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.)

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.

Resolutions, Edwards, and a New Year (Part 1 of 5)

Welcome to 2017. 2016 has been quite the rough year. It is that time once again to make resolutions.
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If anyone knows me well, they can tell you that I do not do New Year’s resolutions. I find them quite crude, and I find them to lack any particular vision of the person you, or I, are becoming throughout life. Instead, most New Year’s resolutions isolate a person’s life to this particular year, becoming near-sighted to what is right in front of them. Thus, we make stereotypical resolutions like, “I want to be happier,” or “I want to make more money,” etc. In particular Christian circles, it is common to hear a cacophony of spiritual things, “Read my Bible every day,” or “pray more than once a day,” etc. Most resolutions become sickening to us because we live and perpetuate life as a struggle for immediate results.

Since I finished my Fall quarter at Fuller, I felt the weight of all my studies and the consequent exhaustion and the pressure I put on myself. Thus, I planned to give myself space by removing myself from prepping for the next quarter and reading books that have a dual purpose, i.e. reading books for class and most other books that might enhance the quarter. However, I failed on this determination. It appears I cannot pry myself away from books and putting my hand to paper. I fairly quickly found myself compiling a list of books that I would read during the break. It ranged from nonfiction and fiction, yet I started out with my list of books which I find vital for me to read every year. I needed to finish the last two books: C.S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain and Karl Barth’s God in Action.

After those books, I quickly ran to Jonathan Edwards. Now Edwards, for many of us, has a pretty horrendous depiction of the venerable American theologian and pastor. What I mean is his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” yet if you get beyond this sermon, Edwards wrote a great many of things to increase the faith of believers and woo his audience to the beauty of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, truly captivating the imagination. (To understand some of Edwards preaching, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Oliver Crisp’s lecture on Edwards Preaching. It is an hour and a half long, but it is worth it. But, I am biased to Oliver Crisp.) One of these works, which is of a more personal nature, is Edwards’ Resolutions.

Jonathan Edwards wrote this list of seventy resolutions while he was completing his preparation for ministry. The purpose of this list was to guide him throughout his life, providing a trajectory for the kind of person he wanted to be. Edwards took the time to pause and reflect on the nature of his work and the lived life he wanted to have while doing ministry. This kind of resolution making process is something I applaud, and I have decided to take it up. I’m not sure if I will even arrive at seventy resolutions. But, I will at least write ten resolutions over the next two weeks. I find this kind of thing appropriate for two reasons. 1) I’m in a similar position of Edwards in that I will soon be finishing up my masters and want to have something that gives me a trajectory for life with God and my neighbor. 2) We are at the dawn of a new year, and I hope to reorient you to another way of conceiving of resolutions.

Now, Edwards’ list of seventy resolutions can appear daunting because many of us struggle to write and accomplish even one resolution for the new year. However, the thought of doing seventy, many of them being daily resolutions, seems impossible. Unlike the resolutions that are self-contained within a year for many of us, Edwards saw these resolutions as his aims for life. Furthermore, the way many people propose their resolutions are impossible to track or truly achieve. Think about it, happiness is pretty elusive. However, Edwards’ sought to make his resolutions as concrete habits and ways of living among people. Thus, the way to truly measure them is through self-examination, as well as being disciplined.

To start this shenanigan, I will write out two of my resolutions, so this more than likely will be five posts. Then, I will give some reasoning for said resolution within each post. Nevertheless, I want to turn our attention right now to Edwards’ opening remarks. Edwards notes that the only way for these resolutions to happen is God’s initiative to bless the work Edwards determines to do to accomplishing them. Instead of imitating Edwards, I rather let the eminent theologians speak for me, acknowledging I have this same plea and hope to God.

Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat God by his grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these resolutions once a week. (pg. 17)

Do you notice the precise wording? Edwards does not reject his ability to attempt the resolutions; nor does Edwards neglect God’s pivotal role in Edwards life. Instead, Edwards holds both God’s sovereignty and his ability to pursue x or y. Thus, Edwards asks that his goals would be “agreeable to God’s will,” while God enables Edwards to actually accomplish these things that he wills for his life. Moreover, Edwards brings to the forefront of his mind that all areas of his life must be under control by God and himself.

Resolution #1:
“Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory and to my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my life. [Additionally, I resolve] to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of [my neighbor] in general.” (pg. 17)

If you have the Resolutions, you noticed this sounds like Edwards. Well, it, in fact, is Jonathan Edwards words, with a minor twist. This resolution captivated my mind. However, I did change up one phrase because I find it truly unattainable. I think it is pretty straightforward, but, for the sake of clarity, I will say a little more. I’m a Christian; I won’t run from that. Because of this commitment to Christ, the epitaph of my life should be one geared toward loving God with my whole being and loving my neighbor. I think for many church goers this becomes very cliche. And it really is, when it is devoid of the immense theological weight. So, I wanted this resolution stated in a different way so as to cause in myself some conflict over what that looks like.

Resolution #2: Resolved, I begin and end my day by writing 500 words.

I suppose this is why many people get a blog because they want to write more. However, I don’t mean for the exercises to be on the blog; instead, I mean with good ole paper and pen. I’m a person who likes to live, think, and reflect on words. It is the vocation I want to do for the rest of my life: to be a wordsmith. Moreover, I want to go get a Ph.D., so it is necessary for me to work well with these nasty little buggers. The hope of this resolution is that from the focused practice I can have some sensible words for this blog or my own academic papers. Additionally, you only get better at most things from concentrated practice, and I am in need of a lot of it.