Wednesday, May 27, 2009

There's Nothin' New Under the Sun

There are many songs that could have been inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes. In addition to "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds, there was Kerry Livgren of Kansas who sang, All we are is Dust in the Wind, and the Rolling Stones who shouted, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction!” The "Teacher" of Ecclesiastes (who tradition says was King Solomon, son of David) has searched out 4 approaches to finding true satisfaction in life. His conclusion after a lifetime of research is that all is “vanity” (hevel, a Hebrew word that means “vapor/breath, and thus trans. ‘vanity, empty, futile, or meaningless’). “A generation goes and a generation comes… all things are wearisome… what has been is what will be… there is nothing new under the sun.” The Teacher says it’s true, but is it the whole truth? Let’s examine what the Searcher has to say, and try to answer that question for ourselves.

Satisfaction through the pursuit of knowledge. The writer of Ecclesisastes is a collector of philosophy and wisdom which is what "Qoheleth" means: "a gatherer or collector" (usually translated "Teacher" or "Searcher"). But this Teacher has discovered that all the wisdom he has learned is in the end hevel, empty and meaningless. "In much wisdom is much vexation and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow." Not exactly the motto you expect to find in your child's classroom! Imagine taking a rigorous course in mathematics, western civilization, or music theory… You come to the end of the course and are ready to take your final exam; but just before you sit down to write…the instructor stands before you and says, “Studying, and the pursuit of knowledge is basically meaningless; a waste of time. You can all go home.”

Is that what Qoheleth is saying? Not quite. He is saying that the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is futile. Human beings have an insatiable hunger for knowledge; and not only to know, but to use what we know to solve problems. But it is a frustrating pursuit because the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. Isaac Newton once said, “I have but been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.” With our human brains we have discovered how to cure diseases, travel into space, and split the atom. But no amount of knowledge gained through scientific investigation will ever be able to answer the question of why we exist at all.
But that’s not the most humbling fact. Because what we’ve come to learn is that more knowledge, more scientific advances, more intellectual achievement cannot, by itself, make us more kind, more loving, more righteous. King Solomon the son of David, new this; because for all his wisdom, it was his moral failures that led to the tearing of his own kingdom in two (1 Kings 11: 9-11).

Satisfaction through devotion to work & career. If the pursuit of knowledge has its limits, so does our devotion to work and career and the acquisition of more and more material wealth. “What do people gain from all their toil at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3) he asks. Nothing! What the Searcher learned, quite simply, is that you can’t take it with you. What we spend a lifetime hoarding and collecting will be handed over to others…who in turn will hand it over to others, and so on.

This weekend, I met a guy who became friends with my brother in Maui. As circumstances would have it…they were flying back from a conference together, missed their connecting flight and needed to stay with us over night. When I asked Gary how he came to live on Maui, he told me that a few years back his family discovered they were sitting on a large natural gas reserve in South Dakota…a discovery that made them all extremely rich. He now owns a vacation home in Maui…but events in his life caused him to search out a church. It was there that he met my brother and became a Christian. “I wish I had met the Lord 20 years ago. It would have saved me from making a lot of mistakes. These past few weeks have been the best weeks of my life.” Here is a man who had everything materially…but who still felt empty…until Christ filled that emptiness. Paul says that we should work wholeheartedly, as though we were working for the Lord (Col. 3: 23). The true spiritual discipline is not to simply divest ourselves of all material wealth, but to learn how to use and manage it for godly and Christ-honoring purposes.

Satisfaction through the pursuit of youth. After the pursuit of knowledge and devotion to work and wealth, the Searcher explored the impossible longing to be forever young. “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever….the people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (1:4, 11). Later, he writes, “Rejoice young man while you are young…for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecc. 11: 9, 10).

