Philippians: redefining “gift”

As my final project for a class on Philippians, I’m working through a series of posts on Paul’s new vision of reality, and all the ways he redefines the word we thought we knew. You can read the introduction to the series here, and a bit of a “part 1” for this post here.

Philippians 4:14 – Yet it was good of you to share (sygkoinono) in my troubles… even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account… And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 

Suddenly Paul is speaking in language we can understand. Credits and accounts – these are the kinds of relationships we’re familiar with. The extent to which everything in our society is commodified would have shocked even city-dwellers in the ancient world. We buy all of our food, we buy stories, we buy childcare, we buy houses with lots of privacy far from our families, and we buy plane tickets to go see them twice a year. It’s a pretty strange way to live life.

But Paul is not talking about literal credits in literal accounts. In fact, he’s talking about gifts here. I think to really understand the deal with gifts, we have to keep talking about koinonia.

A recap from the last koinonia post – Koinonia: partnership, sharing fellowship; in Philippians, a partnership, sharing, or fellowship for the sake of the gospel – both spreading it and living it out. It means that everyone is acting as one.

Possibly the most important way that Paul illustrates this is by calling the members of his churches “brothers and sisters” (using the word “brothers”, which also stood for “siblings”). To refer to one another as family was to accept a huge level of commitment and obligation to one another – to look after each other and to share together. It was such a strange thing to say at that time, the Christians would later be misunderstood and charged with incest.

Paul also asks the Philippians constantly to be of “one mind,” “one spirit”, to “stand together”, to “agree”. He doesn’t just want them to share their casseroles or a general sense of love for humanity or for Jesus; he literally wants them to share their basic way of thinking about the world in its entirety. It is a common sentiment in Roman literature that true friendship entails “likemindedness”, and Paul does not want the Philippians to be divided in any way. In chapter two, he repeats this nearly to the point of absurdity before telling them exactly what this way of thinking about the world should entail: make my joy complete by thinking in the same way, having the same love, of one spirit, thinking of the same aspirations… Have this way of thinking that was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…

This is all because they are to share in something greater than themselves. Near the end of the letter, Paul asks Euodia and Syntyche to “have the same mind in the Lord”, and reminds the church that the two “have contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel”. This gospel is what brought them together in the first place, and it should be their source of unity and agreement.

So. Koinonia. Sharing. Gifts.

In the United States, we have this big issue with receiving gifts. My friend came to town and bought me a beer the other day, and I tried not to feel all embarrassed and put out when she grabbed the check. But I did – forcing her to rationalize the whole deal: “you’re putting me up for the night, blah blah blah.” We almost never allow gifts to be gifts, and not transactions.

Maybe this is because we want things to be clear and well-defined, totally unambiguous. I contrast, people in Roman society gave gifts all the time; however, this was amidst a complex social system that expected some kind of reciprocity, but took so many factors into account that “reciprocity” meant something different in every single relationship.

I think there’s a temptation to say, in light of the stuff about Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2, that we should all be really “unselfish” all the time, and give each other tons of gifts with no strings attached, and then to turn that into a limpid sort of metaphor because taking it literally is impossible. In real life, I can’t just give you stuff all the time or I would go bankrupt. It’s the same if a relationship has no reciprocity – I can keep giving and giving, fueled by a sort of pride at my unselfishness, for a while. But it will ultimately drain me. And I don’t think it’s what Paul is getting at when he talks about self-giving or encourages the Philippians for supporting him. Gift-giving in the context of koinonia does have a level of reciprocity to it; just not in a score-keeping, account-balancing, transactional way. It’s based on trust that my gift – my money, my favor, my time – will be used well and eventually returned in some way, because of how much we share. When we are one family, with one mind, sharing in the gospel and trusting in God to “meet all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus”, gift-giving is obvious and easy, because we already hold so much in common.

Do Americans understand this? No. Plenty of people who are married hold separate bank accounts and pay separate bills; we are all into his and hers and the baby’s and the dog’s – not into sharing. But I’m not sure learning to share again just means giving a gift. I think, for a lot of us, it means receiving a gift. Letting yourself be in debt for a while. Being thankful someone else trusted you enough to share.


to my friend, who is coming out

I sent this letter to my friend about a week before the DOMA decision came down. In the week or so since I have had the go-ahead to publish it, I’ve kept it close, hoping I had the right motives, and wondering what friends – in all parts of the country and the political/religious spectrum – would think of it. In the end, I cannot do very much to determine whether you read this post with grace. I only know that I do not want my friend to be alone anymore.

I lit a blue candle for you at an interfaith Pride service last week. I needed to pray with my body.

It wouldn’t have been the place for you in some ways, with vague references to a benign force, possibly named God, who seemed mostly to exist to affirm US and our IDENTITIES and our PRIDE! I thought of you and me, iron sharpening iron, trying to learn from one another the passé art of humility.

But in some ways, it was beautiful, complex, justice-seeking and, so important, safe and affirming. And so I wished you were there.

