Ecclesiastes and Pretzels

Grisham, Hemingway, Melville, U2, The Byrds, Dave Matthews, and debatably, Pink Floyd.  What do they all have in common?  They’ve all borrowed (stolen?) from Ecclesiastes.  Who can blame them?  What is not to love?  This is the book for our times:  from drinking to free love to despondent fatalism, it’s like the lyric sheet of our postmodern age.  And yet…

My husband Michael says every time he embarks on preaching a new sermon series through a book of the Bible, that book becomes his new favorite.  So when I gush about Ecclesiastes lately, he sorta smiles with that knowing kind of smile you reserve for the little kid who’s going on about Spiderman.  “It’s good, right?  And next month when you’re reading Ephesians, it’ll be good too.”  But oh my goodness.  I love this book.

7f741f5c86250ef4af7c7d5222865eccI have always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes, ever since writing a paper on The Sun Also Rises in college.  Hemingway was such a peacock, strutting around with his pithy declarations about the vanity of life—how could a 20-year-old English major not have a literary crush on the man?  He spoke for a jaded generation, much like my own.  How can there be meaning in a world of war and suffering?  How can our sadness and loss be redeemed?  Hemingway would probably say, it can’t.  And yet…

You gotta love a book that grapples (in the place of justice, even there was wickedness—3:16), a book that doesn’t pull punches (all things are full of weariness, a man cannot utter it—1:8), a book that dives deep (In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider:  God has made the one as well as the other—7:14).  When non-Christians sneer at my Pollyanna faith, let them take a crack at Ecclesiastes.  It’s more bracing than a bottle of whisky, more honest than their “find your own truth.”

Philip Ryken says, “Ecclesiastes is not the kind of book that we keep reading until we reach the end and get the answer, like a mystery.  Instead, it is a book in which we keep struggling with the problems of life and, as we struggle, we learn to trust God with the answers even when we do not have all the answers.”  Like the difference between art and propaganda, Ecclesiastes has no problem leaving you with your mouth ajar.  It presents a puzzle to be solved, a question to be considered.  It is not easy.  And yet…

I love Ecclesiastes, because it is a book of joy.  It is a book which lets you fall down the rabbit hole of our culture’s hollow promises and see them for what they are—empty.  Then, just when you’re starting to feel serious vertigo, it lands you on solid ground—real truth and beauty.  Like Bunyan’s Christian crying out to Hopeful as they cross the river into Heaven, Ecclesiastes says, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

You won’t find any answers in pleasure, treasure, philosophy, or toil.  Just ask Tom Brady.  Ask Jack from 30 Rock, or John D. Rockefeller, or anyone who’s ever won the lottery.  Hang out in a nursing home, and ask the residents what mattered most.  And then ask Ecclesiastes.  Bring your doubts, your fears, your losses, your dreams.  As Derek Kidner put it, “in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”

What is mortal is never enough for a person with the capacity for everlasting joy.

Ecclesiastes is like the pretzels freely given at a bar to make its patrons thirsty.  If you aren’t thirsty yet, a few verses in?  You will be.

Do you remember that scene from The Hobbit—when Bilbo and pals were lost and woozy from the suffocating air of a cursed forest?  Bilbo groggily climbed a tree—up and up until he broke out above the canopy and sucked in fresh air with a gasp.  His head cleared; he spotted in the distance their destination; and suddenly he understood what to do.  Sometimes you have to get a better vantage point to see the big picture.  As I said in Thirty Thousand Days, “In all the days of our earth-bound lives, there is only one thing essential to the journey, one thing which is the solution to all our woes, one thing capable of bringing light, clarity, joy, purpose or meaning into our existence. God alone is not bound to the sour sadness of the fall. He is above, beyond, and outside this sin-sick planet, not stuck ‘under the sun’ with us.”

I am so thirsty.  You?

Adventures of Some Crazy People

I suppose it probably surprised some people when we loaded up our entire family and brought them along for Michael’s D-Min cohort that first time.  Shoot, it surprised me.  I mean, really?  Bring three elementary school kids to Georgia for 10 days for a grad school intensive?  Who does that?  I suppose it surprised still more people when we brought them on our sabbatical, dragging them, their Legos, and approximately 10,000 pounds of school books from Colorado cabin to Massachusetts cottage — and that’s right, back to Gordon Conwell for more grad school.  In the past few years, our children have listened in on more doctoral history lectures than most of their friends’ parents combined.  We joked that they were Gordon Conwell’s new mascots.  Dr. Rosell has bought them ice cream half a dozen times; they think he’s the dairy fairy.

We went on to bring them to a third cohort, back for Michael’s graduation, and to teach at a Colorado Bible school twice.  They’ve romped the Atlantic coast from Maine to St. Simon’s Island as their dad studied his way through 400 years of church history, and snapped selfies with elk in the background while he taught it.  This week we’re taking them to a conference outside of Chicago.  It’ll be scholars, pastors, college students, and our kids.  They’re used to it.

