September 20, 2017

Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (7)

Into the Woods

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study Seven

Note: When passages are quoted at the beginning of new sections, I will be using The Message translation because of its conversational, friendly tone. You can compare this version with others, as well as have access to Gordon Fee’s commentary, at Bible Gateway.

Paul then permits the Philippians to have a unique look into his innermost being, to see the turmoil of his soul as he yearns equally for death on the one hand, because life has become a very heavy burden and death would bring him into a closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ, and for life, on the other hand, because to go on living would mean for him continued productive work in general and in particular would serve to meet the very great need of the Philippian church. He cannot make up his mind.

• Gerald Hawthorne

• • •

PHILIPPIANS 1:19-26

And I’m going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.

As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.

What’s tomorrow look like for you? What do you anticipate when you look toward your future?

Think about those questions, and then put yourself in the Apostle Paul’s sandals at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Imprisoned, facing a trial, unsure of what the outcome would be — for many of us the future would not appear bright. We might find ourselves anxious, fearful, despondent, or desperate.

It could be that the mere fact of not knowing would set us on edge; the waiting, the wondering, the uncertainty of it all. Many of my hospice patients seem to come to a place of peace and acceptance once they know that the end is near. But the waiting, the vigil, the not knowing…that’s often the agonizing part.

Some of us who like to be in control and have some kind of say about our circumstances (and really, who doesn’t?) would likely feel a growing frustration being in a position of weakness and helplessness.

As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Every way you look at it, you lose.”

Except Paul didn’t see it that way. According to today’s text:

  • He was rejoicing, celebrating.
  • He was convinced God would keep him going until his work was done.
  • He believed that the Philippians’ prayers and the power of the Spirit would prevail.
  • He was sure that whatever happened to him would bring greater honor to Jesus the true King.
  • Even if the worst fate on earth — death — should take him, he would just move on to something better.
  • In fact, Paul sees himself in a win-win situation. Whatever he might face personally, he would end up a winner with Christ.
  • The options he sees are both good: either he will die and be with Christ, or stay on and be available to serve God’s family.
  • At this point, he thinks he’ll survive and carry on in God’s mission.

Now, let me be the first to say that I have heard myself and a lot of other Christians talk this way — unconvincingly. It sounds like cliches. It sounds like someone who is unrealistic, emotionally immature, incapable of being truly serious about how brutal and painful this world can be. The response comes too quickly, too easily, too generically. The face shows no worry lines, there’s no limp, no hard-won victory scars from battling disappointment, discouragement, and fear.

I believe a legitimate expression of these bright, positive, hopeful words must ordinarily emerge from a place of darkness and distress. Paul is not like the actor whose personal life is in shambles, yet he puts his hands up to his face, forces himself to smile, and says to the mirror, “Ok, c’mon, it’s showtime!” Paul is not putting on a happy face for the crowd.

His life praying the psalms must surely have ingrained the passionate feelings and language of lament into his heart. I think he might even have written the words, “to die is gain,” with tears in his eyes.

And then, only then, the surge of hope and a smile.

• • •

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel

Comments

  1. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    Amen.

    “””unconvincingly.””” +1,000

    As you say, the context – “””Imprisoned, facing a trial, unsure of what the outcome would be””” – is critical.

    Optimism/Hope is much more convincing/moving from someone who holds it defiantly. If it is easy it’s fraudulent.

  2. Face lines, limp, scars(and even those are facial and more)………
    You know, they’ve seemed to me a drag at this point, but put in the context of how painful things can be, it helps
    Richard Beck frames his universalism, not in metaphors of salvation or church or even so much on how things all end, but rather on the very truth of how brutal and painful things can be..

  3. The rational mind can’t get its arms around the life infused enigmatic joy that surrounds a person in the midst of horrific circumstances. I’d say it’s a very rare sight. On the other hand it easily penetrates the fake stuff, the show must go on stuff.

    • –> “The rational mind can’t get its arms around the life infused enigmatic joy that surrounds a person in the midst of horrific circumstances.”

