Tag Archives: Idols

Good and Evil: The Wages of Sin

“I did it for me, I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really- I was alive.” -Walter White

“For the wages of sin is death.” -St. Paul

good-evil-verse-slide-copy.jpgIf you haven’t seen the Breaking Bad finale yet, you might want to stop reading now. Sunday night, millions of people tuned in to watch the train wreck that they knew was coming. Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, father of two, and normal American society member made a decision to start cooking meth.

And that one decision led him to exploit, murder, lie, and destroy all the people that he loved.

One of the most disturbing things that the Old Testament prophets say about idol worship is that you will eventually become like what you worship.

Which is true of Walter White, but Breaking Bad matters because it’s so true for all of us.

Playing God

Growing up in Arkansas, I actually had several friends get hooked on Meth, and one of the reasons that it is so popular is because it makes you feel so powerful, you feel radically free and confident. You feel almost god-like.

Walter White started using people the same way that the people used his product.

So this past Sunday at Highland, we had hundreds of people (including me) come forward and write down on cards what idols were tempting us right now. And then yesterday I spent sometime praying over the different cards and what people had written down. And it’s powerful. Not because of how bad it is, but by how diverse it is. People wrote down everything from alcohol to money to toys.

And none of it is intrinsically bad, it’s just not big enough to bear the weight of worship.

In his new book Playing God” Andy Crouch points out that every idol makes at least one of 2 promises:

1. You will be like God

2. You will never die

And then Crouch says this:

“In the success phase of idolatry, you will never convince an idolater that his addiction is not working. It is working. It is rescuing him from his human vulnerability and giving him and intoxicating taste of invulnerable ecstasy.”

For those of us who watched Breaking Bad, we know how true this is. The first few seasons showed a mediocre-seeming man rise to a position of power that a normal high-school teacher could never dream of. He was a Kingpin, feared by all, loved by none. But in the words of one secular psychiatrist, “Idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

Parables of Hell

I know that this show is incredibly dark, but it is also incredibly profound and even Biblical. After all that’s what the show’s creator was trying to do all along was tell a kind of Parable for our need for what he called “Biblical atonement.” He wanted to tell a story that exposed sin for what it was.

Which is actually not a new idea.Gollum

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings as a way of telling a post-Christian Europe the story of the Gospel in a way that they wouldn’t recognize at first. And one of the best examples of idolatry that I’ve ever read or seen, Tolkien tells us about a character named Gollum.

Gollum started off life as a normal Hobbit, but then he found the ring and the power (for a little while) to be like God. And over time the ring made him into a monster. He had once been somebody, and now he was a twisted version of nobody. And he did it all for what he called “His precious”

It was his idol. And if you know this story, you know it was also became his Hell.

I like the way that N.T. Wright talks about this:

Hell is actually something that happens on earth when people don’t follow God’s way of peace..the way I talk about final loss is this: People worship idols–money, whatever. Their humanness gets reshaped around the idol—you become like what you worship. [And] If someone chooses to go that route, what they are choosing is to collude with the deconstruction of their own humanness.That’s a lot of big clunky words for saying that they are in love with death. They don’t know it, but that’s what it is.God has made us in His image. And if we choose to say, “I’m going to deconstruct myself,” then, God, with great sorrow, will say, “Okay, go ahead.”

You know it’s interesting, in the last scene of Breaking Bad, as Walt is dying, he goes back to the meth lab. He puts his bloody hands on the equipment that had made his life and then ruined it.

The creator, Vince Gilligan, said this was the scene where Walt needed to die, but what Gilligan actually said, was that this was where Walt could die surrounded, “by his precious.”

The worst thing that can happen to someone in the Bible is that God gives you exactly what you want. Left to our own devices we create gods for ourself. We need to worship something. And we most certainly will.

This is why Paul writes Romans 1 and 2, the way he does. Contrary to popular belief, Paul is actually not elevating certain kinds of sin, he’s actually leveling the playing field. He lists off every kind of ways that both religious and secular ways have for worshipping gods that are not God. He talks about sexual immorality and greed and lying and then he turns to the religious to talk about their sins of exclusivity and hypocrisy.

And then Paul goes on to say that the word for all of our misplaced worship is sin.

Sin, something we all do, is falling short of the glory of God.

And sin pays, or in the more poetic words of Paul:

The wages of Sin is death.

Just ask Walter White.

Everyday Idolatry: The Religion of Control

“The ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond and jade,

Sit silently on their temple shelves

While the people

Are afraid.

Yet the ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond-jade,

Are only silly puppet gods

That the people themselves

Have made.”

–Langston Hughes

Temple in Chennai, India

We never really lose control, we only lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.” – Barbara Brown Taylor

A few years ago I was reading a book on idolatry that was pretty eye-opening for me. Most of us think of idolatry as kind of a bizarre, primitive ritual that people in 3rd world countries used to struggle with. And even then we don’t understand what we don’t understand.

We make some huge assumptions that people today are smarter than people back then. But I don’t think that’s true. People knew back then that they were worshipping something made of wood and stone, they understood that they were making something and then praising it. But they just understood the universe a bit differently.

