Sunday, January 2, 2011

Passing Fancies

Everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2.16-17)

Navigating the New Reality

We stopped going out on New Year’s Eve long ago, opting to spend the evening at home, just the two of us, enjoying a few sips of Champagne and the fireworks over Lake Michigan from the warmth of our living room. Typically our house fills up with friends on New Year’s Day, when we host a traditional seafood dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. This year, we skipped that too, since I’m traveling for work today. So it’s been uncommonly quiet around here—a blessing at any time of year. Among the things we’ve managed to avoid are questions about New Year’s resolutions. When asked, I seldom know what to say and make something up on the spot. The custom strikes me as a hollow pretense with its suggestion that flipping the calendar to another year is a legitimate reason for turning over new leaves. If we’re aware of things we need to change before the year begins, why wait until January 1? Life is a living thing, a constant effort whose focus should center on progress and improvement. Daily diligence is required to reevaluate our habits, attitudes, and motives in order to maintain continual growth. Some days—hopefully most of them—are easy. And then there are also hard days, when we’re caught up short. We realize what we’ve been doing may have worked in our favor so far, but having reached this place in our lives, it no longer works. So we regroup and reset our sites on navigating the new reality before us.

Education is a good example of this. For most of us, our first two decades steadily build toward one objective: a college degree. We invest years preparing to qualify for acceptance into a good school. Once we’re in, we work hard to meet its demands to graduate in good standing. The fabled degree that seemed all-important all of our young lives decreases in value after the real business of living begins, however. At best, it proves instrumental in landing a first job. But after we’re employed, talent and professionalism determine what we accomplish. The status we expected from our degrees and the schools that granted them becomes secondary to what we do with the knowledge acquired in our studies. Gradually, we let that illusion go and replace it with another—namely, the workplace is a land of equal opportunity. When we discover that’s not always true, we replace it with a new illusion about office politicking to position ourselves for recognition and rewards we believe we deserve. Another illusion follows that one, and on it goes until we’re reconciled that much of what we’re told about life and expect from it is illusory and, therefore, undependable. That’s the point John makes so emphatically in his first epistle.

The Book of Love

First John is perhaps best described as the book of love. It’s a letter intended for circulation among first-century churches, reminding readers that love is the driving force of Christian faith. John looks at love from all angles: God’s love for us, our love for God, love’s power over fear, its importance as the litmus test for doctrine and discipleship, and so on. After opening the letter with a firm exhortation to resist sin and dark influences, John transitions into his main theme by telling us what not to love: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2.15) It sounds fairly basic at first. But when we really think about it, we’re prone to wonder what he’s actually saying. Surely he’s not advocating full-on asceticism here—dispensing with all earthly possessions and relationships to make room for God. How would such a teaching be practical or even possible? Evidently sensing how easily we might jump to that conclusion, John explains what he means and his reasoning behind it.

“Everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever,” he writes in verses 16 and 17. He acknowledges we're naturally vulnerable to passing fancies—be they dreams, compulsions, or ambitions. Such longings aren’t sustainable, John says, because they’re based on self-gratifying emotions like lust and pride. Loving the world or anything in the world ends badly by having little or nothing at all to do with love. It’s about getting, not giving. It doesn’t satisfy our innate craving for love’s lasting presence and pleasures. As each of us no doubt has learned by sorry experience, pinning hopes for meaningful existence on physical, visual, or material cravings never works out. But love, though often tested, never fails, because God is love. If what we’re drawn to—relationships, status, or possessions—appeals only to our desire to have it, rather than our desire to express love through it, we can guarantee it will soon be replaced by another desire that launches another chase after a new illusion. That’s the way of the world.

Things Eternal

I grew up with two hymns that gain meaning for me by the year. The first says, “Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.” The second insists, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Both summarize John’s wisdom. A life spent on passing fancies is a life wasted. In its extreme, it becomes a life without and unable to give love. It’s a fickle existence absent of God’s sustaining presence and the pleasures we reap by pleasing God.