We live in a culture that worships youthfulness. In one year, Americans collectively spend over $50 billion on anti-aging products. Actress Halle Barry, one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, said this about physical beauty: “Beauty? Let me tell you something, being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life—no heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless, and it is always transitory. I can’t believe what people do to themselves to make themselves look beautiful. … They still have that hole in their soul" [“Beauty's Beast,” NewYorkPost.com (8-2-04).] Qoheleth couldn't have said it any better! The final approach to living life that the Searcher explored was…

Satisfaction through pleasure and anything new (1: 8-10) But this search ended also in dissatisfaction, for “All things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be….there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Solomon had money, he had power, he had fame… he built great monuments…he had many women “and the delights of the flesh”…but he still wasn’t satisfied (Ecc. 2: 1-8). Most Christians would agree that happiness doesn’t come about through wealth and fame and pleasure. Still, most Christians probably wouldn’t mind testing that principle out for themselves…just to be sure. But that need to try it out…that restlessness, that boredom with the same old thing, should tell us something. We have deep longings and desires which nothing in this world can fully satisfy. In the end, what Solomon found was that…

The ground of all truth, what gives meaning to our work, offers us the hope of life beyond death, and is endlessly new and exciting cannot be found “under the sun” but above and beyond it. (As Christians, we would say that life’s meaning is not found “under the sun” but “in God’s Son.”) “For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecc. 2: 26) Mick Jagger went on to sing “You can’t always get what you want…but you can get what you need.” Kerry Livrgen, the writer of Dust in the Wind eventually discovered a relationship with God through Jesus Christ…and his first album was called Seeds of Change. Like him can know that we are far more than dust in the wind. In the Son we find true satisfaction. In him we get what we truly need. In him there is a reason and a season to turn from darkness and to live the life we were created to live.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Divine Conduction

"It’s more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). This is a saying we may look for above a kitchen table, nicely cross stitched in a matted frame; but few of us would think of it with the seriousness that Paul used it on the day he departed from Ephesus and said goodbye to friends he had spent three years of his life with. When Paul said this, he wasn’t talking about giving someone a plate of cookies or even a large sum of money; he was talking about his life as a conduit of divine power, goodness, and self-giving love.

From the perspective of Scripture, it's an even greater blessing to give because givers have received the power of God’s overflowing grace which they can now pass on to others. Paul often talked about what he had received from the Lord and passed on. In 1 Cor. 15: 3-4, he reminds the church that "I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day." In Gal. 1: 11-12, Paul, speaking of how he came to hear and believe the gospel, says emphatically that "I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Moreover, in the fullness of time "God sent his Son....so that we might receive adoption as children" (Gal. 4: 5).

In the same way, Jesus says in Luke 11: 9-10, “Ask the Father, and you shall receive.” Is God worried that his children might receive too many blessings from his hand? Not at all. Jesus says the Father longs to give good gifts, even the Holy Spirit, the high voltage power and presence of God, to those who ask him.
It's obvious that we can’t give until we’ve learned how to receive! Arthur Burk points out that a child is learning how to receive even before birth. A baby first receives nourishment from its mother through the umbilical cord…then through nursing, then from a cup, followed by soft baby food; then from a knife and fork, then learns how to feed himself. Next, a child learns how to receive from her siblings, then from other families, from other peers and then from the opposite sex. A child learns how to receive knowledge, first by squalling as a baby, then by asking for help, asking at the right time, then asking from the right people, and in the right way. The child learns how to receive knowledge in school; then in such a way that present needs can be met; and finally, how to receive for future needs (Arthur Burk, Perspectives Series, Plumbline Ministries).
God gives out of the fullness of love which exists within the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. When we enter that supernatural society of loving persons -- we receive overflowing blessing. Here are some of the things that Scripture says we receive from God as his children: “we receive…” healing, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, the grace and mercy of God, the gift of God’s Son, salvation, eternal life, and the crown of victory. The reason it is more blessed to give than receive… is first, because generous giving is a sign that we have truly received from God’s hand. You cannot give what you have not received. Jesus wants to increase the number of those who have received from him…because it is they who will give themselves away for him.

A few weeks ago, I was out talking to a power company official about the lines they are putting under ground on the north side of our church property. Thanks to the hard work of Jim Lamm and others in our community, these lines are being removed so that the 133 year old Morton Bay Fig Tree will be able to grow naturally and without the severe pruning that has been necessary in the past. The official took me out into the street, stopping traffic, so that he could explain why some of the lines would be removed...and why others would have to remain. Pointing to the lower power lines he said, "Sir, those 35,000 volt lines will be placed under ground as we promised so that the tree can grow more naturally." But then he directed my eyes to another set of power lines which were much higher. Pointing to them he said, "Those lines way up there...they carry 65,000 volts of electricity. Sir, we can't remove those lines because they bring power to hundreds of homes in the surrounding neighborhood." As he spoke, I had great respect for this man's work, and his need to balance the preservation of an historic tree with the power needs of the city. I also had much more respect for those power lines above my head, and their ability to conduct tens of thousands of volts of electricity!

