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First Congregational

United Church of Christ

... exploring the frontiers of faith in Jesus

Loosen up!

I think there is a reason we are drawn to the book of Ecclesiastes, a reason why we find a kindred spirit in the philosopher. He looks at his world too with an idealist's eye, with high expectations and lofty dreams, but finds that's just not the way the world is. Realists like my wife -- a second child by the way -- already get it, but people like me need to be told: this is the way the world is.

This is the way the world is ...

If you dig a pit, you fall in it.
If you break through a wall, a snake bites you.
If you work in a stone quarry, you get hurt by stones.
If you split wood ...

You've heard of Murphy's Law? "If anything can go wrong, it will." Well, the philosopher already had that law pegged a couple thousand years earlier. "If you dig a pit, you fall in it."

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Enjoy life with the one you love, as long as you live the useless life that God has given you in this world.

Lauren Reisinger

Eat the pizza! Eat the salads too, but there is no point in restricting yourself to such high extremes when we all share the same fate. Share a meal with a friend. Have a real, deep, healing, conversation with someone. Odds are, it will make their day and make yours too. Spend more time engaging in the hobbies you love. Celebrate the art of today!

If you are living as if enjoying life is a sin -- stop!

This is what God wants and intends for us -- happiness. Pure happiness. Happiness is a gift like no other. It is not to be thrown away. Loosen up, because the grip you have on the life you are trying to perfectly control is not your grip to have -- It is God’s. Enjoy this life with your useless spouses, and useless coworkers, and useless friends, and useless pets ...

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Heartbreak

But what do you do with heartbreak? What do you do when you see what the philosopher sees: a world where the weak are exploited by the powerful, a world where justice is often not served, a world where the powers of death seem to be winning? You live.

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Plain and simple

God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.

We cover our faces and our souls with layer upon layer of pretense, anticipating or even guessing what we need to project in order to be accepted, in order to get what we want.

We walk around with all kinds of strings attached: envy, pride, anger, guilt, fear, regret.

And we carry heavy burdens -- heavy burdens we shoulder voluntarily! -- anxiety about the future, morbid preoccupation with the past, others' expectations and our own, the burden of performance and the burden of keeping score and the burden of keeping a tight grip ... on everything!

It is freeing to let go! It is freeing to be plain and simple, and it is freeing to hear the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Listen again ...

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I don't know

As of July 1 next summer, my life's journey will take me into unknown territory. I have never been retired before. Some of you are retired and you've told me it's a good thing, but I've never experienced it for myself.

My whole life has been impelled by clear duties: obey my parents, do well in school, do well at my job, and my identity and sense of self-worth have come in large part from fulfilling those duties. But what comes next? Will I find as much fulfillment in my day to day activities as I do now? Will I find ways to be useful, to do things that are not merely enjoyable, but also meaningful? Will I like what I am doing more than I miss what I am no longer doing?

I don't know ...

There is so much I don't know ...

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Awe

What do these experiences have in common: being filled with awe by a piece of music, being filled with awe by a particular outlook, being filled with awe by a particular person, being filled with awe by Jesus? What is awe?

Awe is being moved, being enthralled, by something or someone outside yourself, being utterly engulfed, overrun, overwhelmed by the beauty, by the mystery. For a moment, or for a long continuum of moments, what you hear, what you see, what you feel entirely consumes you, so much that you lose consciousness of other cares and worries, other troubles or desires. You forget yourself.

And yet, you are there. It is your experience. You are so filled with awe that you are not aware of yourself, and yet the awe itself comes from the sense of being connected, intimately connected to the one, to the thing, that fills you with awe. What you see or hear or feel is part of you, or, rather, you are part of it. It belongs to you, or, rather, you belong to it. You belong to that song. You belong to that place. You belong to that person. You belong to Jesus.

And you always will. Because awe changes you, forever. You can't un-ring the bell. You can't un-hear the song, un-see the view, un-feel the love, un-know Jesus. Forever, you will see the world differently, because of awe. Forever, your world will be different, because of awe. Forever, you will be changed, because of awe ...

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Dust

This is as bleak as Ecclesiastes gets. This is one of the darkest chapters in a rather dark book.

Hard work is useless.

Our lives have no more meaning than the lives of animals.

It would be better to have never been born.

Bleak. Dark. Somber. Now what is edifying about that?

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Business

Our business. Our business is our busyness. A busy person is responsible, successful, ambitious, useful, admirable, going somewhere. A person who is not busy is lazy, unmotivated, useless, sorry, going nowhere. In our culture, social standing is determined by how much money you have or how many hours you work or both. "What did you do today?" Isn't it embarrassing, isn't it humiliating, if you have to answer: "Nothing?"

We are all about growth. We are all about productivity. We are all about busyness. How many times have you heard someone say: "I’m not happy unless I am busy?" Because? Because you genuinely enjoy what you are doing? If that is true, bless you, bless you because your busyness is a blessing. Or is it because it is expected, because you feel you must be busy? If that is true, bless you, because you bear a heavy and unhappy burden ...

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Chasing the wind

But what happens, not when you fail the narrative, but when the narrative fails you? That's the question posed by the book of Ecclesiastes. What happens when the narrative of a meaningful life proves empty? When you get everything you want, when you accomplish everything you set out to do, and you realize that it doesn't mean a thing, that you have been chasing the wind?

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Short and hasty ... and useless?

Useless, useless, said the Philosopher ...

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Shalom

We wait for what God has promised

Earth

... new heavens and a new earth!

• Read my essay, Heaven can wait

Staff Corner

"I was hungry and you fed me."

It's clear. It's specific. It's indisputable. Jesus said this is what righteous people do.

The author of the gospel of Matthew places this message at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter, just before beginning the account of Jesus' last days -- his passion, his arrest, trail, and execution. These are Jesus' "final words," his "parting message," to his followers. This is what matters. It is by this standard that you will be measured. "I was hungry and you fed me."

But when did we ever see the Lord hungry and feed him? Whenever you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me. That is Jesus' message. Clear. Specific. Not metaphorical, but quite literal. You see a hungry person? Feed her and you feed Jesus.

I was overcome with grief and horror when I read about the plight of the people of the Horn of Africa as I was doing research for last Sunday's sermon. Twenty million people in Somalia and South Sudan and Yemen at risk of severe famine. The equivalent of the entire population of Iowa and Wisconsin and Minnesota and Missouri combined, all starving to death.

If that were indeed true here, we would think it a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. It is a crisis of apocalyptic proportions! I could not do nothing: "I was hungry and you fed me." If you want to do something, consider a gift to the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), a relief organization based in Minneapolis. A gift of $150 supplies one family with a relief package that includes a "food basket, nutrition packs for children, and water" (https://araha.org/drought-relief-2/).

In rural Haiti, only half the people have access to an improved water source, water free from contamination. "I was thirsty and you gave me a drink." If you want to do something for thirsty people in Haiti or elsewhere around the globe where people lack access to potable water, consider a donation to charity: water (https://www.charitywater.org).

"I was a stranger and you received me in your homes." As followers of Jesus, we must be at the center of the debate about the response of our nation and local communities to the immigrants and refugees among us, because Jesus told us that our welcome of strangers is a measure of our welcome of him. As a church, we have welcomed a community of Burmese worshippers into our "home," and that matters. Other churches have sponsored refugee families, or provided legal services to refugees and undocumented immigrants, or advocated for a compassionate response to foreigners among us. Some have chosen to identify as sanctuary churches. There is no one "right" response, but we must respond in some way because the stranger among us is Jesus.

Tim