Because you are coming out, and though this will not subsume all your many other layers, it will be a turning point. It will shape the next episode of your becoming. It has already shaped mine. It will be hard for you, and I hope soon I can literally stand with you – and the multicolored family your lot has been thrown in with – and say you are loved. you are whole.

You are whole, and you are stronger than anyone could have known, and you are deep, wise, and gracious. That is why I can – and that is why I must – have my own baby-coming-out and say also, I support you.

What a silly thing to have to say to a friend. Even friends with troubles and strange opinions, I don’t tell them “I support them”. I love them, and I love you.

But, there it is anyway: I support you and I am glad for who you are. And I support whatever decisions you make. You are a good decision-maker.

I live in two places, and I live in between, and I live outside of both. I know, I really do, how it feels not to belong anywhere. We ended up in an American culture that is strangely intolerant of nuance and grace. If people think you are slightly wrong, they will let you know that you are very, fatally wrong. You and I have always occupied this inhospitable in-between, everyone thinking we are wrong, and this will not change for you. Not ever.

Because if you are celibate, many of the only people who know your struggle will turn on you. They will call you a sellout and a tease. They will tell you to go home to the Bible-thumpers.

And even though I know, between your beliefs and your personality, that your love life would be very, very far from the “promiscuous lifestyle” some would expect from you, it might not matter much; if you have a family, many of the people who claim to love you will still put sorrow in place of the joy they express for everyone else. They will call you a sinner and a destroyer. They will talk about you behind your back saying things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and commence hating the thing they just defined you by. They will tell you to go home to the gays.

Being who you are is not a sin.

Nothing that truly defines you is wrong.

I will not tell you what to do. I do not know what you and God have been saying to each other lately, or how you think about the Bible these days, or which parts of it the Spirit has brought out and said, these are for you. I only know that you follow Jesus with your own quiet intensity.

I do not know your dreams for a future love, or who you will fall in love with, or when, or what that will mean for you. I only know that you are special, and you could make someone else terribly happy, and loneliness is not a virtue.

I only know that you will always be family. Whatever you do will be hard in its own way, and I will do all that I can to make it easier. You know how I want to live in a commune? I will be neighbor. I will be aunt to your children.

Do I sound too much like a mother? I know this all comes from a place of great privilege. But all I know to do with privilege is to tell the world I don’t want it. We are all struck with equal, unpredictable, terrible force by genius and love, by disaster and disease. Why make it any harder on any specific group of people? The world is changing at a pace which, when we are truly honest, terrifies us all. Why blame others for our fear?

I write you a letter. I hope you do not feel used. I must admit that I see your face and speak to you, but imagine a great many others who might read this. Some will tell me that I must pick a side; that I must stand for The Family or for Progress, for Civil Rights or for The Bible. Perhaps only a few will understand the region, the culture, and the generation you and I share, which have complicated your past and your future so.

And that is why I will not pick a side. Because this is not an issue. This is not an abstract question of philosophy. This is your life, and I am on your side, and I cannot imagine what you have already experienced so how could I dare to try to convince you? We have talked about “the others like you” – stuck in these in-between spaces. They will not all agree. But I am on their side as well. I stand with you; with laws and attitudes and policies that free you to make your own decisions just as I do. Of course we all have responsibilities to ourselves, our partners, and our communities, to make decisions – sometimes hard decisions – about what it means to be our sexual selves. May we all do so with humility, with discipline, with the guidance of others, with our traditions and scriptures, with self-giving love for our partners, and above all, with hearts and bodies attuned to the winsome whispers of Holy Spirit.

I am very, very proud to know you. Maybe that is what Pride means to me; not that we use our own pride to prop ourselves up, like cardboard cutouts pretending to be autonomous, but that we learn to see all that is extraordinary about each other’s stutter-steps toward life, toward humanity. Remember, when your struggle becomes monotonous and it feels like a children’s book or a farce, that your story will always read to me like an epic.

May you, gay, truly yourself and vulnerable before the world, find yourself surrounded by all the love and grace and acceptance that you, hiding, “straight”, have found in all the pockets of Christ’s kingdom where you’ve nestled. May you always find a way into messy family, mysterious Church, into all-loving triune God.


crowds are made up of people

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

I never noticed the crowd before.

I always thought Jesus just raised the widow’s son because he had nothing better to do. Because he knew he was supposed to, maybe. Because it was his job.

But this is different. Jesus had very important things to do – he was leading a crowd to a town! They must have been jostling, talking, kids running around, people asking questions – “Rabbi!’ “Rabbi!” – with the disciples there, too, blundering about in all their earnestness like always.

If I were leading a crowd somewhere, we would give a funeral a wide berth. People died all the time. People died young all the time. There was no reason for the two crowds to meet.

Jesus, though – Jesus didn’t see a funeral. He didn’t see a crowd. He saw one woman, whose last hope for a family had been stripped from her. He watched her replaying scenes from her son’s life, helpless to stop reliving a happiness she would never know again.

And he had compassion on her. And he stopped. And he gave him back to his mother. Did he even think about what chaos must have ensued?

Zacchaeus couldn’t see over the crowd, but he didn’t go home. The professional in his suit and tie climbed a tree instead; and it must have been a relief to be invisible for a while.

