Third in series: Things that have changed my life
We are in the middle of a series that is looking at things that have changed our life. Ways of thinking, concepts, practices that have changed our experience of faith and thus our life for better. Today I want to look at something that has shaped me quite a bit. It’s what I have come to find to be answer to ever present questions what is the wise thing to do? And how does one pursue what is wise in an ever changing, unpredictable, and often disappointing world.
So I grew up with the basic American Educational narrative.
SLIDE "It is super important that you do well in elementary school so you are prepared for Jr. High, it is super important that you do well in Jr. High so you can get into the right classes and programs in High School where you should graduate at the top of your class, So get into a good college, so you can get a good job and life will feel happy and good. So if you fail that 4th grade spelling test, you are doomed to a life of despair and misery
Well when I got to 7th grade I started to question this system. I was finally old enough to realize that some of the adults "who had done everything they were supposed to" seemed kinda unhappy,
and I started to hear about all these famous people and even some people I know who seemed to do just fine without ever doing well in school.
I thought, what kind of joke is this. It seems like being happy and following this narrative are not essentially connected.
That if I do all I am supposed to I am not guaranteed wealth and happiness.
So, I decided I was done doing anything I didn't want to do, which meant that I went an entire year without doing a homework assignment. I still did test and papers, but no daily homework. Well, I almost failed 7th grade. And my folks were none too pleased.
I remember my father saying that he can't imagine how I could just choose to not do an assignment.
Well, their close supervision forced me to start doing homework again, but I still thought trying at school was meaningless.
It was all a lie, you could be just fine without this whole education thing.
And that meant that I did just enough to get by, that was until I meet SLIDE Ms. Ruhana, my 11th grade English teacher.
The first week of class she asked me to stay after, because she realized I was not putting full effort into my work.
And she told me something that has impacted me to this day.
She told me that I was right, trying my best didn't guarantee me anything, That doing well in school so I could get into a good college, so I could get a good job didn't mean I would be happy. But, it still mattered. Even if it didn't guarantee me anything, I was still worth while to do what I could to prepare for my future.
I would benefit from learning more, I would benefit from trying hard, That even if It not guarantee me anything, I would be better off for it. but even more than that it could open doors for my future, doors that would for sure stay closed if I never tried.
And that impacted me greatly. It informed how I approached school for college and my masters.
That doing well was not going to guarantee me happiness, but it still mattered.
Things don't always work out, but by making wise choices in the moment I can sometimes impact my future for good.
This was an early lesson for me in something that I would soon learn is part of the day-to-day grind of all adult life That we all constantly experience two opposing threats, both vying for us to fall into their pits and agree with them: Cynicism - Life isn’t fair so why does it even matter, why care too much, or be invested. Why even do my homework Or Perfectionism - That life comes down to me and my effort, I must get it perfect if I am going to be alright. It’s a sense of grim driveness that it is all my burden to carry. I better ace that 4th grade math test or who know what terrible future may await me. And it is the kind of Wisdom that I got from Mrs Ruhana that saves us when we are overwhelmed by one or both of these opposing threats. It saves us by cutting through the BS claims of those threats (that they are my only options). It shows us something so much less cynical and so much more hopeful -- and not a cheap hope, but a mature, deeply-true-feeling hope that is manages to be optimistic but also grounded
this kind of wisdom,
this Ms. Ruhana wisdom is what I want to talk about today. Now many years later, I’ve learned that, though it might seem unexpected to some of us, the Bible is actually the greatest source there is for this sort of mature, real, yet hopeful wisdom there is.
The two specific books of the bible I have in mind for us today are
Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
They are what is called Wisdom literature, which was quite a common kind of writing in the ancient world (sort of like the op-ed or a blog are common kinds of writing today) And they were primarily concerned with how one should best “do” life. They essentially are answering the questions of how do we get the most out of life, and deal with life’s innate challenges. In short they are an attempt to deal with reality. There are two primary kinds of wisdom literature. -Proverbial Wisdom: short sayings, succinct observations on life -Contemplative/Speculative Wisdom: monologues/dialogues delving into basic problems of human existence (meaning of life, problem of suffering, etc.) The nature of wisdom literature is to speak general truths in absolute terms. Thus, they can often overstate themselves and not leave room for nuance.
And This is why it is important to note that the wisdom books of the Bible are meant to be read in light of each-other.
This is what is called reading the Bible in concert with itself. Which by the way is one of the most helpful things to do in reading the Bible. To read the Bible as whole and see how different parts inform and speak to each-other. Cuz it’s just way too easy to read one passage or part and misinterpret it because it is taken out of context. I had an Old Testament professor in seminary that said no one should ever be able to read proverbs without immediately reading ecclesiastes and no one should ever be able to read ecclesiastes without immediately reading proverbs because they work as a counter balance to each-other.
When taken alone they each can provoke hard and troubling questions.
But, when read together they paint a full and nuanced picture of life.
This is why they are so important to read them in light of each-other.
SLIDE On one side you have the words of proverbs, written mostly by The Israelite King, son of the King David, Solomon, known for being the wisest of men. As you will notice, his words speak to what is generally true about life, but he phrases them in absolutes. It can read like a science formula. If you do this good thing, then this good thing will happen. If you do this bad thing, then this bad thing will happen. And when read alone, it has often lead people down misleading roads. Because life is not that simple. We have all seen good things happen to bad people. And people who have done everything right, get the short end of the stick. However, there are wise and helpful words of wisdom in proverbs.
With that in mind I would like to read out of proverbs. Pay attention to the way it is written, the helpful advice it offers, and overstated simple depiction of reality.
