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‘And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” —Matthew 1:21-23
“Everyone under the sun suffers the same fate….There is nothing ahead but death.” - Ecclesiastes 9:3-4
In some ways, in a lot of ways, it’s a good thing. I’d hate to be stuck on this broken world forever. One lifetime provides quite enough suffering.
And it also makes one grasp the preciousness of every moment. Next semester my campus group is kicking of the semester with a Carpe Diem theme. Seize the day. Take advantage of everything that you have now and do something meaningful. Don’t waste your life. Don’t take the relationships you have around you for granted. Take joy in your life. Make your days matter.
“So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this…Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless day of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well.” - Ecclesiastes 9:7-10
There’s a balance to be had in the spectrum between rash, emotional decisions and over-planned, tentative living, but I think sometimes I fall too close to the latter. I’d live my life a bit differently if I thought it’d be much shorter, or if the lives of those around me were much shorter. I’d take more risks. I’d probably get married sooner, spend more time with people, and take some crazier trips to places I’ve always wanted to experience.
Should I be taking some of these risks now?
I don’t really have much to say. It’s been a hard week.
What do you do with someone else’s suffering? When you want to do something, but you can’t do anything? When it begins to wear on you and worry you and becomes too much to bear? What happens when you feel yourself begin to lose control? When everything begins to break down?
I usually try to fix things myself, or I turn to other people and cling to them like someone drowning. It rarely works.
The only hope we have in this life is Jesus. I must cling to him.
“Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives- to both, but perhaps especially to the woman- a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted” - Lewis, A Grief Observed, 89.
I hope I can always say likewise.
And he continues:” To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees” (89-90).
How amazing it is to be loved by the One who holds all things.
This world is broken.
“Don’t be surprised if you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and if justice is being miscarried throughout the land….matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy” (8).
We are broken. We all know that we are. There are parts of us that are empty and just ache so. You can try to fix your own brokenness with money or people or things that make you feel good for now. It won’t work.
Money runs out.
“Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth- expect perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!” (10-11)
And everything else eventually passes away. Possessions wear out and break. People leave. All falls to pieces.
“We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us” (15).
And all of this seems quite hopeless. We seem quite trapped in our fate. But there is one who has come to give life, abundant joyful life.
“To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life- this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past” (19-20).
I want to be so busy enjoying the life God has given me that I have no time to bemoan what has passed. This I think is what it looks like to seize every moment. I want to live in celebration. I want to live in joy.
(All from Ecclesiastes 5)
“As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God. Don’t make rash promises and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. after all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few” (1-2).
So opens the fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes.
I know that I often deny God the reverence he deserves. It’s easy to think of him as a friend, the One who never leaves, a lover, a father, and to forget that he is the Sovereign God of all creation, who holds all things together, who deserves all glory and honor, who rightfully demands that all things bow before him. He does not exist for my benefit; I exist for his. And thus, that what I do in his presence, especially when I come before him to pray and to worship, should not be done thoughtlessly. I serve a God above all others, a holy, righteous, perfect, infallible, unfailing God. Yes, I should be honest before him, I should be myself in his presence, I can be confident in his perfect love. But this does not mean being insincere or irreverent. And it does not mean that it’s okay for me to ramble and prattle on. I know that God loves me more than anyone will ever be able to, I know that he loves me in the midst of my quirks and shortcomings, and I even like to think that he smiles at the little tics of personality that I have (such as fumbling over words and tending to rant on certain issues). But I must remember just whose presence I am sitting in. (With this comes one of the other major themes of this passage. Don’t make empty promises to God. If you tell him you’ll do something, do it. Otherwise, don’t make that promise at all.)
In addtion, when I think about it, I often fail to give God even the smallest bit of consideration that I give to my friends. By this, I mean that I fail to listen. So often my interactions with God consist of me talking to him for a short or long period of time, then saying goodbye and going on my way. Sometimes I’m talking about how great he is, sometimes I’m making requests, sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. But I don’t stop to sit and listen to him. If I treated any one of my friends like that, our friendship would fail. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that God doesn’t take kindly to that either. He wants to speak into my life, to tell me about himself, about what he is doing, to give me guidance, to give me missions for others, to show me how he wants to use me. But he can’t (or at least it’s much more difficult) if I don’t listen. I like the way Solomon puts it:
“Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead” (7).
