Friday, March 22, 2019

Helpful Words

      Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  
-Ephesians 4:29-32 (NIV)

Feel like you need a little encouragement? Just want someone to tell you how great and attractive and intelligent you are? Feeling bad about yourself and would just like for someone — anyone — to give you a no-strings, no-judgment compliment? 
     Turns out there’s an app for that.
     Well, there is in China, at least. Wechat, the most popular social media group in China, has started sponsoring chat groups called Kua kua groups. If you happen to know that Kua is Chinese for “praise,” it would probably come as no surprise for you to learn that these groups are full of people who are just waiting to give you a nice “atta boy” or “atta girl”. There are no free lunches, though, or compliments either; your session of compliments will cost you anywhere from $7.50 to $28.00, depending on how long you want to be complimented and how many people you want piling on the praise.   
     Here’s how it works. When you pay your money and sign into your group, you’re put in a queue until your turn comes up. When it’s your moment in the spotlight, you tell everyone your name and a little about yourself. It can even be something negative, and apparently it often is. (I suppose that stands to reason. When are you most in need of a compliment if not when you’re feeling like there’s not much about you that’s admirable?)
     Once you’ve identified yourself, people start to compliment you. The compliments are varied, apparently, and may have nothing to do with whatever you’ve just said about yourself. Your complimenters might tell you that you’re attractive (you can upload a photo, apparently), that you write well, that you seem like a good person, or even something along the lines of “you’re fantastic.”  
     My first thought on seeing this was that it’s a little strange: Does anyone need compliments so much that they’d pay to have perfect strangers give them props for nothing in particular? Having thought about it a little more, though, it does bear remembering that a lot of people I know do use social media in exactly this way. After all, why do we post photos we’ve taken, or photos of ourselves, or what our kids are up to, or our political opinions, or (even) a post we’ve written(!) if not at least partially for the compliments we might receive from our friends and associates? Why post the details of a bad day, or of being mistreated or misunderstood, if not to have that negative input offset by some positive comments? 
     Really, social media operates largely on the idea that most of us enjoy compliments and are willing to put the details of our lives out there if we think there’s a reasonable chance we’ll get a few.
     Ironically, though, social media can just as often be a source of nastiness, personal attack, and abuse.
     It says something, doesn’t it, that we’re willing to chance the negative stuff to receive the positive?
     I think what it says is that human beings need, at least now and then, to have someone speak a kind word to them. Even the most cynical, hardened, and jaded of us need to be encouraged now and then.
     It also suggests that when people are looking for positive words that encourage and build up, they aren’t looking for it at church. Some people get built up at work. Some find it in their families. For some, it’s good friends who provide those encouraging words. Some find it primarily in their online communities. 
     Far too many have experiences with church that make them question whether they’d find encouragement with us. 
     Now, I know what you might be saying to yourself. Not everyone deserves encouragement for everything. That is, of course, very true. Not for everything. The view that’s sort of current in our world that any criticism, however gentle or well-intended, is judgment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But I would insist that everyone does deserve encouragement. Everyone deserves to hear words of kindness, compassion, and grace. No one deserves to be verbally piled on. 
     And from whom should words like that come if not from people who claim to follow Jesus?
     Think about the way Jesus used words. Think about what he said to people. He could be pretty far from all sweetness and light at times. He could be critical, and occasionally he was even harsh. But he never used words to demean others. He never used them simply to vent anger and frustration on another person. His words weren’t bitter, and no matter how much he might disagree with someone, they never dripped with hatred or contempt. 
     Jesus spoke words of correction, sure. But you also hear him speaking words of forgiveness. He used his words as vehicles for God’s grace, knowing that through his words God could change the way people saw themselves, the world around them, and their relationship with him. His words healed, and they gave hope to those most in need of it, and they reassure those who were weak and overlooked and hated that they were loved, and that because of that love there was hope. 
     When Paul wrote about not allowing “unwholesome talk” to come out of our mouths, he wasn’t just referring to dirty jokes or bad language. According to him, bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice are unwholesome. Instead, he says, the words we use are to reflect the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that we’ve received from God in Christ.
     Paul says that what we should learn from Jesus about our words is that they should build others up “according to their needs”. Our words should “benefit those who listen.” Following Jesus mandates that we should consider those who hear our words, and how those words affect them. Some of us are perhaps not as good at that as we ought to be. We get to thinking sometimes that whatever we want to say needs to be said. That we’ll burst if we don’t say it. That maybe the people who hear us will be impoverished in some way without our words of correction, challenge, or disagreement. That we have to stick up for ourselves, after all, and defend our positions and our perspectives at all costs.
     None of that, of course, has anything to do with caring about what our hearers need at the moment.
     Whatever we say, let’s give a lot of thought to how it will impact our hearers. What marks will those words leave for good or bad? How will these words help? Will they build up, or destroy?
     Let the church be known as a place where people can go to get, not empty compliments, but words that will heal, soothe, and encourage.

