From Paul’s Pen

Philippians 4:1-9 – The 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:1)

In the "pen."
In the “pen.”

Usually, in my web wonderings on scripture, I’ll provide a handy hyperlink to the entire Biblical “lesson.” Which is to say, I leave it to readers to find the Old or New Testament reference. I assume certain readers are more familiar with the Bible than me and that by printing the source—like today’s Philippians 4:1-9—they know exactly what it says. And there are probably a few web visitors who couldn’t care less about reading any of the verses that stirred my imagination.

But today I’ compelled to print a lengthier than usual snippet. This is Paul, writing to the community of believers in Philippi:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Many Biblical scholars claim that Philippians was a compilation of at least three letters from Paul to Philippi. Those same scholars would note that Philippi was the first community founded by Paul on European soil. It represented a tenuous harbinger of a regional movement becoming a global church.

Paul’s ancient words are worth printing so they are obvious. They are worth re-reading. They are worth meditating on. They are as intimidating as hell. Correction: these words that poured from Paul’s pen are as inspiring as heaven on earth.

By the way, Paul was likely in the “pen”—behind bars, a prisoner—when he scribed these encouragements to his friends in Philippi.

So, do me a favor. Scroll up and re-read Philippians 4:8-9.

Please. Do it. After all, I made it easy for you to read the verses.

*       *       *

Back with me?

I wonder how much I’m like Paul?

I can be kind; I can be awful. I’ve lied and cheated, for “good” and “bad” reasons. I’ve given the shirt off my back to those in need. I’ve crossed the street to avoid beggars. I’ve muttered or shouted words that wounded friends and strangers. I’ve shared words with friends and strangers that were uplifting. I’ve broken easy promises that ruined relationships, and kept hard promises that lead to healing.

I try to follow Jesus. Love the neighbor. Choose forgiveness. Resist judging. Trust that God is a Creator of abundant, forever love for all creation rather than a petty deity dolling out rewards for some, punishments for others.

Didn’t Paul also fail, and also seek to do the best he could? Wasn’t he a fool? Isn’t it right to refer to him as a saint?

And so I read his ancient words. They were likely written in jail. Imagine rats scuttling across the cell’s dirty floors. Imagine Paul without sunlight for days or weeks. Imagine cold, rancid food to eat. Imagine water to drink that tasted like it had first flowed through a stable. Imagine the worst.

What’s your worst? When have you been in prison? Was it literally behind bars? I’ve been “imprisoned.” Decades later, I recall how horrible my divorce felt. I was trapped by self-doubts. I recall my feelings after a fellow pastor lied about me and forced me—and my wife—to leave a church, a home, and a future. I was trapped by his deceit. I recall, as vivid as yesterday, the numbing helplessness as my mother died a terrible death. I was trapped by futility. I am—and you are, and Paul was—people with the worst moments marked like knife wounds on the tender flesh of our souls.

We have hurt others. We have been hurt. We have failed others. We have failed ourselves. We have known the worst, and feared it would get even worse. (And sometimes it did.)

And yet Paul—who was hurting, who had hurt others—dared to write these sublime words: if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Were Paul’s thoughts mere theological sugarcoating? Look for the silver lining, kids! Make lemonade out of lemons! Tomorrow will be a better day! Smile and put on your happy face!

I don’t believe so. I don’t believe Paul was a slick seller of cuddly clichés and mindless tropes.

In the worst times, we think there’s no hope. Instead, there’s only a dull dread, only a literal pain in the gut and a figurative pain in the heart. And every sugarcoated cliché makes our worst feel worse.

But trapped Paul was like me. Or I am like Paul. The Creator of unlimited hope haunts me. I stumble after Jesus the Christ who was betrayed and abandoned and crucified and yet chose forgiveness. In my darkest times, I cling to and claim Paul’s bright, brash reminder to trust God’s abundant mercy more than my self-imposed limits.

(Drawing image from here.)

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