Saturday, April 29, 2017

Temples of Love

When do idols become idols? What constitutes idolatry? In the Bible, we see that idolatry is a huge part of humanity’s sin problem. You could even make an argument that it is our only problem, that all sin boils down to idolatry. We also see that Israel thought they were maintaining an appropriate allegiance to God while participating in idolatry. It is as if they considered idolatry as merely a cultural activity apart from their relationship with God. Or, at times, as if it were an appropriate means of worshiping God.

That worries me.

Some of the things we do as believers—even aspects of our worship and expressions of our religious lives—spill over into idolatry. After all, plenty of things done by God’s people to worship Him in the Old Testament were condemned by God as idolatry! The Golden Calf in Exodus was designed to aid people to worship YHWH. The sin of Jeroboam that ultimately led to the downfall of the Northern Kingdom was a means of worshiping YHWH. The high places in Judah were dedicated to worshiping God, not gods. It seems intentions are not all that matter.

That is because, as sinful humanity, our idols live in our hearts.

Most concerning at times in my mind, are all the cultural things we like, love, and do that might be more blatantly idolatry. Is our obsession with pop-cultural stories any different than Greek and Roman religion? Is our fandom of our local sports and other expressions of civic pride any different than regional, tribal, animism? Does our patriotism at times cross the line into emperor worship?

And when you visit world-renowned museums of landmarks and admire the paintings, statues, and architecture… at what point does that become worship?

This preoccupied my thoughts even more last week when we visited Versailles. A monument to opulence, greed, and oppression, I became more obsessed with the people around me than the “finery.” What was going through their minds? What drew them to this place? Were we all drawn to the luxury out of desire or envy? Were we wishing we could live like this, or were we seeing parallels between Louis XIV and Trump, between Marie Antoinette and Ivanka?

Things really came to a head out in the gardens. There was a particular landmark called “The Temple of Love.” It was pavilion in the style of ancient Greek temples, with a decorative statue (idol?) of Cupid placed in the middle. No one thinks for a minute that Marie Antoinette was a religious devotee of Cupid in the literal sense. She had a Catholic Chapel attached to her house, after all. (Which opens a whole other level of idolatry in the name of worshiping God.) But there was no getting away from the fact that this decoration verged on idolatry.

So, my question is, where are the temples in my garden? What are the idols in my heart?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fine Art?

It is the real impact that school textbooks had on me: the pictures. Or, at least some of the good ones. I remember one of my history books had Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People in it for example. Only it must not have been labelled because I didn’t know that was what it was called. I assumed the woman in it must have been Joan of Arc. It never made sense to me why she had to have her breasts hanging out to head into battle. Now that I know it is Liberty personified I guess it might symbolize a throwing off of constraints, but that really doesn’t make much more sense. From what I’ve come to learn since, fine art seems to demand a lot of toplessness.

Another painting that stuck with me was Vermeer’s The Astronomer. It was inexplicably in one of my early science textbooks. I have no idea why I remembered it or liked it so much. It must speak to the true quality and beauty of the work. In any case, decades later, when I was going to visit the Louvre with my wife, I somehow learned that it was in their collection and made a note to be sure and see it in person.

We made our way to the museum early in the morning to beat the crowds and set about ticking off our list. We knew there was too much to see in a day, and we had plans to get to the Orsay in the afternoon. We saw the Venus de Milo. We gave the obligatory regard to the Mona Lisa. (A painting I have vivid memories of seeing before at the Smithsonian Institute, even though it was apparently never lent to the Smithsonian.) We saw one of the suicide of Cleopatra where, for some reason, the painter had the cobra biting her right on the nipple! (Was that to induce more squirming, or just more breast obsession?) We even came across Liberty Leading the People.

Then we made our way up to the old Dutch masters. We saw Rembrandts and paintings that looked a lot like Rembrandts and then, we found the spot reserved for The Astronomer. It was a blank wall. In its place was a sign, with a 5 cm x 5 cm black-and-white photocopy of the painting telling us that it was on lone to a museum in Chicago! I think that was the moment that would cement my opinion that the Orsay is a better experience.

I got another chance to see this picture that had inspired me so much last week. Nearly ten years after our last visit to the Louvre, we took the kids. And this time we were assured that The Astronomer would be there. They had a whole special exhibit dedicated to Vermeer with paintings of his from all over the world on loan to the Louvre!

