Meaningless?

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

    I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor,

    and this was the reward for all my toil.

 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done

    and what I had toiled to achieve,

everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;

    nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV via biblegateway.com)
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The persistent theme of Ecclesiastes is that everything done “under the sun” is meaningless–wisdom, riches, hard work, morality, pleasure–it all ends in death and futility. In the end, the author (presumed to be Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived) concludes that the whole “duty” or purpose of mankind is to fear God and keep His commandments, because God will judge every deed and hidden thought.

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Sometimes, it can be difficult to pray when life seems “meaningless.” I was reminded recently of a time when my life seemed pointless and pathetic. I was nearing 40, single and childless. I had a good job, and enough to live comfortably, but I wasn’t a “success” by many people’s standards. I owned a car, but it was getting old. I did not own a home, and I hadn’t taken a vacation in years (although I had traveled for work, and counted that as something). I had a cat. I was a single, frumpy, middle-aged cat lady. And when I prayed, I often asked, “Why, God?” And when I read Ecclesiastes, I got depressed.

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But Solomon is writing about life from a distinctive point of view. He sets out to find a purpose for life “under the sun.” When I was looking at my life from that perspective, everything DID seem meaningless. It was meaningless for me to save up for a house if I had no one to leave it to; meaningless to pursue higher career goals or travel, when I had no one to share it with.

A very wise co-worker noticed my depression and dissatisfaction. She pointed out that purpose, happiness, and satisfaction came from God, but that I had to choose my perspective. God had given me life, and purpose– a job, shelter, comfort, family and friends. I could grump and grouse about what I didn’t have, or the meaning I couldn’t find– OR I could trust that God would reveal meaning and purpose as I kept pursuing Him.

Instead of asking, “Why, God?”, I began asking other questions. “What do You want me to continue doing?” “How can I serve You right where I am?” “Who can I bless and encourage, today?” And even, “How can I use these experiences and feelings to honor You?”

God stepped in and offered me the opportunity to change my circumstances–I became a wife, a step-mother, a grandmother. I left my job–now I make even less money, and I’ve had to learn new skills and deal with new challenges, but I have also learned more trust in God’s wisdom and timing. But it didn’t happen right away. What DID happen was that I gained a renewed sense of purpose and a new focus. I wasn’t doing things “under the sun,” but “under the Son!” Somehow, I had forgotten to look for my meaning and purpose in being a child of God, and had turned my eyes inward.

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It seems like a bone-headed mistake in retrospect, but, then again, even Solomon wasted some of his life looking for meaning and purpose in all the wrong places! And those years were not meaningless or wasted. I learned patience, perspective, compassion, and wisdom to pass on to others who may be in similar circumstances.

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“Father, today, may I focus on the meaning and purpose that can only come from seeking You. You are the author of purpose, of wisdom, and of wholeness. And as You reveal Yourself to me, help me to reflect and share Your wisdom and character to others. Amen”

Whiter Than Snow

Winter has arrived full force in my part of the world– snow, falling temperatures, ice, and freezing winds make travel difficult and even dangerous. But snow brings about some good things–and one of those things is its color. The white of the snow helps reflect every small bit of light during the short, gray days of winter. When there is no snow cover, some of us can suffer from a condition called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD). We don’t get enough exposure to sunlight, which can lead to depression, diminished immunity, and other health-related issues. And, while snow doesn’t contain vitamin D or create sunlight, it does reflect it and sometimes that is enough.

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I am enjoying the whiteness of the new-fallen snow as I write this. Even though it is late afternoon, and normally, it would seem dark by now, the snow makes it lighter; I can actually see better because of the snow! (Of course I couldn’t say this if I were driving and the snow was blowing about or covering my windshield…)
Many people in my community are rejoicing in the snow and cold– it means they can go skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, and build snowmen and snow forts. Some of the children (and their teachers) are hoping to have a “snow day” today. And some people are hoping to make some money from shoveling or plowing driveways and parking lots!

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There will be many people praying for snow; and others praying for the snow to end! And in a few days, the pure white snow may end up dingy and gray from being exposed to unclean air particulates, vehicle exhausts, smoke from chimneys, animal tracks, tire tracks, boot tracks, and trash. But for now, it has a purity and beauty that brightens the spirit.

