What a Waste!

The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.

In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.

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So what are we to do?

First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.

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Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!

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Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.

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One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Resent, Relent, or Repent…

We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.

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There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.

Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”

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But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”

If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.

Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.

Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.

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It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.

But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!

Winning the “Lot”-tery

The character of Lot in the Biblical book of Genesis is one that often gets overlooked in favor of his uncle, Abram/Abraham. Yet Lot lingers in the background, following Abram to Canaan, and later to the area between Bethel and Ai. (See the end of Genesis 11 and the beginning Genesis 13.) Curiously, we don’t hear anything of Lot when Abram and Sarai travel to Egypt during a period of famine. He isn’t there to support his uncle, or share his burden. He isn’t there to alleviate any of Abram’s fears relating to Sarai (See Genesis 12). Abram resorts to lying about his relationship, and causing difficulties with Pharaoh, but there is no mention of Lot until Abram and Sarai return from Egypt. Lot rejoins his uncle and they move into a fertile region– so fertile, in fact, that their flocks and herds soon grow too big for the area.

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At the beginning of Genesis 13, things have come to a crisis point. Abram, as the elder, could have used his age and position to demand the best grazing land and force Lot to fend for himself elsewhere. But he doesn’t. God has already promised that Abram and he will become a great nation and own the land of Canaan. Abram, in faith, tells Lot that he can have his choice of the land– anywhere he goes, Abram will pull back and take the leftovers.

It must have felt like winning a prize–being given carte blanche– first dibs on the best land in the region, while your elder agrees to give you even more space to expand. And Lot makes the most of this golden opportunity. He chooses the best land in the area– well watered, green, and near wealthy centers of commerce and culture–what could go wrong?

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Before we explore the answer to that question, let’s stop and consider Lot’s character and choice in comparison to his uncle’s character and offer.

Abram reveals much of his character in a pattern of “calling on the Lord.” He does it in Genesis 12:7, 13:4, and again after the separation from Lot in Genesis 13:18, where he built an altar. There is no mention of Lot ever calling on the Lord for anything. Not to seek His face, or give Him praise, or memorialize an event. Lot is not a giver– he is a taker. He takes advantage of his uncle’s wealth and standing time after time, but we never see him thanking his uncle or showing deference to him as an elder. This is not to say that Lot never showed gratitude or deference, but he seems not to have made a habit of it. In taking the best land for himself, Lot acted with supreme self-interest. He could have sought out good land elsewhere, leaving his older uncle in possession of good land close by. He could have taken time to consider more than just the obvious good points of the land he chose. But he didn’t. He jumped at what looked like an amazing stroke of luck. But in the end it turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing.

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How often am I like Lot? When have I jumped at the chance to take the “easy” path, never bothering to consider how it impacts others? Have I developed the bad habit of taking “good fortune” for granted? Do I thank God, and those who have poured into my life, for their care and help? Am I dependable– am I “there” for my friends and family in good times and in times of famine, hardship, or pain?

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Lord, help me to learn these lessons from your word. Help me to be more like Abram, and less like Lot as I go through the day and week ahead. And Thank You for Your character of faithfulness and grace, that chose to rescue Lot (twice!) in spite of his selfish choices. Help me to show the same grace to others I encounter.

The “if” at the Center of Life

The English word “life” has only four letters, but the central two form another word– “If.” Life is all about making choices–and facing the consequences of those choices. Often we focus on those circumstances over which we seem to have no choice–I didn’t “choose” to be born, to be born female, to be born into the family or community where I grew up. I didn’t choose to be short, I didn’t choose the color of my eyes or skin or hair (though my hair color has changed as I get older!)

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But those are circumstances– they are not my LIFE. My life is made up of thoughts, feelings, actions, attitudes, decisions, and interactions with others. The color of my eyes, my lack of stature, or my family name does not determine my attitude or my inner beliefs or the way I treat others. Who I am is determined by the choices I make– to be proud, to believe that I am superior (or inferior) to others; to choose hope and courage or to wallow in worry and despondency; to make the most of my time, or to waste it; to envy others or be grateful for all that I have; to obey or defy; to take care of my body or make unhealthy life choices; to be a good steward or be wasteful and destructive; to show love or to withhold kindness; to forgive or to hold a grudge; to seek God for his love and mercy, or to blame God for every challenge I face. Every choice (and its consequences) is woven into the fabric of my earthly life– every reaction to bad circumstances, every investment in future goals, every moment spent “just vegging”, every secret habit I continue to indulge..