“Two thousand years ago, God declared unambiguously in the life of Christ that human flesh is a good conductor of divine electricity; and as far as I know he hasn’t changed his mind” (Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat). Friends, there’s always need of more spiritual power in Los Angeles, and you and I are the prime conductors…the high voltage wires. Your spirit, body, and soul, is a conductor of divine love. Receive the power of his self-giving love, then invest in people, not just possessions, share the message of Jesus Christ with those who desperately need him, grow in contentment with what you have (rather than envying what you don't) , support those who are in material and spiritual need, and leave behind a legacy of faith to future generations -- and as you do you will know that it is a blessing to receive, and an even greater blessing to give it away.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Who's the Apple of Your Eye?

The human eye is an amazingly complex organ. The eye, the optic nerve and the visual cortex are separate and distinct subsystems, yet together they capture, deliver and interpret up to 1.5 million pulse messages a milli-second! The eye allows us to see the fiery colors of a sunset or the pinpoints of light in the night sky. We use the word ‘eye’ to talk about perception of many kinds. When our attention is attracted to something, we call it “eye-catching,” or an “eye-opener.” If you’re watching something carefully, you're “keeping your eye on the ball,” or your “eyes are peeled.” If you excel at something you have “an eye for it” and when you and I agree about something we see things “eye to eye.”

You are the apple of my eye.” It’s a familiar line…a cliché even; but how many of us knew it was more than three thousand years old, a phrase that comes from the pages of the Bible; a phrase that speaks not just of human love, but of a love that can heal our deepest hurts and fulfill our deepest longings? What does the phrase really mean?

The “apple” of my eye refers to the pupil of my eye. Why? Well, probably because an apple was one of the most common sphere-shaped objects around…the central aperture or opening of the eye, the dark center, was referred to as the apple. The apple or “pupil” of the eye, is the gateway through which visible light passes and is converted by the brain into three dimensional images. The original Hebrew phrase, often translated “apple” really means “little man” or “little daughter” of my eye. I want you to look deep into someone’s eyes right now. Can you see your reflection? When we stand very close to someone, we can actually see a tiny reflection of ourselves, in the center of the other person’s eye. The Latin word pupil actually means “little doll” which is why a pupil often refers to a school child. Once again, it refers to the fact that you can see a tiny version of yourself in the eye of the beholder. When you are in the “apple” or even just the “pupil” of my eye you are close to me, in more ways than one, because…

To be “the apple” of someone’s eye is to be cherished by that person above all others. From the day of our birth, we have a deep need to be seen…to be noticed, valued, and ultimately cherished. Eye to eye and face to face contact with our mothers is second only to touch when it comes to the bonding process. In the hospital, babies receive all kinds of medical attention after birth; but never anything that might hinder their ability to clearly see the mother for an extended period of time (like silver nitrate drops that cause a film to form over the eyes, dimming vision). At infancy, the optimal distance for eye to eye contact is about 10 inches – which just happens to be the distance between a baby and its nursing mother. This simple interaction encourages brain development, release of critical hormones, and reinforces a sense of emotional and spiritual well being. “You are the apple of my eye.” It’s a phrase that a mother could easily use to describe how she cherishes her nursing baby. But the root meaning of this phrase is found not in the expression of human love but a love that is not of this world…the love of God.

In Deuteronomy 32: 9-11 Moses describes how God sustained and cared for his people. “He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness was he shielded him as the apple of his eye.” Therefore, to be “the apple” of God’s eye is to experience God’s love and protection. Knowing that God loves his people, David asks the LORD in Psalm 17:7-8 to “Wondrously show your steadfast love…Guard me as the apple of your eye." A moment ago we were talking about the importance of eye contact between mother and baby during a child’s first weeks of life. But what if a child did not receive such reassuring love? What of those who were not seen or touched in a loving way by their mother or father? David knew something profound and it gave him great peace. In Psalm 139:13-16 we read, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made....My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” Before any human eye beheld you, before any ultrasound peered into your mother’s womb, it was God’s privilege to be the first to see you, the very first to love you, the very first to welcome you into this world; and it is God’s promise to guard you “like the apple of his eye!”

