As we approach the fall of 2004, I find myself, as do many of you, in the autumn of my own life. Certainly there is much more of my life behind me than there is ahead of me, unless of course you count eternity. It seems to me that it’s time for a little fall cleaning. During whatever further time God, in his mercy, grants me to live, I want to travel as lightly as possible. After all, the apostle Paul wrote, “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7).
The only things we’ll take with us are those things that are lodged in our spirit. No matter how hard we’ve worked, or what material wealth and possessions we’ve accumulated, we will eventually lose them all. King Solomon of Israel was one of the wealthiest men of his day. He accumulated every material thing that a man could enjoy (Ecclesiastes 2:4-8). He denied himself no pleasure: wine (Ecclesiastes 2:3); women (I Kings 11:12) and song (Ecclesiastes 2:8). By the standards of his day, Solomon’s wealth was enormous (I Kings 10:14 ff.). Solomon said of himself, “…whatsoever mine eyes desired, I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy…” (Ecclesiastes 2:10).
Yet, despite the effort he had put into accumulating material wealth, and all that it could buy for him, Solomon wrote, “Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun; because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me” (Ecclesiastes 2:18). The Egyptian kings believed that they could take their wealth, even their servants, with them into the afterlife. Solomon knew better. He knew that someone else would inherit the fruit of his lifetime of labor; and that that someone might be a complete idiot who would fail to appreciate, and therefore squander, his inheritance. No matter how we have lived – wisely or foolishly – we will leave the world empty of material things. As the Psalmist writes, “For he seeth that wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psalm 49:10). Those “others” can include, sadly, the government.
The Deadly Death Tax
In some countries, like the United States, we are even taxed a second time on money we’ve already been taxed on (multiple times actually) — just for dying. Depending upon how much money we die with, the government can abscond with up to half of it. If that isn’t money down a rat hole I don’t know what is! Many small farmers and ranchers are having difficulty keeping their farms in the family. “Ranching families in Colorado tend to be land-rich and cash poor. Inheritance taxes can claim more than half of a cattle ranch’s land value. Even if a family manages to operate its ranch profitably, handing it down to the next generation may require selling off large chunks of land, thereby diminishing its productive capacity” (Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, p. 144).
Years ago, I was employed as the editor of a propane industry trade publication. I learned then that many family businesses in that line had the same problem. Later, when I worked in the life insurance industry, I discovered that insurance agents were selling large policies to businesses to cover the cost of death taxes so that the business could remain in the family. The premiums on these policies were often substantial, cutting significantly into profitability. Some small business owners put up with being “insurance-poor” in order to ensure their children’s inheritance.
One thing I’ve learned in life is that if a pile of money accumulates anywhere, a whole line of people will form to claim it. At the head of the list will be some kind of government; federal, state or local. After all, governments have no money of their own. What they have they must extract from “we the people.”
After governments will appear needy family members, hopeful friends, and a gaggle of money-hungry charities who want to be named in your will. People who sell things will also fall quickly into line. It is axiomatic to a sales person that he or she must not “leave any money on the table.” His first job is to find out how much money you’ve got, and then to see how much of it he can capture in the form of commissions and fees. I know of some people whose obsession in life is endlessly accumulating money and power; to what end? Rich and the poor alike end up in a box in a hole in the ground, or as a small pile of ashes in a fancy urn, and those who remain rummage with cavalier abandon through the accumulations of their lives.
Agur – “Gatherer” – (may be Solomon) prayed: “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me; lest I be full and deny thee and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Proverbs 30:8-9).
This is the balance: not too much, not too little.
What I need for the rest of the journey, however long or short, is daily bread for my wife and me; shelter, water, clothing, and a lot of divine protection in these dangerous times (Luke 21:36). More importantly, we all need a continuing flow of the Holy Spirit into our lives, and out from them in the form of products and gifts of the Spirit. As I have mentioned in a previous column, James explained that “pure religion” is not circling the wagons around a set of inflexible doctrines and dogmas, but it is both being and doing good (James 1:27). I would rather be a good person than a merely religious person.
Learning to pray and intercede more effectively for others is another priority. I want to be much closer to God. I desire to become more skilled in hearing distinctively from him; and I want to understand the Bible as well as a man such as I can understand it. For many years that has been my frequent prayer.
In the time I have left, I want to become a better husband, father and grandfather. After all, between us my wife and I now have 16 grandchildren (3 of them great-grandchildren). That’s a load o’ developing humanity!
To me, all of this means jettisoning the exegetical and religious detritus of the past. It means abandoning what I have discovered to be false doctrine and clinging to those teachings that can be demonstrated to be true (I Thessalonians 5:21). It means losing the baggage of cults of personality and authoritarian religion, and it means living, rather than merely believing and asserting, what I know to be truth (James 1:22).
Jesus said that knowing the truth would set us free. I take that to mean that truth – if it really is truth – will not bring us into bondage.
I have also realized, after much painful and time-consuming interaction with others, that arguing doctrine with anyone – from the “highest ranking” ministers on through to the most ardent amateur theologians is an exercise in futility. As Richard Pinelli once drilled into my head, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” I guess that includes me. So I don’t argue doctrine any more. I have found that writing “doctrinal papers” is largely a waste of time and energy. Church hierarchies don’t change doctrines simply because someone writes a compelling paper. Most doctrinal changes are made for political, not exegetical, reasons; either that, or needed doctrinal reforms fail to be made for political reasons. To me it is axiomatic that “people change when the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain of changing” – and not until. So why campaign for change? It’s a big enough job to change myself when I find myself corrected by the Scriptures, further learning, or by others in the know.
