Is Life Hevel?

In the last Sunday of 2018, I was given the opportunity to preach at LakeRidge, which is where I work. I felt the inspiration to tackle a big topic in under 30 minutes. That topic was the meaning of life in the book of Ecclesiastes, focusing on chapter 1. You’re thinking to yourself that is crazy, and someone who is truly a novice should not be tackling such a large complex topic. You speak the truth, but I like tackling and communicating difficult things. Overall, when I listen back to my sermon; I don’t give myself a passing grade, but I still have much to learn about communicating.

I thought it best to make my sermon more dialogical, less monological. Now, a sermon is by nature a monologue. Most of my training is to get up and present my ideas, sources, etc. Thus, you can imagine that doing something like that is truly difficult, which is why I don’t think I did bad, but I didn’t do well either (if I was grading myself). Another way to think about it, I didn’t hit it out of the park, but I do think I had a good double. Also, I am my biggest critic.

As I prepared to preach this sermon and this book, I was confronted by the book’s construction and how the author(s) went about making the point. The main point of Ecclesiastes is to deconstruct all the way we find meaning and purpose apart from God. The author does this by launching a thought experiment for the reader to engage in and reflect alongside the author. So, I felt that my normal academic and rigorous way of constructing my arguments, etc. was useless because I would be forcing the text to do something in which it was not designed to do. The book is constructed as a monologue, yet also a dialogue. It is as if we are flies on the wall to this person’s conversation.

As I have been stating above, the book of Ecclesiastes is a thought experiment done in a conversation over life’s meaning. Qohelet, the one who is speaking for much of Ecclesiastes, states that life is hevel. Thus, this word hevel is what takes center stage throughout the book to find something that isn’t hevel. The book can be seen as defining the word. Throughout the book, hevel is then pictured in two distinct ways: 1) temporary and fleeting, like smoke, and 2) engima or paradox, like knowing whether someone will love you or hate you.

My brother, Joel, and his wife, Cre, offered a helpful note for me to remember to not get too heady, but to deliver content that could be manageable for a large audience. I have been known to go over the heads of everyone, and I’m trying to correct that. (Note: this is not meant to sound pretentious as it is to remember that epistemically we are all at different places, so we must communicate in a way that brings much of an audience along in the reasoning and verbalization. In other words, I’m still learning how to bring people along in a journey.)

Principles of Future Philosophy — Ludwig Feuerbach (1/5/19)

Credit: Wikipedia— Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach 

The Eminent Muse For Philosophy

Ludwig Feuerbach continues his journey from theology to philosophy through the anthropocentric lens that confronts Hegel’s methodology and the intellectual status quo. Feuerbach promulgates a new kind of embodied philosophy that stays silent toward abstraction. Yet, this argument can only be seen as fodder for producing new philosophies from future readers. 

What one finds within the argumentation and conclusions of Feuerbach is the nascent thoughts for greatly influencing some of the masters of suspicion (Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche) and Western European existentialists (Heidegger, Jaspers, Buber, Sarte). Its deconstructive angle is important for the philosopher, theologian, or public intellectual that needs to clear away assumptions in order to feel a kind of “new wind” take them into producing knowledge. Nevertheless, Feuerbach’s anthropocentric angle is at best a pill for idealism, at worst a mudding of the waters on the question of what is a human being. On the other hand, the best thing one can take from Ludwig is a sense of true grappling with the psychology of human experience and the sociological framework for human experience. 

Feuerbach attacks Hegel’s totalizing philosophy that much of academia still wrestles with, not Kant. However, Ludwig never reaches the production of principles for this future philosophy, only paradoxically proving the difficult task of casting off the chains of intellectual history and embeddedness. The audience of such literature would be most helpful for most seminary students, particularly in regards to Feuerbach’s acceptance of skepticism and adherence towards the finitude of human capacity for full knowledge. Dubious though it may sound, Feuerbach is not to be feared, nor radically embraced. Feuerbach punts on much of what could solidify or explicate his point. 

Thomas Wartenberg properly stresses Ludwig Feuerbach’s brilliance and the necessity for being read towards the end of his introduction. “In [Feuerbach’s] work, there are deep and stimulating reflections on the nature of human existence, but reflections that one feels impelled to push further, to develop in different directions. Being the stimulus to original philosophical reflection is, after all, one of the most important roles that a philosopher can play, and it is a role for which Ludwig Feuerbach is still eminently suited.”

