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.)

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.

I’m Not Sure…

Speeches are interesting. We never actually have one that is a home run, everyone is sitting there applauding and lauding you with the brilliance of your speech. Back in September, I got the chance to give the best man speech at my buddy’s wedding. For weeks, I ruminated on so many things to say about the couple, him, her, etc. I think I watched 5-8 hours of YouTube videos of best man speeches. I was disappointed and amazed by the words people use and the way people go about doing these talks. I did not want to be another statistic. Nor did I want to give one of those purely emotional speeches. I tried to carve out a statement that was unique to the kind of person I am, and I thought would be particularly meaningful to the couple, individually and together.

I think it went okay, but I’m not giving you the written speech. I study philosophy and theology. I believe words have weight. I believe words are actions and actions are words. I hope some people know that when I make a statement when I’m not trying to be humorous, I don’t make it flippantly. The words carry along with it time coupled with reason and in-depth consideration. I look for my words to be impactful, thoughtful. At least, what I have stated is the hoped-for goal. I mess up, more than I want to admit.

Anyway, as I searched for the words within me to proclaim to the people and the couple, I realized something. Most wedding addresses are the couple and the person running down memory lane. I had to find my niche. So, I would charge the couple with a hope I have for them while doing the unique observations and jokes about the couple. As someone who reads a reasonable amount, I turned to my trusted books.

Poets. Philosophers. Theologians. Scripture. Comics (not out of the ordinary for me). Movies. Short Stories. It all fell flat. Nevertheless, I think I wrote the script for this three to four minutes speech twelve to fifteen times. You laugh, but it wasn’t the same talk. I had six different addresses. None of them worked for me. YET! I came across one of my favorite books. One of the twelve books I read every year: C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Additionally, I turned to the dumb ox, Thomas Aquinas, and Elenore Stump, a philosopher par excellence.

The significant quote that focused my attention on crafting the speech was by Lewis. Lewis states that love and loving necessarily means a vulnerability for brokenness, pain, and conflict that can launch into deeper intimacy. Or, if we merely want safety, then we have begun to creep into a coffin that suffocates risk and being known by another.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” —C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I wrapped my mind around those first two sentences that “there is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Most of the time weddings are whimsical, fancy, and a picture of pure love. Everyone mentions that marriage will be hard! Yet, we rarely hear a speech that encourages the couple to admit to not just dig into the difficulty but to be indeed present and see the other —to commune with the lover. Thus, I wanted to bring that reality of what they were doing before God, family, and friends into that moment. So, I hoped for the couple that they would find new ways to express vulnerability to and with the other because this is part and parcel of marriage or love, via Lewis.

Next, this vulnerability needs something else. I couldn’t put my finger on it. So, I randomly began to read Thomas Aquinas. Odd that I would go to a celibate monk. He has something within his Summa (Q20) that captures what I sought for the couple. However, I needed help teasing it out that is why Elenore Stump helped me. I turned to my notes for a presentation she did at Fuller’s Analytic Theology Seminars on Love. Summarized, to love someone is to desire or will the good of the beloved and union with the beloved. Thus, for love to happen, it requires shared attention where the lover perceives the beloved aright and vice versa. Or, it means that each seeks to view the other honestly. Thus, I encouraged the couple to find anew shared attention for the beloved.

So, there we go. I found the words through Lewis, Aquinas, and Stump. I encouraged vulnerability and shared attention. NOW! What is the point of this story of the condensed version of the immediate craziness of my mind? Well, I’ll do my best to make it quick.

As a Christian, I find it difficult to be vulnerable with God and have this shared attention, which I think happens through prayer. But, I could make that thought a post in of itself. I want to take to the horizontal angle, even though I readily wish to stick to the vertical (me and God or you and God).

So, I don’t think I’m the only one when I say it takes a lot to be vulnerable and be attentive to another. Loving our neighbor, whether that be wife/husband, family, friends, community, etc., is hard and takes time. It isn’t safe. It isn’t scary either! The love poured out for us in Jesus Christ calls in us to bring out a quality love over quantity to our neighbor. Only God can give the quantity and quality love that each human heart needs. We are tasked with loving our neighbor where we are at with what we are given. We are to love our neighbor with a quality that points to the love of Christ. That kind of quality is an investment in the person. We are by nature very contingent beings. Thus, an investment of time is an expression of that vulnerability. While it takes patience and a lot to gain shared attention.

