Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Struggle with Weight

To say that I "struggle with my weight" would suggest to most people that I have had problems throughout my life with too much fat on my body. That is true. In spite of the fact that I was generally very active in my youth, I can always remember the stigma of having more fat on my body than most other kids. As a child I liked to be outside and roam the fields and woods around our home in the country. The other strong childhood memory, other than being at church, has to do with food. I have some great memories like pizza parties at our house and my mom being the pizza maker. There are also harsh memories, like the time I didn't want to wait until after my father prayed to touch the food. We were going through a tough time and couldn't afford much to eat. When my dad "rapped my knuckles" with his spoon, somehow the bowl of baked beans (the main part of our meal, as I recall) went on the floor and I was sent off without any supper.

One summer during junior high I became very sedentary. I began to get away with sitting in front of the TV and eating. I discovered bread, bread with peanut butter, bread with butter and honey. After that summer was when I first began to learn about restrictive diets and exercising (not just playing).

Throughout high school I spent my leisure time playing basketball and riding my 10-speed bike (and watching a fair amount of TV). I was passionate about both activities. And late in high school I also began running everyday. I would run along motorcycle trails through the countryside near where we lived.

During the year after high school, I was on a wrestling team at a Bible school I was attending in Grand Rapids. It was then I arrived at my peak condition. I was working out twice a day and was hardly eating anything -- I remember eating a Lipton cup of soup for dinner. I can remember the day when I arrived at breaking the 180 lb. barrier. While showering up that day I noticed I had rippled abs. It didn't stay that way for long. I just couldn't sustain the level of exercise and dieting to maintain that weight. After that I spent much more time reading and studying. From that point forward I experienced the steady increase over the years until I have now added 250 lbs. more to my frame.

It's not like I don't know how to exercise or that I'm ignorant of the fact that to lose weight you have to burn more calories than you take in, which advice is about the best the medical community has to offer. It's not that I don't have any discipline. I persisted for many years in my education until I finally earned my Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. In the last three or four years I've taught myself  to be able to read Arabic. All of that is just to say, I'm not fat because I'm dumb and lazy. Several times over the past six years or so I've been able to lose 50-75 lbs. through diet and exercise. But something happens that I can't explain. There's no one event but a gradual increase in eating. Months later I will realize I've added the weight back plus more and don't know why I did it.

Yes, I have some bad habits of eating when I'm sad, eating when I'm happy, eating when I'm angry, eating when I'm bored, and so on. Maybe I eat in front of the TV all the time because my dad yelled at me as a child when I tried to eat in the living room and he would only let me eat in there when we were spending time together. I'm sure I came to associate food with family togetherness, fun, laughing, and pleasure. But there's also something about the make up of my body, something in the genes, that makes me the way I am. Your body is not just like my body: when it comes to metabolism and body type, we are not all created equal. I need some help, and I'm going to get it. It won't be a secret for long, so I might as well let it be known now. I will be having bariatric surgery (Roux-En-Y gastric bypass) January 26, 2012 at St. Vincent Hospital in Carmel, Indiana.

However, there's a different kind of struggle with my weight. My major reasons for surgery have to do with my health (hypertension but no immediate problems with my heart or with diabetes) and longevity, in other words, the quality of life. Yet there is some part of me that resents needing to do this, because a small reason for me has to do with the prejudice of Americans against large people. And it's getting worse.

My struggle, then, has to do with me giving in to social pressure rather than my working for the social acceptance of fat people. It's horrible what's happening to the way most media treat the so-called obesity epidemic. I'm not an expert, but I don't accept the narrative being presented to us constantly that all of the sudden Americans began to get fat. It's disgusting the way news programs will introduce a segment by showing video of fat people with the focus on bellies and butts. How dehumanizing! It's sickening to witness the voyeurism of people watching "Biggest Loser" and their entertainment in seeing fat people yelled at and humiliated. For the most part it's not socially acceptable anymore to make fun of people for their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or diminutive stature, but you can insult fat people all you want. I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere people in power are talking about our readiness to go to war and the need for Americans to be fit enough to fight. The insurance industry can make more money if they can persuade people to be as healthy as possible. There's more to this hysteria than a concern for the health and well-being of people like me.

Maybe I've been able here to get this out of my system. I need to be positive and work toward my personal goals. I have to get healthier for me, my wife (who will most likely need more care in the future), my children, and my grandchildren. During my psychological evaluation I told the interviewer (great guy, by the way) I wanted to do the bariatric surgery because there's so much more I want to do in life. I feel like I'm just getting started and losing weight will help me to succeed in the goals I set for my life many, many years ago.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Philippians 4:20-23

Read the Text

20May all reverence be accorded to God, our divine parent, to the final generation of human existence. Amen.
21Give my greetings to all in Philippi, who have committed themselves to Christ Jesus. My friends here pass along their greetings to you. 22All of the committed here give their greetings, but most of all those belonging to the imperial household.
23May the favor of the Sovereign, Jesus Christ, be present in your lives.

Think about the Text

“to the final generation of human existence” (forever and ever) – This expression, literally rendered “unto the ages of the ages,” refers specifically to the ultimate generation of human history, the end of the ages.

Meditate on the Text

If you were writing a letter to a community of faith about the main elements of a good life, how would you conclude? What would be your parting words?
Think of the many generations of human life that have preceded you? How many do you think will be after you? What is your wish for the future generations regarding their attitude toward God?
In what way is God’s favor present in your life and in your deepest experience?

Live the Text

In what ways are you honoring or showing reverence to God?
Practice saying to yourself as you make plans for the future, “God willing.” When someone asks about your health and you give a reply, think to yourself, “Praise God.”
Be aware each hour of the ways you receive God’s gracious favor in your life.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philippians 4:14-19

Read the Text

14In spite of past circumstances, you have performed well as partners in my difficulty. 15You are aware, residents of Philippi, that during the beginning of my spreading the gospel message, when I had gone out from Macedonia, no communities partnered with me in the relationship of give and take except you alone. 16As a matter of fact, even when I was [still in Macedonia] in Thessalonica, once or twice you dispatched funds to me. 17I don’t say this to imply I’m expecting a donation. Rather, I am expecting the ever increasing effect shown in your lives, which is credited to your heavenly account. 18I have been reimbursed for all I’ve done and I am overwhelmed by your generosity. I continue to be completely satisfied ever since I received from Epaproditus your compensation, like the savory aroma of roasting meat on an altar, an acceptable sacrifice, satisfactory to God. 19The God to whom I am committed will provide fully for all of your necessities of life through the splendid wealth made available through participation in the divine life of Christ Jesus.

Think about the Text

Paul’s language in this section is filled with allusions to financial relationships and a social contract of giving and receiving. Some scholars take this to mean a formal contract referred to as societas. Much of Paul’s language, however, can be simply understand within the relationship of friendship rather than patronage and reciprocity. To whatever degree we might find these formal relationships in this section, Paul seems to modify the reciprocity to something more intimate than payment for services rendered.
“Rather, I am expecting the ever increasing effect shown in your lives, which is credited to your heavenly account.” (Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.) - Paul takes the language of economic reciprocity and uses it as a metaphor in verse 17. The question is what kind of “fruit” does Paul expect. Is it “profit” Paul expects that will be credited to their account? I take it to refer to the accounting Paul expects to take place at the final judgment. According to Paul, everyone will be judged according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). The standard is “doing good” (Rom 2:7) or being “self-seeking” (Rom 2:8) or doing evil (Rom 2:9). Each one of us, Paul says, “will give an account” (Rom 14:12) before God’s (Rom 14:10) or Christ’s (2 Cor 5:10) place of judgment for what we do in life.
In verse 19 Paul clarifies that God provides for what humans need rather than for what they desire. Self-sufficiency is possible because humans can have all they need to fulfill the goal of human existence without satisfying all their desires.

Meditate on the Text

Imagine a balance sheet that lists what others have done for you and then what you have done for others. Do you think you are in the red or in the black?
Do you think the quality of your life and the effect your life has on other people is balancing God’s accounting of your life in your favor?

Live the Text

Remember people who have had a positive impact on your life. Is there a way to respond to them and repay them for what they did for you?
Show reciprocity by doing good to others for the good that has been shown to you. Then start a new cycle of good deeds by doing something good without any sense of indebtedness or expectation of returning the favor. When you do, imagine you smell a pleasant odor like steak on a grill or sweet incense.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Philippians 4:10-13

Read the Text

10I’m very glad through God’s providence that finally you have arisen to the occasion to be attentive to my circumstances. You were attentive in the past but not at an opportune occasion.
11Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t have all I need. Personally, I have schooled myself to be self-sufficient in my present circumstances. 12I am experienced in living in abject poverty and abundant wealth. Into each and every circumstance I have been initiated: feasting and fasting; sufficiency and deficiency. 13I can handle all these circumstances because God empowers me.

