Bonfire of the Platitudes

“Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’” (Jeremiah 7:4)

“There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This, too, I say is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14)

If you’re a fan of the late writer Tom Wolfe, you can hear an echo of his first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities in the title, vanity being both meaningless and the things we say, do, wear and project to impress, attract or intimidate that he deftly deflates.

His title in turn traces back to the 15th- century Florentine priest Savonarola, who held a “bonfire of the vanities” as part of a call for religious reform that included burning mirrors, cosmetics, artworks, books, etc., that he criticized as the vain luxuries of a worldly life.

Today, we just drop them off at Goodwill. As a young believer in the late 1970s, I decided I didn’t need my entire 12” LP collection. (Which, strictly speaking, was true.) The net benefit to my spiritual life from selling it: nothing I can recall. (So maybe the bonfire of meaningless vanities was, well, meaningless.)

If you jumped ahead, you can see I’ve included direct quotes from Scripture. And no, the notion that “the word of our God stands forever” (Isa 40:8) is not being challenged. The Bible is not pockmarked with platitudes.

It’s the way we stretch their meaning beyond the original context that turns them into platitudes. Our greatest impatience (or even anger) comes when platitudes are stretched so far they’re like the elastic on your old swim trunks. Under stress (e.g., a quick dive into the pool after mowing the lawn), they no longer cover what they should (and I’ll leave the rest of that analogy to your imagination).

I think the repeated exasperation behind Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes (above, and throughout the book) stems from wisdom that ought to be proverbial (i.e., a general rule that can have plenty of exceptions) hardening into a “spiritual principle” expected to be as regular and predictable as the phases of the moon. I didn’t count the number of times meaningless (KJV, vanity) appears in the text of Ecclesiastes, but it doesn’t take long to get the message

My God will supply all I need (paraphrase of Phil 4:19). Well, what do you need? That’s what car salespersons ask you at the same time they’re sizing you up and calculating their commission on the model two upgrades above the one you’re staring at.

Solomon had something to say about that, too. “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” (Eccl 1:8). New and improved may be an old hook, but we’re still biting.

But true provision—adequate means to accomplish something—is of course tailored to the purpose. If you watch old newsreels or movie depictions of new army recruits, assembly-line style, receiving boots, blankets, fatigues, etc., this is not a trip to the mall.

Getting a haircut normally means professional attention to the length of sideburns, a trim neckline, taking just enough off that your hair lies just so and stays in place. Getting a haircut as a new soldier means it all comes off with all the finesse of the guy mowing the lawn at an office park.

Bottom line: These forms of provision may not seem like much, but they suffice. Sort of like the manna gathered daily in the wilderness.

I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer 29:11). You might have a coffee mug with this printed on it (likely a large one with that many words). Or a poster. Or maybe someone who still sends cards through the mail sent you this as a word of encouragement.

The irony of this verse is its context. It comes from a letter that Jeremiah sent to the people of God in exile. He was still in Jerusalem. Or, to give a little more pertinent detail, “the surviving elders among the exiles” (29:1).

This was a horrible time in the history of Judah. Read Lamentations (or maybe in installments; it makes for difficult reading). Even before the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, it was foretold like this:

“Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own” (Hab 1:5-6).

Those “dwelling places” included what the nation regarded as the dwelling place of God: the temple. It was such a given, so sacrosanct, they could swear by it: “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” Yet the Babylonians destroyed it. The religious life of the people was never quite the same after that, even after they returned from exile.

Vanity, the Lord said in so many words through Jeremiah, who was commanded to stand “at the gate of the Lord’s house” (7:1) and tell the people that doing what was right meant more than the temple services, the burnt offerings, all the ceremony and all the (vain) professions of religious devotion.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a word of encouragement, a pretty remarkable one when you consider that it came after all the unfaithfulness of the people of God and the horrible consequences. It’s like that gem in the middle of Lamentations:

“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).

Let us not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing (Heb 10:25). Most of us know that the Greek word rendered “church” in English is ekklesia, an assembly of people. That one word says a lot.

Though we might casually call our church “God’s house,” it certainly isn’t that in the same sense that the tabernacle and the temple were. There weren’t any pews or big screens or a kitchen to brew the coffee. It wasn’t the place for the people of God to meet in the same way we meet in church buildings today (or used to anyway, up until 6-7 months ago).

The priests met with God and performed the prescribed services and rituals in these structures. Just the priests, not the masses.

Yes, we “meet with God” in church buildings today because they facilitate the activities of the ekklesia: worship, Scripture readings, communion, sermons and teaching, personal fellowship. Our church buildings are for the masses (or at least we hope they’ll show up). They’re built for crowds.

But what an extraordinary occurrence like a pandemic does by disrupting all these activities is force us to face realities (more than one).

First, our attitudes. Hebrews10:24, which precedes the “don’t neglect meeting” part is, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” But how many times have you heard persons say the “don’t neglect meeting together” part in a scolding, annoyed tone about truant Christians?

Have you ever considered that some may be alienated from the church because people have forgotten the part about spurring to love and good deeds? That they see church members so embroiled in church politics, personality conflicts, petty power struggles, even arguing over the fabric, style and appearance of curtains on the church windows (true story) that they just check out?

Second, meeting together for what exactly? You may have heard of the “night for every meeting and meeting for every night” model of church operation. But be honest with yourself. How much of it is, in the words of Solomon, who always used the King James version, vanity?

I think by the end of the more serious restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the church calendar will look a lot different, probably a lot leaner. Lots of dead branches will be pruned from the vine, but the vine will ultimately be more fruitful for the process (Jn 15:1-2).

Finally, and this one will probably sting a little, church has always been a social activity in one sense, and rightly so. Ekklesia, means assembly, getting together. We can’t do that now, at least not in the same way we’ve been accustomed to (which may have been for decades).

But the habit of meeting together can become a dependence on meeting together. No man or woman is an island, of course, but no one can, chameleon-like, absorb the spirituality of others in their church through weekly contact.

There is no substitute for an individual’s relationship with God. For example, everyone knows someone who positively lights up when they arrive at church and start to fellowship with others.

But beneath the animated Sunday morning exterior they have serious struggles, and riding the spiritual and emotional roller coaster seems to be their lot the rest of the week. Maybe you’ve been like that yourself.

Do a study sometime of momentous things that happened in Scripture when men and women were alone (or almost so, or not supported by those close to them): Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Elijah, to name a few.

The church exists to teach, encourage and build up, but you must stand on your own two feet and walk onto holy ground yourself, with confidence. It can–and will–happen under the right conditions.

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