Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Many people have died as a result of the Moore, OK tornadoes. Hundreds more have been injured. The destruction of property will be in the many millions of dollars. Can we make any sense out of what seems to be senseless?
Solomon, the richest and wisest among Israel's kings--knew almost unbridled success. He had more money than he could count or spend. He had wine, women, gardens and homes. Everyone was at his disposal. His conclusion? Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
The Hebrew word for vanity is hebel. That word means something like a puff of smoke, a vapor. In indicates something that cannot be held for very long--it is fleeting, passing away and floats on to the next generation. Solomon describes the context of his life of work, gardens and riches in three words, under the sun. He describes it all as vanity.
Under the sun refers to life now on the earth. The book of Genesis tells us how our world got to be in its present condition. When Adam and Eve sinned against God they, their progeny, the womb, the animals and the ground all felt the impact of their sin. Death entered the world and death spread like an uncontrollable disease to every person and it touched every inch of ground--every star in the sky (see Genesis 3 and Romans 5).
The result--graveyards, wrinkles, cancer, tornadoes. And even to the person that escapes this life without facing the heartbreak of seeing his family and his possessions swept away in 200 mile-per-hour winds, even to that person--life is fleeting. Possessions are decaying. Hopelessness can settle in a person's heart so that, like Solomon, he may hate his toil and be given over to despair (Ecclesiastes 2:18,20).
Such is life under the sun.
The sun comes up and the sun goes down. We go to work, purchase a home, buy a car, build a family and in seconds it is disintegrated. Or we go to work, purchase a home, buy a car, build a family and we live 77 years and we die. Is that all that there is? Such a thing is frustrating at the very least. The Bible describes both man and creation itself as groaning (Romans 8:20-21).
There is more. There is life above the sun as well as under the sun. There is hope in the midst of groaning. There is joy in the midst of sorrow. The life that we have, the things that we own and our ability to enjoy life and possessions are a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 5:18).
The only way to enjoy the vain things of this life is to see them as temporary gifts from God that point to something more--something lasting. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved (Romans 8:22-23).
Suffering is a reminder that life under the sun is fleeting. It reminds us to enjoy the days and possessions that we do have--every one of them. It tells us not to fix our hope to family, homes, health or money. It tells us not to get too accustomed to life under the sun. It is also a call for us to love our neighbor and to comfort those who suffer. Suffering reminds us that the way to live life joyfully now is to have our confidence firmly fixed on God. As the hymn writer wrote, God is not dead nor doth he sleep. For those who look to Christ, suffering is a reminder of a day of no suffering when neither ground nor man groans any more.
Today is a day of groaning across our nation. It is a day to cry, to weep but to do so with hope. We have a Savior. Christ Jesus is his name.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Integrity and the loyalty of friendship are two essential keys in any healthy relationship. They are fundamental to marriage. I will be true to my word. I will be your loyal friend. Unless true character resides in the heart of the person making such statements they are just words on a page--without meaning and without encouragement. Instead of being words that build up they will turn into swords that pierce the heart.
Integrity seems rare in our culture. Promises easily fall from the lips of a couple in love or from politicians swearing an oath to office. It is too rare that people speak with clarity, honesty and integrity. When caught in a trap of words the crafty person finds ways to explain former statements that relieves them of their original meaning.
Loyal friendship is also rare and seldom treasured, as it ought to be. When God said, ...It is not good that the man should be alone...(Genesis 2:18) he had marriage in view. Yet the application reaches beyond marriage to friendships. Solomon wrote that friendship is better than being alone. Friendship brings the reward of encouragement, warmth and strength (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11). We were not designed to live isolated like an island. We were built for one another.
Nowhere are integrity and loyalty more demanded and more needed than in marriage. In marriage we need to be promise keepers and truest friends. Reading those words is humbling. We have fallen short in our promises and we have failed to be truest friends. Therefore, marriage needs the grace of forgiveness. It needs the constant reminder that Christ has been perfectly true to his words and is the friend that sticks closer than even a spouse. Remembering where our hope is ultimately built, and our own weaknesses, drives us to Christ and makes us ready and willing to forgive. Such remembrance also helps us to be people of integrity and loyal friends.
