Saturday, June 20, 2009

Repost: Giving and Gathering

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them.

Ecclesiastes 3.1, 5

The Redistribution Principle

In a time when redistribution of wealth has become an unexpected hot button, it’s good to revisit Jesus’s teaching of the principle. Its opponents try to scare us off with complicated economic and political theory, but it’s fairly rudimentary. “Give, and it will be given to you,” Jesus said. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6.38)

Sharing wealth creates wealth. This holds true with everything we give—money, time, tolerance, good will, and so forth. As Jesus instructed, how much we give determines how much comes back. Some pulpit charlatans have exploited this concept all the way to the bank, promising outlandish profits on modest, one-time gifts. But Christ’s redistribution principle isn’t a Ponzi scheme—it’s a cycle. Giving lets us gather, gathering lets us give. Jesus tells His disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give.” While practicing the principle yields substantial dividends, its operative factor isn’t ROI. It’s IOR—investment of returns.

Risks and Shelters

Financial gurus categorize investments as risks or shelters, counseling clients to weigh what they have now against what they desire in the long run. If they can afford temporary exposure, advisors recommend riskier investments with higher earning potential. If investors need stability, they’re advised to shelter their holdings in safer, less profitable ventures. Timing is everything—knowing when to buy and sell, when to take chances and when to take cover. This is literally what Solomon means by scattering stones and gathering them. At times our lives are so full and secure, we can afford to tear our house apart and give big chunks of it to those worse off than we. We can expose ourselves to risk. At other times, our coffers run low and storms rage. We need safe shelter. We gather stones to build security until our lives are replenished and the storms pass.

Gatherer’s Guilt

Paul ended his last sermon at Ephesus with this: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35) We’ve taken that quote (which, by the way, was off the record) and run away with it. And while its words remain intact, it’s gained new meaning over time. In Paul’s day, “blessed” meant “happy” or “pleased,” rather than current usage, which implies divine favor. Paul didn’t say God likes givers better than when receivers. He said we should take greater pleasure in giving than getting.

Misguided embrace of Paul’s quote spawns resistance to expressing our needs. We prefer going without to feeling ashamed and beholden to others when time comes to receive. But gatherer’s guilt is nonsense. First, it reveals ridiculous pride in us. Do we really think not asking for or refusing help convinces people we’re completely self-sufficient and invincible? They know we’re not, because they’re not. Second, it squanders energy and resources we should be gathering for shelter from what got us in trouble to begin with. And third, how can others give if we can’t receive? Denying our needs denies their opportunity. It’s horribly selfish. Why we go from giving times to gathering times actually has nothing to do with us. They’re just parts of the same redistribution cycle that we all travel. Giving makes us happier, not holier. Gathering makes us stronger, not weaker. Both are responsibilities we can’t forsake—for others’ benefit as well as our own.

Giving and gathering complete the cycle of Christ’s redistribution principle.

(Tomorrow: Holding On and Holding Off)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Repost: Regretting and Rejoicing

A time to mourn and a time to dance…

Ecclesiastes 3.4

Lost Love

Separation and sadness are traveling companions. When people we love leave us, the void left by their absence fills with melancholy and regret. The joy, peace, and contentment they provided are replaced by sorrow, anxiety, and insecurity. The best memories—the ones we cherish—give rise to remorse for not making more of them or fully appreciating those we had. The starkest example, obviously, is the death of a beloved partner, relative, or friend. But separations come in all shapes and sizes—break-ups, relocations, temporary leaves, and even goodbyes after an hour spent with someone we love. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Juliet told Romeo following their first tryst. It’s the most compactly comprehensive description we have of what grieving lost love feels like.

Preventable Sorrow

The only feeling worse than mourning is sensing we could have prevented it. John 11 finds Jesus in this situation. Mary and Martha, sisters of His friend, Lazarus, send word he’s dying. Instead of rushing to Lazarus’s bedside, Jesus stays put for two days. He tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead, but He plans to restore His life. When He finally arrives, Mary says, “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Her grief, and that of Lazarus’s friends, troubles Him. Verse 35 simply states, “Jesus wept.”

It’s a poignant, emotionally raw moment for Jesus, yet its personal intensity doesn’t spare Him from the scrutiny of Mary and Martha’s neighbors. Some are impressed by the love His tears convey. But others criticize Him, saying, “If He can heal the blind, why couldn’t He prevent Lazarus’s death?” It’s an unfortunate situation, making us wonder why Jesus weeps. It isn’t for Lazarus, because He knows His friend will live again. The best reason seems to be regret over not having come sooner, for not having prevented the sorrow of Lazarus’s loss.