It’s probably a good idea to take inventory of our lives from time to time. We are all spiritual pack rats. We accumulate a lot of stuff we don’t really need. So how do we know what we need and what we don’t need?
Ask yourself this: What beliefs, ideas, and practices would I be willing to die for rather than compromise with? What things are for me non-negotiable?
In ancient Judaism, the three worst sins were viewed as idolatry, murder and adultery. When the Jewish defenders of Masada realized that the Romans were about to break through and capture them, they committed mass suicide rather than submit to forced idolatry and Roman rape. Scholars and moralists may argue about the sinfulness of suicide, but the point here is to show the depth of conviction the Jewish people held regarding certain behaviors.
You and I may be faced with the choice of either worshiping the God of the Bible – the true God – or some other god whose nature is utterly different from that of the Biblical God. We need to know in advance where we stand.
Many Christians around the world are daily faced with rape, torture, kidnapping and enslavement at the hands of ruthless Islamists or communists. Some are murdered within days or weeks of becoming Christians. When you think about your beliefs and practices this way, it has a clarifying effect, doesn’t it?
The modern world is changing rapidly. Old values are falling daily, and new ones are replacing them. Ever since the advent of the Enlightenment, the intellectual/theological life of the West has incrementally taken on new, and often disturbing, dimensions. The existence of God is no longer taken for granted. In some circles, His non-existence is – especially in Academia. Europe, once largely Catholic or Lutheran, has become a secular, socialist society. Canada is following the same pattern, as is the UK. The Christian faith is still dominant in the US, but, compared to earlier years, it has taken some major hits. The Left in this country is in full cry against any Biblically-based expression of Christianity. Militant Islam is on the march. It seeks nothing less than world conquest. No matter how many individual terrorists we kill, there will always be an endless supply of new ones. We are not really fighting terrorism. Terrorism is merely a tactic. Tactics change as circumstances change. Behind the tactics is the real enemy: militant Islamism. Our deadly enemy is a particular interpretation of the Koran – one that states that it is commanded that all Muslims are duty-bound to kill “infidels.”
Evil Visits Every Generation
Every generation is confronted with great evil. For mankind to progress, that evil must be defeated. When it is not, we end up with dark ages and long periods of horrific suffering and oppression. Can you imagine – if you’re old enough – what kind of world we would have ended up with had Hitler won WW II? I believe the world created by militant, fascist, Islamists would be much worse. The global population would be reduced, perhaps by billions, not millions. Think of the rule of the Taliban on a global scale. Think of public executions on football fields and baseball diamonds. Think of Saddam’s mass graves.
At this point, most of the world has not yet acknowledged that it is confronted with the most deadly evil it has ever faced. The UN is in denial, actually aiding and abetting terrorists from time to time. Europe has wimped out. Half of Americans are willing to take the Leftist path of appeasement and non-confrontation. Almost no one seems to understand the nature of the beast with which we are faced.
As Christians, we have to live in the midst of whatever chaos Satan creates; and while living in it we must find ways to be light and salt. We must work and live in the world, and yet remain divorced from its evil (John 17:15-16). As James said, we must be “unspotted by the world.” In these times, that’s a tall order.
As we fall into the fall of the year, and of our lives, perhaps it’s time to think about what’s important and what’s not. If we were hit by a car tomorrow, who would do what with our possessions? Who would treasure what we’ve accumulated, and who would trash it, sell it in a garage sale, or give it to Goodwill? Who would read our journals and prize their words? Who would value our poems, our paintings, our books and articles, and the video tapes and photos of us and our children?
What things are worth keeping and passing on, and what would it be better to get rid of? Ask the same question spiritually. To what do we needlessly cling? Have we separated the spiritual wheat from the chaff? Do we cling to unsupportable doctrines by the sheer weight of habit and tradition? Are we hunkered down in some theological comfort zone, unwilling to shift paradigms because we’re afraid? Do we continue to practice deleterious behaviors that are doing us harm? Are we in bondage to something from which we need to be freed?
It’s probably time in your life, as it is in mine, to not just have the Spirit, but to be filled with it. It’s down to crunch time. “Perilous times” are not just ahead; they have arrived. Whether or not these are the much-prophesied “end times” or not, they are certainly dangerous ones. We live in a world full of religious thugs who care nothing for Western civilization or human life. Either the West defeats them, or they will overrun the world like a deadly plague.
I don’t mean to be a doomsayer, but I do believe that we live in turbulent, potentially disastrous, times. The evil is real, and it’s becoming pervasive. Iran, long a hotbed of hostility toward the West, is now talking preemptive strike. The US has few powerful friends in the world. Yet, if we have the will, we are still strong enough to repel the darkness that threatens to engulf us; but the internal, infernal, Left is doing all it can to undermine that will.
For many of us, the years just ahead will be a time to fish or cut bait. We must find out who we are in Christ, and commit to our convictions. Either we’re Christians or we are not. How we define our Christian faith is between each of us and God. Whatever it is, we must live in good conscience toward our heavenly Father. Perhaps it’s time for some personal fall cleaning?