I’ve mentioned before that I used to teach classes in prisons, mostly at one in Durham and another in Raleigh, both of them state prisons. But I also would drive up the highway to Butner where I’d teach at a federal prison. I had more freedom there to teach what I wanted. On the last day of my standard course on spiritual autobiography, I asked them what they wanted to learn about next semester.
The men in my class were unanimous. Writing, they said. They wanted writing workshops. Because that’s what they did during those long nights when they couldn’t sleep, up all night thinking about loved ones, about friends—they would write for themselves in a journal, and they would write letters, trying to write their way out of their loneliness, to reach out for a human connection, to somehow reach beyond the prison walls.
So we spent the semester workshopping their letters—all different genres. A letter to a judge, to an attorney, to a parole board. Letters to family members, to a son on an eighteenth birthday, to a daughter to celebrate her graduation from college, to a wife on their twenty-fifth anniversary. We worked on love letters to girlfriends and apology letters to victims.
In our class we’d discussed how to strengthen the effect of a verb and how to use a metaphor. But most of the time I just listened, I had so little to say, because the pages they shared with our class were filled with heartache—sentences bearing witness to souls trying to free themselves from confinement, writing as an act of freedom. They wrote to remember their love, their affection, their home—to keep their spirits alive in the midst of a deadening experience.
That’s how Paul writes, here in this letter that we call Philippians—a letter he wrote to his friends in the city of Philippi. This is a prison letter. He wrote it while incarcerated somewhere in the Roman Empire. These words here in our Bibles were penned in a cell—Paul behind bars, separated from his community, his friends, his loved ones, writing these words, which the early church recognized as holy scripture. To talk about the Bible involves us in a conversation about prisons,
about a carceral society.
“Hold me in your heart,” he says in the passage we just heard, in verse seven; “Hold me in your heart [while I’m] in my imprisonment.” And he ends the letter by asking his friends not to forget him while he sits in a cage. “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains” (4:18). That’s chapter 4, verse 18. Remember my chains, he says.
In general I think Paul is at his best at the beginning and end of his letters. Because that’s where he gushes about his friends—about his love for them. He goes on and on about his affection, his ache to be with his community again. This is especially the case in the letters he writes from prison, like this one, this letter to his people in Philippi. It’s like reading one those love letters from the people in my prison class.
Chapter 1, verse 8: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you” (1:8). God knows his longing, Paul says, because God is there with him in his cell, watching him pray, listening to his prayers—God as his witness. Paul can’t stop praying for them, he can’t stop thinking about them. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (1:3-4).
“I remember you,” he says (1:3). He’s alone, his body shackled, his life in chains—
so all he has, in terms of his friends, are his prayers and letters as a ritual of remembering, of drawing him beyond his cell, reaching towards his friends in Philippi.
Verse 7: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart.” He is caged away from his community, locked away, but he feels their care and concern as he writes. He trusts that they haven’t forgotten about him.
I usually don’t like to complain about Bible translation details because I don’t want to make people feel like they can’t understand the Bibles that they have. I don’t want to give you the impression that you can’t understand your translation of the Bible, your own Bible. But there are a few subtleties going on in this passage—in the details of Paul’s grammar and word choice—that seem important. So consider this a rare occasion, and I apologize if this gets boring.
First thing to talk about is that verse I just read, verse seven: the verb that gets translated as “to think” in English: “It is right for me to think this way about you.” To think about you. The Greek word that Paul scribbles into his letter there in his prison cell is “phroneo.” It would be better to translate it as “to feel.” Some translations do that, actually—the Revised Standard Version, for example. “It is right for me to feel this way about you.” To feel and to think are the same in Greek—the same word, referring to a body part: phren, in Greek, which means the midriff, the diaphragm, parts of the heart. Paul is talking about the stuff that goes on somewhere in here, all the thinking and feeling and sensing that happens at our core, in the center of who we are. So, my paraphrase of the verse would go something like this: “It is right for all of these feelings and thoughts to bumble up inside of me, when I pray for you.”
Remember that this is a letter Paul writes from a lonely place, a prison cell, as he yearns for his friends, as he tries to reach for them with his words. In the original Greek, you can get a sense for the fervor of his writing here because the grammar gets messed up, there’s a confusion of which verb goes with which noun. It’s fevered writing, just like those letters I got to read from the prisoners in my class—their love letters, the desperation packed into sentence fragments, words longing for someone beyond the prison walls, phrases reaching for people beyond barbed wires, prayers reaching for a hand, a hug, a return to a beloved friend, a family member.
Some of your Bibles might give you a glimpse of all of this—all the love and devotion and desperation flowing through these verses. There’s a note in some translations for verse seven, where Paul writes, “You hold me in your heart.” It could also be translated as, “I hold you in my heart.” It’s hard to know who is the subject, who is doing the holding and who is being held. “You hold me,” or “I hold you.”
There’s something true about that confusion, about the emotion in these phrases—about how Paul is reaching out to be held. Here he is, writing his prayers, trying to remember his friends, remembering their fellowship, their communion, their love for him and his love for them, that they belong together. “I hold you in my heart,” or “You hold me in your heart”—both are true in the remembering, as Paul is being reunited, his heart bound to theirs and theirs bound to him. He is being remembered, re-attached.
At least that’s the desperate hope we read in these verses—Paul’s hope that they have not forgotten him, because he can’t stop thinking about them. My favorite modern spiritual writer, Sebastian Moore, once said that “loneliness is being haunted by the other.”[i] That’s Paul, in his cell—he can’t stop thinking about his beloved friends in Philippi.
This season of Advent is all about longing. We can’t help but remember loved ones who are no longer with us, people who used to be part of our celebrations. We miss them, which is something like what the apostle Paul feels in his cell as he writes his letter—a kind of longing of restoration, to be united again, to be whole. Which is also something like what prisoners feel as they write their Christmas cards this month, a letter as an act of hope, of love at a distance.
During Advent we find ourselves with John the Baptist, with him calling out in the wilderness, as we heard in the passage from Luke’s Gospel. “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4).
This is a season for us to cry for God’s advent, for God’s arrival, for God to set prisoner’s free, for God to restore us, to heal our lives with love, to redeem the world with justice and peace.
The good news for Advent is there in Paul’s letter, when he says that God is his witness, that God is there, with him as he longs for reunion. That God is there with him as he prays, as he writes. The good news is that God’s love bears witness to our love. The center of the gospel is a trust in God’s love—that God doesn’t forget the forgotten, that God’s love finds us in the wilderness: that, even when we feel lost, even when this world feels lost, God has promised a world transformed with peace, with justice. We are testimonies of that peace, testimonies of justice.
We believe in hope with our lives, as we give each other hope.
We believe in peace with our lives, as we work for peace in our community.
We believe in justice with all of who we are, as we live out justice in our daily lives.
During Advent we’re like John the baptist, crying out for God in the wilderness of this world.
[i] Sebastian Moore, The Inner Loneliness (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 69. “independence means wanting nothing to do with the other, while loneliness is haunted by the other. And of course the God who ‘haunts’ me easily becomes the punishing, control-God of the patriarchal age”