The point of my speech for you is to ask yourself how do you seek to love, in particular as a Christian to mirror the love of God found in Jesus Christ being a witness. Have you asked yourself how you attempt to invest in your neighbor and indeed perceive them as God’s creature? Have you asked yourself that question? Consequently, not everyone is asked by God to be Mother Teresa, D.L. Moody, or Jim Elliot and many others. Instead, we are asked to love faithfully in the smallness of our lives because the ripples of the small faithful love ring as the Kingdom bells coming nearer. Read 2 or 3 John. Read the OT prophets, cf. Micah 6:8. You’ll see my point.

Last, my guess, if you’re like me, is that you don’t do a great job at loving your neighbor. Nevertheless, you and I cannot let that be the end of it. “I just do a pitiful job, c’est la vie.” No! God forbid! But, we need to start again wherever we are at with our neighbor. As a Christian, the good news of the Gospel is that you daily get the chance to participate in God’s love for you, for me, and for the world. I’d say that good news, and it is worth being perseverant, even when you fail.

 

I could be wrong, but, for now, it makes sense to me.
“It is our best work that God wants, not the dregs of our exhaustion. I think he must prefer quality to quantity.”
— George MacDonald

Spelunking & Broad Shoulders

NOTE TO READER: Much of this was written in late July 2017, yet I updated it. I hope somehow you feel encouraged.

This may not come as a shock to some, but I wasn’t good at keeping my cool as a child towards particular people. I was in second grade when I realized there was someone in my grade school that didn’t like me, and he thought he could intimidate me and bully me. Strange because I was the tallest and biggest kid, but I was the one getting bullied. He would make fun of me for no apparent reason, and he made fun of me for being chunky. It was subtle jabs. Eventually one day, I told my pops about it. I was pretty upset because I didn’t know what to do. All I knew is that I wanted to cream him, maybe give him a black eye or two. I knew though I couldn’t do it.

As I told my dad everything, he looked at me and shook his head at me. He chuckled, actually! He brought me close as I was sitting in his office, put me on his lap, and told me something that has stuck with me since then. “Philip, my dear boy, you’re the biggest and tallest. Sometimes, other people will have a problem with you. They will do whatever it takes to rile you up. Force you to say and do things you’ll regret. People don’t like it that you’re okay with you…” I interjected as my dad did his typical hand movements when he starts to make a point. I believe I had a few tears in my eyes and I said, “DAD! What am I suppose to do? All I want to do is make him shut up.”

Sighing as every dad does. My dad got quiet and let me into something that has rung in my ears since those days. “Son, you’re a Worrall. You’re going to have to get broader shoulders. You’ll have to keep getting bigger ones as you grow up. Then, you gotta find a way to let it roll off your back.”

Broader shoulders? Let it roll off my back?? I was confused. As my dad explained what it meant, I realized that it could be my superpower. I was a pretty imaginative kid, but you’d rarely see it. Somehow, I’d use this superpower to take on other people’s burdens and figure ways to lighten their load. I’d meet with other superheroes and save the world. Silly, but we all have done it!

Fast forward to today. I’m twenty-six and second grade was a long time ago that kid is gone. (He and I never became friends, and I eventually got the last laugh. No, I didn’t do anything cruel, hurtful, or destructive.) Still, I hear my father’s words: “Broader shoulders, son.” But, I don’t know if I can have broader shoulders. I’m beat up, and I feel my fragility. I can be so much more; I can be better, stronger, smarter, etc. Nevertheless, all I feel is despondent.

A song by Penny and Sparrow called the “The Literal Heart,” has some lines that echo that feeling within me.

“I could be so much stronger than I am right now
With broader shoulders and a sturdy frame
But that would cost me time and change
That I might not be willing to make

It’s gonna take every drop of young blood I’ve got
So hold on and stop and settle down

I want to sit still and empty
I want to learn the hollow route

A lonely piece of mountain
I want to sit and shut my mouth
But I’ll be damned, I’d rather sleep…”

Now, before I go any farther, quit with your gripping and statements, “Phil, you’re being melodramatic.” Well, your cheeky comments show how little you know me. I detest all forms of weakness and vulnerability in my life. Stoicism has served me well in life, but it does some damage if you’re not careful, which I haven’t been careful when drinking that hemlock.

