Saturday, April 24, 2010

Living Large: Looking for More in an Age of Less (Part 1)

I've been reading from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes lately, in fact I'm been doing a sermon series on it.  Fascinating book.  Strange book.  Dark, even.  (Perfect for us Calvinist types.)

The book of Ecclesiastes is brought to you by the word Meaningless and by the concept of Futility, (“Undermining life dreams since Genesis 3”). The opening words of the book: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. And then, in case we hadn’t gotten the point: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” You get the point.

In its opening chapters the book of Ecclesiastes seems to offer very little hope, but by the time you reach the close of the book you find…well, very little hope.  We’re pretty much reminded that life is short and death is inevitable. Not the kind of passage that a guy like Joel Osteen usually dwells on.  Actually most of us who spend time in the pulpit usually clear a wide berth around this part of scripture. 

But the book of Ecclesiastes has something genuinely life-giving to offer.  It provides a healthy dose of skepticism in an age of naïveté.  It’s amazing how easily intelligent folks like ourselves can find ourselves falling for some flimsy myths about what really matters in life.   If all we follow are the ads on TV we’ll spend the better part of our lives straining after things that, while they might give us whiter teeth or better hair color, don’t really do anything to make our lives richer or more satisfying.  Ecclesiastes pushes back against all this silliness, offering a reality check. 

I find it helpful to pair the book of Ecclesiastes with something like the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew.  They make a great combination:  Ecclesiastes shows us what doesn’t really matter and the Sermon on the Mount points us towards what does.

Ecclesiastes 2 walks us through the author’s mid-life explorations.   Solomon (or whoever wrote the book from Solomon’s perspective) traces for us all the various places he’d looked in his search for something meaningful.   The chapter reads like the California experience:  food, sex, money, accomplishments, fame:  he tries it all and finds that each of these comforts leaves him with a nagging sense of emptiness.   Nothing really seems to scratch the itch.

Now most of the people who would ever bother to read Ecclesiastes would quickly agree with this assessment.  Of COURSE those kinds of things aren’t really going to satisfy, and OF COURSE only God can really meet the needs of our deepest hearts, etc. etc. etc.  We know that those are the right answers, of course.

And yet, most of us Bible-readers spend just as much energy pursuing these things as anyone else:  we want bigger TVs as much as anyone else, and we churn with many of the same sexual fantasies everyone else does, and we knock ourselves out trying to get ahead with the same fervor as the materialist down the street.  We just take a break from it all to go to church on Sunday.   OK…on most Sundays, at least.  The fact is most of us church-going folks take our upgrades just as seriously as anyone else. 

What do you think God thinks of our “pursuit of happiness”?   Some might suggest that God just scowls down on our little pleasures, like the dour couple in Grant Woods’ American Gothic.  The rest of us snicker, because surely God isn’t that Puritan, but it’s a bit of a nervous snicker as we’re not entirely convinced in the matter.

So what DOES God actually think of our pursuit of pleasure?

It’s at right about this point that our discussion usually takes a sharp right turn into questions of morality.   Is it OK to do this or drink that or watch this?   We try to figure out the rules so we can know which pleasures are all right and which we should feel guilty about.   Once we figure out the rules we go for it.

But there’s a bigger, deeper issue that lurks underneath these questions of morality.   We need to learn to ask why these pleasures are so important to us.  On the one hand, the answer is obvious.  By definition pleasures are…well, pleasurable.  If we didn’t enjoy them they wouldn’t be pleasures.

Sometimes our pleasures are merely a matter of entertainment.  “Oh..that sounds fun…”  But sometimes we pursue pleasures not simply to enjoy, but also to compensate. We can begin to feel like we need our pleasures.   We end up rummaging for pleasures like teenage boys rummaging through the fridge before dinner: “I need something…I’m starving!” 

There are telltale signs that can sometimes show when this is happening.   One sign is irritation.  When part of our world begins to collapse because we have been denied a pleasure that’s a pretty good sign that there’s more going on than mere enjoyment.  Another sign is a growing pressure to compromise scriptural standards.   When we start to feel like we have to bend the Bible’s teachings on our enjoyment of pleasures because we need food or TV or alcohol or sex—that’s also a pretty good sign that something is out of balance.

So what does God think of our pursuit of pleasure?   Here’s where the Sermon on the Mount can serve as a sequel to the book of Ecclesiastes.  The one leads to the other.

The Sermon on the Mount addresses the issue of pleasure from a completely different point of view.  Matthew 5 begins with what we know as the Beatitudes.  In Mt 5:4 we read:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Now frankly…this sounds pretty stupid.  Blessed are those who grieve, who are unhappy, because they will be happy.   (This is one of those passages that are probably important for other people to take seriously, but certainly not us.)   After all, why would you ever want to encourage someone to mourn? 
That’s a good question, actually.   Why would you?

Lurking behind passages like this is the dark reality that many of the desires that we have in life often prove to be frustrating and unsatisfying.  All too often when we get what we want we discover that that wasn’t what we had really wanted.  It might have been good, but it wasn’t it.  You’re convinced that you’re dream vacation would make all the difference in your life, but when you actually got the chance to take it you discovered that when you returned home you were still just the same old you, but with a suntan.  You couldn’t wait to get the new job or the new spouse or to start your family or send your kids out, but once those things happened you soon realized that your life still felt exactly the same as before except you were surrounded by different people.

Here’s something else:  often the more fiercely we pursue these pleasures the more disappointed we end up in the end.  Ask the college student whose week of spring break debauchery left him feeling both cheap and broke a week later.   Ask the young mom who was convinced that getting rid of the guy she married would do it, and she now wakes up each day realizing the havoc she has caused for so many people.  Ask the parent who watches his children grow and leave the house as near strangers to him, and he suddenly discovers the true cost of all those evening meetings and business trips that it took to build his career.   Often the more fiercely we pursue our pleasures the more fierce our disappointment when those delights don’t prove to be it. 

There’s a word for that kind of disappointment.  Do you know what it is?   Mourning.   Blessed are those who discover what doesn’t really satisfy, because they can then begin to find what really is it.
That’s why the Sermon on the Mount provides such a great sequel to Ecclesiastes.   If Ecclesiastes helps us discover what doesn’t satisfy, the Sermon on the Mount points us towards what really does.   Read Matthew 6:  “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth where thieves can steal and  moth and rust destroy.   Instead store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Jesus’ point is clear:  we’re going to inevitably pursue someone’s kingdom, whether our own carnal interests or His eternal cause.    But only one Kingdom will prove to be it.  

So what might this grieving look like for you?   Here are three things that I’m finding helpful:

Become a skeptic.    I’m slowly learning to be a bit cynical towards things that probably won’t satisfy in the long run.  The ads on TV that broadly hint that if I buy a certain product I’ll become popular or sexy or envied by all my friends.  The stray desires that suggest that if my car were classy enough or my home were impressive enough that then I could really enjoy things.  Ecclesiastes helps me learn to roll my eyes at some of the ads I see on TV.

Identify our underlying needs.  I may know what I want, but do I know what I really want?  I may be reaching for more of those chocolate chip cookies, but what I’m really hungering for is some comfort because I’m frightened or tired.  It may seem like I really want to upgrade my car stereo or my TV or my backyard, but what I really want is simply to feel impressive. 

Finally, I need to learn to claim good gifts from God.  God may or may not want me to upgrade my landscaping or get a bigger TV, but he does want me to feel loved, to feel important and to know that it’s good to be me.   I’m finding that I often sell him short when it comes to many of these underlying needs.
Every once in a while, though, I have these flashes of clarity where I’ll realize that the stuff I fantasize about wouldn’t really do it anyway, and it will hit me again how much I long to be filled with God’s best for me.   When that happens God grins, shows me His best, and I discover that I’ve been comforted.

Hmm...just like He said.

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