Ep.302: Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Chess.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today we continue our series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Last week, I questioned the New International Version’s translation which says, “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless.” 

Today, let’s think about meaning by asking, What’s the meaning of chess? 

It was a big deal in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue chess program beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion. It was a major victory for artificial intelligence, and a huge win for IBM’s technical skills. But many chess players resented IBM’s arrogant intrusion into their favorite game because chess is a human game. The goal isn’t just to capture the opposing army. If all I want is to sacrifice pawns and kill the king, I can pitch my opponent’s pieces in the fire. 

Chess is a game, a microcosm of human civilization and war. It evokes the emotions of a thousand years of knights and castles, of medieval bishops, queens, and kings. Chess asks me, “Am I a pawn in this game of life? Will the church and politicians and army sacrifice me for their bigger aims?” 

Chess is recreation, a mental challenge, a battle of wits, an opportunity to develop skill. It is also a spectator sport. 

Computers that play chess don’t understand that. They have no memories of love and war, of victory and defeat. They just process information and execute a programmed strategy. 

Computer chess reminds me of a satellite navigation unit I had. Whenever I made a wrong turn the unit said with an annoyed tone, “Recalculating, recalculating.” I was on a journey, but my GPS wasn’t enjoying the trip. All it cared about was the math. 

So what does this have to do with Ecclesiastes and meaninglessness? 

The author of Ecclesiastes applied his “mathematical” mind, his computer mind, to the search for meaning. 

He tried gaining wisdom. But he discovered that “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge increases pain” (1:17-18). 

He tried maximum pleasure: wine, music, dancing, women. But he found no lasting satisfaction, no meaning there (2:1-9). 

He became obscenely wealthy and he used his money to build houses and vineyards and gardens and parks (2:4-7). But his life continued to fail the test of meaning.  

The problem was that the author played life like a computer program plays chess, like my GPS goes on a journey. He defined the goal played to win, but when he did, he didn’t know what the game meant. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are players in this game of life. How often we have computed that better health, more money, better social connections, or more wisdom would give us a richer, fuller life. And maybe, just maybe, answer our nagging questions about meaning. 

But now we confess with the author of Ecclesiastes that a meaningful life is not gained by strategy and design. As the author discovered, all our accomplishments and all our experiences can leave us empty and dissatisfied.

Teach us then the true source of meaning. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.301: Meaningless?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the opening words in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

That was the King James Version. Today’s New International Version puts it, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” 

That’s a harsh philosophy of life. Everything is meaningless? Does the Bible really teach that nihilistic philosophy?

One graduation requirement at my Christian high school was to preach a ten-minute sermon in chapel. I wasn’t an active Christian back then, but I did want to graduate, so preaching the senior sermon presented a dilemma. 

I solved the problem by taking my theme from Ecclesiastes. As I followed the author through his search for meaning in work, in wealth, in leisure, and in learning, I agreed with him that, yes, it was all rather meaningless. Today, as a committed Christain, still searching for meaning, that theme of Ecclesiastes keeps coming back. 

These days, I’m pretty sure I pointed my senior sermon in the wrong direction. The Hebrew word for meaningless is better translated as vapor or breath. 

The author is not asserting that everything is meaningless, but that everything is transient, unsubstantial, passing. Like smoke and vapor. Like the morning mist the sun disperses. 

I worked in computing for 28 years at Alberta Motor Association, on three different membership systems. The first was a home-built system we retired before the year 2000; the second was leased from a vendor, and the third was an off-the-shelf system that morphed into an expensive custom development. And now that I’m retired, they’re replacing that system too.  

That’s what Ecclesiastes tells me. It’s smoke: three decades on transient computer systems. It’s vapor: no one remembers me or the systems I supported. 

Ecclesiastes says the same about other parts of life. Years of scrimping and saving built my small investment portfolio. But what will happen to my savings? Will the stock market crash, will inflation chew them up, will health expenses deplete them? My health insurance contract covers the first $200,000 of lifetime medical expenses. After that, they’re finished with me. I can solve my own problems. 

