Beware the Dogs!

Philippians 3:2-3

Beware the dogs. Beware those who do evil. And especially beware those who insist that any ritual that leaves a scar is better than spirited action where Jesus is concerned.

In Paul’s original, the ritual some people insisted on was circumcision. To be a Christian, they said, one needed first to be a proper Jew, and that required circumcision. Paul correctly saw past that kind of nonsense. It’s not what your penis looks like that determines whether you can be right with God.

Today, though, we have all kinds of other external marks and ceremonies,  rituals that leave scars, that people will tell you are critical to gaining God’s acceptance.

Sometimes the scars are physical. A woman is told she must return home to her abuser because that’s what God expects of her.

Sometimes they are emotional. Boys are told they have to suck it up if they want to be a real man.

And both physical and emotional scars are often connected to spiritual scars. A family is told that if they don’t tow the Pastor’s theological line, they’re all going to hell. Of course, it isn’t true. It’s nonsense.

Paul’s advice: beware people who insist that scarring you is a requirement for God to accept you. Paul doesn’t say hate them back. But beware.

Most of the time people who insist on these things are probably well-intentioned, or perhaps they have been so deeply scarred themselves that they are beyond knowing better. Just like the dog that bites you is either well-intentioned, guarding the family home, or else has been beaten to the point of meanness. There’s a reason for the phrase, “rabid fundamentalists.”

The Universe Is Waiting for You

Philippians 2:13-15

God’s desire for good finds expression in your longings and in your work. So don’t complain and argue about things. Then, when you willingly do what’s right, in comparison with the usual corruption people see, it will be as clear as a starry night that you are children of God.

Admittedly, we’re in the realm of the metaphysical. Still, you don’t have to believe in God to get the point of comparison. When someone does something that’s good and right, it stands out. Clearly. A virtuoso performance elicits applause, and you don’t have to be a virtuoso yourself to appreciate it. Nor do you have to agree with Paul’s understanding of God to recognize that doing something to improve a situation trumps standing around complaining and arguing about it. Every time.

Now, added to this, it’s worth pondering that God (or as Douglas Adams might say, “Life, the Universe, and Everything”) –  that what’s good about anything – finds its expression in your longing and working for it. And, if you are an instance of the goodness of the universe, isn’t that all the more reason to take your longings for good (for justice, for peace, for joy, for health, for fulfillment) seriously enough to work at them?

Or, to put it another way, every instance of someone doing something to make the world a better place is an instance of divine incarnation, and inasmuch as you are a divine incarnation, you are a child of God. So, what are you waiting for? Do the work. Rise above the ordinary, be a star, and we will applaud. You are a child of God, and the universe is waiting.

You Are Essential

Philippians 2:1-4

So then, if Jesus encourages you, if love comforts you, if you would share a greater purpose, if you yearn for community, then I’d rejoice to see you work through your differences, love one another, stick together, and find points of agreement. Don’t do things just to promote yourself; try to give someone else a lift. And, among you, it’s not “every man for himself,” rather seek the common good.

Two thoughts.

First, a movement isn’t about getting people to march in lock-step, or to encourage group-think, as translations of these verses often imply. Rather it’s about a community that commits to care about each other, and then pull in the same direction. And the basis for this kind of commitment and effort is never found in coercion, guilt, fear, or some robotic sense of duty. It comes from the positive primal human needs for affirmation, love, purpose, and connection.

Second, self-promotion never works for long. People will see through those motives, even as they go along with you for a while. Loyalty never comes from giving people a good deal; a good deal is the minimum expectation. Loyalty is earned by giving people gifts with no strings attached. But as soon as you give with the intention of earning their loyalty, that’s a huge string. The only way through the paradox is simply to do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. If you don’t give yourself to the world, the world will miss you.

How You Lead a Movement

Philippians 1:12-14

Friends, know that what’s happened has increased the momentum of our cause. Everyone, even the goon squad, knows that I’m a political prisoner, that my allegiance to Jesus is the reason they locked me up. And because of that, our brothers and sisters in the movement have more confidence and speak out with greater courage.

Movements need leaders. Many of the leadership gurus focus on technique, strategy, all of that. But what’s really needed is a leader who is willing to put his or her own skin in the game. After that, technique and strategy are incidental.

Last week Bill McKibben did it for the climate change movement: he was arrested during an act of mass civil disobedience outside the White House and spent two days in jail. But even he was following the leadership of a lesser known leader. In July, Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for his protest against big oil.

Again and again, the most significant movements happen when leaders lead from the front line rather than the corner office. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, César Chávez, Oscar Romero, Paul, Jesus, Elijah, Moses. None of them were technically or tactically perfect. But we remember their names without having to look them up, which is more than we can say for whoever happened to be the last CEO of General Motors. (It was Rick Wagoner, resigned 2009 as a condition for receiving a Federal bailout.)

Leaders who put themselves on the front line of their cause demonstrate that the cause is worth the effort, that it is even worth the discomfort, the inconvenience, and especially the risk. After all, if you aren’t willing to take the risk, why should I? On the other hand, if you’re willing stand with me, to go to jail, to suffer, to take the time – then I just might be convinced.

Want me to join your movement? Show me some skin.