Brutal honesty about making it in the real world

Welcome from the beauty of Turkey Run State Park in Marshall, Indiana. It’s good for the soul to get outside and away from the computer or smartphone. Can I get an Amen!

But we don’t always fully enjoy the moment in places like this, as shown by comment cards given to staff at one of America’s national parks. Here are some of the actual comments submitted by visitors:

  • Please avoid building trails that go uphill.
  • Too many bugs…Please spray the wilderness to rid the areas of these pests.
  • Please pave the trails so they can be snow-plowed during the winter.
  • Chair lifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.
  • The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
  • A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed? Please call (& they gave their phone number).
  • Reflectors need to be placed on trees every 50 feet so people can hike at night with flashlights.
  • Escalators would help on steep uphill sections. (sensing a theme here?)
  • A McDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.
  • The places where trails do not exist are not well marked.
  • And last but not least, “Too many rocks in the mountains.”

Mike Neifert, Light and Life (February 1997), p. 27

Ah, the joys of customer service! As we come to chapter four in our series in Ecclesiastes, today gets very real, very fast. Open your Bible or Bible app there, please, Ecclesiastes chapter four.

I need to let you know right up front that three-fourths of this chapter reads like a physician diagnosing a disease before prescribing the solution. It goes to some very dark places before pointing us toward the light.

Let’s take a moment to pray, asking the Lord to meet us in His Word.

Our Father in heaven, would you be so kind as to come personally and powerfully to each one here today? With distractions a click away, we ask your help to focus, be alert, and engage with you on these matters. As we touch on hard realities leading to your great help, open our hearts to the people affected by the things Solomon observed. And draw our hearts toward one another, we ask. Amen!

When the news is brutal

I recommend you take notes or doodle while I talk. Both are great tools to help you engage with what the Lord wants you to hear each week. If you’re taking notes, Solomon begins by pointing out that…

  • We see the tears of oppression.

Ecclesiastes chapter 4 begins with Solomon writing…

“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
    and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
    and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
    who had already died,
are happier than the living,
    who are still alive.
But better than both
    is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
    that is done under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

It’s a shocking start, isn’t it? But it’s honest. The more you look into evils like human trafficking and exploitation of child laborers, it becomes overwhelming. And so the temptation is to turn a blind eye, or insist that’s about politics and the church shouldn’t get involved in politics. But to do so is to capitulate to what Solomon pointed out 3,000 years ago—that power is on the side of the oppressors. We want to be very careful to hear what God really is saying through the Scriptures, especially when He’s exposing something we’ve been told to keep quiet about. Oppression of the poor is one such issue. And God raises it again and again in both the Old and New Testaments. Here, Solomon simply exposes the problem of oppression. It’s a reality, that the poor often have no comforter, no one in power who will act on their behalf. It’s easier for those in power to stay quiet and keep gaining wealth at the expense of the poor.

When Monopoly is more than just a game

Paul Piff is a university professor who did a series of experiments having pairs of people play a rigged version of the game of Monopoly. They randomly assigned one of the players to be rich going into the game. They got two times as much money. For example, when they passed “GO,” they collected twice the salary. As the game unfolded, dramatic differences began to emerge. The rich player began to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece. The rich players acted out signs  of dominance and power over their opponent. The rich players became ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive, and more and more demonstrative of their material success.

Quotes from rich players in the midst of the rigged game included the following: “I have money for everything … you’re going to lose all your money soon … I have so much money, I’m going to buy out this whole board … I’m pretty much untouchable at this point … “

That’s just a controlled experiment, right, a rigged game? Well…it turns out Piff has conducted similar experiments with real-life wealthy individuals, and got identical results. He has done experiments testing individuals’ willingness to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, willingness to knowingly cheat in a game, openness to share a monetary gift with strangers, or even to take candy from a jar clearly labeled as being for children.

In every experiment, higher incomes correlated with mean behavior! Piff concludes, “What we’ve been finding … is that as a person’s level of wealth increases, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement and self-interest increase.’

John Cortines and Gregory Bauwer, God and Money, (Rose Publishing, 2016), Pages 49-50

Solomon pointed it out 3,000 years ago. He saw the tears of those who were being oppressed by the wealthy who had economic power over the poor. This is hard. But do you see the tears of oppression, this evil done under the sun? Or do you dismiss this out of hand because it doesn’t square with your upbringing? Christian, are you willing to see what the Holy Spirit enabled wise Solomon to see and lament?

Next Solomon moves to our work in this world, noting that…

  • We experience how work slides toward corruption.

