Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Everything is Meaningless (Or Is It?)

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/people/photo-knight/
Sukkot began last Wednesday evening and will end this coming Friday evening . While it is a holiday that my Jewish friends celebrate, it's not one that many Christians know or care about, even though it is the one holiday that the Bible mentions that both Jews and Gentiles will celebrate. 
"If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them.  And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the LORD inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths.  Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths."  --Zechariah 14:17-19
The emphasis during Sukkot is about temporary dwellings, to remember the time of Israel wandering in the desert. 

On the Sabbath during Sukkot, the book of Ecclesiastes is read. Overall, Ecclesiastes is a fairly depressing book.  Qoheleth, the author, is fairly uncertain about God and life.  He is sure there is a God and that God knows what He's doing, but humans really have no clue as to what this is. He writes that God "has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

He thinks God has made life confusing:
"Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?  In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them." (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14)
"Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother's womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything." (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
And then there are Qoheleth's thoughts on death:
  • 1:4, 11  people are forgotten when they die
  • 2:12-17  all his wisdom will get him nothing, just like the fool
  • 2:18-21  hated toil, hated to leave it to his heirs
  • 3:19-21  humans and animals both die
  • 5:13-16  we come in to world with nothing and leave it with nothing 
  • 8:8  you can't control when you die no more than when you can control the wind
  • 9:4 But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.   
If God makes no sense and life has little meaning what might people do to find meaning in life?  Qoheleth explores some of what might make life meaningful:
  • Pleasure (2:1 ff), but his conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Work (2:18-23; 4:4;11:6), but his  conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Wealth/Possessions (5:10-12; 6:1-2), but his conclusion is that it is vanity 
  • Learning (1:12-18; 2:12-17; 9:13-16), but his conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Religion/Piety (5:1-7) but his conclusion is don't get involved; it's dangerous, relationship with God is based on fear. 
Vanity does not mean vanity in the sense that it is all about me as an individual (although it definitely can be that way for many of us).  When Qoheleth uses the word vanity, it is the Hebrew word hebel, which means vapor or breath.  It is something that dissipates, something that cannot be grasped.  It is something that is meaningless.  This is Qoheleth's view of life.  

Qoheleth seems to be desperately trying to find meaning in life before it ends.  

In the book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life that Matters, Harold Kusher writes that "Ecclesiates wrote his book many hundreds of years ago to share with us his disappointments and frustrations, to warn us that we should not waste our limited time as he did, in the illusion that wealth, wisdom, pleasure, or piety will make our lives matter. He tells us his story with mounting desperation, as one road after another leads to a a dead end and he begins to see himself running out of years and running out of options. But he has not written his book only to express his frustration or to depress us. In the end, he has an answer. But it is an answer that makes sense only to someone who has shared his earlier dead ends and disappointments. That is why he offers it to us at the end of his story rather than at the beginning." (42)

Qoheleth tells us all the things he’s done to give life meaning that haven’t worked throughout his life journey.  He is afraid of dying before learning how to live.  He doesn't really wonder "what does life mean" but "what does my life mean?"

What does my life mean?

I think we all wonder that at some point in our lives, and maybe at multiple times.  I've been wondering that myself for the last couple of years as I've been searching for my current and next purpose(s) in life; that is one reason I began my "Come Alive" series and my "Year of Renewal" project.  

I have wondered off and on, if my writing really is worth it, if it really has any meaning. I read all the advice out there about frequency of blogging and length of posts and platform building and networking and going to conferences and time management and don't make these 5 mistakes or do these 10 things and so on--and it often all just seems like it is too much to take in and too much to implement. 

In addition, in such a fast-paced world, if a blogger doesn't write her thoughts out in reaction to whatever the biggest current event of the day is, then it ends up becoming irrelevant and old news.  Or, sometimes, I read something that another blogger writes and I think "I wrote a similar post three years ago" or "I had a draft started about this very point; why bother now?"  Sometimes I just don't understand the popularity of some posts.  Maybe sometimes, what I write, has also been written by someone else; I am just unaware of it.  And so, I wonder, where exactly do I fit in this world?

Or where do I fit in church?  I've often found that there seems to be a "right" way to do church, to teach people:  keep it very simple.  It's ok that I love the Bible and love to learn it in depth, but most people aren't like that, and it scares them off from the Bible.  I can just study it on your own, as always.  There's no community in that (But I am slowly finding real-life people who do have this interest, and am hoping it is the start of something wonderful).

I'm not crazy about Qoheleth's view of life. I think I dislike it, though, not so much because of its negativity, but because it is often something that I feel.  Why bother cleaning up after the kids when they just mess it all up again?  Why bother trying to be organized when it doesn't last?  Why bother trying to write and study and enjoy it when I have so many other responsibilities that must take priority?  Why bother with anything?

