Everyone has a favorite line. Maybe it’s from a movie or a book. It might be a famous quote from someone who is known for their one line monikers of wisdom like Mark Twain or Mae West. You might even be inspired to write the passage on a sign and hold it up at a major sporting event while donning a rainbow colored wig. Many times when I write this blog I google through websites that provide quotes for inspiration, sometimes I can pull a few one liners out of the depths of my memory. However, I do have a favorite.
“I thank God every time I remember you.”
The first time I read that it struck me and stuck with me for a while. It is the opening line in a well published and famous letter that I read more than 25 years ago. I think it has wedged into my memory because I wasn’t expecting it. The letter was intended to be instructional, not cordial. It’s St. Paul’s letter to a struggling group of new converts in the Greek town of Philippi. Paul is under house arrest and he’s writing a letter to check in on how the group is doing. He’s their displaced leader and is constantly challenged with monitoring the progress and development of a group of students while facing his own adversities. When I started reading the letter I was taken at how beautifully he began it.
Imagine the scene for a moment. Paul must be stressed out. He’s in chains after all! He’s just heard from a friend of a friend that his newest group of trainees isn’t following directions. What would my reaction be? Would I be thankful??? In all honesty, it would not be my first reaction…or even my second.
If I were receiving a letter that began with “I thank God every time I remember you.” I’d probably pull that letter out of my drawer and reread it over and over and over again just so I could feel like a million bucks. All the instructions and advice that follows that compassionate opening statement would be viewed by me as words of kindness, concern and well being. Could I possibly view the lesson of practicing humility (Phil. 2) with a chip on my shoulder when I know the teacher is grateful that I’m there? Would I feel belittled or defensive when I was being told to stop fighting with my co-workers or friends (Phil. 4) when the advisor remembers me only with fond thoughts? Of course not.
Paul not only starts his letter to the people of Philippi this way, but he starts almost EVERY letter he writes this way. Rome – “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you,…” (Rom. 1;8). Corinth – “I always thank God for you because of his grace…” (1 Cor. 1;4). Ephesus – “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” (Eph 1;15). Thessalonica – “We always thank God for you, mentioning you in our prayers…” (1 Thes. 1;2) and “We ought always to thank God for you brothers and rightly so…” (2 Thes. 1;3). The last letter Paul probably wrote before he died was to Timothy. He was his protégé and the leader of the group in Ephesus. Imagine, knowing you are near the end of your life and writing these words “Timothy, I thank God for you….night and day I remember you in my prayers……I long to see you again….I will be filled with joy when we are together again.” (2 Tim. 1;3-4)
This just amazes me. Not just that the words are being given in such a free and loving way, but because they are among the FIRST words freely expressed from a man condemned. Despite his own circumstance, or maybe because of it, he understands how incredibly important kind words are. He knows the most important instruction he can give is Love.
When I read that one line over two decades ago, this is what it conveyed to me:
“If I never tell you anything else, know this; I’m so glad you are here. Thank you.”