We did the general exhibit first, and we took our time even though we were, again, headed to the Orsay later. We walked past every painting. We lingered at some. We didn’t see them all (I didn’t notice Cleopatra) but most. Then we headed to the Vermeers. And that was when we discovered you had to have a reserved time-slot. The next available one would not be until 1:30!

Everyone knew of my quest to see The Astronomer, so we stuck it out. We waited two hours to get our shot. And it was worth it. I don’t know what makes fine art fine. Why do we all decide that a man’s work, unknown outside of his town during his own life, not discovered until a century after his death, is better than most other works of art? Why does a man, sitting in a room, or a woman pouring milk, or a girl standing in a colorful dress, inspire such universal admiration?

Maybe that is the real take-away for me from school and its textbooks, from fine art and its mysteries. Not answers, but the curiosity to inspire questions and quests.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Scary Part of Trust (Genesis 22)

(The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall 1966)

The Bible has told us that Abraham trusted God. We have even seen him do things that demonstrate his trust. And we have seen Abraham fail to do what God wants in spite of his trust. So far God has asked some hard things of Abraham, but nothing that we can’t imagine doing even if they are somewhat extreme. He left his family, home, and the whole world he knew. He set out into the unknown with little to know evidence that he would be safe or provided for. He even circumcised himself and his sons.

But now we get to a test of trust that—if we are honest and we don’t hedge the way the story is told—is terrifying.

If we are honest, we cheat this story of all its impact.

When God askes Abraham to kill his son, we soften that command right away. When we tell this story to our children or to new believers, we make sure we let them know that this is just a test. God is not going to make Abraham go through with the sacrifice. We usually even make sure to highlight the fact that God will later condemn other religions specifically because they require child sacrifice.

But Abraham didn’t have the benefit of the full story, nor the extensive revelation that God has since given us about His character or the outcome of this story. Abraham was told to kill his son. Abraham had to trust God without understanding.

And that is what can be so terrifying about trust and faith. We don’t like to talk about it, but God requires from us not understanding, but trust. In fact, a large percentage of Christianity outright changes that fact. We prefer a God that wants us to understand His truth. It is much harder to trust a God that we don’t fully understand. But the problems are (a) we can never hope to understand God or what His plans are completely and (b) He usually wants us to trust Him before He will give us the portions of truth that we can handle.

The good news is that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son first. Abraham was allowed to grow in faith and fall down from time to time before he got to the point where this was the test he was given. And thanks to Abraham, we now know more about God’s character and faithfulness making it easier to trust Him.

But don’t for a minute think that that will make your relationship with God more about understanding than trust; nor that trust will feel any less terrifying or feel in any way completely safe!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I got a friend request from myself
or at least he looked like me
but his photos,
his trips,
all he ate and all he did
were who I always wished I could be

Then I noticed
all his friends
were the people I’d known
before I just appeared as though I were he

Now it seems that I am just
a made-up account
replaced by a
version of the meme-
the fetch that the world is meant to see

(Poetry Scales 59)  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Obedience as God's Children (1 John 3:11-24)

John continues to describe the qualities of the Children of God as he had described walking in the light. The children of God don’t just avoid sin, they obey God’s commands.

When we compare what John is writing here to what has come earlier in this text, this portion sounds not like a call to obedience, but rather like the test of love again. That is due to two things going on here. First, in this second half that I am calling the “God as Father” section, John also talks a lot about love and the fact that God is Love. You could just as easily talk about 1 John being divided into “God is Light” and God is Love” sections. But also, the five qualities that John listed for walking in the light—avoiding sin, obeying commands, not loving worldliness, the test of love, and keeping the faith—become a little muddled in this second half. They are not five individual qualities, but all aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

However, this section comprising the rest of chapter three is all about obedience. The pure “test of love” will come later, but here the commands of Christ are all summed up in the command to love. Just as Jesus summarized all of the Law and Prophets with “Love God and love your neighbor,” here John tells us that obeying the command to love one another covers every single instruction and demand God gives us.

To love is a command that we obey. This is not something the world or even Christians understand today. It is not a feeling, or a platitude. We are even told that we will have to exercise our obedience to love in the face of hatred; hatred from the world and hatred from those who claim to be followers of Jesus. And we do not get to isolate ourselves into a Christian ghetto and love people where we feel at ease and where we receive love in return. We love the way that we saw Jesus love: sacrificially, unselfishly, and whether it is returned or deserved or not.

Once again, this is an obedience and a quality that is beyond our ability. When we love as the children of God, it is with His power and help, not anything of ourselves.
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