Fleeing The Vanity

 "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV).

I found myself last night enjoying one of the best concerts in my life, The Avett Brothers at the Embassy in Fort Wayne. Passion. Love. Enjoyment. It was wonderful. They seemed to just lay it all out during that performance, unleashing their souls onto the crowd.

Then I had one of those moments. Maybe it was due to one of the introspective songs. I don't really know. Maybe it was because we were enjoying ourselves in a building where everyone that invested their lives in building it has passed from this life. But that sense of meaningless wanted to slither into my life and ruin my experience in the present. This is all vanity.

This is all meaningless. All of you here today - everyone in this crowd - will be gone tomorrow. In one hundred years, the joy that is felt here will have disappeared. Like it never happened. Or that is what the lie told me. That is what the voice trying to suck the joy out of my life said.

The word "vanity" is actually a "mist," "vapor," or a "mere breath." It is here for a moment and passes away. It is alluring in our moments of depression or sadness to fall prey to the wayward writings of the author of Ecclesiastes. They are very poetic, touching, and beautiful as words, yet they are destructive in action. These thoughts of vanity suck the joy out of our lives. When we read Ecclesiastes, we are reading the thoughts of a wounded soul who wasted his life. Either he, or someone else writing commentary on the book, got the point of life right and wrote it at the end of the book.

"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV).

Think of the whole process of learning the inspired truth from Ecclesiastes like getting the point from a movie, a really depressing movie with a great lifechanging point. A point that would be missed if you turned the movie off in the midst of all the pain and suffering. You see the misery that the wrong life brings. You see the pointlessness of all the wasted and misplaced effort. Or think of it as hearing a testimony. When I share my testimony, I share a lot of wrong thoughts I had. I share a lot of stupid actions. In elaborating on the life that comes from living life from a place of bad beliefs, we see the meaningless of it all. Ecclesiastes isn't in the Bible to teach us that life is meaningless. It's there to teach us that meaning can only be found in living for God.

Because life isn't meaningless. Even in the little things, amazingness can happen. An awesome concert, enjoying the blessings of God's good yet fallen earth with our fellow man isn't meaningless. A wonderful mix of music, vitality, God, my loved one, and my own thoughts stirred my soul. Changing me. Transforming me into someone better if I would only allow them to. Now, if we don't allow it to transform us, then the writer of Ecclesiastes is right: it is all meaningless. But life in God isn't meaningless.

To say the life that God has given us to bring about His will is meaningless is a slap to the meaning and purpose that God has given us. Loving our neighbors. Helping the hurting. Bringing hope to the hopeless. Sharing the eternal truths of God in a loving way. None of it is meaningless.

It's true. I won't be here in one hundred years. Everyone in that concert hall will be dead. None of us reading this article soon after its writing will be alive in that time. And this article will, more than likely, be lost amongst the mist of the massive amounts of writing that is being printed during our times. One more article to join the wasteland of history.

But this article, like all experiences, is not meaningless if it changes us. When we are faithful to God, He takes our relatively futile actions, shapes them together with everyone else's seemingly futile actions, and creates something beautiful. In Him, there is never meaninglessness. We must rise out of the mist into the new day.


An even better song to exemplify this thought. It was released about a half a year after this article was written. I can't embed it since it's not on Youtube, so just click this link.

Tragic Tuesday

Ashley Messmann. Photo Courtesy of Rachelle Durham.
On Monday, things were like they have always been. You could call the West Bend and Ashley would answer the phone. Then Tuesday came. And everything changed.

Tuesday morning was a foggy morning. One of the worst fogs I had ever seen. At around eight, the fire trucks and ambulance flew by my house with sirens on. At that time, I didn't know what had happened, but, with the fog, I knew it couldn't be good. The noise of the sirens was followed by the ringing of my phone. Ashley had yet to make it to work. Something really unlike her. They were worried at the shop. The family was worried. And the fog just sat there, hiding everything.

After the news of the tragedy arrived, we were stunned, shocked, saddened, and hollow. We were hoping it was a bad dream. That it couldn't be real. The fog may have lifted, but the cloud had shifted to my mind as I sat there in Ashley's desk chair. Why did God allow this? She had a two-year old boy. Why didn't he reach down and stop it? Couldn't he do that?

