Modern Idolatry

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We don’t often talk about idolatry in the Church these days; and, when we do, we often miss important nuances. I’m sure that most people already realize that money can be an idol, and that the never-ending quest for more money can consume large portions of our time and energy. The Church continues to teach people that materialism is a great distraction to spiritual growth and development, and that greed (accompanied by pride, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) is one of the seven deadly sins. But, idolatry is far more complicated than that. Martin Luther, a German reformer, once wrote: “To have a ‘god’ is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”

I’ve lived with many idols. I created my first idol when I began to picture God as an old man with a long white beard who sits on a great, big throne in the sky—almost like the Greeks pictured Zeus. That image still resides in my thinking. I created another idol (in childhood) when I began to picture God as a God who’s always watching me—almost like the “Elf on a Shelf” that people put in their homes at Christmas. And I must confess that there’s a part of me that worries about the fact that God’s hard at work—recording every time I fail in a great, big book. Another idol that I’ve created clearly blurs the line between God and Santa Claus—once again, an old man with a long white beard who is supposed to give good things to good people and bad things to bad people. One of the most harmful idols that I’ve created is the idol that constantly tries to convince me that I am God, and that I have the “right” to impose my own rules and preferences upon the lives of other people. This last, most harmful idol always tries to convince me that I have the right to decide who God loves and who God doesn’t love—and one of the things that I’ve noticed about this idol is that it always tries to convince me that the sins that other people commit are more serious than the sins I commit.

The love and embrace of Jesus challenges us to think about God in deeper and in more profound ways. In fact, if we ever want to move beyond our own self-created idols and discover the true heart of God, we need to look toward Jesus Christ—God in the flesh. Jesus extends God’s love to the poor, and offers God’s embrace to people that society rejects. Jesus offers forgiveness to people who hurt and disappoint us, and Jesus calls us on the carpet when we begin to believe that the sins in other people’s lives are more serious than the sins in our own lives. Jesus helps us to think more clearly about our lives and priorities when He challenges us to love God with all of our heart and mind and spirit—and to love other people in the way that we want to be loved. Jesus tells us that He’s always with us; and, when He says that, He challenges us to look for Him in the people that we meet at work, on a bus, in worship, in grocery stores, in our homes, on the street, in the women’s shelter, at the food pantry, and even on the Internet.

Now it’s your turn to join the conversation

What do you trust and believe in more than anything else? What are your idols?

How has your image of God been shaped by your own ideals and preferences—and how has your image of God encouraged you to impose your own ideals and preferences on the lives of others?

How has your image of God changed as you’ve lived and experienced more of life?

God clearly commanded: “You shall not make an idol or any likeness of what is in Heaven.” (Exodus 20:4). How does what you know about the life and ministry of Jesus shape your understanding of God, and of God’s plan for your life?

Identity crisis….

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I sometimes think that many Christians in America are struggling with an identity crisis.

This morning, I took out my smartphone and typed the words “identity crisis” onto the screen. I quickly discovered that the Internet (today’s source of all human wisdom) tells us that an identity crisis is “a time of uncertainty in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, often because of changing roles.” I believe that. We, sometimes, forget “who we are” in the midst of change. We can grow increasingly shy about openly expressing faithful and Biblical perspectives when we believe that the tide of society is moving in a different direction. It wasn’t hard to be a Christian when I was growing-up. But, today, it’s a different story.

The Church is changing quickly, and many people in America look at the Church with at least some degree of disdain. American society is filled with “Nones”—people who want nothing to do with organized religion. Our society is also filled with “Dones”—people who have withdrawn from organized religion and who have no intention of returning. Many Christian congregations are shrinking. Even strong and faith-filled ministries are struggling to find volunteers, and more and more people are only willing to offer their time and energy for a limited period of time. I’ve talked with many people about the fact that the Church is going to look very different than it looks today—ten years from now. But “who we are” won’t change. God’s given us an “identity” that doesn’t change as the world, and our “role” in the world, does.