There is something positive about Ecclesiastes, though.  If we read through it carefully and ask the questions "What is good? and "Who gives enjoyment?", we will find some answers.
  • 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22 5:18-20; 8:15 Eating & drinking & finding enjoyment in work 
  • 4:9-12  friendship
  • 9:7-10  enjoy life before you die 
These are activities in which we participate every single day in a variety of ways.  Every day, we eat and drink and do some type of work.  Every day, we have the opportunity to participate in friendships and to enjoy life.  

So many of us are looking for the One Big Thing in our lives that will define us and give us meaning.  For some, it's finding the perfect marriage partner.  For others, it's climbing to the top of the career ladder.  It could be fame, or money that we desire.  We often feel as if we are wandering in the desert of life--and perhaps because that is something all experience, it is the reason the Bible mentions that all will celebrate this holiday. But life is not about the One Big Thing. It's about everything, the good and the bad, together. All of life matters. 

I'm not sure that after writing this, I'll really remember my own words.   Every day brings frustrations and feelings of inadequacy.  Even they will be hebel and dissipate.  But for now, at this moment in time, Ecclesiastes means to me that yes, life is a mist, but yes, life--my life--and yours--matters. You are not a finished product. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh Hashana: A Year of Renewal


Rosh Hashanah begins tonight (remember, Biblically, days begin in the evening because Genesis tells us "and there was evening and there was morning..."). 

We see references to it in Leviticus, Numbers, and Nehemiah:
  • Leviticus 23:24   24 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.
  • Numbers 29:1 On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets
  • Nehemiah 7:73 - 8:3  73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants,and all Israel settled in their towns. When the seventh month came-- the people of Israel being settled in their towns--  8:1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.  2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.  3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
So why is the Jewish New Year when it is obviously the seventh month?  This is because there are 2 traditions as to when the world was created, one is Tishrei (the seventh month) and one is Nisan (the first month).  So, it's the head of the year in the sense of when the world was created therefore years, that count age of the world, are counted from then, but months, such as when holidays are, are counted from Nisan because Hashem told Moshe "this month is for you as the first month for the months of the year" [you can thank my friend Yaakov for all that info].

There are many meanings and symbols for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time in the Jewish calendar for being introspective about the past and upcoming year.  There's a theme of judgment (based on the word mishpat in Ps 81:4) of all people (both Jews and Gentiles) connected with their successes and failures of the upcoming year.  Traditionally, apples and honey are eaten as a symbol of wishing for a sweet upcoming year, and challah is shaped into a crown to signify that God is King. The greeting on Rosh Hashanah is l'shanah tovah which means have a good year. The readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah are Genesis 21:1-34 and 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10  (because the Gemara says these events occurred on Rosh Hashana). The day is also called Yom Zikaron (Day of Remembering) because it is the time when God "remembers", or rather, chooses to pay attention to His promises. 

As Christians in the U.S., we typically utilize the secular New Year's holiday to make resolutions; it's not something that we think of doing in the fall, the time of year when the leaves change color and die, when the weather starts to cool, birds migrate south, and the landscape starts to become brown and barren (many of us even pay little attention to when our Christian year begins with Advent, unless we attend a very liturgically-oriented church). Fall is not really a time we associate with new life--even as new experiences begin (i.e. new school year).  But new life happens every day, even when we aren't expecting it (as happened recently when my nephew was born 8 weeks early!). 

It can be beneficial to us to remember and improve upon our past year, or simply be introspective about one or more areas of life. We are often too busy and caught up with all of our day-to-day activities to really do this well. I've recently taken a "Christian Life Profile Assessment" and while there is a lot about it I didn't care for, it has prompted me to think about some of the various categories it covers, and so I will be starting a new blog series soon based on that Assessment.

Do you practice being introspective on a regular basis?  When do you do it and what do you do?

Other posts in this "Year of Renewal" Series can be read beginning here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Facebook Conversations & Digging into the Bible


Facebook is notorious as a place where conversations devolve into anger and accusations.  I typically use my personal timeline as a place to interact in a more fun than serious way and rarely do I have long conversations there. 

Until recently.  I'd posted an article about an atheist's take on the portrayal of atheists in the movie "God's Not Dead" and it set off quite the conversation.  Through it all though, people remained civil to each other.  It made me think that miracles do happen.

And then a friend send me a private message asking me what I thought about some verses in Matthew, and later that night I was able to spend some time looking at them and reading them in the context of the gospel as a whole.  As I explored the topic of the Kingdom of God throughout the gospel, I found my faith being reignited--and I didn't even know that it needed to be. With the text in front of me and my thoughts about it and what I've read on the subject forming in my head, I felt myself coming alive.  

