Appetite for Distraction—Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice Month:
This September, The Park Forum is looking back on readers’ selections of our most meaningful and helpful devotionals from the past 12 months. Thank you for your readership. This month is all about hearing from you. Submit a Readers’ Choice post today.

Today’s post was originally published, on March 18, 2022, based on Ecclesiastes 6.9
It was selected by reader, Sam, Fort Worth: 
“Thank you for this. The truth that distraction comes before destruction is more true every day in our world that constantly encourages and fuels our roving appetites.”

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 6.9
9 Better what the eye sees 
than the roving of the appetite. 
This too is meaningless, 
a chasing after the wind.

Reflection: Appetite for Distraction—Readers’ Choice
By John Tillman

Distraction has a meme. Of course it does.

The “Distracted Boyfriend” meme started out as a normal photoshoot. Photographer, Antonio Guillem, typically supplies images to iStock and other photo platforms. He set out one day in 2015 to take some images around the concept of infidelity using models he often collaborated with. They took many different images of the stages of a relationship slipping into infidelity but one image caught the imagination of the Internet. The male subject, walking with his girlfriend, looks back at another woman in a red dress. The man has an openly lustful gaze and the girlfriend an open-mouthed look of shock and disgust.

Creative people on the Internet started labeling the image to discuss distraction or abandoning one’s first love. By way of example, historically-minded meme creators made a series with the first image showing the man as Henry VIII, the woman in red as Anne Boleyn, and the offended girlfriend as Katherine of Aragorn. Successive images rotated the women through the cycle with Anne Boleyn being the girlfriend and Jane Seymore being the woman in red, then continuing through with Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr.

But the meme was rarely about sexual infidelity. Most of the time the people were labeled not as people but as things. A popular version labels the woman in the red dress as “new project” and the offended girlfriend as “all my unfinished projects.”

This meme struck a chord because we all recognize something universal within ourselves. We long for more. This makes us susceptible to temptation, distraction, dissatisfaction, and infidelity. Our eyes lead us astray when our hearts are not settled.

The teacher of Ecclesiastes knows something about distraction and temptation. He purposely tested himself in every area imaginable. The conclusion is that being satisfied with “what the eye sees” is better than having a “roving appetite.”

Our roving appetites, whether for sex, money, or power, will lead us to distraction before destruction. We need to have a settled eye, looking upon things that have true value, not upon the distractions of this world. With our eyes on the treasure in the field, we won’t invest in wickedness. With our eyes on the pearl of great price, no costume jewelry will suffice. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can let the world be offended that we would disdain its affections.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy. — Psalm 123.1-3

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Jeremiah 39(Listen 3:11)
1 Corinthians 15 (Listen 1- 8:06)

Read more

Read more about Wisdom in Houses of Mourning
We limited Jesus, the Bible, and prayer, to “when we have time” as if time was the issue and not our heart.

Readers’ Choice is Here!
There’s still room for your favorite post from the last 12 months. Tell us about it and we will repost it in September.

Meaning in Remembrance

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 12.6-8
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, 
and the golden bowl is broken; 
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, 
and the wheel broken at the well, 
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from, 
and the spirit returns to God who gave it. 
8 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. j 
“Everything is meaningless!” 

Reflection: Meaning in Remembrance
By John Tillman

After many failures on a new kind of electric battery, an associate of Thomas Edison expressed dismay at having no results for their labor. Edison shot back, “We have plenty of results. We know several thousand things that won’t work.” Edison is known to have expressed similar sentiments throughout his career.

Ecclesiastes, in a way, is a journal of failed moral experiments and reads as if it was written over a long period, perhaps a lifetime. It begins, not with idealism but with a jaded, youthful cynicism. The teacher sets out, armed with wisdom, to solve the meaninglessness he sees. He makes himself both moral scientist and test subject. (Ecclesiastes 2.1)

In his experiments, the teacher of Ecclesiastes, like Edison, finds several thousand things that won’t work. Here at the end, we find the teacher still struggling with the problem he set out to solve. He never comes to a conclusion that fully satisfies him, however, there is a spark of light: “Remember your creator,” he says. “Remember your creator.”

Remembering is not just the recall of facts. Remembering is powerful. God often commanded the people to “remember.” Remembering can be an experience in which all the emotions, and even senses and sensations, participate. Passover was one of those times when remembering involved all the senses. The point was not for Israel to remember the facts of what God did, but to remember God’s identity and their own.