That too is part of Ecclesiastes. Success is not guaranteed in the things we do. And as we do them, we grow old and die and leave it all behind. Like smoke in the wind or mist on the water. 

Fortunately, that’s not the whole message of Ecclesiastes. Stay tuned to hear more of the story next time. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we pray with the poet of Psalm 90:
  The length of our days is seventy years,
      or eighty if we have the strength,
      yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
      for they quickly pass and we fly away (v. 10). 

Our wealth and health and pleasures fall under the shadow of age. We bury the friends of our youth, and our zest for life diminishes. O Lord, draw us closer to you and to those we love and to the home you are preparing for us. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.300: God Suffers.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

This is our last episode on the problem of evil. Today we consider our suffering God. 

My daughter, talking to Muslim, asked, , “Would Allah come to earth, be born in a stable, and grow up as a human?” 

“Never,” was the response. “Allah is great. There’s poop and dirt in a stable . He wouldn’t become a human baby.” 

This points to a difference between Islam and Christianity. The Christian God became human in Jesus. He got down and dirty. He washed his disciples’ feet. He gave himself up to torture and suffering and death. 

Jesus is key to answering the question of evil and suffering. God, not content to be a distant and dispassionate observer of his hurting world, got personally involved in the mess through Jesus. He shared his life with sinners. He handled money inscribed by Caesar.  He suffered and died under Pontius Pilate.  

In every part of the Bible, God suffers. Before the flood, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become. . . . He regretted making humans. His heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:5-6). 

Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks . . . but you were not willing” (Mat 23:37). 

God was grieved by human violence and sin, by rejection of his love. But his suffering went further. On the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, felt that God had stopped being with him. And then he died.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we lay all the world’s evil and suffering at Jesus’ cross. Wars, torture, endless diseases, petty sins of petty people, genocides of tyrants. Is there room for all of this at the cross? 

Thomas Aquinas thought so when he wrote: 
     Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran–
     Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
     All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
(Adore Te Devote, trans. Gerard Manley Hopkins)

“All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.” Yes, the cross is big enough and strong enough to bear the sin and suffering of the world.

So we bring the problem of evil and suffering to you, our God, and to Jesus on the cross. Not asking why you permit it, not raging against injustice, not trying to fathom your logic. 

We come as sufferers who find in Jesus a fellow sufferer. The crosses we bear find meaning in his cross. Our sins are washed in the river of his pain. Our diseases are healed in the flow of his blood. In our death, we hope in his death and resurrection.

With the dying thief who shared his last day with Jesus we say, “Remember us when you come into your kingdom.”

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.299: Causes and Cure of Suffering.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

For our fifth episode on the problem of evil, we ask, “What might help people who suffer?”  

Scripture is full of sufferers and those who helped them. Let’s look at three. 

Job, the second most famous sufferer in the Bible, had comforters who tried helping him with theology. They said, “God rewards good people. God punishes bad people. If you’re suffering, you must be bad.  Confess your sin! Change your ways.” 

When Jesus met a blind man, the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their mindset for dealing with suffering was, “Let’s find someone to blame.” 

When Jonah and shipmates were terrified in a huge storm, Jonah provided the solution: “Throw me overboard!” he said, giving another helpful model for managing suffering. 

How often, as in these stories, comforters don’t comfort and sufferers aren’t helped. God rebuked Job’s friends, telling them their favorite theology was wrong. Jesus squashed the disciples’ blame-game by telling them neither the blind man nor his parents were at fault. Throwing someone overboard, a strategy much favored by politicians today, solved the sailors’ problem. But scripture doesn’t elevate this solution to a preferred model for helping sufferers. 

However, the Bible does offer some helpful suggestions for sufferers and those who comfort them.

First, scripture points out that suffering has many causes. 

