The elusive meaning of life

What is the purpose of life? Solomon figured it out in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – too late for his own good, but hopefully not for ours:

Life never stops

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:7)

If we focus our attention only on the world’s issues, we will see no redemption, no solutions, no ending point – except our own death, which we don’t want to face.

The struggles of life never end. Our friends and relatives get sick or injured. People we know die too soon. We marry and divorce, have children and raise them, work and go out on Friday nights. We give thanks and buy Christmas presents – then do it again next year.

Nothing is permanent.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s a mad, mad world

I applied my mind to know wisdom AND to know madness and folly … (1:17, emphasis mine)

How can we know wisdom AND folly? Doesn’t wisdom avoid folly? What is wisdom, if it’s not to seek the best this life (and the next) has to offer? Are madness and folly worthy pursuits? Seriously?

Madness and folly are destructive. Perhaps meaningless, perhaps worse than that. If I’m mad in this sense, I’m acting without thinking. I don’t consider consequences. Anger is the same, but I think madness in this context refers to being crazy. Bad crazy.

Folly means lack of good sense, or foolishness. How can that parallel wisdom? How can one pursue both?

This is why Solomon failed at life. He wanted to have it all. But even Adam and Eve knew better than that. When they sinned, they hid from God. Solomon flaunted his madness and folly. How can that possibly be a wise thing to do?

Gone in a moment

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

He wanted girls, he had girls. He wanted business success, he built cities. He wanted wealth, he taxed his subjects – heavily. Because he was the king, he received everything he asked for.

henry ford 9

Business success and wealth are not bad pursuits in themselves, but they aren’t the end – only the means to a different end.

Solomon never understood this. What’s the big-picture purpose of life? Money, sex, wealth … once the act is done, the pleasure ends.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why Solomon was never satisfied. He pursued things that can never satisfy. They give pleasure for a moment, and then it’s gone.

Priorities …

For everything there is a season …

A time to kill, and a time to heal …

A time to seek, and a time to lose …

A time to tear, and a time to sew …

A time for war, and a time for peace. (3:1, 3, 6, 7, 8)

What are we pursuing, anyway? Life is a series of contrasts. There is a time to kill, and a different time to heal. That takes wisdom, to know when to do which. Perhaps we need to kill our madness and folly. Perhaps wisdom provides healing from that.

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What are we to lose or tear? When are we to pursue war? When wisdom opposes folly, does that cause a fight? Do we have to choose one or the other? Do we tear ourselves away from madness, and sew our hearts into wisdom’s coat of many colors? I have friends who pursue peace at all costs. Is there a time to say, wait a minute, we need to stand up for what we believe in, even if we will suffer for it?

Madness and folly cannot produce healing or peace. We must fight madness and folly. We must kill them.

This is wisdom, too.

God creates, we discover

… (God) has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. … then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (3:11, 8:17)

Oh, here is madness defined. We play God. We think we can understand everything. We understand plenty and we discover new truths all the time, but that’s all we can do. We cannot create anything. We can only discover what already is.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Computers didn’t exist in Biblical times, you say, so mankind does create things. The technology is new, that is true; but the scientific principles on which the technology is based are not new. They’ve always been there. We invent the technology, but we do not create the science.

God created the science back in the day. All we can do is discover it.

I dream of …

Dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (5:3, 7)

What do we dream of? A nice family, a house on the lake, a fulfilling job that pays all the bills, athletic, musical or acting ability that gives us fame … To what end? We can’t take any of those things, wonderful as they are, with us into the next life.

What are we willing to sacrifice for these dreams? Are the sacrifices worth it?

Intoxication

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. … All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. (5:10, 6:7)

Appetites are for the moment. We are satisfied, but we get hungry again very quickly. If our bank account is heavy, the intoxication of wealth urges us to continue on. When we reach our goal, then what? We need a new goal. We need more.

We understand this. We know it’s true, yet we do it anyway. This is madness and folly.

