV) Note that this promise is only given to Christians who love God and are called to live out his will. Note also that bad events still remain bad, but in the tapestry of our lives, even the dark threads are used to help make something beautiful, good and glorious of our lives. With Julia of Norwich, I affirm that in the end “All we be well, and all manner of things will be well.” With St. John, I rejoice that, “[God] will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4, ESV) And with C.S. Lewis, I affirm that, “All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have his good way, to utter satisfaction.” (The Problem of Pain)
This post was powered by the following albums: “Divine Discontent” (2002) by Sixpence None The Richer, “Rivers & Robots” (2014) by Rivers & Robots and “Before the Mountains” (2012) by Sarah Brendel.