Monday, February 1, 2010

Reading Philippians

Last week, a group of us gathered to read Philippians. One of us was moving away, and we thought this book would give us comfort. As humans, many of us want to avoid change. But human narratives throughout time remind us that humans have always been on the move, that to love one another means that we're likely to face the loss of separation.

One other aspect of Philippians leapt out at me. At the end of the book, it seems that Paul, too, wrestles with the issue of dealing with abundance and dealing with deprivation: "Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4: 11-13).

I tend to assume that early Christians didn't face the same struggles with balancing abundance and lean times as we do. I tend to see those first Christians as living in happy communal families, everyone getting exactly what they needed. Paul suggests that my idyllic vision may be less than complete.

It's also interesting to read this letter in light of my earlier thoughts about Paul. In my early days, I saw him as a misogynist, back before I understood how those early Christians thought that Christ would come back at any minute, and therefore they'd be better off to avoid marriage ties. I saw Paul as warped, in what I saw as his abhorrence of marriage and other fleshly interactions.

But Philippians shows a different side, a warm and tender side. Philippians shows a man hard at work in the world, a man who takes consolation in those whom he has left behind, those who are praying for him, those who are rooting for him to succeed. Philippians shows a glimpse of the lonely side of Paul, and the side that takes joy in human communion.

I don't remember ever reading this letter all at once. I'm glad I had the chance, and I'm glad I read it in a community that I hope will be similar to the one at Philippi.

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