Life: Meaning and Mystery

As a child I was fascinated by the television show, In Search Of. The show was hosted by the man who played Spock on the science fiction series, Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy. Each episode of In Search Of centered around Nimoy’s pursuit to uncover some mystery of life in a thirty minute show with enough time reserved for several commercials from the sponsors. These mysteries of life covered everything from the resting place of Noah’s Ark and the location of the tomb of Jesus to aliens, ufo’s and haunted houses. The show always fascinated me because in my childhood naivety I believed that Leonard Nimoy was the smartest guy in the world. How else could one explain his amazing ability to overcome every obstacle and provide all the answers the whole world was looking for? Sadly, my bubble has since been broken when I was informed that a whole team of people fed Spock his information. I must admit I was nothing short of crushed when this information first came to me.
Even though Leonard Nimoy may not have been the superhero I thought he was there is one thing he taught me that is absolutely certain, life is full of mysteries. Spock unveiled several mysteries for me, but there are still many questions which have been left unanswered. And there is one mystery which In Search Of never even sought to tackle. A mystery that has plagued the minds of mankind for centuries and though many have claimed to have solved the mystery still the search goes on generation after generation by a new batch of pioneers. It is the mystery of the meaning of life. What exactly is the meaning of life? How exactly do we find meaning in life? Is there really a purpose for our existence on this giant blueberry or are we simply just a product of an evolutionary process doing nothing more than existing, surviving and evolving?
Several thousand years ago the quest to answer some of life’s most pressing questions was tackled by a man who had all the resources necessary to perform an exhaustive search for the answer to this question. He had the brains; you could actually say he had been given a dose of divine wisdom. He had the money; if we were to transfer his assets into today’s standards it would be safe to say his wealth would dwarf that of Donald Trump or the Rockefellers. He had the connections; his friends consisted of queens, kings, princes, philosophers and the like from all across the known world. And he had the time; what else does someone who has a servant for every task do? He wasn’t limited by anything or anyone as he set out on his quest. And so he searched everything under the sun.
His conclusion at the end of his search may shock and/or annoy you. After this exhaustive search he emphatically proclaimed that everything is meaningless. How’s that for a show that will bring some high ratings to the network? Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly what we want to hear. His basic conclusion is as follows, “You want to know the meaning behind your existence, there is none.” He is not seeking to be overly pessimistic or sarcastic with this answer, simply realistic. If we can grab hold of this reality – that if the depth of our pursuit of meaning goes not deeper than trying to find our meaning in the monotonous repetition of the daily grind of work, or the futility of seeking to leave a legacy, or the pursuit wisdom gained through experience – then we will end up living a meaningless existence trapped in the monotonous drone of life as it ticks past us one second at a time.
Nothing satisfies. In his quest nothing that our seeker saw, discovered, attempted, produced, initiated, or concluded in his lengthy search brought lasting significance or personal satisfaction.
But his search didn’t go beyond this finite earthly existence. The search was conducted as if there was or is no God. If we live as though that is the case, true or not, then our lives are nothing but a monotonous repetition of complete meaninglessness.
I have no doubt many reading this are really pursuing being good people, trying to make the most of life and trying to find meaning in anything but God. You may look good, you may be very smart, and have great potential. You’re hoping there is a real light at the end of the tunnel. You may even keep telling yourself that it is life and happiness you’re pursuing, all the while ignoring the voice in the back of your head that keeps whispering yours is an effort in futility. As long as you keep your search earthbound you will find nothing but meaninglessness and monotony. The only way you will find meaning in life is in looking beyond this finite earthly existence to the Author of life. His name is Jesus Christ and He wants to bring meaning to your life. He says, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” How can he make that promise? Because He is, “the way – to find meaning, the truth – that reveals true meaning, and the life -we’ve all been looking for, no one comes to the Father except through Him.” Why would we want access to the Father? He is the Author of life. Not only did He create the heavens and the earth but He also created all of mankind in His image. It is through a relationship with Him, the one who made us, that we unlock the mystery of meaning in life. Without that relationship everything is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

