Friday, July 6, 2018

The Center and the Edge - Philippians 1: 21-26

My generation was the first to grow up with a TV. My childhood was spent in front of it watching old movies, sitcoms, and cartoons. Growing up, television was my third parent and my best friend. When I was lonely, it was always there. When I was hurting it cheered me up. Television was my life. 

Even though we were southerners, I didn’t have a Southern accent, because I learned to talk by television. I told time by television. Four PM was Father Knows Best. Nine AM was Captain Kangaroo. My tenth birthday I remember only because it was when The Beverly Hillbillies premiered. Every family event was dominated by TV; every holiday we watched football games and parades.

 People complain today about kids on the internet and video games. They are either lying, forgetful, or grew up in a different kind of family. In the 60’s, television sets were on at least eight hours a day in most homes. There’s nothing new about this. Kids are doing what they saw their parents and grandparents do—lose themselves in media. Furthermore, old people are just as addicted to media as their children and grandchildren. Today, according to the New York Times, we spend 10 hours and 39 minutes a day staring at screens. People over 50 watch the most television—five hours a day--and are the most influenced by it. The use of cell phones for entertainment has increased over 60 percent since last year. We have no right to criticize the young for spending so much time before screens when we do it ourselves. 

Here’s the problem--we are losing our souls.  We live in a matrix of media-induced reality. We think what we see on our screens is real, but it’s processed reality. Whether we are watching the news, sports, or science fiction, it’s still only a shadow of the real world.

This would be all right if we were strong enough in ourselves to resist what we see, but we aren’t. The world pulls us out into itself with such force that we never have time to evaluate what it is saying. There is no time left when we turn off our screens to think about anything. 
Richard Rohr paints a grim picture of modern life. He says:

“We are a circumference people, with little access to the center. We live . . . confusing edges with essence, too quickly claiming the superficial as substance . . . If the circumferences of our lives were evil, it would be easier to moralize about them. But boundaries and edges are not bad as much as they are passing, accidental, sometimes illusory, and too often in need of defense or “decoration.” Our “skin” is not bad; it’s just not our soul or spirit. . .  Earlier peoples, who didn’t have as many escapes and means to avoid reality, had to find Essence earlier — just to survive. On the contrary, we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite a long time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only “life” available.”

 We’re like donuts—our outsides are covered with sweet amusements, but inside there’s a big hole. We try not to think about what we’re consuming. Our electronic “friends” tell us what music we’re supposed to enjoy, what’s funny, and what values we are supposed to have. The media demands the right to tell us what to do, what to believe and what to value.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul’s center was Jesus. He didn’t care what the world said. Everything he was or did focused on Christ. Anything that distracted from this was discarded or treated with indifference. The stuff on the edge of his life didn’t disturb his inner core. Christ defines his world. That’s what it means to have Jesus as Lord. Christ, not culture, is your core.

Other generations lived lives that were so hard and short they were forced to develop their inner core. They had to build their personal center of strength through prayer, reflection, and self-examination, or go insane. But when we’re faced with problems, we lose ourselves in distraction. The center cannot hold, because we do not look within.

People, families, and churches are falling apart. Cynicism and anger replaces innocence and love.  The best thoughts on humanity are silenced while the worst parts of us are energized by mob mentality. The best part of us, our spiritual center, is underdeveloped.

 “To live is Christ and to die is gain” can only be claimed by those whose inner lives are more important than their outer lives. They are hurt, but not broken. They endure pain, and can be happy in it, because Christ is there. They bend, but don’t break. Their surroundings don’t matter, because they are grounded in Christ.

But when we focus on the circumference of life we become fragile and brittle. We follow every new fad. We are empty, rootless, and easily manipulated, swayed by every new thing. We are trapped by trivialities and cannot break free. 

