The Governance of our Thoughts
Sunday, October 28, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
There is a very ancient Hindi phrase that says, “You become what you think most of the time.” The idea behind this is that our thoughts form us, that what we focus on influences the way we live our lives. It might not seem particularly radical or profound, but it is nevertheless true. In fact, in many ways, it is at the genesis of what we refer to today as the mindfulness movement: the notion that what we think actually matters and informs our behaviour while we are on what the mindfulness movement calls “autopilot”. In other words, we go about our lives responding and reacting to things without any intentionality or thought. There are times when we actually need to take stock of our thoughts. How are we responding? What is really behind our motivation? What is it that we are doing, and is it in keeping with what we are actually thinking? Therefore, meditation in mindfulness means to meditate on the very present: to think about our thoughts and what those thoughts are making us do; to take stock of the things going on in our minds. This is because we are often swept away by busyness and don’t take the time for that kind of meditation and thought. Mindfulness suggests we should do this in a non-judgemental way. In other words, we shouldn’t say any “oughts” or “musts” rather strive to understand what it is that drives us, and makes us think the way that we do.
The great Apostle Paul, in today’s passage takes things a step further than just mindfulness. He takes us into the very depths of what we believe and the values that we have affecting the way that we think, and the way that we think reflecting our beliefs and values. In other words, it is not simply taking stock of our thoughts; it is ensuring that our thoughts are conforming to the very will and purpose of God. Something very similar was ascribed to the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi. While it is difficult to trace the exact moment when Gandhi said them, and he may have borrowed them from somebody else, He said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values, and your values become your destiny.” You notice how he begins, “Your beliefs become your thoughts.”
Paul wrote these powerful words to the Philippians when he was in prison because he knew that what they believed as followers of Jesus Christ would influence their thoughts, and he was concerned that it was easy for others to come along and plant other seeds of thoughts in their minds. So, in a sense, the only way we can really understand what Paul is saying in this incredible passage is to see the bookends at the beginning and the end of it, because Paul says these words in the verses right before today’s passage: “Let your hearts and minds be guided by the peace of God”, or alternatively, “Let the peace of God guide your hearts and your minds.” Paul knew that the Philippians couldn’t control their thoughts on their own; they needed the peace and the power of God to help guide and direct the very thoughts that they had. Paul knew that those thoughts become the values, the habit, and the words and actions that drive our lives. Paul knew that there needed to be a Godly understanding of how we live the virtues that he expressed.
Paul was brilliant! He used pagan concepts and virtues that were practiced in the pagan world, but turned them around and placed them within the context of God’s Word. The words that he uses reflect his own faith, values, and commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ. This glorious passage, really is timeless. Lord knows how important these words are after the events of this week. It is almost as if Paul is speaking from the grave to our generation. He starts off by saying, “Whatever is true, think on these things.” For Paul, this notion of truth wasn’t just a matter of mathematics or logic: What is true as opposed to what is false. Rather, it is what is true as opposed to what is illusory or what is, to use the term today, fake. In other words, what is true stands in direct opposition to that which tries to lead us in a way that is untrue, that is lacking in trust, in importance, and in truth itself. The fact is that as human beings, we are bombarded by untruths, and illusory images that try to drive us in a certain direction in our lives. It is so easy for us to get off course from truth because we become conditioned by lies, or we become conditioned by illusions that make us believe that they are the real thing.
I find that a lot of advertising is predicated on the illusory part of life, of getting us to think of the world, not as it really is, but how they want us to craft it to be. As I thought about this passage, I thought of two ads that have been on television recently, and in no way do I want to besmirch the companies producing the ads. One of them had a vehicle driving through a major metropolitan city with no other vehicles around at all! This vehicle is travelling at a great speed, turning corners very quickly, water is splashing everywhere, not another vehicle in sight, nor a pedestrian, just having free rein in a city, driving this magnificent vehicle they are trying to sell you. Now, I don’t know about you, but I live in Toronto and I’ve never seen a road with no cars on it! I am not even sure if at four in morning I can see a road without cars on it. I am not sure there is a place anywhere in the metropolitan area where you can drive at sixty miles an hour and not encounter another vehicle. Not that I don’t want to do that from time to time, I must confess. But it is illusory! You associate the freedom of movement and pace with this very image. It is always the same, and I tend to comment ad nauseam at home every time an ad comes on for a particular place that you can stay as a holiday resort and a couple is walking along a beach, there is not another human being in sight, you go to the pool and there is nobody else anywhere near the pool, and everything seems to be built around this individual couple. I don’t know about you, but I have never been to a resort where there are no other human beings. Even in all my years in Bermuda, I hardly went on a beach without anyone else being there, except maybe on Christmas Day. We just don’t see it. The image you have in your mind is the solitude and peace, having everything to yourselves. But it is illusory! Life can be like that. It can tempt us to think of things that are not actually true and lasting.
Paul, in writing to the Philippians knew that they were superstitious people, that a lot of things were based on illusion rather than truth. But Paul uses a powerful word, (and I don’t like to use Greek often), but in Greek the word is, aletheia, which means “the truth of God’s self-disclosure.” Aletheia is the truth of what God is doing, and it is a truth unlike other truths that can be mathematical. This is based on the very power and presence of God. For Paul, this truth is to be trusted, unlike the illusions that are often sold to us, and are very prevalent in a superstitious world. When Paul says, “Whatever is true...” he means “whatever is God centred.”