Babies, Bulls, and Buddy Lee

            Love is one of the most sought after and needed things among the human race.  Studies have shown that babies who are depraved of love actually experience long lasting physical, emotional, psychological and physiological damage.  This was clearly evidenced by some information compiled by Rene Spitz. In a South American orphanage, Spitz observed and recorded what happened to 97 children who were deprived of emotional and physical contact with others. Because of a lack of funds, there was not enough staff to adequately care for these children, ages 3 months to 3 years old. Nurses changed diapers and fed and bathed the children. But there was little time to hold, cuddle, and talk to them as a mother would. After three months many of them showed signs of abnormality. Besides a loss of appetite and being unable to sleep well, many of the children lay with a vacant expression in their eyes. After five months, serious deterioration set in.  They lay whimpering, with troubled and twisted faces. Often, when a doctor or nurse would pick up an infant, it would scream in terror. Twenty seven, almost one third, of the children died the first year, but not from lack of food or health care. They died of a lack of touch and emotional nurture. Seven more died the second year for the same reason. Only twenty one of the 97 children survived, most suffering serious psychological damage.   Love isn’t a luxury it’s a necessity.

Unfortunately, love is also one of the most misunderstood and ill defined notions within humanity.  I came across a story in Reader’s Digest this week of just such a mistaken understanding of love.  A young man was attending a junior stock show when a grand-champion lamb, owned by a little girl, was being auctioned. As the bids reached five dollars per pound, the little girl, standing beside the lamb in the arena, began to cry. At ten dollars, the tears were streaming down her face and she clasped her arms tightly around the lamb’s neck. The higher the bids rose, the more she cried. Finally, a local businessman bought the lamb for more than $1000, but then announced that he was donating it to the little girl. The crowd applauded and cheered. Months later, the young man was judging some statewide essays when he came across one from a girl who told about the time her grand-champion lamb had been auctioned. “The prices began to get so high during the bidding,” she wrote, “that I started to cry from happiness.” She continued with: “The man who bought the lamb for so much more than I ever dreamed I would get returned the lamb to me, and when I got home, Daddy barbecued the lamb—and it was really delicious.”  Everything we perceive as love isn’t necessarily.

In the words of Johnny Lee, “[We are] lookin’ for love in all the wrong places, lookin’ for love in too many places.”  If most of were asked to give a definition of love we would hem and haw around a little, stumble and stammer a little more and then come up with some definition that was a conglomeration of clichés like, “love is a warm fuzzy,” and “love is never needing to say I’m sorry.”  But regardless of most of the definitions we give, eventually we recognize that they fall short of what love really is.  We see what we think to be love carried out but then realize it has fallen short of what we sense to be love, but still we can’t seem to get our arms around.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples, wrote centuries ago that God is love.  I would say that most of us have heard this phrase at least one time in our lifetime, but have we really let it sink in?  This is a statement about who God is within Himself.  Love originates in God and perfect love is supremely expressed in Him.  This is the love we are looking for!  But, as with any of us, this is something that we cannot know about God, or know at all, unless He reveals it to us.  Fortunately John also tells us that God has shown His love to us through giving His Son, the object of His eternal love, to forgive us of our sins.  In this great act of forgiveness God reveals to us the greatest expression of love the world has ever known.  And it is right here in front of us.  Unfortunately, we are constantly rejecting, reinterpreting, and redefining this love and accepting crumby counterfeits in a futile search for this love that God is openly offering to us.  It’s as if we are walking through life and at every turn God is offering us the very love we are so desperately searching for, but we are so focused on the phony fabrications that we miss it at every turn.  Looking for love?  If you are not looking to Jesus Christ and the forgiveness He offers at the cross then you are most assuredly looking in all the wrong places.

Set Free to Sing

shoes in mud            I once took a group of middle and high school students on an adventure hike through the woods.  As part of this hike we were to cross a small stream bed that had not completely dried up yet.  Upon approaching the stream bed I thought nothing of the crossing until I planted my foot on what I thought would be semi solid ground.  My foot sunk in mud to my knee.  Getting it out was like trying to remove my leg from quick drying cement.  When I finally did get my leg out the mud had claimed its first victim, my shoe.  This was only the first victim, as each student crossed the treacherous bog the mud got increasingly greedy.  At one point we thought we were going to lose one of the students who stepped in and somehow ended up with both feet in the mire enveloped from the waist down.  It took two of the strongest adult chaperones on the hike ten minutes to pull her from the clutches of the sludge.