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 2 for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; 3 for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; 4 for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young— 5 let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— 6 for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise...
10 The proverbs of Solomon: A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. 2 Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value, but righteousness delivers from death. 3 The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. 4 Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.
And now I want to take a look at Proverbs counter balance -
Ecclesiastes can take it to the other extreme, that life is not fair. That working hard and making wise choices are essentially meaningless. For the good people are hurt, and bad people prosper. It can paint a picture that none of it matters it because in the end all we do is all meaningless. However, it also paints a profound picture of how to find enjoyment in the midst of an unfair life.
And, as to highlight its use as a counter balance to proverbs, it begins pretending to be the voice of Solomon.
However, by the time you get to verse 12 though you realize that was just a literary ploy and it is reveals that it is actually written by someone who calls himself the teacher or also known as Quohelet.
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? You can see how people can take this book on its own as going too far the other way, even being depressing
2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. I wonder if anyone here can relate to this with their experience of work on a bad day.
But in the midst of a painful and toil filled life - Ecclesiastes gives some powerful wisdom in what good we can find. 5:18 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.
Slide So, you see if we just read one without the light of the other, we get a pretty misleading picture of reality. However, when we read them together we see a clear and true picture of reality, that values wise choices, which do matter, but also recognized that even our best laid plans don't always work out. Its the wisdom of "this always works, except when it doesn't" Brian Piccalo And it is the kind of deeply-true feeling wisdom that saves us from both the detachment of cynicism and the weight and grim drivenness of perfection
What is offered in a balance of the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes?
It encourages us make to choices to better our lives for the future We see in the book of proverbs is the clear value of wise and healthy living, that making wise choices for our future can prepare us to live fuller and more meaningful lives. That it is not always an immediate return on wise living, but long term, it lead to a better life. That is the power of what is being said here.
That healthy wise living is so often not about the short term pleasure, but when we make wise and healthy choices, it can have a massively positive impact on our future.
Like I would never have been able to do my masters program if I didn't start making wiser decisions about doing my school work in high school.
In the end the choices we make today can have big impact on us in the future.
In short, most of proverbs can read as the basic advice of “wise choices today has big payoff in the future, and foolish choices today have consequences for our future.”
It recognizes that even our best efforts are not always good enough The book of Ecclesiastes shows us that even when we try our best, things don't always work out. That our efforts in the end can feel like they were meaningless.
That the reality is that we are not able to control the outcomes of our lives, that failure and disappointment are not always in our hands.
That at times our hard work leads to others success and not ours. That at times even when things do work out we overvalue the impact of different future scenarios on our happiness, we tell ourselves that we will be happy once we finish school, once we get that new job, once we get a vacation, once we get that romantic relationship.
And as proverbs would tell us, this stuff does matter, but it likely impacts our actual happiness less than we think it will. Thus, at times finding the good life is not always about our efforts in finding it or making it And there are many in our world that come to see that - their efforts make even less of a difference, that no matter how hard they work, there is a ceiling on them or by no fault of their own, there is an obstacle to thriving because of societal inequity. In these cases too, the balance of proverbs and eccles helps us.
- It invites us to appreciate today
Ecclesiastes has some awesome wisdom in enjoying the moment, not letting our thoughts of the future run unchecked in our hearts, for when we are always worrying about the future we can often miss out on what the present has for us.
For, we can do a lot to impact our present reality. We can appreciate the food, the drink, and the toil of today as a gift from God.
We will find more joy when we can find contentment with what we do have today, than we will by always thinking about what don't have but want in the future. For when getting what we want is the basis of our happiness we needs things to work out to be happy, and I find that thing rarely work out just as I plan it, But if we can be content with today, we can find the wisdom of Ecclesiastes that we can find joy and value in the moment no matter how meaningless it may appear.
That even the most mundane job, relationship, or meal can offer us a gift.
That we can ask God to help us enjoy our current life more, and he can offer a joy in the very day, the kind of joy we usually only reserve for when thing work out better than we could hope.
That by thanking God for today, even just thanking him for the food we eat, This is actually the origin of prayer before meals. and asking for him to show us what that day has to offer, we can find a kind of enjoyment of life, aside from circumstance.
- Begin each day by asking Jesus to help you see the unique gift it offers, and end each day by thanking Jesus for whatever gifts you found. In this practice you will discover the wisdom of both Proverbs and ecclesiastes In proverbs fashion start each day looking to Jesus, how I have often prayed this is what do you have for me today. Help me see the things you want me to see. This is inviting wisdom into the day. That God would guide you and show you what the days has to offer. Then end each day in ecclesiastes fashion by thanking Jesus for whatever joy it had. (Maybe as ecclesiastes highlights, the enjoyment of food and is a place to start) That even if things didn’t work out as hoped, there is still something worth being thankful for. What is more is that in looking to Jesus in each of these acts we find that added to this equation is personal interaction... the wisdom of this is not just that of being thankful or trying to approach a day wisely in general (thought that is great) but being thankful and looking to a personal, interactive God... what doing this does inside us to start to break down both cynicism and perfectionism, so that we can think and act more clearly, and respond to God's lead more readily. This equips us to both pursue the wise way forward more readily and also find joy and comfort when life doesn’t work out.
In a moment we are going to enter into a time of prayer and song. Something that spiritual communities have done for centuries. And I invite you to engage in that time in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along and dancing. Maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you. And, as we are doing that we will have a team of people in the back who would love to pray with you, It can be a really meaningful thing to have somebody else pray along with you. And I have found that God tends to show up in surprising and powerful ways when I have asked someone else to pray for me. It’s a safe and good group of people, no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice.
Stand with me