Did you know that God called you “beloved” on the day of your baptism? The Holy Spirit came down from Heaven and touched you. God opened His arms in a great, big, warm embrace and called you His own. God announced to the whole world that He’s pleased with you, and God wants you to know that you’re precious and important—even as you continue to live in a world that doesn’t always tell you that.

This week, I’d like to challenge you to stop for a few moments and to look at the people around you—wherever you are. Look into their faces. Think about their lives. Think about their work, their joys, their worries, their passions and interests, and their loves. The God who is LOVE is living inside of each of them – and inside of you. The God who is LOVE is at work in the world; and love is made real in what we say, in what we do, and in how we treat other people. Love’s made real when we realize who we are—and who other people are, too. Love’s made real when we come to see that God’s alive inside of us, and that God’s using our hands—and other people’s hands— to do His work in the world.

Now it’s your turn to join the conversation

How can remembering “Who I am” guide and direct you as you live your life each day?

How is God’s love being revealed to other people in what you’re doing each day?

What can you learn about God’s love from the people that you meet every day?

What can you do, today, to show other people that you are “God’s beloved”—and that’s who they are, too?

 

Journeying into a New Year with Christ….

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The Holiday Season has passed and it’s time to return to more ordinary routines. Many of us have already dragged our Christmas tree to the curb and have packed decorations back into cardboard boxes. We’ve enjoyed special times with family and friends. Many of us gathered in candlelight on Christmas Eve to listen to an old, familiar story about a little Child who was surrounded by loving parents, shepherds, singing angels, and even animals on the night of His birth. Some of us may have even included the Magi (who are sometimes called the “Three Kings”) in our celebration of Christmas—even though we don’t really know how many Magi there were, and even though these well-known, ancient astrologers probably met the Christ about two years after He was born.

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The Magi have an important lesson to teach us about life and faith. They spent several years preparing to meet the Christ and journeying through the desert. The Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh with them—gifts that were fit for a priestly-King who had come into the world to die. And when they met the Christ face-to-face, we can see that they were changed. We read: “And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2:12) They didn’t want to return to King Herod—a man determined to destroy the Christ. They didn’t want to return to the harsh bitterness of an angry and poison-filled man who lived his life destroying other people because of his own insecurities. They were called to move in another direction and that’s what they did! They went away from the manger as people whose lives had been changed by an encounter with God.

I visited the Bodi Island Lighthouse on the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina several months ago. We all know that lighthouses are built to warn navigators who are approaching dangerous shores. I learned that each lighthouse sends a distinguishable light-pattern to help navigators identify which lighthouse they’re seeing. Lighthouses serve as a guide and beacon that shines through the darkest nights. Lighthouses can even send a signal that warns the captain of a ship that a change of course is needed.

Have you learned anything new from the lighthouse-message of Christmas this year? Have you enjoyed the extra time you’ve spent with the people you love? Have you, perhaps, been warned by God that you need to change course, and embrace something better for yourself and the people you love? The story of the Magi reminds us that, when we have face-to-face encounters with God, we can’t simply return to our old ways of living unchanged. Perhaps, our most recent encounter with the Christ-child has reminded us that God is a God who loves us, and who refuses to stand at a distance and simply observe us as we do our best to live our lives faithfully in a challenging world?

Now, it’s your turn to join the conversation

What did you enjoy most about celebrating Christmas this year? And, if you really struggled during the Holidays this year, what did that struggle teach you about where you are at this point in your life and in your journey of faith?
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Which character in the story of Christmas is most appealing to you? If you were to place yourself in the story of the Nativity, who would you be? Why?

Did you learn something new about yourself during the Holiday Season? What can you take away from this year’s celebration of Christmas that will help you to live your life in a new way in a new year?

What kind of resources will you need to discover, and use, as you move forward in your life of faith this year? Have you discovered something that you believe might help other people in their walk with Christ? Perhaps you would take a few moments to briefly tell us about a helpful resource that you’ve discovered, or to explain what kind of resource(s) you need this year?