Think about the Text

Throughout Paul’s letters he expresses a concern about the kind of support he receives from the Christian communities. On the one hand, he defends the right of people to receive an exchange of goods for ministry they perform. On the other hand, he adamantly opposes any suggestion that he is only performing his work because people are paying him to do it. A common theme is the salaried philosopher who is not legitimate but a sophist, charlatan, or parasite.
Paul is quick to say that he is not discussing financial obligations the Philippians might have to him because he has something lacking in his ability to cope with life’s circumstances. He takes this opportunity to discuss another essential aspect of the philosophical life, what is commonly referred to by the technical term self-sufficiency (autarkēs). This is not a solely humanistic concept, but one in which the person is dependent on God’s providential care in the world. The person is not dependent on the circumstances of life for virtue, freedom, or happiness. Seneca emphasizes that this self-sufficiency – he uses the Latin term from which we get our word contentment -- does not mean we are emotionless: “our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them” (Letters, 9). The self-sufficient person also is not a loner but desires friendship for the purpose of supporting the other in virtue. The mature person lacks nothing even though “the sage may love his friends dearly, often comparing them with himself, and putting them ahead of himself” (Letters, 9).
Paul’s language about self-sufficiency is in line with that of the Greco-Roman moral philosophers. Wealth itself is something indifferent to progress in virtue. Being poor in itself is not virtuous, nor is having wealth evil. No matter what the circumstances, Paul can say he has taught himself how to maintain his spiritual equilibrium in spite of poverty or wealth. In a work titled, “On Self-Sufficiency,” preserved from the third century BCE Cynic philosopher, Teles of Megara, we get one of the earliest descriptions of this essential component to the philosophical life. He discusses this issue of how to handle both poverty and wealth. He concludes that “both situations possess the same character, and whoever can handle much reasonably can also do the same with the opposite” (p. 15).

Meditate on the Text

Think about the people we see on the news who have lost homes to tornadoes, whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the economy or natural disasters, or who lose family members to disease, accidents, or violence. How prepared are you mentally and spiritually to handle whatever may happen in your life?
Imagine winning a million dollars. Could you handle the consequences of having wealth and the power it brings with it? How would it change you?

Live the Text

Examine your financial situation and see if you are fairly supporting those who minister to you.
Take stock of your life. What would you do differently if you had great wealth or if you went bankrupt? How different is the way you live, think, and feel depending on whether your bank account is full or empty?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Philippians 4:4-9

Read the Text

4Be glad as people of God continually. Let me say again, be glad!
5Let everyone take notice of your amiability.
Our Sovereign is close.
6Don’t fret about anything. Instead, in every situation tell God your needs in prayer and petition with gratefulness. 7When you do this, God’s serenity, which overpowers every mental state, will protect your feelings and thoughts as those who participate in the divine life of Christ Jesus.
8Consequently, friends, make it a practice to contemplate these moral qualities: whatever is true, decent, just, sacred, pleasant, auspicious; if something has moral excellence and if it is deserving of praise.
9Make a spiritual practice of those things you learned, accepted, heard, and observed in my life. If you do this, the God of serenity will be with you.

Think about the Text

A type of letter in Greco-Roman antiquity was a type of hortatory letter that might list brief sentences of moral advice or admonition. The technical term, broadly defined, is paraenesis. Often in Paul’s letters we find, especially near the end, this sort of miscellaneous paraenesis. It’s often difficult to interpret each concise statement within a larger context. These few verses have that rhetorical function. Verse four doesn’t seem to have anything particularly to do with verse five, and the first part of verse five may not have anything to do with the concluding phrase.
“Let everyone take notice of your amiability.” The term I’ve translated as “amiability” (other trans. read “gentleness, moderation”) only occurs here in Paul’s undisputed letters and only a few times elsewhere (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 3:2; James 3:17; 1 Pet 2:18). We can compare Paul’s usage to those writings within a similar context. Musonius Rufus, for example, in a discussion on exile says that a person who has this quality should not consider moving one’s residence to live elsewhere as banishment. This kind of person, Rufus goes on to say, “does not value or despise any place as the cause of his happiness or unhappiness, but he makes the whole matter depend upon himself and considers himself a citizen of the city of God which is made up of men and gods” (Rufus, Diss. 9.16; Lutz, Musonius Rufus, "the Roman Socrates," p. 69). In a similar way, Epictetus notes that an ill-tempered person does us a favor by exercising our good-nature and amiability, our capacity for coping with such a person. Even disease is not a reason to lose one’s composure, but instead Epictetus depicts the amiable person as saying, “I will be firm, I will be happy, I will not flatter the physician, I will not wish to die.” The same goes for any circumstances of life: “Whatever you shall give me, I will make it happy, fortunate, honored, a thing which a man shall seek” (Discourses 3.20.11).
“Our Sovereign is close.” (The Lord is near.) Because this phrase is part of the same verse as what precedes, it’s easy to think Paul must mean, “be a certain way because Jesus is coming soon and he’ll punish you for misbehaving.” Instead, the phrase is probably a separate, unrelated word of encouragement. Paul may not even be referring here to the imminent second coming of Christ. Although the expression “the day of the Lord is near” occurs in the OT, there are other instances where the expression is intended to give comfort by the close presence of God (Ps 34:18; 119:151; 145:18). In this case, the phrase may have more to do with the context that follows.
The disturbed state of mind Paul writes about in verse six and following is not a particular concern of Hebrew literature. The tranquility of the soul or mind is of paramount importance to the philosophers of Paul’s day. Plutarch, for example, writes of this in his work “On Tranquility of Mind.” Every day, he says, is as much a day for celebration as a festival day, “For the universe is a most holy temple and most worthy of a god. ... Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquility and joy.” While some people only take delight in the celebrations of a festival and otherwise live in sadness due to the burdensome and unending cares of life, they ought to receive admonition and “remember the past with thankfulness, and meet the future without fear or suspicion, with their hopes cheerful and bright” (477.C-477.E).
Verses six and seven are grammatically one sentence. (Our earliest Greek texts show virtually no word or sentence divisions either by spacing or punctuation.) The reasoning is, rather than being overly concerned about our circumstances, we should trust in God’s providential care. The result is a tranquility or serenity that overcomes the mind’s natural inclination to imagine the negative potential consequences of our circumstances.
“overpowers every mental state” (surpasses all understanding) – Our translations seem to suggest the meaning that God’s peace is something humans cannot understand. The point of the sentence is that God’s peace prevails over our minds (nous) and protects our way of feeling and thinking so that we are not perturbed by bad emotions.
In verse eight, Paul refers to the philosophical practice of daily meditation. He uses the same term as Epictetus for making a rational account of one’s thoughts and actions. A standard for meditation, which Epictetus quotes in part, was the Golden Verses of Pythagoras:
“Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, Till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions of the day. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it; And if thou hast done any good, rejoice. Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart. 'Tis they that will put thee in the way of divine virtue” (40-46).
Epictetus suggests this form of meditation.
[A]s soon as you have risen in the morning reflect, “What do I want in order to be free from passion, and free from perturbation? What am I? Am I a poor body, a piece of property, a thing of which something is said? I am none of these. But what am I? I am a rational animal. What then is required of me?” Reflect on your acts. “Where have I omitted the things which conduce to happiness? What have I done which is either unfriendly or unsocial? what have I not done as to these things which I ought to have done?” (Discourses 4.6).
Seneca refers to this form of meditation on virtue: “Hence, you must be continually brought to remember these facts; for they should not be in storage, but ready for use. And whatever is wholesome should be often discussed and often brought before the mind, so that it may be not only familiar to us, but also ready to hand” (Letter 94).
Note that among Paul’s virtue list is the standard word for virtue, which refers to the highest standard of human potential (aretē).
Verse nine is the language of a teacher with a pupil. They learned from Paul through his teaching, through what he passed along to them, and through observing his life. They were then to put that example into their own daily practice. The result is the tranquility or serenity that is a divine quality of life.
In Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, he summarizes the philosophical practice that achieves the goal.
It is right then for a man to consider the things which produce happiness, since, if happiness is present, we have everything, and when it is absent, we do everything with a view to possess it. Now, what I have constantly recommended to you, these things I would have you do and practice, considering them to be the elements of living well.

