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I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless! So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world.

Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy. So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

In the previous paragraph, Qoheleth had acknowledged that death is the great equalizer of life and levels the playing field. Death is indiscriminate and does not distinguish between the rich or the poor; the wise or the foolish; the young or the old. Everyone dies, and to add insult to injury, the memory of their lives quickly evaporates.

That being said, he then turned to the futility of the work he enjoys. Although he found work to be fulfilling, he simultaneously found it frustrating, for he realized his achievements and all he has acquired will outlast his physical existence. He has amassed generational wealth. So much wealth that his descendants will never want for anything. This creates worry and anxiety for him.

What happens if they waste it?

What happens if they lose it?

What happens if they don’t appreciate it or take it for granted?

What happens if they don’t learn the value of hard work and develop a strong work ethic?

What happens if they love their gifts more than they love and remember me?

These, and similar questions I’m sure, kept him awake at night. Qoheleth could not reconcile all that he knew about wisdom, wealth and mortality.

These frustrations led him to a decision. He decided to be fully present in each moment and enjoy life at face value. His decision was one that each of us needs to make if we’re going to fully enjoy life. Sometimes decisions are made in a moment of resignation, where we give up and settle. Other times decisions are rooted in a realization; an awakening of sorts.

For Qoheleth, the realization was that God is the giver of life’s gifts and blessings. But he also realized that God was also the one who gives the ability to enjoy those gifts and blessings. In and of themselves, the gifts and blessings are neutral. Any enjoyment we have comes from God and serves as reminders that no gift is greater than the giver of the gift.

I wonder if Jesus had this passage in the back of his mind when he famously asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36, NLT) The truth is that anyone who places more value on the gift than the giver is in danger of his warning.

Being fully aware of the present moment is to pay attention, in a particular way, to the present moment without passing judgment. It is in the present moment that we find clarity and become fully alive.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Sep
08

What’s Up With Deconstruction?

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A friend sent me an article today from the Mere Orthodoxy website asking my thoughts about the current trend of theological deconstruction that is becoming prevalent in evangelical communities of faith. The author, Skyler Flowers, does an appreciable job of attempting to develop categories that sort the conversation, albeit akin to nailing jello to the wall.

Evangelical deconstructionism is a topic forceful enough today to have become a cottage industry, complete with books, podcasts, and small group gatherings to discuss theological dissonances. It’s not nearly as tidy as the six neatly defined categories outlined in Flowers’ article, but yes, it’s a thing. By definition, to “deconstruct” basically means to question or doubt what you have previously believed. It can be motivated by the awareness that one doesn’t really know why they believe what they believe due to strict indoctrination, or from a negative event associated with a church such as spiritual abuse or moral indiscretion from a church leader.

The motif seems to follow this model: prior order, disorder, then re-order. In other words, a person has their normative belief and practice disrupted by something or someone, then re-ordering takes place as persons attempt to put the pieces back together. But the pieces create a new picture. They re-create the old one into something new. 

Admittedly I know little with regards to the deconstruction movement, but there’s a reason for it. There is no template to follow. Deconstruction tends to be more individualistic by necessity, for each person has their own catalytic moment that produces disorder and their own rhythm and tempo for processing re-order.

When I think about it, King David may have been the first deconstructionist. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann used a similar patter to interpret the Psalms. His structure is orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. If you read the Psalms carefully, you’ll see David wrestle with people and situations that cause in to question what he had always believed that then turned into something stronger. Deconstruction, to that point, doesn’t have to end with atheism or apostasy as some would assume. It just transports you from where you were to where you are, and ultimately to where you’re going.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Sep
06

Barna on Global Missions Trends

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I realize that the primary focus of American churches during the global pandemic has been and continues to be re-opening and re-engaging their congregations, but according to Barna’s most recent report, churches also have a lot of work to do in the area of re-engaging in global missions and evangelism.

According to his report titled, Trends Impacting Global Missions and Evangelism, American Christians have shifted in their understanding as well as their approach to global missions.

What do you think?

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I was unaware that Martin Luther King, Jr., required every volunteer to sign the following commitment card:

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF–MY PERSON AND MY BODY–TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS.

  1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory.
  3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on demonstration.

I SIGN THIS PLEDGE, HAVING SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED WHAT I DO AND WITH THE DETERMINATION AND WILL TO PERSEVERE.

How might your life be different if you chose to commit to this level of humility for the next 30 days?