A Caramel Cream Christmas

[Disclaimer: This was originally written for a devotional within LakeRidge’s 2018 Advent series. The author opened up this time for the past Sunday’s theme, Unexpected Gift. The following reflection was something of a fanciful invention by the author in order to stir up the imagination of the reader so as to contemplate the unexpected nature of the Incarnation.]

Have you ever reached into a pocket to find something you never expected? Was it some money, a note, a ticket, or just a piece of garbage? I remember one day reaching into my coat pocket to find one of the most peculiar things. I reached into my coat and found a caramel cream, tightly wrapped and looking like it had just come from the packing plant. A brief chuckle and bewilderment came from me, and I began to wonder about whoever placed such a wonderful, unassuming gift into my pouch. I didn’t necessarily assume it was of my own doing for I’m not one to leave candy around the linings of coats —I was chided as a boy for the neglect of well-made candy going undigested. Nevertheless, the culprit of this unexpected gift was the only thing my mind’s eye could savor.

I walked; I hummed; I yawned —all along meditating not on the candy, but the culprit. As I judged this candy, my dear mother came by to ask me what ever could be the matter. As I retold my story, she chuckled at her youngest son because I had done what many regularly do. I believed contemplating the giver without ever enjoying the gift would satisfy both the giver and myself. When in reality a reply in joy was what was needed because joy is the simplest form of gratitude. I obsessed over the giver and not the gift; my mother reminded me that participation in the gift took precedence over mere contemplation on the giver.

You see, many unwittingly forget that to receive a gift one must actively open up in the gift’s reception. An unexpected gift can only be given such a title when one opens up for the possibility of something willingly given without warrant or merit. Such is the birth of Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Human; it is an unexpected gift. It is like a caramel cream hidden unknowingly in a little boy’s coat lining — it is to be receptively enjoyed and actively savored. 

Text to Read:

John 4:10 (NET)

Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Being Understood From an Understanding God

(This is originally published in LakeRidge’s weekly Newsletter. The place where I am the Director of Spiritual Formation. It is abbreviated for the sake of the reader, but there was written before editing for the Newsletter. Published: Nov. 21, 2018)

Which should a Christian value more: understanding or being understood? This isn’t a trick question, but it is a pivotal issue for the Christian’s life while living in the world. Another way we can ask this is should a Christian be defensive or welcoming? I can ask my initial question in a variety of ways and scale it out to more than mere individuals. In fact, it is a question we should be asking our church. I digress, and you’re hoping I answer this puzzle. Any person centering their life in/because of/ through the person of Jesus Christ are people who display themselves to others through understanding, before ever being understood, because, in Jesus Christ, God sought for us to know that God understands our humanness.

I want to dial in on a section of Holy Scripture that symbolizes what I’ve indicated above. In Hebrews 2:10 and on, the writer considers the fitted-ness of Jesus Christ as our hope, model, and ultimately savior because he fully shares in our humanness. The point of this section of Scripture is “to bring” or better state lead human beings through a new kind of Exodus, which is reminiscent of language found within the book of Exodus where God chooses to lead people into salvation and freedom. The passage dives deep into thinking about the Incarnation, God, salvation, and human beings, yet the writer’s attitude isn’t to impress or confuse us about this great mystery of Jesus Christ. Instead, the author stresses that God values individual human beings to such a degree that God forwent other possibilities to ensure humanity’s salvation. God did such a foolish and risky thing in Jesus Christ so that we, who experience a messy, chaotic, at times horrendous, and beautiful life, might be understood by someone so, so Other than we could ever try to imagine.

Isn’t that good news, not just so-so or moderately entertaining news? God went to such great lengths to seek understanding about your life and my life that this God of understanding captivates, bewilders, and, maybe, frustrates a mind’s eye. So, then, as someone committed to this faith in Jesus Christ, shouldn’t it be common that we are a community that takes on this similar disposition of God? Are the people that God has redeemed in Jesus Christ who gather at local churches the kind of peculiar people that go to great lengths to understand others before ever being understood? Because, it seems to me, that God is a God who understands you and me before asking to be understood. Let me close with this question, what do you think your neighbor desires in a world that is so fractured and at times pulling itself apart from the seams? I think it is someone who continues 1) seeking to understand them, and yet 2) aches for someone to truly know them. The first one, we can do through the Holy Spirit as a witness of God’s love for us, even if we don’t agree. The second can only be achieved by Jesus Christ.

