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Category: Christian Living (page 1 of 19)

Gifts & Contentment: A Thanksgiving Message from Ecclesiastes

This is an adapted version of a sermon a preached this past Sunday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I enjoy spending time with family, and I enjoy the good food that you get to eat at Thanksgiving. I’m also a big fan of Christmas, and to me, Thanksgiving always kicks off the Christmas season, so I like that about it too.

But most of all, as a Christian and a minister, I really appreciate that we have this time built into our yearly rhythm where we are encouraged to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. That is an incredibly biblical thing to do. Thanksgiving is the basic response that God’s people should have in light of what God has done, and although this may be something that we lose sight of at times, this holiday, anchored on our calendars, helps remind us of this action which is central to our lives as followers of Jesus.

This particular Thanksgiving meditation comes from a somewhat unusual source: the Book of Ecclesiastes. I say “somewhat unusual” because the Book of Ecclesiastes is not something we focus on too much. Many people have a quotation from Ecclesiastes that they like, but they don’t really study the book in detail. A big part of this, I think, is that a lot of people think that the Book of Ecclesiastes is really depressing! Many people (including biblical scholars) suggest that Ecclesiastes has a very pessimistic view on life.

I disagree with that, though; I don’t think Ecclesiastes is pessimistic, I just think that it is very realistic. My wife would laugh to hear me say this, because all the time she tells me that I am a pessimist, and I disagree and say that I am a realist. I am just very aware that the world is broken, that people are deeply flawed, that we tend to get let down a lot, and that there is a lot of disappointment in life. I don’t always walk around with a scowl on my face or imagine the worst possible outcome of every situation, but I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that happen in life that are out of our control, that we don’t understand, and that we wish didn’t happen. And I think that is exactly how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world. I love Ecclesiastes.

And in this very realistic book, I think we are given a great perspective on Thanksgiving.

Real Talk About Money

I want to look specifically at the last half of Ecclesiastes 5, but to give a little bit of context, Ecclesiastes starts off with the author (who calls himself the Teacher or Preacher depending on your translation) saying that life is vanity, like chasing after the wind. And what he means by this is not that life has no meaning, but that life is brief and it’s hard to grasp, both literally and metaphorically—we don’t get to determine how long our lives are, and there are things about life that we simply can’t understand. It’s like trying to catch the wind or smoke.

And then the Teacher talks about all of these things in life that he sought after to find meaning, and he says that none of it lasts. We could say more, but that’s sufficient to give us an idea of what is going on in Ecclesiastes. Picking up in Ecclesiastes 5.10-17:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

The Teacher begins by talking about money, and he has some important things to say about it. The harshest feedback I ever got from a sermon came once when I preached about money, but here’s the deal: the Bible talks about money all the time! The Law of Moses discusses it in detail, it is addressed repeatedly in wisdom literature (like Ecclesiastes), the prophets deal with the (mis)use of money, Jesus talks about it frequently, etc. If we want to be biblical, we will talk about money a lot—not because we worship it, but because we want to make sure that we don’t!

From earlier chapters in Ecclesiastes, we know that the Teacher was incredibly wealthy. He knew all about what money could buy, and he said it was vanity—vapor, smoke. It doesn’t last, and therefore doesn’t provide real significance. Here he goes on to list some of the problems that can come with money: addiction (v.10), it attracts the greedy (v.11), it promotes worry and lack of sleep (v.12), it leads to hoarding (v.13), it can easily be lost (v.14), and it cannot follow us after death (vv.15-17).[1]

Here I am, thinking that things would be a lot better if I just made a little bit more, but the Teacher doesn’t seem to agree. What a downer!

I should be clear here that money is not inherently a bad thing, but Scripture has a lot to say about wealth that should make us very careful in how we view it. Money can very easily become bad for us. It can compete with God for our devotion, twist our hearts, and destroy our lives.

To combat that, we should consider our money and indeed, all of our material possessions, as being a loan from God. All that we have belongs to God, but He gives us our possessions so that we can use them for His glory. Therefore, we should take care of our money and be good stewards of it, but we should always remember that it isn’t really ours. This perspective will help us to not get too attached to our money, and also to look for ways we can use it which will glorify God.

Everything Is A Gift

If this sounds pessimistic (first, it’s not; it’s realistic!), keep reading in Ecclesiastes 5.18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5 ends with a summary statement emphasizing the importance of enjoying the blessings that God has given us (cf. Ecclesiastes 2.24-26).

Work is a good thing; we were created to be workers. When God created Adam, He placed him in the garden and told him to tend and cultivate it. From the beginning, we were intended to be workers. Think about those who are disabled and cannot work, or those who need jobs to provide for their families but can’t find them; those are unfortunate situations. If you are able to work and have a job, that is a blessing. If you enjoy your work and enjoy the people you work with, that is an even greater blessing.

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher doesn’t understand everything about life (and if you go through the book, he is very clear about the parts of life that don’t make sense to him), but he does know that work, food, and family are blessings—gifts—from the Lord and should be enjoyed as such.[2] It is incredibly important that we view these things as gifts rather than achievements; if we do so, it completely changes our perspective.

