A sermon preached on December 13th, 2009 based upon Philippians 4:4-7.
There are two distinctly different angles from which to view our lives.
The most common angle sees it as a great struggle — a kind of war, fought on various battlefronts. There is the work front, the personal financial front, the home front. There is the struggle we engage in with our most intimate relationships in the ongoing attempt to make them life giving rather than life crushing.
There is the battlefront of our personal health, and the battlefront we hopefully engage in our own personal development – the struggle to curb our character flaws, our bad habits and addictions, and enhance our virtue and character.
And then if we are fortunate enough to have any energy left over from the various personal battles we wage, there are the battles we are called to fight to make our society more humane and just, to promote the integrity and effectiveness of government, to enhance the work and witness of our church, to care for the earth and those persons less fortunate than ourselves.
(In this view of the world Christmas itself becomes another battle, a struggle to make it come off right.)
It is, to large extent, unavoidable that we see our life this way. Life isn’t easy, and there is truth to the notion that it is a dog eat-dog-world, with lots of people out there looking to take advantage of us, so we’d better choose our alliances carefully, knowing who we can trust – who is for us, and who is against us. We have to stay vigilant.
Life is exhausting, like that circus act where the performer spins multiple dishes on poles. The plates continue to stay up only if the performer manages to regularly return to each one to give it some individual attention. Sooner or later, we know there will be no choice but to give up and let the dishes come crashing down.
Although from time to time we celebrate victories in particular battles, there is a kind of creeping despair that colors this view of the world, because we know that in the end this is not a war we can win. Every bit of order we manage to create will in time give way to chaos, and we are, after all, everyone of us in the process of dying, and so pretty much everything we work to accomplish sooner or later dies along with us.
As I said before, there is a certain validity to the battlefront view of life, and an unavoidable necessity of engaging in it. But if this is the only we have of viewing life, we will inevitably end up defeated, despairing and bitter.
And it is particularly important as we age and are forced to give up the illusion we have that we might actually win the war that we discover another way of seeing life.
The Apostle Paul, writing late in his life from a prison cell invites us to see life from a completely different angle. Like countless other prophets and seers throughout the ages in every culture, he invites us to see life from a above, so to speak.
“Rejoice in the Lord Always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your gentleness. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The apostle Paul speaks of joy, which isn’t the same as happiness. Happiness has to do with victories won on the battlefronts of war: the clean bill of health from the doctor, plenty of money in the bank and a job we can count on and enjoy, and relationships that are working well.
Joy is different. It comes from a deeper place, and, as the Christmas story reminds us, shows up in surprising places: to poor shepherd outcastes watching their flocks by night; to a homeless couple giving birth to a child in, of all places, a stinking stable.
The view from above doesn’t see life as a struggle or a battle at all, recognizing instead that we already have what we most need: that, as Paul puts it, “The Lord is at hand!” That it is possible to be content, to know peace, even when the dishes are coming crashing down around us, and the news bulletins from our various battlefronts are not good.
This other point of view recognizes that, in the end, love is all that matters, and that love is the one thing that never ends, and that every moment, no matter how outwardly bleak, is an opportunity to let love be birthed into your life.
When you in the midst of seeing life as a great ongoing battle, talk arising from this other viewpoint can seem like nonsense. You can’t just talk yourselves into seeing life this way. A gift of grace is required for to catch a glimpse of life from above, and grace shows up on God’s good time, without coercion by us.
And once we’re allowed by grace to catch a glimpse of this over view and are awakened to an abundance that previously was invisible to us, we realize there are choices we can make in regard to our attitude and our actions that help us get out of battlefront mentality.
“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul commands us, implying that there is some measure of choice here. At any given moment, we can choose to forgo drawing the lines of the battlefront, and trust that we do, in fact, already have what we most need.
“Let all people know your gentleness,” he declares, reminding us that the choice to live gently is an antidote to the creeping despair of the life as war viewpoint.
We can choose to be gentle and patient rather than angry and hostile. Here’s a simple challenge to you. In the coming week, try to be aware of the times you are tempted to become angry, because anger is a sure fire sign that we are seeing life as a battle. We assume that we have no choice in the matter.
But what if, in fact we do have a choice? What if you were to consciously choose gentleness, rather than anger? Chances are, there will be some stumbling if you attempt this. Nonetheless, I guarantee that a concerted effort to choose gentleness over anger will surprise you with the possibilities of grace it opens up to you.
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, “nothing so gentle as real strength.
There is a 1.4 km stretch of rocky cliff in Japan known as Tojinbo, where routinely as many as ten people a month jump to their deaths. The choice to take one’s own life is the inevitable consequence of the battlefront view of life, because, as I said before, in the end we will lose this war.
I came across this remarkable story about a retired policeman in Japan named Yukio Shige, who spends each day patrolling Tojinbo, scouring the precipice with binoculars for people who have come there to end their lives. Yukio devotes himself to the practice of gentleness. He has established a little café near the cliffs as a kind of base camp in this work, and a non-profit group of like-minded folk who share in his mission. Yukio and his supporters are said to have persuaded 167 people from leaping to their death over the past five years.
His method of persuading someone to stay alive is quite simple. When he spots a person standing on the edge of the cliff, he talks to them gently and invites them back to his cafe, where he serves them warm rice cake. “You can see what the person is here for just by looking at the way they stand on the edge,” he said. “Most of them look relieved and soon break down in tears when I just say hi.”
The battle lines between us are overcome with gentleness. The Good Shepherd is there, quietly, persistently, gently seeking those upon the precipice, calling them home. And we are invited to join Him.