Good News, Bad News (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4; 12:13-14)

Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. Like coffee, it can be an “acquired taste” for people. In a dour sort of way, it deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life and all the questions surrounding that issue:

  • “Who am I, and why am I here?”
  • “What can I do with my life that will make it worthwhile?”
  • “What’s the ‘big picture’ of this world, and how do I fit into it?”

The everyday weariness, frustrations, injustices, and sense of emptiness that people often experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with the fleeting moments of happiness, joy, contentment, and fulfillment that are also part of the human story. 

Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over every person—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life that each living person has now. 

Ecclesiastes challenges us to think deeply about foundational questions. Life and all it contains appear to be meaningless vapors—here today and gone tomorrow. What, then, is the big picture of this world and its intersection with our transitory lives? 

And if there is no Big Story at all, what is the point of all our little stories? Ecclesiastes offers an answer that is rather surprising: Live now. Live forever. Amidst all the bad news of this world, there is good news in the end.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Squeals on Wheels

Below is a short clip on the origin of rollerblading. I’m sharing it because I knew you would want to know. (You’re welcome.) As for me, getting out the old skates is nothing like riding a bike. I wiggle, jiggle, and wobble with the best of them. And then I go kersplat. Just before impact there’s usually a squeal of some sort. Followed by a groan.

O.k., carry on.

A Supernatural Walk (Matthew 14:22-33)

The Apostle Peter did something that no other mortal has ever done. He walked on water at the invitation of Jesus. He also sank like a rock after a few steps because he was distracted by the wind and became afraid. At that point he needed a lifeguard and a towel. Mercifully, Jesus rescued Peter out of his predicament.

Such is often the case for Christ’s followers today. Jesus calls us to a supernatural walk with him, but so often our lives lack a supernatural component. Honestly, when is the last time something truly supernatural happened to you or through you—something that can be explained only in terms of God having done it?

A miracle? A divine healing? A real and specific answer to prayer? A deliverance from some sort of bondage? A victory over some sort of besetting sin? A restoration to wholeness and true contentment, whatever the circumstance? A divine love that God gives you for the unlovable? The ability to forgive someone who sinned against you? Could it be that we’re just too comfortable in our Christian boats, never stepping out of them in faith, where the chances of sinking are greatly multiplied?

For all that, this story is primarily about the identity of Christ. Jesus says to Peter, “It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Matt 14:17). Literally, Jesus says: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” That’s a reference to the divine name, “Yahweh,” that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3). Moreover, Job 9:8 says that God alone “stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” So, here on the Sea of Galilee we have another declaration and another demonstration of the deity of Christ. He is God in human flesh.

We also have a revelation of Jesus’s gracious character: (1) Jesus responds to our cries for help (v. 31a); (2) Jesus rescues us in our time of need (v. 31b); and (3) Jesus reminds us to keep our faith in him (31c). That’s because without Jesus we’re sunk. Or, as Jesus himself said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

After Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat, the wind died down (v. 32). That’s not coincidental timing; it’s another indication that even nature bows to the lordship of Christ. If all nature bows to Jesus, shouldn’t we bow to him as well? That’s where the supernatural walk begins. And if we should stumble along the way, Jesus is right there to catch us (v. 31).

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Cuteness Overload (Again!)

Micah and Bethany are such good parents. They’re diligent about Samuel’s feeding time, tummy time, play time, reading time, and so much more. It’s fun to watch them grow into their new role as parents. They’re killing it, even though it’s a big adjustment and a lot of hard work! I’m so proud of them!

In this clip, I think SamJam is trying to talk to me. 🙂

* EDIT *

Some bonus shots for SamJam’s 1-month anniversary:

Always Christmas but Never Winter

* Ramble Alert! * I tend to get pensive, ponderous, and poetic at the end of the year. So, there’s no need to read further, as you probably have better things to do with your time. I’m just processing my own musings as the calendar gets ready to flip again. 

