The Madness of Messy Messages



Perhaps the most popular advice column is “Dear Abby.”

“Dear Abby I am forty-four years old and would like to meet a man my age with no bad habits” – Rose.

“Dear Rose, so would I.”

Ecclesiastes 7 is the “Dear Abby” of the ancient world, loaded with popular messages in the ancient near east that messed with peoples’ lives.

The first messy message is found in verse 1, the message that power and possessions define you: “A good name is better than precious ointment…” If you possessed precious ointment in the ancient world you were wealthy, therefore had control and influence over people. There is nothing wrong with wealth and power, but a “good name” is better. Why? The answer is because good character is not defined by power and possessions, therefore the true self does not need power and possessions to be ok in life.

The next messy message is your best life now (verse 1): “and the day of death (is better) than the day of birth.” The day of your birth (this life) is not all there is. Heartache and hardship is not all there is. Living one hundred years on this planet achieving, succeeding, being esteemed and affirmed is not all there is. Our best life is not now according to the Bible, it is coming.

Another messy message is life is only lament (verse 2): “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind…” Philosophy calls this nihilism while personality tests call it melancholy. The point is seeing, feeling, and living life as if the end of all human life is meaninglessness, emptiness, hopelessness, nothingness, vanity. What is missing in this message is the winning works of God or “the house of feasting” (verse 2). The “house of feasting” is where we engage the source and origin of all meaning and life, the Living God, in the great adventure of life in his world.

Life is only fun is next (verse 6): “For the crackling of thorns under a pot (this is a flower pot), so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.” Philosophy calls this hedonism while psychology calls it addiction. The image is picking up a beautiful flower in a shattered pot and in the process shredding your hands. “Life is only fun,” says the preacher, “will shred your heart, relationships, and life.”

The final messy message is pride isn’t so bad (verse 8): “the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” Pride pollutes the whole section between verses 7 and 29, pride is: (1) angry (v.9) (2) generationally arrogant and stupid (v.10) (3) self-righteous (v.16) (4) self-sabotaging (v.17) .

There is a better message for us, one with good news (verse 13): “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked?” All the messy messages have one thing in common, they are self-strategies to make straight what is crooked, reverse vanity, fill the forever empty. But they cannot. We cannot save ourselves. We need a Savior, someone who can make straight the crooked, reverse vanity, fill the forever empty. Consider the work of God in Jesus Christ.


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The Madness of Church

seaside-ChurchSometimes the meanest people carry the biggest Bibles. Sometimes the church adds more madness to our lives. Ecclesiastes 5.1-7 is an honest, uncomfortable, and yet needed look at the church “under the sun.”

Some of us will think, “No way! Not my church. Not my Baptist-Bible-Methodist-Charismatic-Presbyterian-Victorious Life-First and Full Discipleship Church!” The temptation for some of us will be to over-spiritualize the church – a fancy word for denial. Others of us who have been deeply hurt by the church will say, “Finally. Finally, the truth.” The temptation for others of us will be to leave the church.

Does the church add madness to our lives? Yup. “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God (v.1).” The preacher is saying, “When you go to church be careful.” Why? The answer is because there are fools in church: “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil (v.1).”

Throughout the Bible a “fool” is a self-centered person to their own harm and the harm of others. There are two important ingredients to “foolishness”: (1) a deep suspicion of God, specifically His personal and active love, which creates (2) a deep need to trust yourself instead. Notice that this foolish person is serious about God, enough to know they must bring a “sacrifice” to church. So what’s the problem? What is so evil here? The answer is doing the right thing (offering a sacrifice) for the wrong reason (offering the sacrifice of fools). The point is our heart, we can do church for self-centered or foolish reasons.

