28 April 2006

The Bible's Least Romantic Verse

"Enjoy life with your wife whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun--for all your meaningless days." --Eclesiastes 9.9

23 April 2006

Ecclesiastes Made Easy

I had this message in my Inbox yesterday:

"Could you and would you have time to do an introduction to Ecclesiastes? This is an unusual and fascinating book and you could do it justice. Please confirm that you receive. I hate to call you on Sat... Johnny"

I'm a teacher through and through, but there are some times when I don't mind being the student. That tends to happen when the lesson is on something that I don't understand very well--such as the book of Ecclesiastes. All week I'd been studying my Sunday School lesson, thinking, "I'm sure glad I don't have to teach this." Of course, all week, Johnny had been down in Nashville working as a lobbyist in the state legislature, too busy to prepare a full lesson. (Watching Tennessee's legislature takes as much energy and fortitude as watching teenagers, I believe.)

Even Johnny's flattery, "You could do it justice," couldn't break through the hopelessness of my goal. Then again, hopelessness is the theme of the book. I thought I'd share some of the insights with you.

First some context for the study. Prior to Easter, our class was studying the book of Job--man suffers injustice, keeps his faith in God, gets rewarded in the end. It closed with Christ's suffering, first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, and we made parallels between Job and Christ.

This week we began Ecclesiastes, and closed with a study of some of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. The book of Ecclesiastes reads like an "inside-out" version of the Book of Job. Rather than being a testament of suffering, it is a chronicle of excess--reflections of a man who gained the whole world, only to find the meaninglessness of a life without God's leading.

At the end of Job, the main character has been vindicated by God. By the 2nd chapter of Ecclesiastes, the writer has almost eviscerated all the hope, all the love, all the grace that a believer might expect from God.

Most people believe that Ecclesiastes come from Solomon--and it is fascinating to consider them in light of Solomon's own life story. His kingdom had an auspicious beginning: God appeared to him in a dream and promise to grant any one wish he could make. Solomon asked for wisdom--a wish granted by God, along with wealth, splendor and empire (1 Kings 3.1-15; 4.29-34). Only a few stories of Solomon's wisdom survive in the Bible: his judicious judgment of two women arguing over a surviving child, and his epic encounter with the Queen of Sheba.

The high point of Solomon's career was the dedication of the temple. His prayer of dedication is one of the greatest speeches found in the Bible (1 Kings 8), yet a critical study of the speech shows the seeds of the fall that will soon come. By 1 Kings 11, we learn that Solomon's excesses--his enslavement of his own people, his 700 wives, his 300 concubines have attracted God's wrath. "The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord," (1 Kings 11.9).

God raises two opponents to harass Solomon in his final years. The mysterious King Hadad of Edom (a survivor of the genocide through which Joab wiped out the nation of Edom in 2nd Samuel 8) gains the sponsorship of Shishak, Pharaoh of Egypt, and tries to invade.

Closer to home, the prophet Ahijah promises Jeroboam ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. When Solomon learns of Jeroboam's goals, he tries to murder him, but Jeroboam escapes to Egypt to await Solomon's demise and the rule of his inferior, vain, and incompetent son, Rehoboam.

This, then, is the context for the book Ecclesiastes. Solomon is hedged in by enemies, and Egypt is on the rise, ready to seize any opportunity to invade and take away everything Solomon has built. Such excess would seem meaningless in this context, wouldn't it?

Wise as he was, Solomon knew the game was up--that his glorious building projects and his wide-ranging empire were "a chasing after the wind." Hindsight shows that within five years of his death, ten tribes would split away under the rule of Jeroboam, leaving the rump nation of Judah to stumble forward another 250 years. Within 15 years, Pharaoh Shishak would sack Jerusalem and carry away many of the treasures so lovingly stored in the temple (including the Ark of the Covenant so celebrated by Solomon's father, David).

Eight chapters in the first book of Kings tells the story of Solomon--only eleven chapters. He appears to me to be a man whose life was squandered with excess and shallowness. Ecclesiastes bears this theme out, leaving us with wisdom, yes, but also a health share of regret for all that Solomon wasted.

17 April 2006

Easter Thoughts

There is a reason why I worship from church pews rather than from the pulpit: my ideas tend to come a little late, usually while my mind and my spirit are interacting with the message of the sermon. Although these Easter thoughts are technically a day late, they were inspired yesterday, and I hope they will inspire you, too.