            On another occasion my family was on vacation at the beach.  My father had taught me to body surf when I was younger and it was one of our favorite pass times when we would vacation at the beach.  I had never body surfed on waves so big and powerful.  They were pushing me farther and faster than I had ever experienced.  I was having a great time until I caught one of the waves a little too low and it drove me to the sandy bottom.  I hadn’t taken enough of a breath because I wasn’t expecting to be underwater so my air supply was quickly dwindling as I frantically searched for the surface.  When I finally hit the surface another wave immediately slapped me in the face and drove me once again to the sandy bottom.  This time I thought I stood a strong chance of not making it back to the surface.  Fear and panic set in as I mustered every ounce of strength left in my body and with lungs screaming I fought my way to the surface.  By the time I got back to the beach I was so weak and tired I just lay there breathing in deep gasps of air.  I had never been so grateful for air in my life.

            A poet once used these two metaphors to describe what it was like for him when he was in one of the lowest points in his life.  He combined the thought of being stuck in a miry mud pit at the bottom of a well sinking deeper and deeper with each thrash with the idea that in this well was also tumultuous water.  It was as though as he sank deeper and deeper into the miry mud there were Hurricane Katrina-ish waves blasting him from all sides.  It’s all he could do to get a mouthful of air. 

            In the midst of this mayhem the poet cries out for help and waits for a response, which makes sense when one realizes that the situation requires more than a self-sufficient response.  That was what the young girl did who found herself stuck in the mud to her waist.  She not only cried out but cried a lot of tears as she waited for rescue too. 

            The coolest part of the poet’s verse is his proclamation after his deliverance.  After being lifted out of the chaotic sludge he proclaims that God put a new song in his heart, God is the one he cried out to and also the one who lifted him out of the mucky mess by the way.  I find it interesting that we equate joy and gratitude with singing or whistling.  When someone has just received good news from a doctor or from the boss, or when a young married couple finds out they are going to be having a child, these things are often accompanied by melody of some sort.  It’s been said, “Those who don’t sing, at least in their heart, are people who do not cherish anything very deeply, or feel intense gratitude for anything.  They are the sort of people who take life for granted.  They never soar with a sense of joy in their heart.”

            There are times when it takes the absence of something for us to really appreciate and cherish it.  For me, it was air that sunny afternoon on the beach.  As my family and I walked off the beach that day I couldn’t help but sing a joyful song with each new breath of fresh air.  God had put a new song in my heart.  It may not have been worthy of American Idol or Casey’s Top Forty but it was a joyous song.  He can do the same for you regardless of how chaotic your situation may appear.  Just cry out to Him and wait for His response, and while you’re waiting you might want to read Psalm 40, that’s the poet’s proclamation of God’s deliverance and a record of the new song God put in his heart.

Rain

            For several years I had the privilege of living in a place called Smith Mountain Lake.  It was a region with incredible natural beauty that was overwhelmingly present almost everywhere you looked.  In the few years I lived in and around this area I have never grown tired of the breathtaking views of the mountains or the tranquility of driving across Hales Ford Bridge just above the lapping waves of the lake, just to name a few of the natural wonders that regularly captured my attention. 

Bavc-Rain638In all my time there though one of the things that had not caught my attention was rain.  It wasn’t until a recent rainy spell here in Ohio that I saw rain in a whole new light.  I’ve got to be completely honest with you rain has never been much more than a necessary nuisance for me.  I’ve been thankful for it when it comes and breaks a time of drought, but I had never found myself mesmerized by the wonder of rain, until last week that is.  I realize we are in the middle of what could be considered a mild or maybe even a moderate drought right now and the inch and a half or so of rain we got last week was much needed, even though it washed out one of my freshly mulched flower beds, but that was not what changed my attitude about rain.  What completely changed my perspective about rain from a necessary nuisance to one of the great and unsearchable wonders of our Creator God was a verse I read in Scripture from the book of Job in which Job, citing the great, unsearchable and marvelous things God does, puts rain at the top of the list.  Upon realizing that Job had an entirely different outlook on rain than I, I decided to check out some facts about rain to see if Job was just a bunch of hype.  What I found confirmed my need for a change of heart.