Friday, May 17, 2013
There are at least two errors concerning joy that one might weave into. There is the strong temptation to seek joy in all of the wrong places. There is also the perceived virtue of ignoring joy and gritting one's teeth and surviving life. In the first temptation expectation is placed on people, things and philosophies that cannot meet the demand for joy. The second temptation is driven more by a pride that is always suspicious of the smile.
Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, understood both temptations. He had looked for joy and withheld no good thing from himself. At his disposal were almost unlimited riches, the best food and drink, beautiful women, great power and awe-inspiring wisdom. He tried to suck all of the joy that he could from those and other things. His conclusion--they were all empty. He despaired of life.
He also points out the emptiness of not being able to enjoy one's life. He called this "a grievous evil" (6:1-3).
At the end of the day Solomon commends joy. This joy is characterized by a merry heart and a radiant countenance.
...A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed (8:1).
And I commend joy for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun (15).
Those who look to him (the LORD) are radiant and their faces shall never be ashamed (Psalm 34:5).
Joy is a strong witness to our faith in God. It tells the world that God is great and that He is good. It says that God is not a cosmic killjoy but that he delights to give good gifts to his children (Romans 8:32).
Solomon commands joy. This sounds strange to us. We tend to think of joy as a spontaneous physical reaction to good circumstances. If the children obey the first time then we are joyful. If nothing breaks, no one interrupts our carefully thought out schedule and pleasant experiences walk through our front door then we are joyful. Joy, however, is not based on circumstances (see Philippians chapter four).
Yes, Solomon not only commends but he also commands joy.
Go eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because this is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:1-10).
Joy is commended and commanded and testifies to our faith. The joyful heart, the radiant face, the cheerful countenance commends the one who has given us all things to enjoy (I Timothy 6:17).
I am suspicious of the raging fundamentalist who seems afraid of joy. He is always reminding others of rules, laws and regulations which, he imagines, will help them to obey God's law. I am also suspicious of the floating antinomian who, like a helium filled balloon, simply flies in the wind and hopes to find real joy in a "no-strings-attached" freedom.
I am not concerned that I might have too much joy. My fear is that I am not joyful enough or that I will look for joy in all the wrong places. When one is joyful in the Lord then he can eat, drink and enjoy his wife to the glory of God.
Do you want to commend the goodness of God and be a powerful witness of Christ? Rejoice! C.S. Lewis wrote, ...no one is ultimately able to 'suppress' an author who is 'obstinately pleasurable.' (Alister McGrath on C.S. Lewis).
Will anyone ultimately be able to suppress a Christian who is obstinately pleasurable? You will never know unless you hear the commendation and obey the command to rejoice in the Lord.
Monday, May 13, 2013
Windows from the Study of C.S. Lewis. Photo Credit
How many people grab, go, collect, and are busy all of their lives and never see the vanity of it all? Or if they see the vanity they either deny or acknowledge it and mindlessly continue on--seeing no greater meaning to it all.
Are not all of us tempted in that direction? Do we imagine that all of the "good things of life" will bring us some sense of significance if we could just grasp them? And yet we can never quite catch them, can we? And the good things that we obtain leave us longing for something more.
We treat good things in a bad way when we imagine that vacations, comedy, drink, fun, possessions, money, music and beautiful people will give us the significance (joy) that we long for. When they fall short of our expectations then we curse them and fall into despair.
But is there a way to treat good things in a good way?
Alister McGrath writes of C.S. Lewis and Narnia:
...In The Last Battle...Lewis here invites us to imagine a room with a window that looks out onto a beautiful valley or a vast seascape. On a wall opposite this window is a mirror. Imagine looking out of the window, and then turning and seeing the same thing reflected in the mirror. What, Lewis asks, is the relationship between these two different ways of seeing things?
The sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different--deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.
We live in the shadowlands, in which we hear echoes of the music of heaven, catch sight of its bright colours, and discern its soft fragrance in the air we breathe. But it is not the real thing; it is a signpost, too easily mistaken for the real thing.
The way that we treat good things in a good way is to recognize that our good gifts of food, drink, marriage and friendships are gifts from God. They have been given for our enjoyment. If we please God (the only way to do so is by faith) then we have the capacity to receive wisdom, knowledge and joy. Those who do not please God (the wicked) lose everything (see Ecclesiastes 2). To treat good things in a good way we must receive the good things by faith and enjoy them to the utmost as pointers to the new Narnia.
