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Everything is meaningless, under the grill...

I *love* Masterchef: I love seeing people excel at what they do, I love the human interaction and moments of genuine affection, and I love salivating over plate-upon-plate of delicious looking food (normally whilst eating some toast-based creation of my own).

But as a series progresses each episode becomes more and more frequently punctuated by contestant sound-bites expressing ever-increasing fervour and obsession. To quote: "every single cell of my body is dedicated to Masterchef right now" …and that's only 5 minutes in to episode 4. The competition to express the most intense and all-consuming emotion and commitment becomes at least as fierce as the competition to present the best plates of food. It appears to be mandatory to love cooking to the exclusion of all other interests, to the neglect of your family and friends, to the jeopardy of your health and mental stability… and this 'passion' is presented to the audience as something inspirational, to be lauded and admired and emulated!

Where do we wind up when we single-mindedly pursue ambitions of wealth, fame, recognition? Or even when we elevate noble goals - family, relationship, being a good person - to the position of 'life's purpose'? I suggest that either we are disappointed by failure, or we are disappointed by success. Success sometimes hits us the hardest, cos we now have the supposed be-all-and-end-all prize and that voice in our head that we'd rather ignore says: "is that it?" Ecclesiastes expresses in stunning poetry the desperate futility, temporality, hopelessness that nowadays we try to escape by watching mindless TV:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
   at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
   but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
   and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
   and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
   and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
   but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
   there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
   a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
   nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done,
   and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
   “See, this is new”?
It has been already
   in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
   nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
   among those who come after.
Moreover: wisdom does not satisfy (1:16-17); pleasure does not satisfy (2:1-11); work does not satisfy (2:18-23); wealth does not satisfy (5:10-17); death comes to us all (9:1-6).

Of course, 'the Preacher' does not deal with the topic of reality TV. Perhaps, if he was around today, he could've found his 'life's purpose' in purees and foams and tuiles. Or perhaps the sheer mindless joy of watching other people do the same on national telly would've been enough of a distraction to stave off all that troublesome philosophising. Hmm.

Fast forward a few hundred years to another preacher, who preached contentment and claimed to have found it for himself: "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. " (Phil 4:12-13)

Paul was an ambitious, highly educated, well-respected member of the Jewish community. He was also a Roman citizen, with all the privilege and advantage that afforded. His encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus (see Acts 9) turned his life around and he went from zealous persecutor of the early church to passionate follower of Jesus and church leader. Later, in a letter to the church in Philippi, he described what it felt like to exchange worldly advantage and personal agenda for relationship with and obedience to Jesus:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ… (in Phil 3). 
His perspective on what it meant to flourish as a human being was completely transformed, and his letters frequently encouraged the churches to stop aspiring to worldly ideas of gain and success, to be grateful for what they did have (even though many of them faced severe hardship and persecution), and experience the joy and peace of life in relationship with God:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)
The thought of surrendering every dream and ambition of our own to follow Jesus wherever he may lead must seem sheer madness – without exaggeration – to many, and terrifying even to those of us who see sense in it. From experience, it is pretty scary (not least 'cos I lose the respect of people I care about) ... but to the extent that I learn daily to take this risk, I find my life fuller, richer, more exciting and more real than any existence I could've carved out for myself. I rather have to agree with Martin Luther: “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess."

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