11/6/17 11:18 pm
No matter which newspaper or news site you read these days, one headline seems to stand out repeatedly: “World is Deeply Divided.” Some people are on the right, some on the left, and hardly anyone’s talking. People seem willing to die for their ideologies, and take others down with them. Another wall will be constructed even as the dust is barely settled from the last one taken down in another corner of the world. Robert Frost wrote that good fences make good neighbours, but this one seems to symbolize an erosion of hope and goodwill rampant in our world.
In our community, discord was on our doorstep as well. When we set out on the study of Philippians, the effects of recent conflict had left us feeling ragged. We were all too aware of the deep divisions that construct invisible walls long before any actual ones.
Yet here was a 2000-year-old letter by a guy writing from prison, rejoicing despite his chains, and singing despite a death threat hanging over his head. Over the next year, his upside-down words proved to be just the medicine we needed to heal our rifts and continue on our way with renewed vision. As the title of our blog suggests, Philippians became a book “tailor-made” for turbulent times.
Certain themes kept repeating and echoing throughout our study.
A New Way of thinking
Recently, a t-shirt for sale on the internet declared, “I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. I’m an Aries.” No matter what our Zodiac sign, we laugh as we recognize the biases we all bring to bear in any given situation. Changing our way of thinking is not easy. As the writer Anaïs Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, we wear tinted glasses which alter reality. Taking them off is usually the last thing we want to do.
Paul the Apostle’s t-shirt would have borne a different mantra. “Let your thinking be changed.” As if trying to say it just right, he repeats it throughout his letter. “Here’s how you should think” (4:8) or “Let God clear your blurred vision” (3:15, The Message). He says it best in what many believe is the core of the letter, the hymn in chapter 2, where he writes, “Take on the mind of Christ.” Because we are now “in Christ,” he saw that old divisions are gone. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male or female,” he wrote in another letter (Galatians 3:28). “We’re all one in Christ Jesus.” This message is just as radical today as it was in Paul’s day.
It’s hard to let go of our old mindsets, and if you study this profound gospel along with us, you’ll be challenged to do just that. And it’s a totally new way of thinking, not just adding some new bits on our old way of thinking. It’s not about “holier than thou” living, but an appeal to live a life worthy of this gospel. What does it mean to be a holy people? What are we called to? If we take those glasses off, what will we see?
Friendship in Christ
Friendship was another one of the themes that kept coming up during our study. In our “me first” generation, we still long for deep connections with others, yet everyone knows just how difficult this can be. The initial rush felt in new relationships quickly becomes tested as we hit snarls and arguments, leaving us with chaos and emptiness. Is there a soul alive who hasn’t experienced this?
We need another way, and the Philippians community discovered it as they embraced the call of Christ. Despite being a diverse community experiencing hardship, this book has more references to joy than any other letter. Paul the Apostle had a heart for people and encouraged others along in their Christian walk. God broke down barriers and brought people together. Because we are “in Christ,” wrote Paul, when we are close to God, then we are close to each other.
Suffering and Celebrating
This odd pairing became a constant theme in our study, and perhaps the most mysterious and difficult to grasp. Paul sang in jail, and those of us under the shadow of difficult world politics and adverse personal situations wondered just how he pulled that off.
But because of the different way of thinking, Paul told us, they can go together in a life in Christ. We suffer as we find ourselves swimming against the world, but celebrate because we see not just what Jesus has done and is doing, but what he will do when he returns to transform all of creation, including us. Paul knew this when he declared he was content in every circumstance.
Paul told the Philippians they were partners with him in the work of the gospel (1:5). It was an experience of joy for him, but what does this mean?
Often the word partnership means coming together to make money, and in fact the Greek word koininia meant an agreement or business partnership. Paul took that phrase from culture and told the Philippians, “We have an agreement and a partnership, and ours is a solid agreement to stay in the covenant we have in Christ.” Paul may have been the leader but all of them were participating in the suffering of Christ in their own spheres. It became the source of their contentment.
At the time of our study, one of our community members who worked with at-risk youth in a community center received a letter. It was written by an elder who wanted to encourage them in their work. As elders always are, he was not in the thick of life anymore and had perspective, seeing the value of their difficult work. “Keep it up. This means more than you think,” he wrote in a letter. This elder exemplified the partnership Paul encouraged in his own community.
About the Newspaper Style of this Blog
You may be wondering, “Do I really need another newsfeed?” Our blog is hoping to deliver good news, but these days, can anyone actually trust the media? Good news? Are you kidding? Fake news and certainly bad news is on everyone’s minds, and it’s turned us into cynics, barely knowing what to believe as the doomsday clock fills us with dread.
Let us transport you to a different type of newsfeed, back to a time maybe 100 years ago when neighbours spoke to neighbours and breaking news and day-to-day experiences were shared. A time that was perhaps more vulnerable and less private and the media seemed to reflect that. With all the benefits modernity has brought, that sense of community seems strangely absent for many today.
The mood of this old-fashioned era of the 1900’s came to mind as we studied Philippians and considered an even more authentic time over 2000 years ago. Life was by no means easy, but a community of diverse people experienced a solidarity and deep friendship in Christ that still rings with hope all these years later.
The news that Paul the Apostle brought was anything but fake. It was, and still is, good news we can trust.
Listen to Paul’s Letter — A 15-minute audio of the entire letter, read in the Message translation.
Here’s another, read in the New International Version (click on the speaker icon on the right of the page)
Video introduction to Philippians — If you haven’t seen this 9-minute introduction to Philippians yet, please do so. It’s well worth your time.
Question of the Week
Give an example (from your own life, your community or the world) of an individual or group who changed the way they thought about something.