True friends

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (7:5)

Will we accept rebuke from anyone? My ways are set: Don’t tell me what to do, how to think, how to live.

Go ahead, live Frank Sinatra-style: I Did It My Way. See how that goes. (Wise people have your best interests at heart, fools do not. Wise people see things you are blind to. Fools don’t care.)

Deception

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. (7:29)

Wisdom is God’s design. Madness and folly are our fault.

Nothing new

The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (12:13-14)

This is Solomon’s conclusion, but I’m not sure he believed it. He wrote it, but he didn’t live it.

The fact that he wrote Ecclesiastes is wisdom. The fact that we ignore it and are doing the same things Solomon warned us about is madness and folly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Silent majority needs to be heard

The opposite of love is not hate.

Both are strong emotions. People with either love or hate care deeply about the issue at hand.

No, the opposite of love – and hate too, for that matter – is apathy.

I … just … don’t … care.

As a holiday weekend is concluding, I’m struggling with this. Perhaps I’m feeling emotional fatigue. Especially since I’ve never learned how to express my emotions verbally.

America the divided

Am I proud to be an American?

That’s a more complicated question than it used to be.

I am free to live where I choose, worship where I choose (or not), work in a career field of my choice (assuming someone would hire me), marry whom I choose, spend my free time however I choose …

Yes, this country offers many good things.

But not all receive those things equally.

This is the message of America today.

We hold up that ideal, but we aren’t close to it. We’re closer than we were a century ago.

Or are we?

Equality an illusion

evicted 2

I just read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, which described the substandard housing situation in inner-city Milwaukee a decade ago. We on the outside think the long-term poor often choose to live that way, that if they would just get a job or education, they could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve their lives.

But that’s often not possible. The housing culture in the wonderful United States of America is designed to keep poor people poor.

evicted 5

Rents are not much cheaper in poor areas than they are in the suburbs. The federal government subsidizes low-income housing for landlords, so they charge unaffordable rents in low-income areas because they can. And when poor people get behind on rent, far too often they get evicted.

The book follows eight families who faced this. Many of them made upwards of 90 or more calls and/or visits to rental properties to find a suitable place after eviction. Eviction is like a criminal record – often landlords make it difficult for the evicted to rent again.

And if the family, often led by a single woman, has children, that’s another strike. Kids cause damage. Teens do drugs and get into trouble. Claiming this, some landlords don’t want children.

And why are neighborhoods segregated racially? Because landlords make it so. They find creative ways to refuse renting an apartment or house to a minority in a “non-minority” neighborhood.

Us outsiders don’t get it. We can’t just throw a month’s rent at one of these families and think they are good to go. The issues run far deeper than that.

Are there any solutions?

The author suggests housing vouchers, which can be used in any neighborhood.

 

By and large, both public housing residents and voucher holders pay only 30 percent of their income on rent, with government funds covering the rest.

Evicted, page 302

 

Many poor people pay 70 percent or more of their income on rent, which means they often have to decide between rent and food, or rent and the utility bill. That’s why evictions are prevalent among the severely poor.

This problem is nationwide. In 2012, one in nine occupied rental households in Cleveland were summoned to eviction court (page 296). More than 10 percent of all renters in the biggest city near here faced eviction.

Do the rest of us even notice this? Even if we do, how much do we care? Enough to change public policy to improve the lives of the poorest among us?

Compassion helps, but compassion goes only so far.

Just ask the illegal immigrants at our southern border.

Standing for … what?

Pennsylvania Daily Life

And as we celebrated our nation’s birthday, I saw this at work in the way we treat our flag. Even the flag has become a racist symbol.

What does the American flag stand for, anyway?

Does it stand for all those freedoms we like to say we have? Does it stand for the bravery of our veterans and active military service people?

What else does it stand for?

And why do some people not stand for it at all?

When I see unbridled poverty, when I see far too much violence (there was a police shooting in our city last week), when I see broken homes as the norm … can I really celebrate living in the United States these days?

