Friday, June 30, 2006

Beyond Explanations

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. (Ecc. 1:13a)

His decision to study theology and serve the church was reached by the time he was 16 years old. By the age of 25 he had written two doctoral dissertations. Born the son of a psychiatrist, the sixth of eight children, his father and siblings had little regard for a religious vocation. Nevertheless, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer was resolute, stating boldly to his brothers “if the church is feeble I shall reform it.”

Bonhoeffer strikes me as a man of conviction and courage. His resistance to Hitler’s regime and his critique of the German church that so readily wed itself to the Reich proved costly. Boehoeffer’s life ended at the age of 39 – hanged in the concentration camp at Flossenburg only two weeks before allied forces liberated Germany.

Without question, the conviction and courage were real. And yet, mingled with these were questions. In prison Bonhoeffer composed a poem titled “Who Am I?” In the poem Bonhoeffer ponders the the chasm between his outer persona - cheerful, friendly, calm and controlled – and his inner turmoil and fatigue and yearnings. Bonhoeffer asks, “Who am I? Am I one person today and another tomorrow?” He finally concludes with these lines

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

There is a way of asking the hard questions that can either alienate us from God or drive us closer to God. What Bonhoeffer shares in common with Solomon is that both men asked their questions God-ward. And in the end, after the questions are asked, what remains is God. More than answers that solve and explain – there is always God. Wherever our questions take us, God holds us fast and meets us in those places.

Prayer: Father, we thank you that even in our questions you hold us fast. We thank you that in the quest for elusive answers we can know with confidence that we belong to you. Amen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What Do You See?

“I have seen all things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 1:14).

Do you ever begin the day reading the paper or watching the news, only to wish you hadn’t bothered? The headlines and stories provide us with information and commentary – but all of us take that information and draw conclusions about the world and what it means to live well in our particular time and place. These conclusions can take us in the direction of hope and promise. They can push us toward the search for solutions. They can also take us toward despair.

The words of Ecclesiastes come to us from a shrewd observer of life. The book is a report on what is observed, along with a conclusion. Interestingly, the book begins with the conclusion, moves to various observations, and keeps coming back to rehearse the conclusion. In chapter one alone there are repeated statements of what the writer has concluded about life:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” Says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc. 1:2)

What a fun guy! This hardly sounds like the kind of person we’re eager to hang out with or invite to a party. We can see people dodging into doorways or bathrooms or quickly making a phone call when they see this person coming their way. But this writer forces us to consider a significant question about our own lives and the conclusions we’ve drawn from what we see going on around us day after day.

Do we look at the world and then draw conclusions from what we see? Or do we hold assumptions and ready-made conclusions that determine how we look at the world?

Is it possible that we do both at the same time?

Try this: find a copy of the paper today and scan the headlines. Imagine yourself at Starbucks with Solomon. How would you refute his conclusion “all is meaningless?” Could you refute it?

Prayer: God, I don’t always know what to make of all I see going on around me. On some days my conclusions are hopeful. On other days I sound and feel like Solomon. Help me to see the world as you see it and to live by faith – knowing that there is always more than meets the eye. Amen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Lifestyles Under the Sun": A summer series of sermons and written reflections on Ecclesiastes

NOTE: This summer our Senior Pastor, Vic Pentz, launched a series of messages that explores the book of Ecclesiastes. Keying to a familiar refrain, this summer series looks at "Lifestyles Under the Sun" and the quest for the meaningful life that God intends. Along with the weekly sermons, our congregation receives a daily devotional via email. It has been my privilege to contribute to the series by writing the daily devotionals. In the coming weeks I'll be posting those here. To hear Dr. Pentz's sermons as well as those in the series preached by our associate pastors, please go to the Peachtree website.

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. . . I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. (Ecc. 1:1, 12)

Some people simply have life figured out. They’ve mastered it, know their place in it, know what they want from it and how to go about getting it. They’ve got their act together. Or so we think.

The book of Ecclesiastes is surprising. It’s a book of searching and of asking hard questions. That in itself doesn’t disturb us. After all, most of us have asked or are currently asking the same questions. What surprises us more than the content is the person from whom those questions come. The author of the book is never identified by name, but this much is clear. This person has influence (teacher, or literally “a leader of the assembly”). This person has connections that come with a royal bloodline (son of David). This person is powerful (king over Israel). While scholars are not certain, tradition holds that the book was written by King Solomon.

Our assumption about influential, well connected, powerful people is that they’ve got life figured out. Ecclesiastes shatters that assumption. Solomon held a place in life that many would envy, a place which many are scrambling daily to attain. And yet, he asks the most basic questions of existence. What is life all about? What is the meaning of my existence?

We invest significant energy in hiding our questions. What we assume about others is what we’d like them to assume about us. But we know our own questions, the things we struggle with, the parts of life that don’t quite square with our expectations or beliefs.

The book of Ecclesiastes is an invitation to ask some honest and hard questions. In the coming weeks we’ll keep company with Solomon, listen to his questions and follow his search for answers. Along the way we may find answers to questions of our own.

What are your “big” questions? Are there things you ponder, but don’t talk about with anyone else? Find some place to write these down. Keep track of your thoughts as we journey through Ecclesiastes.

Prayer: Gracious God, before we speak a word you know our thoughts. This includes our questions. We thank you for your patient faithfulness that allows us to ask and to seek. Reveal yourself in these coming days through your word. Guide us as we seek you. Amen.