At the last Passover Jesus observed, he reoriented the meal around himself, saying, “do this in remembrance of me.” Then on the cross, a few hours later, the thief asked Jesus to “remember” him.

The light bulb moment of Ecclesiastes never quite comes, but the spark of hope lies in doing what God has already commanded us to do—remember him. 

The aged teacher’s exquisite closing poem pays poignant tribute to the realities of life and death and the importance of remembering God in youth, not just in old age. 

Remembering is a lifelong task and not merely a mental exercise. If we are to remember as Jesus commands, our remembrances must be both acts of testimony and demonstration. How do our remembrances testify and demonstrate God’s identity and our identity in him?

Let us remember Jesus. Remember him to ourselves. Remember him to our family and friends. Remember him to our community.

In this remembrance we find meaning.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long; though I cannot know the number of them. — Psalm 71.15

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 12 (Listen – 2:38)
Psalm 119:1-24 (Listen – 15:14)

Read more about Over the Brink of Success
It is uncomfortable to hear the success we long for is pointless, but it’s healthy.

Read more about Forward-Looking Remembering
Remembering is not “living in the past” or “longing for the good ole days,” instead it informs our hope for a future that God has for us.

Here Comes the Sun

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 11.7-8
7 Light is sweet,
    and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
8 However many years anyone may live,
    let them enjoy them all.
But let them remember the days of darkness,
    for there will be many.
    Everything to come is meaningless.

Reflection: Here Comes the Sun
By Erin Newton

Where I live, spring is emerging from the short, cold days and the long, colder nights. Despite my love of autumn, it is the warmth of spring that seems to break through a life stifled from winter. Like the Teacher says, “Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.” 

The light of the sun is often used to express a sense of blessing or pleasure. Good days are typically described as bright days, warm days. The priestly blessing calls for God to shine his face upon the people (Numbers 6.25). The psalms equate righteousness and justice with light; “He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun” (Psalm 37.6). 

The Teacher uses this observation of light to encourage others to enjoy life when possible. Standing in contrast to the joy of light is the memory of darkness. We have walked through the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. We acknowledge the reality of suffering, oppression, pain, and trauma. Wisdom teaches us to balance the enjoyment of good days with the suffering in trials. 

During the Medieval period, some embraced a lifestyle of asceticism within the restrained lifestyles of monasteries and convents. Even today, some view the Christian life as a somber pursuit constantly at war with everything. We become hyper-focused on the denial of our flesh and forget that the world was created for enjoyment. 

With the rise of mental health issues, it is imperative that we learn the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher rightly points away from ultimate fulfillment in any pursuit apart from a relationship with God. And amid saying everything is meaningless, there is this silver lining: We must hold together the pain of the dark days with the joy of the lighter moments. 

We enjoy the spring warmth more because of the coldness of winter. We celebrate each victory of justice compared to the moral failures of a society sick with injustice. We do not whitewash the pain of history by forgetting the dark days. We remember them. The remembrance of those days is what brings the joy of light. 

If the Lord allows us to enjoy a moment, accept the gift. We do not need to feel guilty, so long as we are honest about the sufferings in the past and recognize the potential for suffering in the future. Wisdom balances pain and joy.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. — Isaiah 9.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 11 (Listen – 1:40)
Psalm 117-118 (Listen – 2:52)

Read more about What Time is It?
The teacher’s poem about time and seasons, however, might be the most well-known biblical poem in our culture.

Read more about Existential Dread
It can be tempting to hide our emotions even in our prayers. However, pain needs to be voiced.

Absurd Little Bird

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 10.20
20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, 
or curse the rich in your bedroom, 
because a bird in the sky may carry your words, 
and a bird on the wing may report what you say. 

Reflection: Absurd Little Bird
By John Tillman

Who needs spying birds when digital devices are listening? In modern life, this proverb might say, “Don’t discuss appliances near Alexa or your entire Facebook feed will be filled with Samsung ads.”

The idea of spying birds is ancient. Most ancient versions are inspired by Ecclesiastes. The idea is so prevalent in culture that a faux-conspiracy group based on this was created. “Birds Aren’t Real” is a parody of conspiracy theory groups such as Qanon. It claims that birds are CIA spy drones.

It started in 2017, when Peter McIndoe was struck by the absurdity of conspiratorial nonsense spouted by opposing political protestors. The slogan he created as a spontaneous joke became a movement. Many people, particularly Gen Z adults, played along, staging real protests for a fake cause. Why?