And I remembered an article that I wrote in December. An article that began a lengthy conversation with Ashley. She was always a feisty one. Feisty in a good, fun way. She was able to let you have it in a way that made you still feel loved. And she was a good thinker. That article, which we worked through at that time, is a helpful reminder in times like these.

We often hear the phrase, "Everything happens for a reason." That common saying sounds all good and spiritual. It's nice to have a good attitude, but the bad theology drives me nuts. True, everything happens for a reason, but when that is uttered in spiritual circles it usually implies that everything happens as a result of God. He's the "reason" they are implying.

Lots of things happen due to reasons that are terrible and have nothing to do with God. A kid gets killed in a drunk driving accident, not because God wanted that, but because we live in a fallen world where a person decided to be stupid, drink too much, and decided to drive. Kids get shot in a school, not because God wanted that, but, again, because we live in a fallen world where something went terribly wrong in a young man's head. And a friend - a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister - pulls out into traffic and is in a terrible, tragic accident, not be because it is God's will but because we live in a fallen world where accidents happen.

God is not a puppet master, and we are not His puppets. Although in times like these, I wish we were. God will use everything for His glory, but that does not mean that everything happens as a result of God working out His will. See the distinction. God doesn't cause us everything to happen, but He will use everything to bring about His will. Every day, things happen that are not what God wants to happen. Things outside of His will, outside of His plan. At the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. Despite knowing the miracle that was to follow, Jesus wept. I don't find it too much of a stretch, at a time like this, to imagine Jesus weeping once again.

Instead of saying that "everything happens for a reason" or "if it's God's will, it will happen," I want to propose a new statement that may not be as catchy, yet it contains more truth than those two statements. "If God wills it, then we need to join in and make it happen. Or it won't." God is the solution. He has a plan for humanity and each one of our lives. But we, the church and His people, are the delivery method of that solution and are given the privilege to bring his plan into our reality. His will typically does not come without faithful people working it out, here on earth as it is in heaven.

We are free will beings. Although, at times, I think we would give that free will up to be with loved ones who have passed from this fallen world. Life is tough. Tragedy is tough. Death is tough. Accidents happen because of our free will choices. Terrible, destructive accidents caused by silly, insignificant choices. That's really what makes it an accident. It is a consequence that occurs that is far more weighty than the decision that caused it. At times when metal collides and sparks fly, I so wish we were micromanaged by God to avoid these experiences, but He's not in the micromanagement business. Well, at least not all of the time. He focuses on the prompting business.

We need to be careful to never let those words - that "everything happens for a reason" or " if it's God's will, it will happen" - ever exit our mouths or control the way we live. Try not to even think them. Those thoughts disempower. They blame God for tragedies like these. They belittle our importance as free will beings. They cripple our prayer lives. They stifle evangelism.

God doesn't need us to be puppets for Him to be great. He's already great. He's amazing in the way that He is patient and waits for faithful followers to bring about His will. And we don't need to be forced to be faithful. We need grace to be right with God; our own works cannot do that. But that grace is available to everyone. Each one of us needs to acknowledge that God knows the solution, the best plan for our lives, and He is waiting for us to be faithful. We have the choice to respond to His plan for our lives by surrendering to His will, loving Him, and loving others. God will use everything to bring about His will. But He is patient. If God wills it, then we need to join in and make it happen. Or it won't. He will wait for someone else to bring about His will.

I don't want to live in a family, a community, a church, or a world where His will isn't happening. Life's too short not to experience and live in the will of God. But bringing His better plan into our reality about starts with us. In the morning, when we rise, do we decide that we are going to live this day to bring about God's plan or are we going to spend it investing in a plan that will eventually turn to dust. The choice is ours. An eternal plan, that will still be important long after we are gone, or a fleeting plan, that will disappear soon after we exit. We choose what we are going to invest in, not purely by intellectual assent, but by the way we live.

Photo Courtesy of Rachelle Durham.
Last week, the West Bend News family lost a good friend. When I would call the West Bend, Ashley would be the one to usually answer. On Wednesday, I called and had this awkward moment where I wanted to say, "Hi, Ashley. How are you doing?" But she's no longer there. When I would walk in, she would be the first person I would greet. We would talk about life, about our kids, and about an article I wrote at times. She was an awesome lady. And she will be missed. Even more by her family.

