Restless Idols

Times Square(Creative Commons Image by Dave Kliman on Flickr)

Yesterday I planned to phone a friend while refueling my car. But the gas pump’s disembodied voice, not content with offering instructions and falling into welcome silence, prattled on for the next ten gallons about the snack foods, auto doodads, and megasize drinks and donuts available inside. I found myself wondering which corner of quiet space could be exploited next, and gave thanks that no one has yet taught mockingbirds to sing Froot Loops jingles, or the clouds to outline Subaru Foresters or Louis Vuitton handbags. These daily gifts of nature never prattle on, never draw attention to themselves, but bless those willing to pay attention.

No generation before ours has been so intensely beset by commercialism. It’s not enough to see cornfields by the highway aflame with the restless mega wattage of Times Square, and tiny figures leaping and calling out from every internet site. We are cluttered with ads, junk mail, robocalls, and corporate sponsorships on programs, arenas, bridges, and even school buses. Meanwhile, news analysts furrow their brows over Americans’ lackadaisical spending patterns, our failure to feed the market’s cravings. The woman I heard saying, shortly after the gas pump incident, that she grows her food, buys her clothing secondhand, and babies her antique laptop, evidently poses a threat to national prosperity.

Yet as several lectionary passages in October insist, the problem of idolatry lies at the heart of our spiritual struggle. The first commandment puts it starkly: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery; do not worship other gods” (Exodus 20:2-3, October 5). The second commandment prohibits the manufacture and worship of idols, human-made gods (vv. 4-5). The alternatives are sharply drawn: We can choose to worship other gods, often in the form of manufactured idols, or we may worship the God who liberates from bondage. As Jesus later says, “No one can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” said Saint Augustine. For him, dependence on other gods, or goods, reflects restlessness, fruitless searches for satisfaction elsewhere than in faith. Yet the things God made, God’s own creation, pours its blessings upon us every day unannounced, restfully, without commercials, without fees, without market researchers calling at dinner time to survey our favorite mountain or bird call. It soothes souls distracted and rendered restless by consumerism.

A friend of mine tells of her daughter, a high school student, who, after growing up in privilege, spent a summer among the poor in Kenya. When she returned, she immediately gave away many of her possessions. She realized early what ancient writers understood long ago: that what we own owns us. If in our travels or imaginations we too have glimpsed other possibilities, we may likewise live lightly, surrounded less by what humans fabricate, and more by what God has made.

October 5

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 commands worship of God alone, and no other gods or idols, including covetousness.

Psalm 19 portrays the sky itself communicating God’s glory.

Isaiah 5:1-7(alt.) laments a human “vineyard” gone awry, filled with injustice despite God’s careful tending.

Psalm 80:7-15(alt.) likewise compares humans to a vineyard planted by God, and pleads for restoration.

Philippians 3:4b-14 counts all material gain as loss and rubbish compared to faith in Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46 retells the story of God’s vineyard from another perspective, and counsels producing the fruits of God’s reign.

October 12

Exodus 32:1-14 tells of Aaron’s calf, cast from golden jewelry, that the Israelites worshiped at Mount Sinai.

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 redefines prosperity as rejoicing in God’s heritage.

Isaiah 25:1-9 (alt.) describes the mountain where God will offer a great feast and wipe tears from all eyes..

Psalm 23(alt.) asserts faith in God’s provident guidance through green pastures, still waters, right paths, and even darkest valleys.

Philippians 4:1-9 advises relinquishing worry, and instead rejoicing in God, praying always, being guarded by God’s peace, and living by what is true, honorable, and just.

Matthew 22:1-14 tells the parable of the great wedding banquet, that many were too distracted to attend.

October 19

Exodus 33:12-23 promises Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Psalm 99 remembers God’s giving of his decrees at Sinai.

Isaiah 45:1-7(alt) proclaims that it is the incomparable God who forms light and darkness and creates weal and woe.

Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13) (alt) calls earth, sea, field, and trees to sing before God.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 describes the community turning from idols to serve a living and true God.

Matthew 22:15-22 reminds disciples to “give to God the things that are God’s.”

October 26

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 tells of the death of Moses, Israel’s incomparable leader, at the border of the promised land.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 meditates on the brevity of human life and the eternity of God.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18(alt.) enjoins, “You shall be holy,” and commends impartial justice, right speech about neighbors, non-violence in business dealings, fair relationships, and forgiveness.

Psalm 1(alt.) envisions followers of Torah as well-watered trees, filled with fruit, prospering in all they do.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 describes Paul’s attempts not to please mortals, but to please God, and his gentle care for disciples.

Matthew 22:34-46 repeats the commandments to love God and neighbor.