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Ecclesiastes and seizing the day (2)

 The first part--that life (i.e., food, possessions, wealth for some, marriage, etc.) is a gift from God is a truth most of us accept in a generalized way--as when we give thanks before a meal. That is good as far as it goes, but we don't want to be like Qoheleth who doesn't seem to take this truth far enough. God deserves more than a generalized "thank You" for all that He does. Paul quotes the Cretan writer Epimenides to the effect that "in Him we live, move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In 1 Corinthians he reduces it down to two questions: "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did not receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?" Jesus speaks of God sending sunshine and rain to all (Matthew 5:45--a much different take than Qoheleth's in 1:5-8). He also teaches about God's involvement with the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and how they forecast His care for we who are "much more valuable" (6:26-28). God's hand touches our lives daily in more ways than we can enumerate. To live well is to have a heart that recognizes and lives in ever deepening appreciation of His gifts.
Not only should we acknowledge God's gifts but we should find joy in them. While it is true that "God gives . . . the ability to enjoy them" (5:19), it is equally true that we have the choice whether or not to accept this attitude. This is the assumption behind all of the carpe diem texts. How do we find joy in God's gifts? There is more to this than we might initially think. When we fully appreciate His gifts we take them as He gives them--not overanalyzing them, trying to leverage them into something bigger, better and longer lasting, or seeing them as the beginning of something more.

This is easiest to see in God's gift of today. If we want to find joy in it then we don't spend it preoccupied with tomorrow or looking back at yesterday but live focused on the present. We don't presume that the gift of today means we have tomorrow promised because we don't. Doing these things frees us to appreciate the day for what it is--a gift from God for us to enjoy. David Gibson puts it this way: "The Preacher tells us that God has to give us enjoyment, or the thing itself (phone, sex, house, car) will leave us unsatisfied. And the way God gives us enjoyment in His gifts is by giving us perspective on ourselves."

This is challenging because one of the temptations we face is appreciating things relative to their scarcity rather than for their inherent value. It’s the same reason few people get excited in the middle of a meal because, well, they’re in the middle of a meal. They appreciate their first few bites and their last few, but it’s more difficult to have that attitude toward everything in between.

This hits home when we think about learning to live one day at a time. When it appears that our days aren’t scarce, that we have time enough not to be concerned about time, it’s hard to appreciate the value of a single day. It is only when they become scarce, say we find out we have a life-threatening illness, that our perspective changes in regard to the importance of a day. Suddenly they are precious because we realize they may be few in supply.

The truth of course is that we don’t know the number of days we have here on earth. No one does. Qoheleth would probably make the point in his usual glum way that we are all closer to death than we have ever been before. He would be right in that as far as it went but we don’t have to adopt a scarcity perspective to have true gratitude and enjoyment for each day. We just have to restructure our thinking to see each day for what it truly is—an individual, unique, never-to-be-repeated gift that is opened with our eyes each morning. The value of a day ultimately has little to do with scarcity—as the creation of God it is inherently invaluable and our task is to see it as such.

How do we do this? I suppose that each of has to work that out his or her own way but one important thing we can all do is pray in a way that acknowledges the day at hand (see Matthew 6:11). Nothing fuses things together like prayer. If we want to really appreciate each day for what it is, then praying about the day will get us off to a good start.

I keep a daily journal and each day I record some things under the category of “treasure.” These are things that made the day special. They might have been good or bad, big or little, happy or sad. The real point is they were part of the life that God is His infinite wisdom gave me for that day and it’s to my spiritual health that I acknowledge that and give thanks. I’m not suggesting that I have in anyway mastered living one day at a time but it has helped me.

Al of this leads us to simpler living. That’s not really our goal (honoring God is) but simpler living comes as a consequence of consciously receiving each day as a gift of God. When we begin to limit ourselves to living in the day at hand, we reduce our cares and concerns that often sap our vitality and leave unable to be in the present. It “slows down” life in the sense that we are more aware and alert to the happenings of the day. Life probably still goes by to quickly but this can take some of the blur out.

Finally, to move well past Qoheleth, we not only honor God by recognizing that life is a gift from Him and finding joy in it, but we ultimately honor Him by loving Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We enjoy the gift but we love the Giver. Again, it shouldn’t be assumed that this is always a natural, easy development. It is possible for our growth to stunt and we love our gifts more than the God who gives them. This appears to be the stumbling block for the rich, young ruler (Matthew 19:16ff). He had been blessed by God in many ways and when Christ called on him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor—he was unable to do it. Evidently he was more attached to them than he was to God. We should be hesitant to sit in judgment on him since we have not been commanded to do this as he was, but we can learn from him and remind ourselves that the truest joy comes not from our gifts but from the God who gives them.

So the writer of Ecclesiastes starts us down a road that ultimately results in us slowing down, simplifying, and looking up. We learn to look at life overall and each day in particular as a unique, special gift given to us by God to enjoy. And if we carry all of this to its logical conclusion, we recognize that even greater than the gifts is the Giver of them. 

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