10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.
19 My God will meet your every need out of his riches in the glory that is found in Christ Jesus.
Rome provided little or no food for prisoners, and few other comforts (e.g., blankets) for those held in what were usually holes in the ground, not raised cells. As a prisoner (Philippians 1:13), Paul shared his inner response to gifts he had received from the Christians in the city of Philippi. His words showed how he distinguished “needs” from “wants” in both good times and bad. In Christ, he said, he had “learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance.”
Lord Jesus, keep growing in me the awareness that you, and not my “stuff,” are the secret to a contented life. Guide me toward a life of gratitude rather than grasping for more. Amen.
I celebrated my 22nd birthday on a month-long mission trip in Cape Town, South Africa. Just a few short years after the end of apartheid, the lasting economic and social effects were a focus for our team to observe and experience during our time there.
We had been working on home improvement projects in Khayelitsha, one of the poorest townships in Western Cape, for about 10 days when a few of us were invited to a family home to share a meal. We were helping upgrade homes that were considered informal dwellings, most made only out of tarps and well positioned cardboard. I quickly learned a number of new skills my midwestern upbringing hadn’t given me any chances to learn. I learned how to hand mix concrete, how to load just the right amount of mortar on my trowel to lay bricks, how to keep them level. I pushed wheelbarrows, tied rebar, stacked cinder blocks and sought advice from the locals when my soft hands were covered in blisters from a new kind of work.
Four of us attended this meal home-cooked by our new friends. We quickly sensed that more than one family was coming together to provide the meal for us. There was a lot of hurry and bustle and people in and out offering greetings and placing carefully prepared food before us in a tiny concrete room, the only room in the house. Our table was a worn piece of plywood that seemed to be teetering on something, but we really couldn’t tell what that was. We were so scrunched into the space that none of our hosts joined us to eat the meal, as we’d expected. A special place had been set for us and we were proudly served a meal of steamed bread, fish heads and some type of root vegetable. The food was an obvious sacrifice for those who offered it. Savoring each bite, we expressed our gratitude to our team of hosts.
While we were in this home, the sun had set. We sensed that our time there had gone longer than our hosts expected. We were waiting on a driver to pick us up, but had not been given a time frame for when that would take place. No one had cell phones, and the uncertainty of when we might depart was a source of stress we could do little to remedy.
As it got darker, we could hear more activity outside the house and could sense palpable tensions growing in our hosts. A woman came into the room and explained that she did not know when our driver would return, but that it would be safer for us to move to a different location. Ill prepared to understand all of the goings on, we complied and followed the directions of our hosts. We didn’t really know where we were going or what exactly we needed to be kept safe from.
As we four exited the door we were quickly surrounded on all sides by a wall of people moving us in the same direction. The four host families and additional people they recruited were creating a barrier for us as they walked us to the community church. While walking, we heard lots of hushed murmurings in languages we didn’t understand as well as some obviously aggressive shouting from outside our protective circle. As I was trying to take in all that was happening, I saw an older man push away a younger man who was carrying some type of firearm and there was more shouting between the two groups.
We arrived at the church. It was a small concrete slab with a corrugated tin roof. Two stacks of plastic chairs were spread out quickly and offered to each of us. Once we sat down, they told us that our presence in the home made it a target for potential burglary or theft, that criminal activity escalated quickly after dark in this community. Our presence had put our hosts at risk and their response was to move us all to the church.
Once gathered in plastic chairs on a dusty concrete slab in the dark, someone started singing a hymn. No more conversation was needed as our voices blended together singing Amazing Grace, completely eliminating the frenzy and tension we’d struggled to understand just a few moments before.
I learned some new words in Afrikaans and Xhosa on that trip and my construction skills increased exponentially. But far more valuable were the lessons we learned from this beautiful community. At first it was hard for us to see much beyond a level of poverty few of us had ever experienced, but friends joined together to invite us in and cook for us. Neighbors gathered to help keep their community, and especially us outside guests, safe from those wishing to do harm. When there was uncertainty about when and how the threats could be resolved, we were ushered to the church and shown the powerful witness of a community rich in faith.