“Whatever is true, 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.”
In the classic movie “Little Big Man,” Dustin Hoffman’s character “Jack,” who was raised by the Cheyenne tribe and survived Custer’s “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, is standing on the top of a hillside with his blind adoptive Indian grandfather named “Old Lodge Skins.”
Old Lodge Skins has decided that it is “a good day to die.” He climbs a hill overlooking the magnificent Montana plains. Jack stands back and the old Indian moves into the open and begins to dance and pray to the Great Spirit:
“Thank you for making me a Human Being! Thank you for helpin’ me to become a warrior. Thank you for my victories, and for my defeats! Thank you for my vision, and the blindness in which I saw further. You make all things and direct them in their ways, O Grandfather…. I am going to die now, unless death wants to fight. And I ask You for the last time to grant me my old power to make things happen.”
I love this speech. “Thank you for my victories AND my defeats, my visions AND the blindness in which I saw further.” Old Lodge Skins has this expansive view of how God works – God’s spirit is in all of life, all conditions. This is the secret to life and salvation, I believe – not a way into heaven so much as a way into knowing what is real – finding one’s place in the universe.
I try to see life this way. But I keep stumbling into the more narrow vision of a God who I limit to being present when I feel good, and absent when I feel bad; a God who is praised when the victories comes and cursed when defeat happens; a God who is active when I can see and inactive or actively punishing when I don’t see.
Old Lodge Skins sounds like St. Paul in his closing remarks to the church in Philippi. You and I are invited, like Jack in the movie, to listen, off to one side, to what Paul wants his last words to his friends in Philippi to be. What do you notice?
I notice the mention of Euodia and Syntyche. Paul celebrates these women as leaders of the church. He recognizes that leaders don’t always get along; there is apparent friction and so he asks for help. It is just a little detail but no covering up the reality of being in community. Having the mind of Christ does not always mean agreement.
I notice that Paul isn’t a theologian here, but a friend and pastor. He wants the Philippians to dwell in rejoicing, and not to worry so much and to focus on what is true and honorable and just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. He wants to tell them that he is o.k. that he is content. Let that wash over you – not intellectually deep – just plain speaking and true; words to live by.
What gives Paul’s words added power for me is precisely because he is in prison. He writes these words behind bars facing possible death at the hands of the empire. Paul’s churches actually aren’t doing that well. Paul could be depressed, bitter, broken, despairing. But he is content, expansive, light. That interests me.
What is it about being in prison, or acknowledging limitations that is actually freeing? Read Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham prison cell – it is the document that inspired the movement. Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison and you know that he is in touch with something profound. Or like blind warrior Old Lodge Skins. Or like countless folks confined to wheel chairs, blind, deaf, unable to speak who often shame the rest of us able bodied ones – folks who see things and feel things and know things that we can only guess at. It is as if in confinement there can be liberation – finally breaking through the actual prison of expectation and entitlement.
I noticed that Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Not the exclamation of one of those “happy” Christians who declare that if we just rejoice God will give us all things: wealth, and health – Paul has tapped a deeper joy, the mother lode of something rich.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness becomes our descriptive feature – what others are supposed to recognize in us. A non-Christian once commented about the Christians of the 1st century: “see how they love each other.” It really stood out.
“The Lord is near.” I suspect that most read this verse and believe Paul is talking about the 2nd coming of Jesus – the end time is near. Perhaps – but I think Paul is expressing his own reality that he feels the presence of God, the actual presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ with him. Just the other day I was talking to a woman who is the midst of some hardship and she expressed the same kind of thing – “I really feel God’s presence, nearness.”
“Do not worry about anything.” – What a laugh. I worry about everything most of which I have no control over. It is a drug for me I think. Worrying creates a universe of reality. I worry about my children, I worry about you all, I worry about the church, I worry about literally everything – and when I don’t worry I almost feel irresponsible. If I forget to worry about one of the kids driving I might actually be the cause of some horrible thing happening. You know what I mean? I have created a false world of control out of worry. I have fallen once again into the original sin of thinking that the world really does revolve around me and mine.