Historically theologians have called churched self-centeredness legalism, moralism, or self-righteousness. Some present day theologians call it a “religious spirit” that strives to obey God in order to be loved, accepted, and blessed instead of because they are loved, accepted, and blessed. One present-day pastor and theologian, Sinclair Ferguson, calls churched self-centeredness a “metallic spirit,” meaning a spirit or heart that is metal-like. The preacher says a “metallic spirit” is: (1) always the last to know, while painfully obvious to everyone else around them (verse 1) (2) chronically self-justifying, obsessively asserting itself in thought, word, and deed (vv. 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7).

Good grief! If church adds this kind of madness to our lives, why go to church? The preacher answers with one powerful reason: because God shows up at church, God breaks in to our lives at church (v.1). There are Divine collisions at church, therefore go to church to look and listen for God. When you went to Temple in those days everything about the Temple shouted, “You’re a fool! You’re self-centered! You’re messed-up!” You could smell it, blood was everywhere from sacrifices. You could hear it, the bleating of sacrificial animals. You could see it, every step increased with the potency of Holiness. And yet God says, “Draw near. Draw near because of my Sacrifice. The One who absorbed and atoned for all your self-centeredness on the Cross.” Let’s go to church, to find the kind of God who is already finding us in His Son.

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Madness of Money

SocialSecurityposter2Where is God in everyday life – the boring, mundane, ordinary, and routine? Where is God in ninety-nine percent of the moments of our lives? Ecclesiastes can now be divided into two parts: [1] Ecclesiastes before church (chapters 1-4), [2] Ecclesiastes after church (chapters 5-12). In Ecclesiastes 5.8 the preacher is leaving church and entering the “real world” of everyday life again. Therefore what is the first everyday ordinary area of life he encounters as he exits church? Money.

Money is a big deal, exerting tremendous power in two realms of everyday life. The first realm is the political. Capitalism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism, republican, democrat, independent, tea party, coffee party, or whisky party, the power of money impacts politics, and has at least since Ecclesiastes 5.8 or 2,300 years ago: “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.”

This stacking of officials refers to political power levels embodied in bureaucracies (institutional or societal structures) and leaders. Skip Ryan, a former pastor of a church in the wealthiest section of Dallas, told his congregation, “Many times money becomes the measure of how much of the world you can control.” According to the preacher the power of money fuels both sinful structures in society and power hungry leaders that toxically mix together to do one thing really well: hurt the poor (v.8). “Don’t be amazed at this!” “Don’t be unaware of the poor being abused by institutional injustice and power hungry leaders,” says the preacher.

The second realm money exerts tremendous power over is the human heart. Edward Ugel, author of “Money for Nothing: One Man’s Journey Through The Dark Side of Lottery Millions,” writes that nearly seventy percent of lottery winners end up broke within seven years and “you’d be blown away to see how many winners wish they’d never been one.” We experience the power of money in our lives when we relate to money as if it can satisfy us but: (1) it cannot (v.11) (2) others take it from us (v.11) (3) it keeps us up at night (v.12) (4) we lose it (vv.13-14). The last image in verse 17 is striking: someone eating alone in the darkness with no one to share his meal with, angry at everything all the time, and physically breaking down as a sick soul effects the body. Why is this so? This person needs money, they do not relate to money as a gift for others.

Where is God in the everyday realities of money? The quick answer is all that we are, and all that we have (including our money), and all that we do is a gift of grace not something we earned (v.19). Period. The deeper answer is found in verse 9 where we see a king of power, wealth, and riches committed to setting aside part of his power, wealth, and riches for those who have none. An ancient biblical law commanded this and years later the Prince of heaven and earth fulfilled it by giving not just a portion of his field away but all of it. Come to the King who gives his whole kingdom away to those who are poor, needy, guilty, broken, messed-up.


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The Madness of Relationships

clasped-hands-541849_1280Today the idea of a journey raises no concern, unless of course you are traveling with Bear Grylls. We move around the state, country, and world with ease. We study abroad, travel thousands of miles on our honeymoon, and do mission trips to Africa during Spring Break. For someone in the ancient Near East however, travel was a trial: no modern modes of transportation, GPS, lighting, smooth roads, roadside assistance, highway patrol, and above all, no Starbucks. However there was plenty of hardship, extreme conditions, wild animals, and opportunistic thugs. Ecclesiastes 7 pictures life as a great journey through a wrecked world. Do we get a map? Is the journey too great for us? Are we equipped to go it alone?