One great thing about our gypsy existence is that our kiddos have seen the country — almost all points east of us we’ve thoroughly explored.  (We haven’t turned our attention west yet, but I’m sure one day we will.)  They have adventurous spirits, don’t mind traveling for long hours, and have sampled everything from alligator to elk to grits along the way.  Hopefully they will remember how to check for bed bugs in cheap hotels.  When we couldn’t afford to fly, we drove.  Sometimes we camped our way cross-country.  I love that we can incorporate our studies into real-life places, real world geography.  Our kids have seen the first slave-built church in Savannah, Georgia and the Underground Railroad quarters hidden beneath.  They’ve stood in front of the house where George Whitefield died and explored the landing place of the Wesley brothers in Georgia.  They’ve strolled the campuses of Baylor and Vanderbilt.  I love it.  This next week we’ll get to show them around one of the premier Christian colleges in the world and hopefully pass on a vision for all that college can be.

But another perk is the kids’ assumption that intellectual engagement with our faith is expected, and is not reserved for boring grown-ups.  I love that they have heard great speakers and sung along with all ages.  I love that they continue to meet and develop respect for people from all different denominations and backgrounds.  We may attend a Baptist church, but our friends are Presbyterian, Charismatic, Congregational.  The world is much bigger than our bubble, and I love that our kids have seen that.

What if “take your daughter to work day” was more like “take your children everywhere year”?  What if those designated grown-up activities were expanded just a bit to include the small fry?  What if discipling our kids meant letting them see us dive into our vocations,  letting them see our faith hit the road?  For our own family, it’s been a trip.  Like, literally.

The conference next week is held at College Church of Wheaton, and features Ajith Fernando, Bryan Loritts, Phil Ryken, Josh Moody, and the Gettys.  Even on that one panel is a wide swath of the human experience.  Love it.  If you’re in the area…  new-sola

Sola Gratia

It is a beautiful phrase, rolls over the tongue like a dessert at Macaroni Grill:  sola gratia.  By grace alone we are saved, undeserving sinners though we are.  By the kindness of God, by the compassion of Jesus.  Grace is our highest doctrine, our most precious inheritance.  For 500 years we have repeated, sola gratia.  And still, we stray.

It’s a very human problem to struggle with grace.  Consider Jesus’ favorite critics, the Pharisees.  More than any other group, those guys got an earful from Jesus.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger,” Jesus lamented in Matthew 23.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

“They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”

“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

camel-05The Pharisees’ main problem was a problem of grace — receiving it or extending it.  Surely by their diligent effort and hard work they had earned the glowing “well done!” of God, and as His representatives on earth, could advise, discipline, and judge others.  They were the doctrine police, and qualified for the job.  Down to the tiniest speck in someone’s eye they could sniff out sin — or, in Jesus’ case, well, they couldn’t call it sin, exactly.  Rule breaking?  Unorthodoxy?  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The evangelical landscape right now is brewing a perfect storm for Pharisees.  On one hand we have a collection of incredible minds, learned scholars, a resurgence in theological conviction even among lay people, and a beautiful commitment to our best roots — “sola gratia” among them.  On the other hand, our culture has all but abandoned truth, goodness, beauty, even decency.  We are nervous.  In the distance we see brooding clouds.  The waves rise higher; we are taking on water.  Batten down the hatches, folks, we are in for rough weather.

Conditions are perfect for us to turn on each other.  One of us defects to culture’s immoral whims?  We do not weep, we hiss.  There is a rampant tone of snarky haughtiness in the blogosphere.  Well, we think, don’t read the comments.  They aren’t representative of our spokespeople.  But aren’t they?  Where else have the commenters imbibed such un-grace?

Where are the weepers?

Tighter and tighter we draw the circle of who’s in — whose theology is tight enough?  Whose lifestyle is above reproach?  Who reads the right books and makes disparaging comments about the wrong ones?  images

Sola gratia is no dry theological exercise (is there any such thing?) We have not understood the gospel grace we’ve been given if we then deny it to others.  At bottom, grace is grace because I do not deserve it, have not earned it, could not merit it now that I’ve got it.  There is no room for smugness.

Jesus Himself modeled for us both lavish grace and impeccable truth.  He did not sacrifice one for the other, but upheld the unwavering, holy Word of God and spoke it boldly, with grace.  He didn’t gossip or mock or belittle people, even when they miserably failed or publicly mis-spoke.  He never gave up on Peter or the Sons of Thunder, even when He must have sighed.

Truth isn’t a stick to beat someone with.  Truth is a person who laid down His life for His ordinary, imperfect friends.

When our friends return from the latest “Christian movie” spouting questionable theology, it is possible to examine those ideas gently.  We can imitate the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  (Acts 17:11)  When our neighbor enthusiastically endorses a gay evangelical blogger, we can speak the truth in love.  When we come across an article that makes us see red, we can close the laptop and pray instead of firing off an angry, graceless monologue.

We have been saved once and for all by grace alone.  What if we lived by grace alone every day?  It has happened before.  “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47)