Verifiable words on real, organic church

Following up on recent thoughts on being vulnerable and real, I’d like to share “Strategic Words in Facilitating Movements.”  I take these thoughts as dealing with real church.  This isn’t to say that non-organic, hierarchically organized churches aren’t real; rather, it is to accentuate some positive qualities of a genuine, scripture- and discipleship-based movement.  In other words, this is not about a denomination’s regional staffing decisions or a megachurch pastor’s move to establish another “campus” a few miles away.  This is about something that appears to move on a smaller scale and yet possesses great potential.

Since I am currently in Africa working with phenomenally fruitful leaders, I thought it would be good to share a few “key words” on church planting movements.  These words are adapted from Galen Currah who adapted them originally from David Watson.  Each “word” listed here has so much meaning and power when walked out.

[Selections mine — bc]

1. Prayer:  . . . Know the mind of God and join Him in His work.  Deep intimacy with God is the foundation for everything else!

3. Disciples:  Make Disciples, not converts.  Converts focus on religion.  Disciples focus on Jesus and obedience to His teachings.

5. Churches:  Communities of Believers.  Form new believers into minimal Bible practice groups that will become Communities of Believers (churches) who transform families and communities.

6. and 2.  Authority and scripture:  Authority of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit are all that is needed to start.  Church Planting is an act of God and His people who are obedient to the Word and the Spirit.  ||  Scripture is foundational and the source of all teaching and preaching.  Scripture → Principle → Practice

9. Plan:  Act Intentionally:  Organic does not mean the same things as “accidental.”  Crops are grown through intentional sowing with wisdom.

14. Culture:  Redeem local culture by embracing all you biblically can in a culture and transforming or redeeming the rest.

As I read and revise this for the last time, I am struck most by the phrase “minimal Bible practice group” in #5 above.  Minimalism tends to be tiresome to me in music, but “keep it simple,” “less is more,” and the “tiny house” bandwagon are contemporary cultural examples of related values.  The “minimal practice group” concept draws me.  How about you?

→ Roger Thoman’s original blogpost, quoted above, may be found here in its entirety.  For more, read this post:  Underground Revolutionaries

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Xposted: Freedom, Pleasant Valley, Exile, Presence, and Dentist’s Office

On this day, should you wish to ponder as well as celebrate and recreate, I might point you to this posting from about this time last year:

Freedom reflections

All the links in this cross-posting should open in a new tab in your browser (not sure what happens on a smartphone; I tend not to read much there since I like to see more than 20 words at the same time!).  Here is a link to a recent post on my (less active) Christian Assembly blog:

A pleasant dip in a valley, in which I mention a few good thoughts on a good assembly experience

Recent posts on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog include these:

Exile, in which the pervasive notion of exile is spotlighted

Practicing the presence, in which the presence of God is compared to the presence of His Kingdom

The dentist’s office, in which sterile, calm atmospheres are contrasted with the Kingdom

Celebrities (and authors and Dad)

Celebrities attract the attention of many.  For my part, I don’t recall ever having watched a single episode of a series with the word “celebrity” in its title or its background concept.  (Not even “Shark Tank.”)  I do have to admit that I have a few celebrity autographs, including former major league baseball players Pete Rose and Jay Johnstone, and Colonel Harlan Sanders.  Yes, that Col. Sanders.  I wasn’t chicken to approach him and get his autograph in the airport.  He didn’t seem too fried from his bad flight, and I did respect the pecking order, and I didn’t run a-fowl of airport security.  No, meeting him wasn’t on my bucket (of chicken) list.  Now the jokes are done.  Like a good, rotisserie chicken.

Anyway.  It’s not as though I’m completely unaware of celebrity status.  I’ve been excited by the fame of some.  In music worlds in particular, I’ve had some pretty cool meet-ups.  Here are a few names (several of whose autographs I also have):

Musicians

  • Mason Jones (who was principal hornist for the Philly Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, compiler/editor of a stock-in-trade collection of horn solos … and who, I discovered, was the solo hornist for Disney’s Fantasia
  • Rebecca St. James (autographed a songbook at a Christian concert I attended with teenage friends)
  • Col. Arnald Gabriel (while a grad student, I shuttled him to and from his CO All-State Band rehearsals)
  • Col. John Bourgeois (I played under him in the HAWE in Hornell, NY)
  • Canadian Brass (autographs at a concert)
  • Bonnie Keen, Marty McCall of First Call (autographs at a concert)
  • Michael Card¹
  • Fernando Ortega²
  • Phil Ehart, Rich Williams, David Ragsdale, Billy Greer, Steve Walsh (the 2011 iteration of the rock band Kansas), and Kerry Livgren³