1. I shaved off my December goatee. As I was doing so, I had flashbacks to some hurtful insults I received during my school days. I once was described as having a “beaver chin” and “a weak, unmanly profile.” Because of a “face-plant” fall I had as a young child, I developed an overbite that was only partially corrected by my (terribly uncomfortable) retainer. My classmates in fifth through seventh grade were particularly cruel about how I looked. Only one kind girl out of hundreds my age thought it made me look cute. Even when I was at peak physical condition in college, a photographer doing a local hairstylist’s spread featuring a few of us chiseled swimmers kept telling me to grind my teeth or somehow produce a stronger jawline since mine was too wimpy. (Why, then, did you ask me to be in the picture in the first place?) The good news is that these insults no longer sting like they used to. But I do wonder sometimes why I remember them so vividly. Maybe it’s because they led to so many insecurities that would later cause me to overcompensate in other areas of life (e.g., athletics, academics, etc.). Whatever the psychology behind it, it’s a good reminder for us to speak kindly to one another, especially those who are in their early formative years. Let’s not allow our careless words to do unnecessary damage. Lord knows, I’ve had to repent of many unkind things I’ve said over the years.

2. It’s always been our family tradition for me to read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2:1-12 on Christmas morning before we open our gifts. It’s our way of trying to keep the focus on what the day is all about. Problem is, my family always takes bets as to how far I’ll get in the passage before getting too choked up to read any further. (The Incarnation never gets old, and it wrecks me every time I ponder it.) I knew in advance that there was no way I’d be able to get past the first verse with a newborn in the room this year. Samuel wasn’t even a month old on Christmas Day, so it just wasn’t going to work for me to read the text without brutzing. So, this year I carved up the passage and gave each of us a few verses to read. It went well, and everyone enjoyed doing it that way. I think we’ll do something similar in future years. No more betting against me! 🙂

P.S., I got to take SamJam on a walk in his stroller yesterday. He was curious about the world around him, and I was overwhelmed with delight in watching him! (Yes, we got him the hat. Totally appropriate, right?!)

3. The 20th-century British novelist and poet Robert Graves once said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” That’s why I find the process to be both exhilarating and exhausting. I’m seldom happy with what I’ve written. “It can always be better, sharper, clearer,” I tell myself. And maybe this perfectionistic tendency is rooted in what I (imperfectly) wrote above in #1. Either way, it’s a great hinderance to finishing an academic dissertation. We’re trained to anticipate objections and opposing views as we write, and the “lawyerly disposition” in me always wants to create an unassailable argument. That’s not humanly possible, so please pray that I get over myself and write something defensible, even if not incontrovertible. The best dissertation is a done dissertation. Thanks!

4. I recently finished my latest binge, How to Get Away with Murder. The story arc spanning six seasons was engaging and unpredictable. The progressively expanding flashbacks—while confusing at first—were intriguing and captivating as the episodes unfolded, serving as teasers to keep watching and assemble the pieces yourself. The screen writing was sharp overall, and the plot twists were uncliched. Moreover, the casting was brilliant, the acting was superb, and the emotional impact was notable. As was the case with Scandal, the scene cuts were a bit hyperactive at times, though they were much more manageable. Ironically, the hyper-talented Kerry Washington from Scandal made a few appearances in Murder, which was a welcome addition. Aja Naomi King made a strong case for being the new generation’s Kerry Washington. Her portrayal of Michaela Pratt, an ambitious and overly confident lawyer in the making, was one of several acting standouts in the production. It will be fun to watch Aja’s career unfold. Unfortunately, some of the moral values promoted in the series were disappointing, and part of the socio-political agenda was executed in selective and prejudicial ways. But that’s what Hollywood does these days in their “ends-justifies-the-means” approach to progress. Create a straw man and then give yourself high fives for ripping it apart with ease. We tend to write fiction to suit ourselves because it’s much easier than honest debate. The West Wing and other shows of that ilk often follow the same playbook. In an attempt to get back to cinematic sanity, where I don’t have to keep fast forwarding past the raunchy parts, I may return to Endeavor next (since I’m a Morse fan, and the series was filmed in charming Oxford), but there will be no more guilty pleasures until the dissertation is finished.

