what to occupy ourselves with

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9; NRSVue

What do we occupy ourselves with: our thoughts, what we see, what we hear, as well as what we actually do? Paul tells us here that we’re to take in what is good not just in terms of Christian good, but of all the good that is in human culture. It has been pointed out that the terms here are Roman and Greek, not so much Jewish. In other words, we might say that the door was being opened to take in all that is good in human culture. For me that includes a daily not just dose, but immersion into classical music. I personally enjoy other kinds of music as well, but that is the genre I settle into again and again. What you enjoy may be quite different. But whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything with excellence or that is praiseworthy, we’re to “take account of” (Greek according to NRSVue footnote) such things. That will require some sifting. Some things I take in with more care, because there’s quite a bit that is not good to sift out.

And Paul makes the point that the recipients of this letter were to follow his example. That reminds me that we’re to look up to those who seek to follow Christ, especially those who are seasoned in doing so. With the implicit challenge that we too want to live lives that others can emulate, not at all so that might think we’re great because we’re not. But so that they might see Christ in us, even as we see Christ in others.

In and through Jesus.

in praise of “fair” over “beautiful”

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away…

Song of Solomon 2:10

This is probably a well intended yet rather erroneous post as far as the Hebrew word goes, but just the same I proceed, and I think and hope for good reasons based on Scripture and life. Both the NRSV (we’ll see whether this remains in the soon to be released NRSV-UE) and the CEB translate the Hebrew word יָפָתִ֖י “fair” whereas at least most all other translations render it “beautiful.” It does mean beautiful, and form is not excluded in some biblical passages. That is all well and good.

But conception of beauty in our age and in ages past has differed. Add to that the Biblical emphasis on inward beauty (see this helpful article). Today’s idea of beauty in women is not far removed from some image of Playboy: sexy, a knock out, one whom others can’t help but notice with wows. Diminishing women to nothing more than objects of pleasure.

Fair might mean beautiful in Biblical times, but depending on culture, while there surely was overlap, I think at least for us, “fair” is a better way of putting it, since really all women should be seen as having this inherent quality about them. A woman is a woman is a woman, none of them to be taken for granted, all gifts from God (and we could add a man is a man is a man, and make some corresponding connections related to what we call handsomeness). Sadly some do in the mystery of life seem lacking in beauty as we see it, outwardly, in whatever way. But that’s where inward beauty can make the woman an honestly beautiful person, so that the outward appearance does not in the least cancel that out. Whereas sadly, women who can be quite attractive in outward appearance might be overall simply ugly people because of character deficit, in need of help so that their God-given beauty inside and out can be experienced.

There is nothing at all wrong with women being beautiful in face and form, nothing at all. Though difficulties come with that. But it is most important that we come to realize that beauty is most important inwardly, outwardly having its limits due to aging and other problems that can arise. Every single woman on earth has a fairness about them, so that this book, Song of Solomon can be applied in every marriage. I can celebrate my wife’s beauty, and never compare her with any other woman that way, thanking God for the fairness, indeed beauty God has given her inside and out.

first things first

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.

in insane times

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

Paul basically tells us two simple yet profound things here. He says essentially to guard our thought life, not so much here by what we don’t take in, though that’s important, but what we actually do think about and reflect on. And Paul tells us to live as he did. That should be a check on us, on how we often live and act, or react to things.

This is a challenge because Christians are not to turn a blind eye to what is wrong, impure, ugly, shameful, and deserving of rebuke and censure. That’s always to be found, and people are thankfully metaphorically, but still sadly nearly at each other’s throats nowadays. It is a maddening time.

But what’s a Christian to do? Do what Paul tells us here, a part of God’s written word. Settle down and settle in to what is better. In doing so, maybe then we can be helpful to influence what is not. In and through Jesus.

think, think some more, and don’t quit thinking

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

The Apostle Paul uses terminology and actually says something here which makes it clear that we draw truth and what is good from various sources, from anywhere they might come from. Of course he would say that we have to test everything in terms of what God has revealed in Scripture, but so much is not contradictory to that. For example today we take much of medical science for granted, at least on some scale. And I completely accept the idea of mental illness and psychology along with medications which can help alleviate or at least deal with that. And then I’ll go to the arts: painting, music, etc. Much of beauty and what is good found there, and much of it from non-Christians.

