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Loving Fully

This week we will look more closely at Paul's opening words to his friends and co-laborers in Philippi - including looking at his prayer for his brothers and sisters in Christ. The specific verses we will consider are Philippians 1:3-11:

"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God."

There is a good word of instruction here for any and all of us who have the awesome, great, mesmerizing, sometimes overwhelming responsibility of caring for someone else, which is true for all of us in some way. Whether we be parents of young children, elders charged with shepherding the flock, bosses responsible for caring for our staff, or even grown children who find ourselves in a reversed role where we are now caring for our parents, we all have certain persons we care for and "long for" as Paul says (1:8). In Paul's case, it was his calling to serve as a spiritual father of his friends in Philippi who were growing into their new identity in Christ Jesus.

The word of instruction is this: caring for those we love is ultimately about learning to trust in God's own ability and good will for those we love; it means learning to move beyond our concerns and fears, which most often spoil our hopes of communicating love, and to move into a place of gratitude, of trust, and of a sure and certain hope for what God will do in our loved ones' lives.

A teacher named Gordon Fee puts it this way:

"That Paul is ... a passionate lover of Christ Jesus and his friends is made plain by the deep and uninhibited expressions of affection that permeate his prayer ... there is much to be learned [from Paul's opening prayer for the Philippians] by those in the church who have pastoral care of any kind, including that of parents for their own children ... Whatever else, those whom we love in Christ first of all belong to God. God has begun the 'good work' in them that he has committed himself to concluding in Christ's second coming ... They belong to God; it is ours to be grateful for what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in their lives." [1]

He goes on to suggest that - like Paul - the best we can offer our friends, our children, our loved ones, our employees, and our coworkers is both thanksgiving and joy for the way God is at work in their lives, and trust that God will continue His "good work" in them, even if we can't see much good at particular moments, like - say - the moment a teenager seems destined to live on an island of self-centeredness and sullenness.

Ultimately, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues (and even the strangers we meet) belong to God. We cannot change them, but we can love them. Such wisdom was said very well by Norman MacLean in his remembrance of his own family and his father's words in the sermon that closes the movie A River Runs Through It:

"Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”

[1] Fee, Gordon D. Paul's Letter to the Philippians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995). Pg. 75.


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