But, I need to make a point. It is difficult for me to admit that I don’t have broad enough shoulders for everything life throws at me. Why? It is because I want to be rock, not needing anything… or anyone. That seems pretty anti-Gospel because I unquestionably need God at every point in my life.

This point has come clear within some deep emotions and feelings that have surfaced which have kinda uncovered how genuinely vulnerable I am. There are only two people who I think know me to that point that can call me out without me becoming defensive. By calling out, I mean this fact that I carry too much on myself and have the biggest and broadest shoulders with nothing phasing me. No, they aren’t my parents. They know who they are.

What’s my point in this? Well, I take this whole Gospel and Jesus being God thing seriously. And, I too often still associate my life with God through faith as one that is a steady increase in holiness and true purity. In reality, it is sometimes like spelunking. So, my point is that my shoulders aren’t as broad as I want them to be. Within the Christian life, the moments of spelunking can look a bit antithetical to everything we have been taught that we are to progress into holiness. More often than not, we find that we are taking steps backward, and we forget to realize that God came for all of us and God understands the complex nature of life with Him and neighbor. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we are taking steps backward; it could be the catalyst moment for growth and deepening of our faith.

Anyway, I know I’ll continue to try and have the broadest shoulders. Additionally, I hope in a God that gets why I try to do that. I believe God meets us in the midst of the spelunking so that God’s Gospel found in Jesus Christ looks even more captivating and beautiful. Following God and living out the Gospel isn’t a punctiliar moment, even though we want it to be. It takes a lifetime, and God knew that when He sent His Son.

Resolutions (Part 2 of 5)

It has been a while since I wrote another piece on my New Year’s Resolutions. Previously I mentioned:

  1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my life. Additionally, I resolve to do whatever I think to be my duty, most for the good and advantage of my neighbor in general.
  2. Resolved, I begin and end my day by writing 500 words.

So, just an update on the resolutions, I believe I am accomplishing the second resolution very well. The very first resolution, however, is not one that I think is totally determinable by myself alone. It is a hope and goal for every day. I more than likely have failed, but I will continue to try and do it. All because I really do believe this is what it means to live out faith in Christ.

With that being said, let’s get this show on the road and continue with the next two resolutions.

Resolution #3:

Resolved, I will live out my days by making them the most profitable as they can be, living with all my might, and spending my time at the improvement of myself and the goals of my vocation.

I want to take a moment to explain this one because it is pretty much focused on the self. Now, we all know resolutions are very focused on self-improvement, etc. However, if you will remember, these aims are not centered around 2017 alone. Instead, these aspirations are things I will pursue over the next, God willing, 60 years of my life. So, they cannot be nearsighted, even though the list may grow. So, you cannot really think of these as temporary, think of it when Ross laminated his top 5. These things are getting laminated people!

Anyway, let’s return to the resolution. Profit is what many of us would think as the bottom line. Yet, this does not have to be the idea of profit as monetary, and I do not mean to look at it in a strict productive manner either like you would think of tasks getting done. I mean for the word to be understood as benefit or advantage. So I want to live out my days by making them the most beneficial or advantageous. You could see this as Robert Williams famous scene in Dead Poets Society near the trophy case. The latin phrase is Carpe Diem. Williams states, “Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…”

Some might say, it sounds like you are in a hurry. Some could even think that I have angst towards the finitude of my life, even though I fully believe in the next. Good point, so why focus on having my days be “profitable”? We all die —a sad, inevitable truth. I am not invincible, nor am I concerned with my life in the sense of making the greatest impact or changing the world. Nonetheless, I do want to make an impact. But, an extraordinary life, in my mind, is one lived to the fullest in the small moments. Thus, I will use my God-given abilities, mind, strength, and heart to its fullest as long as God continues to allow this finite creature called Phil to live. This leads into the next phrase. What is life!? How do you explain it? I suppose I should leave that for another time —the story of a single life is deeply complex and always an ongoing marching toward death? (Oof, I realize I’m probably reading to much Heidegger.)