Meditate on the Text

How amiable and unflappable are you? Do you lose your temper easily? Do you instantly despair at bad news? Does your sense of well-being fluctuate with your bank account?
Think about Paul’s virtue list in verse eight and ask yourself these questions:
Am I connected to reality in what I'm thinking, or am I imagining things falsely? For example, ask yourself, “Is that really what that person said or did, or am I not being honest with myself and not thinking truthfully?”
Is this thought something that a wise, mature person would think?
Am I thinking fairly? Does that person deserve me thinking in that way?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being put on a plaque and hung on the wall of a church?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being painted and hung in an art gallery for people to admire?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being emblazoned on a placard and marched in a ceremony before a royal court?
If my thoughts were entered into a contest, would they win first prize for being the best possible thoughts?
Are my prize-winning thoughts one's that crowds would cheer for?

Live the Text

Anticipate circumstances that will test your character. Think, “I am unflappable.”
Take time to think about what’s weighing the most on your mind. Pray about those things and trust each day to God’s care.
Put into practice each day the best of what you’ve learned from others.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Philippians 4:1-3

Read the Text

4:1So then, my dear and missed friends, my source of cheer and crowning achievement, this is how you are to be staying steadfast in your allegiance to our Sovereign, dear ones.
2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to form the same moral judgments with regard to life in the Lord. 3Yes, I request also that you, dedicated companion, give them your assistance. These women have cooperated with me in the gospel mission, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are listed in God’s heavenly roll call.

Think about the Text

“my source of cheer and crowning achievement” (my joy and crown) – The metaphor here seems to be the winner of a race who is cheered and whose head is wreathed with a garland. Paul’s frequent reference to the judgment of Christ suggests he held the belief that in some way the achievement of those to whom he ministered would bring him a great reward in heaven.
“staying steadfast in your allegiance to our Sovereign” (stand firm in the Lord) - Perhaps the metaphor of the race continues with the image of not falling down during the race (Rom 14:4). It’s also possible that there is a military metaphor here with the victorious soldier, the one who stands and does not fall in battle, is crowned with garland.
The situation of Euodia and Syntyche has traditionally been taken to be one of disharmony. The literal expression “to think the same thing” refers to being in agreement, but more aptly means “forming the same moral judgment.” Josephus, for example, uses this exact idiom to refer to the Essenes’ ethical judgment regarding marriage (Wars of the Jews, 2.160). It is only “mirror reading” that causes us to jump to the conclusion that the women must not be getting along with each other. But nothing in the context suggests they have conflict between them. Paul has used this expression in Philippians to encourage the community to have unanimity in the moral life with regard to seeking the benefit of the other (Phil 2:2-3). This climaxes in the plea for them to think (or form the same moral judgment) as Christ Jesus did when he debased himself for the benefit of others (Phil 2:5ff). The most we could say is these two women, who have served so faithfully, have a difference of opinion regarding some aspect of the moral life. My speculation is that they are wealthy women who have shown some sense of superiority over others in the assembly by their actions.
Paul addresses a single person in verse three as a “dedicated companion.” Since the term here is literally “co-yoked one” and when used in the feminine can refer to a wife, some ancient authorities speculated that Paul is here addressing his wife, perhaps Lydia in whose home the church was founded. The argument against this is a problem of grammar. The expression is grammatically masculine. Why this was not a problem for Greek scholars of the second and third centuries C.E. is baffling.
Paul makes reference to some of the many people who were very active with Paul in the task of spreading this message about Jesus to the Roman empire.

Meditate on the Text

Think of someone who is your spiritual guide, someone like a pastor or elder. Does the quality of your spiritual maturity bring that person joy? If that person were being evaluated based on your “performance,” would s/he be rewarded in some way?
Imagine that you have to walk through an ocean surf to reach your destination. Every wave that comes threatens to knock you down and even push you back. You prepare yourself for the next wave and stand firm. Withstanding that wave, you continue your journey, wondering when the next wave will come and whether you will be able to hold your ground. If the goal is your spiritual maturity and the waves are circumstances of life that can cause fear, worry, anger, selfishness, jealousy, or craving, then what are you doing to anticipate the next wave and stand against it?
If you were to create a survey that would tell you whether you think the same way as others on the issues that are important to the work of ministry, what sorts of questions would be asked on the survey?

Live the Text

Make contact with someone dear to you and tell them how much you appreciate the positive effect s/he has had on your life.
See difficult circumstances as a momentary wave of resistance to your progress. Determine that you will not give in to the temptation to wallow in unhealthy emotions and their inevitable consequences.
See each person for what you share in common with them. Figure out how to work with people to achieve virtuous outcomes even though you might have disagreements on peripheral issues.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Philippians 3:20-21

Read the Text

20For us, instead, there exists a celestial citizenship. It is from there we anticipate also a Savior, the Sovereign One, Jesus Christ. 21He will reconfigure our debased body to be conformed to his magnificent body by his energy, empowering him even to subjugate to himself all things.

Think about the Text

Those whose lives are filled with vice, Paul indicates in 4:19, are ones whose values are earthly. Paul now contrasts this with a political metaphor. He tells his audience their allegiance is to a political entity in the heavens, whose values transcend the customs and opinions of humans. The world to which they belong is larger than the local way of life. It is common knowledge that the Stoics believed in the “brotherhood of man,” in being a cosmopolitan or “citizen of the world.” As Epictetus describes it, that concept goes far beyond the humanistic and altruistic way of thinking.
“He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of men and God for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with Him- why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men” (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.9.3)?
Verse 21 describes the reconfiguring or “reschematization” (metaschēmatizō) that Paul believes will occur at the resurrection. The language depicts nothing less than the apotheosis of humans to a divine state. This idea is already present in the Hellenistic Jewish text 4th Maccabees. The eldest son, who is bound and scourged, then tied to the rack, refuses to eat pork as a demonstration of his virtue. The gruesome scene of torture in which he is both stretched on the wheel and being burned alive culminates in the description of his fortitude, “but as though transformed (metaschēmatizō) by fire into immortality he nobly endured the rackings” (4th Macc 9:22). He then announces, “’Imitate me, brothers,’ he said. ‘Do not leave your post in my struggle or renounce our courageous brotherhood. Fight the sacred and noble battle for piety’” (4th Macc 9:23-24).
“to subjugate to himself all things” (make all things subject to himself) – Paul’s Jewish view of the events of the end of the age come out here. The messianic prophecy of Ps 8:6 makes the messiah responsible to subjugate all things, ostensibly becoming the ruler of all. Paul refers to this elsewhere and other texts apply the same messianic prophecy (1 Cor 15:27-28; cf. Eph 1:22; Heb 2:8; 1 Pet 3:22).

Meditate on the Text

Imagine what it would look like to blast off in a rocket from your backyard as you look back at your home. You see your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country, your hemisphere, your planet, your solar system, your galaxy, and so on. What is the spiritual equivalent of seeing yourself in relation to God’s universe?
Think of the movie The Fly. At death you enter into a disintegrator-integrator. Unknown to you the Risen Christ enters with you. When you rematerialize, your body is now like the immortal and incorruptible body of Christ.

Live the Text

Take a small piece of paper and write “Passport” at the top. The write, “Citizenship: Heaven.” What else can you think to write? How about, “Family: Everyone.” Carry this with you. You’re a resident alien but you’re related to everyone you meet.
When you see yourself in the mirror, think about what you will become, what you are becoming.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Philippians 3:17-19

Read the Text

17Imitate my example together, friends, and watch those who conduct themselves in this way, since you have an example in us. 18There are many people who conduct their lives – I’ve told you about them often, and now say this with tears in my eyes – as moral enemies of what Christ’s death on a cross has achieved. 19Their outcome is moral degradation; their god is their bodily appetites; their basis for honor is their shameful behavior. Their moral judgment favors what is terrestrial.

