In Lent we begin a journey that leads us to the cross, where we encounter a person, Jesus Christ. In this time of renewed focus on our spiritual lives, prayer stands front and center. It is through prayer that we come to know and imitate the mind of Christ.
We are accompanied on this journey with a brief and profound resource: Paul’s letter to the Philippians. On the surface, the occasion of the letter is Paul’s gratitude for a gift they have sent in support of his mission. But just beneath the surface are clues to other important matters of life and faith.
Lent is a spiritual journey undertaken with other Christians. As we journey we are encouraged to grow more deeply in the faith. And as we travel we find significant help and hope in the words of the Apostle Paul.
When Paul writes about his partnership in the gospel with the Philippians, I see the impossibility of living the Christian life in isolation from others, and the destructiveness of attempting to be a solo leader. When Paul speaks of the work that God has only just begun in us, I am encouraged to take the next step, and trust the outcome to God. When Paul points to the image of the crucified and risen Christ, I am given a new and higher model for unity through service. When Paul speaks of a contentment regardless of abundance or scarcity, I trust in the capacity of God to provide in all circumstances.
Just beneath the surface in this extraordinary letter, there is help and hope for individuals, congregations and denominations. Apart from the gifts of others, the spiritual journey is not sustainable. Apart from the imitation of Christ, our life together as congregations will disintegrate into a collision of personal preferences. And apart from a commitment to the unity of the church, with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, our denominations will degenerate into an assembly of competing voices seeking power and control.
The season of Lent is a intentional time of purgation, setting aside out agendas in order to focus on the example of Jesus. This will inevitably be the way of the cross for us—the road of suffering and conflict—on the way to resurrection and new life. It may be that you come to this book and season with a particular struggle— a disappointment, a disillusionment, a division—that is weighing upon you. The themes of this work can be helpful to you: perseverance, unity, reconciliation, joy, gratitude.
I have served as a pastor, a district superintendent and a bishop in the United Methodist Church. In the local church I loved the weekly practice of teaching and preaching from the scriptures. In the Apostle Paul I found a mentor and brother who knew the flaws and faithfulness of congregations; indeed, he could confess his own flawed past and his aspiration to be faithful! In the ministry of supervision (as a district superintendent and bishop), I have benefitted from Paul’s more expansive vision: He no longer leads a congregation, week by week, but he speaks from a loving objectivity, and at a distance. The distance gives him a perspective that helps him to take the long view, from this life into the life to come.
Yet Paul writes not only or chiefly to religious professionals. He is most helpful reflecting with ordinary women and men who are seeking to make sense of life and faith. His is a profound Christian spirituality, one that incorporates our need for each other, our calling to be servants, God’s desire for unity in the church, the ongoing process of discipleship and formation, the power of narrative and testimony, the need for resilience and perseverance, and the experience of gratitude and fulfillment. So much of what passes for Christian spirituality in our time can be more individualist or escapist; it can trend toward personal preferences that are enclosed within particular sectors of the church; it aims for the quick fix and insists on immediate transformation; and it relies more on our own efforts and skills than the gifts of God. Here a brief New Testament letter is a needed corrective for a church that often looks more like a corporate institution than an organic body.
My prayer for you, in the season of Lent, is that you will find help and hope in the letter to the Philippians. Paul’s words can assist us in reframing many of the questions we have in the spiritual journey. I find his encouragement to be an amazing gift from God in a season of despair and discouragement. And I find his challenge to be a prophetic admonition from God in a culture of cynicism and complacency.
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, let us be shaped over the forty days of Lent. And may the words of this brief letter of Paul guide us more deeply into Christian community, which is always located near the cross.
Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., is Bishop of the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. He is a member of the board of trustees of Bethune-Cookman University, Florida Southern College, the Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary in Moscow, and the board of visitors of Duke Divinity School. His most recent book, Near the Cross: A Lenten Journey of Prayer, is available at Cokesbury.com.