So I will come into God’s presence, mouth shut and ears open. It’s time to listen.
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we aks- half our great theological and metaphysical problems are like that,” - Lewis, A Grief Observed, 86-87.
I’m sure well over half my questions have been unanswerable.
“Peace, child; you don’t understand” is an answer I’m sure I’ve received many times.
The problem is living at peace with that, patiently awaiting the day when the glass will no longer be lit so dimly.
I left the Lewis book at home today by accident, which might actually be a blessing because I desperately need to be in the Word anyway. This semester I haven’t been having the greatest go of it as far as faithfulness goes. I suppose it goes back to Hebrews 12: discipline.
But back to the point at hand- I’m now in the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes, which again seems so suited to recent events. It opens:
“Again I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power and their victims are helpless” (1). It’s that time of the year when we’re studying the capitalist world system and the havoc wrought by free trade agreements, subsidies, and wage undercutting. We’ve watched interviews with migrants so desperate to get to the US where there is at least some economic opportunity for them to better the lives of their families that they are willing to risk injury, rape, or death again and again. We’ve traced how some have profited massively off of others’ exploitation, while the exploited remain trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, pain, and hopelessness. Oppression is everywhere still.
And it begs the question of how I, living in the wealthiest nation on earth, can do anything to help, to change something, to ease the oppression, when it is built into the entire system in which I live that is so much larger than any individual. Should I strive to be successful if I know that my success is possible only because of someone else’s exploitation?
Another point is added: “Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless- like chasing the wind” (4). Ambition motivated by envy does seem very meaningless and unfulfilling. but what about ambition itself?
I’ve never considered myself an incredibly ambitious person. I’m not very motivated by money- it’d be nice to be rich but that’s never really been my goal. There’s things I would love to do, but I didn’t pick the career path I’ve chosen for the salary I’ll get (in fact, it’s quite the opposite). Power isn’t the point either; the last thing I really want is to become some high politician. So this seems to preclude me from the ambitious category, at least in my mind.
But I do want to be significant, to be remembered for something. I want to write a groundbreaking paper, to cause some sort of social change, to draw attention to something that matters. And this, I do think is ambition. And there’s another form of ambition at work in me. According to a friend (and I think she’s quite spot-on), I am highly motivated by ideals. I tend to be a martyr-type. I’d love to sacrifice my life, my work, my happiness for some greater good and be remembered for that. That’s what would make it all worth it. Sometimes the cause has to do with ministry and furthering the Kingdom. Sometimes it’s Chechnya or child soldiers or the rights of women. But I want to be remembered as driven, as passionate, as tenacious, as a crusader for the oppressed, as someone willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves.
This ambition is far from bad. I like to think that it will drive me to do great things, for the people around me, for people far away, for people created in the image of God who are suffering from injustice and oppression. I like to think that it will help to further the Kingdom, to bring hope to the hopeless and relief to the suffering. But over the last few months, I think I’ve learned a few things, namely that unchecked ambition, no matter how worthy of actions the ambition propels us to, is meaningless, as Solomon would say. It misses the point. Give in to it fully, and it will steal from us the abundant life that God wishes to give.
“I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, ‘Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?’ It is all so meaningless and depressing.
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (7-12).
I know this passage is often read at weddings, but that’s not what I’m talking about here and I don’t think that’s exactly what Solomon’s talking about either. I think the point is companionship, community, conviviality (as my wonderful church likes to emphasize). The point is that ambition, when run amok, isolates us. If we throw all our energy into our work, into achieving that goal, into achieving our idea of success, we will alienate ourselves from everyone around us. And that alienation will prevent us from experiencing all the joys that God want to give to us, that best-possible life that he has for us. We were not created to live life alone; we were created to live with others, beside others. God, in his full character, is best reflected in our relationships with others. Jesus’ command to us was to love others and to love God (which we do by loving others). If I let my ambition, however good or holy it seems, go unchecked, I will not be living out that command at all.
See, as much as I might think that I am loving people by serving the oppressed, by fighting for their cause, by working for them (and yes, I do think I am loving them in some way), that is not enough. It’s easy to love an idea or a group or a person you’ve never met. It’s much harder to love those whom you see day-in and day-out, those you see at their worst and best, those who see you at your worst and best. It’s much harder to have real relationships, to knock down the walls that you’ve built up for your own self-protection and let people see the sides of you that bring you shame, to love others despite their imperfections and tendencies to accidentally (or even purposefully) cause pain. The greater good, the oppressed far away, the picture of a starving child in Somalia is much easier, much safer, to love.