And here is Paul, with something really to worry about. Remember the “Magic 8 ball” toy? – a black ball with a little multi-sided thing floating in the liquid center. You asked it a question and gave the ball a shake, turned it over and read your fortune. Well, if Paul shook up his Magic 8 ball, the answer would be “Outlook not good”! And here he is telling me and you not to worry but to offer everything in prayer to God. I want you to try that this week, really – offer your prayers of thanksgiving and supplications, try to release your anxiety and see if you feel the peace of God which passes all understanding. It might take a while, but it will come.
And Verses 8-10 . . . could we all just agree to work on living this way this week too? Really, what a difference it would make if we focused on what is beloved, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise – in our children, instead of looking for the problems; if we were to build up instead of tear down. Just think if we saw our spouses through these lenses. It is not just about being blind to shortcomings – Paul tells us to be true and just – honesty isn’t cheap. But what a difference it would make if we put suspicion and cynicism aside for a moment. Imagine if we looked in the mirror and instead of taking an inventory of where we screwed up again – we saw ourselves as beloved and celebrated what was honorable.
Just think if our politicians would say something nice about their adversaries. But we peddle fear. Anxiety sells. I was reading a very interesting Op Ed piece the other day about a Senatorial candidate in Colorado. And the point of the article was that here is a very bright, well-educated, much traveled, insightful, thoughtful public servant – but to win the primary in order to even get to the general election – he has to go negative, has to, to win.
I am thinking – what if, what if we praised one another more- celebrated the honorable, the commendable. I suspect that there is scientific evidence somewhere about brain waves – what you express is what you become. It is getting more and more difficult for a nation founded on civility to find its way through the muck. But this I know – praise leads to celebration. Looking for the best in others leads to trust. And letting go leads to a great unwinding, a relaxing of the shoulders, and a peace that leads to energy.
I went to a July 4th party on Sunday and a man was sitting on the picnic table bench all alone. As I passed him on my way to the bean bag toss game better known as “Corn Hole” I asked him, “How are you doing?” And his answer was, “I am good and happy. No, I am content.” He looked it sitting there in the glow of the early evening. The content of his moment was full of peace – he didn’t have any needs at that moment. He was just present, aware, alive, taking everything in.
And here is Paul in prison expressing his contentment. Perhaps beginning in verse 11 are some of Paul’s most poignant and powerful words that I keep wanting to grow towards, hoping that as I get older and wiser I will come to know this contentment rather than this restlessness: “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
Learned – Contentment doesn’t necessarily come automatically. You learn contentment by going through. You can’t learn this kind of contentment by playing it safe, and staying on the side lines. You have to take risks and let go, and make mistakes and suffer – only then in the fullness of life do you approach this kind of contentment that Paul is speaking about – he reviews his life and remembers time when he had very little and also when he had plenty. He knows what it is like to be well-fed and hungry – and instead of bouncing from high to low and low to high in a never ending manic drive – he has found an equilibrium. I keep picturing a bike wheel. If you locate yourself on the outside of the tire you are always going round and round, up and down, being worn down by the pavement. But find your location in the center, where the spokes meet and you ride smoothly – with things going around you.
I have always been fascinated by Paul’s contentment because it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel things anymore – it’s not as though he doesn’t feel the sadness of goodbyes, or the heaviness of periodic grief, or the delight of some exquisite beauty. I think he experiences the heights and the depths. But it is contextualized by the deeper trust in a God who is present in everything.
Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote: “I find you, Lord in all things and in all my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.” (“Book of Hours”)
Rilke understands Paul. And you can too, if you walk with a gentle step, and look for the best in others, and let go of expectation and worry and breath deeply of the majesty of the mystery of God’s presence in you and around you and with you and with everybody and everything else too. There is power there if we would but open ourselves to it – the power, as Old Lodge Skins prayed, “to make things happen.” We might actually change the world, or our little piece of it.
Thanks be to God for Paul’s plain speaking.
Thanks be to God who gives us such a hope that we can do, and be, in Jesus’ name.