2011년 4월 15일 금요일

Ecclesiastes Chapter 1

From the NIV Study Bible.

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

Solomon (I'll just assume it was Solomon.) beat the Goths and nihilists to the punch by several millennia. So anybody who throws up his hands and yells, "What's the freaking POINT!?!" is following on well worn footsteps. (I've done so myself.)

3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

And every generation thinks they're special.

Hey, Phil Collins, screeching, "I won't be coming home tonight / My generation will put it right / We won't be making promises / That we know we'll never keep." Notice that you're an old fart now and you and your generation were no more successful than any generation before you. The world is still a mess. Did you really think that everybody that came before you was a hypocrite and meaningless posturer, and that you and your generation were the first with noble intentions and boundless energy and a determination that you would be able to somehow fix what nobody was able to fix before you?

We all work hard, and it never lasts.

7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

Solomon noticed this long before scientists discovered The Water Cycle.

8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.

Anybody who has tried to stay on top of the laundry and the dishes and to keep the yard mowed and the car running knows this.

10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

Titanic was new. Hubris wasn't. Titanic is now at the bottom of the Atlantic. And the idea that we can build better and more significant things is an old one. We think we can cheat death with modern medicine and congratulate ourselves. Guess what? The pharaohs thought they could cheat death too. They pyramids are pretty groovy, but the pharaohs are still dead.

11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Lest you start to think, "Ha, Solomon! We've got you on that! Everybody remembers you!" ask yourself, "What were Solomon's favorite foods? Was he a night person or a morning person? Did he whistle to himself?" We don't know Solomon as a person. We just know what God chose from his work to allow to endure. Solomon himself, the living, breathing man, is just as forgotten as any of his concubines. Were he to show up in the middle of a revival meeting, nobody would recognize him -- unless the Holy Spirit granted knowledge.

15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

Look at all the results of Communism if you doubt this.

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.

Amen to that! There's a reason we say happy people wear rose colored glasses. You have to lack the wisdom to see the world as it is to be happy in it -- except for God's grace.

Intro to Ecclesiastes, Part II

Again, from introduction to Ecclesiastes in the NIV Study Bible.

1. Accept the human state as it is shaped by God's appointments and enjoy the life you have been given as fully as you can.

This is hard for me. I always want to change things that are screwy or counterproductive. (BETP Master Guidelines, for example.) But I can't change the nature of bureaucrats any more than I can change the nature of bees. Bees make honey, bureaucrats make rules. I can adapt, I can move on, but above all I need to remember that when Jesus showed up in the flesh, he didn't spend time trying to change the laws and rules and regulations. He worked on hearts and souls and frail human flesh. So it's important to keep that perspective -- that the rules will come and go, but the souls of the bureaucrats, like the souls of the people toiling under the rules, will last forever.

2. Don't trouble yourself with unrealistic goals -- know the measure of human capabilities.

But note that it's unrealistic goals one is to avoid. ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change....") One must seek God's wisdom, not man's wisdom, to identify appropriate goals. William Wilberforce, after all, took on the goal of abolishing slavery -- quite a mouthful to bite off! Vivien Thomas took on the goal of making heart surgery a reality. So clearly this isn't a caution not to set big goals. But all things considered, it's the eternal perspective one needs to keep, and allowing God to appoint times and places and people.

3. Be prudent in all your ways -- follow wisdom's leading.

Imprudence just gets you and others hurt.

4. "Fear God and keep His commandments."

And trust Him to order things as they need to be. Esther's parents didn't do anything at all that was worth recording in the Bible -- but had they not married and had a child, what would have happened to the Jews? But it was Esther who came into the world "for such a time as this."

To sum up, Ecclesiastes provides instruction on how to live meaningfully, purposefully and joyfully in the theocratic arrangement -- primarily by placing God at the center of one's life, work, and activities. In contentedly accepting one's divinely appointed lot in life, and by reverently trusting in and obeying the Creator-King.