Way, way back at the beginning of it all God said, “It is not good that man should be alone (Gn 2.18).” This is shocking statement because Adam has God in paradise and yet he is still alone. This means we were made for relationship, with God and others. Way, way back before the world was even wrecked the journey of life was too great for us, we were never equipped to go it alone, and an ancient map was given: “Two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 7.9).”

According to Ecclesiastes 7 the reason “two are better than one” (Eccl.7.9) are multiple, meaningful relationships: (1) are inherently packed with a potency of meaning, value, gain, blessing, and reward (v.9) (2) release the power of “help” (v.10) (3) release spiritual, relational, and physical warmth (v.11); this means we possess the potential to help keep our spouse, children, family, friends, and community warm in a cold world (4) strengthen us in hardship (v.12) (5) release needed intimacy and companionship into our lives (v.8) (6) release growing wisdom and maturity into our lives (vv.13-16).

What is the greatest threat to meaningful relationships? The preacher says, “envy” (Eccl 4.4): “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy ruins relationships because envy needs to elevate the self over others. The preacher says this need to elevate ourselves is cannibalistic, it eats us alive piece by piece (v.5): “The fool (i.e. the envious person) folds his hands and eats his own flesh.”

What has the power to not only end envy but also begin meaningful relationships? The answer is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is the elevation of Jesus above everything: every performance, achievement, success, fame, honor, victory, great event and great person in history, power, control, wonder, and kingdom. Jesus was elevated above everything on the planet for elevation addicts. The resurrection of Jesus ends envy because it ends the need to elevate the self above others. Jesus is our elevation, in Jesus we have all the elevation we need.

“Yep honey. I was wrong.” No loss. No diminishment. You have the elevation of Jesus. “I’m so happy for you! You won Miss America again! You’re daughter got into Harvard! You won Mother of the Year! You got a new home! You’re home town threw you a parade!” And mean it. No loss. No diminishment. You have the resurrection of Jesus. You are now free to love and give yourself to others.

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Why the Robes?

John_Calvin_14I get it, I’m not from this tradition. I’ve been transplanted like many of you. Grew up Baptist, and when I saw the robes, I thought I walked into the wrong church.

“Kristen I thought you said this was Presbyterian, not Catholic!?”

Or maybe you’re wondering, “Are they Jedi Knights?” Yes, yes we are. The force is strong with us.

But really – why? The robes?

1) Practically: We wear them so you don’t see us. No Coffee Stains. No wondering, “Didn’t he wear that shirt last week? Does he do laundry?” It keeps your eyes off of us and on the message.

2) Historically: Reformed pastors have worn these Geneva Gowns for the same reason a Judge wears his. I went to court on Friday, saw a beautiful adoption of this little precious girl named Cecilia into a family that we love, and the Judge, as always, wears his Robe. Why? He wears it to show that his opinion is not just his own, but that he represents another, higher authority.

The State of Texas says she should and will be placed legally in this family’s home.

The Judge wears it to signify his office. That’s the same thing the reformers did. They wore the robes to signify, this isn’t just one man’s opinion on life and who God is…but it’s the office of THE WORD. God has called men to preach HIS WORD. So we wear it, to represent another.

But we also wear cowboy boots and dress casually, because we know the robes can convey a holier than thou mentality. So we’re trying for both ancient and modern.

Lastly, if the robes still freak you out: GET OVER IT.   Really. One day you’re going to have to wear one too. Jesus tells us we’ll all be robed with HIS robe and be hidden and covered by his righteousness (Rev 7:14).


