God, Reveal to me what is true. Remove all falsehood from me. And make me wise.
When I think back on that prayer now, I’m a little embarrassed. It was a prayer I devised during my freshman year at college. That’s what accounts for the mixture of earnestness and insecurity, flavored with a need to be special.
The prayer did mean a lot to me, however, and was always involved whenever I remembered to pray. The absurdity of my aspirations was sincere. I simply didn’t understand what I was asking for; I wasn’t that careful.
There’s a story to the prayer. Taking a short-cut through the university chapel, on my way to class, I stopped in front of a rack holding free copies of different Bible books. Shoving the Book of Ecclesiastes into my coat pocket, I pulled it out later in the day, sitting in the student union drinking coffee. It was the first time I had ever read an entire book of the Bible. It’s also not very long.
Ecclesiastes, along with Proverbs and Job, is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Qoheleth, the author, described as someone who has done and seen it all, shares what he learned during his long life. Chief among those lessons is that everything we do means very little. To think otherwise is pure vanity. Life comes with seasons, and it’s important to know what season you’re in. Wisdom is to be preferred over foolishness, just as we gain more from light than from darkness, but even wisdom has its limits. We all die.
Beyond the thoughts themselves, I liked Qoheleth’s honesty. Growing up in a home without a lot of honest conversation, I recognized a lack of it in myself. I didn’t understand the character of my dishonesty, or its effects, but that would be revealed in time. After all, it’s what my prayer was mostly about.
I liked the book’s matter-of-fact tone; it wasn’t preachy. I don’t like preachiness, even though I went on to become a preacher. I realized later that choice was not what Quoheleth would call wise. Of course, it’s hard to act wisely when you are being dishonest.
My personal confusion was clear to my college friends, who began calling me PhilBucky, adding my middle name to my nickname as a joke. My weekend self and my weekday self weren’t always on the same page, which they found very funny. The only time I preached a Sunday sermon in the university chapel, my friends sat in the front row and made various obscene gestures throughout the whole thing. I remember them, but not a word of what I said.
I was dimly aware of the problem, which is why I created the prayer. I made it purposely open-ended, because I didn’t know what to look for or what I’d find. I could sense trouble brewing but didn’t know what to do. So, I fashioned a plea based on Ecclesiastes.
A number of years after college, while working as a minister at my first church, two parishioners invited me to join them raising pigs. One man built a pen behind his house and we bought three shoats, taking turns providing bags of grain or day-old bread, augmented occasionally by apples. The pigs got big.
When the time came to take them to the slaughterhouse, we borrowed a farmer’s truck and backed it up to the pen. After a ramp was lowered, I walked in and started pushing one of the pigs onto the truck. It barely moved and, instead, eyed me suspiciously. “No, no, no,” the owner of the pen said, “You’ll never get that creature onto the truck that way. Use this.” He handed me a bucket. “Put the bucket on his head and keep it there. When he tries to back out, we’ll grab his tail and lead him backwards.” I didn’t remove the bucket until the pig found himself on the back of the truck. It worked like a charm on all three.
The lesson stuck with me, and I came to realize that was also how God answered my prayer. I’ve backed into numerous situations where I needed to be, for a time, until I backed into something else. In some ways, my entire adult life has consisted of being led backwards. I’d like to believe it is because of some undiagnosed learning disability, but the trouble is more basic than that. Each step was teaching me something about what was false and what was true, including why I needed to be led backwards in the first place.
My hope is, when I die, I can go into death walking forward. In the meantime, I’ll probably start using the prayer again, as a way of making friends with my younger self, and because I can’t think of anything better to ask for.
Photo of praying skeleton by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
Photo of person with bucket on head by Midory Pho: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-in-yellow-coat-and-bucket-on-head-in-field-13672297/
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