Richard Keyes points out that the Sumerian-Mesoptamian culture featured two levels of gods. They had this idea that gods come in pairs. So you’ve got your nearby idol, and your far away god. So idols were so popular because they offer humans a sense of well-being, the feeling that they can control their everyday lives. They relate to how to control this world.. the idols worked because they were thought to get the gods to aid people in the everyday realms of sexuality, relationships, finances and health.

So The Sumerians/Mesopotamian culture had as its close gods the Marduks and Baals, but it also had the faraway god El, who had created the world…he was a good God, but if you wanted to get the girl, or to get rich quick, you needed to buy an idol.

It’s basically the plot to the Little Mermaid.  Ursula-Little-Mermaid-disney-villains-1024501_720_480

Hocus Pocus

Have you ever noticed how rough the book of Leviticus is? For most of us, Leviticus is the graveyard that “reading through the Bible in a year plans” come to die. But if you pay attention, Leviticus is fascinating! It’s like a B-Grade Slasher film without a plot.

But the thing about this that we have just read over in the past…This is the first time that we know of that any god ever told anybody how to be at peace with them. Because that was the thing about the gods, you never knew where you stand with them.

And if you didn’t know where you stood, you would either try to offer them some kind of arbitrary sacrifice, or you would use magic to control them.

But that’s not just a problem those primitive people had, We moderns, with all our technology, still can’t help but feel a sense of out-of-controlness. I’ve been to several third world countries, I’ve seen people all over the place treat their religion as a kind of good-luck charm. They view God, as an impersonal force that controls fate. When I was in India, we saw people try and appease the gods with animal sacrifices.

Or what about Christians? We often treat prayer or church or our religious rituals the same way.

We have this sense that if I do my duty, then God ‘owes me.’ If I go to church or take communion or get baptized or whatever, then now God is somehow obligated to act accordingly. And it’s easy to see in other people, we recognize that when the batter at the plate does the sign of the cross, that’s not going to help improve his statistics.

But then we tell God we will go to church if he helps us get that date.

Because what we do is religion, what other people is “superstition.”

So we Worship as a kind of transaction: I’ve given God something, so it’s God’s turn to reciprocate. Or more common today, God’s people.

But don’t worry, we’re not the first Christians to do this.

In Latin, the words “Hoc Es Corpus” is This is the Body

And so we started using the language that they would use in Communion to manipulate the world in front of them.

But they got the words wrong, they started saying “Hocus Pocus”

That’s where we got that statement, not from the world of wizards and fairies, but from religious people who misunderstood God.

And we’ve been misunderstanding him ever since.

Jesus take the Wheel…Seriously.

A few weeks ago, I preached with Randy Harris at Highland, and Randy made the point that people who are afraid of Flying aren’t afriad of driving. Even though these same people know the statistics about driving fatalities being much more common than flying. These people aren’t stupid. They know they have a better chance of dying in a car than on a plane.

But in the car, at least they are the one with their hand on the wheel.

At least they are in control.

Magic and Legalism are just different symptoms of the same system.

Magic and Consumeristic approaches to Faith are too.

Underneath both is this idea that God can’t be trusted, that’s he’s capricious or fickle.

That His Church should look like and revolve around me.

Idolatry sounds like it’s ancient and primitive, but the way we approach church or God often is just the exact same system with a new face on it. It’s a desire to placate and please a God who says you can do anything to make me love you more. You can’t earn or buy his love or belonging.

The reason that God is so hard on magic in the Bible isn’t because he’s anti-Harry Potter. It’s because He knows what is really at the heart of magic.

It’s not just mystery and child games.

It’s a desire to bargain with the gods.

It’s an attempt to get him to control others around you.

And in the end it’s a Religion…that is an idol.

Everyday Idolatry: Security

“Jesus said ‘go into all the world and preach the Gospel,’ he didn’t say anything about coming back.” -my missionary friend before going to Sudan

Temple in Chennai, India

A few months ago I took Samuel (our 2 year old) on our first trip together, we called it a man-cation, and it was a blast, which isn’t to say that it was easy. I told Leslie, I will never again complain about you being late anywhere.

We had total strangers helping us get around in the airport, they took pity on us when they saw the whining and melt downs and temper tantrums (Samuel was doing okay though). And this was before the plane had left Abilene. We were delayed for like 4 hours, and at one point, Samuel heard Leslie coming back to give us some snacks, and he runs right past the security rope at the airport…and they don’t like that

So the TSA agent pins Samuel against the wall like he’s Bin Laden. And Samuel is trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Now the TSA lady is just trying to do her job, but one of the things that happened later, was that I was trying to explain what happened to Samuel and Eden.

Because kids have that annoying habit of asking Why.

So Eden, who saw this, happen, and Samuel were wondering why he got form tackled. And have you ever tried explaining the TSA to a kid?

And I told them that the TSA people help to keep us safe.

And they said why? I said, because we want to be safe.

And they said why? I said, because security is a really big deal, and they said why?

And I said, I guess because we are really afraid.