     You follow Jesus. His Spirit lives in you. I know you can do it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

He...Is Our Peace

      For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  
-Hebrews 10:25-27 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking today of the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. Forty-nine people who simply went to Friday prayers in their mosques were killed when a gunman or gunmen walked in and opened fire. Another forty-eight were wounded. The killings were live-streamed. The man in custody for the attacks described himself, in a “manifesto” that ran over 70 pages, as “just an ordinary white man…born in Australia to a working class, low-income family.” Just an ordinary white man? Hardly, though Muslims today might be forgiven for thinking so. He’s a terrorist, despite the fact that the circumstances of this attack are a reversal of the way many of us think about terrorism.  
     The news today of families mourning the loss of loved ones who did nothing but go to a place of worship reminds me of another terrorist attack, many years ago but closer to home.
     In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, four children died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
     Four members of the Ku Klux Klan set the dynamite that killed four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley - between the ages of 11 and 14. The bomb went off as they were walking to their Sunday school classroom.
     On the day of the bombing, Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson wrote an editorial that begins this way:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her…
     It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
     Only we can trace the truth…you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
     We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
     We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
     We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their…jokes.
     We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
     We…we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die. 

     Patterson’s editorial is difficult to read. But there was truth in it then, and there’s truth in it now, half a century of “enlightenment” later. It’s truth that no one wants to believe. Patterson’s only mistake was in holding the South alone responsible.
     Doesn’t blame for terrorist violence like the Christchurch shootings, or police brutality, or the gang violence in my city, fall in part on all of us and the world we’ve created? 
     Doesn’t blame especially fall on those of us who wear the name of Jesus?
     Jesus’ intent, Paul says, was to “create one new humanity.” Not one in which differences disappear, but in which the things that make us different don’t cause us to lose sight of what joins us together. In his own body, Jesus reconciles us to God and to each other. On the cross, as he dies, so does the hostility that keeps us estranged. He came and preached peace - the peace of God’s acceptance, and the peace of the Holy Spirit.
     One of the stained-glass windows at 16th Street Baptist was replaced by a Welsh artist named John Petts who was horrified by the news of the bombing. The new window showed a black Jesus, crucified - one outstretched arm pushing away hate, one offering forgiveness. And it offers as a reflection on the bombing the words of Matthew 25:40 - “You Do It to Me.”
     Some say the church should have nothing to do with politics. The fact is that Christians who, in Patterson’s words, “go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate” — even while holding our noses — have to bear some responsibility for what happened in Christchurch. Don’t we? Can we really hold our politics separate from the values of the kingdom of God? Should any candidate who intentionally plays on the fears and prejudices of men like the Christchurch shooter get the vote of a believer in Jesus? I cringe as I write that, knowing that it’s going to make some people angry. I cringe wishing that wasn’t the case. 
     There should be no easier decision in the world for a Christian than disqualifying a candidate as worthy of our votes who would rebuild in any way the hostility between human beings that Jesus gave his life to dismantle.        
     Our actions, or lack of action, still matter. As believers in Jesus, we have the responsibility to act out the message of the cross, that in Jesus human divisions and hostilities fall away, dead with his dying body. And that together, in one new body, we’re brought to reconciliation with God and each other. Living that out will require that we repudiate the hostilities and estrangement that Jesus died to demolish. It will demand that we evaluate our own words, thoughts, and actions - whether online or in real time - and that we not allow the words, thoughts, and actions of others to go unchallenged. 
     Living out the cross will mean reaching out in love and self-sacrifice to those who are different from us. It will mean answering hatred, distrust, and threat with love, grace, and compassion. It should affect the way we vote, the way we give. It might very well say something about basic realities like where we go to church, where we live, and where our kids go to school. 
     Have we somehow bought into the lie that the gospel is all about the next world, about who will make it to heaven? Do we imagine that we can turn blind eyes to the suffering of murdered Muslims and their families on the other side of the world because they’re Muslims, and go on electing leaders that promise to benefit us while pretending not to see the world their policies and promises perpetuate? Christ preached peace to those far away and near. What do our words, our actions, our politics, our prejudices — what do they preach?  
     It’s very simple: We will act out the message of the cross in our lives, or we will act out another. We will give ourselves for the things Jesus gave himself for, or we’ll rationalize the unacceptable and help create another day where many more will die. Next time they might be Christians. Maybe we’ll care then.

