Friday, July 21, 2006

The iPod Universe

“I acquired male and female singers . . . “ (Ecclesiastes 2:8b).

I’ve not found much about Solomon’s life that I share in common with him. That is, until I came across a phrase in Ecc. 2:8. Solomon writes that he acquired male and female singers. I’ve done that too. I don’t buy them or hire them. I download them. You see, this past April I became an inhabitant of the iPod universe.

For my birthday Marnie gave me a sleek, black video iPod. It’s an amazing piece of technology. This narrow, flat metallic box will hold thousands of songs. It not only holds songs, it plays feature length movies and allows me to download episodes of TV shows I might have missed. I literally hold a world of entertainment in my hand. With a click on iTunes, I can acquire male and female singers – thousands of them!

But here’s the thing about my iPod: I’ve noticed that it cuts me off from some of the greatest things that happen in my life. I like my iPod, I just can’t find the best time to use it. I can’t listen to my iPod and read a book. I can’t listen to my iPod and study my Bible or write devotionals. I can’t listen to my iPod and be a decent member of my family. I thought about taking my iPod to one of John’s baseball games – but then I felt a little uneasy about appearing aloof, sitting with the other parents with my ears plugged up as if to say, “please don’t bother me.”

The solitary nature of the iPod universe comes close to replicating Solomon’s life experience. Having a world of entertainment in the palm of my hand isn’t as great as it sounds. Being cocooned in a world of self-selected music and entertainment quickly looses its appeal when enjoying the music keeps me from enjoying my life. I imagine Solomon with his own choir and orchestra. He quickly found out that the best music falls flat when the sound of applause comes from only one set of hands.

Solomon says he denied himself nothing that his eyes desired – and that precisely was his problem. When nothing is denied nothing is truly possessed. Having 7000 songs in your hand doesn’t match the joy of hearing the handful of songs that are truly special to you. You can be King in your iPod universe, but the collection of singers means little when your universe has a population of one.

Prayer: God, for your good gifts of music and dance, of food and laughter, make me truly thankful. Teach me to receive these gifts in order to share them with others. Amen.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

You Look Like You Could Use A Vocation

“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards . . . I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4, 9)

Our culture assumes that work has curative powers. It’s good for what ails us, especially if what ails us is an inner emptiness or some kind of invisible bruise on the soul. When we grieve, we throw ourselves into our work. When things aren’t going so well at home, we throw ourselves into our work, creating longer hours at the office. When we feel anxiety that others are advancing while we’re marking time, we throw ourselves into our work in the hope that our time will come and we will one day become greater than all those who came before us.

Solomon, in his own quest for meaning in life, coupled his no-holds-barred pleasure seeking with an intense work ethic. He built structures, acquired land and managed an expansive staff (2:4-7). These are worthy endeavors. Hard work is valued in scripture. In the New Testament, Paul urged that those who won’t work shouldn’t be allowed to eat.

But work for work’s sake, or for the sake of wealth and accomplishment, proves empty. After reflecting on his impressive career, all that his hands had done, Solomon himself comes back to his familiar refrain. It was meaningless, a chasing after the wind (2:11).

This is when someone needed to say to Solomon, “you look like you could use a vocation.” He had plenty of work, plenty of wealth, and name recognition that could have landed any endorsement contract in the known world. But the work lacked meaning because it had somehow become disconnected from God. Like Solomon, we don’t crave work as much as we do meaningful work - a vocation.

The most significant truth about our work is that before we go to a job, any job, God is already working. God works in the world and chooses to use us in that work. God works through us in offices and schools, in courtrooms and labs, in retail stores and restaurants. All over Atlanta God is at work – and today, as you do your work, you are invited to be a part of the work God is doing.

Prayer: Gracious God, throughout this day, as I do my work, remind me of my vocation. Use me and the tasks I’m involved in as a means of reflecting your character to those around me. Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Limits of Pleasure

“I said in my heart, ‘come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” (Ecc. 2:1).

“The happiest place on earth.” That’s the line Disney wants you to know by heart when you think of their theme parks and resorts. Since 2004 my family has made three trips to Disney. Yes, we like it. But “happiest place on earth?” I beg to differ.

The first trip we took was in July. I know . . . not an optimal time of year for walking all over the magic kingdom (what were we thinking?). The July heat literally seared an image into my memory. As I stood in line with my own tired and sometimes complaining children, I looked at the mass of humanity waiting in line with me. Remarkably, given that we were all there at the happiest place on earth, no one looked particularly happy. I saw plenty of folks who looked exhausted and mildly irritated. Fanning themselves or holding those water bottles with little motorized fans mounted on top, far too many of them (us!) looked miserable.

What I saw in the lines at Disney shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a truth that we’ve known for a very long time. The deliberate pursuit of pleasure rarely yields true pleasure. It is possible to be surrounded by a vast menu of amusements and stimulants and attractions provided for our enjoyment – and yet never experience joy. Sure, we can manufacture an occasional adrenaline rush, a moment of jolting surprise or outright fear, but soon the ride ends and we get in another line with our fans and water bottles and our quickly eroding patience.

Amusement isn’t joy and pleasure won’t lead us to purpose. That’s what Solomon learned as he indulged in wine and laughter. This doesn’t mean we avoid or despise life’s pleasures, never cracking a smile, never going to the party. It simply means we will not expect more of those things than they can deliver. We see amusement as a shadow of real joy, pointing us to something deeper and further in.

