This week, each year, my family joins with millions of other Americans to celebrate certain values, to be mindful of the good things in our lives, and to feast.
We rejoice in unity and gratefulness.
As I approach my practice of meditation this week, I feel drawn to the biblical book Philippians. There are several memorable quotations within the book, but the most obvious for this particular occasion is “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6 NET).
It’s obvious for this occasion because it actually has the word ‘thanksgiving’ in there, but as I came to the words and tried to understanding, realized the significance was less obvious. I started with how I always start. I read the whole book of Philippians.
Actually, I listened to it. Twice. Then I read it, and then I skimmed it a few times. That process is essential when you’re trying to understand any single verse in the Bible, even when you’re familiar with it (maybe especially when you’re already familiar with it). If I had really wanted to be thorough, I would have read a few other books by Paul that have similar themes.
What I found was the presence throughout the text of several themes. Paul encourages the readers to rejoice several times. This encouragement isn’t a response to successes and easy times, but instead is very explicitly a response to challenges and sorrows. And I can say with confidence that it’s not the biblical equivalent of “walk it off” or “cheer up, it could be worse.”
Another recurring theme is humility and looking out for the needs of others above your own. As in all of Paul’s books, unity is another central theme. In conjunction with rejoicing, unity, and cruciformity, a certain detachment is encouraged and assumed.
I use the word ‘detachment’ here not in the sense of aloofness or apathy but in the historical usage associated with monastic insights and the Christian contemplative tradition. It basically means the idea of holding things loosely, of not allowing yourself to be attached to anything except God alone, even your own life.
It is within the assumed context of these four themes that Paul tells us not to be anxious but to pray and give thanks.
What a transformative set of values to use for meditation!
Take a look at some of these highlights:
“Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body” (Phil 1:18-24).
In these seven verses, Paul discussed three of the four values we’re looking for. He rejoices even though he is suffering, convinced of the certainty of deliverance. He doesn’t hold on to attachment either for his life or for his work but is willing to accept death or life as it comes, seeking only the good of Christ’s perfect will. Even his willingness to live or die is characterized by cruciformity—the commitment to the good of others even through his own personal suffering—which in this case entails continuing in his work rather than wholly being given into Christ’s presence.
Lord, Jesus, create in me the solid foundation of love, joy, and peace exemplified here. Help me to allow these things to grow in me as the Spirit works.
“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
– even death on a cross!
As a result God exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.”
We again have three of the four values found in these verses. This time unity takes a central role, prominently put forward as a goal for the community of believers. It is contrasted with selfishness, encouraging humility to the point of cruciformity and detachment. We have perhaps the greatest example of both cruciformity and detachment here. Jesus was will to let go his existential right to operate in divinity in order to suffer for the cosmic good of all creation and everyone in it. Jesus practiced what he preached, no mistake.
Lord, Jesus, create in me such a sense of connectedness with the people you love that it requires no decision to give myself up for them, to let go of everything for you and for my brothers and sisters.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. And what you learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:4-9).
The rejoicing comes in strong here. And how are we supposed to follow this encouragement to rejoice? In fact, how to do achieve any of the values pursued throughout the book? Bringing our needs to go in thankful prayer.
That is the beginning of all these things. The rest of Philippians shows us what the ideal is. It shows us why we value these things. It shows us what living into the values will be like. This paragraph shows us how to get there. We pray, we meditate on virtue, on goodness, on Christ. Then we follow up our prayer and meditation with action. The integrity exemplified by meditating on the virtues of God, of being thankful for whatever reality we experience, of rejoicing in any circumstance, of holding loosely our desires, and the faithfulness to live it out. Those things bring peace and wholeness and Christlikeness.
Lord, Jesus, thank you for the gifts of good things. May I ponder them in prayer. Thank you for the gifts of the hard things. May I be shaped by them. Thank you for the gifts of ideals and beauties to imagine and pursue. May I internalize them. Thank you for the peace you build between us and within me. May I share it.
“I have great joy in the Lord because now at last you have again expressed your concern for me. (Now I know you were concerned before but had no opportunity to do anything.) I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble” (Phil 4:10-14).
Lord, Jesus, thank you for the will to accept whatever life brings me. May I find you in every circumstance and find my joy, my desire, my love, my peace, and my strength to draw out what is inside into the light, all things in you.
Invitation to contemplation:
Giving thanks produces the peace and the power to live for Christ. For what am I thankful, and how will I respond?