As we ponder John’s message, suppose we use the New Year’s resolution in a way that surpasses breaking habits or adjusting attitudes. Suppose we resolve to evaluate everything we do for its lasting value. Passing fancies can be fun and harmless, provided we’re aware of how little they provide. They’re too flimsy to build on. What we accomplish by acting upon them isn’t guaranteed to last. They’re not worth much time and energy. We build our hopes on things eternal. We love as Christ commands us, because love lasts. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

Basing our lives on passing fancies is like proverbial sandcastle building. What we do won’t last.


Sherry Peyton said...

I too don't bother with resolutions. I find then contrived and not often useful. I so like your idea of trying to find lasting value in everything. Trouble is Tim, help me here. I'm having trouble finding lasting value in the bathroom cleaning. It never lasts! lol...Seriously I love the idea, and think it most worthwhile to ponder upon for a lazy afternoon.

kkryno said...

If there's one thing that I have finally gotten through my somewhat thick noggin, it's that Love is the only thing that matters.


Jan said...

Thanks, Tim. "Daily diligence" is a good phrase. A friend told me to take a "word" for the coming year, instead of resolutions. I haven't chosen that yet. . . .

Tim said...

Thanks everyone! I'm responding quickly because I'm in the middle of work--but all of your comments are spot-on!

When things slow down, I'll be able to respond to each one. Thanks so much for your thoughts!


Philomena Ewing said...

Yes, the making of resolutions is not fot me - I know some people benefit from making lists, ticking boxes, to do lists so if it works for them fine but there is something in my make up that works counter to this way of going about things. It is a gut reaction but also because I don't believe life can be planned like this - something to do with too many straight lines- as the saying goes, not everone who wanders is lost !! Does this make sense ?
I hope ou are not working too hard !!

Tim said...

I'm back at my desk with time to let everyone's comments sink in--and it's so nice to have this moment!

Sherry, I've chuckled several times at your observation about cleaning's lasting value. Yet it occurs to me some things have cumulative lasting value, don't they? The little bit we do to offset continued worsening of our circumstances--just keeping in front of things--is just as important as settling things once and for all. Would you agree? (I guess I speak as someone who's notorious for letting annoying tasks go until they become crises...)

Vikki, you've said it. Love is the one thing that matters; making sure that we make love happen is what gives our work/lives lasting value!

Jan, yes, "daily diligence"--at times a real pain in the neck, keeping up with ourselves; but always a reward in the end. (This is an extension of Sherry's observation, I think.)

Phil, not everyone who wanders is lost!. Wow. How true. I'm convinced much of our wandering is basically our search for lasting value, for locating that place in us where our choices and habits make a difference for us and, thus, those around us.

May we all wander boldly ahead, resolved to do what is pleasing to our Maker, for the good of all!

Thank you all for you patience and insight. You bless me greatly!


Tim said...

PS: Jan, the picture of the new grandbaby! How lovely!!! Congratulations!

genevieve said...

Happy New Year, Tim. I set goals then work on them. I have always enjoyed the process more because I come away with ideas and experiences totally new to me.

The recent developments in the economy has shattered many myths and fallacies about the important of material things. I pray that more people will turn to the Lord for guidance, direction, comfort and inner peace.

Tim said...

Happy New Year, Gen! Your comment about enjoying the process could not be more timely. We just walked in the door from the opening night performance of Walt's first job as a working actor. (It was grand, too.) I asked how he was feeling. Though he was pleased with how well it went, he said he didn't get the charge of excitement he expected after the curtain call. And before opening your comment, we agreed with you: the joy comes in the work--the discoveries and lessons that will stay with you always--while the satisfaction rests in the accomplishment. Both are lasting, but as you so wonderfully point out, they're different.

I likewise agree that the challenges and demands of our new economic reality can serve us good if we allow ourselves to be taught. When we learn that everything in the world is subject to rapid and radical change, we'll grasp why it's so essential to hold to God's unchanging hand.

As always, it's a true delight to hear your thoughts. They never fail to enrich the posts.

With love and hope for a prosperous year of continued growth,