And then I didn’t have any more questions, because fear, that’s something that we all get.Trade Center Ads

The Language of Fear

Last week I saw an article on NPR that talked about the way that our language has changed over the past several decades. It was a fascinating look at the way we’ve described our world. When the researches first started looking, they thought what they would find was that we would have constant emotions. But they found that each period had words that were much more emphasized. So in the 20’s we talked about joy and happiness. At the beginning of World War II, we were overwhelmed with language of sadness. And ever since the early 80’s we’ve been terrrified.

Think about the language we hear and use consistently. We are so very afraid about everything. Last month, the Teneesseean ran an article about how some Tennessee lawmakers had proposed a new bill because they had confused a mop-washing sink for a Muslim foot-washing sink.

Jonathan Edwards the famous preacher once preached on the book of Job. And he made the point that the story of Job is all of our story. Job lost everything in one day, his family, his wealth, his health, Most of us experience our losses more slowly, over the span of a lifetime, until we find ourselves on the door of death, leaving everything behind.

The question isn’t whether or not we will lose the things we love, but how we will do it.

The Idols We Riot For

In Acts 19, there is one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible. Paul has gone to Ephesus to tell people about Jesus, which seems innocent enough, but he actually winds up inciting a riot.

Actually the people who started a riot were the ones who had a vested interest in the dominant religion of the day. They were silversmiths and craftsmen who made shrines for Artemis. They worked for the system and the system worked for them. And they certainly didn’t need some punk Christian coming in and saying that those idols were just decorative, powerless trinkets.

So they gathered a group of people, got ‘em all riled up and for two hours these people shouted, “Great is Artemis, God of the Ephesians.”

Now before you write this story off as some weird, ancient religion you need to know something else.

The name for Artemis is based on the root Greek word for Safety or health.

Artemis sounds like some ancient religion, but the truth is she is worshipped by millions everyday.

And standing juxtaposed against this mob chanting for safety, but acting dangerously, is this guy named Paul, who wants to go into the assembly that has basically gathered just to kill him. Everyone else is out of their mind wanting security, but Paul is willing to risk everything.

Because Paul doesn’t worship Artemis.

What Wouldn't Jesus Do?A few years ago I had a college student sitting in my office with a problem. He had signed up on a mission trip to go to a country that was now experiencing some political unrest. What was once just a routine summer missions trip was now potentially dangerous.

And his parents were forbidding him to go.

But he’s reading his Bible, he’s drinking deeply from this Jesus story about men and women who are willing to risk their lives for the Gospel, and he’s reading all the stories about not letting fear have the last word. And he’s asking me what should he do?

What would you tell him?

What have you told him? Because this college student isn’t just sitting in my office. He’s in churches and living rooms all over the country, and he’s paying attention not just to the lip-service of what we say we believe, he’s paying attention to what we really worship.

Because the way of Jesus isn’t the way of Artemis.

Because the real risk of security is that you might be worshipping a god who is no god at all.

Everyday Idolatry: Certain Proof

“Like anyone can even know that..” – Kip in Napoleon Dynamite

“For now we know in part…” -St. Paul

Temple in Chennai, India

Since I’ve been in ministry, a few times a year, I hear from a concerned parent or aunt or grandmother about how their young son or niece or whoever has stopped believing in God. They want to know what to say or how to get them to believe again.

I used to give them resources for apologetics, to give them evidence for faith.

I’m starting to think a better approach might be to show them what we don’t know.

Mystery as Apology

So Rob Bell wrote a new book this week. Until now, he’s written books for the church. This book he wrote for the world. But I think most Christians need to read it, not because you will agree with the answers he gives, but because he gives entirely new questions to ask.

And chances are they are the questions that your kid/friend/nephew are asking.

Bell starts off his book by tackling the certainty that both religious and non-religious people have. His first 30 pages are worth the price of the book. Bell does a brilliant job at helping us realize how big and intricate and complex our universe is.

And then he points out that this is just the part that we know about. There is a staggering 96% of the known universe that is dark matter. Which means we have no idea how to even study it. It’s impossible to comprehend the vastness of the 4% of the universe that we know even basic things about.

This week I had lunch with a professor who teaches Physics, and I was talking about how much of the universe is Dark Matter. And my professor friend told me that if scientist were to write down everything they knew on Dark matter, it would all fit neatly on one side of a 3×5 card.

And remember, that is 96% of the universe.

In Rob’s words:

“We simply aren’t the masters of the world that we’ve been told we are.”

Ever since the Enlightenment, Christians have been talking about God with the same language and tools that biologist and accountants have, but these tools have their own limits.

Dis-Enchantment

The brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking was interviewed recently and said,

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Notice what Hawking’s says and how he says it. His assumption is that we don’t live in a fairy tale. His assumption is that the world isn’t enchanted.

Which is so different from the way people used to look at the universe, we used to know what we didn’t know. Hawking’s sounds so certain.

But 96% of the Universe we don’t have the faintest idea about. demotivational-poster-doubt

One of the interesting things about the Middle Ages was that people were aware that their theories of how the universe works, were in fact, theories. A theory was valuable because it was helpful not because it was certainly true. And so their language was much more humble. Someone who was trying to describe the universe would say something like “Things appear to be this way.”

In fact, one of the main reasons that the scientists/priests were so against Galileo was not because of his whole “the earth revolves around the sun”, but because of the certainty in which he was saying so.