Categories : Uncategorized
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So I decided to compare wisdom with foolishness and madness (for who can do this better than I, the king?). I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” For the wise and the foolish both die. The wise will not be remembered any longer than the fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten. So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:12-18, NLT)

Having announced his quest for the meaning of his life, Qoheleth conducted multiple experiments from every possible avenue, leaving no stone unturned. Starting with laughter, wine, women, and song; he then moved to architectural and engineering projects in order to have real estate to possess, followed by economic growth, amassing an enviable if not obnoxious wealth portfolio. His assessment of all of it was that it was meaningless, and as if to be clever, states that there is no profit in profit.

Qoheleth then decided to turn to his chief resource, his wisdom, and compared it with foolishness. He grants that in the end its better to live as a wise man versus a foolish man, the difference between being as obvious as night and day.

But just when we thing he’s turning a corner, he restates his chief complaint. At the end of it all is the end of it all. While wisdom may provide some satisfaction during life, the wise one is just as mortal as the fool. Everyone dies, and no one memorializes them. With particular angst in his voice, he states, “I came to hate life.” Judging by the ego-centric tone of the book, we could insert the pronoun “my.”

Wisdom may relieve a person from the evil business of living life, but it doesn’t solve the death problem. It’s as though life has played a trick on him, and even though he clings to wisdom, deep down he feels like a fool.

Lest we pull up a chair at Qoheleth’s table and become co-lamenters, we need to pause and remember the biblical principle of “othering.” It doesn’t take much to become jaded about life when it’s lived in the first person singular. We have been created for community, where we can know and be known. It’s easy to over value ourselves and our importance to the world. But our truest value comes from being made in the image and likeness of God, and that value is only fully understood in the context of relationships. God doesn’t love all of us, He loves each of us, for no other reason than we are his. And his love doesn’t diminish or heighten based on whether we are wise or foolish. The life we live may be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean we have to be forgettable.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, NLT)

Qoheleth did not find meaning through the temporary islands of relief of laughter and wine. Even then, he would have understood the law of diminishing returns–the fact that more and more produces less and less. Since the secret to lasting meaning was not found in earthly joys, he turned his attention to amassing possessions. It was not uncommon for kings of that time period to make testamentary statements that flaunted their accomplishments, so perhaps this passage has a bit of a competitive edge.

In reading these verses, the first person singular pronoun is clearly evident as well as the objectification of each one. Whether it was homes, gardens, water, animals, or people, they all betray Qoheleth’s thirst to acquire, amass, and own. One of the clearest examples is that he didn’t love music, he loved owning singers. Somehow he believed that by amassing things and people he could find significance, which would result in finding the meaning to it all, especially if he had the most and the biggest.

Without restraint or self denial, he had it all. His only limitation was his own imagination.

It is at this point we begin to see the underlying issue become more evident. As with laughter and wine, hard work in and of itself was rewarding. But at the end of it loomed death, which would nullify everything. Qoheleth doesn’t have a life problem. He has a death problem. The fact that his existence would someday terminate was something he could not wrap his mind around. After all, what’s the point of building, acquiring and collecting if he, like everyone else, will die? He’s no better off than the poor man at that point, because both face the same end result.

Our modern concept of eternity and life after death is more clearly fleshed out than it would have been in Old Testament times. In all likelihood, Qoheleth and his contemporaries did not foresee life after death, hence the existential angst he expressed in his writing. His worldview was directly tied to his earthly existence.

Living on this side of the cross provides us with an opportunity to come to terms with things like eternal significance and making eternal differences. But even then, we can become so tied to physical life that we enter the same state of mind. But bigger is not always better, sometimes it’s just more. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so adamant about teaching us to not lay up treasures here on earth in favor of laying up treasures in heaven. Our lives matter now and will matter through all eternity. What are you doing to balance the now and the not yet?

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Aug
30

There is One Sin

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“There is one sin: to call a green leaf grey, Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth.” — G.K. Chesterton

This quote was cited by Lynn Anderson in his book Talking Back to God, as he described walking through his cancer diagnosis and the accompanying ‘dark night of the soul.’ When I read it, it leaped off the page and I’ve spent the better part of my weekend turning it over and over in my mind.

Chesterton’s words fell on my heart and mind like this. A leaf, as I understand it, represents something in my life that comes from God. That can be a blessing or a gift that he has bestowed. But it can also be in the form of a challenge or difficulty. Either way, the leaf finds its origin in God, and by nature is green, which is the color of life and growth. Green speaks of the value of the leaf and the benefit that it offers.