5. C. S. Lewis described pre-Aslan Narnia as “always winter but never Christmas.” That is, a fallen world without a Savior is devoid of hope. It’s just an icy darkness that shatters the soul and renders people zombie-like until they breathe their last. But because there is a Savior in this world—one whose magnificent mane was shaved in humiliation on our behalf, only to grow back in resurrection glory after the stone table cracked—eternal life can now be described as “always Christmas but never winter.” Believers bend but never break in a world where Aslan is on the move. Here is a poem about how this particular image helped me through a difficult time in my life. It’s not great art by any means, but it’s an honest portrayal of what I was feeling at the time. Here’s the context:

On Saturday, July 1, 2000, my father-in-law, Rev. Keith Moore, resigned as pastor of Baker Heights Baptist Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He was only six months away from retirement, but he could no longer shepherd the flock. The awful effects of radiation and chemotherapy had rendered him virtually lifeless, nearly brining him to the point of death in order to spare him from it. It was a painful time for the whole family. That same day, Pastor Keith got a haircut. It turned out to be his last one. The clippers came out and the hair came off. “Better to do it myself,” he said, “than to let the chemo do it.” I was present for that awful event, and when it happened, I sobbed. I was no stranger to the humming of the electric razor. In the 1980s I would often shave my head as a high school or collegiate swimmer to prepare for the big meet at the end of the season. But those silly haircuts had a purpose. They helped me swim faster. But this haircut was nothing but shame and humiliation. It had no purpose at all. Or did it?

Razed to Life

Before the chemo waged its war on blood and scalp alike,
The ravenous razor snarled away, leaving a head full of spikes.
In the other room I lost my nerve and filed a complaint with the Lord;
Comforting words I had given to others suddenly felt like a sword.

“Why, dear Lord, this man of God, who faithfully fed your sheep—
“The same day losing his pulpit and hair, craving nothing but sleep?”
“He’s frail and weak, Lord, wracked in pain; what does the future hold?”
“Where is your power, God; where is your love, if I may be so bold?”

And then in my gloom a beacon of hope fastened upon my soul:
“Aslan’s razor,” came the reply. “That’s all you need to know.”
Aslan’s razor—what could that mean? Where have I heard that before?
A gem by Lewis, for children, and me, where a Lion loses his roar.

Where they crop off his mane and stab at his heart and leave him for dead in the mud;
Naked, ashamed, and lonely he dies with scoundrels mocking his blood.
But why was he captured and horribly killed, and strapped to a table of stone?
The witch said, “For justice,” but Aslan, “For love—for a treason not my own.”

Well, the world, like Narnia, has children around with questioning tears in their eyes,
Yet the world, like Narnia, has a table that cracked, and a Lion who knows how to rise.
So the death of death in the death of Christ laces every trial with hope,
And the empty tomb declares to us all that the grave will not be our home.

While some use pain to bludgeon our souls and scratch away at our faith,
God in his infinite wisdom and love uses faith to scratch at our pain.
So even today a Lion is heard whenever the gospel is shared,
Telling the story of Christ and his love, showing that God really cares.

“Come!” says the Lion to children of faith. “Ride on my back, and we’ll soar.”
“Come!” says the Lord to children of grace. “Enter my heavenly door.”
“I have a surprise especially for you: I’ve built you a grand destination.”
“A land of delight with no more tears—and evil’s humiliation.”

“Look at my mane! Touch it again! Only one scar remains;
“I keep it around to let people know that death has lost its claims.”
“And look at his hair, flowing again; the razor bows to its glory.”
“Yes, I let you feel pain, but only on earth, to maximize your eternal story.”

