Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Tag: Paul

November 7, 2020 — Paul content in prison

Isolated in Philly

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Philippians 1:12-26

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body.

More thoughts for meditation

Statistics are hard to come by, but 60-100,000 prisoners are in short-term to long-term solitary confinement in the U.S. The federal government has a “supermax” prison in Colorado in which inmates spend years locked in small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. Studies investigating the effects of the psychological and physical isolation in prison have found them to be detrimental to the mental health of the inmates, particularly to mentally ill inmates. Adverse effects include sleep disturbance, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and self-mutilation.

Prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul was someone who imprisoned other people. He locked up countless Christian believers, both male and female, and cast his judicial vote for their execution at times. After his conversion, the imprisoner became the imprisoned, an experience which so stamped Paul’s identity that he referred to himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1). The book of Acts records Paul being locked up on three occasions – at Philippi, Caesarea, and Rome. Paul was not alone in this experience. Peter and John were also repeatedly thrown in jail, and, like Paul, they too were sometimes busted out of jail by divine intervention. Paul mentions a fellow prisoner, Junia, a woman, in Romans 16. The early church was actually led by a bunch of jail birds, and God was a primary accomplice in their escape!

Paul was not in a supermax prison when he wrote to the Philippians. But I think he was subject to the same psychological problems regular and super-isolated prisoners are. To the Philippians he wrote about pondering whether he should live or die! His isolation under house arrest was a lot like what we are experiencing in our Covid-19 prison. Experts say the lockdown is causing post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia. Long-term effects are likely to be OCD, chronic loneliness and even  agoraphobia. Like Paul, people have had more thoughts about dying in the virus season. The CDC reports that “the percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid caregivers for adults (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

Suggestions’ for action

At the end of his letter to the Philippi church plant, Paul assures them, “I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).

These verses are often taken to mean we have supernatural abilities because Jesus gives me strength. And Jesus giving us strength and ability beyond what is normal for us definitely happens. But to think that happens all the time and is what Paul is saying seems like a particularly Eurocentric interpretation, mostly based on an outlook of conquering the world and proving one is worthy and powerful. I don’t think Paul is powerful and I think he suspects he is going to be killed which, according to post-biblical history, happens after yet another imprisonment.

The strength Paul says he has comes from the “secret of contentment.” In quarantine or not, healthy or not, mentally ill or not, plenty of friends around or not, employed or not, respected or not, I can do it. The “all things” actually comes at the emphasized-beginning of the Greek sentence. I think he is assuring the Philippians that Jesus is with him and with them, no matter what, in all things. Being content in our living relationship with Jesus, perpetually saved, is joy. Then we can say, “Even if I am in prison God will be with me and might even use prison. If I die, that might even be better than being alive. I am strong enough to go through anything in Christ.”

Have you learned the secret of contentment? I don’t mean “have you mastered it.” Are you hanging on to the secret in your isolation? Are you mad at God because things aren’t normal and you are not happy and successful?  Happy and successful or normal, you can do it.

Pray: Teach me the secret of contentment in you, Jesus.

October 5, 2016 – Talk to whoever will listen

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Acts 17:16-21

He spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there. 

More thoughts for meditation

This week is the beginning of a quarter of invitation. During October, November and December we’re pulling out all the stops to meet new people and invite them into what we’re doing as a Circle of Hope in Jesus Christ. We can learn a lot about how to find opportunities to know and be known by new people from the stories about Paul in the book of Acts.

Paul kind of sounds like one of those guys on the street corner. Many of our modern day loudspeaker evangelists speak about God in a way that has turned a lot of people off. But Athens, as far as we know, people were really interested in talking and testing out ideas in the public square. That’s what the public square was for. This was before TV’s so why not, right? Today the guy on the corner comes off as a weirdo because that corner is no longer a public space. We all live in private spaces wherever we go and we create community through technology, and filter out community that might have previously been imposed upon us.