Are there solutions? Or have we given up the fight, given in to apathy?

We think only of ourselves. My rights. I can live with whomever I want, drive whatever speed I want on the highway, spend my money (or other people’s money) on whatever I want …

Without thinking of consequences.

Burying our dreams

We just don’t care anymore. There’s no bigger picture.

No ideals bigger than ourselves.

What is freedom, really? What did our forefathers live and die for?

Did they live and die to create the United States we have today? Is this the best we can do?

Can we learn to get along with each other again? To overcome apathy?

We like to throw around the word “hate,” but it’s often misplaced. Sure, there’s some hate out there, but I don’t think there’s as much of it as extremists on both sides of the political aisle think there is. Most of us, rich or poor, are just trying to live our lives.

Leave us alone, we are saying. Just chill out.

Maybe I’m mistaking this for apathy. Maybe we aren’t as apathetic as I think we are.

Perhaps we do care, deep down in our hearts.

We just don’t know how to show it.

Or, more likely, we’re not allowed to show it.

We get shouted down. The “hate” word is thrown at us if we disagree. The loudest voice is often the one that gets heard in this country.

Which is why I defended the United Methodist Church this spring for standing firm – as it has for more than half a century – to its convictions regarding homosexuality. As one voice swimming against the political correctness tide, I took some flak for that, but the discussion was excellent. Thanks again to all of you who participated.

The loudest, or even the most persistent, voice is not always the right one.

Sometimes, the silent majority actually has something to say.

We care. We really do.

But does that mean anything? Can the silent majority do anything with its passions and desires in this country?

Who’s listening?

Anyone?

A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

Majoring in minor issues

My outlook on life is changing a little bit these days.

I’m much more detached when reading or watching the news. Politics, especially at the national level, doesn’t interest me much anymore.

I’d rather deal in real life.

Politics

For those of you who live and die by what the Democrats and/or Republicans do, I’m sure you won’t understand.

As a newspaper journalist for about three decades, I followed politics closely, because it sold papers.

Does it still?

Perhaps that’s one reason why what newspapers print isn’t the talk of the town anymore. Their editorial pages, as they have always done, focus on politics and not much else.

Not even government. Politics.

There’s a difference.

I rarely read any editorial page columns. They are so predictable. They say the same thing every day, using the issue of the day to promote their agenda.

Most of them these days slam President Trump. I get that.

But how many times do you have to say it?

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed to have an actual discourse leading to a summit, where they would talk about nuclear weapons, among other things.

The summit apparently fell through.

That was interesting, though.

But decades of mistrust can’t end in a few short weeks.

Maybe someday.

For the most part, the national discourse majors in minor issues.

Is kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games really an issue worth dividing the country over?

Are school shootings really about gun control, or is something deeper at work there?

Do thoughts and prayers actually work? Do they change our outlook on life?

Sex

What’s the point of the #metoo movement, actually? Is it women’s rights, or is there something bigger at work there as well?

We are a sex-crazed society. We are massively messed up, and we all know it.

Exhibit A: #metoo.

Exhibit B: The divorce rate.

Exhibit C: Sex outside of marriage, including among teens, is not only normal, it is expected.

Exhibit D: Pornography is out of control in this country.

Exhibit E: Rape, sexual bondage, date rape …

Exhibit F: Clothing choices. How much cleavage is too much? Only for women, of course.

Exhibit G: Gender identity. Just the fact that we’re talking about this means we don’t know who we are anymore.

I don’t even have to quote statistics. You understand all of this because you experience it, or you know people who do.

But we won’t talk about it.

Not in a way that actually solves anything.

How do we expect to resolve the #metoo movement without talking about the role of sex in society? If sex outside of marriage is normal, why are we surprised when many men (and women) push the limits?

Nearly every song on the radio is about sex, some more blatantly than others. That’s been true for decades. I frequently listen to an oldies’ station that plays songs from my teen years. Talk about politically incorrect …

And yet we still play them. And listen.