2011년 4월 14일 목요일

Intro to Ecclesiastes

God is good! God is sovereign! I just finished Luke, which I read because it's the book Mars Hill Church is in right now. So I wondered where to go next. Well, I chose Ecclesiastes because I had pulled that sermon series off the Mars Hill web site as my additional nourishment between new Luke sermons. Suffice to say, the timing couldn't be better. Surely God knows what we need and when we need it! Even the introduction alone has given me a firm grounding that I very much need right now. Consider how much I lift here from the NIV Study Bible as an advertisement therefor. I got mine used from Amazon.com for less than $8 including shipping, so don't let fear of the cost stand between you and your own copy if you find this exciting or helpful. The introduction postulates who the author is, then moves on to the content:

With a wisdom matured by many years, he takes the measure of human beings, examining their limits and their lot. He has attempted to see what human wisdom can do, and he has discovered that human wisdom, even when it has its beginning in "the fear of the Lord", has limits to its powers when it attempts to go it alone -- limits that circumscribe its perspectives and relativize its counsel. Most significantly, it cannot find out the larger purposes of God or the ultimate meaning of human existence. With respect to these it can only pose questions.

This is a warning to me and all of us not to think that our ideas are God's ideas. It's easy for us to see when other people are screwing up in this area -- when people we consider evil or stupid have social or economic or political plans for making the world a good and happy place. But we are just as convinced as they are as to the great wisdom of our own ideas. Let's not get too big for our britches. So as I look for work and make the related decisions, I can judge if work is good or bad (trash collecting, teaching, healing good; convincing people to buy useless junk, selling abortions, taking advantage of people's vulnerabilities bad). But I can't judge where I specifically need to be at any time. That must be left to God's judgment. I am praying, though, for work that gives me a powerful sense of satisfaction. Epic's recruitment letter has me very excited and already has my brain at work. Do they do health management software for patients? Think of the efficiency and savings! Think of the increased patient satisfaction that would encourage patients to choose health care providers that look at the patient holistically! So I feel very drawn to it. There's also -- though I'm just guessing -- the prospect of much higher pay than I've been used to. Think of the wonderful things I could do with that money! Help to underwrite health clinics and potable water for the poor! Helping to defray adoption expenses! But ultimately it's God's wisdom I have to trust. Moving right along:
Nevertheless, he does take a hard look at the human enterprise -- an enterprise in which he himself has fully participated. He sees a busy, busy human ant hill in mad pursuit of many things, trying now this, now that, laboring away as if by dint of effort humans could master the world, lay bare its deepest secrets, change its fundamental structures, somehow burst through the bounds of human limitations, build for themselves enduring monuments, control their destiny, achieve a state of secure and lasting happiness -- people laboring at life with an overblown conception of human powers and consequently pursuing unrealistic hopes and aspirations.
This is a reiteration of what came before, but with more of a "Don't get a swelled head" focus. Remember that we can have an impact on our corner of the world. We can be honest mechanics, skilled cabinetmakers, top-notch physicians, passionate and skilled teachers -- but we need to trust the overarching story to God.
1. Humans cannot by all their striving achieve anything of ultimate or enduring significance. Nothing appears to be going anywhere, and people cannot by all their efforts break out of this caged treadmill; they cannot ultimately change anything. Hence they often toil foolishly. All their striving "under the sun" 'after unreal goals leads only to disillusionment. 2. Wisdom is better than folly -- it is God's gift to those who please Him.
Stop there for a moment! Wisdom is not something we achieve through our own efforts. It is a gift that God bestows on the smart and simple alike. I need to remember that I have seen people with profound intellectual disabilities that nonetheless possess amazing wisdom. I have seen brilliant people who devastate their lives and the lives of those around them for lack of wisdom. So I need to pray for my "daily bread" of wisdom -- and humility.
But it is unwarranted to expect too much even from such wisdom -- to expect that human wisdom is capable of solving all problems or of securing for itself enduring rewards or advantages.
All of the satisfaction I might find on the job is the same as the satisfaction of the truck driver who gets his cargo where it's going on time, and who is a safe and courteous driver. And ultimately it's no more important. It's just feeding my own particular passions. Never forget the joy of finding a trustworthy mechanic -- and thus never think that your work, because humans might value it more, is of greater value. And it could be that the most profoundly disabled baby who only lives for a few hours has a far greater lasting impact on those around him.
3. Experience confronts humans with many apparent disharmonies and anomalies that wisdom cannot unravel. 4. Although God made humankind upright, people have gone in search of many "schemed" (for getting ahead of taking advantage of others. So even humans are a disappointment. 5. People cannot know or control what will come after them, or even what lies in the more immediate future; therefore all their efforts remain balanced on the razor's edge of uncertainty.
Think of all human endeavors that get blasted to bits by tornadoes or tsunamis. God alone knows what the true and lasting significance of our lives really is.
6. God keeps humans in their place.
Back to the tsunamis. Don't overestimate the value of the work of your own human brains and hands.
7. God has ordered all things, and a human being cannot change God's appointments or fully understand or appreciate them. But the world is not fundamentally chaotic or irrational. It is ordered by God, and it is for humans to accept matters as they are by God's appointment, including their own limitations. Everything has its "time" and is good in its time.
This is a comfort. My stupid choices can still be worked into God's good plan. And I can trust Him to make the best of even my worst. This doesn't mean that I don't have to be as smart and wise and I can be. But it is a reminder not to fret too much over my human failings and shortcomings. Choose as wisely as I can, but trust in God to guide the overall plan. That's enough to chew on for now. More later!