     If the cross doesn’t make a difference in the way we see and treat those different from us, why should anyone listen to it? But if it makes us as loving and compassionate as Jesus to those around us, how can it not change our world?

Friday, March 8, 2019

Meeting Together

      Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  
-Hebrews 10:25-27 (NIV)

By almost every measure, people in America don’t go to church like they used to. Across every demographic group, denomination, and region of the country, church attendance is down, sometimes way down, and it’s long term. Folks aren’t in church on Sundays — or other days of the week — in the same numbers as 30, 40, or 50 years ago. (And there’s some evidence that the actual numbers are less than polls indicate.)
     There are reasons for that, of course. For one, increased immigration from countries with smaller percentages of Christians, combined with a declining American birth rate, may mean there are just fewer Christians per capita in the U.S. (A Pew Research study from 2015 suggests that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians dropped almost 8 percentage points in seven years, while those who call themselves non-Christians rose slightly, and those who say they are unaffiliated with any religion rose more steeply.)
     That does not explain, of course, why regular church attendance among those who profess to be Christians seems to be down as well.
     Youth activities, especially sports leagues, don’t observe the same general moratorium on Sunday activities that they did when I was a kid. The increased proliferation of travel teams takes up large amounts of weekend time for a lot of families. The fewer families who object due to conflicts with church, the more likely leagues are to schedule more Sunday games.   
     It’s not just youth activities, either. Concerts in the park, festivals, flea markets, car rallies: there are so many ways to spend a Sunday morning now. Add to that the time crunches that many families feel during the week, with dual wage-earners often working overtime, and it’s no wonder that people find a lot to do on Sunday mornings. Since businesses are more likely to be open on Sunday mornings than they used to be, Sunday can easily become a day to catch up on errands or take care of household projects. Some weeks, it just feels like the perfect time to be with family and decompress.
     Then there’s the role of technology; some churches are discovering a decrease in attendance since they began live-streaming their services. (There are also other dangers associated with live-streaming!)  
     All that does offer some explanation, some context, maybe even some mitigation to the undeniable fact of declining church attendance. At the risk of oversimplification, though, I want to suggest that none of the factors above, nor all of them together, are actually the reason for declining attendance. I want to suggest that the real reason for Christians choosing to be elsewhere on Sundays has to do with the perception of value. In simple terms, if we don’t go to church on Sundays it’s generally because we feel like something else gives us — or our families — a greater return on our investment of time.  
      That’s why we go hiking or hunting instead. That’s why we let our kids’ sports leagues determine if we make it or not. That’s why we use Sunday as a catch-up day to do the things we can’t seem to find the time for the rest of the week. It’s why we encourage our kids to skip church to do homework. It’s not necessarily that we hate church, or are lazy Christians. It’s that church offers less value to us than some of the alternatives.
     Maybe, though, we’re looking at the question of value the wrong way around.
     Frankly, the Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince us that we should go to church. In fact, that phrase “go to church” isn’t even used in the Bible, largely because the biblical writers didn’t really think of “church” as a destination at all. There wasn’t a church on the corner unless the church was gathered together on the corner. It’s kind of hard for us to get a handle on, but the early church didn’t think of themselves as an institution or organization, and certainly not as the tenants or owners of a building. They thought of themselves as a collection of people who were together because they had all come to faith in Jesus and were taking seriously the funny notion that because of him they had a life together. They were a community.
     I guess that’s why meeting together wasn’t something that anyone had to spend much time insisting on. It was just sort of the nature of the beast. It’s hard to be part of a community if you never see each other. It’s hard to have a life together if you aren’t in each others’ lives. 
     That’s why the writer of Hebrews says we shouldn’t give up meeting together. We have value to each other.
     I don’t think we’re considering that when we decide that being together with the church has less value to us than the other options. Honestly, aren’t we thinking about ourselves? I could get this off my to-do list. I could relax a little. My kid would rather play soccer. Since I have this work trip, I could get a jump on the week.
     Look, none of those are bad things. I’m not saying you’re a terrible person or a bad Christian if you’ve ever done that equation and come out with the answer that making a run to the hardware store and then taking your family out to brunch makes more sense at the moment than going to church. 
     I’m just saying that you’re not including all the variables that you should in that equation.  
     You’re not thinking about that lonely brother or sister in Christ who loves seeing you and is so blessed and encouraged by your kind words and friendly hugs. You’re not thinking about that sister of yours whose cancer has returned, and who needs to share your strength. You might not be considering that student who’s coming to depend on your wisdom, or that widow who sees in you a hopeful future for the church. You might not have in mind what God could do when that stranger who hasn’t been to church in ages hears your voice singing the songs, or receives communion from your hands, or experiences your heartfelt welcome. 
     You just can’t predict at all how God might use your presence to help someone “hold unswervingly” to the hope of our faith, or to “spur [someone] on to love and good deeds,” or to encourage someone as we look forward to the coming of Jesus. 
     Point is, the “value” of meeting together with the church goes far beyond what you or your family might get out of a single Sunday morning. God’s work often happens over the long term, and it isn’t always readily apparent, and so it’s no wonder that sometimes we might think that time spent in other ways might offer more immediate and easy-to-quantify value. But we miss a lot when we think that way. And, more to the point, our brothers and sisters in Christ miss a lot, too.
     Yes, churches could do a better job of making this value apparent. (I want to address that next.) 
     No, I’m not trying to send you into a guilt spiral if you’ve ever prioritized a camping trip over being at church. 
     I just want you to see that your presence with the church matters. That it has value greater than you might realize, and that it matters a great deal to people you might not even be considering.

