on being ordinary: Philippians 3

Philippians 3. The other night I drove over the Brooklyn bridge, heading for Manhattan. I was tired. It was late. I reached the bridge and on my left saw a watertower of many colors rise up out of the darkness. I stared at it far longer than was safe. It was luminous. Its sides were glowing jewels: rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires. It was such a realistic watertower shape I had to keep looking to make sure it was really art.

I’d stumbled on a sculpture by Tom Fruin made of salvaged plexiglass and steel. It’s illuminated by the sun during the day and Arduino-controlled light sequences by night. It’s 20 x 10 x 10 feet. And it’s called: Watertower.

Like many people in New York City, I’d once lived in an apartment that overlooked a water tower. Even though I can’t draw, I regularly tried to sketch it with pencil and Cray Pas. Its lines made me want to make art of it. There’s something about beauty that makes us want to reproduce it. We want, somehow, to merge with it. So to see that iconic NYC structure appear as art when I least expected it moved me. It made me admire the artist who’d imagined it and brought it to life. It made me wonder what I was doing with my art. It inspired and yet flattened me.

Paul says Christian should shine like bright stars out of the darkness. Phil. 2: 15 (NLT). That passage, too, has always inspired and yet flattened me.

Who am I to shine like a star? Christians are called such because we’ve recognized our inner darkness and begged to unite with Christ. We’re not people of light. We’re people called out of the darkness into the light. We’re just people, as Paul puts it here in stark language, who count religion and empty rule-following as “garbage” compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ. Phil. 3:7-11. We’ve given up on trying to prove ourselves through obeying rules and instead cling to the cross as our only hope. We know that our “god” is our “appetites”, as Paul puts it. We know we need the cross. Jesus is the light of the world. Not us. We just want to know Him.

Whenever I read this chapter, I feel something stirring in my heart, a catch in my throat. “Yes,” I think. “yes. I want to know Christ. I want to really know Him. I do want to experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead.” It’s the kind of resolution you make when you read the Word; when you raise your arms in worship; when you pray. I want to merge with beauty. I do.

But how quickly we forget.

Luckily, Paul goes on to put our longings in context. He adds that he hasn’t “achieved” these things or “already reached perfection.” Instead, he “presses on.” He says he doesn’t cling to past failures but rather focuses on his progress: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race.”

We can do that. We can press on. Right? We can hold on to our progress. Can’t we?

Yes. But to get there we first have to go through a painful death. In order to let go of our “religion”—all those good deeds we think we did, even though we did them for very mixed motives, and there were plenty of other deeds that weren’t so very good—we lose a grandiosity. We lose something we think of as vital to our sense of self-worth. When we give up clinging to religion–to our deeds and achievements– we discover that we feel ordinary.

Ordinary doesn’t feel very good.

It crushes me to discover just how ordinary I am. I feel powerless. And I don’t like feeling powerless. And yet, there in our ordinariness lies our extraordinariness. It’s only in our weakness that we find truth. For when our grandiosity is crushed, we find that we are willing to rely completely on our God. And in uniting with the one who is the source of all goodness, we find our true calling.We become, despite ourselves, the colorful, multi-faceted, watertowers of light, shining out of dark places when we least expect it.

posted by Caroline Coleman on March 19, 2016

on forgiving (again, and again, and again): Philippians 2


Have you ever had a hater?

I have and it’s dreadful. You’re pretty much helpless. You can’t change their minds. And you know they’re going around badmouthing you. And sometimes we can’t avoid our haters. What if the person who looks at you with hatred is a child, a spouse, an in-law, or a co-worker? How do you manage to keep on forgiving them when you have a daily reminder of injustice? Even as I’m writing this post, I am longing to tell you about my hater. But I can’t. Because to do so would be to be a hater back.

It’s so hard not to dwell on how badly haters are behaving. It’s hard not to feel like they’re “ruining” our lives. We know we’re supposed to forgive them. We know that holding onto bitterness hurts us. We can go to healing seminars, like the one given by Ken Fish that I attended in New York City a few weeks ago, and hear that a lack of forgiveness can cause physical ailments in our bodies. We shudder. We know this to be true. It’s common sense. It’s supported by science. Perhaps we’ve heard the expression: “refusing to forgive is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Of course it is. We know that as Joyce Meyers says, “forgiving isn’t hard; hating is hard.”

So why is it so hard to forgive our haters and hurters and what can we do to change that?

One of the odd things about the Christian life is that you can “know” about something like the importance of forgiveness and yet find yourself “forgetting” it years, months and sometimes even nanoseconds later. It’s the reason why Christians must keep reading the Bible, talking to other Christians, praying together, having “accountability” partners, praying alone, going to church and going to Bible studies. We need the Christian life the way we need air. It’s the only way to counteract our tendency to compartmentalize. We get one area of our lives sewn up… and we discover to our horror that other areas are getting worse. C.S. Lewis says in his eponymous essay on forgiveness, that real belief in forgiveness “is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.” I find that comforting. It means we shouldn’t be shocked that we need to be reminded about forgiveness. Instead, we need to plan for it and build daily reminders about forgiveness into our lives.