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God uses the imagery of snow to speak of His Salvation. In Isaiah 1:18, He says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The psalmist David says to the Lord, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) And the Apostle John writes, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:3)

I don’t feel particularly pure most of the time– I know my past; I know my own failings, and the times I have NOT sparkled, or reflected God’s perfection. And God’s salvation doesn’t ignore any of that. God doesn’t declare that I have never sinned–instead, He takes the dirt, shame, and guilt that I deserve, and swallows it up in His grace. In its place, He gives me a renewed mind, a clean heart, and the power to make choices that reflect His heart and mind.

In a “SAD” world that is cold and gray, depressed and weak, God offers redemption that can make us purer, lighter, and fresher than new-fallen snow. We can reflect His light to a darkened world. And, even though the world is filled with contamination and filth, God has the power (and the desire!) to purify us, protect us, preserve us, and give us a sparkling purpose.

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Esprit de Corps

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It is important to spend time alone with God, but it is also necessary that we spend time with others. This may not always be possible in a physical sense. This past year of pandemic and lockdowns has kept many of us apart. Even church services, Bible study groups, and “fellowship” events have been limited or suspended. But we have other ways of being “together.” Phones, internet, and letters are just a few of the ways we can stay in touch. And prayer is another. This is nothing new, but I’ve been reminded recently that prayer is more than just a personal pursuit. It is also a corporate pursuit. We do not live alone, and we do not pray in a vacuum.

It can be tempting to feel isolated and even apathetic when we are forced by circumstances to spend more time alone. We often succumb to the lure of “escapism”– binge-watching, gaming, or other forms of mindless entertainment to pass the lonely hours. It is not “wrong” to relax or be entertained for a time, but we can lose sight of our purpose and “sleep-walk” through our days, losing opportunities to connect with others and be a blessing (and be blessed in return)!

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The term, “esprit de corps” is used by tight-knit groups– military units, dance and theatre groups, etc.–to describe their unity, devotion, and camaraderie. It should be natural for us to apply this same phrase to Christ-followers. After all, we are the “corps”– the body– of Christ! To pray for and with one another should be a given, and a “core” feature of the Church. To stay in touch, to build up and encourage one another, to forgive, accept, and protect one another, to defend the honor of the Church and ALL its members– this should go without saying. But I’m saying it here, because I see so many examples of division, in-fighting, finger-pointing, shaming, and other nonsense. And I’m saying it because I see so many examples of people like me, who withdraw, stay silent, and allow ourselves to become weary and jaded, instead of reaching out and pulling together. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

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I pray everyday for people from around the world– but am I willing to pray for those down the street who hurt my feelings last week? Am I willing to risk reaching out to call or write to someone who may be discouraged, or having doubts and struggles? Do I pray with gusto; eager to lift others up and bring blessing to them, even in difficult times? Do I cheer on fellow believers, even if we disagree about politics or music? Do I champion the Church, even when some believers or even congregations bring momentary shame to the name of Christ?

“Esprit de corps” is not a phrase of apathy, or discouragement. It is not just an idealistic motto. It is not a phrase of grudging duty to a group or idea. It is bold, and forward-looking. It is united and strong. Just as the Body of Christ must be in the days ahead.
For more info on corporate/group prayer, see https://www.compellingtruth.org/corporate-prayer.html

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BTW– There are several terrific prayer groups online–Groups that pray for your requests; groups that share requests locally; groups that pray globally for healing or intercession; groups that will connect you to local churches or Bible studies.
*As with any online activity, please be careful. Not every group that calls itself “Christian” or talks about prayer is legitimate. Avoid sites that seek to get personal identifying information, or ask you to send a fee to join their group. Many local churches will be happy to add you to their “prayer chain” to pray for (and/or encourage or visit) people in your own community. Other church groups may have “Zoom” or “Skype” prayer meetings, or other corporate prayer opportunities.

Time Flies

Yesterday had 24 hours, the same as every other day. Yet it seemed to zoom past, leaving me “behind” in getting my blog ready for today. So here I am, writing “under the gun” so that I can publish today.

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Blogs like this don’t have “deadlines” in the sense of print publications or broadcasts. I don’t have advertisers or managers demanding that I have content by a certain time or date. There are no editors to determine the length of any particular blog post. This one is likely to be shorter than most, in fact. And God isn’t standing by waiting to scold me for being late today. It is my own sense of expectation that gives me grief.