Maybe we can hear Solomon pointing us far beyond his time to Jesus, the one who came that our joy might be full and complete. Even a day that doesn’t look very fun can still bring you joy. What would it mean for you to truly “enjoy” this day?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, fill me with your Spirit today so that I may know your joy in the details of my own life. Make me truly and deeply thankful for the pleasures that this day might bring. Amen.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives (Ecc. 2:3b NIV).

Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO – a design company specializing in product development and innovation. In his book, The Art of Innovation, Kelley devotes a chapter to “the perfect brainstorm.” Brainstorming is a chance for teams to “blue sky” ideas in the quest for the solutions or new direction. Among the several characteristics of “the perfect brainstorm” is the physicality of brainstorming. Kelley explains that the best brainstormers often practice “bodystorming.” This means that “we act out certain current behavior / usage patterns and see how they might be altered.”

That’s what Solomon seems to be doing in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes. He’s ransacking his life experience, looking for something enduring satisfaction and meaning. Solomon is “lifestorming.” The words of Ecclesiastes 2 do not come to us from a mere philosopher who anguishes over abstract questions and debates answers with other philosophers. No, this book is life-tested, physical and tactile. Solomon runs after life like children chase fireflies at summer dusk. He collects one experience after another, savors it and examines it, extracts from it whatever he can discover.

The quest for meaning isn’t something that we figure out first and then live into. Usually, in life’s classroom, we have to raise our hands without being certain we’ve got the right answers. Every single day we have to get out of bed and live. Our confusion or boredom will not exempt us from this daily requirement. Sometimes our “lifestorming” yields wrong answers and dead-ends.

But sometimes – as with a perfect brainstorm – something clicks. The grab-bag of ideas sparks one thought that becomes transformational. In “lifestorming” the lived experiences may lead to that same kind of moment. It’s a moment we often call conversion.

Prayer: God, today I want to embrace my life eagerly and thankfully. In every lived experience of this day, work by your Spirit to teach me and guide me to the life you intend for me to have. Amen.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Your Legacy

“The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come” (Ecc. 1:11 NRSV)

A couple of years ago my grandmother came down from Greensboro N.C. for a summer visit. On an August afternoon we spent time driving around Atlanta – the city of her birth – and she pointed out sites of significance in our family. It was a typical oven-like August, and under most circumstances I would have eagerly sought any excuse to avoid short car trips, interrupted by walking around in the heat, followed by another short car trip that never allowed the AC to get chilly. But these were not normal circumstances. My grandmother, aging and weakening, knows things about my family that I don’t know. She remembers things I’ve never heard about. It was a day of new insights and revelations. I loved every thick hot moment of it.

Not far from Peachtree Presbyterian there’s a little Methodist church on Powers Ferry Road, Sardis Methodist Church. One of the stops that afternoon was in the cemetery that occupies significant acreage next to the small building. That day my grandmother showed me a gravestone marked ROSSER. That’s her name, my mother’s maiden name. My maternal great-grandfather was a member there and was involved in paying off the note on the building that currently stands on Powers Ferry Road.

The writer of Ecclesiastes laments that “there is no remembrance of men of old.” In a way he’s right. How is it that I managed to drive by that church for years without guessing that I had even the remotest connection to the place? Three short generations had rinsed my great grandfather from the canvass of my consciousness.

And yet, there has been all along a legacy. Though unrecognized, it is no less real or formative. The generation of ROSSER that established a little church on Powers Ferry road is not remembered by me in the truest sense, but that generation is by no means escaped or truly forgotten. Our lives are cabled by unseen continuities and connections. The “men of old” are always with us.

By someone, in some way, you will be remembered. Your name and accomplishments may not belong to the ages, but the life you live now will somehow be wielded like a sculptors hammer, shaping another life. What will your legacy be?

Prayer: God of all ages, work in me as you see fit shaping a life worthy of being remembered, if only for a short while. Whatever there may be in my life that lasts into another generation, may it bring you glory. Amen.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

More of the Same

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecc. 1:8-9).

To those of us who are not kings, that a king could be bored is hard to believe.

The words of Solomon strike me in much the same way my children’s words do when they say to me “I’m bored.” I usually reply, “you’ve got to be kidding; how can you be bored?” And yet, kids with computers and cable TV and Nintendo play stations get bored. Grown ups with comfortable homes and beautiful families and well paying jobs get bored. Nothing new here; Kings get bored. That’s what we learn from Ecclesiastes.

Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, wrote that boredom is “the desire for desires.” That captures something of the inner deadness that boredom is. The heart beats but never races. The eyes see but never dance in what they behold. The mouth speaks words but rarely to truly say anything.

Thus was Solomon afflicted, as are so many today. In Ecclesiastes the boredom is described as a numbing repetition. What has been will be again. Solomon observed the movements of the sun, the wind, the streams that flow to the ocean. We observe the same traffic patterns in our morning commute, the same scheduled meetings, the routines of carpool and laundry.

Our first response is a change of pace, a new variable in the equation of our lives. This might mean a vacation or a career move. But over time even the new element becomes familiar and well worn. What we need is the capacity to see into the ordinary repeated parts of life and discern the presence and purposes of God. Boredom is what we get when God is bleached out of an otherwise wonderful life. Absent God, the gift of ordinary things, of routines and practices, becomes burdensome.

Try this: Look for God in something familiar. Identify a person in your world with whom you interact every day or every week. Determine to learn one new thing about that person’s life.

Prayer: God, through this day and all of its familiar routines, help me to detect your presence. Remind me that you are at work in the most ordinary details of the most ordinary day. Help me to live this day in eager expectation. Amen.