In the year 63 BC, Jerusalem welcomed the greatest general to ever set foot in that ancient city. For all the warcraft of Nebuchadnezzar or David or Sheshak (the pharaoh who looted the Ark of the Covenant from Reheboam), Pompey the Great was a general at the height of his glory, welcoming comparisons to Alexander the Great (who had bypassed Jerusalem in his conquests).

In full glory--his armor was coated with gold for his triumphs--Pompey strode through the city, advancing to the steps of the Temple, the very temple rebuilt by Nehemiah about 400 years earlier. Pompey, the Roman governor responsible for the eastern provinces, had joined the Hasmonians in a bitter civil war that had divided the ancestors of Judas Maccabees, who had gained independence from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. As power broker, he would usher in Roman suzerainty that would dominate the region for another 400 years.

His bodyguard shoved aside a group of Jewish protesters and held wide the temple doors for Pompey to enter. The general climbed the steps and entered as a Hasmonian guide described the significance of the altar and the Holy Place. At the far end of the hall hung a great curtain. Much to the horror of his hosts, Pompey advanced, reached out, and slipped through the curtain into the Holy of Holies, a room entered only by the High Priest once every year on the Day of Atonement.

He looked up into the square chamber, gazing at its four walls and smooth cobblestones. He looked back at his aides and grinned quizzically. "It is empty," he observed.

He turned, strode hurriedly through the temple to the exit, and left Jerusalem for more conquests and an eventual showdown (13 years later) with the only man in the world who could surpass his military genius: Julius Caesar.

No doubt the Most Holy Place became a punchline in the stories that Pompey told thereafter: such reverance and adoration given to a room that was completely empty!

The same observation was made by two women, who had hurried to a room carved out from the base of Golgotha, "Skull Hill," early on a Sunday morning nearly 100 years later. They had gone to adorn the body of a fallen Teacher, yet they had found that room empty: an empty cave that would become every bit as holy to believing Christians as the Most Holy Place had been to the Jews.

What would Pompey have thought? What's the big deal about an empty room?

After all, is religion just the worship of empty chambers? The ancient Minoans worshipped caves, I read, viewing them as portals, dwelling places of the gods. I don't know enough about Islam or Buddhism, but I would expect that there are empty rooms there, too. Perhaps empty rooms are the most obvious sign that faith is empty, the objects of believers' adoration are simply nonexistent.

Another question came this weekend at men's Bible study: what does it mean to be "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3)? My Bible commentary showed that this was "in contrast to the spiritually proud and self-sufficient."

One who is "poor in spirit," then, is someone with an empty room deep within themselves. Spiritual hunger, spiritual thirst, the longing for reunion with Christ--all come from the Empty Room of the heart. And Christ promised to bless these rooms with the "kingdom of heaven."

We worship empty rooms because there is a spiritual longing within each person that the God of Empty Rooms can only fill. Had the Holy of Holies been packed to the ceiling like a pharaoh's tomb, it could not have honored God before Pompey any more than it did. (As it was, the Holy of Holies became the first holy place Pompey couldn't loot.)

On Easter Sunday this year, I peered into the tomb with Mary and with Peter and with John. It was empty. Christ was risen. I broke bread and drank juice. On my knees in the silence thereafter, I hear echoes in the Empty Room within me. I begged to be filled.

15 April 2006

A Funny Story Set in Sweden

My favorite Christian music singer, Andrew Peterson, just got back from a trip to Sweden. We've been discussing Sweden on a message board on his web site (he actually responded to one of my posts), and I just had to post the story on my own blog.

I hope you enjoy this.
I understood AP's story about the Swedish meatballs, but I would love to
hear any other examples of culture shock that he went through. Do Swedes still
drive on the left-hand side of the road? Did he find anything over there he
wished that we had here in the States? Were the churches and methods of worship
similar to ours here? That's what I would love to hear about.

I'll tell one more story, which will hopefully be funnier than the lame
joke I posted above. I spent a week near Gothenburg, Sweden, celebrating
Midsummer's Day in 1991. (Two close friends are Danish, hence the joke above. My
grandmother was actually full-blooded Norwegian.)

Anyway, Midsummer's Day is a big celebration there, especially considering
the length of the year's longest day in those high lattitudes. I remember that
the sun went down at 11 p.m. and rose again around 2:30 a.m., and the
"nighttime" was more of a dull, gray dusk.