     See you Sunday.

Friday, March 1, 2019


      Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
-Acts 20:28-31 (NIV)

This all actually happened. It isn’t just hypothetical. I want to make that clear.
     A longtime church youth leader, a man who had mentored, taught, and traveled with generations of teenagers and children in Bible classes, youth group activities, Bible Bowls, and camp sessions, was convicted of the sexual abuse of children. He admitted to abusing at least four of the children whose faith and spiritual health he was responsible for — and there are almost certainly many more. 
     The abuser was sentenced to up to five years in prison but was out on electronic monitoring pending an appeal of his sentence. He continued attending the church where some of his victims and their parents still attend. When concern about his continued presence was expressed to leaders of that church, the leaders pointed out that the abuser had “come forward” and repented of his sins — twice. One leader — the abuser’s brother-in-law — said that he can’t judge because he can’t see what’s in the abuser’s heart. Leaders emphasized that the abuser was watched carefully, and wasn’t allowed contact with children. The mother of at least one of the victims was told when she objected to the abuser’s presence at church that she had hatred in her heart and needed to forgive. She said it was almost like the abuser was more important than the victims. 
     Church leaders say that they were very supportive of the victims, but that none of them had asked for help.
     In this case, a judge finally issued an order that the abuser is not to attend the church anymore unless church leaders sign a waiver of the prohibition.
     The leaders are, apparently, still weighing that decision.
     First, an obvious and probably unnecessary statement: being a church leader can sometimes be hard. The stakes, if we take our faith seriously, are high. Sometimes you have to say things to people that they don’t want to hear, or take courses of action that aren’t popular. With prayer and good counsel, you hope that you can properly separate good motives from bad, that your actions and decisions are driven by a desire to help the church to grow in faith and godliness — but you can’t always be absolutely sure, I guess. Taking the responsibility of a leadership position in a church means that there will be hard decisions to be made.
     The decisions surrounding cases like this one, though, should not be hard. Unpleasant? Definitely. Distasteful? No doubt. Upsetting? Heartbreaking? Yes. Yes.
     Hard? Not at all.
     Why, then, do churches so regularly seem to make the wrong decisions about whether to protect abusers or their victims?
     Sometimes it happens at the level of national and international church leadership, as we’ve seen in some of the high-profile stories of rampant abuse overlooked and ignored, of victims doubted and silenced, of abusers hidden and protected. Billboards all over Chicago right now urge Catholics, for instance, that it’s time to leave the church over this culture. Southern Baptists are increasingly hearing about their own problems with the sweeping of abuse under the rug that go all the way up to the national level.
     So it’s easy for those of us in churches that are locally autonomous to look down our noses a little, to imagine that it’s corruption inherent in those denominational structures that is to blame. 
     The case above, though, happened in one of those locally autonomous churches. The abuse went on for decades, and even after it was uncovered leaders still couldn’t make the fairly obvious decision that the abuser needed to spend his Sunday mornings somewhere other than in the pews with his victims and their families.
     Churches want to be places of grace, and we should be. But grace doesn’t only have to do with being magnanimous to those who have sinned. What about grace for those who have been hurt? What does being a place of grace to victims require of us? Showing grace to sinners doesn’t preclude showing grace to those hurt by their sin. It shouldn’t require victims to share communion and sing hymns with those who have made them victims. The wolves, Paul warned, will not spare the flock if they’re allowed free rein. And sometimes, Jesus pointed out, those wolves even wear sheep’s clothing
     Church leaders want to spend their time teaching, ministering, serving those in need, and sharing the gospel. They prefer to make decisions about building expansions, or what mission efforts to support, or what ministries will help the church grow. But Paul points out that church leaders also have to be a watchful and even suspicious lot when it comes to those who might do harm to the church. Church leaders tend to see clearly and quickly the spiritual damage that can be done by false teaching, but they can overlook how a person can be devastated by abuse — and by being victimized again by those who should have offered help.  
     Churches and their leaders should listen when abuse is alleged. We should hear those allegations, even though we don’t want to. We should resist our natural inclinations toward “Surely not” or “Not him.”  
     Churches and their leaders need to recognize that “repentance” isn’t enough, and that we can’t forgive an abuser on behalf of his or her victims. None of us are able to judge a penitent abuser’s position before the Lord. But that’s beside the point in this case. Many types of abuse seem almost impossible to unlearn, and never without many years of hard work and therapy. Coming forward on a Sunday morning doesn’t square an abuser with his victims. Nor should it.
     Churches and their leaders must always run in the other direction from the dreaded “internal investigation.” Don’t ask an accused abuser if they’re guilty — they’ll lie anyway. Don’t put them in a room with their victim to “talk it out.” Don’t go into defensive posture. Call the police. If you want to be there for the abuser, offer to drive him or her to the police station. In child abuse cases, most church leaders are mandated reporters. Most Christians should consider ourselves under the mandate of Christ to report a disclosure of abuse. 
     Once abuse has been disclosed, the church’s primary responsibility shifts to ministering to the victims of that abuse. We should grieve with them. They need to be able to talk about what was done to them. They need our prayers, and they need us to walk with them through what they have to face. They need to see through us that God has not abandoned them. Their abusers will be dealing with the consequences of their actions. Their victims asked for and deserve none of it.  
     Jesus seems to have been willing to take a side when he said, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones  to stumble.” Let’s be willing to stand where he does.

     And let’s work to protect those who are most vulnerable from the wolves.    

Friday, February 22, 2019

Under the Sun

    I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. 
-Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NIV)