¹ If I had a Christian music idol, it would probably be Michael Card.  Prodigiously prolific for 40-or-so years, he is humble and free of hype and glitz.  One of his principal gifts is locating and distilling core scripture messages into wonderfully acoustic (read:  not over-electronicized) songs.  A group of us attended a Card concert once.  One friend teased me about being such a fan that she was worried I’d throw my underwear onto the stage.  Mine wasn’t that kind of fandom, but I did and do respect Card’s contributions wholeheartedly.  I have referred to him before on this blog, notably here.

² Fernando Ortega has been around in my life for almost as long.  In his inimitable way, he has compelled, driven, and drawn my heart so many times I’ve lost count.  Sometimes, to the point of tears.  I met him face to face once, and I introduced a church elder to his music.  He and his wife became Fernando’s acquaintances, traveling to him and getting pictures taken with him.  I’ll admit to a little jealousy here!

³ And if I had any rock music idol, it would be Kansas.  In my unstudied rock hierarchy, Kansas’ musical and lyrical content  are tops.  Their music consistently manifests qualities that draw me, energize me, and stimulate creativity.  I don’t have the autograph of their principal songwriter, Kerry Livgren, because he could no longer play with the band after a stroke.  Livgren is now a serious believer, and we recently met him at his church.  See here for an account of a special event with Kansas about eight years ago.

Dad and Christian speakers/authors

Today my dad would have been exactly 79½.  He was no celebrity himself, but he did garner some well-deserved awards; he was the first scholar-athlete at Harding College and was later Harding University’s School of Education’s Alumnus of the year.  As a congregational deacon and shepherd/elder, Dad modeled the way to regard those who enjoy celebrity and fame.  He simply treated them like other people.  (No need to stand in awe.)  On the other hand, he must have had an underlying drive to take advantage of the capabilities of some who had, by their virtues, become somewhat famous.  Dad was for years the force that brought well-traveled, well-reputed, “big name” speakers to us.  Our church was in the Mid-Atlantic region, a/k/a the “Northeast,” and we would otherwise have been largely ignored because we were neither huge nor in the Bible belt.  Primarily because of Dad, we had these guest speakers at our church:

  • Cliff Ganus, Jr.
  • Lynn Anderson
  • Jerry Jones
  • Jimmy Allen
  • Harold Hazelip
  • LaGard Smith
  • Rubel Shelly *
  • Jim Woodroof
  • Max Lucado

I might have autographs for a couple of the above (on the title page of a book), but the main thing was having heard them speak in person.  I also shook well-known author Max Lucado’s hand once, because he spoke at a men’s retreat at our beloved Camp Manatawny in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

∗ Shelly’s “shift” is noteworthy—from (1) prize of the far-right, defensive CofC adherents to (2) de facto mouthpiece of the genuinely nondenominational, thoughtfully progressive “wing.”  I heard him speak in a couple other settings, too, and one of his books (I Just Want To Be a Christian) had a deep impact on me.  See here for a touting of that book.

I also have autographs for these other Christian authors in one or more books:

Christian Authors

  • Leroy Garrett
  • Cecil Hook
  • Richard Hughes
  • Gary Collier

I myself invited the late Leroy Garrett to my Delaware church to speak on unity and the Restoration Movement—and to impersonate “Raccoon” John Smith in one of his iconic presentations.  Leroy stayed in my home, and visited in his.  I was in the late Cecil Hook’s home, as well.  Cecil was the less credentialed but also sharp-minded author of Free in Christ (also touted here) and other freedom-themed books, several of which I had the distinct honor of collaborating on.  I’ve eaten lunch with the insightful Richard and Jan Hughes, along with mutual friends the Crowes.  My association with Collier has lasted longer and run deeper than with the others.  I have spent meaningful time with him as friends, collaborated with him (including recently embarking on a significant project), and have been in his home.

On the one hand, celebrity status means little to me, because it so often has little to do with quality, lasting values, or eternity.  On the other hand, some have become celebrated for good reason, and I am glad that my life has involved crossing paths with such men as Anderson, Collier, Garrett, Hook, Hughes, Card, Ortega, and others who have meant much to me.