Now, I’m just as bothered by the next guy by the Midieval ages bad conceptions of God and Church and authority, but one of the things that I appreciate is their humility.

Because at least they knew what they didn’t know.

And what’s more is that this kind of empirical certainty is sucking away our soul.

In other words, does everything we know have to be proven the way that a scientist needs proof?

That she loves you?

That life matters?

That we should care about justice?

Evidence that Denies a Verdict

But this isn’t just a problem athiest’s and scientist’s have. Because we get frustrated with how certain the scientific method has made people, but Christians talk eerily the same way.

Think about the best-selling Christian books right now. “Heaven is for Real” or “Proof of Heaven” are consistently topping the bestseller list, and while I don’t mean to be critical, I think this is telling about the Christian sub-culture we live in.

We want proof. But if you can prove Heaven or God, it suddenly isn’t God you are talking about. Because it no longer requires faith.

Richard Beck has a fascinating post on why religious certainty draws crowds. We want to anchor ourselves in a mysterious world. And I understand why we do this, but at some point if we don’t acknowledge we could be wrong, we are dealing with something other than Faith.

On some level, no matter what language we use, we are all agnostics. Because nobody really has access to certain proof.

I’m not talking about conviction, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think on my better days I’d give my life for that. I’m talking about the lack of humility that recognizes how much we don’t know, and that we could in fact be wrong.

And don’t think we got this idea from the Bible or Christian tradition, we got it from the Enlightenment. In other words way we talk about God was shaped by the way we talked about science.

But this defies what it means to be human. It is to make ourselves into something more than human. Something like mini-gods. It is in word idolatry.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty.

But I could be wrong.

Everyday Idolatry: Amused Apathy

“Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” -Archbishop William Temple

“Are you not entertained?” -Russell Crowe in The Gladiator

Temple in Chennai, India

One of the more famous stories in the Bible is the story of the Ten Plagues. It’s where God sends plagues to the people of Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. But one of the little known parts of that story, is that each plague that God sent had a corresponding god.

There was a God of the Nile River, so God turns the Nile into blood, there was an Egyptian god for the Sun (Ra) and so God makes all of Egypt dark.

In the Bible, one of the interesting things about how God deals with idolatry is that he takes away the thing that people thought they were getting from it. So Ba’al is the rain god, and when people worship Ba’al, God sends a drought. The story of the Ten Plagues is a story of God revealing the idols as not being able to deliver on their promises.

Bored to Death

A few years ago, Leslie and I were in Sri Lanka doing Tsunami relief. One night we left our station, and got to spend an evening with one of the relief workers who lived there. We went to his home, met his family and ate with them. But the thing that surprised us was the arrangement of his small living room.

The chairs and couch, as well as the design of the room, was all facing the center where one of the Hindu statues stood prominently.

And I remember thinking how ridiculous and primitive it was.

Then we flew home, sat down on our couch and turned on the television n the center of our living room, and stared at it for hours.

One of the more interesting phenomenon’s of our current time is the word boredom. It’s interesting because it’s a relatively new word. Previously we didn’t have a word for boredom. In fact, much of the world still doesn’t. If you were to go to many cultures in the world and use that word, translators won’t be able to replace it.

The closest word for boredom in many cultures is something like tired.

Isn’t it interesting that this is where we, of all cultures, are? The average American home has the television playing for more than eight hours a day. We have entertained ourselves into a stupor, and yet we’re still bored.

Did you know that the word amusement actually comes from the world of worship? A muse was a goddess that was said to inspire or give a new thought. But amusement, that’s a word that means without God.

It means to escape the divine.

Bread and Circus

Back in the first century, the Roman Empire had expanded beyond the size of any previous empire. They had taken over the entire known world, and in order to keep their army funded, they had to tax their territories heavily. Many of the people Rome ruled had to live in sub-standard conditions. And Rome knew that if they revolted they wouldn’t have the resources to maintain control.

So they started the gladiator games, where they would entertain large crowds and throw free bread to some lucky fans.

It was called “Bread and circus” it was designed to pacify the world.Gladiator image

And it worked…It still does.

In her book, Between Two Worlds, Raxani Saberi talks about being a prisoner in Iran for 6 months. One of the things that she learned was that there the main function of entertainment was to keep people from pursuing information elsewhere. It was used to keep the people ignorant of their current situation

The social critic Noam Chomsky would agree.

“There are forms of media whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion… This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them.”

If you want to know who or what you really worship (anybody can claim a faith system, or a lack of one) but if you really want to know what you worship look at where you spend money…and look at where you spend your “free” time.

I think we would name many of our problems as apathy but the Bible would call it misplaced worship.

Leonard Sweet says it this way: “When all is said and done, when the ancient gods reign, nothing is said and done.”

Living the Life in Front of Us

We don’t know all the details, but one of my heroes is the man who stood up to this idol. His name was St. Telemachus (we assume he is the patron saint for telemarketers)

Sometime in the 4th century A.D. Rome was holding another one of it’s gladiator games. Once again the gladiators came out to the thundering applause of the masses. They fought each other, or the frail prisoners, or whoever. It didn’t matter because all the crowd wanted was blood.