Early this month, I completed my 25th year at the church I'm a part of.
     When I came to that Northwest Church of Christ, Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Bulls had only won three championships. O.J. Simpson, still a few months from his infamous slow-speed chase, was just a former football player. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective was the most popular movie in the nation. The song you were most likely to hear playing on the radio was I Will Always Love You. You were most likely reading The Client, The Bridges of Madison County, or maybe Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus. On TV, you probably caught Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Northern Exposure, or maybe Homicide: Life on the Street or Murder, She Wrote. Tom Brady was a high school senior still deciding whether to play pro baseball or go to college on a football scholarship. (He eventually decided on football.) A New York real estate company had acquired and was refurbishing the Gulf and Western building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which they would later rename Trump International Hotel and Tower. 
     I don’t know how significant my being at the same church for 25 years is for anyone else. Probably not all that, considering there are people there who have been around for twice that long or more. For me, though, it’s pretty significant. I’ve spent half my life there, literally. It's has been my church family for much longer than anywhere else. What I know about ministry, I learned there. What preaching voice I have, I found there. Many of my role models of faith are men and women I first encountered there. My son was born there, and came to his own faith in that community. I’ve been around for new births, baptisms, graduations, and weddings. I’ve also been around for funerals, grief, illness, lost jobs, moves, and divorces — though not always like I should have been, I know.
     That’s the thing, I guess; you don’t get points for just being around. I don’t know, maybe you get a few. But we sometimes celebrate longevity as though just staying in one place for a length of time is a big achievement. I still remember something someone who’s always been honest with me said, years ago, at a time when my being at my church for a long time wasn’t yet an accomplished fact, and was maybe even a little hard to imagine. He told me he hoped I’d stay…"not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” I’ve thought about that clause a lot over the years — “not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” There have been times — not a few of them — when I’ve wondered if the best thing I could have done would have been to just get out of the way and make room for that “someone else,” whoever that might be. I guess God hasn’t been unequivocal about that, though, nor has anyone else, so I’ve stayed. 
     I’m reminded of something Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I hope I’m not a villain, and I definitely don’t have a death wish, but I remember 25 years ago being impatient with some folks who were holding on to old ways that I was sure needed to change. I hope now that the focus of my impatience hasn’t shifted to those as sure that things need to change as I was back then. It’s so easy, when you’ve been around somewhere for a while, to get so invested in Things As They Are that it’s hard to see Things As They Ought To Be.
