Thursday, March 22, 2007

Notes From The Book Club

Sunday afternoon, the Pastor's Book Club met for a discussion of A Table In The Mist by Jeffrey Meyers. Our hosts, Paul & Judy Pugh opened up their lovely new home for us!

I really enjoyed reading this book. I needed Ecclesiastes. More than ever I realized.

Some “scholars” want to say the book is just a lesson in the futility of life without God and it’s only in the conclusion of the whole matter that we find Truth: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

But that truncated view misses the whole point! Solomon is NOT writing as a worldly weary, recently converted pagan. As Meyers establishes, Solomon is writing as the Shepherd King of Israel, God’s appointed ruler – his words speak wisdom to us, but, unfortunately, we often don’t have ears to hear.

Some points from the book:

Faith does not mean ignoring the “living death” as Augustine put it of our cursed world. It means trusting God while confessing our own bafflement with the world.

Wisdom is not like getting to be in the train station or the air traffic control station of life. It doesn’t give you insight into God’s providence. Biblical wisdom doesn’t really give us control either, but it presupposes our inability to gain control of our lives. That’s the message of Ecclesiastes. That’s why we have to walk by faith, not by sight, because the world will remain to us a mystery.

True wisdom means to fear God and keep His commandments, receive the gifts He has given us, all the while knowing we can’t understand His ways and we can’t play God.

Solomon’s words shouldn’t be translated as vanity or meaningless, but as vapor, which is something that defies out attempts at comprehension and control. The point is there is no advantage or ultimate leverage in our work. Hebel the word we translate “vanity” or “vapor” is the word from which we get Abel whose life was basically a vapor. God has given us a burdensome task as a result of the curse. The result is we can’t shepherd the wind. We can’t rule it or control it. Our frustration at trying to shepherd the wind causes us to turn to the One who rules the wind. In spite of life’s vaporous nature, God can be trusted. Life can be enjoyed despite the fact that it can’t be mastered.

Not everything can be fixed. Not everything is a problem to be solved. Some things must be borne, suffered and endured. In fact, trying to gain wisdom that will give you control may make you worse off because you can’t and it will just frustrate you.

In other words, Christian wisdom advocates celebration, rejoicing and enjoying what God has given for you to enjoy. To cherish the small gifts that comes your way

I think for a long time I wrongly perceived Christianity as an “If-Then” proposition: If you do right – then you win. Good triumphs over evil. White hats always defeat the black hats. Hard work is rewarded, frivolous living comes to naught, etc. I really didn’t believe the Preacher in Ecclesiastes who says: The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.

Prosperity isn’t always what it seems. We should fear God and be content with what He has given us. Solomon challenges the American way of looking at life that thinks that the one with a long life and the wealthy person lives the good life. Wealth is not automatically a sign of blessing from God.

Time and chance happen to them all. There isn’t a checklist we can follow which guarantees a specific outcome every time. A life of ease doesn’t signify God’s favor anymore than a life of trouble signals His displeasure.

Ecclesiastes is a call to faith. It is something we need to hear. We always think we can control our fates and we work hard to do so. If we maintain our prosperity and blessing, that says nothing about what God thinks of us. We can’t tell by God’s treatment of people whether they are the objects of God’s love or hatred. Death comes to the wise and the fool. Wealth, poverty, health, sickness, whatever. None is solid evidence of God’s love or displeasure. If you can’t tell God’s attitude toward you through providence, then what you have to do is listen to the word of God. In other words, believe the gospel. You are righteous in God’s sight.

We easily attribute good to God, but what happens when the bad comes and you can’t figure out God’s ways? We have to attribute that to Him too. The point of Job is that man cannot understand why God runs the universe the way He does. We just have to trust Him.

Wisdom is valuable, but its real value lies precisely in its willingness to admit its limitations. Sometimes judgment is delayed. That doesn’t mean anybody is going to get away with anything. That’s why we have to trust God’s going to make things right in the end. When the state doesn’t believe that, it tries to be god-like and spy on everyone, regulate every bit of life and punish every little infraction. Even if there is no poetic justice on earth in history, God promises there will be at history’s end. (I bet Uriah would attest to that.)

Solomon also has a lot to say about Christian community and wisdom. He presents us with biblical realism of Christian wisdom. We can’t relinquish confidence in a person just because they erred. Everybody, even the wise man, does it. If you are wise about yourself, you will overlook faults in others. Wisdom gives the ability to live in a world of sinners, but that’s not the same as being able to explain or comprehend sinful human nature.

Solomon warns without godly speech with humility in words and tone, human community will not last a minute. Few words are a sign of wisdom, because the wise speak only after reflection. Almost the entire substance of foolish speech can be reduced to hasty, uncharitable judgments against other people in the church. Many think spirituality is judged in terms of how much people point out the faults of others, but the Bible teaches the opposite is true. For example, don’t get too worked up about other’s talking about you – just think about the times you’ve done it yourself. If you are wise about yourself, you will overlook faults in others.

For some, Solomon’s counsel about work, our spouse, feasting and drinking seems too physical or worldly. Maybe it is time for us to get a grip on what the Bible says is truly spiritual. The overarching point is that while some things are prohibited in the Bible, everything else is left wide open to pursue if your heart so desires.

In order to rejoice, you have to set yourself free from worry. You don’t control the future – God does! Solomon concludes that what we are supposed to do is fear God and keep His commandments, but that is paradoxically the way to live without fear. Since we can’t control or predict the future, we have nothing left but to trust God because He does control it all.

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