I am not saying that loving these is bad; it is completely necessary. We must give voices to the voiceless and work tirelessly for the cause of the oppressed. But to let that preclude us from the call to relationship that God places in all of our lives is to miss out on the entire point of life God is calling us to. And I have been so guilty of this.
My plan for a good chunk of the last few years has been to devote my life to some sort of social justice, to preventing ethnic conflict, to helping rebuild war-torn nations and bring relief to devastated people. And this cause is good. I believe it is part of my call. But my plan for this looked like me, alone, traveling and working and wholeheartedly pursuing this goal at the cost of maintaining relationships. I planned to run solo through foreign nations and war zones as some sort of lone crusader in the cause of true justice. And this was not good.
God, instead, has been slowly challenging my ambition, or better put, my control of my ambition. He has been chipping away at it with the quiet but persistent message that I was not created to run through my life alone. I was created to live in community, with others in real relationships. He has revealed the motives behind my often unchecked ambition: the fear of truly loving, of letting anyone close enough to hurt me, the unwillingness to trust anyone enough to really invest in them. This summer, I was given the opportunity to run around a foreign country alone, to start pursuing my goal, my dream. And I was finally able to see my ‘plan’ for what it was: empty, lonely, miserable, and meaningless. Completely isolated, without any sort of true relationship with others, I am frighteningly far from that which God created me to be. Ambition unchecked is an exercise in futility.
So now I have to stop chasing the wind and turn back to the One who has held a plan for me from the beginning, to give up my blind ambition and surrender to that to which he has called me. My passions, my dreams, my ambitions are still to help the hopeless and oppressed. But I’m more open to pursuing them in unexpected ways, way that don’t fit with the grand martyr-like ‘plan’ I once held. Ambition, godly ambition, meaningful ambition, must be checked and balanced like all else in life by that which God has commanded us to do: love each other. This comes above all else and before all else.
So I will not be running around the world alone fighting for what is right and good. It’s a nice ideal for a storybook, but not for truly living life. I still want to combat the evil and ugliness that comes with ethnic conflict, but the pursuit of this will not come at the expense of the relationships that God has placed in my life, at the expense of loving those around me. I don’t quire know what this will look like, but I can have perfect faith in one thing: that God, who controls all things, will continue to provide for me, step-by-step, and he will not let me go. And following him will lead to things much better than I could ever have possibly planned for.
I promise I haven’t abandoned Lewis- still have a bit to go through there. But I have been greatly enjoying Ecclesiastes as of lately. As much as I love Lewis, he is no substitute for actually being in the Word.
So here’s the first bit of Ecclesiastes 3. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but don’t focus on that. I could tell you some of the things I make out this, but I’m not sure that would be best. Instead, just read it and think on it for a while. It really is quite beautiful.
1 For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
2 A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
3 A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4 A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
5 A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
6 A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7 A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
8 A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.
A book that opens with “Vanity, vanity, everything is vanity” certainly doesn’t set an upbeat tone. My particular translation phrases it thus: “Everything is meaningless…completely meaningless.” I think the way I’ve heard it best put is “vaporous.” Basically, everything fleeting: the pursuit of anything in this life is like “chasing the wind,” trying to catch something that cannot be grasped. History repeats itself; humanity never learns, is never satisfied. Wisdom and knowledge only bring more pain, pleasure never lasts, everyone dies no matter who they are or what they do, the fruit of our labor will be enjoyed by others, death equalizes and takes all.
But perhaps this vapourous-ness is not all bad. Perhaps this fleeting nature of things makes forces us to pause and fully enjoy that which we have been given. Perhaps it stands in opposition to that inside us that drives us to forget the people around us, to not love, to cast all aside for the sake of success or something else which will not stand forever.
Henri Nouwen writes this: “Mortification- literally ‘making death’- is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession…when we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.” (A Letter of Consolation, 42)
Perhaps the transitory nature of thing forces us to enjoy them all the more.
“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.” (Ecc 3:12-13)
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’”
From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
We do have one picture of God. And it completely shatters all the other preconceived notions we might have.
(On another note, this is my favorite Christmas passage. And I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I can’t help but feel that Christmas is just around the corner!)