If you’ve sent or received a text or email in recent years, you’ve likely become familiar with emojis. You know, those cute little pictures that get added, either one at a time or in a string to convey things like “agreed!” or “that’s hilarious” or “hmmm – gotta think about that.”
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Though my deep-dive five minutes of research on Google reveals that emojis were first developed in the late 1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese pager and cellphone designer, I remember earlier, non-digital versions of emojis from way before that. Remember this guy? https://mymodernmet.com/smiley-face/ In my grade-school years, smiley faces were everywhere. Its origins are disputed, though there’s a good case to be made for an American freelance artist named Harvey Ball, in 1963.
Early in my path to Ministry, one of the requirements of all “intended candidates” was a thorough psychological assessment. (How did this guy slip through the cracks? I hear you ask). I was in my early 20’s and I recall the psychologist interviewing me asking a simple opening question about how I was feeling. I said something deep and specific like, “good.” He pushed me to come up with something more specific and when I stumbled, he produced a sheet that looked something like this: (sheet of fifty-four emojis: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/45036065003534345/ )
I found that really helpful at the time – I was able to move beyond “good” and say, “generally content, but a bit worried about this interview” – and that pictographic sheet of emotion descriptors spurred me to expand my emotional vocabulary. Working in a school many years later, I saw teachers at times using similar tools to help their students identify emotions beyond “mad, sad and glad”, especially when something was going sideways in the classroom.
The epistle lesson for Thanksgiving Day, which we heard this morning, is Philippians 4: 4-9, in which the apostle Paul, some 2000 years before our version of emojis, reached into his lexicon to find a broad range of words to describe the qualities that he wanted to convey to his dear friends in Philippi.
As we review Paul’s words, we see these qualities: Joyous – gentle – non-anxious – thankful – peaceful; motivated by truth, honour, justice, purity; pleasing and commendable and excellent and praiseworthy; and in the end, to live in the assurance that life amidst these qualities is a life lived with the Holy One who guards our hearts and minds and remains present to our lives:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4: 4-9 (NRSV-UE)
I find this to be a particularly helpful list of qualities on Thanksgiving weekend, when my emotional vocabulary typically lands on words like thankfulness and gratitude and might expand as far as generosity, but that’s about as far as it goes. And it could be that this Thanksgiving in particular, at a time when so much of the world seems to be stuck on mad, sad and glad – mostly mad – that this opportunity to think about the words and qualities that lift us to higher aspirations is a much-needed gift.
There are things about this passage from Philippians that we see, and things we don’t see. What we see, is this list of beautiful, emotional words – honour, beauty, goodness and the like – which describe the Christ-connection that dwells in us and which spurs us to reach beyond the comfort of contentment, to Christ’s own agenda: of generosity beyond what is easy to give, speaking truth to power beyond what is easy to say, and participating in the push for a more just world, even when a more just world might include my losing some things I feel entitled to. These are words that evoke goodness, words that build character. For whatever reason, in preparing this sermon I realized that my heart was ready to have many of these words re-introduced to my consciousness, bringing me back to a part of my faith heritage that I tend to forget about. In some ways it’s old-fashioned but to me, old-fashioned in the best possible way, for it was in Church and Sunday School that words like gentle and pure and true and commendable first really found a home in my heart, and it’s good to be reminded of that.
Those are things we see: the words sent from Paul to his friends in Philippi. What we don’t see, is the situation that Paul is in, and the situation of the congregation to whom he is writing.
The congregation in Philippi was the first European Church established by Paul, and while he was imprisoned here and eventually cast out of the city, his relationship with the Philippian Church could be described as “mutually encouraging” [see LiveGlobal blog, below] as he helped them address and resolve some difficult interpersonal conflicts in the congregation which threatened to split them, and they in turn reached out to him in many ways, including financially, going to far as to send one of their elders to him whilst in prison to bring him encouragement and resources.
Paul’s situation, when writing these words, is dire. As written by Susan Eastman, a professor at Duke University, “Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is ‘peace that surpasses all understanding.’ Written from jail by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples… [in Philippi] Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi [acts like] a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages [the reader] to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts”.