So to be like Paul today, we need to create public spaces that are safe for conversation. That’s what Jonny is doing with his sign in the picture. We can allow people to selectively enter into conversation with us. Paul’s conversation partners did that when they walked into the public square. We forge creative opportunities for that. Of course our cells and especially our Sunday meetings are designed to be those sort of spaces, but some may not be ready to actually show up at an official church meeting. What other space can you inhabit and when you get there what will you say?

Suggestions for action

Write down what you would say to someone who wanted to listen to you. Imagine you are responding to today’s equivalents of the Athenian philosophers who said, “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” If you are interested in connecting with people and you are praying about the opportunities you are trying to make, this will happen to you. It doesn’t have to be long, but take yourself seriously for a few minutes and answer in your own words from your own experience.

February 12, 2016 — Poured out

Today’s Bible reading

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me (Philippians 2:12-17).

More thoughts for meditation

Philippians 2 might be the best places to find the meaning of Lent in the New Testament. In it we find the great poem that sings about how Jesus emptied himself for us and deliberately humbled himself to be a servant and to die and so was raised and now is praised.

Then Paul becomes very practical. He explains how he models his life after the Lord’s example. His situation is a visual aid: he writes from house arrest, awaiting Roman judgment. He is poured out. His life is a similar self-emptying act of love:

Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.

In today’s Bible reading, he encourages his readers to get the point. He would like them to grow out of grumbling and arguing over what is not and what should be and grow into generosity because of what has happened and what will be.

Our pastors are leading us this year, especially, to consider that our suffering is not for nothing. Paul considers how he is poured out to be for the good, since it is like he is the “drink offering” poured on the sacrifice of faith served to God in praise by his fellow believers. He is happy to join in the worship scene – a great scene of death resulting in life.

All suffering is not so directly connected to worship, of course. But in a life devoted to God’s purpose, it is hard to see how something good won’t come from all we experience. As Paul teaches and demonstrates, even our suffering can result in good work in us or through us.

Suggestions for action

For most of us, giving up our resentment about our suffering is like losing ourselves — “Who would I be if I were not in charge of defending against what has hurt me so deeply?” Instead of preserving the injustice of what we have not received, Paul says to generously give from the blessing we have received! God is at work in us! When we overflow with the truth and love of that, we see the way to joy. We must not let suffering and injustice steal our joy.

What is being poured out of you? Resentment and grumbling or rejoicing? Obligation to some law or obedience to your Savior? Those are among the big questions to answer during Lent. Maybe you should carefully read today’s portion from the Bible again. When you hear God calling you, don’t defend, but learn.


January 3, 2016 — Resolution #2: Pray without ceasing

Nine resolutions for true believers. Resolution #2: Pray without ceasing

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt:

Read: 1 Thessalonians 5

Pray without ceasing.

More thoughts for meditation:

The letter that Paul and Silvanus and Timothy wrote to the church in the city of Thessalonica in Greece is packed full of instruction and encouragement. They’re telling the church what it takes to keep going as a community of believers on a mission until Jesus comes back or until they’re all dead. While alive, we’re not just waiting around for Jesus to come back, trying to get by, we’re vibrant and moving and full of grace.  And death is not a permanent obstacle to this kind of living either — in case of death, we can expect to wake up to Jesus coming back and will continue on living just as vibrantly from then on.  

The letter-writing team reminds me of personal trainers giving a stream of encouragement: Get On Up! Keep Going! Don’t Give Up Now! You’re Not Dead Yet! Move Those Arms and Legs! Now Follow Me! You Can Do It!  

Right in the middle of that stream of instruction and encouragement is one piece that is even more essential to living than breathing or eating: praying.  Pray and don’t give up praying. Pray without ceasing.  Pray continuously. Keep praying.  Wherever you left off, pick up again.  Don’t know what to pray about? Pray about not knowing what to pray about — not just when you wake up or before meals (those are good times, too), but all the time about anything and everything and everyone. Right now even.  

Suggestions for action:

Speak out a prayer, right now.

Resolve to pray without ceasing.

Wear a string around your finger or wrist or on your clothes to remind you to pray whenever you see it.