Here are some signs we’re living on the circumference of life, not the core:

1.  We feel anxious and afraid. Our lives are run by the urgency of other people’s agendas. It’s amazing how important we think the news is. Half the news is gossip, most of the rest are lies, but we think we must listen to it all. Very little of the news has any real impact on your lives, or who you are.

2.  We distract from unpleasant thoughts instead of dealing with them. We lose ourselves in TV, video games, the internet, social networks, and shallow conversations that distract us from deep thought to avoid pain from unresolved issues. This doesn’t solve our problems, it just delays them.

3.  There’s a difference between what we really believe and what we are “supposed” to believe. We don’t have time to think through what people say to us. We accept easy answers just because they are easy. If we have questions or doubts, we pretend we don’t. Our electronic, entertainment driven world discourages us from thinking or questioning.

4.  There is no time to sit and think. Our lives are so busy we never reflect upon our feelings, thoughts or actions. Someone has said that experience teaches us nothing. But thinking about our experience teaches us everything. If we never ask God to show us the meaning of our experiences, we stay stupid.

5.  We’re obsessed with quantity, not quality.  Everything must be more, bigger, better, and louder.  Going to church must be a major production or we don’t hear God. Everything is about getting more, more, more, but not appreciating what we have. We buy in to the consumer-driven world, because we cannot be still long enough to hear the voice of God. 

6. We’re bored most of the time. We don’t understand what things mean, so it just seems boring to them. If you are deaf, music means nothing. If haven’t understood the meaning of the life around you, it’s just boring. You are constantly seeking something to interest your time, but find nothing.

7.  We never have deep conversations. All conversations are about weather, news, sports or television. There is no time with others to be open about our real thoughts or feelings. 

8.  God is a what to us, not a who. God isn’t a friend. We may go to Him for strength or answers, but He’s not just to enjoy him. We see Him as a policeman, or a professor, or judge, but not as someone who we can know. We are content to know a few facts about God, but not to know him personally in our inner being.

Don’t say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” if you don’t mean it. People who live in the circumference of life become used to repeating slogans they don’t understand. To truly have Christ as the center, you must spend time with Him. To receive Christ is to receive Him into your inner being, and to invite Him into your heart and to seek His presence always. We live with Christ in our inner being, as Paul did. When He is there, we can resist the pressure of the world around us.  

How do you develop your inner core? Let me give you some suggestions.

First, turn off your devices. TV, video games, and cell phones are a spiritual issue. You don’t know if you are addicted to them until you try turning them off. Instead of listening to them all the time, try turning them off and practicing a little contemplation. Be still in the presence of Christ. 

This is hard at first. It takes a few minutes to silence the constant thoughts that crowd our minds.  But set aside your devices and distractions and listen to God. 

Second, stop multitasking. When you are with someone or something, give it your full attention.  Pay attention to the person in front you. When you are with your spouse, child, or friend, pay attention to them. When you are praying keep your mind on God. When you are alone, pay attention to yourself, and listen to your inner voice.

Third, practice daily self-examination. It only takes a few minutes a day, but it can change your life.
Get alone and sit in silence before God. Find a place where you can get away from the distractions of the world. Enter the presence of Christ. Acknowledge His presence by reading a verse, singing a song, or just bowing your head. 

Give thanks to God. Find something that was a gift from God to you, and thank Him for It.

Now, this next step is important. Go back through the last day in your mind and think about your thoughts, feelings, and conversations. Give each moment to God and ask Him to show you where He was or wasn’t in it. Confess your sins to God as you recall them. As you think about what you have done today, God is with us always, but sometimes we aren’t paying attention. Ask God to show you the meaning of what you did today, and how He is working in your life.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” How did you live for Christ today? How do you acknowledge Him as Lord of your life this day? The world through many voices demands our attention in the circumference of life, but Christ demands that we do not neglect the core. 

 Before we can honestly say that, “for me to live is Christ,” we need to learn to give him a few minutes of undivided attention. Spend less time looking outward at Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, Snapchat, Fox, MSNBC, or ESPN, and more time looking at the Son of God.

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