My hosts held a bonfire and set off fireworks to celebrate the holiday.
Then they took me to a Swedish sauna that was set right next to a beautiful
lake. "You're going to love the sauna," they told me.

Well, since I had been hitchhiking, I didn't exactly have a bathing suit,
so I borrowed one from a Swede. The Swedes translate the American word, "bathing
suit," as "embarassingly tiny, near-immodest, loin purse" or, more familiarly,

We went to the sauna, talked, laughed, and roasted until somebody said,
"Let's jump in the lake!" Before I knew what had happened, I had leaped from the
120-degree sauna into 60-degree lakewater. We returned to the sauna, and
repeated this every 20 minutes for about two hours.

I remember two things about the experience. First, it felt really good.
When I went to bed that night, my skin felt really soft and healthy. I'll always
remember that first great sauna, even if I haven't sauna-ed since.

Secondly, I'll never forget the embarassment I felt when I got out of the
lake the second time and looked down at my, er, bathing suit. I won't go into
gory details describing the effects of cold on the male anatomy, but ...

Those are the kinds of stories I love about Sweden--a most excellent
country, I must say. Let's hear more!

12 April 2006

Beautiful Creatures

I developed my first rolls (yes, I'm still doing the old 35mm thing) of film this week in about six months! I wanted to share some with you. We spent a Sabbath in March visiting Jenny's patients and adventuring at Barren River Dam, which led to the picture you see above.

Here's a test: stare at the above left photo for ten seconds, and just try to keep from grinning back. Come on! It's not working!

Jenny and Ellie attended a "tea party" fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Ellie won a prize for best-dressed doll. I think she should have also won the prize for Most Gorgeous Mama.

I bought a laptop computer last month. Rather than finally getting a computer of my own, it was quickly seized by the kids. The picture above is almost a Norman-Rockwell-style portrait of a 21st-Century American family. Big Sister was playing a game, but she got to a rough part and had to get help from 5-year-old Brother. Meanwhile, Baby Brother uses the distraction to pull people's hair!

09 April 2006

No School Tomorrow

I'll be home tomorrow, and the weather will be perfect.

Sadly, most people and businesses in my school's district will spend their day recovering from the single most devastating weather attack I have witnessed in my area in my lifetime.

Last Friday, around 2:15 p.m. Two tornadoes ripped through southern Sumner County. One passed within about 200 yards of my high school, while another ripped through the administration building at Volunteer State Community College and made the car dealerships on the other side of highway 31E look like my sons' bedroom floor.

I was away from school when it struck, supervising students at a Youth in Government conference in Nashville. I did get to visit my school on Saturday morning, and I captured some photos from the video I took.

This is one of the electrical poles behind the school. Along with this light pole, one of the light towers on the baseball field also was knocked down.

The storm also tore down the goalposts in the end zone of our football field. Of course, our team was 1-8 this year, so it would take a tornado for that to happen! To the front right of the goalpost, you will see the scoreboard. The building behind the field was the baseball/softball scorehouse, concession stand.

Apparently the roof was ripped off the top of the gym. Some windows were also broken. Hopefully we'll be back in school on Tuesday.

02 April 2006

Family Goals, Family Crest

Jenny and I are going through a lot of changes right now, developing some new relationships and refocusing our attention on the relationships that matter most: our time with our kids.

One of the things we have developed is a set of goals for our family. We have chosen two German words, "Abenteuer, Dienst," as our family motto. They mean "Adventure, Service."

Now we're working on a new family coat of arms. It is a fun project that involves choosing colors, flags, and symbols that represent our goals for our family. It is clearly a work in progress. Here it is to date:

We need to add a number of family symbols. I will put a river through the middle. It's a symbol that comes from the ancient Dittes family coat of arms (from Germany). The creek that flows through our familienstadt of Diedelsheim, Germany, is called the Saarbruecke. Beyond the Saarbruecke, there are other rivers that Jenny and I love: the Wye in Wales, is a place where Jenny hiked to find her ancestors. I tell people, "The Ohio is my mother, and the Danube is my father."

Otherwise, we're considering other symbols: something to do with Christianity, the pines along our driveway, Penard Castle (another special place in Wales), a glove with an extended thumb (for hitchhiking). Those are just some of the ideas.

If you can think of any, I would welcome your comment.