And when Telemachus saw them murdering one another, he stood up and yelled “No!”

He ran down to the ground that the Gladiators were fighting on, and cried out, “no more killing, please, no more killing.”

But a gladiator has to do what a gladiator has to do, and so there in front of thousands of rabid, amused fans, they slaughtered St. Telemockus.

And then it happened.

Somebody stood up and walked out of an arena, and then another, and then another, and another, until the entire arena was empty. And they never held a Gladiator game again.

Someone had broken through the world of staring at others living life, and forced people to deal with the God very present in this one.

And it cost Telemachus his life, but at least he was fully living his and not someone else’s.

May we all be so lucky.

Everyday Idolatry: The gods Behaving Badly

“I think everyone should get rich and famous and do everything that they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.’  -Jim Carrey

“As we bow to the golden statue called Oscar… joining in rituals of exaltation, and reading our sacred gossip columns…[we see from the stories] The desire for some kind of redemption pulses through human life.” -S. Brent Plate

Temple in Chennai, India

I’m in California this weekend speaking at a conference, and they asked me to do my series “Extras.” And since I’ve been writing lately on the kind of insidious idolatry we are all guilty of this got me thinking….

One of the most disturbing things I learned  when I was in Hollywood was how cutthroat the entertainment industry is. I was working on a show, in a rather scandalous scene, when one of my female extra friends whispered to me, “This is the part that I hate.”

Apparently,what often happens is that the director needs some more eye candy for a scene, and he needs to pick a girl or two out of a lineup. So this girl told me that it was common for them to tell a room of several girls to undress so the director could pick one based on their bodies.

And if you wanted the job, a more prominent scene, maybe even a recurring part, you would do it.

We bleed for our gods.

Now I hesitated to tell that story, because of the anti-Hollywood bias that Christians gravitate toward. We need more Jesus-followers living and serving in that industry. In fact, that same girl who told me she hates being in a line up to see if her body is good enough is a Christian. She was a Jesus follower who had been in rooms like that before.

And before we get all high and mighty, just realize there’s a good chance you put her there.

Celebrity Worship

Pete Ward teaches at a seminary in London, and he wrote a book about our culture of celebrity worship. He starts off by asking “Have you ever wondered why we mourn so much when a celebrity dies?” Think about it, when Michael Jackson died the entire news world ground to a halt.

We were in the middle of two wars, an economic melt down, and now we are listening to what meal MJ had the last time he was at Burger King. And Ward points out the reason this is such a big deal isn’t because of the their talent, but the collective “us” we’ve allowed each celebrity to represent.

It is, in other words, a religion.

But did you know that celebrity worship is consistently associated with poor mental health, like worry, anxiety, and depression?

Among women specifically, most body image related mental health issues are, on some level, tied to the way we view celebrities and ourselves. And that should disturb all of us, because almost all of us participate in celebrity worship. And most of the time it’s so subtle, we don’t even know we are doing it.

So we think that it’s stupid all the fuss that people make over Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton, but for some reason we know a lot of details of her life.

Christina Kelly, an editor for Sassy magazine, says the reason that we worship celebrities is because, “We know that to be human is to feel inconsequential.”

Think about how profound that statement is. Here’s someone who works in the industry, and she says we “worship” not because of who they are, but because of our awareness of who we aren’t. There is this deep awareness that we have that something is off-kilter with our heart. Part of the reason that we are drawn to and participate in this crazed celebrity culture, is because something deep within us tells us that we are broken.

So why do we put our hope in fame to fix it?

Arrested Development

To Know and be Known

This past week, Donald Miller interviewed Tony Hale (Buster Bluth from the incredibly funny show Arrested Development) and he asked him, “Why do you think people are obsessed with fame? What do you think this says about us as a culture?”

And here’s what Tony/Buster said:

I think that it’s grounded in the fact that everybody desperately wants to be known, and they think that fame is kind of the ultimate of being known—“If that many people know me…then it’s going to satisfy that. The thing is, when you get to that place, you’re only going to find true satisfaction if you’re known in an eternal, spiritual sense by Somebody greater than yourself. I think a lot of people have gotten to that place where they have been known by a lot of people, and it still doesn’t satisfy….If you don’t find something greater than yourself who knows you—knows truly who you are—and you feel known by them, then you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to be known by a ton of other people.  You’re only going to find true satisfaction if you’re known in an eternal, spiritual sense by Somebody greater than yourself.”

I think this is incredibly profound. We want to be known by Someone greater than ourselves. That’s what our hearts our hungry for, and our pursuit of fame is only a reflection of a dim reality.

This is what Buster is getting at, it’s what Jim Carrey is trying to explain…the thing we think we want is really not able to fulfill us.

It’s an idol that can never deliver on it’s promise.

Do you know what the final stage of Christian Theology is? Gloria.

In other words Fame: It is the applause of God.

Save your worship for that.

Everyday Idolatry: My God

“You can safely assume you’ve made God into your own image, when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” -Anne Lammott

Temple in Chennai, India

It was June 7th, 1964. They had all gathered at the local Methodist church like always. They were having another one of their get-togethers, and as usual they started with a prayer.

