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 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.

The One Time Water Nearly Killed Me

Photo by Zen Photographer 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.

 

My first real experience with water was also the moment I remember having a traumatic experience. The trauma was brought on by myself. It wasn’t like my dad and mom acted like a mother bird trying to get her chicks to fly by pushing them out of the nest. No, I jumped into the water thinking I knew what to do. But, I’m getting ahead of this short story.

My family rarely traveled, but, for some reason, we were at a hotel that had a swimming pool. The whole family was excited, and we got ready to go to the pool as one family. It truly was a unique family moment for the Worrall clan. I remember putting on my swimming trunks being overtly excited like a kid given his first sip of coffee. I felt like I was bouncing off the walls. I wanted to urge my mother and father to get me down to the pool; what if it left. What if we didn’t have enough time! All I believed was that the pool was going somewhere and I had to be in it for wherever it was going to go. I couldn’t have been older than six when this magical moment happened. (Pause, if you know nothing about my family. Let me give you some insider information! I’m the youngest of six children, five boys and one girl.)

Alright, so some of the older siblings were able to go to the pool before myself and my sister Alice, had to be accompanied by mom and dad. My third brother, John, had a key to a hotel room. It was a huge responsibility; sort of, not really, but, in my mind, it was like one of the elven rings of LOTR. So, as I rush in giddy as all can be with a dopey smile from ear to ear. I heard my brother John say quite loudly. “Where is my key!? Can anyone see where the room key is?” Somehow, I internalized that cry for help like the Batman signal was being lit by Commissioner Gordon. I had to act, and there was only one person who could save that key. It could just be me…I am the chosen one. The key is small. I’m small. It makes total sense.

Then, in the midst of my glee and hearing the cry for help, my body without hesitation rushed towards where my brothers were at, wading through the water looking for the mischevious room key. It felt like a slow-motion scene from a feel-good action movie! I could hear the music rumbling. My little chubby body rushing towards the water. I screamed, “I GOT THIS!!!” But, I really didn’t. Then, I jumped into the water. As my little legs left the ground and my body was curling into a ball. It was like my analytical brain turned on for the first time. I heard myself say, “I can’t swim!!!”

I hit the water like a brick. Chubby fat rolls hit the water and burned like I made the gravest mistake of my life. I flailed in the water. My mind whispered, “This is it…this is how you die in front of everyone. No one will save you. Evolution kills the weak.” Besides that last sentence, this is what went running through my mind as my body bobbed up and down like an ocean buoy, except I didn’t know how to word it other than, upon reflection, realizing I was drowning.

Right before everything went black, I felt a giant tug on my hair. At that moment, my father rushed to the side of the pool. With my father’s giant hand and forearm, he palmed my head and grabbed my hair. Like a crane, my dad picked me up by the head pulling my hair, and he lifted me out of the water. I was simultaneously grateful, and I was upset that he pulled me up by my head. My dad quickly looked at me with a higher pitched voice, “What in the world were you thinking son??” “Well, dad…” stammering and coughing up water, “I thought…I thought I could find the key. And, and, and…I realized before I hit the water that you never taught me how to swim. ALL I wanted to do was be a hero and help.”

My dad shook his head, and he took me to a chair to relax. He mentioned that I shouldn’t go in the water till I was ready. I had to have some self-awareness, recognizing that I can’t do everything. I can’t be everything. It bugged me to an nth degree. I sat there shivering because the water reminded me of my frailty. My mom came over to me, and she asked me how I was doing. I remember I cried a bit because for some reason I thought dad was going to be really upset with me and that I was in trouble. My mom chuckled at me, for a few seconds. “That isn’t funny, but that is ridiculous Pip.” She told me to let her know when I was ready to go back in the water to come find her and use the stairs.

I sat there for a few minutes with the sniffles and doing that little kid thing when they aren’t crying but are holding back tears. What is that called? Oh yeah, I was whimpering/ sobbing and kinda had this face like I was permanently going to be stuck in the corner while everyone swam. I got the courage to go back in the water after ten minutes. Nothing could stop me, I knew I had to conquer my fear. But, I still didn’t know how to swim. C’est la vie; I’m still here.

