We have a little Bible study, a few fellow moms and I, of the simplest kind. We gather in one of our homes, read a section of the Bible together, and discuss. We drink a hot drink, nibble a bit, share life and pray a little at the end, and call it good. It’s one of my favourite times of the week.
Last fall we did the book of Philippians, which I hadn’t studied in a group for ages (if ever). The apostle Paul is the writer, and he’s writing from Rome where he’s on house arrest. He writes the letter to a fellowship of Jesus-followers located in Philippi in Macedonia. Here’s one of the sections the girls and I read together.
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare… But think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him… Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him.”
Epaphroditus isn’t a big character in the Bible; his isn’t a name you remember. I’d never paid this section any heed at all… till now. Here’s a guy who volunteered to journey out from his home to visit Paul and serve him. He stayed with Paul, helped him, got really sick, improved… and now is ready to go back to where he came from.
It’s the home-going piece that grabbed me, and in reality that’s a big part of the reason for Epaphroditus’ inclusion in the Bible. He wants to go home, and his home wants him to come home: it's a mutual desire. “He longs for all of you,” Paul writes, and then, “that when you see him again you may be glad.” Paul honors this believer’s deep wish (and that of his people) and then facilitates in getting it met. He opens the way for Epaphroditus to go home sends him with his blessing.
Epaphroditus is in contrast to Timothy (and to Paul himself) who are basically presented as journeyers, itinerants. Their job in this season is to go from place to place as the Holy Spirit directs, and you don’t see them “going home” or settling into one place for long. Their roles and the job God has for them is different. But for Epaphroditus the situation is clear: it’s time to go home.
Here’s the reason this passage struck me: I read it in a season when my husband and I were praying to go home. We left New England eleven years ago when my husband took his job working for the navy; we knew how work would mean regular moves, living all over the place. We signed up gladly - we were up for it. Now, though, three locations (California, Virginia, Greece) and a season of life later, we’re both eager to go home. It’s not easy, though, with my husband’s job to get home (or close to it). It requires effort and finagling, drawing on connections, and praying a lot of prayers. And this is where we spent our fall - praying prayers, as did our families and friends, that God would open the way back. Looking for a blessing and a path to get home.
So when I ran across this passage in Philippians it encouraged me hugely to see Paul uplifting up this desire of Epaphroditus as good, right, even holy - he sanctions and encourages it. The verses and the fulfilment of Epaphroditus’ desire so clearly described my own wish and payer.
So it was that I spent the fall praying the prayer of Epaphroditus, and so it was that I rejoiced with Epaphroditus when, the week before Christmas, we found that God has answered our prayers with a “yes.” Yes, the navy would send us back to New England. Yes, God would meet us in the place of our longing. And in the place of our people, who longed for us to come back. Yes, He had opened the way that we could go home. In the summer we will move to the south shore of Connecticut, and hour from my husband’s parents and less than two from mine. Less than 200 miles from where we started on our journey back in 2008. Home.
Not everyone has a home that they’re eager to get back to; I’ve seen this more clearly while living in Greece where we’re entrenched with a military community than anywhere in the past. Not everyone has close ties with family; not everyone has a place where there are resources and relationships that beckon them back. Going home - or having a real “home” to go to - isn’t for everyone. It sure didn’t seem to be for Paul.
For my husband and me, though, God gave us a slice of this world that does feel like home, a place that we do want to go back to. For us it was natural and right that we would come to place of longing to go back…. and in his kindness, God brought me Epharoditus as a model, in the season of my longing. To call me to pray this prayer (which we’d already been praying for more than a year, long before the time of requesting locations had come), and then grant me the request. For me it brought to mind these words, penned by Julian of Norwich in the 14th century.
“I am the ground of thy beseeching [in prayer]. First it is my will that thou have it, and next I make thee to will it, and next I make thee to beseech it—and thou beseechest it! How should it then be that thou shouldst not have thy beseeching?” ~Julian of Norwich
It’s not cut and dry, of course. He’s not a slot-machine God, as we all know; the prayer itself isn’t a magic-worker. After all, we’d felt the pull and longing to go home many times before, and those desires didn’t lead to God bringing us back. Sometimes you pray - for this or anything - and the answer is “No.” Or “wait” or “not yet.” That’s the space of soul-wrestle, surrender, and continued “beseeching” - that holy ground on which we must all wage battle, at different times and ways, throughout our lives.
But sometimes - as for Epaphroditus and for us - the time is right, and the answer is yes. He is a faithful God, and our longings matter infinitely to him after all. Because of this, then, we pray on. And when he answers us yes, we rejoice.
So what about you, or someone you love? Is there a longing to go home? Might be a time to press into Epaphroditus and see if his prayer echoes something in your own heart. Perhaps God might see fit to grant you that noble longing too.
PS. The header image is the way we told the kids about our upcoming move: my husband cut a pancake into the state’s shape and told our children to figure out what state it was - that would be their new home. A moment they’ll probably always remember! They had been praying to go back to New England (and several had even voiced Connecticut specifically) too.
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