A Sermon on Micah 6:1-8 —Am I Loving You Well?

Click the play button to hear the sermon.

This past Sunday I was given the opportunity to preach at one of the churches in my dad’s association. I happily accepted the invitation, believing that I could finish the deck I’ve been working on for the past week by the middle of the week so that I could get in some good studying and preparation for the engagement. I was sorely mistaken because I didn’t finish the deck until Saturday with the help of my long-time best friend, Elijah. He came down from NW PA to spend time with me. I sought to study at night, but I underestimated the exhaustion from the labor, so I fell asleep in the middle of my reflecting and writing notes. Anyway, I felt a lot of pressure on myself Saturday while I wrote my thoughts down; I didn’t have enough time to reflect back on them so as to edit and refine them the way I’d like. So, I felt the inadequacy of thoughts and wording. Nevertheless, there came a moment when I had to deliver this talk.

In my critical voice, I believed I’m handing nothing fully developed and poetic to these strangers, but I had a humbling moment after preaching. An older woman named Iris stepped right up to me hugged me and stated that this was the word she and the congregation needed to hear. In fact, she mentioned that she wanted me to continue preaching and teaching. Usually, these comments don’t really pass through my guarded nature towards compliments, but it was different with this woman. For some reason, it meant something to me because of how inadequate I found everything I said to what was ruminating in my mind and heart for this passage. Nevertheless, God used it.

I landed on Micah 6:1-8 for multiple reasons, but it came from a reflection on a song by Luke Sital-Singh, “Loving You Well.” From that song, my kept wandering to this passage. Micah 6:8 was my grandmother Whiting’s favorite passage of Scripture. What’s funny in that last sentence was the atheism in my grandmother that believed all of it is bull. Yet, she found this verse to be the most powerful in all of Scripture. She was right; this passage is powerful. Micah 6:1-8 is an imaginative, poetic lawsuit that Micah paints for us. In this section of Scripture, God pleads with a problematic people (Israel) for possible faithfulness (to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God) to establish the point of a special covenant. Yet, as the readers of this passage, I believe the text confronts us with a question that many of us neglect to ask: Do I love you well? Now, I switched the inquiry in the sermon to am I loving you well. Either way, I think the point remains the same.

The question takes courage to answer daily because when we reflect on it and connect it to God and neighbor, we find that our imaginations change and the way Christians speak and act start to change, hopefully falling in line with God’s vision, character, and promises. The question makes us uncomfortable because it asks us about the quality of our love for the other. To do justly and to love mercy are practical actions, not mere frameworks for practical action. Justice and mercy take action and reflection. Additionally, to walk humbly with God is difficult because we have to abdicate promoting ourselves turning our attention to God and believing that God’s promises and desires for the world are not in vain and worthwhile pursuing. As G.K. Chesterton stated, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Our neighbors need a quality love, not a quantity of love because we all have limited bandwidth. God asks us for a quality love, not quantity because God knows that we are but dust. As we move from loving God and neighbor with this question (Do I love you well?), Christians are confronted with the task of loving foreigner, marginalized, poor, abused, widow, innocent, LGBTQA, trans-gender, and oppressed too. Will you and I love these people well because they too are our neighbor made in God’s Image?

 

There are many things that I could have and wish I would have said, yet I cannot go back to do any of that. Instead, I choose to learn from this experience and hone this craft of communicating effectively. I invite you to listen to this, maybe it can encourage you as it did at least one person. Perhaps, you’ll critique me and offer me advice. I welcome that, but I think you should email me or private message me. More than anyone, I know the mistakes and gaps in my speaking, yet if God used Balaam’s ass, then maybe God could use an ass like me, haha. 😉

 

Cheers!

The One With A Poem…

Photo by Ardian Lumi on Unsplash
Note: For the next year, I plan to write a short story every day. Some may be palatable, even enjoyable(?). Others may be horrendous. If you like them, like them or share them. If you don’t, well it is whatever. I’m doing it as a challenge someone gave me. I’m calling these my fivers. I try and write them without stopping in five minutes, little to no editing after the time limit. Each story or post will come from a different prompt I am given. These are just exercises for me to be in the process of writing.

