No Empty Labor

On the surface, Ecclesiastes paints a pretty morbid picture about human labor. Here’s ol’ Solomon’s pep rally:

What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3)

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. (2:20)

And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (4:4)

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. (5:15)

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun–all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (9:9)

I’m sure you can relate. Day by day, you swim through a tidal wave of emails, swing a hammer, or stare at the same spot in the assembly line you’ve been looking at for months. You’re glad to have the work, of course, but no matter how much you get done, it’s as if you never really make any progress at all. Tomorrow, those emails will be there, nails will still need to be smacked in, and the assembly line will keep churning along.

Sometimes, all you can really think is this: The job pays for the car that you need to get to the job. “Chasing after the wind,” indeed.

In some sense, nothing brings us more face to face with the Fall of humanity than work. In toil we see how the earth no longer produces like it once did (Genesis 3). In bitterness we see how “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16) can get us stuck on an endless uphill treadmill. In sorrow we can easily get burned (and burned out) by life “under the sun.” If our eyes can see no farther than “this world,” our work has nothing to offer beyond a paycheck.

But under the Son, labor takes on a completely different dimension—a Kingdom dimension. No, that doesn’t mean work suddenly becomes always awesome. It means that we recognize work as part of our calling, our marching orders to make Jesus-followers wherever we are. The true labor isn’t in email or hammers or assembly lines; it’s in throwing out nets and harvesting grain. We are where we are as a sliver of light to those around us.

Christ answered Solomon’s questions from all those years before. Carpenters, fishermen, tentmakers, shepherds, clothiers, tax collectors, soldiers, priests, and beggars, all found what gain there is in labor. It’s not empty toiling under the sun at all. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

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Captain Lazy Eye

 “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” Colossians 1:6

My right eye decided to be lazy as a child. While the left eye absorbed light rays and churned out superb images in my brain, the right one kicked back, yawned, and took most days off. In an attempt to correct the imbalance, my optometrist had me wear a patch each evening that forced my right eye to pitch in. So, as you might imagine, I ran around the house being a pirate—even though the patch looked more like an oversized bandage than something a scallywag might wear.

But the Captain John routine didn’t fix the problem. My amblyopia—or lazy eye—mutinied and refused to work harder. A thick lens in my glasses didn’t do it either, and contacts weren’t an option, since I can’t stand anything getting close to my corneas. To this day, I can’t really make out those nifty 3D effects in posters or movies, and when I’m tired, I sometimes see two overlapping images of the same person—one clear, one blurry.

I’ve lived with the lazy eye for so long that I don’t really notice it now. The left eye keeps on doing the heavy lifting without a hiccup, and unless I close it, I see just fine. But when the left eye gets blurry for some reason, that’s when things get ugly. At least, they look that way to my much-impaired vision.

How I view global Christianity is just about as lazy as my right eye. You see, I’ve had this naïve assumption for much of my life that as American (or even local) faith goes, so goes the gospel around the world. I see the local scene clearly enough, but everything else comes in blurry—if I even look at all. “Persecution” means being talked to meanly or not getting the result in a court case that I wanted. “Worship” means a Sunday morning experience with a building that needs to be just the right temperature. “Fellowship” means getting stuffed with a potluck array of meats, veggies, and 30 kinds of banana pudding.

Meanwhile, the gospel flourishes happily in Asia and Africa and even Europe without one whit of similarity to my own local preferences. Thousands cram into much-too-hot buildings, laugh, shout, and dance on the way up to the offering basket. Others break bread and eat inside the ruins of a burned out church building. Some whisper praises and prayers so that they won’t be overheard. And they all worship the same Christ I do.

“All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing,” Paul said. Unlike me, his eyes weren’t lazy. He could see that God kept moving the good news express from one place to another, kept transforming lives, kept ripping people out of the kingdom of darkness.

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:13-14

That Verse Before

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

I’d rather live a Philippians 4:13 type life. But that verse before it always gets me. I’d rather jump right into the “doing all things through him who gives me strength” without slogging through the “content in any and every situation” part. The second verse makes for such great posters, but now, when I read it, all I can think is “whether living in plenty or in want.”

Talk about a buzzkill.

But God’s plans come in a larger size than my earthly satisfaction. He wants my sanctification, my being-made-more-like-Jesus-ness. He wants me to see that His riches don’t come with dour-looking presidents or expiration dates or limited warranties. They aren’t earned by the sweat of my brow. Instead, His riches come pouring down in my contentment.

Paul told Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), and he’s driving at the same thing here in Philippians. “Strength,” according to the world, boils down to laying claim to the most stuff—power, model spouses (emphasis on the plural), houses, and influence. But those who think that way can never be content no matter the situation. When their “strength” disappears, they wilt. Some do whatever it takes to get back to where they were; some end up in rehab; and some see no reason to live. Some strength, huh?

Jesus doesn’t play by our rules, though. His Beatitude bunker busters make that pretty clear (see Matthew 5). The weak, the poor, the hungry—those are the ones who receive the treasures. You see, Jesus does want us to get to Philippians 4:13, but to do that, He has to demolish our strongholds by taking us through Philippians 4:12. We’re strong through Him only when we’ve learned to clear the detritus of what we think we need in this world and see Him for the all-sufficient treasure that He really is (Colossians 2:3).

We can do all things through Him who strengthens us. But to get to that point, we have to learn satisfaction in His “all things,” the plans He has for us. That’s because it’s His strength, not ours.

You are strong—right where your contentment in Christ begins.