Anyone who has ever carried a bucket of water any distance knows that it is heavy.  One gallon of water weighs a little more than eight pounds.  Imagine for a minute if you were a farmer and had to carry all the water to nourish your crops by hand.  To water just one acre of crops with just one inch of water you would have to carry roughly one ton of water, or a little more than 27,000 buckets from the nearest water source to your crops.  That is a serious day’s work that would leave us earnestly considering our desire to plant crops.  A luxury that folks back in Job’s era didn’t enjoy.  If they wanted to eat, they had to plant crops, and if they wanted those crops to grow it had to rain.  It was next to impossible for them to irrigate their crops without the help of rain.  But rain takes this insurmountable task and makes it look simple.  Water, that is heavy mind you, is transported in the sky of all places not by hot air balloons or suspended buckets but by clouds which are really just one ton clusters of evaporated water being gently pushed through the sky by the wind.  These one ton clusters then conveniently drift over our crops and rather than just dumping one ton of water in one place making a huge crater and decimating everything in it’s circumference, tiny droplets of water weighing just enough to fall to the ground without evaporating and small enough to not crush the crops condense around dust particles and drop to the ground providing nourishment for the earth.  And that is just a laymen’s explanation of the process through which rain passes.  I haven’t even touched on the removal of salt from the water during this process which protects the crops, the role of electricity in the process to cause the water particles to gather around the dust, or a myriad of other elements of which I’m sure I’m not even aware. 

So the next time you see a cloud role over your head or the skies open up and grace us with a few inches of the wet stuff, remember that mountains and lakes aren’t the only thing in God’s creation for which we should stand in awe of our Creator God.  And like Job maybe we can proclaim the great, unsearchable and marvelous things God does in our midst as He brings forth the miracle of rain.  I know I will never look at a sprinkle the same.

Sleep

Sleep is a wonderful thing.  Though I have never taken any formal survey, or seen one for that matter, I would have to say that most of us say kudos to sleep.  Who of us doesn’t desire whenever our head finally hits the pillow that we have the kind of night sleep which results in us waking up in the morning feeling rested, refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of a new day?  As a matter of fact, we so long for that kind of sleep on a regular basis that we even have sleep specialists who help us diagnose the reasons why we don’t get the kind of sleep we crave.

            We crave this sleep but, if you’re like me it seems as though with each passing year of life it becomes more and more difficult to not only get the quality of sleep I desire but also the quantity of sleep as well.  The ‘to do’ list just gets longer and longer and the days seem to get shorter and shorter, and one of the things that seems easiest to squeeze out of our lives is just a little bit of sleep. sleep

            And this fact isn’t true for adults only.  While I was living in Columbus, Ohio, a few years ago, there was a study conducted of middle and high school students in the surrounding area and what it revealed was that students were, on average, getting less than six hours of sleep a night.  Now in my experience for the average teenager six hours is considered more of an afternoon nap than a full night sleep.

            The question I have is why?  Why, if sleep is such an important and desired commodity, do we so quickly sacrifice it at the altar of performance, success or busyness?  Could it be that we are reluctant to admit that we are not invincible, that we really are weaker than we let on. 

When you think about it sleep really is a very humbling endeavor.  Everything about it humbles us.  The fact that we need to rejuvenate, that we just can’t continue going and going non-stop until we choose to take a break humbles us.  There is a limit to our ability to keep going and a point at which, whether we want to our not our bodies will force us to sleep.  No matter how strong or powerful we may be our weakness is still revealed by the fact that we need sleep.  Then there is the fact that in sleep we place ourselves in a position of near total vulnerability to our surroundings.  Even the lightest sleeper does not have total awareness of everything going on around them as the slumber.  All this leads us to a healthy reminder that we are needy beings.  We are dependent and we are to some degree weak.

There is only one Being I know who is not in need of sleep.  Scripture tells us that God never sleeps or slumbers.  He is the only Being who doesn’t need the rejuvenation and refreshment that sleep brings to keep going.  God is the divine Energizer bunny, the One who keeps going and going and going and never runs out of steam.  And He is the one who has blessed us with this wonderful gift of sleep.  Not only as a means of rejuvenation and refreshment but also as a reminder that He is God and we are not.  He is in control and we are called to trust Him.  Though we may not be able to complete everything on our ‘to do’ list before out head hits the pillow that doesn’t rustle God’s feathers and therefore it shouldn’t rustle ours either.  Because when we wake up in the morning the sun will still rise, the earth will still turn on its axis and our ‘to do’ list will still be there for us.  Oh and God will still be God worthy of all our trust and dependence.  So every time your head hits the pillow say a prayer of thanks to God that He never sleeps but takes care of the business of holding everything together and seeing that it runs smoothly.

