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Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Reinforcing the Basics

As I read the third chapter of Philippians this morning, I was struck by the very first verse: To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard.

I’ve been preaching weekly sermons for over thirty-six years, and I’ve made it a point not to say the same things week after week. I don’t want people to tune me out because they’ve heard it all before. So week after week I try to bring a fresh perspective as well as some fresh information. For instance, I keep a file of stories and illustrations, organized by subject, and I keep track of when and where I have used those illustrations so that I do not repeat them for the same audience.

But this goal of never saying the same things for the same audience has a drawback: some things need to be said over and over or they don’t sink in and stay sunk in! We actually need repetition, not only so we remember, but also so that certain facts or perspectives or beliefs become a part of us in an ongoing way.

Paul begins this chapter by repeating something the Christians in Philippi have heard him say before. He does so because it is important to reinforce the essential basics of the Christian faith. “For you it is a safeguard.” So what is the essential basic truth he repeats now? He reminds the church that our relationship with God is not based on something physical: a ritual or an ethnic identity. Rather, our relationship with God is based on trust in God’s self-giving love, manifested through Jesus. We are “righteous” not because of anything we have inherited or accomplished; instead, we are made right with God through God’s own action: the faithfulness of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Paul lists all of the advantages he could claim if a relationship with God were based on inheritance or following various rituals. But he discards all of those advantages and instead comes to God in humble trust.

It occurs to me that there is a bit of a parallel today in our society’s discussion of privilege. Men have more privileges than women (on average they get paid more and get taken more seriously). White Americans have more privileges than black Americans (on average, they grow up with 10 times as much wealth, better education, more opportunities, and less suspicion from others). Handsome people have more privileges than ugly people; thin people have more privileges than obese people; married people have more privileges than single people; cisgender heterosexuals have more privileges than LGBTQ persons; etc. We are a society in which different groups of people are valued differently or given certain advantages. To some extent, this is inevitable–even if we seek to limit unfairness as much as possible.

Through his experience of Christ’s grace, Paul has given up his privileges as a Hebrew man who has fulfilled Moses’ laws (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”). He is giving up all advantage based on birth or religious accomplishment that he has over other people. The beauty of the Christian faith is that we all come to God with no advantages or privileges, but on the same basis: humble trust in God’s amazing love for us. How might we look at ourselves and others if we could take this truth into every area of our lives?

I think we are still learning the implications of living by grace in the Spirit of God.

Physically Distant But Socially Engaged

We have heard it again and again and again: practice social distancing; stay 6 feet apart.

But the phrase “social distancing” is really a misnomer. What we need to maintain at this time is physical distancing while staying socially engaged.

As I read the second chapter of Philippians this morning a number of passages caught my attention:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” I was raised in a church that fostered humility. I was taught never to be selfishly ambitious. But is it possible to be unselfishly ambitious? I could have used some direction and encouragement with this as a teenager and young adult. And how about the idea of regarding others as better than yourself–is that healthy? To love others as yourself seems like a more wholesome approach. On the other hand, for those of us who have a problem with pride, thinking of others as better than ourselves is a helpful exercise.

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in  which you shine like stars in the world.” Throughout the many decades that I have been reading this letter, how did I miss that striking image of us being like shining stars in the world? Complaining and arguing, from Paul’s point of view, is an indication of being motivated by selfishness and conceit. This is not always so. Surely there are times when we must complain for the sake of goodness. But Paul is right that in most cases complaining and arguing are a manifestation of impatience and lower regard for the worth of others and their perspectives. A Christ-centered person is gentle, seeks to understand, and works toward win-win solutions that honor all. When we resolve conflicts in this way, we are indeed a stark contrast to the competitive approaches that dominate much of society; we are stars shining in the world.

But I was most drawn to this passage: “I hope in the Lord to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. … Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus–by brother and coworker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. … Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.”