It Looked Better in My Head

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3-4 

Your calling looks better in your head than in real life. Inside, safely tucked away in your synapses, the visions of what God wants to do through you come with puppies, double rainbows, and guilt-free cheesecake. It’s amazing how perfectly our brains can sand down the obstacles ahead, plaster over the voices of dissent, and generally build a future much like the highlights from someone else’s life.

With such a build-up, it’s easy to see why we get disappointed. After all, stories like these are all over:

  • The country preacher has a vision to reach rural America with the gospel, to burn so brightly that a whole community is changed. But the church never grows. He sees nothing dramatic happen and finally moves on.
  • A woman faithfully loves and serves her unsaved coworkers for years. She pours hours of prayer into the thing, hoping that at least one will really absorb what she’s been sharing with them. But all she seems to take with her when she retires are the pictures from her cubicle.
  • A Christian missionary community, after years of serving the poorest in their adopted country, finally has a breakthrough when a local leader professes faith in Jesus. Days later, militants attack the area and murder the new convert, his family, and many of the missionaries.

And maybe something like that has hijacked your calling, too. You started out strong, pushing forward even when turbulence hit. You just knew God would work all things together for your good, and you had that verse, Romans 8:28, firmly planted in your noggin (and maybe scribbled on a Post-It Note on your mirror—just to be sure).

But along the way, the future you had imagined became more and more distant from the slog-it-out reality. You doubt that God was ever really in the thing to begin with, and, so, you try to forget that something ever happened, that something got you excited and charged up in the first place.

Don’t write off your calling just yet.

The thing about God is that He’s big, really big. And He sees much farther, clearer, and better than us. From our perspective, we can’t always see progress. But usually that’s because we’re trying to see the land ahead from a valley.

The truth is that we may not see progress in the short-term, maybe not even in our lifetime. But we’ve been called to faithfully serve where Christ puts us. We get bogged down when we imagine that all our service and work should produce results that we can experience. Our joy comes from seeing things happen, and not so much the serving.

But God never promises that we’ll see what He’s up to—at least, not while we’re camping here on earth. He’s called us to look out “for the interest of others,” both believers and the unchurched. Whether we see something happen or not.

Wakeup Call

Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! (Ps. 57:8).

Somewhere along the line, I forgot that I hate mornings. As a kid, I loathed the early morning sunshine after staying up too long and gorging on late-night TV shows. My Saturdays and Sundays and summer stirrings usually began at 1:00—p.m., that is. Even in college, I picked classes that didn’t require any matinal commitments on my part. If I could squeeze everything in from noon to four, all the better (which is part of the reason my university experience meandered through six years and countless majors).

But now, suddenly, I’m up at 5:00 a.m. And even worse? I like it.

I suppose there’s something about aging that rewires the morning-hate genes in our bodies or weakens the dawn antibodies we’ve built up over our childhood. The condition obviously overtook my grandfather, who never met a four o’clock coffee he didn’t like, and my father, who used to spring out of bed before I even went to sleep on summer nights. Genetic baggage like that will catch up with you.

So, here I am, awake to pray and scare the twitchy deer from our stubbly bean plants, awake to shush the early morning sleep whimpers from our dog, awake to roll life decisions through my recharged synapses before all the buzzes, whoops, and emails clog them up. Awake and alive.

David said that he would “wake the dawn” with his praises and prayers. Another psalmist, much later, cried for help in those dark, early morning hours. Suddenly being one of those early risers, now I understand why morning sun meant so much to them.

You see, for all my loathing earlier in life, there’s something almost sacred about the first light. No, I don’t mean God blesses one part of the day more than others; I mean that early mornings peel away distraction with rose-colored light. Early mornings smother doubts and fears in the same way they splatter dew on the grass. Those moments, before anything else bangs on the door of your brain, bring a clarity that fades away far too quickly. And I don’t want to miss it.

That’s why the boy who shuddered at the thought of eyes being open before noon is now the man who doesn’t want to miss the pre-day lightshow. It’s there that I find God waiting.

Sick on the Scenic Route

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12

On my way home from North Carolina, I followed my impulse to jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway that meanders along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Late spring had hit, and the trees on that slithering byway had burst into color. And if you know me, you know I can’t resist a scenic detour in spring… or summer…  or anytime I’m sure my car won’t get stuck for some reason.

If you’ve ever had the chance to sling along the Blue Ridge, you’ll find it hard to keep your eyes on the road. Gasp-worthy valley vistas pretty much assault you wherever you turn with their seductive greens and purples and blues. The only problem with a wandering gaze, however, is that many of the turns on that road completely bend back on themselves. So, you’re constantly looking out in awe—and then whipping the car back on the road before you become part of that valley view.

In fact, those stomach-churning curves nearly got the better of me. Never before or since have I suffered from motion sickness while driving. But that road, with all its flipping and flopping, beat me up. By the time I finally escaped that tangled beast of a road, I was actually happy to see the interstate and all its rush-hour traffic (well, for the most part). At least those bumper-to-bumper shenanigans meant I’d be going straight.

For many of us, our pursuit of Christ swings us around in much the same way. We whip around curves that seem to take us the long way round, nearly bumble off the road because something shiny catches our eyes, and let the cares along the way nauseate us. It’s a circuitous route, this Christian life, and one that doesn’t move us from start to finish quickly.

But it’s a path paved by the One who made us His own.

Each bend, each switchback curve, brings us closer to the goal He made possible. His mountain climbing 2000 years ago means we can follow Him all the way, no matter how far away the goal may seem. We’re His, and He’s calling us home.