Rich Mullins’s swan-song album The Jesus Record includes “Man of No Reputation,” a song recorded on a cheap tape deck by Mullins and then later refined by his band.  This song takes a translation of a phrase in Philippians 2 and expands ironically on the awe-inspiring reputation of our Messiah-Servant, Christ Jesus.  Jesus’ lack of celebrity status, combined with His singular attention to His mission and role, impel us to honor Him.

Yancey on Psalms and Ecclesiastes

Philip Yancey has for years been a favorite author of mine.  He writes fluidly, communicating genuinely to the common person without “talking down” to him/her.  His work never fails in terms of significance.  I’d say Yancey generally does Christian writing without Christian platitudes.  His is a voice worth hearing.

I recently picked up a Yancey book I’d seen before but have never read:  The Bible Jesus Read.  (The title refers to the so-called Old Testament.)  I sampled four sections.  Below are a few gleanings from two of them.

Psalms
While lament is widely recognized as an important feature of the Psalms, rarely does the typical believer take note of its prevalence.  Under the heading “Realignment,” Yancey refers to Eugene Peterson, who had asserted that more than 70% of the Psalms’ material can be seen as lament, as opposed to praise or trust or something else more “positive.”  Yancey has a hunch that “the average Christian bookstore reverses the proportions.”

If Yancey had said anything about churches in this regard, I doubt his publisher would liked it.  I’d say most churches do worse than bookstores—rarely if ever giving vent or voice to lament, in times of either personal or corporate distress.  Compared to celebration, praise, and other upbeat activities, lament seems less desirable, but it’s just as important for the human soul.  I could elaborate more and add personal observations about congregational practice, but I’ll simply let this stand for reflection.

Ecclesiastes
On Ecclesiastes, Yancey offers this:

[The] key word “meaningless” appears 35 times, drumming home the theme from beginning to end… It conveys a strong sense of “the absurd.”  The issues bothering the teacher were the same ones that bothered Job and that bother all fair-minded people today.  The rich get richer and the poor poorer, evil people prosper as good ones suffer, tyrants reign, disasters happen, disease spreads, everyone dies and turns to dust.  Life is unfair.  Nothing makes sense; the whole world seems off-balance and twisted….  There is only one word fit to describe this life:  meaningless.

Existential despair did not terminate in the hell holes of Auschwitz or Siberia but rather in the cafes of Paris, the coffee shops of Copenhagen, the luxury palaces of Beverly Hills.  After a trip into Eastern Europe during the Cold War, novelist Philip Roth reported, “In the West, everything goes and nothing matters.  While in the East, nothing goes and everything matters.”

 

Despair is certainly appropriate at times in human existence, but not always.  Ecclesiastes has struck me as being deeply philosophically and appropriately filled with melancholy.  I seems good to realize, too, that Psalms are not brimming with praise; rather, they alternate and juxtapose God-lifting thoughts with cries and laments.

Negative emotions need voice, and literature such as the Ecclesiastes and the Psalms can help.


For two previous posts on Ecclesiastes:

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (1)

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

Mocked no more

When I was a teenager and young adult, it was common to make fun of the song “Just As I Am.”  Perhaps its use seemed gratuitous, or perhaps the song struck us as old . . . or perhaps we just didn’t like it—because we felt pressured to come to Jesus as some older people were coming, just as they were.  One might think that this so-called invitation song, written in 1834, would have passed out of style within 50 or 100 years, but not so.  (Now, I wonder why.)

Later on, I began to see many invitation/altar call songs more as all-occasion songs (not to be relegated to seemingly thoughtless use after the sermon).  I probably shouldn’t shun them altogether because of their habitual, ritualistic use, I thought, so I would choose other assembly times to lead songs like “Almost Persuaded” and “I Bring My Sins to Thee” and “Hear the Sweet Voice.”  These could become devotional meditations for all:  I hoped every believer would take the messages to heart personally and perpetually.  Never should we fall prey to assigning such sentiments only to that other sinner across the aisle who might really need to repent.  (We all need to confess and repent and come to Jesus as Savior.)

Last Sunday, I was impressed anew with what is really a timeless quality in the words of “Just As I Am.”  It hit me pretty deeply.

Who among us could rightly mock the notion of approaching Jesus to “rid my soul of one dark blot”?