Think about the Text

Paul’s exhortation to imitation is not a prideful act of putting himself on a pedestal. It is the fundamental concept in what scholars of Hellenistic moral philosophy refer to as psychagogy, the leading of the soul. The act of telling stories at dinner parties, giving praise speeches at festivals, and displaying art depicting historic figures in the home were largely about holding up great examples for imitation. Along with reading great literature, they were ways of reminding oneself to live life patterned after the best examples.
Verse 18 may sound to us like language of doctrinal warfare, as though Paul considered those who disagreed with his theology to be enemies to be fought. Here again, the language within the context shows us something different. For example, Diogenes Laertius writes about the famous Stoic philosopher Zeno, who considered "all who were not virtuous, [to be] adversaries, and enemies, and slaves, and unfriendly to one another" (Book 7). Epictetus concurs, "Now this is the nature of every man to seek the good, to avoid the bad; to consider him who deprives us of the one and involves us in the other an enemy (polemion) and treacherous, even if he be a brother, or a son or a father" (Discourses 4.5.30).
"Their outcome is moral degradation" (their end is destruction) – When we read the word "destruction," we probably assume Paul is talking about damnation. The Greek words for salvation (sōtēria) and for destruction (apōleia) can be found as early as Plato and among later moral philosophers to talk about the progress and regress of the soul. This concept appears in the following quotation from Epictetus along with the theme of imitating an example.
You are no longer a youth, but already a full grown (teleios) man. If then you are negligent and slothful, and are continually making procrastination after procrastination, and proposal (intention) after proposal, and fixing day after day, after which you will attend to yourself, you will not know that you are not making improvement, but you will continue ignorant (uninstructed) both while you live and till you die. Immediately then think it right to live as a full-grown man, and one who is making proficiency, and let every thing which appears to you to be the best be to you a law which must not be transgressed. And if anything laborious, or pleasant or glorious or inglorious be presented to you, remember that now is the contest, now are the Olympic games, and they cannot be deferred; and that it depends on one defeat and one giving way that progress is either lost (apōleia) or maintained (sōtēria). Socrates in this way became perfect (apoteleō), on all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates" (Enchiridion 51.1-2).
"their god is their bodily appetites" (their god is the belly) – Paul again uses typical language to talk about those people who reject a course of life devoted to following good examples and progressing in the development of the soul. The reference to the "belly" or "stomach" is not about eating food but is a metaphor referring to the bodily appetites. Epictetus compares Socrates to the way humans normally think of themselves, "Socrates speaks like a man who is really a kinsman of the gods. But we think about ourselves as if we were only stomachs, and intestines, and shameful parts" (Discourses 1.9.26). Likewise, Seneca depicts the person who lives in seclusion and in selfishness out of fear as "not living for himself; he is living for his belly, his sleep, and his lust -- and that is the most shameful thing in the world" (Letter 55).
The last phrase of verse 19 continues the phronetic language regarding how to think or apply practical wisdom. Paul uses similar expressions elsewhere (Rom 8:5-7; cf. Col 3:2). The distinction is between a lower form of thinking that is associated with the earth or flesh and a higher form of thinking that is spiritual and heavenly, a divine way of living. This is the goal of the Christian life, according to Paul, as it was the goal of the philosophical life. Epicurus writes to a disciple, Menoeceus, "Do you then study these precepts, and those which are akin to them, by all means day and night, pondering on them by yourself, and discussing them with any one like yourself, and then you will never be disturbed by either sleeping or waking fancies, but you will live like a god among men; for a man living amid immortal gods, is in no respect like a mortal being" (Letter to Menoeceus, 135.5).

Meditate on the Text

Who are your best examples to follow? What reminds you of your values? Do you read biographies? Do you have artwork that reminds you of people you admire? Think of someone you respect, whose life you would want to imitate, and make a mental note of those characteristics.
If you had an enemies list, who would be on it? Whom do you consider to be a competitor in the marketplace of ideas, whose ideas are harmful and destructive to people? Whom do you fight in the battle for the minds of people in our society? Are they people you disagree with or people whose values and practices lead people to destroy their lives?
Where is your impulse coming from? Are you thinking through your moral choices or are you quickly giving in to baser motivations?

Live the Text

Keep an eye out for people who have lost their way in life. Can you say to them, "Follow me"?
Check your thoughts and actions. Would you be ashamed to have people know what you think and do? Pretend like people can read your mind.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Philippians 3:15-16

Read the Text

15So then, those of you who are spiritually mature, let us be thinking along these lines (and if anyone takes a different point of view, God will show them this is the right way to think): 16In any case, whatever level we’ve achieved, let’s maintain the same standard of life.

Think about the Text

“spiritually mature” (mature, perfect) – This term is a goal-oriented word. These people are ones who have reached the goal. Developmentally, these are older people, adults, who have reached this stage in life. Jesus calls on his followers to be mature/perfect (Matt 5:48; 19:21). Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom” (1 Cor 2:6). He chides them, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (1 Cor 14:20).
Some philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero have thought of human development along a hierarchical scale of nature. Each form of being shares attributes with those below it and also with those above. Plants are similar to inanimate objects but have such things as growth and nutrition. Animals share similarities with plants but also have appetite, power of motion, and some limited capacity for perception and sensation. Humans have these characteristics but also have rationality and the will to choose. The Greeks considered reason to be a divine gift given to humans. At the top of this ladder of nature is the divine or heavenly realm. To be god is to exist in tranquility, be self-sufficient, be undisturbed by desire or passions, be complete in virtue. To be completed as a human means to experience what it means to be divine. The Christian monk, John Climacus, put this into Christian language in his famous work, The Ladder of Ascent.
In verse 16 Paul uses the philosophical language to describe following a way of life. Paul uses this word in Galatians within the expression “they follow this rule” (Gal 6:16). The word “rule” here is used like the name “Benedictine rule.” It is a code of conduct for living a certain way of life.

Meditate on the Text

Are the people we consider leaders in the church those who are the spiritually mature. Is leadership in the church considered to be a responsibility for people with business experience? Is it the out-going, charismatic people who gain a following and should be our leaders? How do we have leadership in the business of the church while also having spiritual leaders or guides? Which is more important?
Imagine a board game called “The Game of Spiritual Life.” What causes your game piece to go forward as you make progress. What experiences cause your game piece to go backwards? How do you make sure at least to maintain your progress without experiencing regress in the spiritual life?

Live the Text

When faced with moral choices, remind yourself to “Act your age!” This includes occasions of fear, worry, envy, anger, pride, etc.
Think about how to quantify the quality of your spiritual development. Each hour gets a mark between 1-10. What would your average be at the end of the day? Is this week better than last week? Is this year better than previous years?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Philippians 3:10-14

Read the Text

10My goal is to understand experientially what Christ went through—the impact of his revivification and the participation of his painful experiences. 11When I die, I want to handle death in the same way as Jesus, if somehow I might reach my destination at the raising up and out from among the corpses. 12It’s not as though I have already reached this point or have been made spiritually mature. Instead, I make chase on the possibility I might overtake that for which I also have been overtaken by Christ Jesus.
13Friends, I do not consider myself to have crossed the finish line. Yet, I focus myself on one thing: by leaving in the dust the advantages I gained previously and stretching myself toward the benefits before me, 14I sprint toward the goal for the prize, the ascension invitation of God in participation with Christ Jesus.

Think about the Text

Paul’s desire to imitate Christ reaches a deep and profound level of experiencing what Christ experienced. Rather than knowing about Christ intellectually, Paul wants to get inside Jesus’ experience of reaching the stage in life in which the person can endure suffering, die as a martyr for the benefit of others, then be raised up from the grave (or Hades), and taken up through apotheosis to heaven. This language needs to be understood within the context of Hellenistic tradition as found in the Jewish text of 4th Maccabees. This text relates the story of a Jewish mother and her seven sons, who, along with Eleazer, the priest, withstood the tortures of Antioches Epiphanes and were martyred one by one. It is said of them in the language of an epitaph, “They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death" (4th Macc 17:10). The expression “even to death” is the exact idiom used by Paul in Phil 2:8,30. The epitaph continues, “Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life” (4th Macc 17:11-12). The reward for their endurance is that “they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness” (4th Macc 17:18).
The metaphor of resurrection is foremost one of waking up from sleep. A dead person looks like a sleeping person, except that a living person wakes from sleep and stands up. Resurrection is simply the act of standing up or rising up. The image may be that of the cemetery, which the Greeks thought of as a dormitory for the sleeping dead. Resurrection from the dead is not resurrection from the state of death but from the location of the “dead ones,” the corpses. Although we think of our loved ones lying prone in the ground, this was not the experience in Paul’s day. All that was left of the dead was either bones or ashes, depending on the funeral custom. Therefore, Paul might also have in mind that these “dead ones” are in a sleepy, underworld existence from which they will be awakened and be brought back up. The prize is an “upward” or “heavenly” call, an expression I’ve translated as an “ascension invitation.”
Cicero, the politician, rhetorician, and philosopher, wrote over a hundred years earlier, about the destiny of the soul. He disagreed with Stoics, who considered the soul to dissipate into the universal soul, and the Epicureans, who believed the soul to be extinguished at death. In his work On Friendship, he wrote in praise of Scipio about his own more Platonic concept of the soul’s destiny after death. Cicero has Laelius espouse the view, “that human souls were of God; that upon their departure from the body a return to heaven lay open to them, and that in proportion as each soul was virtuous and just would the return be easy and direct.” He goes on to say, “If the truth really is that the souls of all good men after death make the easiest escape from what may be termed the imprisonment and fetters of the flesh, whom can we think of as having had an easier journey to the gods than Scipio?” (De Amicitia, 1.4).
Another metaphor here is the athletic race in which the runner seeks to reach the goal. Paul’s words “pursue, press on” (diōkō, my trans. “sprint”) and “mark, goal” (skopos) in verse 14 are the same words used by Epictetus in a similar context. Those things that are indifferent to the pursuit of virtue are external to us or outside of our control. Epictetus says, “We ought to keep the soul directed to this mark (skopos), to pursue (diōkō) nothing external, and nothing which belongs to others, but to do as [god] as appointed who has the power” (Discourses, 4.12.15).
Paul’s criticism about the advantages of ancestry, nationality, and accomplishments, as we saw in the previous section, is not that these were part of a Jewish religion he is now abandoning. They are simply the advantages of life that do not make a difference in the progress of the soul toward virtue. Paul discards them in order to pursue that which enables him to achieve the goal.