For the family and friends, I lift up prayers of comfort and peace. May, God who gives us a peace that goes beyond all understanding, inhabit your homes, your lives, and your relationships during these times. You are loved. I pray that you feel it.

Paintings from Liberia

39x22 on canvas

11x6 on some sort of canvas
5x7 on canvas

4 1/2 x 3 1/4 




3 1/2 x 5 on blue jeans

5 1/2 x 10 1/2

10 1/2 x 16

12 x 16 1/2

10 x 15

6 x 12

10 x 14 1/2

13 x 17

6 x 13
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Obstacles to Following Jesus

This Sunday, during our worship gathering at Riverside, we will talk about seven obstacles to following Jesus. I want to share two of the biggies with you here in this article.

First, we get distracted.

A couple Thursdays ago, in Colonie, New York, a father drove to his job, parked his car, and went in to work. But he forgot something important. His one-year old child was strapped into a car seat in the back and was supposed to be dropped off at the daycare. Temperatures did not rise above fifteen degrees.

At four, the father got a call from his wife asking him about their child after she discovered that the boy wasn't at the daycare where she was supposed to pick him up. In a panic, the father ran out to the car.

And found their baby - bundled up and doing fine.

Police Lieutenant Winn said, "Other than having a soiled diaper and the normal stresses of being in a car, the child in all aspects appeared okay."

The news story said that the guy had been under a lot of stress at work and had just recently had a death in his family. Something obviously distracted him. Not all distractions end so well.

We get distracted from following Jesus an awful lot. It can be a semi-good thing like a thought about God or a true teaching of Scripture. It could also be something destructive. Whatever it is, getting hung up on something other than following Jesus can have dire consequences. One moment of sin, whether sexual sin, letting the wrong thing slip from your mouth, or some other sort of sin, can destroy years of building and investing into who you feel called to be.

It always amazes me how long it takes to build a sand castle, yet how quickly it can be destroyed. The same is true with our life. Sin is the ultimate destroyer of our lives. It can destroy families and friendships. It can cripple dreams. Things you have spent years creating, sin can destroy in a moment. That's the danger of sin. And even if it doesn't have dire, visible earthly consequences, it typically disables us spiritually. Once we sin, we can't take it back. And that moment of error can create a major obstacle to following Jesus.

So let us not get distracted. Let us stay focused on following Jesus.

The second obstacle that I want to talk about here today is how we like to pick and choose what we want when it comes to following Jesus.

Tony Campolo shared the story about how he was having dinner in a restaurant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was seated comfortably at a table next to the front window, ready to begin enjoying his meal, when he realized that he was being watched. With their noses pressed flat against the glass, three raggedy, dirty Haitian boys stared at the food on his plate. Their hair was rust-colored because of a lack of protein, and they had the distended stomachs that give evidence of extreme malnutrition. Their eyes, riveted on his food, were disturbing.

The waiter, recognizing how upset the situation was making Tony, moved quickly to pull down the window shade. "Don't let them bother you! Enjoy your meal!" he said. The blind was down, and, for all intents and purposes, the starving children were gone.

Following Jesus means that we don't pull the blind down on helping the poor around us. Others get excited about helping the poor while ignoring God's call to right living. We have this tendency to pick and choose which part of following Jesus we want. Helping the poor. Right living. Not doing this. Not doing that. Making sure that we do that one thing. We pull the blind down on the parts of following Jesus that we aren't comfortable with while making the part we enjoy an essential that we use to evaluate the spiritual lives of others.

Following Jesus is a journey. I'm not perfect now and will never be on this side of the grave. I will discover something this year, maybe even today, that I need to be doing. I will also discover something I need to stop. But we can never use the idea that we aren't perfect as an excuse to not strive to be better followers of Jesus. When we see an area that we need to change, we change. We're followers, meaning that we are on a journey. We haven't yet arrived at our destination.

We can tell that we are following Jesus when we are following him in areas we aren't completely comfortable in. I know that because I follow Jesus there are a few stances that I take that I would rather not take. I do things at times that I would rather not do because I want to be a faithful follower. And I have stopped doing things I enjoy for the same reason. Instead of making God into our image, we need to allow Him to shape us in His image.

We can't pick and choose what we want to do when we are called to follow Jesus. Either we are following Him or we are following ourselves.

These are two common obstacles that we face in following Jesus. May we not let them get in the way of the life God wants us to live.