Who has not been “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt …” or had “fears within and foes without”?

Who, upon realizing personal blindness and the need for “sight, riches healing of the mind,” would not want to recognize the Lamb of God as the one to whom I go, crying out, “All I need in Thee to find!”?

And who would not love the Savior whose “love unknown has broken every barrier down”?

I think I’ve sensed more of why “Just As I Am” is still sung and can still impact hearts.  I won’t mock the song anymore.  May we all say sincerely, “Now to be Thine alone … O Lamb of God, I come.”

Of confinement and freedom

These inspirational quotations come directly from Roger Thoman’s blog.   The original source is Francis Chan, Letters to the Church.

Church, the answer is not to build bigger and nicer cages. Nor is it to renovate the cages so they look more like the wild.  It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.

There are elements of modern churches that on the surface seem like good ideas, but they can actually keep us from the biblical vision of unity, true fellowship, mutual love, and pursuit of the mission.  Too many look at these elements and insist you can’t have a church without them.

I believe God is leading a movement in this country toward simple, smaller gatherings, and I long to see this movement gain greater traction.  I get so excited when I dream about the Church spreading in small, invigorating expressions that look and feel like the early church. 

Of manna

This is the quickest-written, most spontaneous, least proofread piece I’ve written in years.  It’s about God’s provision, as I’ve recently experienced it.

Yesterday
Two friends appeared at just the right moments.  One of the moments was surprising:  I have only known this person for a couple years, and some of that time was spent intentionally staying away from one another.  Then there were marked steps in a better direction, including but not limited to a revealing moment in a conversation a few months ago:  she said she had made the decision to move from being a believer to being a follower.  I have observed bits of the fruit of that decision in her life, and good interactions of various types have sustained and renewed the friendship.  To the point, yesterday, she was at the right place at the right time.  She told me something about a poignant song, and it moved me.  A few minutes later, I simply had to tell her that I felt she was used by the Almighty in my life.  This was a provision of daily bread for me.

And then another bit of friendship “manna” came a few hours later.  Longstanding friendship comes in different shapes and hues.  This devoted friendship is rich, has multiple good facets, and has been unquestioned for a decade.  The conversation here was longer, providing sustenance on an even deeper level.  A listening ear … personal and spiritual connections … words cannot adequately convey my gratitude for this “manna” from God.

This morning
It’s only mid-morning.  As Jedd I sat at the table for oatmeal, I called to mind the back of a Fernando Ortega CD case I had just seen in my study.  One song’s title is “This Good Day.”  I could not in all honesty yet call this a good day, so I simply prayed openly about “this day.”  All I can ask is for His provision for this day.  It’s my recollection/understanding that God’s manna, provided during the Hebrews’ wilderness wanderings, was purposefully provided on a daily basis—precisely so the people would know God provides on a daily basis.  There was to be no storing up, no stockpiling.

In the same vein, I should try not to worry about provision for tomorrow or next week.  I am grateful now for the provisions of yesterday through two friends, and for sustenance for this day.   This is God’s manna.

In terms of parenting and discipling, I am glad Jedd knows without doubt that I was grateful to, and dependent on, the Lord this morning.

Of food banks, large charities, and Hayden

Not being exceptionally generous by nature with money (some would call me “cheap”), and also simply distractable, I was having a difficult time making decisions on some holiday-time contributions.¹  I asked my wife to help, because she is typically a quick (and good) decision-maker.  She filtered through eight or nine pieces of paper and chose three charities, focusing first on some nearby needs:

  • Second Harvest Food Bank (a semi-local operation)
  • United Way (local chapter)
  • World Vision (because we all like the idea of giving things like goats for milk and chicken for eggs to under-served people groups in developing nations)

These were good suggestions, and we have contributed to at least two of them in the past.  I thanked my wife and eventually took the materials back to my desk.  Then life happened, and I was almost “too late” with one of them . . . and didn’t get to the last one before another opportunity came our way.  Let me share with you why we are now contributing the most to the mission internship fund of a college senior named Hayden.  On hearing about it, I instantly felt the desire to help some, but after reading the cover letter from the director of a program and Hayden’s personal appeal letter, I am even more moved to contribute.  Certain key aspects of this opportunity make it purposeful and appealing to us:

