If you’ve ever experienced the inescapable thorniness of an Eastern NC sand burr, you know that there is no ignoring a sand burr once it has attached itself to your party of one. All other activity is suspended as you carefully work to resolve the prickly matter.
Like the relentlessness of a sand burr, there are moments from my life that never seem to dissolve from the panoply of memories that I have collected from the years. Woven and bound tightly to the fabric of my mind, they puncture the fabric of my wandering thoughts, requiring the painstaking and repetitious chore of examination and extraction.
Flash back several years ago, during a formative season of trial and adversity in my life, I was summoned to a meeting with the senior pastor. Anxious and fidgety, I steeled myself for his first words.
“Are you happy here?”, he asked.
Hesitantly, I replied, “I’m not clear on what you’re getting at.”
Without relinquishing the question, he restated it, “Are you happy at Hickory Grove Baptist Church?”
“Happiness is not a condition of my commitment to the work of Hickory Grove Baptist Church.”, I answered. “I am happy in a moment. In another moment, I am anxious. In another, I am sad. For me, a day’s emotional landscape is always changing. I have learned to not make “happy” my life’s daily objective. I am committed to the work of Hickory Grove Baptist Church because I am called to it.”
Flash back a few more years to another season of trial and adversity in my life journey’s, a similar question was posed by the chairman of deacons as he stopped by my office early one Sunday morning.
“Why are you here?”, he asked.
“What do you mean?”, I replied.
“Why are you here, right now, at Christ Community Church?”, he inquired.
“Because it’s my job.”, I replied with slight hesitation and suspicion.
He pressed in. “No, not good enough. What is your reason for being here today, and tomorrow, and the day after, and so on?”
Like the extraction of a sand burr, these enduring conversations required nimble navigation through thought, feeling, and reason as I was patiently urged to examine my place and purpose, my life’s course. And over the years of many days turned into nights and back into days, these distinct memories continue to puncture through my thoughts anytime that I find myself in a season or situation that tests my resolve and that calls into question the intentions of my heart and mind. Inescapably, I am forced to examine myself in the light of contrasting and related questions, “Why are you here?”, “Are you happy here?”
Pastor Dan Burrell recently preached from Ecclesiastes 7:1-14. In his sermon, he pointed out the passage’s repetitive theme of “better”:
–Better is a good name than a precious ointment
-Better to be in a house of mourning than a house of feasting
-Better is sorrow than laughter
-Better to hear the rebuke of the wise than the song of fools
-Better is the end of a thing than its beginning
And then it concludes its list of contrasts with this statement, “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 man may not find out anything that will be after him. If there had to be one thing that I walk away with after reading the book of Ecclesiastes, and particularly this passage, it is the heavy question, “Why?” Why is one thing better than the other? And why is the one thing that appears on the surface to be the worst better than the other thing that appears to be less distressing?
A partial answer can be found in Pastor Dan’s direction to “Understand the life that you are living. Find your peace, place, and purpose.” In his call to seek and examine, he, too, is advising us to ask ourselves “Why?” Why am I living? Why is my life as it is? I believe that the writer of Ecclesiastes begs the same questions and provides a path towards enduring answers.
As a ministering singer, I have attended an innumerable amount of funerals. I have sung at the request of wives burying husbands, husbands burying wives, children burying parents, and yes, parents burying children. And when you repeatedly find yourself among the mourning, you are afforded the ponderous opportunity to “number your days that you may receive a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90: 12) In these perennial moments of my life’s journey, I am invited to take a seat across the table from Death. While there, I hear the summary of lives that lasted a few and many years. I often hear what made them happy and how they made other people happy. I sometimes hear what made them sad. Occasionally, I hear what drove them to make the decisions that defined their lives. Through them all, I am reminded of the brevity of our existence, of the limits of our lives, and the vanity of happiness. I am also faced with the challenge to consider the value of reputation (a good name), the wisdom in living towards a destination (the ending of a thing), and the need to discern and to understand the difference between posterity and prosperity.
The Scriptures call out uniquely to the dying wishing to live. Like messages in a bottle arriving upon distant shores, the good news of God beseeches us to keep the better things before us and implores us to bear the briefness of this life in mind (Psalm 39:4-5). Why? Because life is, indeed, a race and how we run it matters (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Life is not the “rat race” that the world would have us believe it to be. (Look up “rat race” when you have time.) Life is a race laid out for each of us and it has a definite finish line which determines both losers and winners. The writer of Ecclesiastes has nearly completed his race. And after having run the unique course of his life, seeking out the what and how, he concludes that there is greater wisdom in seeking out who and why.
I am grateful to my inquisitive companions for the prickly questions that they posed to a younger and exasperated Jason. Adroitly and subtly, they guided me to realize that there is a profound difference between meaningfulness and happiness, that meaningfulness is better than happiness, and that, though there is a harmonic kinship in the experience of meaningfulness and happiness, I can find myself dreadfully off course if I negotiate my course always and only towards happiness. Targeting happiness as our destination will enslave us to the ebb and flow of our psychology and our biology and cause us to miss out on the better. Instead, we should deem our days as assignments and our roles as footmen and priests of the LORD Jesus Christ. We should look upon each day’s decisions as transactions through which we must choose the better of the things placed before us as we move along the course of a brief race. Why? Because God is searching our heart and testing our mind. He treats us as sons and daughters and, as such, He disciplines us. It is for His discipline that we are called to endure for perseverance develops hope, character, and hope in the receipt of the crown of life.
I conclude with this. Look to Simeon in the book of Luke 2:25-35. Read how he crossed the finish line of his race. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30) Daily, Simeon chose the better things. And as a result, he didn’t miss the best thing. Prompted by the Holy Spirit of God, Simeon found himself in the right place at the right time. He ended this life crossing the finish line with his eyes on Jesus.