From Heaven to Hell

            I was twelve when I first got to experience the wonders of Walt Disney World.  Like most children I was enthralled by the whole experience.  And like most kids, Epcot was not my favorite stop of the whole encounter.  But there was one place at Epcot which so captivated me that I got lost there, both figuratively and literally.  The place was the Imagination Station complete with a dragon by the name of Figment as my ‘personal’ tour guide.  As a young boy in the early 80’s I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven wandering through the Imagination Station tinkering with all the gadgets, gizmos and games filling the building.  If this wasn’t paradise then I didn’t want to know what was.

            As I wandered through this fantasy land I lost all track of time.  It could have been just a few minutes before I was jolted back to reality or could have literally been hours for all I know, but my journey to paradise was rudely interrupted when I realized that there were no familiar faces anywhere in sight.  At first this wasn’t all that big a deal because I figured I had just wandered in a different direction than the rest of my family.  I was certain I would see a glimpse of Mom, Dad or my sister coming around some corner at any minute.  Imagination Station was big but it wasn’t that big.  I had been taught that if I ever got separated from my family to stay put and they would come find me.  So that is exactly what I did, but as the minutes stretched into over an hour and still I saw no sign of a familiar face anywhere this place that I had, just a short time ago, dreaded the thought of leaving was quickly becoming a place which I dreaded the thought of staying in.   With each passing minute what was once a paradise became a prison. 

            What amazes me most about this whole experience is the fact that something which one moment seemed like heaven to me could so quickly transform into a living hell.  When I entered Imagination Station my thoughts were filled with images of fascination, fantasy and joy, but with the realization that my family was nowhere to be found my thoughts shifted to terror over being alone, a stranger in a strange land.  I no longer saw all the gadgets, gizmos and games.  The lights no longer looked inviting and cool.  And I no longer shared in the laughter and joy of those who were still immersed in the paradise I once knew.  Now all I could think about was getting back what I had lost.  But even that hope was clouded by uncertainty.  What if my family had purposely left me?  What if this was all a big plan they had laid to leave the ugly duckling in Florida to fend for himself while the rest of the family lived happily ever after back in the hills of Pennsylvania.  It’s funny the irrational thoughts that go through your head in times of crisis and turmoil isn’t it?  Yet, when I was just on the edge of the breaking point, in walked my father with a look of concern hidden behind his patent smile and I got to share in the happily ever after with the rest of my family back in the hills of Pennsylvania.

            I wonder how many of us have had a similar experience.  We find ourselves in a place in our lives in which we think something like, “If this isn’t paradise then I don’t want to know what is,” only to have something rudely interrupt our paradise experience and turn into something more akin to a living hell.  That’s exactly what sin does with the good things God has created for us to enjoy.  The only thing that changed in my experience at the Imagination Station was the disappearance of my family.  The surroundings were still the same.  The paradise was still there, but without the presence of my parents it was no longer a paradise.  Sin removes the presence of our heavenly Father from the situation and leaves us all alone.  The surroundings are still the same, the paradise is still there but without the presence of our heavenly Father the paradise can be nothing more than a prison.

Divine Artist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of God as the Artist and my life the canvas.  Here is a devotional I wrote for our church that reflects on some of my thoughts and readings I’ve been doing.

I used to like to watch Bob Ross paint on the show “The Joy of Painting.”  As I watched I would often paintswonder if Bob ever raised his voice or lost his temper, and if he did what it would sound like.  But the thing that really fascinated and captivated me was watching a white canvas turned into a work of art.  Every time I watched I would find myself taking a journey with Bob Ross.  I never really knew what the end result was going to look like.  There were times I wondered how in the world he was going to take what looked like a mess to me and turn into something.  Then with one stroke a brown smudge turned into a tree or a boat or something that I never would have imagined, but Bob could see it. 

I came across a quote in a devotional some time ago and I wrote it down because I knew it would be a source of encouragement to me in the future and hopefully an encouragement to others.  It brings out the truth that God is THE master artist, and like Bob Ross, He will take a white canvas and create a work of art.  Those strokes we see as smudges He transforms into something beautiful.  I hope it’s an encouragement to you.

“Looking back you will see that every step was planned.  Leave all to me.  Each stone in the mosaic fits into the perfect pattern, designed by the Master Artist.  It is all so wonderful!  But the colors are of heaven’s hues, so that your eyes could not bear to gaze on the whole, until you are beyond the veil.  So, stone by stone, you see, and trust the pattern to the Designer.”  (God Calling 11/11).

But now, O LORD, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand.  Isaiah 64:8 ESV