Finally, beloved, 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. Philippians 4:8
Today I want to begin with a question…a very simple question but the answer, if honest can reveal a lot about a person. So tell me, what’s on your mind?
Perhaps it might be better stated, what do you spend most of your time thinking about? As people of faith we are often quite concerned with behavior. We focus time and energy on physical acts of service to those in need and devotion to the God we worship. But in the midst of all that doing we can forget that what goes on inside of our heads can be as important as what we do in our bodies. As we think so we are.
In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we have today Paul begins by encouraging the recipients of his letter to stand firm and to offer encouragement and support to two faithful women who have worked with him in his ministry. Paul reminds his readers to rejoice in the Lord and to be good examples of gentleness and faith. Finally he counsels them on their state of mind with suggestions about where the thoughts of a follower of Christ should be focused.
While no one wants Church members to become the thought police and if there is one place we can truly be free it is in our own minds, Paul makes a very valid point that those who seek to follow Christ should consider. We do have some measure of control over our state of mind and what we choose to focus our thoughts on can have lasting effect in our behavior and in our relationships. Our attitude can have powerful physiological consequences both good and bad. Our emotional state can effect how our bodies respond to illness and treatment. It can affect how well we do our jobs and most certainly has impact on our daily interactions with other people.
We all know people who seem to be angry all of the time…about politics or the state of the world or the price of gasoline. They go through life expecting to be offended and spend a great deal of energy upset over some small thing that someone said or did. They nurse old resentments and accumulate new ones until their lives are controlled by their negative emotions. This is not how the people of God are to be. How can we be witnesses to the love and forgiveness of Christ if we are filled with anger and resentment? How can we be bearers of the Good News if all we do is spread the bad news?
Paul admonished the folks at Philippi and us to focus our minds on those things that are true and honorable, just and pure…things that are pleasing and commendable….excellent and worthy of praise. Don’t waste time and energy on those things that do not matter or cause unnecessary drama. We are to be gentle people…not just doing kind things but being kind…not just doing acts of charity but being compassionate and loving.
This of course is easier for some folks than others and is more doable in some situations than others. But if we take on the spiritual practice of focusing our minds on the things of Christ it will eventually be second nature to us and it will not be an effort but simply our way of being in the world. So, how do we begin to do this?
Well, just like we choose nutritious food for the health of our bodies we need to choose carefully those things we feed our minds. What do we read or watch on television? What comes across our internet feeds? How much time do we spend plugged in rather than engaging with the real world? We are creatures who thrive in relationship and the more time we spend cultivating good ones the better we will feel….the happier we will be and the more peaceful our world will be.
But in this process we must not neglect our relationship with the Lord. Spending time in prayer and meditation…taking quiet moments to read and reflect on Holy Scripture…having conversations with our brothers and sisters about questions of faith or simply about our own experience of the Divine…all of these practices can strengthen us in mind and spirit and even have positive effects on our physical health, as our stress levels decline and our happiness increases.
To be perfectly honest, the topic of this sermon came to me last night as I was walking in procession during the Feast of the Lord of the Miracles. Fr. Michael Rich had given a sermon in which he evoked a powerful image that took shape and stayed in my mind. He spoke about the origin of the devotion to the image of Senor de los Milagros…the Lord of the Miracles, which had been painted on the wall of church in Lima, Peru by an African slave in the 1600s. At the time a great and terrible earthquake shook the earth and destroyed the Church and much of the area around it but the wall with the image of the crucified Christ remained intact. Fr. Michael talked about the image rising out of the rubble and devastation…a symbol of hope and a reminder that God had not forgotten the people…that God in Christ Jesus never forgets the people but sees and suffers with us no matter what horrible things are going on around us.
That image of our Lord, crucified…glorified…hovering over the chaos of the world stayed with me …coming back again and again to my mind. When we think of Christ glorified we tend to see the Christ Victorious like the image in our window…but when Jesus talked about being glorified he was speaking of his crucifixion …of being lifted up and drawing the whole world to himself…not in power or domination…but in weakness…..in suffering…in vulnerability. The reign of this Lord was founded in sorrow and sacrifice …in compassion and in the complete offering of himself to the pain of a violent death so we might know without a shadow of a doubt that God loves us and will not leave us…ever.It occurred to me that if I could spend more time thinking on the wonderful mystery of God’s love as evidenced in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, I might be able to incorporate that love more fully into myself and have it available to then share with others I encounter.
One of my favorite prayer practices, which I sorely have neglected, is to say the Rosary, which I know is a bit too Catholic for some folks. But a wonderful thing about the rosary is that it isn’t just saying the Hail Mary’s over and over and over like a mantra…although that might be useful; when it is done as intended, while you move your hands over the beads saying the Hail Marys aloud, in your mind you hold an image or a thought about one of the Mysteries….Joyful, Sorrowful or Glorious. The Mysteries are events in the life of Jesus from his birth and the visit of the Magi through his ministry and miracles to his death, resurrection and ascension. The whole exercise is a meditation on the life of Christ.
Now, I am not advocating that everyone begin praying the Rosary but I am encouraging everyone to deepen his or her prayer life. Become intentional…set a timer if you need to until you get the hang of it. But do spend more time with the Lord intentionally and not as an add-on to a very busy life.
I would also encourage all of to spend more time thinking about people and places that bring you peace and comfort…that make you happy or touch you deeply. Bask in your loving relationships….dive into those deep friendships….reintroduce yourself to you and get to know yourself a little better. Being a good friend to yourself is good practice for being a good friend to someone else.
The world is in a terrible state, with pain and suffering all around us both near and far. As followers of Christ and people of good heart we are called to relieve whatever pain we can…to be companions to those who have lost their way and to be comfort those who have lost heart. But if we do not feed our souls on the loving presence of Christ we too will find ourselves worn out with grief and care. If we can improve the emotional and spiritual health of our interior selves we will be better equipped to address the problems in the external world.
Brothers and sisters, we know what we need to do now we must encourage and support one another in the doing of it. Seek justice…practice peace….spread love.