It really makes such a huge difference to look at verses in context.  I know I am guilty of being lazy and not doing that at times, especially if it's a verse that I really like for some reason, but when I do actually put in the effort to learn the context, it ends up meaning so much more to me than just taking a verse here and a verse there and thinking I know what they mean because I've heard it in a sermon or have seen it on a calendar.

As I wrote up my notes and thoughts, I even learned something new.  I had always known the verses when Jesus talks about only going after the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and I had known the verses at the end of Matthew about making disciples of all nations, but I had never really looked at the progression of getting from one to the other, and as I noticed that, I could visualize how Jesus' movement started so small and narrowly focused, yet then opened up to include all people everywhere.  

And that's good news.

Because we often think of the Bible as a guidebook, we have a tendency to look at it as abstract pieces of information on how to live.  And while I do think it teaches us how to live, I don't think it's in the way of a checklist; it's more holistic than that.  It's easy to check off memory verses without understanding them or hold up a reference at a sporting event. But I constantly find myself wanting to go deeper than that.  For many people, the way I read and study the Bible would probably be considered too boring or difficult, because it doesn't provide automatic answers or advice.  But for me, when I do this, I find that the Bible opens up the world of faith to me in ways I don't experience any other way. It forces me to look at big pictures and challenge any suppositions I unknowingly have.  It causes me to think, to question, to wrestle.  Most of all, though that, it causes me to focus on God more than if I pluck out a verse.  

I think the Bible is beautiful, and am thankful for the conversations it fosters and the way those conversations make me look harder and dig deeper.  


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Monday, September 01, 2014

Reading My Bible: A Year of Renewal


For two months, I've been reading more Scripture on a regular basis than I have in a long time.  As part of my Year of Renewal project, I've been reading the parashah, haftarah, and Revised Common Lectionary readings for each week.  

Reading so much scripture has been great; it's made me wonder and it's made me question.  It's made me think of connections--and disconnections--between what I am reading and in other books I am reading (Galatians, What St. Paul Really Said).  I see themes that tie together and themes that contradict each other.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

This was referring to the fact that I haven't signed up for one class at church. Not Sunday morning, Sunday evening, or Wednesday evening. There are some great options that are being offered. They just aren't for me at this time.  I miss reading and studying my Bible and I'm planning to take more time to actually do that. 

I have spent far too long going to various groups or activities because I feel obligated to do so: to meet people, to have a social outlet, to spend time with other adults. But I often still find that something is lacking.  It's like I'm attending a salad luncheon when all I want is a steak dinner.

Then I read this article by Ben Irwin on Q Ideas in which he states

"We buy a lot of Bibles. We just don’t read them. And if we do, it’s usually a verse here or a chapter there. We don’t read; we cherry-pick. And cherry-picking is a guaranteed path to a miserable reading experience."

That's exactly what we do. We read a verse here and there, or have a topic and find all the verses that we think go along with that topic, and we ignore whole chapters and books and context.  We want to skip right to application.  I'm so tired of doing that.  I'm tired of reading, say Galatians 1:3-5   

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,  to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

and skipping over it, or just thinking, oh, ok, Jesus died for our sins. What's next?  

Why, when we read the Bible, do we tend to not ask questions? Such as:
  • What did Paul mean when he says "present evil age"?  
  • What was considered evil in that period in history?
  • How does Jesus giving himself for sins set people free? What did it mean then? Is it connected to Luke 4:18?
  • How did Paul define sin?
Those are six questions about one small part of these verses that we usually skip over, if we even read them at all, because usually we'd rather just get on to an inspirational verse that we can memorize to pull out when we're feeling down (or a verse for when we want to prooftext something).  

I think part of the problem is that we see the Bible as our self-help guide and we're looking for 3 steps to stop worrying or 5 ways to grow faith or 7 ways to parent Biblically. But the Bible is so much more than that, and treating it as a self-help book can detract from what we can experience if we actually were to read it for the benefit of reading it and what we can learn and how we can grow through that process, and not just for a quick few steps about how to do something.  

How do you read the Bible? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong & David Hagedorn

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books for the purpose of this review.

I don't normally review cookbooks--this isn't a food blog, after all.  But when I was perusing the books offered, I was drawn to this one for a few reasons:  1) I have Irish ancestry 2) I have absolutely no knowledge of Irish food 3) the novel I am writing has characters with Irish ancestry and I thought it would be a good resource.