Gifts are not something that we deserve. They are something that we receive because of the gracious nature of the giver. When you think about things in terms of gifts, it really changes your perspective. And here’s the secret, according to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: everything is a gift! Life—as confusing as it is, as filled with heartache as it can be—is a gift. Work is a gift. Our food, our families…all of it: gift. If we look at the things that we have as gifts, it changes everything.

These are blessings God bestows on us to enjoy, not objectives for us to obsessively strive after. There is a lot of joy to be found in living a simple life that is satisfied with meaningful work, sufficient food, and edifying relationships.[3]

Content No Matter What?

This is all tied very closely to the idea of contentment, and if you’ll allow me, I want to jump to the New Testament for a minute to say a few words about that idea.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a favorite for a lot of people; it is one of his more positive letters, despite the fact that he wrote it from prison. He begins it by sharing his thankfulness for the Christians at Philippi. As Paul contemplates the possibility of his impending execution, He speaks of his great concern for spreading the Gospel and how Christ is at the very center of his work and identity regardless of what happens to him. He talks about the humility of Jesus and how He serves as an example to us, how as followers of Christ we are to be lights in the world and seek the standard of Jesus.

And then as Paul is closing the letter and encouraging the Philippian Christians, he says this in 4.10-13:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

I think contentment is less about what you have and more about your attitude of thankfulness toward what you have. Paul says that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance he finds himself. That confirms to me that contentment is an internal quality rather than an external one; it does not depend on what is going on around us. Paul had a lot of difficulty in his life (he was beaten, imprisoned, scourged, left for dead, shipwrecked, etc.), but he was able to find contentment regardless.

This also helps us better understand what Paul means in his famous “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” quote. This verse gets taken out of context and abused a lot, but Paul isn’t talking here about passing an algebra test or getting a job promotion or winning a basketball game. Instead, what he means is that Jesus Christ empowers him to find contentment in all situations.

And to me (and to tie this back to Ecclesiastes), one of the simplest and most powerful ways of finding contentment in all situations is to remember that our blessings are a gift from God.

Our world is filled with people who are chasing after the standards and achievements of the world in some obsessive quest for significance. As Christians, though, we are not to live lives of hopeless desperation; we find our significance and our meaning in the God who gives us all things. Our identity and purpose is not based on achievement; it is based on gift from our Creator.

And that is a cause for great Thanksgiving.


[1]See Chad Landman, Wisdom for Life: 6 Weeks in Ecclesiastes (Hashtag Media, 2013), 18.

[2]Phillip McMillion, Wisdom Literature Class Lecture Notes (Memphis: Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Fall 2010).

[3]William P. Brown, Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 136.

Asleep In The Storm

There are a couple of different instances recorded in the gospels where Jesus and His disciples are caught up in a storm while on the Sea of Galilee. Both of these are fascinating stories, and they have a way of captivating the imagination.

Matthew 14 recounts the story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s stumbling efforts to walk towards Him. He succeeds for a moment, but then, overwhelmed by the waves and the wind around him, takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to sink. Jesus rescues him, rebukes his faith, gets into the boat, and the storm ceases. It is a fascinating event from the life of Jesus, and one from which we can undoubtedly learn much, but it is actually the other “storm” story I want to focus on.

This one drawn from Luke 8/Matthew 8/Mark 4 is likely familiar to you as well. Jesus and His disciples are out on the sea when a storm arises. The disciples are alarmed, and seemingly with good reason—the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was filling (Mark 4.37), swamped (Matthew 8.24), and they were in danger (Luke 8.23).

But Jesus was unconcerned, even unaware (or so it seemed) of their plight—He was asleep on a cushion in the boat. Asleep in the storm.

In such circumstances, the apostles do what seems sensible to them in the moment. They awaken Jesus, and in the face of His seeming lack of concern, ask, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

In light of the life, teachings, service, and, ultimately, the sacrifice of Jesus, it seems like a ludicrous question, but imprisoned in the circumstances of the moment, it seemed like a fair question to the disciples. Jesus was asleep; He didn’t seem to care. He seemed absent from their sufferingOf course, we know the truth: He was there all along.

•  •  •

If I am honest, I can identify with the apostles here more than I might like to admit. As I have written recently, this has been a tough year for my daughter. She has experienced seizures for most of her life, but this year they have gotten worse, and we have struggled to control them. What’s worse, the frequency of the seizures and/or the many medications she is on to try to control them has led to a lessening of her energy, a muting of her (delightful) personality, and even some regressions in the abilities she has worked so hard to develop over the last few years.

Some days are better, with fewer seizures, more energy, and more personality, but other days are really hard. The emotional roller coaster is exhausting. This has been our situation for several months, despite the constant prayers of Caroline and myself and the faithful intercession on her behalf from countless friends and family (both physical and spiritual). You could say that we are experiencing our own “storm” right now, and have been for a while.

At times, it feels like we are drowning with grief, about to capsize, and the question the apostles asked Jesus seems like an appropriate one: “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” It can seem that God is absent.