Then he moves on and says, “Whatever is honest.” I like the Old English translation by people like Tyndale. He uses the word “venerable” – don’t you love that word! Whatever is venerable, whatever is to be revered, whatever is honest and venerable is the way we should cast our lives. The word Paul uses literally means, “to walk and live as if you are in God’s Temple”. It is as if your whole life is lived within the Temple of God: every association, every relationship, everything that you do and that you think about, God is present. I don’t know about you, but certainly when I stop and think that God is present, it changes the way I think about things. There are things that I think I am sure I would do if I the knowledge God’s presence was not in my mind. God’s presence acts as a constraint upon me. God has a way of saying, “My very presence is keeping you honest”. We don’t always think that way, and we don’t always fulfill that obligation, but when we live our lives as if we are living within the Temple of God all the time, and God is present all the time, our thoughts are changed. They are formed, they are shaped by the very presence of God. That is what Paul meant when he said “And may the peace of God guide your hearts and your minds honestly.”
Paul goes on to say “Whatever is just and noble.” Here Paul is using a term that is both Greek and Latin in origin. It is the notion of right and wrong – the scales of justice – whatever is just and whatever is noble. But for Paul, we know from other things that he has written, that he is not just talking about the scale and the balance. He is talking about justice as something more rooted in the very presence of Christ himself. “Whatever is just and whatever is noble” is doing the right regardless of the consequences. Justice is not an ethereal concept, it is not an idea for Paul; it is rooted and grounded in direct discipleship and accountability to God.
Very recently, I saw a movie that brought me to tears in such a way that I actually had to keep stopping it before I went on and watched any more of it. It was a movie in German with subtitles. When I heard and read about this movie, I thought, “There is no way I am going to spend two hours watching a subtitled movie.” But I finally bent and watched it. It is called Thirteen Minutes, and it’s based on a true story. It was nominated for an Academy Award, and won all manner of awards in Germany. It is an incredible story of George Elser, a German who lived near the Swiss border. He observed things as he was growing up in the community that caused him great anxiety, and concern. In his neighborhood, he saw the rise of the Nazis and the persecution of Jews. But not only the persecution of Jews, the persecution of people of goodwill. He came to the point in his life – and his was an imperfect life, he was not a saint – where he felt he had to do something about it. In 1939, he heard Hitler was visiting Munich, so he learned how to build a bomb and h planted the bomb for the purpose of killing Hitler. The problem was that thirteen minutes before the bomb went off Hitler had left the building and innocent people died. Elser was distraught! He was also arrested, and tortured by the Gestapo while in custody. They wanted to see if there was anyone else working with Elser, if anyone else was involved in this plot, but there wasn’t. They were so convinced, however, that they tortured him to the point that they thought he would finally break and say there were others involved in this conspiracy. But he held on to the truth. He held on to justice. He could have mentioned names of other people, even some who had been cruel to him in his past, but he did not. And, why did he not do this? This is the point! Throughout the movie between moments of being tortured in his cell he recites The Lord’s Prayer. He goes through The Lord’s Prayer with the temptations – temptations to lie, temptations to incriminate the innocent – but he endured everything that was thrown his way. There are moments in his cell, and I mean you really do have to pause at these moments, you hear him say “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”, and when he talks about forgiving others “as we forgive those who trespass against us” when he says, “Hallowed be your name”. It is not the dominant part of the movie, but believe-you-me, it is the value and the motivation in his mind that is so driven by a sense of justice and nobility, honesty and truth, that he did not bend. He was executed six days before the liberation of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned. To the very end, he kept reciting The Lord’s Prayer. What did Mahatma Gandhi say? He said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. The courage to do justly arises out of the one in whom you place your trust.” It is powerful!
Paul goes to say these beautiful words of conclusion, “Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise, think on these things.” Don’t focus on the dark things. Don’t focus on the things that drag you down. Think of the pure things. The problem is that our lives are bombarded with images of all kinds that tempt us to think of the impure and the un-praiseworthy. No one understood this more than Martin Luther, and he was influenced very much by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He uses an illustration that was used with the children this morning, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” In other words, there can be impure, lustful thoughts, there can be all kinds of things floating around in your mind, but you don’t allow them to make a nest in you. You don’t allow them to find grounding. The problem is with the temptations of the world, the images we are continually bombarded of violence and lust and revenge, influence our minds. This last week, as fascinating as it was, the person who mailed those bombs, the person who went into a synagogue and killed, already had those images in their minds. Those images drove them to dark places.
I think my friends we find peace in that which is pure, lovely, praiseworthy, and lifts others up rather than dragging them down. We are better by seeking to find the wonder in other people rather than their fragility and failures; that we enjoy that which lifts us up to a community that has a sense of civility, as opposed to a community of hatred and division, and we celebrate living in a world where people are seen with dignity and not just as lustful objects. These are the things that Paul wanted us to turn our minds to. Why? Because they are things of the peace of God. It seems to me that in terms of our own social renewal, in terms of our collective mindfulness as a society, we need to be thinking of the things that are pure and lovely and praiseworthy more often than we do. And Christ, if we do this, will guide our hearts and minds. At the end of this bookend, Paul said, “May the peace of God be with you.” May your minds, my friends who are not at peace, who are troubled by things that affect your mind and your heart, that cause you pain and grief, that tempt you and hurt you, that drag others down in your eyes, may they be replaced by the peace of God, by the One who has the true governance of our thoughts. Amen.