Monday, October 10, 2011

The One Who Strengthens Us: Philippians 4:1-13

There’s a big dog, named Barnabas, after Paul’s traveling companion on his missionary journeys. There’s shopping at the Local. There’s an adopted son named Dooley, who gets to go to a fancy boarding school thanks to 90-year old benefactor Miss Sadie Baxter. There’s lunch at the Grill, where the hot topic is the budding romance between the editor of the town newspaper and its first female police officer. And, of course, there’s Esther Bolick’s famous orange marmalade cake. If any of this sounds familiar to you, then I imagine that you, like me, have read one or more of the books by Jan Karon, the Mitford Series. These books chronicle the life of a pastor, Fr. Tim Kavanagh, and Mitford, the small southern town he lives in and serves.

Some days, some weeks, a town like Mitford seems like just the right place to escape to. On those days when life gets a little too real, when the responsibilities we have don’t energize us, but weigh us down; in those hours when dwelling on the enormity of the task ahead causes paralysis rather than resolve: it’s times like these when I’d like to take a drive down to Mitford, which the protagonist has named the land of “counterpane,” because the countryside is laid out with all the loveliness and sweet design of a hand-pieced quilt.

I couldn’t get Mitford out of my mind this week for one simple reason. When life gets tough—and, actually, life does get tough in Mitford. Mitford’s pastor confronts lives ravaged by alcoholism and domestic violence, and deals with angry and frightened teenagers and entire neighborhoods taken up affected by drug problems, among other very contemporary issues. So, when life gets tough for the Kavanagh’s, Fr. Tim and his wife Cynthia, they have a habit of cheering one another on with this little catchphrase: “Philippians 4:13, darling!” That is, they send one another off to face the challenges of the moment with Paul’s reminder: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” [Phil. 4:13].

Paul knew his share of tough days, days one might like to escape. Paul wrote the letter to the church at Philippi while he was under house arrest. Very likely he knew that he was going to die soon. And yet, the letter has been called ‘the epistle of joy,’ as if the man who wrote it had not a care in the world, but only concern for the people to whom he was writing. Where does he find it? Where does Paul find, not only the strength, but also, that joy, the same kind of quiet contentment and peace that allows someone to face ‘all things’ with equanimity?

It all starts with that phrase, “Stand firm in the Lord.” This is one of those pieces of advice that sounds really wonderful, but is pretty slippery—how do we do that, exactly? Does standing firm mean, for example, never changing our minds about the things we believe? Is “standing firm” the same thing as “stubbornness”? Thankfully, Paul tells us what to do, and then he offers a patchwork of actions and attitudes that will tell us how to do it. First, we do the hard work of reconciliation. Then we engage in what have been called “habits of the heart and mind.” These are the things that open us to God’s presence, God’s peace, and God’s strength.[i]

Euodia and Syntyche have the unfortunate distinction of being remembered for the fact that they are engaged in conflict. This is rather remarkable, since they are named as being “yokefellows,” or “fellow laborers” with Paul in spreading the gospel. We’ve talked about the “yoke” before, that device that joins together two working animals, allowing them to pull a burden or a tool together. The yoke was a potent symbol of cooperation between people who were trying to follow Jesus in their own contexts. The early church had real tension between those who heeded Jesus’ call to literally sell all their possessions and follow him in a traveling missionary lifestyle, and city dwellers, often property and business owners, who stayed in one place and had families and connections there. The missionaries accused the city dwellers of not truly following Jesus. The city dwellers accused the missionaries of being freeloaders, because they depended on the kindness of strangers for their sustenance. Enter, the yoke.

The yoke became a symbol of reduced tension and cooperation between the two groups. The two are yoked together when the urban dwellers support the missionaries who in turn travel to spread the gospel. Paul has entered into this kind of relationship with the Philippians and reminds them of it when he addresses them as "genuine yokefellow." He then folds Euodia and Syntyche into his own apostolic status; they are worthy of the same financial support he has received.[ii]

Euodia and Syntyche are remembered because of a vague implication that they may have had a disagreement, rather than the fact that Paul calls them apostles, and encourages the Philippians to support them. The far greater issue was reconciliation between people who were serving God in distinct ways. We stand firm when we recognize that we are one in the body of Christ, and that each of us is called to service individually, by name.

So, what are these habits of the heart and mind? First, the habit of joy. I have been wandering the streets of Mitford this week, and it strikes me that the main character, Tim Kavanagh, for all his angst and all the responsibilities he has to meet, cultivates this habit of joy. The particular book I’m reading takes place after Tim and Cynthia marry. Tim has been known as a confirmed bachelor, marrying for the first time in his 60’s, and no one is more surprised than he is. But his marriage has been a source of unexpected joy for him. Karon writes,

“He never failed to wonder at how all this had come about. If he had known that being together was so consoling, he would have capitulated sooner. Why had he been so terrified of marriage, of intimacy, of loving?