The other day, I read through Luke’s version of the story recorded above, and it struck me in a way I had never thought of before (which, by the way, is one of the remarkable things about Scripture—as you read it and reread it, new insights constantly avail themselves to us; it is a transformative book!). So often in life, when we are living through a storm, we ask God to take it away from us, and when He doesn’t, we are left to wonder whether He cares about us at all.

But I think Luke 8 offers us a different perspective—in the midst of the storm, Jesus is neither distant, nor uncaring. He is right there with us, in the boat, riding out the storm. His seeming absence obscures His glorious presence. And while He certainly has the power to take the storm away (and we earnestly pray that He does so!), He asks us for faith, faith that His presence will protect us from being overwhelmed by the storms of life.

Journey of Faith

You’ve likely heard the common saying, “Life is not about the destination; it’s about the journey,” or some variation thereof. It may be somewhat cliche, and to an extent, I think it sets up an unnecessary either/or situation. From a Christian perspective, I life is very much about a journey and a destination. Scripture speaks of life as a sojourn (see especially Hebrews 11, 13), but it’s a journey headed to a specific destination. As Christians, we yearn for an eternal home with our Creator, where crying, mourning, and pain are no longer a part of our existence. And yet, Scripture is very clear that whether or not we reach that destination is directly tied to the way in which we travel our earthly lives.

I appreciate the journey metaphor as I look back on my own life as a believer. I am still relatively young, but what a journey it has been! It has been characterized by exhilarating peaks and depressing valleys. Seemingly, there have been few straight stretches where I could confidently see what was coming next, and a lot of twists and turns where the future was impossible to predict.

Interestingly, I also can see how my faith itself has changed over the years. That shouldn’t be surprising—as a Christian I believe (and as a minister, I teach!) that God’s Spirit indwells His people and works to sanctify them, and, furthermore, that Scripture is something we study not just for information, but for transformation: God’s word is living and active, after all (Hebrews 4.12). That is not to say that I have reached a point of exceptional maturity in my faith, or that I have everything figured out. I certainly don’t, and remember, the point of this post is to emphasize the journey aspect of faith, so I in no way want to give the impression that I have somehow arrived. I haven’t.

And yet, in hindsight, I can see how far I have traveled. I can remember (with significant chagrin) the degree to which, as a college freshman, I felt that I had things pretty well figured out. I can remember having long discussions deep into the night with my roommate (who also happened to be my brother-cousin, a made-up category which best describes our relationship) where I would dogmatically assert all kinds of things. In one particularly cringeworthy conversation, I confidently declared that someone who committed suicided was automatically lost—an assertion I made with the vast knowledge and experience of an 18 year-old and with no biblical authority whatsoever! My roommate gently pushed back against my declaration, but at the time, I did not have “ears to hear.”

As I have aged and hopefully become wiser and grown deeper in my faith (see above), I have changed my mind  on some things and I have found that their are fewer religious doctrines that are deeply important to me, but that the ones that are have become more important than ever. Or, put in other words, not everything is worth fighting for, but some things are worth dying for.

In terms of my own faith journey, I do not know what the future holds. Based on the past, I bet there will be thrilling highs, crushing lows, and unexpected turns along the way. I expect that there will be changing perspectives, reconsidered positions, and core truths that do not change, but are gradually driven deeper and deeper. I pray that there will be increasing wisdom and spiritual maturity, and I hope—in the biblical sense of the word as confident expectation—that my journey of faith will lead to the destination which Christians have been seeking for thousands of years.

(Not) Praying in the Garden

On the night Jesus was arrested, the Gospels tell a familiar story (Matthew 26.36-46; Mark 14.32-42; Luke 22.39-46). Jesus, in great distress about what He knows will soon happen to him, takes Peter, James, and John with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asks them to be in prayer and then withdraws to pray by Himself.

Jesus’ prayer is famously filled with agony and desperation: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He comes back to check on his friends, and finds them all asleep. He rebukes them, and withdraws again, praying the same prayer. Then He returns to find them asleep again, and the pattern repeats again a third time.

After the third time, a mob arrives and arrests Jesus, and as He predicted, His disciples flee in fear.

Conjecture: might it be that Jesus was strengthened by His night in prayer with the Father, and was thus now steeled to face the ordeal of mockery, torture, and death that loomed before Him? And as the same time, could it be that in their slumber, the disciples deprived themselves of the means to remain faithful to Jesus during the hour of trial?

As Christians, we pray to change circumstances and events around us, but we also pray (or maybe even, we primarily pray) to change us. Prayer helps to bring our wills in line with God’s will, to strengthen our resolve, and to quiet our fears. I have a hunch that if Peter, James, and John had heeded Jesus’s request to pray with Him on that fateful night, their behavior during the trying times that followed might have been very different.

James A. Harding once said, “[Prayer] is an enormous power, the mightiest that can be used by a mortal, that few of us use as we could and should.”[1] When we sleep (literally or metaphorically) instead of pray, what transformation do we miss out on? In what moments of trial do we desert our Lord because our resolve has not been strengthened in prayer as it could be?


[1] James A. Harding, “Does God Answer Prayer?” Christian Leader and the Way 19 (September 19, 1905), 8.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

 

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

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