“If You Have Any Encouragement…”
Joshua 1:5-6, Philippians 2:1-5
By Rev. Don Ludwig, May 17, 2020

Asking the Right Questions

My brother and I grew up in a working-class family in the ’70-’80s. He is one year older than me. One of my favorite memories was when our family decided to move to California — and we were mistakenly put into the wrong grade level. The school put my brother into 5th grade and me into 6th grade. I loved it. I thrived as a 6th grader. I soon became one of the most popular kids in school. We went to school for an entire month — I was bringing books home with “6” on them and my brother’s books had “5” on them but somehow my parents thought nothing of it. But suddenly the world crashed in on me — my parents and teachers finally figured it out — the charade was over — and we were switched back to the correct grade. I was devastated. I lost all of my friends. I lost my motivation to do well and wondered how I could survive this disaster — the absence of my achieved status as a 6th grader.

Most of us feel out of place these days — being placed into a reality we don’t recognize or feel comfortable. Our motivation is lacking. And we ask ourselves, why? Why is this happening? Questions like: Why can’t I stay being a 6th grader even though I am only 10 years old? Elie Wiesel tells the story of a young boy in a small East European town in 1941. One day the combination town fool and wise man, Moche, approaches him as he is praying, “Why do you pray?” he asked the young boy. “I don’t know why,” the boy said. “And why do you pray, Moche?” the young boy asked him. “I pray to the God within me (to) give me the strength to ask… the right questions.”

I pray to give me the strength to ask the right questions. Over the course of my life, I have learned that to ask the question “why” is almost always the wrong question. Life happens. Change is inevitable. The question “why” awaits God to respond in some way or blames God for what happens to us or the world when we should be asking questions that focus more on our response. What can I learn from this? In what ways do I need to change as a result of this? These questions help us to become attuned to that which is stirring inside of us — attune to the doors that open because we have allowed ourselves some space by asking the right questions.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

As with many scholars and pastors, I have a love/hate relationship with the Apostle Paul in the new testament. In some ways, he was very radical and open-minded — a reformer. But in other ways, he was very dogmatic and sexist and racist — or at least our reading of his letters seem to suggest that. In spite of all that, I have always believed that you should never throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is one of the most informal of all his letters. Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, yet he uses the word “joy” 16 times. In a world with so much distraction and chaos, in a conflicted community of faith; specifically, the presence of Judaizers in the church, those who insisted on becoming a jew before becoming a Christian, Paul wanted none of that. Paul knew that the first step towards becoming healthy as a church and as individuals is to quiet the voices around us — the noise that leaves us feeling all alone.

In spite of the social upheaval that was all around them, Paul wants the church in Philippi to recognize who they belong to. He wants them to realize that power is not defined in terms of deceit, corruption, and politics — not in whether you are a jew or a Christian — so much of what we see play out in our American culture of division today — but for the person of faith, power is defined by empathy and encouragement and unity. True unity is experienced when we deepen our relationships and understanding of one another. For Paul, when we build upon unity, first and foremost, we discover the power of encouragement.

The Storm of Chaos

I have heard it said many times recently, “We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.” Yes, we are all living in the same storm. Life is certainly chaotic these days. As a social worker, I have always appreciated the wisdom and depth of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In his writings, Carl Jung said that chaos is something so valuable that we should seek it out. It is the “prima materia,” the original stuff, blessedly free of order and meaning, the ground of new ideas and new experience. “The egg stands for chaos,” he wrote, “out of it will rise the phoenix, the liberated soul.” Certainly, the chaos of these times has taken us out of our usual patterns — we dream about the comforts that we once knew — and we so often ask why. But that is the wrong question.

One of the rituals in our household in these last few weeks has been to not turn on the TV until about 8:00 p.m. and then only for an hour or two. As a family, we have been watching the series of “Survivor: Winners at War.” (By the way, the best invention in all of life, is TIVO, don’t you think? I mean, what did we ever do without TIVO?) As a family, I think what we have valued so much from our time together in the evenings and in watching this particular series, is experiencing and witnessing solidarity. We cheer on our favorite players of course, but we admire how they are all able to work together despite their differences, despite the experience of being back-stabbed on a daily basis, despite the hunger pains. There is a deep recognition that they have more in common and will last longer in the game if they have each other’s back.

The Apostle Paul tells us that even though the waves of despair and chaos crash in on us, they will not consume or devour us if we are encouraged by our faith and solidarity. We will survive only when we learn to depend on others — and put other interests before our own. That is when we will discover the phoenix rising — liberating us into an existence that is no longer dependent on outward realities but on an internal strength of the soul.

We Belong to God. We belong to each other.

Paul writes, “if you have any encouragement, then make my joy complete” — be like Christ, imitate him, focus on those things that you bring you together rather than those things that pull you apart — and remember this, you do not belong to yourself — you belong to God — you belong to others.

If nothing else, this pandemic has caused us to realize that we do not belong to ourselves. The world is a big place. We are all connected in ways we have never realized. Another story about my brother from just 10 years ago. He and his family now live in the Seattle area and while I graduated high school, he did not. He is pretty much in the same lower social class to which we grew up. Ten years ago he called me to tell me that he had gotten all new furniture and he wanted me to come and check it out. Sure enough, I went up, and new furniture in every room of the house. He then proceeded to tell me that he was drinking beer and playing horseshoes with a friend who lives across the street one day, and they decided that instead of going to the mall to get new furniture — that would be a waste — why don’t they just swap furniture? And that’s what they did. One weekend, they completely swapped their furniture — now both families have new furniture!

I will never forget what my brother said to me in his backyard on that sunny day in Seattle: “Don, I bet you don’t have as good of friends as I do.” Those words have haunted me ever since.

In many ways, he was right. I would never ask one of you to swap furniture! Just so you know! My friends wouldn’t do that type of thing. But truth be told, I sorely miss the quality of organic friendships that I had when I lived in near poverty. Sometimes, we who are in the middle and upper classes of society value our portfolio and our things and our goals more than we value the people around us. We sometimes forget that we belong to one another. Like my brother reminded me so many years ago, like those who are living in poverty or near poverty, and like the people working on the frontlines of this pandemic— those in hospitals and grocery stores and delivery trucks — they do what they do because they value people more than things — they deeply understand that we belong to each other and see it as their responsibility to do whatever is needed for the benefit of all. And to those of us in the middle and upper class, their example calls us all to new ways of seeing ourselves— new ways of being in relationship.

Perhaps this pandemic is bringing clarity to our lives. Perhaps we are re-learning who we belong to:

  • We belong to the elderly and those who have compromised immune systems.
  • We belong to the children at Vose elementary who are going without healthy lunches.
  • We belong to the abused women and children who are not able to find relief because of the states stay at home orders.
  • We belong to Asians and Asian Americans who continue to experience hate rhetoric because they are falsely blamed for the pandemic.
  • We belong to the African-American community that is dying from this virus at vastly disproportionate levels.
  • We belong to the nations of the world that are facing this crisis without resources.

Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary recently wrote, “Quite a bit is being written about how we will come through this pandemic differently than we entered it. My prayer is that part of that difference will be that the church will come to see that our mission is not to make contributions to distant people when it is affordable, but to care for all humanity to whom we belong.” (April 2020)

If You Have any Encouragement

If you have any encouragement in your life — then putting others first — looking out for the interests of those around you —with integrity and love is what we are called to do every day of our lives. This is how the world will be transformed through us. So simple and yet so challenging — this transformation involves moving in and out of order and into chaos and back again —like moving into 6th grade then back to 5th grade then back again. Our world today is an uncomfortable place to be right now. This place of knowing one day to that place of not knowing the next — from the place of comfort last year to this place of discomfort now.

It is said that hindsight is 20/20. As people of faith we are called to have that kind of 20/20 hindsight. We are asked to live faithfully in times of chaos as well as order — in times of knowing and unknowing — to ask the right questions — to find our sense of belonging in each other — and to value others in all that we say and do.

We can do this, my friends. We got this! If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, all things are possible —the day of transformation is upon us. Thanks be to God!

A-men.