“He had read again this morning about the wilderness trek of the Israelites and the way God miraculously provided their needs. Manna every day, and all they had to do was gather it.

“‘Men ate the bread of angels,’ was now the psalmist described it.

“That appeared, somehow, to illustrate his marriage. Every day, with what seemed to be no effort at all on his part, he received God’s extraordinary provision of contentment—there it was, waiting for him at every dawn; all he had to do was gather it in.

“‘…bread of angels…’”[iii]

Each of us needs to gather joy like the Israelites gathered the manna in the wilderness: fresh every morning. Tim found it in marriage. We can find it in our relationships, in our work, in an unfathomably blue October day. It’s there; all we have to do is gather it in. The habit of joy.

Then there is the habit of gentleness. There has been a lot of criticism in recent years of what has been called the “feminization” of Christianity, which I think is just a little bit of backlash for the fact that we find more and more women climbing into pulpits these days. Christianity has gone soft, we are told. Where is the call to Christian soldiers, to be warriors for Christ? There are even churches and preachers who have arisen to meet this specific call—the Tennessee group, GodMen, for example, and the radio preacher Paul Coughlin, who says this “meek and mild Jesus is a bore.” Paul gives folks like this no consolation; Paul, who is man enough to stand toe to toe with the Roman authorities and face death with joy and courage, nevertheless calls for gentleness, which he clearly feels is a characteristic that transcends gender. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul says. “The Lord is near.” The habit of gentleness gives us openness to God’s presence.

The last habit of the heart is the habit of answering worry with prayer. I would like to offer my own testimony that this can be a very hard thing to do. When we are gripped with worry, with fear, with anxiety, prayer is not necessarily the first thing that occurs to us. That is why we need to cultivate a habit of prayer before we are being pulled down in the vortex of our worry. I may have shared before the story of a good friend who has a very strong practice of daily prayer—first thing in the morning, last thing at night, a day that is bookended by a request for strength at dawn and words of thanks before bed. A few years back her cell phone started ringing insistently while she was in a meeting. She quieted it, but finally picked it up and learned that her husband, who was not even 40 years old, had had a stroke. She left the meeting and jumped into a car to go to find him, all the time praying a simple prayer, over and over. We know it as the Serenity prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

My friend had developed a habit of prayer. In a crisis, prayer was her first instinct, her first defense. The habit of prayer means that, in every circumstance, in every situation, we are moved toward relationship with God, and not away from it. The habit of prayer.

And then, there are the habits of the mind, habits of thought.

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. [Phil. 4:8].

Ours is a culture that, at the moment, seems locked in a perpetual rant. The right rants about the left, the left rants about the right, the 99% rant about the 1%, the 1% rants about the 99%.

The story is told of a Native American boy who was angry and upset, and went to his grandfather for advice. The grandfather told him, “I have two wolves inside my heart. One of them is kind and understanding. He lives in harmony and peace. The other wolf is vengeful and cruel. He rages, but his anger changes nothing. The two wolves fight inside me to see which is more powerful.”

The boy asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. The grandfather responded, “The one I feed.”

It’s pretty simple. Whichever thoughts we feed will gain strength. If we want to have that experience of connection with God, of standing firm, Paul encourages us, feed those thoughts of honor, and justice, and excellence.

In the book I am reading, Tim and Cynthia go on a camp-out with the church youth group and manage to get lost in a cave. Their flashlight goes out, and despite the fact that they have only been walking for a few minutes, they become seriously disoriented and lost. They attempt to retrace their steps, and Tim has a fall. They wander into an underground lake and their feet get soaked. Their water runs out and they get thirsty. Cynthia decides the best idea is to start screaming for help. They exhaust and terrify themselves by groping about for hours in the dark. Finally, they realize they need to simply stop, and stay in one place. They recognize that they are more likely to be found than to find their way out on their own. They stop. They sit. They lean together for warmth and comfort. They wait.

Standing firm in the Lord is something like this. We cultivate the habits of joy, of gentleness, and of prayer; we feed those habits of the mind that allow us to focus on what is good, and we learn that our best and perhaps most faithful response to all life has to offer begins in stillness. Philippians 4:13, darlings! We stand firm in God, and we learn that we do indeed have the strength to see us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Susan Eastman, “Philippians 4:1-9: Commentary on Second Reading for October 9, 2011,” Working Preacher,

[ii] David E. Fredrickson, “Philippians 4:1-9: Commentary on Second Reading for October 12, 2008,” Working Preacher,

[iii] Jan Karon, These High Green Hills (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996), 20.

1 comment:

Songbird said...