  • It is an internship, involving “mentoring” with an experienced missionary (as opposed to a “campaign” that, in these times, I fear can end up being as much for summer fun as for bona fide mission)
  • Hayden has been “sitting on this” for 2 years—in other words, it was not a shallow, short-lived plan that led to this
  • Hayden’s time period is stated as 4-6 weeks, whereas the letter from the overall program director states that internships are generally 6-8 weeks … it sounds as if Hayden is driven to be with this man in that land, even though his experience may not be as long as that of some other internships
  • The internship is in an Asian country where there is some but not extreme danger—and a lot of need, coupled with a generally peaceful ethos
  • Hayden quotes the late Jim Woodroof (long an inspirer of many)
  • Hayden describes the resident mission family, with whom he will be interning, as “putting nothing before the Kingdom‘s work.”  The mention of Kingdom is always sure to pique my interest.

Add to all that our appreciation for Hayden’s entire family (my parents’ neighbors for several years), the fact that he has made time on a few occasions to visit at length with my mom after my dad died (also helping her with several minor repair items), and that he is studying Hebrew, which I don’t think is a requirement for his major.  Not only does Hayden have character and background and spiritual drive, but he also cares about biblical languages.

I think he just might be destined to make a difference in the Kingdom, and we are privileged to help just a little in one segment of his journey as a disciple and subject of the King.


¹ We don’t itemize on the tax return, so there is no tax benefit to us for making charitable contributions.  Still, it seems a good time to give something to others.

Honors and tributes

Today, I post in my honor of my dad, Gerald W. Casey, and also in tribute to my mom’s father, Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.  Both men died in November:  Ritchie, 25 years ago, and Casey, one year ago today.¹  Having been strongly influenced by his father-in-law, my dad would have wanted to be present for a special event last month.

In recognition of Ritchie’s influence on many Harding students, the university named an endowed chair in his honor.  Here is the invitation to the ceremony:

And here is the program for the event:

The ceremony was an effective length, I thought, and it was carried out nicely.

Some might question the label “Endowed Chair for Discipleship and Church Planting.”  While the term “discipleship” has acquired more meanings and significance since the 50s and 60s, and while the term “church planting” is perhaps not entirely descriptive of Granddaddy’s activities, he expended much energy in personal, relational evangelism² with individuals.  He also led summer campaigns, worked in multiple Christian camps, and preached and led worship in song for evangelistic “meetings.”  His influence resulted in devoted discipleship, and, by multiplication and extension, his work resulted in the planting of churches.  Harding President Bruce McLarty commented, “I began to learn of who this was that I had seen by listening to people who told of the impact he had on their souls—and what he taught them about the presence of God and the holiness of God and the worship of God.”

Below is the bio that appeared in the program:

Granddaddy’s influence was experienced on the Harding campus in group devotionals and leadership in chapel; classes in New Testament, the Psalms, Prophets, and Christian worship; and for a short time, in the chorus.  His book Thou Shalt Worship the Lord Thy God was used in college courses and enjoyed a berth on many shelves.  Also notable, but presumably not directly pertinent to the naming of this university chair, are my grandfather’s teachings and examples in congregational and private worship.

For those who might wish to view the event, I happily share the link to a video provided by Harding University.  Toward the end of the video, in conjunction with biographical photos, my grandfather’s voice is heard saying a few things about worship.  Today I am grateful for the memories of Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., and Gerald Casey.


¹ In the early morning hours of November 28, 2017, just a few hours after he had arrived in the hospice wing of Unity hospital in Searcy, my dad died.  Mom had been with him just a few hours earlier, and his brother all his children, and one of his grandchildren had been with him during Thanksgiving week just prior.

² I recently learned that Granddaddy had a habit of asking for the names of students who were not known to be Christians.  He would seek them out in personal conversation.

³ I observed, in briefly reviewing a copy of the official document last week, that the word “Endowed” was replaced by “Distinguished.”

Three years ago: Dad’s communion meditation

On Sunday, October 4, 2015, my dad shared the following communion meditation in the College Church assembly (Searcy, AR).  The words come from various songs and hymns that Dad strung together, and he read this aloud prior to “the Supper.”  I post this now, first, to honor the Christ; and second, to remember my dad’s ways and means.


Jesus is all world to me—My life, my joy, my all.

Tell me the story of Jesus.

“Abba Father, Father, If indeed it may,
Let this cup of anguish Pass from Me, I pray;
Yet, if it must be suffered, By Me, Thine only Son,
Abba, Father, Father, Let thy will be done.”