Of course, they prayed, they were God’s chosen people, after all, saved by Jesus to bless the world. But on this particular night, someone wrote down their opening prayer. Sam Bowers, their “preacher and leader” opened them with prayer.

Here’s what he said:

Oh God, our Heavenly Guide, as finite creatures of time and as dependent creature of Thine, we acknowledge Thee as our sovereign Lord. Permit freedom and the joys thereof to forever reign throughout our land…May the sweet cup of brotherly fraternity ever be ours to enjoy and build within us that kindred spirit which will keep us unified and tong. Engender within us that wisdom kindred to honorable decisions and the Godly work. By the power of Thy infinite spirit and the energizing virtue therein, ever keep before us our…pledges of righteousness. Bless us now in this assembly that we may honor Thee in all things, we pray in the name of Christ, our blessed Savior. Amen

And then the members of the Klu Klux Klan said Amen, got up, and started planning how to carry out “God’s goal” for white supremacy.

Taking Sides

A few years ago I was talking with a man who was a professional conflict mediator who had worked with Presidents and international government officials. He had helped nations resolve international conflicts bordering on war, but if you asked him who was the hardest assignment, he wouldn’t blink an eye before he told you,

“That’s easy…Churches”

There’s a bizarre little story in the book of Joshua where Joshua is leading the people of Israel into the land of Canaan, and he is suddenly visited by an Angel of the LORD, and Joshua has such tunnel vision that he immediately asks the angel, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

And the angel says, “No. I’m not on either, as the Commander for the LORD I have come.”

I love this little story, because it’s exactly what we religious people do.

There are days when I wonder if church is really good for the world. In out better moments, God’s done some incredible stuff through the church, but often church just gives religious people language to be more mad than they would normally be.

Now they’re not just angry, God is angry too. Now their not just indignant they are filled with a “righteous” indignation. All because we never question the idea that God is on our side.

We approach the Divine like Joshua, “Are you for us or for our enemy?”KKK Worship service

And I think God’s answer is still “No.”

The Faces of Jesus

A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon. What’s interesting is that the book doesn’t talk about the popularity of Jesus, but the diversity of Jesus. Turns out, there are lots of different Jesus’ out there. There’s Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Hot Air Balloon racing Jesus, Nascar Jesus, Moralistic Jesus, Buddy Jesus, and Sweet baby Jesus among others.

Each one gives us a picture of a Jesus who knows how to take sides.

So after the KKK dismissed they left armed to the teeth with shotguns and rope, to fight the civil rights movement that was “invading their Mississippi” and within a few days 3 civil rights workers were killed….In Jesus name.

It’s easy to see, looking back how far this group was from the heart of God, how they had made Jesus into a god of their own image. But I think we do this exact same thing all the time.  At least I do.

I’ve noticed that Jesus tends to vote the same way I do. He’s never against a war that I’m for, and he’s rarely interested into calling me toward self-sacrifice or mercy to people different than me. That’s the Jesus that I am most comfortable with, and it’s most certainly an idol.

I like the way N.T. Wright talks about how to deal with letting Jesus stand on his own:

“My proposal is not that we know what the word ‘god’ means, and manage to somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest, that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross–and we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be re-centered around that point.”

In other words, the scandal is not that Jesus is like God. The scandal is that God is like Jesus. He’s a God who picked a certain place and time, and entered into it. He came to show us who he really was…and who he really wasn’t.

He came as a Jewish carpenter, in a particular time and place, not to speak about every little agenda we have, but for the redemption of the entire world.

I understand why in conversation or worship lyrics we sometime refer to God as “My God” but never mistake that as meaning God belongs to you.

Because God’s not on your side.You can pray in his name all you want to but you’re enemies are not his enemies.

He’s bigger than your problems, because he’s more than just your God.

Just ask Joshua.

Everyday idolatry: Worshipping Nike

Temple in Chennai, India“No weapon formed against me will stand.” -Ray Lewis, quoting the book of Isaiah after his Superbowl win

A couple of weeks ago, when Lance Armstrong was finally forced into laying bare his secrets to a suspicious public, I was disappointed along with everyone else. Because I like Lance Armstrong. I followed his career, I read his book (turned out, it really wasn’t about the Bike), and I was thankful that there were still heroes to look up to.

Earlier in his life, Lance Armstrong has spoken out as an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. But I think that he’s wrong, not about God, just about how he does not believe in one.

Sports Illustrated did a fascinating article on Lance last year when the world he had carefully constructed was just starting to crumble.

“Armstrong lives as he rides — surrounded by a cocoon of aides and helpers, his gimlet eyes focused on victory…. The self-described atheist has become a deity… but the inquiry’s findings may cause the Armstrong faithful to ask, Was the miracle a mirage?” —Selena Roberts and David EpsteinSports Illustrated, 2011

His eyes were focused on victory.

Victory. Which is a god of the ancient world.

Actually the god’s name was Nike.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Sport of Idolatry

I think it’s fascinating how easily we dismiss the ancient world as superstitious. But we sacrifice and bleed for the exact same gods they did.