The Madness of Evil (Part 2)

SadnessEvil. It is a problem. Outside a good world made by a good God there is no problem with evil, there is only meaninglessness and “animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources” (Andrea Dilley). Everyone should have a problem with evil because evil is not the way it is suppose to be, it is an attack on a good God and his good world. This is why we have a problem with evil.

If the above is true then why doesn’t God do something about it? Why doesn’t God do something about all the evil in the world? The preacher in Ecclesiastes says He does (Eccl 3.17): “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.” There is a time for justice, a time the Bible calls final judgment. God will set things right. God will end all evil, injustice, pain, and suffering. God will heal the whole world and make everything sad come untrue. Therefore God is not overlooking or indifferent to evil, rather He hates it, destroys it, and heals it at the end of all things.

Why does God wait to end evil and heal everything? God may have ten reasons or five reasons for waiting, however, He want us to know at least one reason in Ecclesiastes 3.18: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.” In Romans the Apostle Paul says God delays because he loves messed-up people (‘beasts’), and is committed to helping them see their need for a Savior. Those who come to see themselves as ‘beasts’ learn to rely, rest, and rejoice in Jesus and his salvation. Therefore God’s delay of ultimate justice is not because of any lack of compassion or power but rather because of the endless supply of both.

Jesus is ultimately the answer to the problem of evil. How? The first answer is because God himself suffered evil, injustice, and death that culminated at the cross. God is not a spectator of evil but the ultimate victim of it. The second answer is because God himself took the full potency of all evil, injustice, and suffering on the planet upon himself, so that you and I would not, so that he could heal all things including us. The ultimate judgment of Ecclesiastes 3.17 has two fulfillments: (1) at the cross and (2) at the end of all things. At the cross ultimate judgment falls on Jesus on behalf of all ‘beasts’ who trust in him. At the end of all things ultimate judgment falls on all ‘beasts’ who try to deal with their evil on their own. Evil, injustice, pain, suffering, and death do not win, Jesus does, along with anyone who trust in him. The problem of evil is an invitation to deal with yours at the cross.

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The Madness of Evil

AushwitzPeter Van Inwagen in his lecture on “The Problem of Evil,” tells the true story of a woman assaulted by a man. The man not only raped her but also chopped off both her arms at the elbows, leaving her to die. Somehow she crawled to the side of the road where she was rescued. She survived, but now lives her life without her arms and with the horror of what happened that night. Evil turns our stomach before it turns on an argument in our head: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4.1).

For some the problem of evil drives them away from God. “Evil can make God implausible, unreal to the heart,” Tim Keller writes. Elie Wiesel in a heart-breaking account (Night) of the murderous furnaces in a Nazi death camp says: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”

For others the problem of evil drives them toward God. J. Christiaan Beker also endured a Nazi death camp. The sights of the horrendous evil and suffering drove him to Jesus and his salvation, to becoming a Christian theologian, and eventually to writing Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament.

Andrea Palpant Dilley was a missionary kid in Kenya who was exposed to more evil, death, and darkness than most children in western countries. As a teenager, she began to question God’s goodness. By the time she reached her twenties, she rejected Christianity altogether. Eventually, however, she came back to Jesus and his salvation. Why? She says, “When people ask me what drove me out the doors of the church and then what brought me back, my answer to both questions is the same. I left the church in part because I was mad at God about human suffering and injustice. And I came back to church because of that same struggle. I realized that I couldn’t even talk about justice without standing inside of a ‘God’ framework. In a naturalistic worldview, a parentless orphan in the slums of Nairobi can only be explained in terms of survival of the fittest. We’re all just animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources. The idea of justice, you have to talk about objective morality, and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.”

The problem of evil only exists in a good world made by a good God. This is why the Preacher has a problem with evil, and this is the reason we do too. Outside a good world made by a good God there is no problem with evil; there is only meaninglessness and “animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources.” Outside a good world made by a good God, suffering and evil simply do not exist. Everyone should have a problem with evil because evil is not the way it is supposed to be…it is an attack on a good God and his good world.

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