Someone once said, Live for this life and you will lose both this life and the next. Live for the next life and you will get this life thrown in (paraphrase from memory).
I would add that when we live for the one above the sun then we get to enjoy life beneath the sun.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Alister McGrath in C.S. Lewis: A Life discusses how to read the Narnia novels. He encourages us to see the Narnia novels as rooms in a house. Once inside we wander around the house, taking everything in. But we realize that the 'rooms in this house have windows.' And when we look through them, we see things in a new way. We can see farther than before, as the landscape opens up in front of us. And what we come to see is not an accumulation of individual facts, but the bigger picture which underlines them. When seen this way, our imaginative experience of Narnia enlarges our sense of reality. Living in our own world feels different afterwards (285).
Reading Ecclesiastes has a similar impact. At first glance it would be easy to imagine that Ecclesiastes reflects the bitterness of an old man who has come to think that there is no ultimate meaning in life. It might be imagined that the old man (Solomon) sees life as an empty existence and one that has been essentially wasted by him. After all even the best things that we acquire, see, do, feel and know here are fleeting. They are a puff of smoke rising from a deep pit. The sun rises, the sun sets. People are born and they die. One man makes money and the lazy man spends it. Seasons of peace are interrupted by war.
And yet, strangely it seems at first glance, after all of the old man's supposed grumpiness has been aired, he commends pleasure, joy, eating, drinking and enjoying marriage.
The things that we see and are able to enjoy are seen because a light shines on them. They are not the light but they tell us that the light is real.
Jonathan Edwards said, God is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper; and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any, or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.
Herein is the key to Narnia and Ecclesiastes. The scattered beams of family, friends and food point to the fountain. The stream of pleasure that tickles our toes, if followed, will lead to a vast and infinite ocean.
C.S. Lewis wrote, I believe the sun has risen, not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:16-17).
By nature we are jealous and self-centered. This is the explanation for our disordered world that is filled with every vile practice.
When people are self-focused, obstacles to their personal happiness must be removed. Once the mirror reveals that there is someone more beautiful--then apples must be injected with poison. The poision may be of the sort that takes the breath, causes a deep sleep or breaks the heart.
Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition produce a harvest of unrighteousness. Such earthly wisdom is unspiritual and demonic.
Note the contrast. But the wisdom from above... Heavenly wisdom is to be pursued at all costs. Sell the house and empty the savings account to get such lofty wisdom (see Proverbs). Heavenly wisdom is characterized by purity--purity of heart, lips and life. From that purity comes peace, gentleness, reasonableness, mercy and good fruits. Heavenly wisdom is characterized as impartial and sincere.
Earthly wisdom is the opposite. It comes from a self-centered and jealous heart. Therefore it wars, is hard, unreasonable, unmerciful and produces bad fruit. It is partial and insincere. Nothing good comes from the self-centered heart.
There is coming a harvest.
Earthly wisdom produces a harvest of disorder and wickedness.
Heavenly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness that is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Peace comes only by being reconciled to God by faith in Christ. Knowing the Prince of Peace opens the door to a lifetime of peace.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Alister McGrath, in a chapter from his book C.S. Lewis: A Life writes about Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia.
Lewis's growing realisation that children's stories offered him a marvellous way of exploring philosophical and theological questions--such as the origins of evil, the nature of faith, and the human desire for God. A good story could weave these themes together, using the imagination as the gateway to serious thinking.
The origins of the Narnia stories lay, Lewis tells us, in his imagination. It all began with an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood. Lewis's celebrated description of the creative process depicts it as unfolding from mental images, which were then consciously connected to form a consistent plot...
Yet Lewis did not really see himself as 'creating' Narnia. As he once commented, 'creation' is 'an entirely misleading term.' Lewis preferred to think of human thought as 'God-kindled,' and the writing process as the rearrangement of elements that God has provided. The writer takes 'things that lie to hand,' and puts them to new use. Like someone who plants a garden, the author is only one aspect of a 'casual stream.' ...Lewis drew extensively on 'elements' he found in literature. His skill lay not in inventing these elements, but in the manner he wove them together to create the literary landmark that we know as the Chronicles of Narnia (p.264).
As a writer, it is my desire to see the writing process as the rearrangement of elements that God has provided. The writer is not the creator but more of an artist, that takes the colors God has already provided, and firmly fixes the collected sayings; that are given by one Shepherd (paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 12:11).