Have you ever had a letter that you read over and over again, so much that it was falling apart? A real letter, on paper, not made up of cascading electrons? Hand-written, probably, although composed on all kinds of paper – lined paper with frilly edges torn out of a notebook; fine stationery; a scratch pad once kept by a telephone.
You know the sort of thing I mean? A piece of correspondence that’s a treasure. A letter that is more than mere words on a page, but holds something that was once so true for you that it was worth holding onto. Maybe it’s bittersweet, a note from a lost love; encouraging – words of praise from a teacher or mentor, endearing sentiments from a child or your life partner. Maybe it came in an actual envelope, with a stamp on it and a return address – or perhaps it was tucked into your palm at passing time in the hallways. You might come across one in a family Bible, in an estate-sale book from a secondhand bookstore. Maybe you put yours in a special box, or between the pages of a journal. When I was a teenager, you might tuck a note like that under your mattress.
The best ones – the ones really worth saving – don’t stay tucked away for long.
There’s a ritual act associated with their rediscovery. Every now and then you pull it from its place of safety, flip up the edge of the envelope and pull it out. You smooth out the folds carefully, you let your eyes pass over the words again, like a prayer, like a mantra – and perhaps you’ve read them enough times that your eyes don’t really need to see them; you could recite them from memory, but it’s a comfort just the same. You let these treasured words bring the edge of a smile to your lips, some tenderness to your heart. Maybe you smell the paper, although at this point it’s the ghost of a memory that escapes from its folds. When you do close it up again, you follow the same creases that have been many times opened, closed and opened again. You notice the paper is becoming fragile. The corners are starting to wear through. You nudge it carefully back into its envelope until the next time. Because this correspondence is a treasure worth savoring, like leftovers that get better as they sit, we know there will be a next time.
The letter to the Philippians is a letter like that. It's the happiest letter you’ll find in the Bible.
“I thank God every time I mention you….I keep you in my heart. Your faithfulness and courage….”
With the Corinthians, Paul lectures about division and class difference. The church in Ephesus gets warning about backsliding. The Colossians, too, are warned about theological errors. And the Galatians – hoo, boy, they got an earful! You want to get an idea of what cranky pastor looks like? Read the letter to the Galatians. The Thessalonians get told to stop focusing on the End Times and to focus instead on the here-and-now. The Romans get a textbook, a full-on theological treatise.
But the church in Philippi – the recipients of the letter we’ve been hearing from for the past few weeks – are clearly Paul’s favorites. He loves them so deeply, he’s proud of them as a teacher is of their star pupil. You can tell this, because of how he flings the word “rejoice” and “be glad” around as if they were on sale that week! “Complete my joy,” he says. He puts hymn lyrics in the letter, for heaven’s sake!
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”
Dwell on these things, he says. Take account of these things. Like a love song to the church, a letter that shows how deeply you are loved. Count them up. Count the blessings. Count the Alleluias and the Amens and the healing and the answered prayers. Count the moments of glory. Count the lives changed by an encounter with the Gospel. Count the hugs. Count the church-mice in their corners, quivering with excitement at Good News floating through the air, at the idea that it might be for them too. Count the mountains of zucchini and the pumpkins on the vine. Count the number of people fed with five loaves and two fish and one mid-sized breakfast casserole. Count the holy tears and the holy smiles and the holy messes, if you are driven to count. If you must count anything, count the times when you have been lifted beyond yourself and your troubles and into the throne room of the divine, into the great and generous heart of God.
Dwell on these things, Paul says. This is what he does from his prison cell, unwrapping these soul-treasures during the long days and nights. Smoothing them out, casting his eyes over them, drinking in the Community of Christ when he can only be with them in spirit. Gently refolding them, tucking them back away, close to his heart, close to God’s heart, saying, “Thank you, God, for this. Thank you, God, for this one thing that I got right this one time. Thank you for making it work out for good and for glory. Thank you for making me more than I was, for not leaving me to my own devices. Thank you for making it so I could fall in love with you.”
And the same Holy Spirit that inspired Paul to keep going, reminds Christ’s church: practice these things.
Practice these things, because it doesn’t come naturally.
Human beings, beautiful, blessed, broken children of God: Practice folding your life along Christ’s lines, over and over again. Stick your nose in the envelope if you have to. Breathe in the scent of Easter and Resurrection and Alleluia. Rest your head on the book if the light is too dim for you to read the words, and take it in by osmosis. Practice these things. Practice them. You need to see and smell and taste and touch and hear New Life as if it were a new thing, as if it were the most important treasure you have tucked away in your treasure box.
Make Christ-Creases in the paper of your soul so on the days and nights when you can’t see the words, you know which way to bend. Help the children, too, and the lost ones. The paper does not know where it should fold unless you guide it. Place their fingers on the right corners; stand behind them, or beside them, and teach them Christian soul-origami.
Make of something flat and plain a work of beauty. Where the world would see only rubbish, a scrap of history, faded words with no value, practice the truth. Show them instead the meaning of an ancient treasure, as true today as when it was first written.
Show them what counts:
Christ who died is risen.
And so have you.