Meditate on the Text

Think about what it’s like to wake up in the morning. If you’ve slept soundly, you are not aware of the passing of time. You fell asleep and now you are awake. Perhaps the alarm clock announced to you it was time to wake up to a new and glorious day. How might you compare this to death and resurrection?
Can you picture a runner at the starting line, who is wearing the medals and ribbons he/she has won and carrying a few trophies? This person’s a college graduate and is wearing a robe and a mortar board hat. Under one arm are a stack of newspapers with press reports showing how famous this athlete is. What does this runner need to do in order to run a good race and make it to the finish line?

Live the Text

Every time you stand up this week, think resurrection. Every time you walk up stairs (or ride up), think of your invitation from God to come up to God’s presence.
Think of your little goals this week. While you’re reaching the small goals you set for yourself, remember the ultimate goal you are working toward: the life well-lived, being all God intended for humans to be.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Philippians 3:1-9

Read the Text

3:1Consequently, my friends, be glad as people of God. Repeating myself is not tedious to me but for you it is a preventative.
2You Gentile men need to watch out for the hungry-for-blood dogs, the ones who do the dirty deed; watch out for the Excision. 3On the contrary, we are the Circumcision: the ones who serve through God’s spirit and have their basis for boasting in what Christ Jesus has done instead of confidence in a fleshly status; 4I, however, do possess the basis for confidence in a fleshly status. If any other man suggests he is confident in the flesh, I can outdo him:
5I was circumcised on the eighth day;
I am from the race of Israel;
My family is from the tribe of Benjamin;
I am a Hebrew from a long line of Hebrews.
When it comes to the Torah, I’m a Pharisee;
6When it comes to zeal, I persecuted the followers of Jesus;
When it comes to correctness in obedience to Torah, I’m irreproachable;
7Whatever advantages I had, I consider them unprofitable because of Christ in my life. 8In fact, I consider every advantage of life to be unprofitable because of the far superior knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Sovereign. It is because of him I have discounted the value of every advantage of life – and consider them to be a pile of garbage – in order that I might profit from my relationship with Christ. 9I also want to be evaluated by my relationship to Christ: not because I have a right-standing based on God’s covenant in the Torah, but a right-standing because of the faithfulness of Christ, the right-standing God has brought about based on faithfulness.

Think about the Text

Paul comes to some sort of conclusion here that thematically calls back to 2:17-18 before the recommendation sections for Timothy and Epaphroditus. He implies that he is repeating himself, but we aren’t told whether what precedes or what follows is repetitive.
Paul’s admonitions in 3:2 allude to the judaizers who want the gentile male followers of Jesus to become circumcised as an identity marker indicating their inclusion in God’s covenant people. Paul begins by calling them dogs. This may just be an insult, since dogs and pigs are frequently used metaphorically for unclean animals. What this context about a dog has in common with a few others is blood (1 Ki. 20:19; 22:38; Ps. 67:24). Perhaps Paul is depicting judaizers as men who are, in a sense, “out for blood” or “blood-thirsty.” Paul also calls them the Excision (“mutilators of the flesh”). The base word in Greek is the same as the word for circumcision with a different prefixed preposition. In the case of circumcision, the preposition implies cutting around, while the former term implies chopping off. In Gal 5:12 Paul is even more explicit, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”
Paul alludes to the biblical concept of a more important form of circumcision, which is to circumcise the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:23-26; Rom 2:28-29; Gal 5:6). He considers uncircumcised gentile followers of Jesus to have experienced a spiritual circumcision of the heart and have a greater basis for their place in God’s covenant.
Paul establishes his own qualifications as an observant and respectable Jew as a way of saying he is just as good as the judaizers who want to compel Gentiles to become full proselytes to Judaism as a way of being included in God’s covenant people. Paul’s self-praise lists the type of elements included in praise speeches (encomia), such as what stock a person comes from, the person’s education and upbringing, and their deeds.
In the past people have assumed that Paul begins in v. 7 to say that everything he had as a Jew is worthless, nothing more than garbage. It does seem like Paul, as a philosophical guide, has adapted himself to his audience of gentiles. Often he identifies so closely with gentile followers of Jesus that he can say “we.” Paul does not say in his letters that Torah, the covenants, and the promises are now null and void. Quite the contrary. The point Paul is trying to make here is that these types of advantages or gains, whether they are Jewish or Greco-Roman, they are not contributors to a person’s spiritual maturity or progress in the development of the soul. They are not the “things that make a difference” (Phil 1:10). For example, Epictetus (Discourses 1.30) talks about someone who goes in to see the emperor, while recognizing there is Another who sees from above. The One from Above asks what this person learned as a student about “exile, bonds, death, and disgrace” – all potential threats from an emperor. The reply is that they are “indifferent,” using a term similar to Paul’s category. When that “Another” asks, “And the end (telos), what is it?” the person replies, “To follow thee.” The young man then makes the claim about these indifferent things, “All this is nothing; but I have been preparing myself for something great.”
Paul argues in Romans that gentiles are able to be included in God’s covenant through participation in Christ Jesus. The faithfulness of Abraham brought God’s blessing and covenant to Abraham’s descendants. In the same way, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ brings reconciliation to the gentile nations and their inclusion. Paul explains that his relationship with God is not based as a Jew, who belongs to God’s covenant people with the Torah as means of knowing how to live as God’s covenant people. Paul’s covenant relationship is the same as the gentiles, with whom he has adapted himself, based on the faithfulness of Christ.
“faithfulness of Christ” (faith in Christ) – There is a growing scholarly consensus that the proper translation of this grammatical expression of Paul is the “faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ.”

Meditate on the Text

Can you think of groups that place demands on Christians: To be a Christian you should talk this way, look this way, act this way. How much of our cultural baggage could be stripped away until we get down to what’s most important about living as a follower of Jesus?
Imagine that you carry a backpack that contains all of who you are. It’s very heavy and needs to be lightened. You have three piles. One contains those things that make you the good person you are. On the opposite is the pile of things that are your vices, the things that bring out the worst in you. In the middle is a pile of what’s left over. These things don’t contribute to your virtue but they’re not necessarily evil either. What’s in this pile? Your finances, good looks, health, job status, some pleasures, reputation? Would you be able to forget those things and just pack the good pile into your backpack?

Live the Text

Pay attention to the way people present themselves. What is important to each person and is it something that contributes to virtue, to vice, or is it simply something that has no positive benefit or destructive effect.
Work on lightening your load throughout each day. Worrying and being anxious about things that are outside of your control is futile. Determine to have your mind be lighter by the end of the day and more focused on things that matter most.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Philippians 2:25-30

Read the Text

25I consider it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother, co-worker, comrade-in-arms; your apostle and minister of my need. 26My reason for sending him is that he is missing you and feeling distraught, since you have heard he was ill. 27In fact, he was so ill he nearly died. However, God showed him mercy – not just him but me too, so I might not have grief heaped upon grief. 28For this reason I sent him expeditiously, so that when you see him again you might be glad and I also might be without grief.
29Give Epaphroditus a warm reception and provide a place to such distinguished people. 30Because of his sense of obligation to what Christ is doing here, he almost died, risking his life so that he might take up the slack in your ministry to me.

Think about the Text

This section of Philippians also reads like a recommendation letter. You could remove the Timothy and the Epaphroditus sections without destroying the flow of the text or losing information on which some other part of the letter is based. What does make these two sections important to the letter and complete the argument Paul is making is the way in which they function as examples of the way of thinking Paul is suggesting. The Philippians need to exhibit a way of thinking that puts the needs of others before their own (Phil 2:1-4). They are then instructed to think the same way as Jesus (Phil 2:5-11). The Timothy section provides an example of someone who thinks the way Jesus thinks by making others preeminent. The Epaphroditus section also provides an example of someone who was willing to make the extreme sacrifice (same phrase “unto death” in Phil 2:8 referring to Jesus is repeated in 2:30 about Epaphroditus). When we understand the function of Paul’s rhetoric we see how the context fits together for the purpose of exhortation through examples.
Paul does not have the same relationship with Epaphroditus as he does with Timothy. Perhaps Epaphroditus is older. Paul considers Epaphroditus a brother rather than a son. He uses a military metaphor, “a fellow soldier” or “comrade-in-arms.” Paul also calls him an apostle, though the word is normally translated as “messenger” within the context.
A key aspect of the type of approach Paul alludes to in his philosophical language is the control or removal of the passions or desires. Paul refers to these as “degrading passions” (Rom 1:26) and “lustful passions” (1 Thess 4:5). Another word often used to describe this is emotion. An extreme view portrays philosophers like the Stoics as emotionless. This is not true, since they describe some emotion, like love and joy, as “good emotion/passion.” Paul talks freely of love, joy, and sorrow/grief. These are healthy emotions to have, when we don’t take them to the extreme and become dependent on them or allow them to control our lives in an unhealthy way.
Paul continues to return to the topic of his incarceration and the role the Philippians have had in providing care for him. People placed in prison were not well-cared for by jailers. They were dependent on family and friends to bring them food and clothing. If they became ill, which was often the case in squalid conditions, they could die without medical treatment provided by those caring for them. People in jail also needed money, since the level of care and security they received during their imprisonment was dependent on a system of bribery. Epaphroditus was providing the care Paul needed beyond what the Philippians were able to send to him.

Meditate on the Text

What metaphors represent your relationship to people you work with in areas of ministry?
What are you willing to risk for others? How do we balance self-care with care for others? Where’s the boundary between selfishness and selflessness?
Imagine there’s an award ceremony in which people are handed a ceramic figurine of the Apostle Paul (the Paulos award). Whom do you see walking across the stage to receive their award? Are they people you know in your own community? Would others nominate you for a Paulos?

Live the Text

You are God’s apostle today. To whom is God sending you? Try to find at least one person this week for whom you can be her/his apostle.
Think of the people you know who live in difficult circumstances because of illness, disease, poverty, unemployment, family crises, etc. Is there someone among these people for whom you can become a resource?
If you meet someone that deserves a Paulos award, show warmth, respect, and honor to that person.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Philippians 2:19-24

Read the Text

19God willing, I hope soon to send Timothy to you. I’m looking forward to putting my mind at ease when I know of your affairs. 20Timothy is a rare person, who will give careful attention to your affairs. 21People usually are concerned only with their own affairs and not the affairs having to do with Jesus Christ. 22You know how valuable he is, because he worked with me in the gospel ministry like a son works with a father. 23For this reason, to start with, I hope to send him immediately after I figure out what’s happening with me. 24Afterward, I am confident of the Lord’s will that I’ll come right away too.

Think about the Text

“God willing” (I hope in the Lord Jesus) – Paul’s language here seems nothing more than a colloquial idiom expressing in religious language a future wish.
“I know of your affairs” (lit. “knowing the things concerning you”) – Throughout the letter Paul uses an imprecise phrase “the things.” Paul doesn’t seem to specify what things he has in mind. We use the same expression, “How are things?”
Paul continues the “soul” language. In v. 19 he wants to be “good-souled” (“heartened” we might say). In v. 20 Paul says he has no one of “equal-soul” (we might say “there’s no one comparable”).
“give careful attention to your affairs” (genuinely concerned for your welfare) – Timothy won’t just pretend to be interested in what’s happening to the Philippians but will carefully meditate on their situation.
Although this section could stand on its own as a recommendation type of letter (a type listed by Greco-Roman rhetoricians), it seems to follow closely on the preceding section giving Timothy as an example. This chapter begins with the exhortation to focus on “the things” of others (Phil 2:4). What follows is the prime example of selfless thought, which should be the manner of life to which we aspire (Phil 2:5). Paul now presents Timothy as a good example of someone who does that.

Meditate on the Text

You’ve probably asked someone to write a letter of recommendation for you related to employment. What would someone say about you if they were writing such a letter to introduce you to another church?
Think of people you know. Do you know what’s going on in their lives? Have you heard them talk about their circumstances but let your mind wander or spend your time thinking about what you were going to say next? Let your mind play a slideshow of people you know and remember the kinds of things they’re going through.
If your pastor wanted to send someone to go visit a person, are you the kind of person at the top of the list?

Live the Text

Ask a few people how things are going with them. Listen carefully to what they say. Determine to remember details of what they said, pray about the circumstances, and then make sure to follow up with them in a few days.
Be attentive to thoughts about other people’s lives. When someone crosses your mind, stop to send an email, post something to them on Facebook, write a letter, make a phone call. If you know someone is in the hospital and you’ve been meaning to visit them, take the time this week to attend to their needs.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Philippians 2:12-18

Read the Text

12So then, my beloved friends, in the same way as you’ve always listened to me – not only when I’m present with you but even more now in my absence – generate your own moral health with all due diligence. 13For God is the one who energizes you to have the will and way to be what God wants.
14Practice all these principles without bickering and quarreling, 15so that you might be honest and decent people, God’s innocent children living in a time of perversity and decadence. Within it you shine like the stars in the universe.
16By your consistent way of life I will have a basis for honor at Christ’s day of judgment. The quality of your character will prove that I did not run the race of life uselessly or that I labored unprofitably. Quite the contrary. 17Even though my sacrificial actions are like a libation of wine poured out as a sacrifice and ritual for your faithful lives, I am elated and celebrate with you. 18Similarly, be elated and celebrate with me.

Think about the Text

“generate your own moral health” (work out your own salvation) – This phrase has always been a difficult text to interpret and translate. If salvation is considered to be a spiritual experience in which the believer assents to a doctrine about the divinity of Jesus and is born again by God’s grace and not by works, then how can Paul tell the Philippians, whom he has already called saints, to work to produce their salvation?
This expression is only used elsewhere one place in Greek literature. Euripides, the 5th century Athenian poet, wrote in the tragedy, “The Children of Herakles,” “Why then do you hesitate if you can secure safety for the city and for your descendants?” It is in this play that Macaria, a daughter of Herakles, volunteers to be a sacrifice to Persephone to save the city from military attack. Macaria speaks, “Nay, if these be slain and I alone be saved, I have no hope in any wise of being happy. ... Conduct me to the scene of death, crown me with garlands, and begin the rites, if so it please you; then be victorious o'er the foe, for here I offer my life freely and without constraint, and for my brothers and myself I undertake to die. For I, by loving not my life too well, have found a treasure very fair, a glorious means to leave it.”
We tend to think of “salvation” primarily in contexts we know from the First/Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Most often salvation has to do with rescue from danger. As Jews, who read and wrote Greek, used the Greek concept of salvation, the term is used in contexts of ethics or morality to mean a therapeutic healing of the soul through a process of change. This process appears in Paul’s language of work. Our expression “work out” has the verb with a prefixed preposition to mean bringing about an effect through motion. In Phil 2:13, “it is God who works in you,” Paul uses the same root with a different prefixed preposition to refer to the energy applied in the human soul by which God produces change.
In Plato’s work, Theaetetus 153.b, he has Socrates drawing a parallel between the action necessary to strengthen and improve the body and the same effect needed for the soul. Rest and idleness spoil the body, but the body is “preserved (saved) for a long time by motion and exercise.” The exercise of the soul is described as a “mental habit.” Socrates then concludes, “Is not the soul informed, and improved, and preserved (saved) by study and attention, which are motions...?” As early as Plato and during the time of Paul and later, Greco-Roman moral philosophy uses the language of salvation in moral contexts to describe the improvement of the soul by the exercise of the mind in making proper moral judgments. This is the context in which Paul is urging the Philippians to practice their way of thinking in a way that improves the soul.
“Practice all these principles without bickering and quarreling” (Do all things without murmuring and arguing) – Just because Paul admonishes them not to bicker and argue doesn’t mean Paul knows they are. This way of interpreting the text is called mirror reading: whatever someone says not to do means the audience is doing the reverse. This is only speculation without confirmation from some other text.
“By your consistent way of life” (holding fast to the word of life) – Paul does not depend on the Philippians to know the date when they were born again as a basis for their condition at the judgment. This expression and many others Paul uses implies that followers of Jesus are continually to be maturing toward the goal. Salvation is an ongoing process (1 Cor 1:18; 15:1-2; 2 Cor 2:15; 7:10; cf. 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:9; 2:2).
“a basis for honor at Christ’s day of judgment” (boast on the day of Christ) – Paul is not seeking to be proud of his efforts but to anticipate that a future judgment about his life’s work will result in the honor of a job well done. He is not content with simply doing his best. His job is not done until the people to whom he ministered have reached their final reward and they are proof of the vitality and effectiveness of his labor. Paul uses metaphors of athletics, labor, and religious ritual to communicate the kind of ministry he has and its intended consequences.

Meditate on the Text

Imagine your soul and see the sign “Under Construction.” How would you imagine what’s under construction and how far along the work has come? Is it a large complex already? Does it look like a mall or a cathedral? A sports pavilion or a sanctuary? Is it a retreat center with an indoor pool or a shack with an outhouse? If you could see the blueprint for a mature soul, how much more work do you need to do?
Try to imagine it’s your turn to stand before the judgment. All of the people to whom you ministered in some way are asked to step forward as witnesses. Would this be an event at which you would feel honor and joy, or would you be ashamed that your life had little effect?

Live the Text

Whenever you see signs of road construction or a building going up, let it remind you of your continuing work on yourself.
As you meet people this week, think about whether that person would make a good witness to the effect of your life.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Philippians 2:5-11

Read the Text

5This way of thinking should be patterned on Christ Jesus:

6The one existing in the role of a god,
did not seek to grasp equal status with a god,
7but demoted himself,
taking the role of a slave.

Having been born in the same way as humans
and looking like any other human,
8he debased himself,
choosing to be willing to die [even the death of crucifixion].

9So God promoted him
and granted him a rank above any other,
10so that before Jesus all would show deference [heavenly, earthly and subterranean]
11and the voice of all acclaim that Jesus Christ is Sovereign [for the honor of Father God].

Think about the Text

“This way of thinking should be patterned on Christ Jesus” (Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus) – When we read a phrase like “let this mind be in you,” it sounds very mystical. We think of the “mind of Christ” and how we can implant that mind within our own brain. Here again Paul is talking about “prudential thinking” (phronesis). We are to think the same way that Jesus thought, not intellectually but with the same moral judgment or practical wisdom.
Paul’s language in Phil 2:6-11 reads like poetry. We might infer that Paul is quoting this early hymn. Scholars differ on how to arrange the lines to reconstruct the poetry. Here I am adapting the lines as Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has suggested (Paul: A Critical Life, p. 225), though the translation is completely my own. I also follow him in his suggestion that extended lines might give evidence of Paul adding a gloss (explanatory phrase) to complete the meaning.
The hymn functions as an explanation for the way in which Jesus gave greater regard to others than to himself. We need not conjecture that the hymn is making a theological statement about the substance of Christ’s nature. For example, one does not change the material substance of the body to become a slave. Theologians have called this “emptying” of Christ the kenosis. It is a mistake, however, to take the language to mean Christ emptying himself as if he is a container which can be emptied of its contents. The form of a slave refers to the role of a slave. For someone to take that role voluntarily would be to lose one’s status, in other words, demote oneself. Consequently, the hymn first talks of the role and status of a god, which Christ did not choose. Rather, Christ demoted himself to slave status.
In the second strophe or stanza, Christ’s humanity is the topic. In this same way, a human who is willing to die the death of a common criminal debases (humbles) him- or herself. If we are correct about the addition, Paul adds the further explanation that this was the death of crucifixion. The Greek term refers broadly to forms of torture and execution in which a pole was used. The Greek word for cross (stauros) has nothing to do with cross-beams. This became the terminology based on the Latin translations. Rather, a stauros is a pike, a long sharp pole inserted into the body of the one who would be planted like a tree in the ground as a warning and threat to others. For whatever reason, the Romans began attaching people to the poles rather than inserting the poles into people.
“God promoted him” (God highly exalted him) – The context is one of role, status, and rank. As a result of Jesus’ willingness for self-sacrifice and to be demoted and debased, God then promoted Jesus to the highest rank. The incarnation and exaltation story here is not one of Jesus simply returning after his death to what he was previously. This is the language of Jesus earning the right to be Lord and to be shown deference and acclaim by all beings in the universe.
The language of Jesus being exalted to heaven reminds some scholars of the apotheosis of Roman emperors. They infer that Paul’s language about Jesus has some similarities to ascriptions given to Caesar. They draw the conclusion that the context for the status and role of Jesus is the empire. Scholars will list names attributed to Caesar and let you make the inference. In fact, there is very little support for this line of thinking. Caesar is not the only human to experience apotheosis or divination. In Greek and Roman literature the figure of the hero or sage also attained divinity and a home in the Isle of the Blessed. Since Paul’s context is Greco-Roman moral philosophy, this fits much closer to Paul’s line of reasoning. The last two chapters of Fourth Maccabees describe the honor and divine reward given to those who endure suffering. The main in Phil. 2 relates to phronēsis, the forming of rational judgments, making the best choices. Similarly, Fourth Maccabees contains the author's statement about the purpose of the document, "The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy. For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue-- I mean, of course, rational judgment (phronēsis)" (4 Macc 1:1-2).

Meditate on the Text

Imagine you could take Jesus’ “thinking cap” and put it on your own head. How would you think differently about life?
Think through the hymn as a narrative. What happens in scene one? Scene two? Scene three?

Live the Text

See how many ways this week you can give preference to others. Let the other driver pass you and get in front of you. In the store, offer to let someone else get in line in front of you. In a discussion or argument with someone, quickly offer, “You may be right.” Say to a spouse or family member when there is a disagreement over who was responsible, “It was probably my fault.”
Think about the famous WWJD (What would Jesus do?). How does this change any decisions you make?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Philippians 2:1-4

Read the Text

2:1For this reason I make the following appeal based on the qualities of your relationship with each other: You have mutual encouragement as Christ followers; you have loving support; you have spiritual friendship; you have a deep emotional commitment to each other. 2You’ll make me the happiest person in the world if you think alike, love each other in the same way, act as friends who share the same soul, have a singular purpose. 3Without any sense of competitiveness or hogging the limelight, lead the way by humbly putting one another’s needs above each one’s concerns. 4Don’t just keep looking out for number one, but focus on what matters in each other’s lives.

Think about the Text

Paul lists those things that are real experiences of the Philippians and based on which he is able to exhort them to a deep sense of unity and singularity of purpose. Within the social structure of their friendship and their spiritual fellowship, Paul wants their behavior to be an outgrowth of their practical wisdom or prudence (phronesis). Paul uses the verb form ten times in the letter to the Philippians. One of the four cardinal virtues is prudence. Paul's language is about prudential thinking, making moral choices by doing what is good and avoiding what is bad. This is not just about individual progress but about the formation and transformation of people within a community of friendship.
Paul’s language is similar to the way in which philosophers described friendship.
“One loves himself, not in order to exact from himself any wages for such love, but because he is in himself dear to himself. Now, unless this same property be transferred to friendship, a true friend will never be found; for such a friend is, as it were, another self.”
“For he, indeed, who looks into the face of a friend beholds, as it were, a copy of himself.”
“How could you have full enjoyment of prosperity, unless with one whose pleasure in it was equal to your own ? Nor would it be easy to bear adversity, unless with the sympathy of one on whom it rested more heavily than on your own soul.”
The context has been taken to be one of conflict in which the people are encouraged to get along with each other. There really is no mention of conflict among the Philippians. Even Phil 4:2 might not be about discord. Instead, what Paul wants is for the Philippians to mature at a similar pace so they are able to form the same moral judgments. Each person, then, is able to show an equal amount of confraternity and care for each other.

Meditate on the Text

What do you need to have in order to become the best person possible? What do you have going for you?
Imagine what it would mean to share the same soul with someone. See yourself talking with a friend on a deep level. How would you imagine the two souls becoming one? What would it be like to be so in sync with another person that it's liking looking into a mirror?

Live the Text

Who can you find this week that provides you support and friendship, bringing out the best in you?
After thinking about your To Do’s for the week, think about the To Do’s for other people. What do they need from you this week? How many of the To Do’s for others can you put before your own To Do’s?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Philippians 1:25-30

Read the Text

25Since I am persuaded that my life in flesh is better for you, I realize that I will stay alive and stick with you all for your progress and joy resulting from a faithful life. 26The reason is that your basis for honor is increased in Christ Jesus through my actions when I am present with you again. 27I only ask of you Philippians to conduct yourselves appropriately in relation to the gospel message of Christ, so that, whether I arrive and see you or am absent and hear about you, you hold your ground with singular purpose, resolutely cooperating in commitment to the gospel mission.
28Do not be intimidated in any way by the rabble-rousers. Their conduct is indicative of their degeneracy. Your conduct proves your moral progress. This is God’s way. 29You have been given the privilege for the sake of Christ, not only to give your allegiance to him, but also to endure suffering for his sake. 30You are experiencing the same struggle which I am still having.

Think about the Text

“progress and joy resulting from a faithful life” (progress and joy in faith) – Christians through the centuries have too easily made the assumption that faith in the New Testament refers to belief in doctrine. The way in which Paul uses the word in his letters suggests he has in mind a concept closer to our word faithfulness. The grammatical construction suggests something more like my translation than “in faith.” Our progress or development as well as our joy comes from a consistency and constancy of life. This term progress (prokopē) was a key word among the Stoics. Joy was among the positive emotions, a "rational elation" (Brennan, p. 97).
“your basis for honor is increased in Christ Jesus through my actions “ (I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus) - Verse 26 needs to be understand within the ancient cultural context of the honor/shame society. Boasting is not a negative concept but a basis for honor rather than shame.
“conduct yourselves appropriately” (live your life in a manner worthy) – The term used here implies the way someone lives life as a citizen. In Phil 3:20 Paul uses a similar word to say “our citizenship is in heaven.” Here Paul means act like you are a citizen of heaven.
“you hold your ground with singular purpose, resolutely cooperating in commitment to the gospel mission” – The people of the community of faith are to be so closely aligned in purpose and action that they are literally “one spirit” and “one soul.” These were characteristics of those who were friends, friendship being an important relationship within the social fabric. The cooperation they exhibit is like an athletic team, not in the sense of our team against their team but as our team working together to accomplish the goal.
The opposing force consists of those who represent different values. The vice they demonstrate in their lives indicates that they are failing to live up to the best standards. In contrast, the virtue exhibited in the lives of Paul’s audience indicates they are receiving the therapeutic benefits of the moral life. This salvation and destruction dichotomy within Greek moral contexts refers to this type of moral progress or regress. In contexts of moral progress, salvation refers to the progression of the soul’s health toward the goal, while destruction refers to the soul’s digression (see Fitzgerald, Passions and Moral Progress in Greco-Roman Thought). This concept is portrayed in the Stoic allegory "The Tablet of Cebes." The language of progress in becoming a virtuous person and the outcome being salvation rather than destruction is unmistakeable.
“endure suffering” – Paul is not glorying in suffering for the sake of suffering. The enduring of suffering is what produces moral strength of character. The Philippians have the same competition in the marketplace of ideas as Paul is having where he is at. To switch metaphors, the Philippians are engaged in an athletic struggle, wrestling with the hardships that come about by engaging with the conventional wisdom about how people should lead their lives.

Meditate on the Text

Reflect on your own spiritual autobiography and on the development of the main character–you. Are there ups and downs in your spiritual experience? Even so, is there a steady progression toward a fully developed character?
If you were to have an annual check-up for your soul, would your soul-doctor say you’re doing better or worse than the year before?
When you think of your Christian life and the way your express your faith around others, do you have a sense of honor about Jesus or do you feel shame?
Imagine you have been transported to heaven, where you experienced an induction ceremony as a citizen of heaven. You wake up back in your human life on this planet as a resident alien. How does that affect the way you think and behave?
What kind of a team player are you as a Christian? Whose team are you on? Are you on the same team as the people at your church? What’s the goal of the “game?” Is there an opposing team?

Live the Text

For each person you encounter during the week, whether in person or not, think about whether you think you and that person are on the same team. If not, what team does the other person represent? If so, are you and that person being good teammates?
In the game of life, determine that you are going to move forward in becoming all that God created you to be and not allow yourself to experience a setback.
Just as countries have a special holiday to celebrate their culture, pretend today is Heaven Day. Celebrate the day as a citizen of heaven by how you speak and act.
When you face hardships, mentally suit-up as a wrestler and overcome the obstacle.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Philippians 1:20-24

Read the Text

20I firmly expect and hope that at my trial I will not act shamefully, but in all frankness with consistency I will magnify Christ through my actions, whether I am allowed to live or be given the death penalty. 21As far as I am concerned, to remain living is for the benefit of Christ and to be put to death is an advantage for me. 22If I remain living in this flesh, this means producing fruit; yet which to pick I can’t decide. 23I’m pressed between a rock and a hard place. I have a desire to be released from this mortal coil and be with Christ—a much better option. 24Yet, to remain in flesh is a greater necessity for your sake.

Think about the Text

Paul lets his readers hear him deliberate about his upcoming trial. He characterizes it as a life or death decision. Will he stand up for his beliefs or will he shamefully recant just to save his life? If he is allowed to live, other people will benefit from his continuing to preach the gospel message. But Paul considers a martyr’s death to be for his own advantage (kerdos).

Plato relates the speech of Socrates:

I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others. ... What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. If it [death] is a complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage (kerdos).

Paul’s attitude toward death is similar to the Stoics but for different reasons. Paul does not fear death because he believes death is not an end but a beginning. For the Stoics death is out of our control and will result in a cessation of consciousness. Paul would have agreed with the following excerpt from Letter IV of Seneca, who at this time was serving as the tutor of young Nero.

No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it, or believes that living through many consulships is a great blessing. Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks. Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful.

Meditate on the Text

Can you recall an incident in which you acted in a way for which you later felt ashamed? What could you have done differently?

Every day young and old people alike live their last day. What regrets would you have if this were your last? Can you be thankful for the life you’ve had and face your life without a fear of your own demise? Do you understand that, since what will happen in the future is largely out of your control, to worry about death does not profit you anything?

Imagine standing at the moment between life and death. What do you see when you look back? What do you see when you look forward?

Live the Text

Look for those moments in your day when you have to make a choice. Which choice is for the good of others and which choice is the selfish one?

What are you doing this week that is an advantage to someone else?

Imagine you are George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You’ve awakened from a nightmare world in which you did not exist. See everything in a fresh way, not just what you get from others, but more importantly what impact you have in other people’s lives just because you’re there.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Philippians 1:12-19

Read the Text

12I want you to be aware that my current predicament has resulted in the progress of the gospel mission. 13Even though I am in prison, it’s clear to all the people working in the provincial headquarters and to everyone else in the city that I am being held because of my commitment to Christ. 14Also, many of our friends in the Lord have been emboldened and encouraged to be more vocal because of my detention.
15Compare the two: on the one side, some are responding because of envy and rivalry; on the other side, others are in fact declaring Christ because of good intentions. 16The latter act out of love, realizing that the reason for my situation is the defense of the gospel message. 17The former declare Christ contentiously, not sincerely, expecting to make my incarceration more difficult. 18What do I care? The only thing that matters is that in any case, whether pretentiously or honestly, Christ is declared, and this makes me happy. You bet I’m glad. 19For I realize that what has happened to me will result in my release because of your petition and the assistance of Jesus Christ’s spirit.

Think about the Text

For Paul to have been arrested and jailed could have appeared to his followers as a major setback. Instead, Paul considers it to have propelled the spread of his message and made other people more willing to speak out.
“people working in the provincial headquarters” (in the whole praetorium) – This language sounds like a setting in Rome is required. The language is often taken to refer to the imperial guard. I take it to mean the place we would call the provincial headquarters. If Paul is located in Ephesus, it would have had a provincial headquarters.
Verses 15-17 use the language of comparison (synkrisis). The Greek construction contains words that signal the two sides of the comparison. Paul’s positive and negative comments are based in ethical judgments about motivations for actions.
For Paul the message about Jesus is tantamount and people’s motivations or differences of opinions aren’t as important.
“because of your petition” (through your prayers) – Although Paul has used this term previously in connection with prayer, this instance in the singular may be a reference to the Roman custom of petition in which a petition is written to an official requesting a release from imprisonment.
“result in my release” (turn out for my deliverance) – Here the same word is used that is commonly translated “salvation,” the context suggests Paul is expecting that he might be released. This initial optimism turns to more reflection by Paul on what the best outcome might be. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher born around this time, wrote about Socrates’ imprisonment with similar language.
Then, when he [Socrates] was obliged to speak in defense of his life, did he behave like a man who had children, who had a wife? No, but he behaved like a man who has neither. And what did he do when he was to drink the poison, and when he had the power of escaping from prison, and when Crito said to him, "Escape for the sake of your children," what did Socrates say? Did he consider the power of escape as an unexpected gain? By no means: he considered what was fit and proper; but the rest he did not even look at or take into the reckoning. For he did not choose, he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which is increased and saved by doing what is just, and is impaired and destroyed by doing what is unjust. Socrates will not save his life by a base act; ... he who discoursed in such a manner about virtue and right behavior. It is not possible to save such a man's life by base acts, but he is saved by dying, not by running away.

Meditate on the Text

Rather than seeing his arrest as being a misfortune, Paul focuses on the positive effects of his predicament. Is there a difficulty in your life that seems like bad luck but for which you can see how it might have positive effects on others and maybe even you?
Does your example cause other people to be stronger?
Is your criticism of people based on how or why they do things instead of whether their efforts are resulting in good for others?
What is your motivation? To make yourself look better by making others look bad? To resist others’ good work because you’re jealous?

Live the Text

What in your life this week results in the progress of God’s work in the world?
When you come across people during the week, think about whether your actions influence them positively.
Monitor your critique of others. Ask yourself if you’re doing it for their good or for yours.
Whenever you notice the good others are doing, be happy for them.