Why did Jesus stop? Didn’t Zacchaeus have some fairly first-world problems? The text doesn’t say what made him single out the sinner in the tall tree; but we know he was always looking, searching out people in pain, people who sought him, people whose sin was bearing down hard on them. The Spirit has a way of calling attention to the people on the edges.

Jesus and crowds have a strange relationship. He alternately has compassion on them and feeds them, alienates them with his weird teachings, confuses them on purpose with impenetrable stories, weeps for them, shows vague disdain and disinterest in them, tries to get away from them, is worshipped by them, seems wearied by them, blesses their children.

This used to confuse me. But my own life has become much more crowded in the past year as an “adult”. I have a larger network of shallower relationships than I used to. Graduation expands one’s peer group vastly. And I live and work near the middle of a city, surrounded by crowds and interacting regularly with hundreds of people experiencing various levels of poverty.

It is exhausting.

Now I get Jesus’ ministry a lot more than I used to, and I’m also more intimidated by it, because even though it’s wiser, it’s not any easier. It’s not easy to let the crowd be and say and do what they will while you minister to one person at a time.

How did he stay open to these individuals’ needs, to their pain, when the needs and follies and demands of the crowd are so blindingly overwhelming?

And how did he so often stand against the crowd… precisely because of his love for the crowd?

I don’t often know; I rarely feel that I succeed. Sometimes circumstances absolutely prevent me from spending any time on the more intimate relationships that make this work worthwhile. And sometimes I follow the crowd in the wrong direction because I just can’t fight the current anymore.

But I find myself looking harder for the lost and lonely, for the rock-bottomers and the desperate-for-a-glimpse tree-sitters. I find myself throwing away efficiency and the crowd’s demands to reinstate compassion, following my heart when it goes out from me to offer the unbusinesslike moment of rest, the hand on the shoulder, the gift of my full attention.

And when it is still all too much, when I get overwhelmed or make mistakes or need to get away, there is the friend, the phone call, the timely Scripture or the whisper of the Spirit bearing rest, and I see Jesus walking through the crowd toward me.


I reject critical thinking

book fort.

It is finals season, and my life plods along as usual. I am staring down a great many Christmas parties, but no all-nighters; I take the GRE this Sunday, but I’ve been preparing for weeks. It is a strange feeling, and I almost (almost) miss the weird rush of a combined panic over due dates and pleasure from uninterrupted hours immersed in ideas. I might build myself a small book fort anyway.

But I planned it this way. A year off is not so long, but now I can legitimately say that academia and its rhythms are not the only thing I’ve ever known. And, as I expected, this has had some unexpected consequences.

In college, all my exams and assignments were writing projects: analysis, criticism, construction of an argument, identifying assumptions and premises to defend or attack other writers’ arguments and conclusions. I am thankful and proud that my teachers taught and assessed these skills; they are the fundamental tools of any scholar who wants to be taken seriously, published, or hired. However, my training in this way of reading and thinking has its pitfalls.

You receive a 30-page article to read and write a response to, due in two days. You begin reading, pencil in hand. You are looking for buzzwords, keywords, exaggerations. You note unaddressed counterarguments in the margins. You make lines and question marks where conclusions don’t necessarily follow premises. You underline pithy phrases and conclusions with which you agree. And then you begin to construct your response: the places and premises where you agree, and why; the conclusions and assumptions you don’t like, and why. Any emotional response must be subsumed into the rigorous framework of your analysis, subject to the same logical dissection.

Or you are working on a long research paper, hunched behind your book fort, and you flip to a promising source’s table of contents, look for a relevant chapter, and begin reading two-thirds of the way through the book, stopping to make notes and collect quotes, trying to remember to note page numbers. You’re interested in the book’s other chapters, but on this deadline your task is to mine the most relevant information and move on.

You are required to agree or disagree with everything you read, watch, or hear, and to know why. This is critical thinking, one of the foundational goals of your liberal arts education. And it will serve you well on the Internet, where every blogger is begging for a response and commenters pull every opinion (and each other) apart.

Now, though, six months after graduation, I am only just remembering how to read a book. How to linger on a delicious-sounding sentence without rushing, without skimming for topic sentences and main argument points. How to begin with openness, trust even, rather than brandishing a pencil and an arsenal of Latin labels for fallacies. I am remembering the delight of simply listening before I speak, formulate a counterargument, or point out overstatements. Even in reading the Bible – (I am truly ashamed of this) – I have only recently relearned how to pray and listen, dwell in the words and pray, pray and seek as I read.

Reading – I had forgotten – is an encounter with another person, and to do it well takes humility. A good reader must be a good listener, walking with the author through the twists and turns he or she chooses to take. Even when you know an argument will need to be made, empathy must come first; it is deeply, even violently prideful to ignore the human being behind a position simply because he or she is wrong.

So I am glad, for a season, to be out of the artificial world of “pure” ideas, where the order of December is inhuman workloads that turn everyone… inhuman. The “real world” has reminded me that critical thinking is a second-order skill – the really important thing is just to listen.

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