BOWEN COLUMN: What it means to be excellent

Published 9:30 am Friday, May 20, 2022

Over the past few weeks, we have plunged into a study of one of many people’s favorite books: the book of Philippians. When I asked on Facebook what book many of my friends who study with us wanted to study next, several came back immediately with ‘Philippians.’

I’ve been thinking about that a great deal, why that was the response. What is it about this little book that grabs so many people?

Is it because life is hectic – people bustling here and there all day every day – and this is one book that teaches us to slow down, to search for that peace that passes understanding, something you can’t get unless you drive in the right lane?

Is it because there is so much negativity all around us? Why, I’m sure there’s somebody you deal with every day who brings enough negativity before lunch to last you a month. But this book is a positive book, a book that tells us to think on things true and honest and lovely and of a good report — Philippians 4:8. Ah, that’s a good reason, I know!

Is this book so popular because it is a ‘mind-changing’ book, to go a step further? If you are having too many bad thoughts and you can’t seem to get that train to slow down at all, just pick up Philippians and begin to read for a few minutes. You’ll see quickly that you need to have a bigtime change of mind? We call that ‘attitude’ nowadays, and it needs to change sooner than later.

Or is it because the writer of this book — Paul, the ‘slave of Jesus Christ’ — had been in a place similar to where you have been — that is, he had been far away from the Lord, even fighting against him? But he woke up one day, spiritually, and he got on the right road; and ever since the day he found the right road he learned to ‘press toward the mark’ with all that he had, with every fiber of his being, fighting and scratching to reach that goal with both tooth and toenail (as we say), and he never looked back. He forgot all of that past and kept his focus up ahead at the goal he had set. On those days when we find ourselves looking back too much, we can open up the book of Philippians and be reminded, quickly, that looking back won’t do anything for you except make you run into a tree or something.

I have one more, and a story, too: Perhaps many love Philippians because it lays out for us (without preaching or lecturing) exactly what a Christian life looks like. In short, it shows us what it means to be excellent. You go out in life, says the apostle to the Philippians, and you prove the things that are excellent.

You be excellent in your attitudes of peace and joy and in your positive way of looking at things; and you carry yourself every day with excellence. You can’t read this book without desiring it. No way.

The minute I starting studying Philippians again and thought of the ‘excellence’ theme, a story from long ago came to mind. Before I started teaching in 1984, I had to visit a school to observe a classroom and see what a good English classroom looked like. My assignment was Wheatley High School, an inner-city school in Houston. I walked into the classroom early one morning; and the teacher — a middle-aged white lady who seemed a little out of place in a school of mostly minority students — greeted me nicely and gave me a seat near the door. Soon the bell rang, and the kids hurriedly and noisily made their way down the hallway; one by one about thirty of them made their way into the room, all greeted cordially by the well-dressed, professional-looking teacher.

As soon as the bell to start class rang, the teacher — I don’t remember her name, unfortunately — began to teach. With her grammar book in her hand, she taught as she walked up and down the aisle and then, in a flash, would make her way to the chalkboard to illustrate a point. A student often would raise a hand to ask a question, and the teacher honored that question as if it were the most important question she’d heard all week; and she answered it with fluency and respect. The further the class the went along, the more I thought the teacher may not be human at all. I thought she must be a robot — until near the end of the class. That was when she paused, almost as if to take a breath for the first time, looked over at me, and gave me a lovely smile. I knew she was real after all.

Through the years, I thought back to that teacher and wish I could walk into her classroom again, even after walking into my own thousands of times. She taught me something that I never forgot, and I’m still impacted by it today. She taught me what excellence looks like in a classroom. I sought to achieve that excellence; but I found it to be a very high standard. On my best days, perhaps I came close. But I always knew I always had to press toward that mark with all I had if I ever wanted to be in the same class as the teacher from Wheatley High School, 1982.

When you read the book of Philippians — by the way — you are looking at that Wheatley High School teacher, too. You are seeing excellence at its best — and the Apostle Paul is the teacher who is instructing our class.

And we are sitting over by the door in admiration.