   The book of the Jewish Scriptures called Ecclesiastes is one of the more interesting books in the Bible. It’s also, oddly, one of the books you hear the least from in church. In it, the book’s writer (some say King Solomon, but the book itself never explicitly claims his authorship) turns his attention to the “meaninglessness” of life. “How do you live a life of faithfulness, productivity, and joy,” he wants to know, “when so much of life is random, arbitrary, and unfair?” The writer even has a phrase that captures life as he knows it: “under the sun.”
     That phrase literally has to do with life in this world; all of it is lived out “under the sun.” But there seems to be more to it in Ecclesiastes — or, maybe, less. “Under the sun” characterizes life as it is, divorced of things like context, meaning, transcendence, beauty, and so forth. Dolly Parton sang about working “nine to five,” and the writer of Ecclesiastes could probably relate. When we talk about “punching the clock” or “putting in our time,” we’re getting close to the meaning of “under the sun.” That big, bright, yellow ball rises and sets, day after day, and we get up and go to bed, day after day, and in between we live our lives and do our jobs, and time passes and maybe we get something out of it and maybe we don’t. In a 1988 Life magazine article that asked people from various walks of life to address the question Why are we here?, composer John Cage captured the essence of that phrase “under the sun:” “No why. Just here.”
     In the same article, though, Chicago writer Studs Terkel answered, “To make a dent.” The writer of Ecclesiastes definitely understands the John Cage view. But he wants — and he wants us to want — to make a dent. “If nothing else,” he says, “enjoy life, and do your work, and know that even if you don’t understand the whys of it, the days you’ve been given “under the sun” have come from your Creator’s hands. Given that belief, we know we aren’t just here to take up space and mark time. 
     Maybe we don’t say much about Ecclesiastes because the church has not typically been interested in teaching the enjoyment of life “under the sun.” Let’s be honest: we’ve tended to emphasize enjoyment of the life to come, with life “under the sun” being seen as something to grit our teeth and slog through until then. One of the reasons we need to know the Old Testament is to help us unlearn the prejudice that physical can’t be spiritual. Eating, drinking, and celebrating can be spiritual things, Ecclesiastes reminds us. So can showing up and doing our jobs. So can caring for your family, or playing with a child, or intimacy with your spouse, or sharing grief, or playing music, or pushing back against or even just enduring the injustices that we see “under the sun.” Life is transformed when we start trying to live as though all its moments have meaning — even when we can’t see what the meaning of a given moment might be. It’s in those moments, sometimes unforeseen and unplanned but lived well, that we do indeed find ourselves making dents.
     God has given you a certain number of days “under the sun.” Through Jesus, he has infused those days with a sense of meaning and purpose that the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t have imagined. Those days might be mostly spent in one place, with a relatively small circle of people. They might be divided up among many jobs, homes, and communities. Either way, it’s up to you to live them as if they have meaning: to enjoy them when you can, to spend them doing your work, to make the most of them, to sleep well at night, and to know that it’s finally only to God that you’re accountable for the way you spend those days. 
     “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.” 
     Some of us want to be successful. Some of us want to live lives of significance. Some of us just want to survive.

     May all of us find what we want in living out our days “under the sun” with joy and faithfulness.

Follow by Email