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Finding happiness every day

Gems hiding in plain sight

Kevin Kinnard was about to call it a day when he paused to ask state workers to take a look at the small rocks he had picked up in the park that afternoon. An employee went through his bag and set aside a marble-sized rock that Kevin thought was a piece of broken glass. Instead, they pulled him aside to inform him that he had in hand the second-largest diamond ever found, at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas: nine carats! So far this year alone, 246 diamonds have been discovered and registered at the park. On average, visitors find one or two diamonds every day there. Anyone interested in a road trip right about now? It’s 732 miles from Fishers, a 10 ½ hour drive. And yes, I checked!

This week is about finding the treasures hidden in plain sight every day. It’s okay to feel sad or anxious or stressed these days—or sad and anxious and stressed! It’s okay to recognize that life just isn’t what you thought it would be right now. The latest research says eight of every ten Americans report that the pandemic is a significant source of stress right now. The other two obviously aren’t paying attention!

But just like at Crater of Diamonds State Park, there are treasures right in front of you and me that we easily miss—the treasure of happiness to be found in each day, even these days.

Finding happiness in Ecclesiastes?

If I told you the book of Ecclesiastes is a great place to look for happiness, you’d probably look at me the way dogs do when we talk to them. Ecclesiastes is the Bible book that opens with how meaningless life feels sometimes. Its dozen chapters are loaded with hardcore, gritty, down-in-the-dirt observations about the difficulties that rip away hope and enrage the powerless.

A friend of mine who had a traumatic childhood tells how Ecclesiastes was the first Bible book they read, and through its realism God spoke powerfully to them. What’s happened to him matches what’s in here, in Ecclesiastes.

But for most people, Ecclesiastes is little-known and even less understood, because it asks far more questions than it offers answers. Those questions are significant and honest and Spirit-led. They matter. But for the answers, we often need to look farther down the timeline of God’s progressive revelation given in the Bible, into the New Testament.

So the picture I want you to fix in your mind this week is that Ecclesiastes is like Crater of Diamonds State Park. It looks, at first glance, like a strip-mine. Its observations about injustice and hardship come across like that park’s mud and dirt and sweat and frustration. Like those who pay to get Crater of Diamonds State Park but drive away empty-handed, a lot of folks who crack open Ecclesiastes scratch their heads in confusion and walk away having found no treasure.

Today will change that. Because in the midst of the strip-mine that is Ecclesiastes, there are gems to be found. There’s treasure to be mined. And it would be a shame to walk away having not discovered them.

Mining happiness from a deeply serious book

So here’s our mining plan for this week. There are a dozen chapters in Ecclesiastes: think of them as a dozen acres to dig into. There are gems found scattered throughout those fields. Bible scholars call them the “enjoyment passages” of Ecclesiastes. They all commend the same thing to us—basically, to lighten up and live! In the midst of one of the most serious Bible books, wrestling with deep questions, here and there scattered through Ecclesiastes are these compelling reminders pleading, don’t let the stresses in life rob you of the joys God places right before you. Don’t let them remain hidden in plain sight. Let’s get right to them, right to the gems God has for you and me to enjoy.

Savor that sandwich!

The first diamond is found in chapter 2, where Solomon, led by the Holy Spirit, urges us to “…Enjoy food and drink and…find satisfaction in work…I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him? God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him.”

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

If I can translate from 2,000 B.C. to today, God speaking through Solomon says, “Go ahead and order take-out for lunch! Whip up a tasty feast for the family! Savor a glass of sauvignon blanc this evening. Whatever else is happening in your weekly experience, take time to slow down and enjoy those taste buds that I’ve blessed you with.”

There’s the first enjoyment passage in Ecclesiastes. Lighten up and live…today! Such a diamond, for such a time as this. Here’s the next one.

Finding happiness from doing good

In chapter three Solomon, carried along by the Holy Spirit, writes…

“…there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

The diamond in that passage is the connection between being happy and doing good. The happiest people are those who find something they can contribute to help others. The people who are stingy are usually the most miserable. Here in Hamilton County we have The Good Samaritan Network, one central group that coordinates all assistance to the poor and those in crisis in our whole county. What a blessing, that volunteers countywide do the good they can in order to lighten the load for someone else. I guarantee you they gain a sense of fulfillment from making a difference, from doing good.

When you give to what we call our Great Commission Fund, that gift takes your toil, your work, and translates it into believers on the ground among some of the most unreached people in 70 nations around the world. That includes a hospital we built and staff and run in Gabon in central Africa. In that nation where the per capita income is less than $6,000 dollars per year, we offer medical care and even surgery, at no cost to those who come. We provide medicine to help those who have contracted HIV.

And everyone who receives free medical care also gets to hear the good news of Jesus that heals our soul. In 2018, some 40,000 people heard the gospel through our ministry there, with almost 1,500 coming to faith in Jesus that year alone.

Your gifts to the Great Commission Fund enable us to show and tell the good news of Jesus and bring joy to people we would otherwise never meet. What an amazing way to do good and in that good to find happiness! Our work that enables us to do good by our giving is a diamond, for such a time as this.

These enjoyment passages are scattered across Ecclesiastes, like the gems in Crater of Diamonds State Park. You come across them in chapter 2. Chapter 3. Chapter 5. Again in chapter 8. And they all shine with the same message, which is that God wants you to enjoy life, to find the joy that’s there in each day!

Don’t let all the dirt keep you from the diamonds

Yes, there are legit reasons—many of them—to get down and be stressed and grieve and mourn and work for change: that’s all over the book of Ecclesiastes. But in the midst of the dirt and grime and sweat and frustration, from time to time in Ecclesiastes’ enjoyment verses, Solomon stops, stoops down, plucks a diamond out of the dirt, and shouts, “Hey, don’t miss this! It’s not all dirt! Take this in! Savor this moment! Hoot and holler and enjoy this experience!”

Isn’t it telling that these enjoyment passages are placed where they are, in the least-expected book of the Bible. That’s no mistake. Wise old Solomon, even as he laments how broken the world and people’s lives often are, refuses to give in to cynicism. He refuses to throw his hands up in despair. He refuses to yield to rage. He refuses to shrink into becoming a bitter and hardened ogre.

You no doubt have friends or family—or former friends—who have gotten pulled down into rank cynicism, utter despair, been gripped by fear, or soured into bitter anger. They’ve gotten stuck in the dirt and mud. In this strange Bible book, Solomon is able to model getting deep down in the dirt, but not getting stuck in it. The enjoyment passages are the secret hiding in plain sight. They show us how he did it, and how we can stay unstuck as well. The bottom line, Solomon wisely counsels, is that each day has happiness to be found. It’s right there, waiting for you to see it, seize it, and savor it. Even in a deeply stressful time, he advises, you can lighten up and live!

Some of you need to receive this. Some of you need to give yourself permission to soak in some daily happiness. Scan the gospels, and you will rediscover that Jesus, while carrying the weight of the world, found daily happiness in the things that Solomon commends.

Martin Luther pastored a church during an earlier pandemic in the 16th century, and as he ruminated on Ecclesiastes’ enjoyment passages, found himself struck how these little diamonds that Solomon holds up are different from hedonism. They’re different from pursuing pleasure apart from God. These are about happiness with a clean conscience, even in the middle of deep stresses.

We’ve touched on a few of Ecclesiastes’ enjoyment verses. Let me show you one final section and hold it up like a diamond so you can see the happiness God wants you to find hidden in plain sight today, this week, and moving forward. They’re right there in Ecclesiastes chapter nine. Here’s the first gem, from verse 7:

“Go, eat your food with gladness,

and drink your wine with a joyful heart, 

for God has already approved what you do.”

Ecclesiastes 9:7

The Message paraphrase says, “Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!” Do I really need to qualify, that of course Solomon isn’t commending everything people do? He’s simply stepping back from all the stresses and pointing out the obvious: a good meal will do your heart good. A glass of wine with someone you love will bring a smile to your face despite whatever else the day held.  Life’s little pleasures are not guilty pleasures, but God-given pleasures! So dig in! Eat up. Fill your home with the smell of freshly-baked bread, or the sweet aroma of a pan of brownies. Enjoy a cold one while you cheer on the Colts. Curl up with a good book and a hot chocolate.

“Go!,” Solomon urges. This is an imperative, meaning go for it! Don’t get stuck circling the drain with all the world’s worries. Don’t miss the contentment God wants to bless you with in the simple things, which turn out to be important things. A happy heart has God’s approval. When the Lord sees you taking in a good meal with a contented sigh, he gives a thumbs up.

The celebration continues in verse 8 with this imperative:

“Always be clothed in white, 

and always anoint your head with oil.”

Ecclesiastes 9:8

What’s this about? Easy: In the dusty Middle East, white clothes back then and still today are the dress up outfits, what you wear to a party, a wedding, a meeting with royalty. White robes were what war heroes wore when they paraded into Jerusalem in victory. White garments were what slaves put on the day they gained their freedom. White vestments were what Jewish priests wore on the holiest days in Israel’s calendar.

And what’s with daily anointing your head with oil? It’s another picture of celebrating—not just looking good, but smelling good (which in Israel’s summers held far more importance than Indiana in November—you get the point). Our contemporary equivalent is put on your best cologne or perfume. One of our female Senators talks about putting on her best outfit and her most powerful shade of lipstick, because it readies her for the day in the best frame of mind possible. For men, too, you know how the right attire makes you stand a bit taller and confident. That’s the image here: get ready for a party!

The gems continue with verse 9, which urges husbands…

“Enjoy life with your wife,  whom you love…”

Ecclesiastes 9:9

Making the most of your marriage

Invest in your spouse. Guys, remember the maxim that sex starts in the kitchen—meaning, the way you treat your wife at eleven A.M. has a lot to with how she wants to be with you at eleven P.M. Buy a just-because card and add a from-the-heart note about the good you see in her, how thankful you are to go through life with her.

Husbands and wives, find out what each other’s love language is—whether they are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Receiving gifts
  • Acts of service
  • Meaningful touch

Value each other’s opinion. Ask how he or she is doing lately. Put the phone on silent and away for just-the-two-of-you time. Read a chapter from the gospels together, or a chapter from Proverbs, and share what stands out to you. At dinner time—you can do this as a family, too—ask each one to share a rose and a thorn from that day: a rose (something good or fun) and a thorn (something hard or something that hurt). We’ve done that from time to time in our home, and it’s been good.

What about when marriage is hard? That’s a different theme addressed elsewhere in Scripture. Here, as in the several other enjoyment passages in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is simply urging, “Don’t put off to the future the happiness that can be found at hand today.” And that starts in our homes.

The final gem to be discovered in this passage is verse 10, in which Solomon urges…

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”

Ecclesiastes 9:10

Giving your best on the job

God has fashioned you to go at your work as only you can. Craig is a master woodworker who takes on one-of-a-kind commission projects. If that’s your skillset, go for it! Do what you can do the max.

Steve is a professional statistician. Therapeutic medicines don’t make it to market until people with his skillset and experience have thoroughly combed through the results of clinical trials to make sure that new medicine is safe and effective for what it’s prescribed for. As the world races to develop effective vaccines against the new or novel coronavirus named COVID-19, the Holy Spirit speaking through Solomon urges, “Keep going! Thank God that he gave you the ability to play a part in this.”

Diane retired from Kroger when the pandemic hit and has pivoted to being a hands-on Grandma. It’s a new season of what her hand finds to do, and she’s going for it, building a new level of what will prove to be her legacy.

Each of us has work that we uniquely are called to do. Whatever that is, whatever season it is for you right now, give it your best. Milk the happiness to be found in it, both for yourself and for those who benefit from your work, from your role.

I want you to hear pastor Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this enjoyment passage from Ecclesiastes chapter 9. Peterson’s aim in The Message paraphrase was to have God’s Word hit us with the same impact it did for the original audience—that hearing it, we will feel like Solomon’s readers did 3,000 years ago. So hear and feel The Message paraphrase of this week’s Scripture:

“Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don’t skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it!”

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

There are pleasures to be found and experienced even now, even today. Don’t miss them, God urges, speaking to us through Solomon so long ago. Make the most of every day. Look for the diamonds. Notice them, grab them, and hold them up to enjoy them:

  • That job that pays well and brings focus to your hours—enjoy it.
  • Your family who love and appreciate you, with whom you’re not alone in this stressful season—enjoy the time with them, today.
  • Your coworkers who come from a variety of backgrounds and who may have voted differently and bring what they can to the job—enjoy them. Let them know you appreciate them. When you get to work with a gem, tell them they’re a gem.
  • Geese flying in formation, honking encouragement to one another and constantly trading places so that they all get to their destination together and well—enjoy seeing them fly overhead, and marvel at how God made us with the ability to work together and for one another’s good.
  • Squirrels digging holes to bury nuts now that will keep them sustained until next spring—enjoy watching their diligence, and take a page from them in doing your job, without agonizing over an unknown future. Don’t miss today’s happiness, the gems that are hiding in plain sight.

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning got at what Solomon commends when she wrote:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

That’s what Solomon is commending to us. Every day is a trip to Crater of Diamonds State Park—yes, with its share of dirt, plenty of sweat, maybe some tears—but there are also gems to be noticed, enjoyed, and celebrated. Yes, life includes troubles. But don’t miss the joys. Lighten up…and live.

Happiness in following Jesus’ example

And all the more this should mark those of us who follow Solomon’s descendant, Jesus, who modeled everything Solomon commends in these enjoyment passages.

  • Throughout the gospels, Jesus is constantly either on his way to a meal, enjoying a meal with friends, or coming from a meal. When he broke bread with his disciples, he always gave thanks to his and our Father in heaven. He was happy to enjoy a meal with close friends, with deeply flawed strangers, with anyone who was up for it. It brought him joy.
  • Jesus’ first miracle was turning uh-oh-we’ve-run-out-of-wine at a wedding reception water into the finest vintage wine anyone in town had ever tasted. He was happy to do so!
  • The unique work Jesus came to do, he did with all his might. “My food,” he said, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). It was Jesus’ pleasure to do what God put before him, for us and for all who will yet believe in him and be saved.
  • The picture of enjoying marriage that Solomon commends, Jesus took to a whole different level, describing the people of God as his forever bride. The summation of time is portrayed in Scripture as the greatest wedding banquet history has even seen—and you’re invited. So is your extended family; your coworkers; your neighbors; our political enemies. We’ll wear white garments, as Solomon commends. Because it will be a celebration like no one has ever seen, and it will never end. You can visit Revelation chapter seven if you want a peek at the song list.

Every tasty meal that you enjoy with a friend or family—even if socially distanced for a time—is a reminder that the world is invited to the last and best of all the all-you-can-eat, top of the line banquets.

Every birthday party, every anniversary, and every graduation anticipates the heavenly celebration that will carry on without end.

Yes, life is marked by job loss and miscarriages, love lost and global pandemics. Ecclesiastes as a whole bears witness honestly to the difficulties that come. Revelation completes the story, showing us the trailer for what is to come—the day when God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. For then, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his present reign and soon return, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order—the way things are now, as lamented throughout Ecclesiastes—will have passed away.

Toward that end, please join me in praying. Our Father in heaven, we thank and praise you for the common graces you bring our way each day—family members and fellow church members who love and treasure us, the contentedness that comes with tasty food and a full stomach, work that makes a difference and pays the bills and enables us to give. Help us today, we pray, to see and seize the happiness that’s been hiding in plain sight. Lift and encourage those who are weary. Renew their strength. Move among us to bring blessing to our families, coworkers, neighbors, students, clients, and beyond. Through your people scattered round the world like diamonds in that state park, we pray, shine. Reveal yourself to those who see nothing but the dirt and muck. Breathe your Holy Spirit upon those we interact with, such that they will ask the reason for the hope within us. And when those moments come, we pray now that you will fill us with your Spirit, giving us clarity and courage to make Jesus known. Hear our prayer this day, we ask, in his mighty name. Amen!