Lessons Every Child Should Learn & No Adult Should Forget
Sunday, September 22, 2013
A well-known professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside tells an amusing story about a recent experience that she and her husband had in their home one evening. She was reading a book. It was a recent work that had been published in 2010 on the subject of the growing tendency of Americans to be overly focused on themselves, their lives and their own personal well-being with little regard for other people—the book, also written by college professors, is call The Narcissism Epidemic. As she read, she looked up to see what her husband was doing. At the very moment that she was reading a book called The Narcissism Epidemic, he was hanging a framed picture on the wall. The picture was a fake Sports Illustrated cover that he had paid to have made. The cover said “Player of the Year” and the picture on the cover had been altered in order to be the face of their seven-year-old son. (Sonja Lyubomirsky, as shared in her review of The Narcissism Epidemic, as published on Amazon.com.)
I appreciate this story because I think it gets at the heart of a struggle that a lot of us can relate to on both a personal level and relational level. On the one hand, as we focused on last Sunday, the Bible is very, very clear that all of us are unique creations of God, made in God’s image and here on this earth to do amazing things for God. As a result, we need to foster and grow a healthy self-image for ourselves and we need to assist others as they too seek to always be aware that God loves them and that they are special.
But, at the same time, we must be clear with others and we must be clear with ourselves that the scriptures also challenge us to realize that life is not all about us nor should it always revolve around or be focused on us. We do matter, but, others always matter too. In turn, the task of creating a balance between these two extremes is a critical task and life-long process that needs to be both a part of our childhood years and all of our adult days too.
And, it is a particularly imperative idea for us to think about in the modern world that we all live in of rampant consumerism, over blown self-care and in light of the amazing amount of social media that hourly and daily bombards each of us with the idea that life is mainly about us.
That is one of the reasons why I like our text for today from Acts 16 so much. In fact, I appreciate it to such a degree that I want us to spend two weeks with it. This morning we begin with verses 25-28 but next week we will continue with the story through focusing on verses 29-34. The setting here is Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail. They are there because they have been charged with disturbing the Roman peace. What was the reason for these charges? Well, if we read the first half of chapter 16, we learn that they had healed a young slave girl possessed by a demon. What was so bad about that? The problem was that the demon allowed the young girl’s owners to use her for profit in some type of psychic fortunetelling venture. It was sort of an early take on the county fair side show attraction if you will.
So, when the slave girl was healed, her masters’ lucrative business dried up and they became angry with Paul and Silas. Wanting some kind of vindication, they carried Paul and Silas before the local officials and charged them with the only crime they could think of—disturbing the peace. In turn, Paul and Silas were beaten and actually placed in the maximum security section of the local prison with the jailor there being assigned careful watch over them.
According to the text, that night, an earthquake, which would not have been an uncommon occurrence in that area at the time, shook the prison to the point of doing damage to the jail and providing an easy escape route for the two.
At this moment in the story, though, things get really interesting. For rather than taking the easy way out, Paul and Silas decide to stay put. They remained in their cell rather than walking away. In turn, in my opinion, that it is their actions in this very occasion that provide significant insight for all of us regarding a life focused on both valuing one’s self and valuing others. Here is what I mean:
On the one hand, Paul and Silas act in this moment out of the recognition that their lives and actions were always bound to the lives and actions of others. Yes, the earthquake had jarred loose the prison doors and they were free to go. But, they seemed to also be aware of Roman law which at that time said that a jailor whose prisoners escaped, must accept the punishment that would have rightly be given to his prisoners. Since the punishment for a captured prisoner who had escaped would have been death, this jailor would have died as a result of Paul and Silas’ departure. Knowing this, they didn’t want his life to be impacted by their decisions and so they chose to stay put.
What a great life lesson to learn. In fact, the earlier we learn it and the longer we remember it, the better off we will be. We don’t live or act in a vacuum. In turn, we can never just think about ourselves or act only in light of what is best for us. No matter what we may choose to do or how we may choose to live—we must do so in light of the value, worth and significance of others for our lives are bound to each other and thus it really can never be just about us.
Take one simple example from the infamous Ponzi scheme figure Bernie Madoff whose fictional investing firm in reality only had one concern—making Madoff himself wealthy. Bernie Madoff had roughly 13,500 direct clients. But, when investigators and researches began to look into the number of people worldwide who were affected in both a direct and indirect way by Madoff, the number was over 3 million people from all walks of life and in all corners of the globe. Over 3 million people all over the first of the earth were affected by this one man’s decisions. (“The Bernie Madoff Client List is Made Public” by Robert Chew, Time Magazine, February 5, 2009)
There really is a profound connectedness between us and other people. We can never only think about ourselves for to do so is always to adversely affect everyone else whose lives are intricately and amazingly connected to our own.
At the same time, Paul and Silas seemed to also have appreciated the fact the living for the betterment of others, generally creates the best life for us too. Sure, they could have thought about themselves only and walked away when the doors swung open. But, in thinking of the jailor, they found a way to create a good outcome for him which still led to a good and positive outcome for them. Their focus on others didn’t take away from good and meaningful results occurring for them too. The two were not mutually exclusive of each other.
Now, let me be clear that life doesn’t always work out as neat and as tidy as it did for Paul and Silas in this story. Sometimes, we do the right thing and it does feel like the wrong results occur. But, I would challenge us that this should never tempt us to abandon the basic principle of the gospels that says that if we will keep the needs of others in front of us at all times, we will often mysteriously also find our own needs being met along the way too.
Last winter and spring, our Sunday night adult group learned about the life of Henri Nouwen. For years, Nouwen was a highly regarded teacher at an Ivy League university. But, one day, he left it all behind and moved to Canada where he went to work for a community known as L’Arche. L’Arche is a home for mentally and physically handicapped individuals and Nouwen was assigned to one young man for whom he had total responsibility. It was his job to bathe him, feed him and care for him every day.
From an Ivy League professor, to caring for one single, handicapped man, this became Nouwen’s life transition. From only focusing on himself to almost total focus all day long on the needs of someone else, this was the change wrought on Nouwen’s life by this decision. The funny thing, though, is that as Nouwen talked about this life change, he admitted that what he learned through the process was that his own life took on a deeper and deeper meaning and became more robust the more and more he cared for this young man.
This is the mystery that faith challenges all of us to have the courage to embrace and to try. And, this is the truth that we must teach our children and that we must never forget—our lives really are enhanced as we dare to live trying to enhance the lives of others and as we constantly exhibit a belief that others matter as much as do we ourselves.
Now, here is my strange suggestion this morning. Don’t just believe me because I am your pastor and I say that it is so. Instead, give it a try. For one week, live like life isn’t only about you. For one week, live like others matter. For one week, live your life testing the idea that the best life for you is actually found in seeking the best life for others. If we dare to give it a try, I believe that we will be surprised by the results. Amen.