When it comes to the faith itself, there is a rich tradition of deep theological thought and reflection on Scripture and life. I lament because it seems like much of that is set aside as less than lame, more like dead. But if one seriously reads through all of Scripture themselves, they’ll come to realize that such is not the case. The depth found in Scripture is something to remain in and explore the rest of our lives, in prayer and in life.

Of course we need discernment. Not everything out there is good. There is the cunning deceptive work of the enemy, the devil. We have to have discernment from God to see through anything that is contradictory to the main point of Scripture: the gospel. And we weigh what is good and not so good, along with rejecting what is false. If we don’t learn to think, pray and live deeply, we will fail to discern what is good, and might fall for what is not.

There at least needs to be a broad agreement on what Paul says here. Certainly Christians won’t see eye to eye on everything; we all bring a different perspective. But we should at least have the bigger picture in view, fulfilled in Jesus, so that we question many things, and remain true to the big picture found in Scripture along with the details, that of God’s grace and kingdom come and being fulfilled in and through Jesus.

a breathtaking view

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:11-22

Ephesians, especially the first three chapters in our Bibles, is written to see something of the vast panorama of God’s working in the new creation in Christ, with a special emphasis on the church. Unfortunately for too many of us who have been in the Bible a number of years, it can come across differently than how it did originally. That’s when we maybe need to step back, slow down, move through it slow enough, then stop, and note the beautiful portrait and scene in our mind’s eye.

The passage quoted above is very much like that. The thoughts to the original readers would have been breathtaking in themselves, and Paul surely almost breathlessly himself, unravels a glorious picture before us. So that what we end up with is a breathtaking view.

Contrast that to what is presented today as glorious, maybe even the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor as maybe through a vision, the devil showed the Lord in Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. Really, all the world has to offer can’t compare with what God reveals to us by the Spirit in God’s word through the gospel. No, it can’t compare. In fact what comparison we do end up finding by the Spirit’s help is the difference between darkness and light. At best between what is provisional and good in its place for now, and what is perfect and to last forever.

The entire Bible especially taken together is like this. And the book in it we call Ephesians. In and through Jesus.

is our focus uplifting?

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

Taken in context, Paul’s words here call us to a mindset that is uplifting, turning our attention to what in itself is wholesome and good. This has nothing at all to do with “the power of positive thinking,” or even “possibility thinking.” Nor does it have to do with shining our light into the darkness of this world. That will more or less naturally happen wherever we go as the light of the world in Christ. But yes, inevitably as we see the better way, we’ll see that the less better ways, or what we once thought to be good, or good enough must go. So it’s not like one has their head in the sand, either.

Sometimes Christians along with others see it as their moral duty to focus on all that’s wrong, the mess of the world with the goal of exposing and rooting it out, or at least taking a stand against it. There is surely a time to speak and a time to keep silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But one can become completely absorbed in that, totally occupied with it, so that there’s no time to do what we’re called to do in the passage above. I liked what I heard Dallas Willard say online in a talk, that only after one has worked hard all day, and is collapsing should they turn their attention to the news. That might be an overstatement to make a point. It’s not like we’re to ignore what’s unpleasant. But neither should that be our focus. Instead we’re to concentrate on what’s uplifting and helpful to us. Then hopefully that same spirit and practice can help others as we continue to be helped. In and through Jesus.

the moral fabric of society and the Christian witness

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.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 2:14-16a; 4:8-9

Philippians is a great (short) book to read and meditate on. Interestingly, Philippi was a Roman military outpost, so at least in that respect, it was quite what we would call today, nationalistic. It surely had the normalcy of cities with city life and its own culture. Paul’s letter is written in that backdrop.

