Do you use text messaging? Have you ever found yourself texting over and over again? Have you interrupted a “real” conversation in order to reply to a text? Do you find yourself texting and not being present with your friends and families?
When I am taking my youngest somewhere in the car, the first thing she does and the last thing she does in text. She carries her cell phone around with her. When she receives a text, off she goes to her room to text away!
When we ground her and take the phone, she’s quick to do her time so she can get the phone back … not to learn from her mistake.
This behavior is what the bible calls idolatry: something natural or material or invented is so important to you it dominates your behavior. That something is an idol.
Our lives and our society are as full of the temptations of idols as the lives and society of Paul’s neighbors. Ours may be more technological driven, but we still bow down to them. Fundamentally, an idol is something you think you cannot live without. Think about your own lives. What is there, if it were taken from you, you would not want to live?
Is it your job? Is it your blackberry or iphone? Is it your family? Your home? Your wealth? Or how about your identity as an American?
For some people it’s an identity of an American being of a certain type: white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who gave the world civilization. This idol is still dominant among some folks.
Or is it your identity as a teacher or a lawyer or an engineer or a preacher? We may not think of these as we go through our lives until we retire. But when we retire, what do we do with our lives now that we don’t have our jobs? If I can’t teach or advocate or build or preach, what good am I?
Or is your identity wrapped up in her children. When they live the nest, what am I going to do now with my life? What value do I have, if my children do not need me?
All of this is normal, common, expected … and idolatrous.
It is against this domestic idolatry that Paul warns his Christian readers in our NT scripture lesson today. They are falling back into their old ways and he is throwing them a life line.
He admonishes them that if they are truly faithful to Christ they need to rise above these domestic realities. He admonishes them to center themselves on God, not on jobs, family, self-identity, or blackberries. Christians are not to neglect their domestic duties and loves, but they are not to make them central to their lives. Remember the argument between Martha and Mary when Jesus visited them. Mary sat and listened to Jesus while Martha scurried around being a good host. She complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping. And Jesus admonishes her that at that moment Mary was doing the right thing … listening, not working.
When Paul says to “put to death” these things, he means to not let them be your identity, your essence. As Christians we are followers of God through Christ first and foremost. That trumps everything else. We are a new people who are learning to balance our love of family and our dedication to work, with the call to be righteous and just people.
We are a new people constantly seeking God and growing into God’s Kingdom everyday of our lives. But how do we live this way in our daily lives?
Back to my texting example: Why do I hate texting so much? When one of my daughters is texting it takes them away from the family unit. They may be physically present, but they are certainly not spiritually present. They’ve abandoned us.
They cannot touch these people they text or chat with on Facebook. They can’t even see them in most cases. There is no physicality about this way of relating. With no touch, they are out-of-touch with themselves. They are out of touch with the incarnated creation, so essential to our spirits. A text friend or a Facebook friend cannot replace a friend in touch with them. A Facebook friend is a lot less likely to show up at your hospital bedside… and that is an essential difference.
And this is what idols do to you… separate you from the world around you, distorting your relationships with the object or person of your idolatry and all of those affected by that relationship. And by the way, nothing and nobody deserves to be your idol. They are not God and you won’t treat them right if you treat them like a god. If you set something or someone up as an idol, you expect perfection from them, you expect them to do what you think they should do. They can’t do that and they shouldn’t have to.
In the same way if we idolize our jobs, we turn them into the god of our lives and we abandon all else for the sake of the job. Our society is quite prone to this and there are many absent parents around because of the pressure they receive to be on-call around the clock all week long.
Idolizing someone is not loving them. Idolizing a job is not performing it. You are using them to build or re-enforce your own identity. Rather Jesus calls us to let go and let God. And thereby find a balance and harmony in our lives and in our actions. We are to say, “Here I am, God. What do you want me to do?” And have faith that God wants us to care for our loved ones and do a good job.
It is this way of living that Paul is encouraging us to live. We are called to live in the atmosphere of God … breathing it and being warmed by it. And in doing so we will be better parents, better friends, and better workers.
I think the aspect of texting that angers me most is its disembodiment: there’s no physicality there of the person. You’re not present with them. And that makes it so much easier to be sloppy, at best, in our relationships. At worst … and we seem to dive towards the worst these days … we have no spiritual connection and so being cruel to someone is so much easier.
Being present with someone is central to a balanced relationship. In hospice we learn quickly how important simple presence is. It takes you out of the craziness and demands of the world around you and requires focus and being centered with the people with whom you are interacting. The soul needs that physical presence.
I have a friend I take as a model of what Paul was asking of us. Sam is an elderly gentleman in a nursing home. He is a devout Catholic. He and I have had casual discussions on and off for the past year. He grew up during the Depression. He was orphaned when he was 14 years old and was on his own. He admitted to having to beg for food. But he never stooped to stealing. He praised all those people … themselves poor and hungry … who helped him out. He eventually found work in a war factory, married and raised a family … sending all of his kids to college. They have children and good jobs now and also have strong faiths.
Sam is the angel of the nursing home and its poet in residence. He’s friendly and supportive of the residents there. But most of all, he’s accepted his situation of needing a wheel chair and being in the home. He is very centered on God’s will and intent, often referring to God in his discussions and behaving likewise.
Sam has lived a long and sometimes difficult life. But there is such a serenity about him and a attraction that you want to stop and talk.
I think it is this sort of life that Paul is leading us to: Indeed, we are called to partake of this wondrous world. We are called to enjoy and love families, friends, new technology and our jobs. But in all of that we are to be centered on God and have faith that supports us through the hard times and the good times. We are to have faith to measure what we do with people and with new things and intentionally regulate ourselves so that we do not turn them into idols, We are always to rejoice that all people are children of God and our resources are all gifts from God.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …