Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ecclesiastes 9-12

“Of making many books there is no end…” Ecclesiastes 12:12

Ecclesiastes reminds us, with its unique message, that the Bible is a library of books containing many voices. The author of this book, whoever he was, offers one voice among many. If we take this voice as an example of absolute truth then it certainly contradicts other voices within the Bible with its level of pessimism. However, if we regard it as just one voice, then, if we are wise, we will also understand that this book contains a voice we need to hear from time to time.

C. S. Lewis says about this book:

Nor would I (now) willingly spare from my Bible something in itself so anti-religious as the nihilism of Ecclesiastes. We get there a clear, cold picture of man’s life without God. That statement is itself part of God’s word. We need to have heard it. Even to have assimilated Ecclesiastes and no other book in the Bible would be to have advanced further towards truth than some men do. (Reflections on the Psalms)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ecclesiastes 5-8

Out of today’s reading, these words from Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 stood out to me the most:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

How much easier it is for me to talk to God than to listen! It is far easier to study the Bible even, than to really hear what the Lord wants to say to me. The cacophony of my own thoughts shuts out that “still small voice” that Elijah heard on the mountain (1 Kings 19:12).

Not too long ago, I saw this rendition of Psalm 46:10….

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know.
Be still.

Sometimes, the hardest thing for me is simply to be still. It is not hard to still my body, but it is often difficult to still my mind, to empty my mind, to quiet my soul, and just listen.

If we did that, what might God say to us? Why not take time today to quiet all the noise, both external and internal? Then, when we get to that point of stillness we can say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) We might be surprised by the good, encouraging words the Lord will have for us….

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ecclesiastes 1-4

As we begin our study of Ecclesiastes today, Lawrence Boadt, once again, helps us to find our footing….

No one has ever challenged the Book of Ecclesiastes’ right to the title of the most skeptical book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes, also called Qoheleth, has a unified approach to the value of wisdom: pessimism. While Proverbs sought to provide guidelines on what to do and not to do, and confidently summed up the way to wisdom as “fear of the Lord,” Ecclesiastes has its doubts whether such confidence has any basis in human experience. The author’s theme song is sounded at the beginning and again at the end of the book, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity—and a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:2, 14; 12:8). Futility and emptiness result from the constant human search for the meaning of life. He is particularly aware of the useless attempts to understand the mystery of divine purpose behind the order of the world as it is, the tragic finality of death, the reasons for success and failure, and the justice of rewards and punishment for good and evil behavior. These are beyond our capabilities to discover.

The word Qoheleth is Hebrew for a “preacher,” “head of the church assembly,” or something similar, although no other example of the word exists in the Bible. The more traditional title of the book, Ecclesiastes, is nothing but a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew word. That the author was Solomon is implied by the first verse when it says Qoheleth was the son of David in Jerusalem, but cannot be taken as fact. The book shows the development of Israelite thought that comes after the exile, especially in its doubts about old answers and its attacks on the rational approaches of Greek thought that began to influence the Near East at that time.

The book has much in common with other wisdom literature, however. The author undertakes the investigation of experience at all levels, and asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the fool, just and unjust, and even quotes a large number of proverbs that he actually thinks will work in life. But certain things are clear to him that others have never allowed. While admitting that God does direct all things, he insists that we cannot know what God is doing or why, and so our proper human response is to enjoy what God gives us now and use it the best we can. As Ecclesiasts 5:17 puts it: Here is what I understand as good: it is well if a person eat, drink and enjoy all the fruits of work under the sun during the limited days that God gives to one’s life, for this is a person’s lot.” For Qoheleth, everything has its proper time: “a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl 3:2-4), but the “why” is known only to God and not to us. His advice to enjoy life as it is may not seem very religious, but he tempers it with warnings “to fear God” (Eccl 5:6).

The Jewish rabbis fought a long time over whether the book was fit for the sacred canon of Scripture. The positive decision was made possible because Solomon was thought to be the author, and an editor added a pious afterword in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 that summed up his message as “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl 12:13). It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired nature, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent God and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the end, Ecclesiastes’ message is one with that of Job—trust and surrender yourself to God’s loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Proverbs 29-31

Considering how many negative portraits of women are in the Proverbs (remember Dame Folly), it is interesting to me that the book ends with a very positive portrait of a woman. Yes, it is, in some ways, a traditional portrait of a good wife, a capable wife. However, there are some surprising aspects to this portrait. This wife is compared to merchant ships (Proverbs 31:14). She has a managerial role, overseeing servant-girls (31:15). She purchases property (31:16). She sells merchandise (31:18). She is a philanthropist, opening her hand to the poor (31:20). All of her activities relate back, however, to supporting the good of her household.

Writing in the 1950s to a female correspondent, C. S. Lewis had this to say:

I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely, in reality, the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, mines, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour.” (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real Home hereafter: 2nd, in the meantime, to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Proverbs 25-28

Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
So is good news from a far country.
Proverbs 24:25

This proverb was important enough to C. S. Lewis that he placed it on the title page of the first book he wrote after returning to the Christian faith: The Pilgrim’s Regress. In 1931, after searching for the truth for many years, he finally found cold water for his thirsty soul in the good news of Christ, coming to him from heaven—a far country indeed. In a way, all the rest of Lewis’ works (Narnia, the Cosmic Trilogy, The Great Divorce, etc.) can be viewed as the embodiment of that good news from a far country.

Perhaps the most wonderful talk I have ever heard about C. S. Lewis and his work, was given by Lewis’ friend and chaplain, Bishop Simon Barrington Ward, at Holy Trinity Brompton in 2010. Here is the link to that talk. I believe you will find it worth every one of the thirty minutes it takes to listen to it. It will nourish your soul….

Friday, July 18, 2014

Proverbs 21-24

At this moment, there are conflicts raging in many parts of the world, the Middle East and the Ukraine in particular. There are, no doubt, conflicts raging much closer to home as well, perhaps even in our own homes. Therefore, I found these words from Mere Christianity attached to Proverbs 24:17-18 in the C. S. Lewis Bible to be very timely.

Proverbs 24:17-18 reads, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them.”

Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

I imagine somebody will say, “Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?” All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Proverbs 17-20

It seems to me that the Proverbs provide especially good Scriptural text for what is called “lectio divina.” Here is a brief introduction to this spiritual practice from Wikipedia….

In Christianity, Lectio Divina (Latin for divine reading) is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word.
Traditionally Lectio Divina has 4 separate steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate. First a passage of Scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God.
The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus’ statement in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you” an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. But in Lectio Divina rather than “dissecting peace”, the practitioner “enters peace” and shares in the peace of Christ. In Christian teachings, this form of meditative prayer leads to an increased knowledge of Christ.
The roots of Scriptural reflection and interpretation go back to Origen in the 3rd century, after whom St. Ambrose taught them to St. Augustine. The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict and was then formalized as a 4 step process by the Carthusian monk, Guigo II, in the 12th century. In the 20th century, the constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council recommended Lectio Divina for the general public. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of Lectio Divina in the 21st century.

Through the first step of reading today, I have selected four verses that I especially want to meditate upon, pray over, and contemplate. Here they are….

The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
the righteous run into it and are safe. (18:10)

The human mind may devise many plans,    
but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established. (19:21)

wait for the Lord, and he will help you. (20:22b)

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways? (20:24)

I found these verses especially comforting today as I face some important decisions and steps of faith I need to take.

What verses would you select today for your “lectio divina”?