The book itself is beautiful.  It is hardcover, with many photographs of the dishes made from the recipes.  It is not a book for a beginning cook and there are often ingredients and supplies which are not going to be easy to get (though the authors are upfront about this and give a list of resources in the back).  Ironically, one ingredient they acknowledge that will be difficult to procure is pig's blood, for Black Pudding (page 22).  Since I live in a rural area with lots of farms, including pigs, I'd probably not have much of a problem getting this ingredient--but I don't want to!

After reading through most of the book, I admit I'm still a bit puzzled as to what exactly constitutes Irish food, because many of the recipes are not specifically Irish.  Each recipe, though, is preceded by a short memory the author has of it, and I think that is what makes the book stand above a regular cook book. The reader is able to imagine sitting around "The Irish Table" and experiencing what the author remembers along with the food itself. I think this is an important part of a meal.  It's not just about the food we eat, but the connections and memories we make with people as we are eating.

The one recipe that I tried so far, Auntie Ann's Pavlova (page 220), was wonderful.  While mine didn't get as puffy as the one in the picture in the book (the above photo is mine), it was still very easy to make and very delicious to eat.  I'll definitely be trying more recipes from the book.

You can buy it from Amazon here: My Irish Table


Monday, August 18, 2014

What Saved Your Faith?

I'm joining the synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth

I enjoy writing about doubt and faith, because so many people struggle with it yet feel so alone, because somehow, they've been taught that if they doubt, then they don't have enough faith and are not good enough.  We so easily dismiss the Pharisees as so works-oriented that they just didn't understand Jesus, but fail to recognize when we then judge each other based on how much and what kind of faith we have.  

My biggest doubts have come from reading the Bible itself.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It is the inspired word of God that has caused me to doubt.  The first time I really remember it happening was when I read Hosea 11:1 in context instead of in Matthew's interpretation of it.  

Or when I learned that in Ezekiel 42-45, there are measurements for a third temple that Revelation 21:22 tells us will not exist.  

Or when I learned that the Jewish understanding of the requirements for what the Messiah will do are very, very different from the Christian understanding.

Or when I learned that there were people who had left Christianity and that there were a lot of other interpretations of Scripture out there.

And so on and so forth.

While the timing of past events has become very fuzzy to me, there is one moment I do remember, although I do not remember when or where it occurred.  I was at a point where I thought I would have to make a decision to give it all up.  Faith, church, Jesus.  And as I contemplated what to do, I realized it could go either way.  I didn't know anymore who Jesus was or what he was supposed to mean to me.  It was as if I was facing two paths to walk down, and I had to choose one.

The only thing that was certain was that I somehow knew, if I did walk away, I would be missing something important in my life.  

So I guess you could say Jesus saved my faith.  It really was nothing that I or anyone else did at all--I wouldn't even say I had faith as large as a mustard seed at that point. 

Many people are fond of quoting Romans 8:38-39:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Nor anything else in all creation.  That includes doubt and fear.  And so, if you are in that place of doubt, no matter if anyone tries to tell you different, know that even if you are doubting Jesus, he still loves you, and is waiting patiently.






 “What saved your faith? Write your own post answering that question and then visit www.edcyzewski.com to learn how you can join the synchroblog or to read additional posts to celebrate the release of Ed’s book A Christian Survival Guide, which is discounted on Amazon this week. “

P.S.  A Christian Survival Guide is free for Kindle today.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One Body One Hope Helps with Ebola Outbreak in Liberia

The church I go to partners with the non-profit organization One Body One Hope This morning we received copies of a letter that Pastor Emmanual Bimba from Abide in the Vine Church sent to the president of the organization.  He writes:

"I am writing to you this letter of request in tears and heavy heart.  Our beloved country Liberia and our people went through pain and suffering for 15 years of civil war at which time many families lost their love one.  9 years ago, the Lord brought the war to an end and started rebuilding our lives again.  As we set our minds in moving forward with life, and trying to rebuild out country...here we are again facing another epidemic of Ebola that is so scaring and fearful than the gun battle.
...the recent outbreak of Ebola virus in out country, this situation is getting out of hand...Many hospitals in the country were closed down because health workers were dying from this deadly virus. With the closing of these hospitals, many people started dying from other sicknesses because there were no treatments for them...
The government of Liberia...came out with some preventive measures...consistent washing of hand with chlorine and regular uses of hand sanitizer...These things are very costly for our people and the government is only supplying these things to hospitals and government entities. Individual are to purchase them by themselves.  We as a church have tried our best for the past two weeks but we do not have enough funding to continue...the government declared the state of emergencies; there by restricting all movement within the country. This has added another trouble to both the people upcountry and those in the city. As we speak, people are going without food. With this, we expect more death."

If you would like to help with the situation in Liberia but weren't sure how, please consider donating to One Body One Hope, and help provide money for food, chlorine, and hand sanitizer.   Please designate that it is for Abide in the Vine.