“And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another.

This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Fools fold their hands
    and ruin themselves.
Better one handful with tranquility
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.”

Ecclesiastes 4:4-6

3,000 years ago, Solomon was describing the rat race. His observation is that a lot of what happens in business is driven by envy. In the Proverbs he also has plenty to say about greed, as does Jesus. And so the good of working to provide for our families and to be generous toward others becomes corrupted into either being a workaholic, or a lazy fool. Really just two different kinds of fools. One loses family and friends because they’re never available. The other loses any quality of life because they don’t work for a better life.

I suspect the former is the greater risk in Hamilton County, that in our God-given drive to provide, we not slip into envy becoming the engine that drives you.

Comparison obsession at work

Thomas J. DeLong is a professor at Harvard Business School who has noted a disturbing trend among his students and colleagues—what he calls a “comparison obsession.” Back in 2011 he wrote, “More so than ever before … business executives, Wall Street analysts, lawyers, doctors and other professionals are obsessed with comparing their own achievements against those of others. Over the last five years,” DeLong writes, “I have interviewed hundreds of high-need-for-achievement-professionals about this phenomenon and discovered that comparing has reached almost epidemic proportions. This is bad for individuals and bad for companies.

And listen to this. In 500 interviews of high-need-to-achieve-professionals that DeLong did, more than 400 of them questioned their success and brought up the name of at least one other peer who they felt had been more successful than they were. These are people considered among the best and brightest, yet they’re trapped by comparing. Solomon saw it and pointed it out 3,000 years ago.

Thomas J. DeLong, “Why chronic comparing spells career poison,” CNNMoney (6-20-11)

The lure of laziness

And as for laziness, we can appreciate the honesty of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. In a 2014 interview, Bourdain was asked: What are the benefits of hedonism, and what are the risks? That’s the kind of question Ecclesiastes wrestles with. Here was Anthony Bourdain’s reply: “Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous, lazy, hippie—you know? I understand that. … there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy. … I’m aware of my appetites, and I don’t let them take charge.”

Sadly, Bourdain, who wore a tattoo on his arm that read in ancient Greek, “I am certain of nothing,” committed suicide two years ago at the age of 61. Like Solomon back in the opening verses of this book, Ecclesiastes, Anthony Bourdain felt that life was meaningless.

Sean Woods, “Anthony Bourdain on Writing, Hangovers, and Finding a Calling,” Men’s Journal (2014)

I promise this is going someplace good. Solomon has one more hard observation before he turns the corner to what helps. Not only do we see the tears of the poor being oppressed and experience how work often gets corrupted, but third, in our more honest moments…

  • We feel the pain of isolation.

“Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

There was a man all alone;
    he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
    yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
    “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
    a miserable business!”

Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

It is absurd, Solomon points out, to work, work, work to get more and more money and more and more stuff to pack into storage units, and have no one to enjoy it with, no friends or time with friends to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

“Loneliness is perhaps the greatest of human aches,” as psychologist Shira Nayman points out. It is literally painful. We’re made for connection with others. Even in infancy, we look into the eyes of our parents searching the reassurance that someone loves us. Throughout childhood, the security of feeling loved and liked by your parents directly impacts the degree of confidence with which you’ll navigate adulthood.

Made to belong

Timothy P. Carney, author of the book Alienated America, points out that, “[Service] clubs, churches and civic organizations allow us to be part of something [and belong to something], but Americans don’t join as much as they used to. … A community [like this] offers peace of mind because we know others will be there to help, but the flipside is just as important. Having people rely on us gives us purpose.”

Source: Jacqueline Polzin, “Suffering in Silence,” O Magazine, (November 2019); Timothy P. Carney, “Alienated America” (Harper, 2019), Pages 13, 134

There you have contemporary thinkers voicing what Solomon observed so long ago and so far away. Human nature hasn’t changed. We’re made for relationship, to have friends and to be friends to one another. And when that’s missing, it is brutal.

Bronnie Ware, who works as a palliative care nurse with people who are terminally ill, finds that when she asks patients if they have any regrets, one the top responses is that they regret letting friendships lapse. They describe getting so caught up in the rush of life that they let golden friendships fade away.

This is an appropriate place to acknowledge for us to admit that our culture at present doesn’t do a great job at showing us how to cultivate good friendships. So maybe, just maybe, the pandemic has a chance at helping us to change, to counter the culture and become better friends.

