20160425

On Not Wasting Life

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.” — Ecclesiastes 12.1

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” Seneca quipped in his work On the Shortness of Life. “Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.” In the same breath, “meaningless!” shouts the wisdom of Ecclesiastes; “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

Seneca cautioned that life is too often “wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.” Maria Popova links the great philosopher’s work to the modern contrast of business and “the art of living.” In Seneca’s words:

Your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality!

To this the author of Ecclesiastes couldn’t agree more. Why squander our days, our energy, our passions on the meaningless pleasures of this world when we are designed for eternal glory? Why settle for earthly riches when heavenly honors await us? The answer—in Genesis, as in Seneca’s day, as in our time—is that we become consumed in our labor. Seneca writes:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously… New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition.

The calling of Ecclesiastes is to reorient our lives to our labor and give ourselves daily to the one that matters most in this life. Christians don’t retreat from labor, nor become consumed or defined by labor, but align our earthly passions with God’s desires. For, as Ecclesiastes concludes, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 12 (Listen – 2:38)
Philemon (Listen – 2:52)

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20160422

Faith Like Harriet :: Weekend Reading List

“I always told God, ‘I’m going to hold steady on you, and you’ve got to see me through,’” Harriet Tubman said near the end of her life. Known as “Moses” to the slaves she lead to freedom along the Underground Railroad, Tubman was herself a former slave whose life radiated in faith, hope, and service to others.

In her well researched series, People of Faith, author Rebecca Price Janney chronicles the risks and sacrifices Tubman endured as she leveraged her freedom for others. Reflecting on her first moments after crossing the border into a free state, Tubman said:

I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person, now that I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.

But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there. Oh, how I prayed then, lying all alone on the cold, damp ground; “Oh, dear Lord,” I said, “I ain’t got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble!”

“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus instructed his followers. “Believe in God; believe also in me.” Seeing a command like this fulfilled in the life and work of Harriet Tubman is challenging for all believers—something people who knew Tubman then, and study her now, have all noted. A profile in Christianity Today records:

Tubman said she would listen carefully to the voice of God as she led slaves north, and she would only go where she felt God was leading her. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett said of her, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God.”

This week Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew announced that “for the first time in more than a century, the front of our currency will feature the portrait of a woman — Harriet Tubman on the $20 note.” Tubman is among multiple Christian figures to be added to US currency in the next four years.

In our celebration of the great people of faith who walked before us we must be drawn to the one from whom they drew all their strength and to whom they poured out all their praise. “Twasn’t me,” Tubman declared, “’twas the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.”

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 9 (Listen – 3:13)
Titus 1 (Listen – 2:24)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 10 (Listen – 2:33) Titus 2 (Listen – 2:01)
Ecclesiastes 11 (Listen – 1:40) Titus 3 (Listen – 2:05)

 

20160421

To Direct Our Christian Effort :: Throwback Thursday

By Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

For the word of the king is supreme… Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. — Ecclesiastes 8.4-5

God alone is rightfully sovereign without limit. He is King in the most absolute sense; and so it should be; for He is supremely good, wise, just, and holy. We must look nowhere else for power. We must rely upon the Word of our King as the instrument of power whenever we seek to do works in His name.

  • Preach it: for nothing else will break hard hearts, comfort the despairing, encourage faith, or produce holiness.
  • Plead it in prayer: for the Lord will surely keep His own promises, and put forth His power to make them good.
  • Practice it: for none can ignore a life which is ordered according to the precepts of the Lord. An obedient life is full of power before which men and devils do homage.
  • Spend much time in the royal Word.
  • Speak more than ever the King’s Word, which is the gospel of peace.
  • Believe in the Word of King Jesus, and be bold to defend it.
  • Bow before it, and be patient and happy.

No language ever stirs the deeps of my nature like the Word of God; and none produces such a profound calm within my spirit. As no other voice can, it melts me to tears, it humbles me in the dust, it fires me with enthusiasm, it fills me with happiness, it elevates me to holiness. Every faculty of my being owns the power of the sacred Word: it sweetens my memory, it brightens my hope, it stimulates my imagination, it directs my judgment, it commands my will, and it cheers my heart.