Perhaps you have wondered, “Does God in fact truly love, guard, and protect me? I have come to rest in that great promise…believing and trusting that he guards me as we would guard and protect our eyesight. This does not mean that I can walk off a tall building and expect God to magically catch me before I fall. It means that my life is lived within the bounds of His sovereign grace; that nothing can happen to me apart from his sovereign will; that when all is finished and I face the power of death, I will fall into the hands of God and the greater power of the Risen Christ; knowing that nothing that happens to me will ever separate God from me or his love.

To be the “apple” of God’s eye, is to keep God’s commands. One very important way that I experience God’s protection and loving care is through his word. To be guarded like the apple of his eye does not mean that we sit around passively waiting for him to reach down and save us whenever we mess up. In Proverbs 7: 1-3 God says, “Keep my teachings as the apple of your eye.” Read my word, study it, know it, cherish it, obey it. “Your word is a lamp” says David. Our eyes are fantastically complex, but for all their complexity, they are useless to us without light. What a tragedy to go through this life without knowing God, or the illuminating truth of his word.

Finally, to be the “apple” of God’s eye, is to value others as he does you. Through the prophet Zechariah the LORD says these words: “The one who touches you touches the apple of my eye (Zechariah. 2:8). I understood this first as a word of warning to those who would seek to injure or harm me as his child. “The one who touches you, the one who harms you, the one who threatens you does so as though he/she was touching or harming or threatening me, even my own eyes.” The evil one has no ultimate power over my life…nor do his accomplices.

But this verse also gives me a new perspective on the other members of God’s family. That when I touch another child of God, whether gently or harshly, I am daring to touch a person whom he loves, the apple of his eye. Perhaps you know that you are the apple of God’s eye, but do you know that you are not the only one; and that God wants you to value others as he values you? You know, it’s possible to live our lives intentionally blind to other people. We’ve all heard the expression, “I only have eyes for you.” That can be true in a positive sense when it means fidelity…but it can be true in a negative sense when it means that we shut out the people around us; when we have eyes for our children, but not for anyone else’s; when we have eyes for our own comfort and success, but not for those who suffer or who do not know the love of Christ. Mark Labberton tells the story of traveling to Rwanda where a guide showed them many advanced AIDS patients, and much human need. When they were preparing to return home, the guide said to them, “I hope that you will not only see but live like you’ve seen what you’ve seen. Many have seen these things but have left as though they never saw anything.” May God give us eyes to truly see the harrassed and helpless, the sick and the lonely, and those running from God as God sees them…as the apple of his eye.

Do you remember the lines of this familiar song? “You are the sunshine of my life, that’s why I’ll always be around. You are the apple of my eye; forever you’ll stay in my heart.” Stevie Wonder sung that well-known love song; but what makes that song so beautiful to me…is that Stevie Wonder is blind. He has never seen the sunshine. He has never been able to look into the apple of someone’s eye. When he sung those words, he was speaking about someone who enabled him to see with the eyes of his heart, the most important eyesight of all. He was speaking about how love had brought a new beginning to his life and wiped away his tears.

But this is also a love song that God sings to us. Because YOU are the sunshine of his life and YOU are the apple of his eye. God wants to open the eyes of your heart, he wants to surround you like the strength of a mother’s love; he wants to guide you with his Word and Spirit; he wants you to value others as he values you. You are the apple of my eye, says the LORD, but I will not, I can not, rest until I am the apple of yours.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Last 'Scapegoat'

These days, no one wants to be a scapegoat, unfairly blamed for the sins and failures of others. On the other hand, not many would mind having one now and then. I recently did a word search of the word scapegoat on the Los Angeles Times website and got 2040 hits! I was reminded that almost anyone can become a scapegoat, demonized and held responsible for whatever mess we happen to be in. During the current economic crisis, in which people are struggling to hold on to their jobs, their homes, or their retirement, worried about continuing global conflicts, swine flu, climate change...the scapegoats abound. We've become masters of scapegoating -- the avoidance of responsibility for our own sin and personal failures -- and there are at least three ways that we try to do this.

