Reading old letters is almost always interesting. They are like windows into another’s life, time and place. They can record very mundane events or world-shaking ones, seen though another pair of eyes and another’s experience. Many continue a conversation that has been going on for a while, a conversation very much like hearing someone talk on the telephone; we can only hear half the discussion and must guess at the rest. The letters of Paul are this kind of correspondence. It’s almost like putting together a picture puzzle with no picture on the box and half the pieces missing.
Paul’s thank you note commends the Philippians for their care and concern in the past. It can’t have been easy for him to move away from the familiar into the unfamiliar, even with a divine directive to do so. Luckily he had a trade to practice that could help sustain him. He had learned a lot of things over his life, including how to live with plenty and get by on nearly nothing. The latter is a far-from-usual talent, one that many never learn in our own day. Like teenagers who indulge in risky behaviors on the premise that young people don’t die, people who have plenty seldom realize that it can be lost in a heartbeat. It’s in the moments after that heartbeat that a person finds out who his or her real friends are: the people who have their backs when trouble arises.
The Philippians had indeed had Paul’s back on several instances, as he writes in his letter. He hadn’t asked for help but they sent it anyway. That’s the kind of friend everyone should but doesn’t always have around them, the friends who see a need and help to fill it without being asked. That’s also the kind of action Jesus taught, the lesson of responding to a need whether it is friend, family or almost total stranger. It’s all part of the “Love your neighbor” in those teachings. Every person on earth our neighbor and our job to help as many of them as we can, not for our own glory but for God’s.
Paul also makes a curious statement, “I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” There are a lot of times people do things for others and the recipient will say, “I don’t know how to repay you for your kindness.” That may be all the payback the giver will receive but, according to Paul, the true payback will be added to their account in heaven. I know friends have helped me many times when I knew I couldn’t repay them adequately, but I too counted on their goodness being recorded on their behalf by God.
We also have a saying, “Pay it forward,” meaning to do a good deed out of the clear blue for someone else and, when we receive thanks, we tell them to just do something good for someone else. It isn’t going to buy anyone’s way into heaven, but it sure can make earth a tiny step closer to heaven right here and now.
Paul’s letter gives us a glimpse at of a life under the guidance of God but very much dependent on his own wits and skills as well as the generosity of others to bring the mission to fruition. While we’ll never know the other side of the story, we can take note that thank you notes are always appreciated, good deeds have rewards above and beyond immediate thanks or paybacks, and that help, especially when it comes unasked, can be a very great blessing. It’s an indication that people are watching and listening and that they see a need or sense one and offer what assistance they can. Consciously or not, they’ve got each other’s backs.
Whether it’s a fragrant offering, like Paul received (whatever that was), a financial contribution or even just a willing ear and available shoulder, we can make a difference in the world, one deed, one life at a time. Today the job is to find just one place where help can be given quietly and without thought to what reward we will receive for doing it. After all, the neighbor we never met may need someone to watch his or her back and God may be taking notes . . .