By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Philippians 4:8-9
Every invention, every social movement, every new business, every new work of art, began with a thought. Thoughts are powerful. This week I put out a Facebook call for clichés or quotes that affirm the power of our thoughts; the power of our mindset or attitude. One of my former Dayton youth gave this response: “If your mind can conceive it, and your heart can believe it, your body will achieve it.”
That seems to be an adaptation of the teaching of self-help guru, Napoleon Hill, who stated: “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe it can achieve.”[i] We’ve all heard the common cliché about the power of “mind over matter;” or the more contemporary cliché warning us, “garbage in, garbage out.”[ii] Shakespeare affirmed the power of the mind in Hamlet, writing, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”[iii] And in the 600’s BCE, a Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we thought”… which may have laid the groundwork for Descartes’ declaration, “I think, therefore I am.”
There is great power in our thoughts. There is power in our thinking; in the attitudes we cultivate; the ideas over which we ruminate.
And so, near the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, he instructs them to fine-tune their thinking; to focus their thoughts around those things which are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable, excellent and praise-worthy.
Certainly if anyone ever lived the cliché “mind over matter” it was Paul. His letter to the Philippians is chock full of expressions of joy and gratitude, blessing and thanksgiving. But it is written from behind prison bars. Now prison has never been a good experience. But, at least in most prisons in America today, prisoners receive three meals a day and medical care. In the ancient Roman world, there were no such requirements. So people in prison found themselves in a vulnerable position, especially if they had no one checking in on them. They could easily waste away from malnutrition or opportunistic infections. But the apostle Paul is not left to fend for himself. The Philippians dearly love Paul and so they had sent a member of their church, Epaphroditus, to take care of Paul while he is in prison. Yet, as bad luck would have it, while Epaphroditus is there trying to take care of Paul, he falls ill… once again, ancient prison living conditions weren’t very good. So, as Paul writes this letter to the Philippians, he is particularly thankful that his Christian brother, Epaphroditus – who placed himself at jeopardy in order to care for Paul. Well, Paul is thankful that he is recovered, alive and well and ready to make the journey home.
Now, while Paul is facing the horrible conditions of ancient Roman incarceration, life hasn’t been a bowl of cherries for the Philippians either. It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the first-century Roman dominated world. Christians were viewed with suspicion, even scorn, by their neighbors; they were ridiculed and maligned as being – well, put in terms we’d relate to today – they were maligned as unpatriotic. I mean, they had this fierce loyalty to some loser rabbi who’d been put to death for crimes against the empire. Their neighbors shunned them because Jesus-followers didn’t participate in the imperial pomp and circumstance, the pagan feasts and festivals that propelled the economy and fostered social conformity and solidarity. It was as if they had taken a collective knee during the national anthem or boycotted the Fourth of July parade. In short, these Christians just didn’t think like good Roman citizens should… And that, according to Paul, was precisely the point.
Followers of Jesus are to think differently, to have a distinctive mindset, Paul says; one that reflects the mind of Christ.
The focal point of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an early church hymn found in the 2nd chapter. The hymn celebrates Jesus’ self-imposed humility. It proclaims the theology of kenosis, a passionate “pouring out” of one’s self for the sake of the other. The incarnation, the lifestyle and death of Jesus all together were a “pouring out”; a profound self-imposed, freely-chosen humbling that resulted in exaltation and glory. And that lifestyle of kenosis, the pouring out of oneself for the sake of others; Paul proclaims that it begins with mindset or attitude; it begins with conscious decision. Jesus reveals a chosen mindset of humility and service from the beginning to the end of his human experience. And that, says Paul, provides the model for the mindset the Philippians ought to cultivate. Be of one mind, Paul says; and let it be the mindset of Christ; cultivate the attitudes that clearly guided all that Jesus said and did.
When the Philippians looked at the world around them, they didn’t see things like a typical citizen of the Roman Empire. They saw the world differently. They thought differently.
And that mindset also needed to be the framework for their relationships with one another. Paul is often criticized for being a chauvinist. But, in the case of the Philippians, Paul’s writing clearly acknowledges that women play a key leadership role in this congregation. Two of them are apparently at odds. We don’t get the details; Paul doesn’t air any dirty laundry. But they are in conflict with one another. So Paul, just a few verses before this morning’s scripture, addresses the women, named Euodia and Syntyche. He makes a direct appeal, writing “I urge Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” He affirms their ministry, saying that they have struggled alongside Paul in the work of the gospel. Again, Paul’s approach to conflict management is to remind church leadership that the way we think, our mindset, our attitudes, are key. We need to have the mindset of Jesus; a mindset of humility and service. Likewise, we need to model Paul’s way of thinking, his attitude; an attitude that could have easily been focused on the negative, but instead, was overflowing with thanks and gratitude. We need an attitude adjustment; we need to place our mental focus on things that are true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and praise-worthy.
There is enormous power in our thoughts and attitudes. The way we live begins with how we think. Before we step out our door each morning, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, we’ve already established a mindset and, if we just buy in to the culture around us, that mindset will be about getting ahead and asserting our rights and imposing our opinions on others… which might seem like a good defensive strategy in an increasingly polarized world: resist, dig in, “outwit, out shout.”
Perhaps you have heard the proverb: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”[iv] Friends: a lot of human beings are living by those words. But, we are neither gazelles, nor lions. We are human beings and Jesus followers, called to live by the gospel words that invite us to have the mindset of Christ; a mindset of humility, a pouring out of oneself in service to others; minds that do not choose to focus our mental energy on negativity and scarcity, but choose to focus on positivity and generosity and goodness. There is a lot in our lives and our world that we can’t control. But we can control our state of mind. If we feed our minds with negativity – with fear and suspicious and prejudice, it will be garbage in, garbage out. Or, if we choose to feed our minds with goodness and humility and gratitude; then what we feed into our minds will come out through our lives.
Now, I do want to, shall we say, add a disclaimer here. There are sometimes medical or psychological reasons for us being unable to adjust our attitudes or mindset; conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, addiction, paranoia. So, if you have made your best effort at redirecting and focusing your thoughts on the positive, if you have sought to live from a place of humility and peace and gratitude and been unable to do that, then it’s important to seek help and support. Our minds, our body’s chemistry, can be very complex. And sometimes we need to seek care from a physician, from a therapist, a spiritual director – or perhaps all of the above – to help us change our mindset.
This sermon series has been about response-ability versus simply being reactionary. We want to live responsibly and responsively, not simply reacting with panic or fear to the sound-bites of our broader culture. We want to live thoughtfully, tuned in to God’s purpose for our lives and our world. And, just as we want to exercise responsibility with our physical health, our calendars, our money and our relationships, we need to be responsible with our thoughts because, although we might think that people won’t be able to see what goes on inside our heads; in fact, people will see how we’re managing our thoughts and attitudes because our mind is the soil that germinates and produces our words and our actions. What goes on in our minds will, most certainly, get played out in our lives.
Perhaps you have also heard the legendary Cherokee teaching,
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
Grandfather continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”[v]
Beloved: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, what is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable; if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things… and the God of peace will be with you.
[i] Posted on the website Self Made Success: http://selfmadesuccess.com/whatever-the-mind-can-conceive-and-believe-the-mind-can-achieve/
[ii] The origin of this term was the early days of computer programming. For info see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garbage_in,_garbage_out
[iii] Hamlet, act 2, scene 2
[iv] Attributed to Christopher McDougall. See the website https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/292417-every-morning-in-africa-a-gazelle-wakes-up-it-knows
[v] See the website http://www.virtuesforlife.com/two-wolves/
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