But God has placed all of us in time and space with a purpose. We do not have the power to “stretch” time, to reclaim it, or to bargain for more of it. Time “flies”–and what we do in the time we have flies, too. And He wants us to give our time to Him first of all.

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Falling behind on a blog entry is not a life-or-death matter. Falling behind in life is another matter.

I pray that today will be a productive day, a restful day, even a challenging day– and that, as it flies by, we will fulfill God’s purpose in it. And He’ll take care of the timing!

I Can Do All Things..

I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.

The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.

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In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.

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And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.

But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.

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So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”

Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.

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May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!

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Consider the Lilies..

We just celebrated a most unusual Easter– traditions, like gathering at church for sunrise services or grand cantatas, big family meals, Easter Egg hunts, and parades had to be re-imagined, or cancelled. And one Easter tradition that didn’t get a lot of press attention was the damage done to the Easter flower market. Lilies, hyacinths, daffodils, and other spring flowers–some grown locally, others imported from around the world–were unable to be shipped or sold as people are in quarantine. Churches and restaurants, two of the largest consumers of Easter Lilies, had to cancel their orders for this year. People who normally buy lilies from garden centers or florists were unable to do so, and those who grow them were unable to ship them out or sell them. Literally millions of flowers had to be burned, composted, and destroyed during this season of “new life.” Flowers for funerals, weddings, and birthdays were also lost, and millions more will be lost as we approach Mother’s Day next month. What a waste of beauty and life!

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And yet..

Some will say that it is a waste of time to mourn the loss of flowers when we should be mourning the loss of human life to COVID-19. I don’t think it is an “either/or” kind of mourning. There is a lot to mourn during these days, and we should not be ashamed to mourn–loss of connection, loss of beauty in the form of flowers, loss of jobs and prosperity, loss of opportunities– many of which we take for granted.

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But Easter is not about our loss– in fact, it is not about loss at all. It is about victory and hope and ETERNAL life– not the life of a lily or even a human body– eternal, joyful, victorious life given to us as a gift for all who will receive it! If we are missing a beautiful symbol of that victory this year, we can never be deprived of the reality the Lilies represent!

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I am reminded that Jesus (and others in the Bible) had a lot to say about Lilies..and grass, and other plants, and their relation to human life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A25-34%2CLuke+12%3A22-32&version=ASV https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103%3A15-17&version=ESV
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+peter+1%3A22-25&version=ESV

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In this season, many of us are feeling very much like the “lilies of the field.” Our lives seem uncertain, our days unproductive, even futile as we wait for this crisis to pass. We miss these symbols of beauty and new life, but we must not place our hope in the symbols. We must not place our hope in what we know or what we do or what we own. Jesus reminds us that we are– our souls, our lives, our hopes, our thoughts, and our longings– worth far more than lilies or sparrows– God knows what we need, and His love for us doesn’t depend on our being “essential”, or healthy, or having all the answers.

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This season reminds us that our lives here are precious, and temporary as the grass. But our existence is both precious and eternal–and thanks to the very God who clothes the lilies of the field, we need not worry or fear what lies ahead. All who turn to Him will be saved. We are not destined to be burned or composted or forgotten. We may face uncertain days ahead, but God has a purpose and a plan for us to bloom– not just for a season, and not just to adorn a building or a home, but to bloom for eternity in His very presence!

Dust in the Wind

Several years ago, there was a popular song lamenting that, “all we are is dust in the wind.” The song evokes a feeling of helplessness– we are weak, small, and helpless as dust in the wind. It speaks of impermanence, brevity, sadness, and hopelessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and offers a warning not to “hang on” to earthly vanities.

The Bible speaks to this –God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he would die and return to the dust from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). Abraham was told that his seed would be “like the dust of the earth;” spread out across the earth and unable to be counted. The book of Job is filled with images of dust and ashes, as Job, homeless and afflicted, sits covered in them, talking of his life and death, and the emptiness of loss.