Moving on, some might say life is apex moments as well as the nadir moments, think of a Bell and Well curve. Many probably see life in this manner because those curves become turning points and sign posts we return to as we reflect on life. Ordinarily, you hear people say it like this, “This chapter of my life is closing,” if they are turning from a low point. Or, if they are in a great place, “Life is just really good, everything is going perfectly.” Yet, for some reason, we only live in those two moments, the high and low points. However, I conceive of life in those in between moments. That is the meat of existence. So, as great as those moments are, I look forward to the climb and the descent because it is in those places where I’m truly being formed to be the person God has called me to be and the kind of follower of Christ I hope to be. Therefore, I find life to be full of small moments and steps in which I am invited to live to the best of my ability —to be responsive in this life God has given me. Furthermore, I want to be the best at what I do so I will do all I can to pursue my vocation(s).

Resolution #4:

Resolved, to know and love the nieghbor, who ultimately belongs to God and is God’s creature.

If this sounds odd to you, then you got my intention. I want the sentence to cause me to pause and consider what I am resolving to do for the rest of my life. For some reason, this resolution frightens me. I don’t think that is a bad thing, but I realize that I’m going to fail at this. Moreover, I hear the penned lines of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring rumbling through my head.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

With this resolution, I have no real control over what I am opening myself up to because of a commitment to follow Christ. You may know that I struggle with humanity. You may have heard me say, “I really want to be a hermit — write books and essays, read, think, and pray. Live with my dog, Loki, and be in solitude.” I want this not so much because I hate people, but I get at times easily frustrated by society and everything that entails living in relationship with multiple human beings.

In spite of this, I acknowledge that all you über extroverts and deeply relationally oriented people are freaking out over what I have said. But, let me explain why I have this resolution. If I ask you to tell me the Great Commandment, rightly you say, “Love God and love neighbor as yourself.” However, these are two commandments, not one. The two commandments are the sum of the Law. Yet, nowhere does this say it is a single commandment. I’m not going to get any deeper than that, but I could. The point is that fulfilling God’s Law is twofold. First is to God and trying to fulfill that is hard enough because I am to love God with all my heart, soul (or being), and strength. I’m still stuck on trying to do what it means to love God, so how do you expect me to love my neighbor as myself. So, if you ask a question that I don’t want to answer, I’ll say: “I’m still trying to figure out this whole loving God and loving neighbor thing.” Nevertheless, I, as a believer, am called to do these two commands. Hence, my desire for becoming a hermit collapse in on itself because of this call of God in Jesus Christ to follow Him. I am called to love God and love neighbor. This sucks because I want to just focus on loving God.

So, I now have four of my ten initial resolutions. It’s taken me some time to even get this far, yet I hope to keep posting my resolutions. To let everyone know, I create possible resolutions, and then I analyze if they are even worth keeping or blogging about.

Excerpt from an MLK Speech

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. 

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

                                                  —Martin Luther King Jr.


I have been thinking about the Ferguson debate. The recent publicity of Eric Gardner, and countless other events swirling around the debate of race, police action, and the rights of people. I continue to wonder what MLK or others would tell us in this moment.

Our country is polarizing, and it has been for quite some time. During February, there is black history month. Most people talk about the importance of Martin Luther King and his speeches. I think it is time for most of us to periodically pick up the documents of MLK’s speeches and other Civil Rights leaders and start reading— then re-read— what these people wanted from the movement, because the movement is not over.

If you want to read or listen to the “I have a dream speech,” go to this link:
http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

Favorite Podcast

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So, since I graduated, I have really been into podcasts for a multitude of reasons—some noble and some selfish. One of my favorite podcasts is from Brant and Sherri, who are two Christians that I respect because they are hitting evangelical culture with the reality of the Gospel. Yet, I love them, not because they are talking about Jesus, it is because they are just real about life and grace.

They have a radio show, and it is conjunction with CURE International. You should check it out and see what they are doing. 

http://branthansen.com/category/podcast/

Also,
You should go read his blog….and really…Check out CURE.

https://cure.org