Source: Susan S. Phillips, The Cultivated Life (IVP Books, 2015), Page 166

I want to commend you for hanging in there through some hard stuff, things we’d rather not dwell on. Solomon draws our attention to the cries of the oppressed, the corruption of work, and the pain of isolation. But he doesn’t leave us there. From those deeply painful problems, he concludes with God’s solution. If you’re taking notes, the question and answer are…

  • What can we do? Link arms in communion!

“Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

This passage is often used in wedding ceremonies. And this certainly is a beautiful picture of what marriage is meant to bring. But Solomon goes broader than marriage here. He’s describing the power of being committed friends. In a world marred by oppression, corruption, and isolation, he holds out the tremendous power in having each others’ backs. In this often lonely world, we win by linking arms.

Mary Ann Evans captures this so well, writing…

“Oh, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person;

having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out,

just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them,

keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

Mary Ann Evans

Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t this what we all want? We can work at increasingly becoming this kind of friends and get better results than society around us. This is what Solomon commends as the solution to the greatest problems that come at us.

  • When we have each other’s backs, the oppressed get a fighting chance at greater justice.
  • When we defend each other, those whose work has become corrupted get a best shot at putting work in its proper place.
  • When we help one another up, those who have felt isolated become connected in powerful ways.

It’s like the Japanese proverb that a single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.

Or the Jewish man in the ghetto of Lutz, Poland under Nazi occupation who scribbled out, “A piece of wood cannot burn by itself; I cannot resist alone.”

God’s power comes through committed friends. Because together, we can become a counter-weight to the problems that life throws at us.

The church at our best

And this is what God intends the local church to be. We should be the safest place on earth. Every one of us comes not because we imagine we have it all together, but because we recognize we need the Lord, and we need each other.

The New Testament metaphor that the church is like the body of Christ tells us everything we need to know:

  • Christ knows what he’s doing, so we gladly submit to him like the parts of your body accept direction from the head.
  • Everyone matters. Like every single part of your body, every single person in the church receives benefit from the whole, and contributes to the health of the whole body.
  • And third, you belong. In the local church, you are not alone. We can face whatever you face.

My strong hope in this strange time is that as the yChurch family, you won’t feel a need to hide your flaws. We want to be the kind of friends that Solomon commends. Because no problem is insurmountable so long as you have friends to face it with you. This is who we want to be as a church. And this is what you and I can offer to extended family and friends who don’t have a church to call home.

Where to from here?

So as we wrap up, I’m thinking of two groups of people. First is those who are watching who aren’t connected to a good church. What I would urge you to do is connect with us! Use the contact form to let us know you’re here. We’ll be back in touch to help you take the step from watching, to connecting with other believers who would love to cheer you on in following Jesus. Let us know you’re here, so that we can stand with you real-time.

The second group I’m thinking of is those of you who are already part of yChurch. From my heart, please receive this: don’t go through this strange season on your own. Stay connected. Hop on our half-hour after-worship fellowship call. If you’re not up for that, give me or someone else in the church a ring. If you don’t know their number, e-mail me at pastorken@y-church.com and I’ll get it to you. But don’t slip into isolation. Isolation is a terrible tool that Satan uses to pick people off. Don’t fall for it.

We’ve got a round the world food tour coming up next Saturday. We’re going to meet up and mask up 9 a.m. at Saraga International Market on Indy’s west side. You will find foods you know and love, and you’ll discover fruits and vegetables and fresh fish and lots more that you haven’t yet tried. Let’s just have some fun together, in a place that’s unique to Indy. Let me know if you’re coming. If you’re new to yChurch, we would love to welcome you on this fun outing. Use the contact form to let us know you’re thinking about it.

We end where Solomon ends, the timely reminder that…

“Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up…
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.”

We’re better together. Don’t miss out on a connection with fellow believers to spur one another on in faith, hope, and love. Or again, as Mary Ann Evans so beautifully puts it…

“Oh, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

This is who we want to be as a church. I invite you to commit or recommit to joining us in this worthy pursuit.

Would you pray with me? Father God, we grieve the ways sin causes so much oppression, corruption, and isolation. We see what Solomon did so long ago. We thank you that you have not abandoned us to the effects of sin. We praise you for promising and sending your Son to become our Savior. We believe his death and resurrection is enough to set us right with you. And we welcome your call to link arms to work toward making things right where we can in the world. Make us a band of brothers and sisters who love in word and deed, who defend one another against sin’s damage. We pray as Jesus taught, Father, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Fill us with the same Spirit who filled Jesus. And through us, bring blessing instead of sin’s curse—to our families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and beyond. Hear our prayer, Lord, and bring your kingdom even through us. Amen.