We blame others -- even God -- for our own failures, mistakes and mishaps. Hitler blamed and then exterminated from 11-14 million people for the problems of his nation; at least 6 million were Jews, 3 million non-Jewish Poles, children and adults with physical and mental handicaps, homosexuals, biracial marriage partners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, communists, and other political opponents. He blamed them for corrupting racial and national purity; he said they were "life unworthy of life"and he sent them all to systematically die in the gas chambers -- an unspeakable and horrific tragedy. You or I may disagree with a person's behavior, politics, or beliefs from time to time; but that does not mean that I can demonize and blame them for all the world's problems, or even my own.

Secondly, we compensate for the mistakes we have made by trying to do good. The idea is to counterbalance all the bad stuff we’ve done with an abundance of good deeds, and hope that the good eventually outdistances the bad. If we have hurt a family member, a friend, or someone at church with our words, we may try to smother them with niceness. I have to confess that I've done this more than a few times with my wife Lisa...anything to avoid having to apologize for my actions!

Finally, we practice denial. A visitor I met in church one day commented sarcastically “I come to church once a year to be reminded how bad I am.” In one sense, I could sympathize! Like me, she desperately wants to believe that for the most part she is a pretty good person. But the truth is not that we never do good, but that (given the right conditions) we are all capable of doing a lot of bad; lying, cheating, stealing, overindulging, lashing out in anger and violence, breaking oaths and promises…and in a million subtle and not so subtle ways contributing to the rising tide of evil in our world.

Of course, none of these ‘scapegoats’ work very well…because we still feel as lousy, guilty, and ashamed as we did before we tried them. But there is an alternative! In Leviticus, we read about a ceremony that served as a dramatic illustration of God’s way…the way of repentance and forgiveness: it was called The Day of Atonement, a ceremony that celebrated the cleansing of God's people from sin through the scapegoat (Lev. 16: 1-10; 20-22). Two animals were chosen for that particular day. The first animal was sacrificed—a blood atonement for sins. It demonstrated in a graphic way, that sin's atonement carries a great price, and that sin itself causes great pain. But the second animal was driven away as it bore the sins of the people away from the camp.

"[Aaron] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert" (Lev. 16: 20-22).

This was the original scapegoat! The goat had done nothing wrong. It was not sent out into the wilderness because it was a mean goat, ate too much, didn’t give enough milk, or gored someone with its horns. It was banished because it was symbolically carrying away the sins of the people – in fact, all the sins of the people. The scapegoat demonstrated in a graphic way the complete removal of our sin through God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The Day of Atonement was an annual ritual of confession and repentance, and as such it was only a foretaste of what God would do personally and completely through Yeshua (Jesus, the Messiah). For Jesus is our great high priest who, unlike Aaron, represents not just Israel but all of humanity. As God-with-Us, he is the ultimate scapegoat, who was led away to a cross where he bore the curse for our sins and of the whole world. As the ultimate scapegoat, his sacrifice was the final act of atonement. (see Hebrews 10: 11-13). No longer would the high priest need to continually stand in the temple, offering sacrifices for the sins of the people. Indeed, there are reports that a mysterious change took place in the temple around AD 30. In the Jerusalem Talmud [Tractate Yoma 6.3] we read these words:
It has been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple [i.e., AD 30] the western light went out [a sign of God’s presence], the crimson thread remained crimson [instead of turning white as a sign of God's cleansing, Is. 1:18], and the lot for the Lord [on the Day of Atonement] always came up in the left hand [instead of the right, a sign of God's disfavor]. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open [signifying God’s departure or an invitation to intruders]. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, “O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars!’” (Zech 11:1).

This is a fascinating piece of tradition; for it suggests that around AD 30 when Jesus of Nazareth was beginning his public ministry, religious leaders were noticing mysterious changes on or near the Day of Atonement, as though God was not present nor operating in and through the normal temple rituals. Though the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the work of redemption has been completed. Yeshua has sat down at the right hand of God, and in his words from the cross: "It is finished" (John 19:30)! This is not just a nice piece of abstract theology...it has practical implications.
Jesus, the final scapegoat, gave us a powerful example to follow. He accepted blame even though he, of all people, was justified in blaming others. He forgave when he could have condemned; and calls us to repentance -- to accept the truth of our own sin and receive the assurance of God's forgiveness which he won for us on the cross. By his Spirit, he can empower us to stop blaming and start loving as he loved us: “In this is love,” says John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4: 1-12).