So on the one hand, we have these glorious, glowing words from Paul to a somewhat troubled congregation he loved very much, so positive that they might appear phony; and on the other hand, we learn that he wrote these words from prison, with the very real possibility that his stay in prison would end not with his release, but with his execution. And when I see these two things side by side (or perhaps “hand in hand”), I am inspired to find the ways in my life and in my context, where living in Christ brings forth a wider, truer, more uplifting expression of the Good News. I live in the knowledge of a God who has endured the worst of human cruelty, and risen in power above it, and seek the many and manifold ways that this might change me and my worldview in the world of 2022.
I hope that this next part of the sermon doesn’t just turn into a great big sidebar, but even if it does I’ll take that risk, as there’s something concrete I would like to share with you. I cannot read the words that Paul has written, about the qualities he commends to them, without wanting to go even broader than this list, lifting to our attention a huge range of virtues that flow out of our Christ-connection. Over thirty years ago, a group called The Virtues Project, originally in Victoria BC but now based in Calgary, started looking at the qualities of character that various religious and philosophical traditions considered to be virtues, or virtuous. We know, for example, that many religions have a version of the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12, paraphrased) – but it goes well beyond that. Over the past thirty years, the Virtues Project has identified over six hundred virtues in common to cultures and faith communities around the world. Their original list of 52 virtues, is on screen at the moment, and I’ve printed off copies of a longer list of 99 virtues which you can pick up from the table beneath the TV in Gordon Hall when we gather for coffee time. (to download your own, click on the bolded link at the end of this sermon). As you will see, there are some words describing similar things but the overall range is quite big: things like compassion, enthusiasm, integrity, modesty, reliability, respect – and words like assertiveness and determination that remind us that there can be an edge to the virtues and they’ll still be virtues. All of the words represent qualities held in esteem by a wide range of faith traditions. Strangely, for the first time I can remember in engaging materials from The Virtues Project, I do spot one word in their list of 99 words that I would quarrel with somewhat – the word “certainty” which to me implies, “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts” as opposed to the words “faith” and “confidence” which, taken together, already lift up the positive aspects of “certainty”– but that’s just my personal quibble with a list which, on the whole, spurs me to consider things I haven’t sat with for quite some time.
In their own words, “since 1991 The Virtues Project has been introduced in more than 135 countries by our trained facilitators and virtues enthusiasts. It has inspired and mobilized people worldwide to commit acts of humanity and service, to heal violence with virtues, and to lead with character.” In the same way that back in 1982 I was so thankful to have a psychologist put a sheet of pre-emojis in front of me to open me up to a wider emotional vocabulary, I think that the work of the Virtues Project and others doing similar work, can give us a wider vocabulary for reaching into our God-connection, and cultivate ways that it can lift our spirits and inspire our actions for good at a time when the forces of tyranny and despair and division capture so much of our attention. I love the way the Virtues Project puts it: committing acts of humanity and service, healing violence with virtues, and leading with character. That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul was getting at, writing from prison no less, as he encouraged his friends in Philippi to reach deep into their Christ-experience to heal the divisions in their community, and to keep on keeping on in spite of the thumb of Rome being pressed down upon them.
Within this, I need to say out loud that there is no judgment for the times in life when troubling circumstances get the upper hand. There is no judgment for those carrying trauma, or for those in a depressive space for whom a list of virtuous words might bring a weak smile but not much more. Not everyone is going to be in that space of reaching beyond oneself in times of woe. But this Thanksgiving weekend, want us to receive as gift, as promise, perhaps even as motivation, the words from Paul about Christ’s powerful love which is not defeated by the hard and tearful challenges that come our way, and these broader lists of words that can help us find the fullness of strength and creativity and courage that God has placed within us. If you need a reminder of the breadth and creative variety of that love, or if your language of things-that-express-life needs some refreshing or expanding, I hope the virtues list (remember the pile in Gordon Hall!) may be of some help. And know these words from Paul, to be true, and to bestow a blessing this day: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 4: 7) Amen.
Resources cited or consulted:
Johnson, Merwyn S. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020964318802822
and… The Virtues Project
poster (the “99 words): https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d9cfe12e7b85610d4449c87/t/60df77646c59b63425f37458/1625257829363/100virtues_poster_v4.pdf
educational products for sale: https://www.virtuesproject.com/store
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.