Despite being in prison far away from the church in Philippi, Paul and that congregation are staying in touch with each other through various messengers and helpers. Indeed, Paul is completely dependent on such persons to keep himself alive. In the ancient world, prisoners were not fed by the authorities; rather, one needed friends to bring food to pass through the bars of one’s cell window (this is why Jesus tells his disciples to visit prisoners–their lives depended on it). Despite imposed physical distancing, Paul and the Christians of Philippi are maintaining a lively and crucial social engagement–including this wonderful letter of encouragement!

One person who visited Paul, Epaphroditus, has even gone through a nearly deadly illness. Paul tells us to honor such persons. I can’t help but think of all of the medical workers who are now putting their health and lives on the line to care for people–including many patients who may have the corona virus.

Imposed physical distance is exactly the time when we need to step up our social engagement. Call several people today–especially those who are on the margins. Begin a Facebook chat group or have a Zoom meeting. Pray for each other. It is time for us to shine like stars in the world.

Thankful for Others

This morning I decided to begin reading Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. I chose it because I knew this was Paul’s most cheerful letter–despite the fact that he’s imprisoned! Our circumstances are a little like his: facing restrictions, hardships, and future uncertainty; even the possibility of death. And yet he responds to his circumstances with thankfulness and trust in God. This is the kind of letter we need to hear now.

So I read the first chapter. The verses that most struck me were his opening words (following his greeting): I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

I prayed for the congregation this morning–and many others as well. I spent some time just being grateful for each person and each memory. I hope that you are also grateful for our community of faith, for all of these sisters and brothers who are striving to grow in love and service in Christ’s Spirit. We sometimes annoy each other (let’s be honest!), but when we are grateful for each other, we heal ourselves and one another.

This difficult and anxious circumstance we are in can–and will–make us more mature in love and action. It is when we are tested that we grow and get stronger. I once read of a girl who decided to help a butterfly emerge from its cocoon by carefully cutting open the cocoon with a pair of scissors. But the butterfly never flew because it did not sufficiently struggle and become strong by breaking out of the cocoon by itself. This coronavirus is a tragedy in terms of wages lost and lives lost, and a host of other potential ill effects. But it is also our time to become more like Christ. I am confident that when we are open to the Spirit, God is bringing to completion the good work that has begun in us.

Tomorrow I’ll read the second chapter of this letter and share again with you. Join me in this reading.

Watering the Plants

Today someone mentioned that the plants at the church need to be watered. This has been the secretary’s responsibility, but she is now self-quarantined at home because of illness. Since I’m here every day, and since we should reduce the number of people coming to the church building, I decided it makes most sense for me to water the plants.

So I filled up several pitchers worth of water and began making the rounds of the various plants inside the church as well as under the front portico. As I did so I had the sense that I was keeping our building properly maintained and beautified for the day when we can all return and worship. Although the church is essentially defined as the congregation, the place in which we meet can’t help but also become sacred. I wouldn’t want the congregation to come back to dried up, dead plants.

In the almost six years that I’ve been in this pastorate, the church’s building has become familiar and beloved to me. I feel honored to do this simple task of watering the plants so that, one day, the congregation will see them again, flourishing.

In the Jewish tradition, at the end of the Seder meal, the participants all say: “Next year in Jerusalem!” It is more than a hope to celebrate the Seder in Jerusalem; it is also an expression of future hope for God’s redeemed world to come. In the same way, we look forward not only to being back in our church building for worship and fellowship meals; we look forward to an even greater gathering of all God’s saints at the banquet of God.

Keep your hope alive and joyful. The best is yet to come.

Birdsong

During my morning prayer today I was mesmerized by the sound of an unusual birdsong. Even now, as I type these words, I hear another birdsong outside my window. One of the joys of emerging spring is the music of the birds in the morning. If you haven’t been paying attention, I encourage you to begin doing so.

Last night I finished reading “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy” by Michael McCarthy. It’s a memoir by a man in Britain, a butterfly fanatic, who finds ecstatic joy in the sights, sounds, rivers, insects, birds, moths and butterflies of nature. He documents the alarming decline in birds and insects (as well as other creatures) just in the past few decades. It used to be that driving at night often involved encountering a snowstorm of moths that would plaster themselves all over a car’s windshield, headlights, and grill. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Intensive agriculture, which has wiped out the wild places and bombarded fields with insecticide, has resulted in a greatly diminished natural world. McCarthy believes that the only way we will be able to save nature–and ourselves–is through the rediscovery of the sheer joy of nature.

As many of us isolate ourselves from one another, now may be a good time to reconnect with nature–even if it’s only in your own backyard. I plan to buy more birdseed.

And as catastrophic as an economic slowdown is to people’s financial stability, this time is perhaps giving nature a bit of a breather. Maybe when the pandemic is past we will have fallen in love with nature again and be more committed to finding ways to live with nature rather than against it.

Cultivating Peace of Mind

This morning when I arrived at my church office, I began my day as I always do: with silence. I spend anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes with my eyes closed, resting in the presence of God. But this morning was more difficult than usual. I kept thinking about the coronavirus, how long it might last, and what impacts it will have on people in our congregation as well as on our entire society and world. In other words, instead of cultivating peace of mind, I was fixated on worry.

That’s certainly understandable. Despite Jesus teaching us not to worry, worry does have its usefulness. Worry can motivate us to take action to prevent or minimize problems facing us. But there are two problems with worry: it is sometimes utterly useless, and even when useful it is an inadequate basis for life’s foundation.

Jesus says, “Can worry add a single hour to your life? … So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” This is the useless kind of worry–worry that cannot change anything. Frankly, this is what most of our worry looks like. After we have taken our actions and precautions, we then still worry–to no purpose. I had a professor of pastoral counseling in seminary who once said, “The only rational response to the inevitable is to relax.” That has stuck with me ever since. For instance, if I am late for a meeting because I am in a traffic jam, rather than fretting about it, I tell myself, “This is now out of my hands. Nothing will change through any of my actions. It’s time to relax.”

The possible effects of covid-19 are a lot more severe than being late for a meeting, but the principle remains the same. Once I have done what I can, it is time for me to relax.

This brings me to the second problem with worry: it’s an inadequate approach to life. Even when it is motivating and useful, it tends to make us more selfish, paranoid, angry, fearful and unreasonable. This is the attitude Jesus challenges and wants to change. Instead of cultivating worry, cultivate trust in God’s presence and grace. “For it is the Gentiles [those who do not trust in a loving God] who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

It’s the old bit of wisdom: “One does not live by bread alone.” As essential as food is, something else is even more essential: trusting in love and goodness. We have to get the foundations of life right, or we will make life into a perpetual selfish panic.

During these unusually worrisome days, take time each day to cultivate peace of mind. Pay attention to every good thing around you and say “thank you” for each one. Step outside and look at the trees and feel the breeze. Stop reading paranoid and angry posts on social media. Call a friend. Offer encouragement and kindness. Let go of what you cannot control and relax. And every day say, “No matter what happens, our lives are in your hands, and I trust you, God.”

Another Noah’s Ark

I church member emailed me this morning and said, “I keep thinking about Noah and the ark. Wonder how Noah and his family felt.”

As many families hunker down in their homes, going out as little as possible, it is indeed a bit like each of us living in our own Noah’s ark. Outside is the virus flood. Surely it will not be as catastrophic as the biblical flood, but an economic and potential health catastrophe faces us nonetheless.

But we should not think that our ark consists only of those in our own household. Our whole congregation is our ark. We are committed to each other: to pray for one another, help one another, stay in touch with one another, and provide for one another. For some of our members, even if they never become ill with the virus, they may still be challenged emotionally, spiritually, or financially. We are here for each other.

Sooner or later the waters will abate. We will see a rainbow in the clouds. And we will emerge into a world that we can make new, charged with God’s covenant of faithfulness.