6. Here’s a good word from Jon Acuff to end the year. Let it be a micro-motivation for us all: “If you picked up any bitterness this year, don’t miss your chance to put it down this week. Don’t carry last year’s rocks into next year’s garden. Don’t paint next year’s canvas with last year’s colors. Don’t write next year’s story with last year’s words. You might need to choose it 100 times, but leaving bitterness behind is always worth it.” Amen.

7. Two albums today for me to finish out the year in mellow reflection: John Michael Talbot’s Simple Hearts and Enya’s Shepherd Moons. “God Alone is Enough” in the former is a great place to park the soul (as Teresa of Avila captured the best and wisest approach to life), and “Marble Halls” in the latter is a fun place to unleash the imagination (as there’s so much more to this life than riches and material wealth). Love is everything. So, perchance to dream. Also appropriate today is Enya’s “My My! Time Flies!” though we’re way past 2010. 🙂

Stay safe tonight, and Lord willing, we’ll see you in 2022.

Edit: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are outstanding as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Becoming the Ricardos. Watched it last night on Amazon Prime after our company departed and the house got quiet for the first time in a long time.

Not Sure How Santa Got This Down the Chimney

I’m not sure how Santa got this thing down the chimney, but I’m glad he did. I’ve never had a power recliner before, but this is a high-end Bassett that’s super sturdy and comfy. 

This wonderful piece of furniture was for yours truly. “Hers truly” got a silver Bach Stradivarius trumpet. This top-tier instrument is stunning and is supposed to be played only with gloves or a hand cloth.

Both are kingdom tools. One is for reading and writing. The other is for praising and worshiping. 

As nice as these things are, the best Christmas present this year (besides Jesus) was the new addition to the family. Samuel didn’t make a peep during the entire Christmas Eve service—even with our brass team belting it out during the opening carols. And, yes, he slept through the sermon! 🙂

Today I got to babysit him for a couple hours while Bethany went to a doctor’s appointment. What a blessing that he lives less than 15 minutes away. I’m utterly smitten with this little munchkin and have to share a few snaps from the past few days.

Let It Snow (in Such a Way That Shoveling Is Not Required)

1. The Christmas Eve candlelight service was lovely, rich, and meaningful. We had record attendance, and I got to stand with SamJam at the front of the church at the end during “Silent Night,” “Here I Am to Worship,” and “Joy to the World.” I only blubbered for one verse of “Here I Am to Worship,” so that felt like a triumph.

2. I’ve had an on-again, off-again head cold for the past 10 days, so I took a COVID test just to be sure. It was negative, which makes sense since I’ve had no fever, no respiratory distress, and no loss of smell or taste. More annoying is the burn on my arm that I got making 34 dozen Christmas cookies last week. I brushed up against the hot oven door while removing one of the trays. Oucha!

3. The out-of-town family is at our house for three days this week since my MIL is not able to travel anymore. The dining room has been overrun with homemade snacks that are way too good to resist, so the bottle of Tums is at the ready. Some can’t make it because of COVID protocols, which is a real downer again this year. ’Nuff said on that.

4. The snow is now falling here in Eastern PA, and it’s lovely to watch, especially against the backdrop of our massive holly tree. What a beautiful, peaceful sight—and I get to see the puffy white flakes floating down from the comfort of my new power recliner that I got for Christmas. What an incredible piece of furniture. Lots of writing will take place right here.

5. Periodic trips to my introvert happy place feature soft instrumental Christmas music alternated with two albums from my Enya repertoire (“And Winter Came” and “Dark Sky Island”). With life being so chaotic, thick, and over scheduled these days, I treasure these times of relaxation and reflection.

6. I’ll need to get back to grading and dissertating in the next day or two. And working off all these Christmas goodies. Goals are never accomplished by accident. 

I hope everyone gets to enjoy this “in between” week as the New Year approaches.