An additional way to translate the teacher’s frequent refrain “all is meaningless” might be to say “all is absurd.” The teacher explored wisdom, foolishness, and madness. The absurdities of life can be troubling, especially when leaders, friends, and family seem to be in their grip. What benefit is wisdom when so many are willing to follow foolishness like that which inspired “Birds Aren’t Real?”

Many Birds Aren’t Real participants acted out of frustration with friends and family captivated by Qanon and other absurd conspiracy theories. Poking fun at these conspiracies with their own fake conspiracy helped them “laugh at the madness, rather than be overcome by it.”

Birds are real and they don’t inform on people. Ecclesiastes’ practical advice isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. The proverb is not warning us against government or corporate spying. The proverb also does not mean to avoid criticizing leaders, even though abusive leaders attempt to imply this. If criticizing the king was a sin we’d have to throw out most biblical prophets.

The proverb does carry many truths. Powerful people will always use information (or misinformation) to their benefit—for oppression or selling appliances. Words spoken in private will often be shouted from the rooftop. (Luke 12.3) We need to be people of integrity, speaking public truth rather than private slander.

Confronting lies is a necessity amidst the absurdity of modern debate. Our concern should not be our fate when leaders hear the truth, but our community’s fate if leaders deny the truth.

However we stand for the truth, whether by sermon or satire, let us do so with integrity.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 10 (Listen – 2:33)
Psalm 116 (Listen – 1:34)

Read more about Facts and Harsh Realities
The Bible acknowledges these harsh realities side-by-side with aspirational faith that justice will be done.

Read more about The Commission of Truth
Leviticus 5.1 identifies a unique kind of sin—the sin of not testifying to the truth when it is called for.

The Unknown Sage

Scripture Focus: Ecclesiastes 9.13-18
13 I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. 
17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded 
than the shouts of a ruler of fools. 
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, 
but one sinner destroys much good. 

Reflection: The Unknown Sage
By John Tillman

Who was this nameless poor man who saved his city from military aggression? What did he do? How did it save the city? We don’t know. That’s the point the teacher is trying to make. Wisdom is not always recognized or celebrated unless it comes from people we already think of as wise and worthy of respect.

The poor were then and are now considered by many to be unreliable, lazy, morally questionable. Even today, many people doubt the poor when they tell us about their own experiences. “Don’t give them money. They can’t be trusted.” Perhaps the better question we should ask is, who was the person in power who listened to the wisdom of the poor man? And how was he forgotten after wisdom he shared, saved the city?

We often distrust the word of “nobodies.” When a recommendation, a critique, or an accusation is spoken we often say, “Who is this?” Buried in that question are assumptions. We distrust people based on status. We are suspicious of critiques from those “below” us who we suspect have inferior understanding. Positional distrust can cut across many categories such as authority, status, wealth, age, race, gender, or denominational or political affiliation. “Her word isn’t trustworthy. She’s _________.” “Don’t listen to him. He’s _________.” It can cause us to read wisdom and call it foolishness. It can cause us to hear a blustering fool and call him wise.

The teacher describes the king of the city as blustering and shouting and says fools followed him. In contrast, the wise words of the poor man were quiet. Whatever weapons were bested by the poor man’s wisdom, they weren’t bested by force, volume, or vicious rhetoric. We would do well to retune our ears to listen for such quiet, yet powerful words.

Many places in our world are under siege—some literally, some metaphorically. Violent voices of brash, blustering, chest-beating, powerful leaders of our world shout out plans, war strategies, and lies.

May we listen to the lowly voices God chooses to send to us, speaking wisdom.
May we ask the Holy Spirit to give us ears to hear quiet wisdom that can silence weapons of war.
May we honor those who speak God’s quiet wisdom, both now and in the future.
May quiet wisdom be remembered long after the siege ramps of the violent are crumbling in dust.

*On March 25th, nine months before Christmas day, the church celebrates the lowly voice of Mary after hearing Gabriel’s announcement. We read her words as our prayer today.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant… — Luke 1.46-48

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Ecclesiastes 9 (Listen – 3:13)
Psalm 114-115 (Listen – 2:18)

Read more about Servants in the Age of Showboats
We live in an age where the proud, unethical, immoral showboat leader is honored and glorified.

Read more about In The Face of Wonder
The freedom the world seeks is freedom to dominate, dictate, and destroy…May we seek instead the freedom to serve, to create, and to restore.