Walking with Philippians: Reflecting on Paul’s Words in Our Daily Lives

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by Kim Long

Okay, I admit it, I was never really a big fan of the “apostle Paul.” Chalk it up to that often quoted verse reminding wives to obey their husbands – and here is the unfinished bit which seldom gets as much press – husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. As a daughter of the 60’s and 70’s, there was little room to embrace poor old Paul.

So imagine my joy and surprise when I realized Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains a perfect joyful framework for our holiday celebrations – celebrations which are too often strained to the breaking point with expectations and often misremembered moments laden with emotion.

My grocery bill will easily double in the next few months with ingredients for everything from turkey and dressing to the last gumbo and King Cake of the season. Frustration, anxiety and panic – an “unholy” trinity – often take over my mind.

Still though, grocery trips must be made. Things I tend to bring to the grocery store: 1. My list, usually written on the back of a used envelope. 2. The calculator on my phone. 3. An attitude which, at times, is fearful and less than charitable, not really wanting to let the person with a few items go before me in the line to checkout. In the end, at times with an uncharitable and forced smile, I grudgingly motion that they should “go first.” They are usually surprised, hurrying past me and my sense of exaggerated urgency and purpose.

Enter the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. It was hovering on my shopping list somewhere between produce and spices. In the letter of St. Paul, which is by all accounts the most loved, he stresses three themes: love for the community, appreciation for their support, and joy for the strength of the church in Philippi.

Thusly armed I exited my car and entered the grocery store.

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” Philippians 2:14
Well I am here, I muse, so I may as well get on with it. Surprised by unexpected sale items and smiles from other harried shoppers, I smile, but just a small one mostly to myself.

“I can do all things with Christ because he gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13
The sign on the freezer says turkeys are 39 cents a pound and the line is a mile long. Two shoppers turn away to the opposite side on the bin where turkeys are selling for a higher price. My heart sinks. “There goes my carefully planned budget,” I think. A manager appears pushing a cart laden with the turkeys on sale. “That poor employee,” I think, knowing his day has been longer than mine. “I will remember him in my prayers tonight.” Then, not daring to wait lest I forget this patient person, this verse springs to mind: “I thank God every time I think of you.” Philippians 1:13

Finally all groceries are resting in my shopping cart. I make the final sweep of my list and realize it is finished. Wouldn’t you know it, a mother of several with only a few items in her cart is in line behind me. She looks tired. I notice her coat is careworn. Turning toward her, I tell her to go ahead. With a look somewhere between guilt and gratitude, she accepts.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5
Now, belted in, I am driving toward home, purchases in tow.  I contemplate the apostle Paul and his letter to the church at Philippi. Their problems cannot have been, at their root, that different from mine, from ours.

Navigating the final miles, my thoughts turned to the upcoming days and weeks ahead. I am guilty of nostalgia abuse in this way. In memory my table was laden with food and family, at least 30 people deep. The front door opened and closed while laughter mingled with the blessing and joy of seeing those whom work and distance usually kept at bay. This memory is in sharp contrast to the 10 who will celebrate Thanksgiving Day around my table this year. And in sharper contrast still to those who will eat alone or not at all. Another passage is offered to me here…

“Not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4
Putting away the groceries I am assaulted with fatigue and guilt. I forego the usual cup of tea, which always serves as reward when a task, especially a difficult one, is finished. Reaching for coat, keys and purse, I head back to my car. I have done nothing for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul this year and that, I smile, is about to be remedied. Thank you St. Paul for being your persistent self. I don’t seem to be as bothered by the crowds in the grocery store just down the street, even though they are heavier. Instead I buzz around with the old youth group song we sang in a round rolling through my head…

“Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” Philippians 4:4
Of course feeding strangers, and donating food are often easier and more painless than dealing with some family situations. And we all have them… or at least most of us do. Going over my “to do” list, I fortify with a cup of tea and a bit of joy. Perhaps this year the dynamic will be softened, after all we are all a year older and theoretically wiser. I remember that my priest told our congregation we should all develop an “attitude of gratitude” Please God help me with that.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had.” Philippians 2:5
As I get out of bed, I actually consider not going to Mass on Thanksgiving Day, but it is a fleeting temptation. There are only a few worshipers present, but our priest knows we need to get home to “see to the lunch,” as he put it, so we receive a brief few sentences which seem to be filled with meaning. After our true thanksgiving, the Eucharist, we go forth feeling the blessing of Almighty God in a distinct way.  I am soothed by the sure knowledge that I have control of nothing, a thought I normally rebuke in favor of my rebellious nature. I rationalize that God knows that about me, so I talk myself into believing my way is best. Today, however, that fallacy is easily cast aside. Soon my family will be putting their feet under my table and we will eat our annual meal of turkey and dressing. “Please God,” I pray, as I drive away from the church, “Help me to remember You are God and I am not.”

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:6
Thanksgiving Day has come and gone. Our church bulletin asks for donations to the food pantry. The Angel Tree is assembled in the vestibule, its branches filled with tags and hope. I am re-reading Philippians not wanting to let go of the joy it brought me in the pre-holiday season. It is difficult though, holding onto that joy, which is strange since it carries a weightlessness that is almost indescribable.

I think the small space between Thanksgiving and Advent is the best time of the season – a quiet few days to acknowledge our gratitude and the expectant season we are moving toward.

Another verse buffets me from the relentlessness of advertising. It is a verse I carry with me to Mass as we celebrate the culmination of all our labor and God’s love for us on the Feast of Christ the King. It is the most well-known passage from this letter of unbridled joy. Yes, joy despite the fact that the author of this letter was likely imprisoned while reminding us of freedom and love. There is joy in the Lord, freedom given to us by God and love which IS the Lord.

“That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:10
Joy and being grateful are often lessons which are acknowledged when something has shaken our world. They are simple lessons, but not easy ones. May your holiday season be filled with joy, grateful hearts and hands held with family and friends. May you find your way there and back with those you love. And as Paul reminds us, “Then the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7 

(Dedicated to Jim McGill and Gene Guilliano, scripture teachers par excellence).

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