Escape

Why are video games so popular? And illegal drugs? And porn?

Those are escapes from real life.

Real life is full of anxiety and stress. We don’t know how to solve real issues. Relationships. School. Jobs.

I’ve done the whole job search thing, and it’s not designed to bring out the best in anyone. It’s not even designed to connect passions with talent with careers. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Some people say there’s no jobs out there. I see “now hiring” and “drivers wanted” and “positions available, all shifts” signs all over the place.

On the other end of the spectrum, highly technical jobs go unfilled because not enough of us are trained for them.

Most of us would prefer a job/career somewhere in the middle, something more than minimum wage and something that doesn’t require an advanced degree that we don’t have time for or can’t afford to get.

Are most of us left behind?

Dreams

I mentored a fourth-grade student in inner-city Cleveland this spring. He has no concept of a long-term future. All he thinks about is getting dissed by a classmate, for which he gets in trouble. He lives with his grandfather. His mother and two older sisters also are in Cleveland, but he doesn’t see them often. His dad is in Arizona, and my student hopes to move out there with him this summer. Cleveland is too violent, he says.

People are people wherever you go, I told him.

If he leaves Cleveland, will his life magically get better?

I doubt it.

How does arguing about President Trump’s tweets solve my fourth-grader’s lack of focus and maturity? How can he learn not to respond in anger when things don’t go his way?
His family is broken. His school is trying, but isn’t reaching him. His teacher can do only so much.

He got suspended recently for cussing out the school principal. Seriously.

Seriously?

A good friend of mine is a Big Brother to a teenager in another nearby city. That teen also lives in a broken home. Some days, he doesn’t feel like going to school, so he doesn’t.

Is there no big picture in this life?

No goals to aspire to?

No dreams?

Respect

In the mentoring program I’m involved in, we’re not allowed to talk about politics or religion. Too divisive. Yes, they are.

But is that how we solve problems, by saying that certain subjects are off-limits?

I thought democracy meant all issues are on the table. By discussing, even debating, issues, we understand what’s too radical and what actually works.

We don’t know how to talk issues without talking personality. How can we talk about sex without condemning those who practice sex differently than we do? Can we disagree and still respect each other?

That’s what we’ve lost in this country. Respect.

For teachers. For parents. For the boss. For the mayor. For the police.

For ourselves.

I’m right. You’re wrong. The world revolves around me. I can set whatever rules for my life that I want.

And we wonder why we’re so messed up.

A motorcyclist passed me the other day in a right-turn lane. Another vehicle and I were stopped, waiting for traffic to clear before proceeding on to state Route 57, a 45 mph highway at that point. The motorcyclist passed us in the turn lane and roared onto Route 57 before the other driver and I could move.

So much for “look out for motorcycles.” It goes both ways, you know.

Or, I wish you knew.

Faith

So, what is the big picture? How is my outlook changing?

While I can’t talk about my faith in school (unless my student brings it up first, of course), that’s where the answer lies. Not in your perception of faith, or mine, but in real faith.

In a God who wrote the big picture. Who wants the best for us.

Discipline is good, sometimes. My student doesn’t understand that. Most adults don’t either.

Good parents do understand that. Children need boundaries. If you’ve had children, you know this.

So, why do we think that we don’t need boundaries as adults?

Political boundaries change all the time. You and I think differently, so the boundaries I set may not work for you, and vice versa.

If we don’t like them, we can change them.

Why will we not look up? Put the video games down, look away from the porn, turn off the music. LeBron James and Steven Spielberg make far more money than you and I will ever see, but are they the best role models? Do they have all the answers?

When I talk about faith, I don’t even mean in a pastor or the Pope. Their interpretations of faith aren’t always right, either.

The best role model? Jesus Himself. And we killed Him.

If Jesus walked the Earth in the flesh today, we’d kill Him again. I’m sure of it.

We still don’t get it.

We’re searching for love in all the wrong places.

Haven’t heard that song in awhile.