2011년 4월 6일 수요일

The Widow's Mite

He also said to his disciples, "There was a certain rich man who had a manager. An accusation was made to him that this man was wasting his possessions. He called him, and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.'

"The manager said within himself, 'What will I do, seeing that my lord is taking away the management position from me? I don't have strength to dig. I am ashamed to beg. I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their houses.' Calling each one of his lord's debtors to him, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe to my lord?' He said, 'A hundred batos of oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'How much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred cors of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.'

"His lord commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely, for the children of this world are, in their own generation, wiser than the children of the light. I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents. He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? If you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You aren't able to serve God and mammon."

Luke 16:1-13, World English Bible

In light of my recent job, and my renewed interest in public policy, I feel pulled to this passage:

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? If you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You aren't able to serve God and mammon."
People who run programs that give away other people's money tend to be very cavalier about how they spend that money. After all, it's not their money. They get paid to give it away. Why care how much bang the actual person paying the actual bills is getting for his buck?

And therein lies a problem with Christian "social justice" thought. There tends to be a naive assumption that just setting up government programs to "take care of the poor" fixes the problem and thus divests the Christian from responsibility for the poor.

But setting up a boondoggle that supports poverty pimps isn't wise stewardship of the money of the aggregate of taxpayers.

No reasonably intelligent human being would voluntarily give money to an entity as appallingly wasteful as the Federal government. But many Christians have no qualms about voting taxes away from "the rich" and trusting a massive, self-interested bureaucracy to take care of the poor with the "rich" people's money.

First off, from a global and historical standpoint, anybody in America is "the rich". Even the derelicts and bag ladies can readily get food and shelter from a combination of government programs, private charities, and begging. Nobody starves to death or freezes to death from lack of available resources; there has to be another factor, such as being infirm or being a child and having irresponsible caretakers.

So the typical voter is "the rich." Let's just get that out of the way.

Now, back to pissing away the money of those more financially well-off than ourselves. Is there any Scriptural justification for this whatsoever?

We can start with the 10th Commandment:

Exodus 20:17 "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour's."
There doesn't seem to be an exception for coveting if you plan to give it to somebody else.

1 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” - Luke 21:1-4
Jesus doesn't lambaste the rich people for allowing the widow to put in all she had. He commends the widow for her faith and generosity, and dismisses the rich, who give out of their abundance. How much more would he downplay the generosity of those who give out of somebody else's abundance.

So there are multiple problems with Christian "social justice" -- the establishing of government programs to tend to the poor:

  1. There is little virtue in giving away a small portion of your own wealth.
  2. There is even less virtue in giving away large portions of other people's wealth.
  3. There is no virtue in poor stewardship of resources -- your own or other people's.
We are thus called to private charity -- to give to the poor from our own resources, and commendation for giving until it hurts. Workers entrusted with dispensing money -- either in a private charity or working in a government program -- are also called to be good stewards of the money they're dispensing. There is to be no wasteful sucking up of maximum good for oneself -- becoming a poverty pimp. Nor is there to be wasteful disposition of the funds -- giving it away unwisely, for example underwriting poor stewardship of the poor person's own resources by rewarding sloth and poor financial planning. And most government programs -- and many private charities -- do just that. They punish the poor who steward their resources well by refusing to help them when they're in a tight spot temporarily, and they reward the spendthrift by helping people who don't save and don't pay their bills.

We need to give of our own resources, not other people's, and to give wisely.