Dancing Fools

Most everyone knows the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who defined the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Solomon goes beyond “acceptance” to remind us mourning gives way to dancing. Or, as his father, David, wrote: “Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30.5) Regretting lost loves and preventable sorrow has its time and purpose. But as we experience grief, we remember it’s a process not meant to become a preoccupation. We’re created for rejoicing, to celebrate God’s love and acceptance. On the dance floor, we may epitomize left-footed oxen. But in our hearts, we’re dancing fools born to show the world we’re light on our feet, eager to move after times of sorrow pass.

Mourning times aren’t made to last. Dancing times are.

(Tomorrow: Giving and Gathering)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Repost: Lamenting and Laughing

A time to weep and a time to laugh…

            Ecclesiastes 3.4


How is it that we can toss off some things like water under the bridge and others make us want to throw ourselves off the bridge? Do we know for certain which mistakes should be laughed at and which should cause us to weep sorrowfully? Are we confident we can discern trivial slips from serious sins? In fact, are we actually capable or qualified to evaluate the scale and consequences of any mistake we make, intentional or accidental? Here’s the reality of it: the gravity of our mistakes is measured in the eyes of their beholders. It’s not ours to say which are laughable and which are lamentable. Even when our intentions seem innocuous—a good-natured rib about someone’s taste, for example—he/she may view it as a searing personal attack, the latest in a lifelong series of battering insults. On the other hand, we may underestimate another’s self-assurance, and condemn ourselves for a slight that, from their perspective, holds no importance. Before we rashly decide on our own which bridge to take—the lamenting bridge or the laughing bridge—we should sensitize ourselves to the response and signals of others. They’ll tell us what time it is.

The Art of Listening

“My dear brothers, take note of this,” James 1.19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” adding in verse 26, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” The art of listening is the believer’s finest skill. It places others’ feelings and opinions first, thereby fulfilling Christ’s law to love our neighbors as ourselves. It validates their importance not only to us, but also to the world at large. When we gloss over how others react to things we do and say by rushing to explain ourselves, we minimize their sense of personal value. This is always lamentable, regardless of how laughable our original misstep was.

James insists, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3.5) Miscalculating the impact of what we say from our perspective instead of those we speak to is one of the surest ways to turn laughing moments into weeping times, some of which can last for years. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon on both sides. We’ve all seen random sparks escalate into raging fires that leave wide gulfs of scorched earth between people. Knowing this potential exists keeps us alert to discipline our tongues from shooting off sparks.

Living Words

As children, we countered nasty insults with a smug little proverb: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a load that is! The wounding pain of words hangs on long after physical injuries mend. Here’s why: our words are eternal. They’re propelled and borne by our breath—the very same breath God used to inspire our beings and set us apart from all other creation. Once they’re released, they assume lives of their own. They can’t be taken back. They can’t be controlled. Where they travel and whom they reach can’t be managed. We speak living words that can’t die because they’re driven by God’s power.

We can never speak for God, but we must always be aware we speak like Him. Knowing this, we strive to see everyone we meet as He does—unique reflections of His love, power, and majesty. In other words, we address one another with profound awe and respect, considering another's' pleasure and wellbeing above our own. And when we discipline ourselves to communicate His principles and nature—in word and deed—we create times to laugh. Indulging selfishness and pride increases the frequency of times we weep.

The wisdom with which we control what we say determines if our words are lamentable or laughable.

(Tomorrow: Regretting and Rejoicing)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Repost: Bulldozing and Building

A time to tear down and a time to build…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.3

Wall Power

Genesis teaches God creates beings, each of them equal, equally innocent and worthy of His name. From there, He gives us the reins and a second creative process begins. His objectives focus on the eternal; ours fixate on the temporal—on values that promote longevity. We create personalities, survival strategies that reject equality, spoil innocence, and deny those unlike us any claim to God’s promise. We forge coalitions of personalities with similar survival strategies. Together, we build walls to stymie the progress of any who contradict or threaten our way of life. Instead of relying on our beings’ willpower to please God, we reinforce our personalities’ wall power to accomplish what most pleases us.

Demolishing Strongholds

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10.4-5: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Paul addresses our conflicts rather than the War on Evil that should unite us. He arms us with divine power to tear down walls constructed by anyone’s audacity to claim knowing what God knows. He identifies our power in Ephesians 2.14: “[Christ] is our peace… and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” When bulldozing time comes, we lay aside our personal preference for battering rams and wrecking balls and take on the peaceful nature of Jesus. With no confrontation needed, the engagement seems unexciting and non-dramatic. But its results are always spectacular.

Constructive Subversion

Divine power to demolish walls of injustice and ignorance has great appeal—particularly for those with subversive streaks. But if we devote all of our time to undoing others’ work, none is left for our work. While we destroy divisions created by some, God authorizes us to build faith in others. As with peaceful demolition, it’s counterintuitive. We build their strength by owning our weakness. “We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13.9, conceding his readers are better versed than he. Yet in the next verse, he stands firm, citing “the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.” This is constructive subversion at its highest.