Jonah’s storm was a consequence for his disobedience. Job’s troubles were initiated by Satan to resolve an argument with God. Jesus said the man’s blindness wasn’t because someone did something bad–it was an opportunity for God to show up and do something good! Yes, suffering has many causes. Don’t trust simple explanations that suggest only one cause or one solution for suffering. 

Second, scripture shows various ways to deal with suffering. 

Job, for example, found it helpful to shout angrily against his comforters and God. Suffering helped Jonah think clearly about obeying God. Jesus, the Bible’s most famous sufferer, patiently endured torture, crucifixion, and death. Paul told us to rejoice in our sufferings, because they teach us to hope in the future God has for us (Rom 5).

Those are some of the options for dealing with suffering. So don’t trust those who have only one strategy and one message for everyone who suffers. 

Third, scripture discourages us from making unkind theological comments on other people’s suffering. Job’s comforters made things worse by accusing him of sin. Jesus’ tormentors said, “He saved others, himself he cannot save”; but they had no clue about the cause of his suffering, or what kind of help he needed. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we do not understand the causes and cure of suffering. Yet, we believe you are present with all who suffer.  

Teach us, like Jonah, to take responsibility for our actions and to reverse our bad decisions. 

Teach us like Job, to rage at injustice and evil, and to hear your voice in the storm. 

Teach us to be like Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame. 

O father, lead us through the thorns that infest our world, through the pain around us, through the evil within us, until we love you truly and follow you faithfully. Bring us at last to that holy place where you banish suffering forever, and dry our tears, and cure our fears.  

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.298: Famine, Crucifixion, and Cancer.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

This is our fourth episode on the problem of evil, as we ask, “Why does a loving and powerful God permit so much evil in the world?” 

Today we look at Joseph in the Old Testament. His father Jacob had 12 sons by two wives and two slaves, creating a complicated family dynamic. Joseph, son number 11, was his father’s favorite, and his brothers’ least favorite.

Once, when the ten older brothers were herding sheep, Jacob sent Joseph to see how they were doing. They were doing just fine without Joseph, so they sold him into slavery in Egypt, dipped his coat in goat’s blood, and took it to their father, saying, “Is this your son’s coat?” Father Jacob was devastated.

In Egypt, Joseph suffered through slavery, trumped up criminal charges, and prison, until he was vindicated and promoted to ruler of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh. He helped his big boss prepare Egypt for seven years of famine. 

During the famine, Joseph’s 10 older brothers came from their starving home in Canaan to buy food in Egypt. Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. Joseph tested them until he was confident they regretted treating him badly. Then he held a lost-brother reveal party, and invited them to emigrate to Egypt so he could look after them.  

Years later, when father Jacob died, the ten were afraid Joseph would finally execute revenge on them for selling him into slavery. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God meant it for good, to save many lives” (Gen. 50:24). God was at work in the brother’s evil plans, using them as part of his good plan.

In the Book of Acts, Peter addresses a similar theme. He says to the Israelites, “Jesus was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to a cross” (Acts 2:23). It’s like Joseph told his brothers: “You executed evil on your victim, but God incorporated even your evil actions in his good plan.” 

When Kate Bowler, a Duke University professor, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, she wrote the book, Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved (United States: Random House, 2019). The title reminds me of the version of Romans 8:28 I memorized as a child: “All things work together for good to those who love God.”  A better translation is: “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” It’s not “everything” that is working together for good. Rather, God is the active agent, he is working in everything–in Joseph’s slavery, in Kate Bowler’s cancer, even in Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we have said many words we wish we could unsay. We have done many deeds we wish we could undo. We have seen pictures we would unsee and read books we would unread. 

But you are a God who works in everything. You worked through the death threats of Joseph’s brothers, through the trumped up charges and execution of Jesus, through Kate Bowler’s battle with cancer. 

Help us believe that you are at work in our lives and our world. Work through the violence of war. Work through the untimely deaths of children. Work through the machinations of politicians and the consumerism of society and the lies of conspiracy theories. O God, bring about your own conspiracy, a conspiracy of love and justice and salvation. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube