I know someone who keeps a detailed diary of his life. He has written this daily account of his comings and goings for many years, sometimes to the exasperation of other family members. But for him it’s not just a matter of academic record; with some pleasure he will take a volume from the shelf and read it as a book, delighting in the story of his life.
By contrast, my father was a farm worker all his working life and was not given to literary endeavour. His diary served much the same function, insofar as it recorded what he had done at work, day by day, but often the record would consist of only two or three words, identifying the basic task and sometimes a field name. A typical entry might be ‘ploughing, 4 acres’ or ‘horse-hoeing beet’. In the winter months, the same entry would often appear a week or more at a time, ‘hedging and ditching’.
In my early years, I would watch him guiding his pen carefully round those letters. I had no idea what the words meant; I simply knew that the two always occurred together. Only later did I realise that a ditch is often accompanied by a hedge, and so it made sense to maintain the two at the same time.
In fact, these tasks complement one another; they’re two sides of the same coin. The hedges were trimmed to ensure even growth and any gaps were bridged with hurdles, while the banks of the ditch were cleared and any rubbish taken away, to allow the free flow of water from the field. On the one hand, it was important to provide a secure boundary through which animals couldn’t escape when they were let out into the meadows to graze after spending the winter months indoors. On the other hand, good drainage was important to stop the lower parts of the meadow from becoming too muddy. In short, the strategy was one of filtering: keeping the wanted in, while allowing the unwanted to escape.
This is a desirable strategy for our lives as faithful Christians. It would be fair to say that the church in Philippi might have been Paul’s favourite of all those to whom he wrote. In his Commentary on the New Testament, Frank B Hole says that Paul’s letter to them “is not characterised by the unfolding of doctrine, as are the epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians, but by a spirit of great intimacy — for there was a very strong bond of affection between Paul and the Philippian saints — and by many personal details being given.” In Hole’s view, the letter gives an insight into Paul’s personality. By extension, therefore, we can see the way he cared for the spiritual well-being of these people of whom he was very fond.
One of the examples of this care is expressed in the final chapter of the letter and is, I think, illustrated by the work my father and others like him spent so much of their winter months doing on the farm. Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).
What Paul desired most for his friends in Philippi was that they should know God’s peace in their lives, just as he himself did. Paul knew that the life around these early Christians was a mixture of good and bad. To achieve the godly peace that was his goal for them, it was important that they should focus their thoughts and lives on the values that he had taught them and to expunge, so far as was possible, all the rest that their daily lives could ‘offer’ them.
Just as the labourer’s exercise of ‘hedging and ditching’ achieved good drainage and safe pasture for the farm animals, so we need to follow Paul’s advice so far as our spiritual lives are concerned, and trap for our delight and development the good things around us, while letting all that is foul and sleazy in life pass us by.
What targets have you set for your spiritual filters in the New Year?