Fast-forward to today, and while we see stark differences, I think we can find more similarities than not. For Christians to live in a kind of exile on earth as ultimately citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20-21) had its precedent in Jeremiah 29 where the people of God were to settle down and live as witnesses of God, hopeful for the true good of the nation where they lived.

Paul’s words on what we’re to think on involve terms that were quite embedded in the culture of his day. What is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, yes- excellent or praiseworthy. Our thoughts are to be on such things. If we embrace politicians and systems that violate these ideals, are we really adhering to what Paul is getting at here? I would argue that we’re not.

Christians can advocate for the unborn, for the protection of minorities, etc., while not lining up with what is untruthful and ugly. We should never have any part in that, or at least hold it at arm’s length. Someone once told me something we all more or less take for granted: “Politics is dirty.” Okay. But that doesn’t mean Christians should get in that dirt, nor look the other way, thus unwittingly participating in it.

And that gets to Paul’s words quoted above, that we’re to conduct ourselves in keeping with being God’s children: in a manner, first with our tongues, in which we’re blameless and pure, without fault in a warped and crooked generation, as we hold on to the word of life: the gospel or good news of Christ, and Scripture in that context. That we’re to be witnesses of the light of the world, Jesus, and not dim the light we are in him is central to what Paul is getting at.

If we care about society, then we can’t accept something less than that. Our main concern by far is our witness, and being faithful to Christ. We hope and pray for the best in this world, and acknowledge its limitations, while pressing for better. And we realize that the one true life is found only in the church through the one good news in and through Jesus.

the beauty and brokenness of life

We see everywhere both the wonder and brokenness of life. There is something wonderful about our world, even about us. And yet there’s something broken as well, that needs fixed. Beauty and brokenness all around us, yes, even in our midst, and within us.

We can get so used to it, that we live in it without much complaint, but bearing its weight. This reminds me of Jesus’s healing of a woman:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

Luke 13:10-17

And it also reminds me of the prayer the Lord taught us to pray, this part:

Our Father in heaven…
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:9-10

So we live in a beautiful, yet broken world. And the promise in Jesus is both for the present and the future: this present existence, and the life to come. So that we want to pray and work against the brokenness present now, especially the worst of it. I think of slave trade, ongoing injustice against African Americans and against other people in other places, abortion, etc., etc. There are hands on practical ways in which we can help. And of course the ultimate answer is in Jesus, and God’s good news in him.

May God help us see where this healing can take take place now and what place we can have in that, and may we hold on to the hope of the ultimate healing to come, when heaven and earth become one at Jesus’s return, in and through Jesus.

thinking God’s thoughts after him

I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.

Johannes Kepler

I love this thought attributed to this German mathematician and astronomer, even theologian, “a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution” (see Wikipedia article). Here is what he wrote where the above quote might have come from, although I don’t think that lessens its thought:

Those laws [of nature] are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.

Kepler’s Christianity

I know for myself, I can easily become confused in my own thoughts, although I have long since abandoned any belief in their benefit, except insofar as they are latching onto, and derived from God’s thoughts. And where can we find his thoughts except both in the book of nature (general revelation) and in the book of scripture, called God’s written word (special revelation). Not to say that we can’t find something of them even in humans who don’t acknowledge or know God, since they are created in God’s image. But we want to go to the source. So I seek to think something of God’s thoughts after him.

That is my only hope to get through and past what amounts to the confusion within the labyrinth of life, and the deceptive lies of the enemy, which we as fallen, broken humans are all too susceptible to. And so I make it my aim to be in the word as much as possible, throughout my days (and nights), as well as taking in God’s beauty in nature/creation, which I have not done nearly enough in my lifetime. Sleeping Bear Dunes is just one place in Michigan where we live, which helps one do that. I receive a lot of this general revelation through listening to classical music which gives us something of that through humans created in God’s image. And for me again, it’s a necessity for me to try to find and get immersed into God’s thoughts, rather than get literally lost in my own.

Psalm 19 is a beautiful encapsulation of all of this:

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19