 

The One About a Pooping Horse

Photo: Photo by Mikael Kristenson 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.

Philip means “lover of horses.” For some reason as a kid, I always assumed that meant I was supposed to love horses. Well, I naturally did, and I still do. I guess Ecclesiastes is right that a good name is worth more than many things. Anyway, I got a chance to ride horses for a week when my parents left for a trip, which I believe was for their anniversary. I’m not sure many people know this, but I have quite the imagination. For a week, a family friend at the time would let me ride one of her horses while we trailed the surrounding area. However, one time I very vividly remember my mind concocting a great escape with that horse I was riding. This is that vividly imagined escape.

Mrs. Beers would allow me to ride the horse by myself; I had just turned seven at the time. She would hold the horse with an extra rope to guide my traveling buddy with me, yet every once and awhile I could tell that she would loosen her grip. It would be at this moment when we came to a field that I would grab the reins of my life and consequently the horse to blaze forward in a dash of glory. I would channel my inner John Wayne and let my horse run like the wind. I’d become a modern day cowboy in the hills of NW PA. Everyone would know of my fame, yet no one would ever know where I was. It was a fanciful idea, and my mind raced —at the time, I was obsessed with John Wayne and Disney movies.

Then, the time arrived we came to an open field that overlooked the sleepy little town of Saegertown. She told me to look out, but my mind was entirely focused on letting just a tiny bit go of the rope. She pestered me. My hands became sweaty, and I held my breath. I could feel my mouth wanting to scream, “Yeehaw!!” Then my horse cocked its head around to me, and he shook his head. He felt it, and he knew. In a blink of an eye, I could feel myself tightening my hands around the reins. Before I knew it, my faithful steed shook his head once again, and then he pooped. Like that, my hopes were dashed. At the time, I believed that it would be quite inconsiderate for me to ask a horse to poop and run. A botched plan because of a pooping horse. So, I shook my head, chuckled, and took in the view.

I whispered, “One day, steed, we will race toward the sunset.”

The One About The Wall

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.

Walls, we all have them; I am one of them. I’m actually a pretty famous wall. Not the Berlin dude, he had a scary existence…RIP. You may have heard people call me Juliet’s Wall. (Check out my IG story to see how I show love to my fans.) Anywho, you might remember that I am the wall that separated two lovers. Walls are always interesting. And you should listen to me, I’m a wall. I remember these two lovers looking through me, which was mighty rude, and speaking the sweetest, kindest things to each other. One day they disappeared, but I remember everything they talked about.

I’m not here to rehearse their story. Instead, I want to tell you my story. Walls are usually meant for a good thing. You’ve heard the adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And they can be dastardly things. But, I’m not talking about physical walls like the lovers had; I’m speaking at the more emotional and metaphorical level. Walls become huge creations that make people feel so very small, or they can be little, tiny wall that still makes people feel insecure and second guess. Imagine it with these lovers, their physical barrier, i.e., me, was also a personification of their real barrier between families.

Their barrier ruined my grout! I’m sure it chipped a good portion of my life away. On the one hand, the lovers could see each other, hear one another, yet they always let something stop them from indeed being together. While, on the other hand, their special desire, longing, and time for the other played out in such a manner that they were together. In that way, the wall was only a small leap, and it was a gigantic hurdle. It is crazy how I heard these two back and forth proclaim their affection and desire. They made the conscious effort to be the other’s person all along enabling the wall to impede themselves to a point. “Just climb over,” I thought, “I’ll support your love and weight.” Every night I sighed with every sigh, and I was glad they used me to support those massive, full hearts. But oh, how their love could have blossomed if they but traversed me together. It would have been enough.

I heard someone say they removed their wall, but I didn’t understand it. I was still here, and I was their wall. Walls can sometimes all be about perception, even physical ones. A lover’s heart can leap, and it should be sagacious to know how to scale such a wall like me. For this is not the first time that I have seen lovers dwindle. And it is not the first time that I have heard of the lover’s quarrel. But, I have yet to see lovers ask a wall how to be free together. Maybe then, lovers could learn from me on how to climb…well, someone like me.

 

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