The past few weeks, I’ve been given writing prompts that I wasn’t able to really write a story for a blog, probably cause I thought all of them where we too personal. This one, however, with some fear and trepidation I am posting a poem. Oddly enough, when I was a teenager, I wrote poems regularly. Yet, I stopped for some laborious reasons if I were to tell you at length. Watered down: I didn’t want to get made fun of because I was the love/beauty poetry guy. Anyway, I was asked today to write a poem, so here it is. Let me know what you think.

“A Gleeful Twirl”

That girl, you see

That girl…with the soft curls

My oh my how she moves and twirls

Strong and Courageous, what, oh what do those eyes see.

Ah, what a fool of a mortal I may be!

Dimples that form with every merry go round

I am here, and she is there —leaping with every bound.

What if I try to come nigh

Could she then apply…

But then again, I puff out a sigh.

It might be best to stand idly by.

A gleeful twirl

“Come on,” with hand outstretched.

Now I uncurl and nothing seems so farfetched.

The One About A Squirrel

Photo by Evan McDougall on Unsplash
Note: For the next year, I plan to write a short story every day. Some may be 
palatable, even enjoyable(?). Others may be horrendous. If you like them, like them or share them. If you don’t, well it is whatever. I’m doing it as a challenge someone gave me. I’m calling these my fivers. I try and write them without stopping in five minutes, little to no editing after the time limit. Each story or post will come from a different prompt I am given. These are just exercises for me to be in the process of writing.

 

I grew up in small, rural America. Some people have called my area the rust belt; others have called it the snow belt. I called it home. In the sleepy towns of NW PA, there was a small private Christian school that I attended for most of my life from Kindergarten through 11th grade. The elementary wing of French Creek Valley Christian School had these decently giant windows to allow for natural light, as well as a good distraction for most of my classmates while some teacher went on about time, times tables, writing cursive, or the rudimentary knowledge of grammar. Grammar was the time that I would space out in the day, but I didn’t do it in a way that made the teacher genuinely suspect that I wasn’t listening.

One day, I don’t know for how long, but I blatantly watched two squirrels play with each other in the most jovial and playful manner. I don’t remember what drew me in; it might have been the changing of the weather. It was May! May in Pennsylvania was my favorite time of the year, and I found these two squirrel-mates living in a manner that made me envy them. While I heard this teacher go on about adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs, my mind was analyzing what I was watching. Plato made the statement that a student’s formal, lecturing education should happen later on in life while as a youth they should learn the control of self through body and mind training. Education was to turn the light of our eyes to the goodness within us, thinks Plato. Well, chubby little Phil wanted to be jovial and lounge in the sun while I played. I kept hearing my teacher sound like the parents’ from the cartoon strip Peanuts.

As the squirrels played, they seemed to drift farther and farther from me. I watched them intensely, using anything I could to get a good eye on their bonding time. It was somehow a chance to escape the confines of my education to live a child’s dream — to simply be within the world. The next thing I knew my escape was immediately interrupted by the teacher calling out my name. “Philip! What are you doing?” As I heard the teacher, my mind reinstated the necessity to be a drone. However, I was more than halfway out of my seat, leaning more than half of my body sideways to watch the squirrels. Seeking to catch my balance, I spoke the truth. I wasn’t paying attention teacher. I cared more about the squirrels than this grammar lesson.

As I recentered upon the lesson, my mind couldn’t help but go back to the squirrels. Squirrels are funny creatures! Yet, they are fascinating in a peculiar way. I learned something valuable that day that I more recently realized in my adult life. Jovial and playfulness come to us in the moments of sheer non-expectation. Those squirrels did not happen to plan it; no, instead, they found themselves raptured into it. We become overwhelmed by chance to do something many of dream about: to find joy within the most serious of times.

How dare these squirrels to interrupt teaching of grammar for some nutty fun and comradery. But TRULY, it was the opposite! How dare we intrude into the scared moment of joy, innocence, and profound connectedness with a quibbling triffle about constucted rules to communicate through a medium other than oral language.  A bit of pleasure within the fabric of life isn’t found by the removal of things. Friend, joy is located in the midst of life. Connectedness is found within doing, not planning. Playfulness cannot be prepared or forced; instead, it becomes playful from the busy. There is much to say, but squirrels, small creatures of God’s creation, taught me that at a young age. I’m still learning it.