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The word “if” can hold great promise or regret– we can get lost in speculating, “if only…” or we can try to bargain with ourselves or with God, “if…then.” God gives us life, and He gives us “if”– the freedom to choose how we will react to our circumstances; freedom to choose how we will live our lives; the freedom to seek Him; the freedom to serve Him (or not) with all the unique gifts and passions He planted in each of us.

Life is filled with “ifs”– good and bad. “If’s” are conditional and have consequences. God’s love is not an “If.” It is unconditional, eternal, and immeasurable. Accepting it, however is conditional–it is the greatest “if” in the center of our life!

Lord, help me make good choices– choices that reflect the love and mercy You have shown; choices that bring You honor and glory. Thank you for making the choice to send Your only Son, that whoever (including me) believes in Him should have everlasting life!

Hannah and Her Son

1 Samuel 1:11 New International Version (NIV)
11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Today, we get to the essence of Hannah’s prayer. And it is not a prayer that most of us would pray. Hannah asks for a son to take away her misery and show her God’s favor. But in the same breath, she promises to give her son back to the Lord forever. How many of us would ask for something so rare and precious just to turn around and give it away?

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As I write this, my country, my friends, and even my family are deeply divided over the issue of abortion. Much is being made about a woman’s “right” to decide whether and when she will have a child. “My body, My choice,” is a common cry among the pro-choice crowd, while the other side points fingers and yells, “baby killer” at those women who choose to end their pregnancy. But yelling and chanting don’t change hearts or facts. A woman cannot actually “choose” to become pregnant at will. In Hannah’s case, she was in anguish over her inability to “choose” to become pregnant. In the case of a modern woman, she may be in anguish over not being able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or avoid unwanted complications resulting from her pregnancy. She may, like Hannah, be in anguish over her inability to conceive or to carry to full term. But in any case, the idea that pregnancy and birth are simply a matter of “choice” is based on a false reality. There is an illusion of “reproductive autonomy” because of modern medicine. We have birth control that makes claims of being “safe and effective”; we have methods to increase fertility, regulate menstruation, reduce the chances of conception, and even stop the fertilization process within a day or two. But no woman can simply “choose” to become pregnant (or stop being pregnant) at will. Women cannot choose the gender of their children; they cannot guarantee the date of birth; they cannot produce a future world leader or athletic prodigy just by force of will. They cannot guarantee their child perfect health, long life, wealth, or happiness. And reproduction among human beings is never “autonomous”!

Hannah’s story seems the antithesis of abortion– here we have a woman begging for a child; she is in anguish over her inability to conceive. And God hears her cry and blesses her with a son.

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But today, I want to look at Hannah in a slightly different light. I think Hannah would have a great deal of compassion for those women who suffer anguish because of their womb– women whose wombs are achingly empty; women whose wombs seem to betray them as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; women who long for their womb to be home to a little girl, even as they have a house full of much-loved little boys (or vice versa); women whose wombs hold anger and bitterness because they have been the unwilling vessel of abuse, incest, and rape.

Infertility and “unwanted” pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. They are distant cousins–manifestations of a fallen world where none of us control even the circumstances of our own bodies. And it is in this context that Hannah makes an extraordinary vow.

Hannah gives birth to a son– the fulfillment of all her longings. Or is he? Hannah gets to carry him in her womb; she gets to wean him. But then she vows that she will give him up– relinquish all rights to be there when he scrapes his knee or loses his first tooth, when his voice begins to deepen and his hugs require her to stand on tiptoe. What kind of mother is Hannah? She will never have all those stories of the little “mom” moments; no memories of tucking him in after a long day, or watching him climb a tree, or run after his dad. She will never hold his hand on dark stormy nights, or ruffle his hair after it gets a new cut (in fact, she vows he will never GET a haircut).

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There are moms–unsung, living in the shadows– who have made the incredible sacrifice of “giving up” their children. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. Some have given them up for adoption at birth. Some have lost parental rights due to divorce, incarceration, or other life circumstances. Some have had their children stolen or taken from them in tragic circumstances. Hannah was given other children after she gave up Samuel, but she never “got over” the loss of her son. No one ever does.

Which brings me back to the debate about abortion. We do not have “reproductive autonomy.” Our wombs are not just another part of our bodies. They are designed to nurture and prepare for new life. To the extent that they fulfill that design, they bring joy and pain, hope and hurt. In denying that reality and embracing the false promise of “my body, my choice”, we don’t erase the lives lost to abortion– we just bury them. And for the women who are making that choice, we must offer compassion. The pain and anguish they suffer before and after an abortion are every bit as real as that suffered by Hannah in her quest to have a son, only to give him up.

Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

Victims and Victors

My husband and I own a small retail business.  Last winter, we were victimized by shoplifters.  They stole several items, worth over $1,000.  The same couple stole items from other businesses in the area.  The police investigated, compared descriptions of the suspects, traced their movements, and got an arrest warrant.  The couple fled, and it took months to find them and bring them into custody.  They have been arrested, and we have been to court for a preliminary hearing, with another potential court date in about a month.

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The court sent us a long series of papers to fill out, including a victim impact statement, where we were to describe how the suspect’s alleged actions impacted us personally, as well as how our business was damaged.  Even though this was not a personal crime (we weren’t physically threatened or harmed, or specifically targeted with an intent to ruin our business), there are still scars–distrust, fear, frustration, and loss, to name a few.  Just because a crime isn’t personal, doesn’t mean that no one suffers.  It has been an awkward process to write out the victim statement, and to appear in court and recount all that happened that day, but it has also been a good process.

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Being a victim is not a pleasant experience.  It is frightening, humiliating, maddening, and bewildering.  “How could this have happened?”  “Why did it happen to me/us?”  “What did I/we do wrong?”  These are honest questions that go unanswered.  But the biggest question may be “Where was God when this happened?”  Didn’t he know?  Didn’t he care?  Why didn’t he act to stop this crime?  Why did he allow it to touch us?

In the months since this happened, I’ve learned to ask some other questions of God–

  • What other “bad” things have you kept from us without our knowledge?  What good things have you showered on us that we took for granted?
  • Who else has suffered the same or worse things– how can I reach out with empathy or understanding?
  • Where are people suffering without justice?  Even though we have had a long wait, we know that the police and court system have been working for us.  Where are people living who suffer without hope, in silence, and in fear of seeking help?
  • What can we learn from this experience?  How can we make our store and our community “safer”?  How can we heal, and bring justice instead of wallowing in hurt or seeking revenge?

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God has a plan, even in times of trial and questioning.  We all will be victims at some point in our life–of injustice, of crime, of disease, of poverty, of losses, of disaster, and of sin’s consequences– our own sins and the sins of others.  We can also be victors, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can overcome bitterness and addiction; we can triumph through cancer, depression, or heartbreak; we can rise above setbacks and circumstances; we can choose forgiveness and healing over hatred and self-sabotage.  We can move from being perpetual victims to eternal victors, through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Two Women

Based on Proverbs 9

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“Let all who are simple come in here.”

Two women, so alike in some ways–
Both attractive and energetic,
Both young and vivacious.

But

One has prepared a table; the other has prepared her bed,
One talks of virtue and honor; the other whispers secrets.
One requires commitment; the other promises no strings.
To enter either door is to be changed.

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A man entered the door of the wise woman.
He was simple, uncomplicated, straightforward;
A man of few words, but noble heart.
He ate at her table, put his boots outside the door–
Carried her over the threshold.
Time passed, children came.
They added on to the house.
Put in a garden; got a dog.
Others took note.
There were gatherings–
Holidays, barbecues, reunions.
The house was a home.
He never looked back.

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Years later, the man died.
His neighbors and family all spoke
Of his honesty, integrity, and wisdom.
His wife mourned, and was comforted.
He was the father of three,
The grandfather of seventeen.

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Another man entered the door of the foolish woman.
He was simple, uncomplicated, straightforward;
A man of few words, but a yearning heart.
He ate her food and drank her wine; slept in her bed–
Wallowed in her perfumed sheets.
He laughed at her coarse jokes,
Reveled in her cat-fights with the other girls,
And the stares of other men.
He bought her jewelry.  She bought him a car.
They lived the dream: parties and vacations;
Dancing ’til dawn and no responsibilities.
They forgot to pay the bills; they wrecked the car.
Others took note and shook their heads.
She moved in with someone else.
He moved into a hotel.
There were other women
And other hotels.
There were neighbors, friends–
Cars, jobs, maybe even children
Along the way.
But he was never the same.

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Years later, the man died.
His neighbors and friends
Spoke of the loss
In passing or over a beer.
The woman didn’t hear of his passing.
When someone brought up his name,
She said, “Such a simple, stupid man.
I wonder what ever happened to him.”

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“Let all who are simple come in here.”

 

 

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