The word of man charms me for the time; but I outlive and outgrow its power; it is altogether the reverse with the Word of the King of kings: it rules me more sovereignly, more practically, more habitually, more completely every day. Its power is for all seasons: for sickness and for health, for solitude and for company, for personal emergencies and for public assemblies.

I had sooner have the Word of God at my back than all the armies and navies of all the great powers; ay, than all the forces of nature; for the Word of the Lord is the source of all the power in the universe, and within it there is an infinite supply in reserve.

* Excerpt from Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s God Our King in The Attributes of God.

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 8 (Listen – 2:41)
2 Timothy 4 (Listen – 2:48)

 

20160420

Purpose in Suffering

Nearly a century before Rome would fall the tremors of discontent were already eroding the empire. Antioch, which is situated just 12 miles from the Syrian border, was one of the first cities to fall into violence as Rome attempted to crush a government protest. In his anthology on the collapse of the empire, historian Edward Gibbon observes:

That proud capital was degraded from the rank of a city… stripped of its lands, its privileges, and its revenues, was subjected… The baths, the circus, and the theaters were shut and, that every source of plenty and pleasure might at the same time be intercepted, the distribution of corn was abolished.

The noblest and most wealthy of the citizens of Antioch appeared before them in chains; [their houses] were exposed to sale, their wives and children were suddenly reduced from affluence and luxury to the most abject distress.

“Let us not then grieve, beloved, let us not despond on account of the present tribulation, but let us admire the well-devised plan of God’s wisdom,” counseled Antioch’s Priest, John Chrysostom. The dust had hardly settled—and the city’s fate was generations from being known—but the saint turned to Ecclesiastes to shepherd his city:

[Why] does he say? “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of laughter.” Because, at the former place, insolence is bred, at the latter, sobriety. And when a person goes to the banquet of one more opulent, he will no longer behold his own house with the same pleasure, but he comes back to his wife in a discontented mood; and in discontent he partakes of his own table.

All this Solomon perceived when he said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of drinking.” From the one grows listlessness, from the other an earnest anxiety. From the one, contempt; from the other, fear; a fear which conducts us to the practice of every virtue.

Chrysostom’s calling to be humbly shaped by God—in the midst of suffering—transcended the causes and events of suffering. Though he spoke against injustice, the saint was nearly consumed with the ways in which God would use his city’s suffering for good.

Humanity was not created to experience the weight of suffering—it is an effect of evil running rampant in our world. But even in our pain we are met by a God who knows the sting of suffering and will be faithful to bring his justice and peace to our world.

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 7 (Listen – 3:37)
2 Timothy 3 (Listen – 2:21)

20160419

Sinking Sand

All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach—yet his appetite is never satisfied! — Ecclesiastes 6.7

Though he had been without food for 40 days, Jesus refused to turn stones to bread. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The offer had been made: quench your material longings by your own ability. Jesus’ reply? In the end, that wouldn’t satisfy my deepest longings. 

We spend our days, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, trying to satisfy our appetites for more. Money, power, control, sex, food, status—every longing promises to be satisfied by the next acquisition—every longing proves insatiable.

The Divine Comedy chronicles penalties for each earthly sin as acts of contrapasso—to suffer the opposite. Rather than divine retribution, every circle of Dante’s Inferno is “the fulfillment of a destiny freely chosen by each soul during his or her life,” explains scholar Peter Brand.

The gluttons, Dante writes, writhe in a cesspool of waste from their endless consumption. As Virgil guides Dante he explains the gluttons’ damnation; “What these shades could not satisfy in life, in death, they shall be denied for eternity.”

Where Dante imagined the result of chasing earthly appetites to their end, modern writers like David Foster Wallace chronicled its present cultural symptoms. Upon his death in 2008 the New York Times celebrated Wallace’s writings as “a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification.”

A recently republished interview reveals Wallace’s candid reflections on one of his most successful books:

A lot of the impetus for writing “Infinite Jest” was just the fact that I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad.

I think it has something to do with being raised in an era when really the ultimate value seems to be… a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.

Greed is timeless, our appetites limitless. Yet we are not left alone. Jesus was strong enough to defeat broken appetites in the desert and loving enough to forgive us for the times we have fallen in the wilderness of our own desires. “On Christ the solid rock I stand,” penned Edward Mote in 1834, “All other ground is sinking sand.”

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 6 (Listen – 1:44)
2 Timothy 2 (Listen – 3:17)