Scripture | Psalm 100 | Philippians 4:4-13
Introduction to the Text: This Philippian's pasage is one of my all-time favorite passages in scripture. No, actually, it’s my very favorite. It’s also the very first text I was assigned in my preaching class. I fell in love with it then, and I still love it now.
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the early Christians were known as “People of the Way.” The words in this passage point to that ‘way’: they offer way to handle suffering; they offer direction towards maturity and growth; they give a way to manage the anxieties of life. In short, they show us how to live: fully, whole-heartedly, embracing the life we have with joy.
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The wisdom condensed into these words continues to astound me. It’s not so much a how-to-book as a whole new way of life. If I have a goal in life, it’s to live like this. I want to live my life with this kind of joy.
Not surprisingly, the place it all begins is with prayer. Don’t worry about anything, Paul says; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need. Tell God your concerns, what’s weighing on your mind. Be utterly honest with God, as transparent as you can possibly be. Don’t mince words, don’t tap-dance around what you need. Say it. Just say it. You can’t offend God by asking. Just read the Psalms, and you’ll see what I mean.
I was praying with a family recently about a loved one they were worried about. It was a serious situation, and they were carrying a lot of fear and anxiety, and understandably so. I did what I often do, which is to ask what they would like me to pray for, and they told me. Then I prayed. Afterwards they were kind of taken aback at how strongly I was telling God what we wanted. I guess I’m just not shy around God. In awe, yes. Shy, no.
I told them how I learned how to pray decades ago from my grandmother. It wasn’t that she set out to teach me, I just watched her. It was a time of crisis in our lives, when my dad’s life was hanging by a thread. It was the day after my wedding. Dad went into the emergency room with diverticulitis he’d been ignoring, and he needed immediate surgery. During the dye-test to locate the bleeding he went into anaphylactic shock.
My grandmother minced no words when she prayed for the son she loved so much. “Henry is a good man,” she said. “He’s been faithful. I’ve been faithful. You do the right thing. You heal him, God. You bring him back.” And I thought, “Wow, can you really talk to God that way?” It was just like the Psalmist, shaking his fist at God.
By the way, my Dad is now 95 years old.
Pray, Paul says. Don’t mince words. If you are that full of worry, you are in pain. Just tell God honestly; why pretend? You can’t hide anything anyway. You don’t need to be cautious and polite. As if God needs polite. As if God were the Great and Powerful Oz that you’re supposed to bow to obsequiously. God loves you and wants you to come close.
“Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done,” Paul says. “Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. God’s peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
I’ve mentioned Kate Bowler before – she’s the theology professor from Duke Divinity School who was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer last year. She wrote a powerful memoir called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, where she weaves together the theology she’s studied and her own experience through all this, including all the things other people want her to believe, and think she should.
Part of what I love about this book is that she talks openly about her own struggle to understand God’s role in all this. It turns out it wasn’t logic or theology that ultimately helped her, it was what she experienced. It caught her completely off guard. Because, she says, when she was sure she was going to die, she didn’t feel angry. She felt loved. She felt as though she’d “uncovered something like a secret about faith.” This is how she describes it:
At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.
I know what she’s talking about; I felt it, too. It’s a peace you can’t explain. It’s all gift. Pure gift. It’s not a feeling you can hold onto or cling to or save for a rainy day – it comes and goes – but, as she says, “when the feelings recede like the tides, they will leave an imprint… You are marked by the presence of … God.”
St. Augustine called it “the sweetness.” The sweetness…
All you can do is say, “Thank you.” And with your thanksgiving, some part of you remembers how close the Spirit already is to you. It reminds you that you aren’t alone. It helps you remember that God’s been there for you before. God is with you. With you. As close as breath itself.
If you want a life of joy, then praying is where you start.
But there’s more you can do, Paul says. It’s not just your prayers, it’s your thinking. It’s where you let your mind live. Where you let it set up shop. “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable,” Paul says. “Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Focus on someone you admire, someone you aspire to be like. “Then the God of peace will be with you.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that everybody in this room knows what it feels like to focus on dark and negative thoughts. Those middle-of-the-night ruminations that keep you awake, and frightened, and you worry about your health, or your kids, or your parents, or your money, or your job. Or you watch the news and it makes you want to pull your hair out, or scream, or weep at the state of the world. Or you get on social media, on Facebook or Twitter, and you see the comments, and you just can’t believe someone can think that way, and you get so cranked up. Or you see a friend or neighbor or colleague who seems to have it made, who seems to have it all, who never seems to struggle – and you feel angry at the unfairness, or less-than, and ashamed. Or you hold onto some conversation, some incident, some encounter that didn’t go well, that got under your skin, and you rehearse it over and over and over again…
The mind has a thousand ways to become a toxic pool of worry and anger and shame. A thousand ways. It’s like we’re wired that way, wired to be wired.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, Paul says. It doesn’t have to be like that. You really do have a choice. You can train your mind to focus on what is good in this world. You can practice seeing differently. “Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise,” he says.
It’s not about pretending everything’s OK. It’s not about glossing over what’s wrong with the world, or acting as if there’s nothing challenging or ugly or scary or wrong. Of course there is. It’s not that we go around singing, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This isn’t a form of denial.
What it is, is a compass. It directs you to what is worth pursing, keeps your eye on the prize. Focusing on what’s worthy of praise helps our energy be placed in the things that matter. It’s empowering. Even the act of choosing what to think about is empowering.
“It is not necessary to be a victim of the emotional climate of others,” is the way one writer puts it. When your focus changes, “there [is] more choice between thinking and automatic reactions.”
Watch what you take into yourself. Don’t ignore what’s wrong in the world, but don’t inhale it, either. Let your main diet be what you think is good, not what you hate. Use what’s right to be your compass; let’s what’s excellent give you energy.
It’s not that we’ll be magically happy if we do these things. There is no magic. Paul isn’t claiming we can avoid struggle. Far from it. He’s suggesting these are ways to live with the struggle that inevitably comes. In his own life, he learned to be content with whatever he had…. how to live on almost nothing or with everything. He learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.
And the secret Paul found? Living in Christ. Living in Christ. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
If there is anything you remember from this morning, remember those words.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
If we know we will have strength, maybe then we don’t have to rail against the universe so much…
In the Book of Joy, Douglas Abrams writes,
So many of the causes of suffering come from our reacting to the people, places, things, and circumstances in our lives, rather than accepting them. When we react, we stay locked in judgment and criticism, anxiety and despair, even denial and addiction. It is impossible to experience joy when we are stuck this way. Acceptance is the sword that cuts through all of this resistance, allowing us to relax, to see clearly, and to respond appropriately.
It’s a lot easier to accept things if we know we’re not alone. And you aren’t alone, Paul says. Christ is there with you. You don’t have to do this on your own. Life isn’t a test, and you don’t have to prove anything. This isn’t a contest, and there is no prize. Life is a gift, and it is full of joy.
Or at least it can be…
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” I tell you. “Again I say, rejoice.”
Because you can do all things through him who strengthens you.