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble.
Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?

Upon that cross of Jesus, Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me.
There behold His agony, Suffered on the bitter tree;

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
We place You on the highest place.

O sacred head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded With thorns Thine only crown;
O make me Thine forever; And, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never Outlive my love to Thee.

Your only Son no sin to hide, But You have sent Him from your side
To walk upon this guilty sod And to become the Lamb of God.

My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;

Amazing love!  How can it be That You, my God, would die for me?

He could have called 10,000 angels, but He died alone, for you and me.

Soon Thou wilt come again:  I shall be happy then, Jesus, my Lord!
Then Thine own face I’ll see; Then I shall like Thee be,
Then evermore with Thee, Jesus, my Lord!

I behold You, my Lord and my King—in You, Jesus, I find ev’ry thing.
And now truly my worship I bring To You and unto You sing.
In beholding the glorious Son, my eyes see the Magnificent One,
And His splendor, as bright as the sun, reveals me: I am undone.

The Supper


Dad passed from this life on November 28, 2017, and I am of the distinct impression that he is experiencing a richer “communion” now.

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

Can we who live now really connect with, and gain from, ancient-yet-timeless wisdom?  Ecclesiastes says it’s “not from wisdom” that we long for the former days.  In further contemplation of this ancient “wisdom literature,” another “contemporary” song comes to mind.  The song “That’s What Matters” on Rebecca St. James’s 1996 album “God” is of particular note since it originated with one so young.  Wisdom must not be entirely gained with age:  I think RSJ was barely 20 when she co-wrote and belted the words, “Don’t wait for a better day.  Be glad, and use the one you’re in.”  That is not only musically punchy but also spiritually and emotionally wise, and I ought to heed it.  Peter, Paul, & Mary asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?” and I presume they were commenting on the ubiquity of war more than yearning for generally halcyon days.  Regardless, when we recognize that things are not looking good right now, it probably doesn’t serve to spend much time either in the future or in the past.

The conclusion of Ecclesiastes, basically filling chapter 12, exhorts us to “remember the Creator”—to Whom the spirit returns when all is said and done in this life.  “Fear God and keep His commandments,” and that is about the size of it all, says the Teacher.

Here are some (non-copyrighted, I might mention) quotations from Jon Collins’s article in the periodical from The Bible Project, mentioned in part 1):

“Ecclesiastes can feel like nihilism—like nothing really matters—but, surprisingly, it doesn’t end there. Throughout the book, the teacher pauses to draw the conclusion that even though life is smoke, we still need to live it in a way where we can find joy…. Just because we do the right thing, it doesn’t mean that life will work out…

“… The hope at the end of all this is that one day God will clear away all the smoke and life will be as it is meant to be….

” Ecclesiastes is a reminder that even the best life comes with bangs and bruises, disappointments and depression.  Life can be well lived, but it can’t be controlled.”

I cannot control life in general; neither can I control others’ behavior—or its consequences in this life or the next.  What happens to others ultimately must not be my concern.  Here I recall the old³ Stamps-Baxter song “Tempted and Tried.”  I learned a regurgitatory distaste for the song as a child, but in recent years, more of it has begun to resonate for me.  “We’re oft made to wonder why . . . while there are others living about us, never molested tho’ in the wrong.”  I may not understand it “all by and by,” and that will be okay ultimately, but it doesn’t seem so okay now.  If anyone says, “Cheer up, my brother” to me, all twangy-like, I might just issue a tangy rejoinder, but there are two major truths for me here, stemming from the song and from Ecclesiastes:

  1. Things happen that don’t seem fair or make sense in this life.
  2. I can’t control that.

Collins spotlights the paradox between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, noting that the axioms of Proverbs can seem to be contradicted by the philosophy of Ecclesiastes.  In sum, Proverbs seems to give wisdom maxims, asserting that if one does X, then Y will result.  “All hard work brings a profit,” for instance (14:23).  Ecclesiastes then presents another side of the coin, more or less acknowledging that things don’t always work out like the Proverbs suggest.  “Time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl 9:11).  Subordinate to God’s eternal purpose, some arbitrariness seems to be part of the cosmos.  Here I feel like getting the attention of all those who feel wise or helpful when they remark, “I believe everything happens for a reason.”  (Would my objection be “happening for a reason” in their minds?)  Nope.  Not everything.  In this life, some things just happen.