Now I love sports, I love playing and watching them. I’ve been in fights over them as a player on the field and a fan in the stands. (Once I was actually at a Soccer Game in Greece where my section lit the stands on fire…before the game even started!) But I want you to imagine if you weren’t so immersed in our culture, if you didn’t understand and already have categories for what you were watching.

You would see the stadiums filled with people who had painted their face and body, you would hear them cheer and moan, as they watched from a distance someone else perform some kind of act. If you didn’t know what you were seeing I imagine you would reach for religious words like Temple or Clergy or Worship.

Not worship of the team, or the sport, but to Victory.

Back in the first century, the popular religion during Jesus time always showed God as being on the side of winners.  He was the victor for the Greeks.  He was the one who stood on the side of the powerful. He was the God who you were talking about when you wanted to intimidate your enemies. This God took sides, and he always sided with the winners.

So think about this for just a second, it’s not just saying that God loves the winners more. It’s saying to see who God loves, watch who wins.

That was the world that Jesus entered into, and it’s almost impossible to understand just how radically Jesus was changing the way they thought of God. It’s impossible because it has to change the way we think of God. It was ridiculous to the Greeks to think that God could ever lose and even be a God of the losers.

It still is.

We Are All Lance Armstrong

So this is a Nike commercial from 2001, famous for Armstrong talking about the value of hard work, and his support of anti-doping regulations. And we now know that he was filming this while creating the most elaborate system of cheating the world has seen. He sacrificed every friendship, his family, and his body. But don’t be too hard on him, because this is a god that we’ve been worshipping for a while now.

53% of Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. 40% of Evangelical Christians believe that God cares about who wins the Superbowl. And as, an article I read this week points out, both the Christian Faith and the NFL make their home on Sunday, and “after 50 years of mixing the two, it isn’t all too clear that faith has come out ahead.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Lance Armstrong or Ray Lewis, because they might actually be just revealing the bent that we all have. They are the extreme examples of the ancient assumption that Nike is god.

Now I live in West Texas so I should repeat, I love sports, especially football, and I route passionately for my teams as well. But the tale-tale sign that we’ve made a good thing into an idol, is when it cannot produce what it has promised. I wonder what the Monday after the Superbowl is like for the winners? After you’ve bled and sacrificed and given your life toward one goal. I imagine that one of the worst things of worshipping a goal like this is what happens when you achieve it. (As a 5/7 pear shaped person, I obviously wouldn’t know).

Tennis Champion Hana Mandlikova was once asked how she felt about defeating other great Tennis players and she said, “Any big win means that all the suffering, practicing, and traveling are worth it. I feel like I own the world.”

Then they asked her how long that feeling lasts, she replied, “About two minutes.”

Because winning is nice, but victory really isn’t everything.

Nike isn’t Lord, and God is actually on the side of losers.

Everyday Idolatry: The (Wrong) One

Temple in Chennai, India

 

“You always marry the wrong person.” -Stanley Hauweraus

The other day I was talking with a good (single) friend of mine about love. And we were talking about how he believed everyone has “The One” for them. And a soulmate was out there for him. Now I am actually kind of a romantic person, but I tried to talk him out of this idea, because I don’t think it sets you up for a successful marriage. In fact, I have a hunch that any marriage either gives this idea up, or gives up on the marriage.

I worked as a Singles minister for a few years. I’ve done a lot of weddings and pre-marital counseling and I love it. It’s great to see the optimism and hope that young couples have.

It’s also very temporary.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. Hauweraus is right, You always marry the wrong person. Let me explain:

The Morning After

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is a guy named Jacob. His name means liar, and he wears his name well.  He’s got a hairy older brother named Esau, and a helicopter parent for a mom. He lies, cheats and steals and eventually old Esau/Chewbacca decides to kill him.

So Jacob has had to run way and take a job working for a distant relative who has a daughter named Rachel, and Jacob is immediately smitten. It’s some of the most romantic language in the entire Bible. He works for 7 years for her hand in marriage, and “the years felt as days because of his intense love for her.”

It’s poetic.

But in Jacob’s day people didn’t really marry for emotional love the way we do in the modern western world.

And according to one Old Testament scholar, this language this part of the story is in is really rough and tawdry. It’s not romanticizing Jacob’s decisions, it’s criticizing them. In the words of Tim Keller, “Jacob is acting [not like a lover, but] like an addict. And Rachel is his drug of choice.

In other words, despite how poetic it sounds, Jacob isn’t in love with Rachel, he’s in love with how Rachel affects him. And those are actually two very different things.

Eventually the seven years come to an end, Jacob is giving Rachel’s hand in marriage (he thinks) and he wastes no time in getting down to business.

But then comes the surprise ending:

But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her… but when morning came, there was Leah!

Jacob gets tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel’s sister.

Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy accidentally marries sister.

It’s a classic romantic-comedy.

Now I know that Genesis sounds pretty sexist. But Genesis is not promoting polygamy, if fact, everyone who has multiple spouses in Genesis is miserable.  To be sure, Leah got the worst end of the deal here, but she’s kind of the hero of this story. However, Genesis is making a point here, and all throughout this book: This is what life is like now that God has left the garden. You can’t find in something or someone else what you were meant to find in God.