But to call that green leaf gray, the color of death, is to diminish the value and benefit of the leaf. In life we all have to play the hands we are dealt. And each hand beckons, “What is the invitation within the hand I have been dealt?” For Anderson, even the hand of cancer contained “an invitation,” and he learned that indeed, the green leaf in not gray.

It is easy to devalue what God has given. We can even do it by taking credit for the blessings we have or by simply being ungrateful.

My prayer for today is that I take the good and perfect gifts from God and remember they are ever green.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, “Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?” After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3, NLT)

Qoheleth spent the entirety of chapter 1 describing the absurdity of life under the sun. Beginning in the second chapter, he outlined a series of experiments to verify his claim that he had left no stone unturned.

He began with his adventures in pleasure. Out of the gate we find two differing interpretations on what is actually taking place. There are some that read these verses and claim that Qoheleth has plunged headlong into a life of hedonistic behavior, while others take a more straightforward view that there was no real loss of self control. If we take the writer at his word, I see no need to enforce more on the text that is stated. He was conducting a series of experiments, beginning with laughter and then wine.

Test number one was simha, literally, “joy, gladness, or gaity.” There is nothing inherently wrong with joy and laughter. In fact, it is recommended throughout the remaining chapters of the book that people should enjoy the days of their lives spent under the sun. He discovered, however, that the pursuit of laughter and joy with the hope of profit is pointless.

As a part of his quest for pleasure he turned to the consumption of wine, which in the Old Testament is usually a symbol of joy. Qoheleth was not looking to numb his frustration with life’s absurdities. He was genuinely seeking joy and gladness. He claimed to process the use of wine while maintaining self control, and concluded that again, there is nothing to be gained from it.

It appears that Qoheleth looked around and wondered why people with less wisdom and fewer possessions were genuinely happy in life. How could they laugh when life is so ridiculous? Was it entertainment? Was it the wine? For those he observed, maybe so. But not for him. Those pathways were unsatisfactory, providing nothing more than small respites of relief.

Why is it that a child in a third world country who has nothing more than rocks and sticks to play with seem happier than a child in America with every toy at his or her disposal? That’s Qoheleth’s question.

Categories : Ecclesiastes
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Lifeway Research has recently contributed to the commentary on stewardship and generosity with a report that cites research conducted by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The report echos what others have been stating all summer, chiefly that the pool of givers to religious organizations is dwindling.

How is it, then, that in the face of this research, churches claim that their giving remained static or even strong during the COVID-19 pandemic? From the churches I’ve reviewed in the last several months, the answer is simple. Those who were top givers in the church (at least $10,000 per year) increased their giving, while those who gave minimally (no more than $1,000 per year) decreased their support. In other words, the stockholders and key investors in the ministry carried the load.

The concern, for me anyway, is that top givers will experience giving fatigue in the coming year. Churches that are investing all of their energy in recovering attendees to in person worship need to focus on discipling and developing their givers as well. We may not see the full financial impact of COVID on churches for several more months. Therefore, church leaders cannot make the assumption that their congregation’s giving is certain.

Categories : Generosity, Stewardship
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Aug
15

Praying for Our Schools

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Tonight I will participate in a nondenominational prayer gathering led by my wife at her elementary school. It is organized by Inspire Our Schools.org. I am grateful that our central Iowa school districts are willing to allow volunteers come to school campuses to surround the buildings with prayer for the new school year. I have inserted the examples of prayers that will be offered, and wanted to share them so you can join parents, faculty and students in prayer. While you may not want to pray these exact prayers, the outline will certainly help you to make sure that you are as inclusive as possible in covering the needs. For more information about this annual gathering, find www.inspireourschools.org.

GENERAL PRAYER AT BEGINNING

Lord, we commit this building to you. Father, may those who enter this building experience your love in profound and authentic ways. (John 13:35)

Lord, we ask for your blessing over this building. We pray it would be a place of great discovery, adventure and creativity. May it be a place where we love to learn and where we learn to love. A place where everyone is respected and all are deeply valued.