      I’ve seen people who truly, honestly put James 1:2 into practice. I’ve marveled at it, and I’ve commended them for it, and I can only hope I’m able to get there myself when the deep crap happens.

      • Ronald Avra says:

        ‘Pure joy’ in adverse circumstances is beyond me. On a couple of occasions I’ve managed gritted determination, but that is my high water mark.

    • I’ve had it on a couple of occasions and I’ve seen it a few times but someone like Chaplin Mike who makes a living serving people in dire situations might be more apt to see it. I honestly don’t have many dire situations to deal with or even to witness. I’ve lived through through some bad stuff and I know I’ll live through some more but these days it’s pretty plain vanilla.

  4. At this point in my own journey, I feel like the two big questions are: “Is it OK?” and “Will it be OK?”

    Usually the answer to the first question is some variation of “no” or “yes for now, because I’ve downgraded and moved the goalposts of what ‘OK’ is again.”

    The second question has become more difficult to answer over time. I want to believe what my faith teaches, that the Resurrection matters, not just for Jesus, but for everyone. Otherwise the suffering of Creation is overwhelming for me. But I don’t always get there, and the older I get, the more I see and the more I experience it personally, the more difficult it becomes.

    Lord, have mercy.

    • Vera, I love your expression of faith here, which is in the spirit of “I believe; help my unbelief.”

      I think most of us get faith wrong. It’s commonly viewed as something that makes us strong, brings us certainty, and makes handling life’s hard passages easier. Instead, it seems to me that faith is more my confession that I am weak, full out doubts, and continually struggling — AND that I need to depend on Someone Else to see me through. Faith is not so much a virtue as it is an acknowledgment of my lack thereof and the necessity of laying hold of Another’s virtue.

      • CM, that’s basically my “life verse” right there. I have it framed in my devotional space.

  5. senecagriggs says:

    “Except Paul didn’t see it that way. According to today’s text:
    He was rejoicing, celebrating.
    He was convinced God would keep him going until his work was done.
    He believed that the Philippians’ prayers and the power of the Spirit would prevail.
    He was sure that whatever happened to him would bring greater honor to Jesus the true King.
    Even if the worst fate on earth — death — should take him, he would just move on to something better.
    In fact, Paul sees himself in a win-win situation. Whatever he might face personally, he would end up a winner with Christ.
    The options he sees are both good: either he will die and be with Christ, or stay on and be available to serve God’s family.
    At this point, he thinks he’ll survive and carry on in God’s mission.”

    Excellent

  6. Christiane says:

    “Now, let me be the first to say that I have heard myself and a lot of other Christians talk this way — unconvincingly. It sounds like cliches. It sounds like someone who is unrealistic, emotionally immature, incapable of being truly serious about how brutal and painful this world can be. The response comes too quickly, too easily, too generically. The face shows no worry lines, there’s no limp, no hard-won victory scars from battling disappointment, discouragement, and fear.”

    I think we can take a lesson here from a prayer posted at the Jewish memorial at Yad Vashem, this:
    “As you leave [the museum], there is painted on the wall in red and black letters a prayer. The refrain “And praised … be … the Lord” is interrupted by a litany of the names of prison camps:

    “And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Magdenek. The LORD. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthhausen. The LORD. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor. Be. Chelmno. The LORD. Ponary. And praised.…”

    … Is the author praising God for prison camps? Far from it. This prayer/poem isolates those evil camps and plunges them into the midst of the praises, surrounding them in the greater power of God and his good. It is cathartic to read. The longer you read it, the more it strengthens you and gives you hope. Try inserting your own trials in the spaces below, and praying it: “And praised. __________. Be. ________. The Lord. _______. Amen.”

    God willing, no one reading this will ever have to confront the depth of suffering represented by that poem. But in the dark patches of your life, think of the Jews and praise the Lord, taking care to give thanks “in everything.” If they can do it—so can we.” (Sarah Christmyer)

    There is something to be said about our human kind being ‘saved by hope’.