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

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3 thoughts on “on being ordinary: Philippians 3

  1. Dear Caroline,
    It’s been such a long time since I’ve read your post and I’m just blown away out here in Sydney. You write so fabulously and you make it feel so real, NY and awe of our Lord.
    It’s a privilege to read your words.
    Big kiss Danielle

    • Danielle! You’re so sweet! Thank you! How is Sydney! I just reread a short story by Dave Malouf yesterday that I love: “Valley of Lagoons”. It’s set in Queensland and makes me long to visit your homeland! I’ve started a second blog that goes through a verse or two of the Bible every day if you want… it’s much shorter!!! When are you going to come and visit in NYC?! xoxo Caroline http://www.introtobible.com

    • Hi Danny– thank you so much, as always for your encouragement and kindness. It’s always such a treat to receive your comments, because it’s far too easy to feel like one is writing into a black hole! xoxo love, Caroline

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