The problem is that when people hurt us, we just want to hurt them back. It’s a thing. Even if we don’t pursue them through a sinking ship with a loaded gun, like that stupid scene in the Titanic (sorry but I never found that movie plausible), we find other ways to hurt them. We take a mental picture of them at their worst and carry it in our breast pocket to sneer over, as I once heard a pastor named John Yenchko say. Or we find ourselves bad-mouthing our haters to every person unlucky enough to come within ear shot of us. Or we gloat when bad things happen to them. We make sure no one else will be their friend. We have a thousand ways to hurt people back, and all of them are ugly. In our saner moments, we know what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, we find ourselves unable to stop. Part of us feels “justified.” Don’t they deserve it?

Yes, but that isn’t the point. As C.S. Lewis says in that same essay on forgiveness: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Lewis adds that forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing. It means “you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.” Sigh. We know, we know. It means accepting that God actually forgives us. It means accepting that our hearts have horror, dirt, meanness and malice and believing God redeems us and allows us to do that for others: “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.”

To help us forgive, today’s chapter doesn’t have the Lord’s prayer (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). It doesn’t have the parable of the unmerciful servant–the story Jesus told about the servant whose master forgave him an enormous debt, but who then refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a tiny debt, so the master turned him over “to be tortured until he paid back the whole debt”. See Matthew 18:21-35 (“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”).  It doesn’t have Jesus’ admonition that if we want our prayers answered we must forgive: “if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father Who is in heaven may also forgive you your [own] failings and shortcomings and let them drop.” Mark 11:25-26. Those are all good and powerful verses that remind us that if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive. We must forgive radically. We must forgive completely. We must forgive all, especially the unforgivable parts.

But what Philippians 2 has to help us get there is a description of how God humbled Himself for us, and what happened as a result. Ready? In this letter, Paul says that we are to “be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests but take an interest in others, too.” Phil. 2:3-4.

I’ve always had trouble understanding why we are supposed to think of others as better than ourselves. The next verse seems to contradict it by saying don’t look out “only” for our own interests. So we are to consider our own interests. And didn’t Jesus say we’re to love our neighbor “as” ourselves, not “more than” ourselves?

Perhaps the answer is that we are so self-centered, we need to tell ourselves to overcompensate just to reach equilibrium, the way we might over-correct a tennis move to rid ourselves of a terrible habit. But while God inspired the whole Bible, and we must therefore evaluate every verse in light of the others, we must also be careful not avoid the import of a particular verse. So perhaps we are to do exactly as Paul says and think “of others as better than” ourselves. Perhaps thinking of others “as” better than ourselves is the only way to help us lead better, happier and more productive lives.

We might be able to do that with people we love. Maybe. But how do we do that with our haters? How can we think of a hater “as better than” ourselves? Isn’t that to agree with their assessment of us? Paul provides the way in the next few verses. He says that to be humble we must copy Jesus:

“Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privilege;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Phil. 2:6-8.

In other words, Jesus actually was equal with God, but gave it up out of love. So when we are to consider others as better than ourselves, it doesn’t mean they are better than we are but that we are acting as if they were because we love them with God’s kind of love.

We can console ourselves for the hardship of this by looking at what God did for Jesus as a result of giving up his divine privilege:

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Phil. 2:9-11.

The Bible promises that if we humble ourselves, God will lift us up in due time. Holding onto that promise can help us want to forgive. But when it comes to actually forgiving the unforgivable, if it sounds hard, it’s because it’s impossible. Looking to Christ as an example gets us only so far. It can inspire us to want to do the right thing. But we’re too flawed to really do what Christ did. In fact, the more we try to be like Christ, the more radically we will discover our weaknesses. And in that moment, comes true humility.

If we know that we have to forgive our haters in order to be forgiven, and we agree with God that we should forgive them, and we hear ourselves badmouthing them anyway…. we are humbled to the point of sorrow. We’re horrified by ourselves. And there, in our utter failure, when we cry out to God from the depths of our souls: HELP ME… is where we find transformation.

As always, we discover in our humiliation that we are, in fact, no better than our haters. That humbles us. It hurts us. It’s a death. But it’s the kind of death that leads to life. Our failure to forgive is exactly where God meets us and lifts us up. He died because He knew how hopeless we are at forgiving.

So today, right now, when we begin to pray, we are to enter into the darkness. We are to ask God to show us who we are refusing to forgive. We are to take time to be honest about how badly they’ve hurt us and how deeply they hate us.

And that’s exactly where God will lift us up. In the safety of His perfect, sacrificial, undeserved love, He gives us the strength to do what no human can do: to forgive the unforgivable and to find freedom, health and joy. And isn’t that the only thing that can stop us from being haters ourselves?

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on February 24, 2016