Happily Ever After Wedding Couple 1942

I love the way that C.S. Lewis says this in Mere Christianity:

Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, of first think of some foreign country…are longings that no marriage, no travel can satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be called unsuccessful marriages or holidays…I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality…They were a good wife, they holiday and scenery were excellent, but something has evaded us.”

It’s become cliche to hear about husbands leaving their wives for a younger woman. It’s such a common storyline that we’ve grown numb to it. But never forget these are good men and women who are doing these things. They don’t think they’re doing something evil. They’re just being consistent.

Because if there is “The One” that can fulfill you, and your spouse isn’t her/him. Then the only logical conclusion is that you married the wrong “one.”

The most destructive thing about idolizing love, is that it actually crushes the person you are supposed to be loving. He or she can’t fulfill you, they were never meant to.

I care about this because I’ve heard the special kind of moan and cry that comes from a wife and children who just found out a husband and father left them. And I’ve seen the hurt when that same dad realized the consequences of the choice that he had made. That is the nature of idolatry.

You sacrifice for the gods, and then realize only afterward what you lost.

So back to Stanley Haurewaus (an ethics professor at Duke). Here’s what he said in context:

“We always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

In other words, he’s telling us something that Genesis has been saying for thousands of years, but every romantic comedy fails to mention.

In the morning it’s always Leah.

Learn how to love her.

Everyday Idolatry: Love is God

“You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” -Dean Martin

Temple in Chennai, India

She sits in my office as her eyes dart nervously around the room, and we continue to make small talk. Eventually, her eyes settle and she tells me what she’s been dying to get off her chest. Over the past few years, she’s developed an eating disorder. The body that she had wasn’t attracting the attention she had been taught to expect, so she started making changes. She dreams of being happily married with kids, and so she started making certain sacrifices.

____________________

He stares at the picture of his old family, before placing it back in the drawer. He sincerely hopes they’re doing well, he loves his kids and misses being such a large part of their lives. He even misses his Ex. He misses the memories that they had and how they almost always knew what the other was thinking. But now that he’s met someone else, it’s hard to explain how powerful the desire he has for her. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, she was worth certain sacrifices. And he had made them, and would continue to do so every time he placed his families picture in the drawer.

____________________

For days she had been dreading having to tell her kids that she was getting married again…she knew how they would respond. After all, they’d been down this road several times before, and they had seen this coming.  For the last month they’d been seeing the same old patterns emerge Their mom was withdrawing from her friends and family to spend most of her time with a new man. And the kids knew they were going to lose their mother one more time to another infatuation. The mother loves her kids, but she dreams of a life where someone loves and appreciates her as a wife, and for that life she’s willing to make certain sacrifices.

_____________________

When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Greece touring the ancient temples and ruins. We walked around the famous museums and the same ground that Paul travelled and the first Christians bled on. And we saw lots and lots of idols. Looking back, it’s ironic to me that I thought that was the first time I had seen an idol.

The truth is it was just the first time I had known I was seeing them.

Ernest Becker, in his book, The Denial of Death talks about the new development of “apocalyptic romance” We look to sex and love from another to give us a sense of transcendence. We want to be a part of a story larger than ourselves, we want to worship, and so we will.

Here’s how Becker says it:

“We still needed to feel heroic, to know that life mattered in the scheme of things. Man still wants to merge himself with some higher, self-absorbing meaning, in trust and gratitude, and if he no longer has God how else is he to do this?..The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. In one word, the love object is God…Man reached for a “thou” when the world-view of the great religious communities overseen by God died…After all, what is it when we elevate the love partner to the position of God? We want to be justified, we want to know our existence has not been in vain. We want redemption-nothing less.”

If you are to ask someone from my generation to describe God in one word, we would say God is love. And I like that description…a lot. I think the apostle John did too, but I’ve come to learn that words only mean what we want them to. And when the Christian story talks about love it already has a definition for it.

But the larger problem is that I don’t think we actually mean what we say we do. I think we are saying God is love, but what we really are trying to say is that Love is God.

Back in the day that Jesus and Paul lived in, there was actually a god of Love. Her name was Aphrodite and she was a fun god to worship and a horrible god to please.

She still is.

In her day, Aphrodite was worshipped by temple prostitutes, they were known as “sacred slaves.” She was worshipped by sexual encounters with girls who were slaves. Today we would call them brothels and we would want to kick in the doors to free those girls.

We hear about temple prostitutes and we think how primitive, but we are still making sacrifices to the same god they served.

They are the certain sacrifices that to those around us seem ridiculous and self-destructive but to us seem divine.

I’ll write more about the idolatry of love next week, but for now.. if there is one thing I’ve learned in ministry, it’s this: idol worship is never what we think it is. And it can never deliver what we think it will. I can’t tell you how many families I’ve sat with in the aftermath of “certain sacrifices.” And as sad as that is, the worst part isn’t sitting with the victims. It’s sitting with the people who’ve created them. The husband who left his family, or the mother who neglected her kids, and watching the realization dawning on them that they are in love with love. And love isn’t worth what the sacrifices they thought it was.

God is Love, but Love isn’t God.