Absolutely, we must speak divine power to walls. “Shout it aloud, do not hold back,” Isaiah 58.1 says. “Declare to my people their rebellion.” But times also come to inspire others to follow Jesus with us, building their courage to demolish their own walls of fear and arrogance. “There are times for bulldozing,” Solomon writes, “and times for building.” One without the other is a job half-done.

Sometimes we serve others by tearing down walls that unjustly limit them; at other times, we build their faith to destroy their walls themselves. 

(Tomorrow: Lamenting and Laughing)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Repost: Halting and Healing

A time to kill and a time to heal…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.3

Effective Therapy

Right after Solomon sets up his positive-negative polarities in Ecclesiastes 3.2 (born/die and plant/uproot), he flips to negative-positive in verse 3 (kill/heal and tear down/build). This can’t be a stylistic lapse—it comes too soon in a piece that indubitably demanded a great deal of thought. Thus, our consideration of his words should begin with wondering why he reverses direction. The inequities in his choice of words—“kill” vs. “hurt” and “heal” vs. “revive”—offer some indication of what he intends us to see. They lead us to think in medical terms, which we do more easily now than Solomon or his first readers did then. Given how poorly ancients understood disease, Solomon’s prescience is flat-out astonishing.

We have two options once disease enters our bodies. We introduce aggressive agents to kill it (antibiotics and chemotherapy) or we counteract it with treatments (vitamins, steroids, and chicken soup) to promote health while the illness dies on its own. Effective therapy begins by diagnosing what causes our illness. Microbes and cancers must be destroyed; viruses and colds must be survived. Despite his lack of scientific savvy, it’s possible this is what Solomon means. If so, his reversal makes total sense. Halting disease is our first line of defense, he says. If it’s immune to our regimen, attention then turns to healing.

Spiritual Diagnostics

As we journey through life’s seasons, we can’t avoid exposure to spiritual and emotional disease. While disciplined prayer and study are vital to build up resistance to new sicknesses we encounter, the sad fact is they don’t shield us from germs acquired before we decided to follow Christ. Destructive habits, compromised values, careless attitudes, and painful memories abide, leaving us vulnerable to disease. They need to be identified and treated. To discover how best to get rid of them, we run a panel of spiritual diagnostics.

It starts with evaluating issues that chronically weaken our spiritual health and growth. This first test can be extremely uncomfortable, because it requires total self-honesty and humility. What carries over from our past to make us sick? Are we harboring fears, desires, and prejudices that routinely emerge in stressful moments? Just as a lab technician spins down a specimen, we work back through our lives to isolate the culprit. Is it something we were taught? Is it cruelty we suffered? Is it a fantasy we conjured and still entertain? Such introspection is seldom easy or pleasant, yet it’s essential to our wellbeing. “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place,” David tells God in Psalm 51.6. If we’re not completely truthful with ourselves, we’ll never receive wisdom to properly address diseases lurking in our inner beings.

Choosing a Treatment Plan

Psalm 51 provides a good idea of what a spiritual treatment plan looks like. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean,” David says in verse 7. Hyssop is a medicinal plant used in Biblical times as a purgative. It killed impurities that caused disease. Then, in verse 12, he says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” This is healing. Isolating the source of our symptoms enables us to choose a treatment plan based on Solomon’s kill/heal option. It sounds trickier than it really is. Most of the time, this exercise simply reveals what we’ve known or suspected all along. We know what conditions must be halted; we know what conditions must be healed. The time for both comes before germs escalate into full-blown disease that drains our spirit and cripples our capabilities to please God.

We examine our lives closely to determine which conditions must be halted and which can be healed. 

(Tomorrow: Bulldozing and Building)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Repost: Planting and Plucking

A time to plant and a time to uproot…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.2 

The Anonymous Gardener

There’s a small traffic island around the corner from us, probably no bigger than five square feet. I’m told the city pays a stipend to an elderly neighbor who gardens it. Although I’ve yet to meet him/her, I make a point of walking by every few days to look at what’s been done. It’s never the same. Its changes flawlessly respect seasonal conditions. Spring blooms are planted in late winter and just as the weather gets too warm to sustain their beauty, they’re pulled out for more suitable plants. As the days shorten, bright summer flowers disappear, followed by muted autumnal ones. Heartier shrubs arrive for the coldest, most hostile months. The gardener ornaments their dullness with festive lights and colorful glass bulbs. While the casual passer-by admires the tiny garden’s loveliness as it is, we who see it often find its evolution inspiring. The anonymous gardener’s commitment, care, and skill are regularly discussed, with someone never failing to add, “That little plot of land speaks volumes about our city!”

How Does Our Garden Grow?

It’s easy to impress strangers with our faith. But people we hold nearest, those we encounter regularly, observe our process as critically as what it produces. They note our seasonal shifts and how we groom our lives in response. This is true, of course, for everyone. As followers of Jesus, however, we have an extra obligation. Our productivity—the beauty derived from consistently planting and plucking, uprooting dried-up ideas so new ones can thrive—reveals more than adept life skills. It speaks volumes about our Savior. So it’s not a bad idea to ask, “How does our garden grow? Do others witness how we nurture our faith?”

Plant Ahead

Four attributes distinguish real gardeners from wannabes: enthusiasm, patience, experience, and vision. The best gardeners relish the opportunity to brave chilly air and dig up fallow ground to plant ahead. It’s hard work, but they stay at it, waiting patiently for their work’s reward. They apply everything they’ve learned to what they do now. The more they know, the bigger, more creative, and more confident their vision becomes for future possibilities.

In Romans 5.3-4, Paul outlines spiritual growth along similar lines. “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance,” He says. We weather cold, hostile atmospheres to break through hard ground so love and forgiveness can flourish. It’s not easy to plant ahead, but we persevere. Perseverance produces character—it develops our knowledge and skills. And character begets hope. Our vision expands; our sense of potential heightens.

How clearly others observe Christ’s power in us depends on how well we cultivate new challenges—deepening our roots in God’s Word, branching out in wider directions, and vividly displaying God’s splendor of love and acceptance. We uproot exhausted ideas and behaviors occupying space we can put to better use. Cursory reading of Solomon’s planting/plucking contrast suggests sowing and reaping. But our seasons don’t track with nature. They change constantly, placing our lives in perpetual flux that requires diligent care. Because of this, the time to plant and the time to pluck are often one and the same.

Cultivating character sometimes calls for planting and uprooting at the same time.

(Tomorrow: Halting and Healing)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Repost: Coming and Going

A time to be born and a time to die…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.2

For Our Time

There can be no doubt we’re born for our time. The Bible repeatedly proves this. Its pages are filled with pre-natal prophecies that forecast births in detail, including who the child will be, his name, his personal attributes, and how God intends to use him. Solomon, the Ecclesiastes writer, is a perfect example. Before his conception, God speaks to David: “You will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest… His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign.” (1 Chronicles 22.9) When He says this, Israel has struggled for years under relentless enemy attacks. “I plan to restore the nation’s tranquility,” God tells David, “and I’m sending your son to make it happen. I’ll place traits in his being so he’ll accomplish what I want him to do.”

It’s tempting to think of Solomon, and Isaac, Jesus, and other predicted Bible babies as special cases. This feeds the notion they were born for greater responsibilities and higher purposes than the rest of us. Yet could it be that Scripture singles them out as examples, rather than exceptions? Could their stories start before birth to explain we all come into the world for a specific time and purpose? There’s a time to be born, Solomon says. Our birthdays gain significance when we regard them as exquisitely timed to achieve God’s plan. Nothing about us is coincidental—when we arrived, where we were placed, the gender, ethnicity, orientation, and disposition we brought into the world—nothing. God started something the moment you were born. He equipped you, and only you, to complete what He started.

The Big Appointment

While drifting off to sleep a few years ago, I was hit with the realization I will die. Obviously, I knew it all ends eventually. This went deeper than knowledge, though. It was closer to a dormant instinct that awoke for no reason other than it was time for me to realize death was coming—or I was headed toward it. It’s hard to describe the odd sensation of mortality unexpectedly overtaking you. It didn’t frighten me. Like all believers, I echo Paul’s sentiment that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5.8) But suddenly keen awareness that my days are numbered made me, well, uneasy. Before pulling back the covers, I had all the time in the world. Moments later, I knew differently.

“Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? Are not his days also like the days of an hireling?” asks Job 7.1. It may not make us happy, but it’s essential to remember our lives carry an expiration date. There’s a time to die. Before we sink into depression because our days our limited, however, we should also remember our potential is not. Jesus said, “I chose you and appointed you to and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” (John 15.16) Instead of dreading death as an unavoidable appointment, we devote our time and energy to living productively. We bear fruit that lasts long after we leave the scene. That’s the calling we were born to answer, the work we were sent to do. “I chose you. I appointed you.” That’s the Big Appointment we want to keep.

Moses prayed, “Teach us to number our days… establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90.12, 17) God ordains birth and death according to His plan for every person He creates. They’re His bookends for our lives. We create the stories that stand between them. Knowing this compels us to make the most of every numbered day.

Knowing we’re born with an expiration date drives us to make the most of every numbered day.

(Tomorrow: Planting and Plucking)