JUNE 21, 2009

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            Listen to this little poem.  You may have heard it before.  It goes,


            To live above with saints we love,

            O, that will be glory.

            But to live below with saints we know,

            Well, that’s a different story.


            Few things bother us as much as feuds, tensions, between Christians because Christians are supposed to get along with one another, they are supposed to love one another and forgive one another, and yet they don’t always get along and they don’t always forgive and sometimes those feuds, those tensions, have catastrophic results.  I think of the church I pastored in the Orlando, Florida area.  Before I arrived the church had lost 800 members because of tensions between pastoral staff members.  There had been three pastors on staff and none of the three spoke to one another unless they absolutely had to.  They despised one another, and they thought they were covering their animosity toward one another well, that the congregation as a whole was not aware of the tension between them.  They were wrong.  Eventually the Committee on Ministry of the presbytery had to intervene, and they ordered all three staff members to seek other positions.  They did seek other positions, but not without damaging the health of the congregation.  The congregation went from 1800 members to 1000 members in the space of 18 months.


            To live above with saints we love,

            O, that will be glory.

            But to live below with saints we know,

            Well, that’s another story.


            Paul begins this morning by addressing the elephant in the room at First Church Philippi.  Two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were on the outs with one another.  What the source of the tension was, we do not know, but Paul knew and the members of First Church Philippi knew.  We only know that these women had once teamed with Paul in ministry.  He said, “They have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”  Maybe they were leaders in a couple of the house churches in Philippi.  We don’t know.  Given the fact that Paul does not take sides suggests that this was not a theological dispute, for it it had been an issue of church doctrine, Paul would have certainly thrown in his two cents.  No, it was likely a simple dispute like so many others we see in the church today, and maybe even a personality clash involving the two women.

            As an aside, it’s a grim thought that all we know about Euodia and Syntyche is that they were two women who had quarreled.  It makes us think.  Suppose we were to go down in history with one thing known about us.  What would that one thing be?  Clement goes down to history as a peacemaker.  Euodia and Syntyche go down as breakers of the peace.  What would the one sentence verdict on our life be?

            Well, enough of that.  After mentioning the elephant in the room and mobilizing the church to help the two women to work through their differences, Paul gives us three great resources for living.  Let’s turn to them now.

            The first is the disciplined practice of rejoicing.


            Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.


            This is Paul’s second call to rejoice in this letter.  He mentioned it once before at the beginning of the third chapter when he said, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.”  So this is the second time he urged the Philippians to rejoice and this time, he repeats the call twice, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

            Now, for Paul to repeat this injunction twice must mean that conditions in Philippi were such as to make the call to rejoice seem unreasonable.  Think about what the Philippians were facing.  Think about what is dragging them down.  They are concerned about Paul’s future.  Will he be executed?  Will they lose their dear friend?  Things are tense in the church.  They are walking on eggshells around Euodia and Syntyche.  They are battling heretical teachings over the issue of circumcision, and they are worried about mounting animosity toward Christians by the Roman Empire.  And here’s Paul in prison in Rome, and he says, and I’m paraphrasing “I know what I’m saying. Don’t be victimized by the situation.  Instead, rejoice!”

            You know, Paul never denies the problems facing him or facing the Philippians, and yet he encourages them to rejoice in the midst of the challenges and difficulties in life.

            Someone said that “the optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole,” and there is something to be said about optimism, but that is not what Paul is speaking of here.  He’s not being optimistic ... he’s not just seeing the donut ... and he’s not being pessimistic ... he’s not just seeing the hole ... rather he sees both and he’s right.   However bad our circumstances might be, there is one thing we can always rejoice about: the Lord, his love, his mercy, his promises, and his presence. 

            So, that’s the first great resource Paul offers us for living: the practiced discipline of rejoicing.  The second resource he offers to us is prayer. 


            Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


            Hmmm.  Hmmm.  Do not worry about anything.  Sir Winston Churchill said, “When I begin to worry I remember the story of the old man who said on his death bed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.” 

            Prayer and worry are not easy bedfellows.  They are like fire and water.  I think of the church sign I saw on my way to work the other day.  It read, “Why pray when you can worry and take tranquilizers?” 

            And note what Paul says here about prayer, beyond its being an antidote to worry.  He stresses that we can take everything to God in prayer.  Everything, big and small, significant or trivial.  Everything.  A person put it this way: “There is nothing too great for God’s power and nothing too small for God’s fatherly care.” 

            If you have had children, you are either experiencing this now or you probably remember what it was like when your children were small.  When your children were small your child thought what happens to him or her was of great interest to you.  That child’s little triumphs, that child’s little disappointments, that child’s little artwork, that child’s passing cuts and bruises, he or she would share them all confident that you, as a loving parent, were ready and willing to listen to him or her.  Paul says, that’s how we are to be in our relationship with our Heavenly Father, confident that what happens to us is of great interest to him.

            And note the promise ... take everything to God and the peace of Christ that passes understanding will guard our hearts and minds.  You know, I dislike exchanging things at a store.  Anyone else dislike doing that?  We buy something and it’s not right, it doesn’t quite fit and so we take it back, and usually I talk Trudy into doing it because I don’t like to do it.  But here’s something I would love to exchange.  Think about it.  As we bring our worries and anxieties to God in prayer, God takes our our worries and exchanges them for God’s peace.  Our worries for God’s peace.  That’s the promise.  And the word for peace means more than the absence of hostility.  It means wholeness, soundness, well-being, oneness with God. 

            That’s a great resource for living, but Paul’s not finished.  He not only reminds of us the power of rejoicing and the power of prayer, but he also reminds us of the power of our minds. 


            Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever ii is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 


            During my doctoral studies, I took a course on pastoral counseling, and the professors were cognitive therapists.  Have you heard that term before “cognitive therapy?”  Cognitive therapists believe that feelings follow thoughts.  That is, emotional difficulties can often be traced to thought patterns that are not conducive to mental health.  Here’s their mantra: “A man is not what he thinks he is, but what he thinks, he is.”  We’ll change the gender of the mantra so as to not sound too sexist: “A woman is not what she thinks she is, but what she thinks, she is.”

            For example, a man went to talk to a therapist.  He told the therapist he was lonely, extremely lonely, and he had been extremely lonely for a long time.  He, also, told the therapist that he had been divorced three times and had no friends, male or female.  He had acquaintances at work but no companionship.  People avoided him, he said.

            After several weeks of conversation, he revealed that his parents had taught him to trust no one but them.  They told him people would lie, cheat, and steal from him, if he wasn’t careful.  They loved him and has his best interests at heart, but others were to be guarded with suspicion.

            The result was that he ended up driving three wives crazy with second-guessing their spending habits, monitoring their phone calls, and questioning their whereabouts whenever they weren’t home.  He kept men and potential women friends at arms-length because he knew, or so he thought, they were looking to use him for their advantage.  So, it was true, people did avoid him and he avoided them, which resulted in extreme loneliness. 

            His therapist pointed out that while his parents meant well and were trying to protect him from hurt, their message that he could trust on one but them had serious side-effects.  One of which was loneliness. 

            What we think about life and living affects our emotional health either positively and negatively, and two thousand years before cognitive therapists were teaching this truth, Paul discovered its power.  Think about these things, things that are noble, just, pure, lovely and these things will become you and come to you.

            Rejoice always, pray about everything, and think good thoughts.  Three great resources for a life worth living.