But there are surprisingly few references to dust in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples to visit cities, and where the people will not listen, the disciples are to leave and “shake the dust from (their) feet” as a testimony against them (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5)

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There are two aspects of dust I want to look at today. First, as the song suggests, dust is carried along by the wind. It has no permanence, no weight, no importance, no resistance, and is swept away by a chance wind, or by design with a broom or dust cloth. Dust is not cherished, but discarded. But dust is not destroyed by the wind– it is carried, lifted, moved, and dispersed, but not destroyed. The dust of today will be somewhere else many generations from now, and the dust that settles on our floors, tables, and under the bed may have been blown there from thousands of miles and centuries away! In just such a way, our lives– fragile and brief, leave traces of words spoken, kindnesses shared, and sacrifices made, that live long after our bodies return to ashes and dust. There is an amazing glory in a mote of dust carried by the stillness into a beam of sunlight. It sparkles and dances and drifts in a graceful spiral, suspended in light and air. And there is glory in a life lived in the light, seeking stillness and grace, being carried by the slightest whisper of God’s eternal love.

Secondly, dust that is not in motion, not in the light, IS discarded, unwanted, corrosive, and dead. There is no glory in layers of accumulated dust covering the beauty of an antique dresser or building up in the corner of a room. Dust that is NOT carried on the wind sits, worthless and destructive. It gets absorbed into an unsightly pile of sad, dead matter, and it sits– going nowhere, doing nothing. We shake it off, brush it off, wash it off, sweep it away, and get rid of it.

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Dust comes from death– dead skin cells, dead plant and animal matter–and I think there is a very real reason it is mentioned so often in connection with sin, sickness, unbelief, judgment, and death (though not in all cases). God does not want to leave us unmoved and dead– He wants to bring us to glory and give us new life in Him. We are dust in the wind– but that is not all we are. Instead, it is what we are for a brief moment in time– being carried to a new destination, or sinking and settling into despair.

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I pray that we will be lifted up in prayer and faith today, to dance in the light of God’s glorious grace, and carry our mote of glory and grace to wherever God my send us.

Behold!

Matthew 6:22-23 English Standard Version (ESV)

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

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O be careful little eyes what you see

O be careful little eyes what you see

There’s a Father up above

And He’s looking down in love

So, be careful little eyes what you see

whole song text here

 

This little light of mine–I’m gonna let it shine!

black frame sunglasses beside table lamp
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Both the scripture text and the children’s song above are often used in the context of watching pornography or violent images, and their negative effects.  It is true that if we fill our sight with negative and sinful images, we will be impacted negatively.  We become desensitized to violence and evil; we become addicted to images that shock or excite us.

But I think there is more going on in this text, and I think it has a bearing on our prayer life.  What we choose to see also involves what we choose NOT to see. We talk a lot about what we shouldn’t be watching or seeing, but there are some things– even unpleasant things– that we MUST see if we are to be the light of the world.  Not only must we see such things, we must shine a light on them and cause others to see them.  Injustice, corruption, dishonesty– we must be careful to see them for what they are.

We live in a world of optical illusions, and it can be very difficult to see clearly.  But that is what we are called to do.  If our eyes are good/healthy, we will let in the light of truth, so that shadows and illusions will become stand out.  If our eyes are bad/unhealthy, the shadows and illusions will trick us.  We will see only what can be seen in a glance, and miss the bigger picture.

person holding magnifying glass
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John the Baptist had excellent “vision.”  As he was out in the hot sun glinting off the Jordan, he looked up to see hundreds of people waiting to be baptized.  But his eyes were searching the horizon, seeing all the others, but seeking one face.  And when he saw it, he drew everyone’s attention to it– “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29)  Our eyes, like those of John, should be looking with purpose and hope.

built structure against sunset sky
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Throughout the Bible, God looks at people with love and compassion.  Several times in the gospels, Jesus looks upon or takes note of people (some of whom are seeking him, and others who know nothing of him) and has compassion on them.  Our eyes, like those of our Father, should be looking in love.  Love sees things as they really are– it sees sin, pain, disease, betrayal, war, hatred, greed.  But love sees beyond to people who need salvation, healing, restoration, peace, compassion, and hope.

gray candle lantern
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I need to give careful consideration to what I allow myself to see– do I see all the negative, hateful, sinful things going on around me?  Do I see such things with a sense of purpose and with compassion?  Or do I ignore them and turn my gaze inward, shutting out the hurt and need all around me?  Do I see all the shadows and illusions and let my own light grow dim?  Or do I see the Light of the World, ready to shine (even through me), with hope and redemption?  Will I pray with my eyes closed and shuttered, or wide open?

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