STUDENTS

Lord, we commit to you the lives and welfare of all our students. We pray they would show proper respect for the authorities you have placed over them and recognize all authority comes from you. Help them to speak and act in a way that is respectful of all teachers, administrators, and other school staff.  (Romans 13:1-5)

Teach them, Lord, to be kind and unselfish and to love those who are different from themselves. May the children consider their school work an act of worship in that “whatever they do in word or deed, it all be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through Him.” (Col 3:17)

Grant the Christian students wisdom and boldness in living out their faith. Help them share effectively with their classmates the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, first by living and loving as Jesus did, and secondly with their words. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Lord, release truth in this school. Help students to rightly discern truth and not believe any false teachings. (Proverbs 23:23)

Lord, fill the students’ lives with trusted teachers and advisers who can lead them toward you and your promises. Help them turn to you as they learn and grow so they can lead fruitful and prosperous lives. May your grace be sufficient for every challenge they face.

Amen.

PARENTS

We ask for your favor on all parents as they work to keep you and your commands at the forefront of their family despite all the pressures of this world. We pray they will take an active role in their children’s Spiritual lives, protecting time for weekly worship and putting you at the center or their homes. We pray for parents to be encouragers of their children by word and example.

We ask that you would grant good working relationships between the parents and teachers, showing mutual respect and support for one another. (Ephesians 6:4)

We lift all parents up to you now and remind them that you are parenting alongside them—teaching, training and equipping them to handle every situation so long as they keep you at the center of their lives. They are never alone – they need only to speak your name and you will provide for them. We ask all this in your Holy and precious name.

Amen.

TEACHERS

Almighty God, we come to you today and give thanks for all of our teachers. Thank you for the way in which they give of themselves each day in the classroom, serving and instructing the next generation.

Father, please fill their hearts with courage by your mighty Spirit. Fill them with your strength, so they may rise to every challenge and not grow weary. Fill them with your wisdom, so they may be able to make good judgement when guiding and helping others. Fill them with your peace, so that when stress and anxiety come, they would not be overwhelmed. Fill them with your joy, so that the passion they have for their subject may become an infectious passion that spreads.

Father, please give the teachers your divine wisdom. Show them when they must discipline and when they can show mercy. Remind them that grace is typically most needed when it is least deserved. And above all, may they love and care for each student they teach. Show them how to serve as Christ serves, give as Christ gives, love as Christ loves.

We ask all this in the wonderful name of Jesus.  Amen.

PRINCIPAL, FACULTY & STAFF

Father, we thank you for the staff members of our schools who show our students what it means to lead with a servant’s heart. We pray for your protection and blessing over them. We ask that you would show them daily what an important role they play in our schools, often times working behind the scenes to create an environment where our children’s minds and hearts are open to learning and growing.

We specifically pray for anyone who is transporting our students, providing nourishment to our students, providing clean facilities, or caring for our students in a variety of other ways. We ask that you would pour your blessings over them as they create an environment where learning is possible and comfortable.

We also pray that the Principal & leaders will recognize the God-given responsibility they have in overseeing the best interests of our students, teachers and staff. May they walk in wisdom, integrity, grace, and truth. May they lean on you for wisdom and discernment in every decision they make, knowing that you and your ways are always good and you always work for the good of all your people. We pray for your protection over them and that you would be the governor of all the choices they make in school and outside of school. We pray for protection and favor over their families, and that their service would be appreciated and respected throughout the community. (Proverbs 2:1-11)

We ask all of this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

ADMINISTRATION / SCHOOL BOARD

Father, we lift up those who serve as part of our district administration and impact the operations of our entire school district. We pray for your guidance and direction to fill their days. We ask that they would not be overwhelmed with the tasks before them, but that they would be energized and impassioned by the lives they are impacting each and every day. We pray they would feel encouraged and supported by us, and that they would commit all they do to the Lord so their plans will succeed. (Proverbs 16:3)

We pray blessings on each school board member. Father, may your will be done at board meetings. May they work together for the good of their schools and community, and may they be filled with your wisdom, discernment, grace and guidance. May they have open minds and hearts to listen to one another and the needs of this school system, and may they lean on you for every decision they make. (Romans 13:1)

In your Holy name we pray.  Amen.

BLESSING OF EXTERIOR DOORS

Lord, we commit this school to you. Cover this school with the protection only you can give and keep harm far away. We ask that you post one of your angels at this door so evil cannot enter, and all who pass through this door will encounter your Holy Spirit. Amen.

PRAYER OVER OUR COMMUNITY

Father we seek your favor on our community. Thank you, Father, that you will bring abundant peace, security and healing to our community. We ask you to shine your light into homes and restore families to wholeness. Lord, place a hedge of protection around the children and their families. Protect them from evil and command your angels to guard them in all their ways. Reign over our community with your righteousness and your goodness. May you be glorified this school year as never before. Amen.

Categories : Prayer, Public Prayer
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