Leaving Proverbs in the dust again, it seems to me that more similarities exist between Ecclesiastes and Job, in terms of the ultimate import.  We are left, in both these cases, with this resounding message:  what’s left, when all is said and done, is God.  We are not Him, and we should fear/revere Him in awe.  Philosopher Slavoj Žižek offered, “The only thing we have to fear is fear of the dialectical misappropriation of counterrevolutionary bourgeois socio-antidisestablishmentarianism itself.”  Perhaps—in this life, at least.  But I’ll opt to pay more attention to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes.  Collins’s conclusion will serve as mine here:

“The answer to fear is to know what to truly fear.  There is only one thing in the universe worth fearing, and that is the creator of the universe.  And surprisingly, when you let that be your chief fear, you will find a life where fear loses its power.  A life without chaos is impossible, but a life connected to divine wisdom is a good life and a life that can be lived without fear.”


³ The song is less than a century old, which is not very old, all considering!

To elicit from Ecclesiastes (1)

I’ve been feeling the need for wisdom, so I naturally thought of the so-called wisdom literature of Hebrew scripture.  I’ve never been much of a fan of Proverbs (don’t laugh), so I bypassed that collection.  The other main canonical wisdom works—Job and Ecclesiastes¹—are more to my taste.  Now, I had just received a quarterly periodical from The Bible Project,² and the particular issue happened to be devoted to wisdom literature.  I gleaned some very good things from the periodical, and I’ll come back to a few of those.

A couple Saturdays ago, I spent a couple hours reading Ecclesiastes in a new-to-me version, The Voice.  This Bible had me hooked with the first line of the editors’ introduction:  “One of the most enigmatic books of the Old Testament, . . .”  Then “the teacher” of Ecclesiastes itself drew me in much further.  At the end of chapter 2, I was overwhelmed by the mounting up of all the things it’s possible to be enthused over.  No surprise if you’ve read it before, but no possibility turns out to be a lasting one!

Chapter 5 offers, “It is better to quietly reverence God” (5:2 and 5:8).  After trying to ignore the split infinitive, I thought of the proliferation of words in the worship music industry, which displays anything but quiet reverence.  Some contemporary worship leaders just won’t shut up.  (I have been one of those.)  I thought, too, of Matt and Beth Redman’s song “Let My Words Be Few.”  The song is not in my top 150—I never prefer such expressions as “in love with you” when referring to adoration of deity—but the song did come to mind since it stresses sparing words as we stand in awe.  You can listen here to Phillips, Craig & Dean’s version if you have the time—overlooking, of course, the irony of the fact that the “few words” message is carried by words!

Back to Ecclesiastes.  Chapter 6 mentions that it is better to have been stillborn (“an untimely birth” in the RSV, and a “miscarriage” in the NASB) than to live without the soul’s satisfaction.  The “study note” comment in The Voice version seeks to divert attention from the starkness of this “wisdom,” but I rather think the editors might be embarrassed at part of the philosophy here.  “Believers pray for a good life for all of God’s creatures,” they assert, as they amplify the comparison between (1) one who doesn’t find good in this life and (2) a child who never draws breath.  That does seem to be an emphasis of Ecclesiastes.  Still, I think it is wise to hold onto eternal values while attaining to the worldview of the Teacher.  When he says something so patently unpalatable as “it is better if it had been a miscarried birth,” it might be poetic hyperbole, but it also might bear the wisdom of a focus on the eternal life over the here-and-now.

Tomorrow:  part 2


¹ Some wisdom literature may be found in various Psalms.  My mother encouraged me to read Psalm 30 recently, for instance, and there was wisdom there for me.  The Song of Songs is classed here, as well, but I would say the category has then been morphed to “poetry,” not “wisdom.”  Among the influential wisdeom writings, we shouldn’t discount some of the “apocryphal” writings such as Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.  These books were included in the Septuagint, which was the Greek version of the “Old Testament” in wide use around the time of Jesus.

² Editors-teachers Tim Mackie and Jon Collins of TBP have a “unified and linear” motif in their videos, believing that the Bible is a “unified story that points to Jesus.”  Personally, I am cautious about both the “unified” and the “linear” ideas, although there are clearly unifying elements and themes among the various documents, and although I certainly believe Jesus is central in human and redemptive history.  I don’t think these concerns play into the content of this issue of the periodical—or of this post on wisdom literature.