I used to live in Los Angeles (and to this day refuse to say LA).
Typically, I shoehorn this extremely important component of my selfhood into everyday conversations as a way of impressing and alienating people who did not overpay for a 420 square foot apartment where one had to hold down the window shade of his ventless bathroom while going #2 so the people on the walkway just outside couldn't see his thighs.
"I love LA."
It's amazing the kind of let-down accompanying two newlyweds in their early 20s, who've just spent somewhere well north of 30 hours in a 2001 civic over the course of 3 days in late August, greeted by a first apartment that was, and I'm not kidding, well over 100 degrees inside at midnight.
"There's nothing like sleeping on a deflated air mattress in front of your open apartment door after a time bending road trip."
-No one, literally ever.
Over the next three years we spent in the city of angels (I LOVE YOUR WORK, NIC CAGE), my wife and I would spend the lion's share of our time navigating a giant new world from the confines of a cartoonish-ly tiny apartment. As with most things (like my fear of driving on the freeway for the first 3 months we lived there, for instance) our context quickly became our reality: shaping and altering our view of what "normal" looks like.
So much so, that we when we returned to the Southeast after a few years out West, I found myself -- in the face of 500 square foot guest bathrooms -- muttering the very same words I spoke upon opening the door to our crust Pasadena studio so many years earlier:
"uhhh, just so I'm clear, regular sized humans live here?"
Put another way: we shape our worlds and then our worlds shape us.
After a brief experience as a retail grocery laborer, let's just say I'm painstakingly familiar with a mantra native to the industry: "the customer is always right." Now, I'm sure there were great intentions behind instilling this value into the hearts and minds of the American consumer in some idyllically naive time before people trampled benefit-less Wal-Mart employees at 3:00am the day after Thanksgiving for door-busting George Foreman grills AND IF YOU CUT ME IN LINE I WILL BEAT YOU TO DEATH WITH MY SHOE.
However, nothing causes a stir, gastrointenstiallly that is, quite like opening a refrigerator at your parents' house only to happen upon a 2-week-old Burger King Whopper with mayonnaise your stepfather is "saving" until he "has time" to return it for a Whopper without mayonnaise like he ordered TWO WEEKS AGO.
Leaving all of us reeling from the stench to wonder:
"So, uhh, the customer is always right?"
Put another way: we shape our words and then our words shape us.
In the 32nd chapter of the book of Exodus there's this story about several hundred newly-freed-from-slavery-Israelities and their confusing decision to fashion a calf out of gold in order to worship it. Despite the rather obvious fact that it was YHWH -- and not the aforementioned golden calf -- who had just laid waste to the enslaving rulers and armies of Egypt.
It was YHWH who provided food of for the Hebrews in the wilderness, and YWHW who led his people by a pillar of sand in the daytime and a pillar of fire in the evenings.
Finally, it was YHWH who appointed Moses to bring the Hebrews into a land the text exhaustingly refers to as one "flowing with milk and honey" (WE GET IT ALREADY).
One might think this kind of intensive, daily involvement on the part of a divine force would be a pretty airtight argument for "keeping the faith," and yet:
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron, then, confusingly obliges:
“Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar efore it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”
Naturally, much like parents who were supposed to be out of town until Monday, God and Moses come home a bit early only to find things have gotten dangerously out of hand:
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
After talking God down from (let's be honest) a rather hasty decision, Moses heads back down the mountain to take stock of the damage. Almost immediately, he confronts his brother Aaron, whom he had left in charge:
“Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
I submit to you there has never (nor will there ever be) been a better excuse than:
"so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"
Traditionally, the lesson usually in response to a story like this has to do with all the hollow and superfluously shiny things one might choose over an authentic relationship with the creator of the universe. Which is then soon followed by a clip of that Tom Brady interview from "60 Minutes" a few years ago where he -- to the gleeful cheers of pastors desperate for concrete evidence of fabulously wealthy people who are occasionally unhappy -- admitted to sometimes wondering if there might be more to life than just Super Bowls and super models.
However, I want to argue that this story might have a bit more going on than one might initially think. But, in order to talk bout that, I first want to say a few words about ancient Mesopotamian bull gods (which, I'm sure, is a relief to all of you just trying to get to the end of this before your son wakes up from his nap...DID YOU HEAR HIM?!)
This, if you aren't familiar (and you aren't), is a sculpture of the god Apis (in the LOUVRE!) who represented the earthly image of the god Ptah, one of the underworld deities in Egyptian cosmology. In ancient Egypt, the country where the aforementioned Israelites were enslaved fro centuries before being freed by YHWH and Moses, bulls were considered incredibly sacred because they represented Ptah's image on Earth. Because of this, bulls were to be protected from harm as a way of securing the favor and blessing of a notoriously fickle god.
Day after day after day the Israelites were repeatedly confronted with images of the mighty gods underwriting the power of their oppressors conscripting them as slaves to build an empire in the name of these deities and their universe-bending control. Throughout the larger Mesopotamian world in which the Israelites came of age, bulls were a popular image of divine strength, virility, or in some cases, even represented a prominent mode of transportation for the gods of a city to ride upon when engaging in war.
The most powerful entity in this region at that time was the nation of Babylon, whose chief god Marduk was popular portrayed astride, you guessed it, a bull when leading his armies into battle. Thus, motivating many ancient Babylonians to construct bull-shaped altars as places for sacrifices, libation, and gifts given to Marduk as a way of (once again) securing the favor and blessing of another notoriously fickle (not to mention, quite violent) god.
In light of this context, when Aaron pronounces at the foot of the bull he's just created in Exodus 32 that "tomorrow is to be a celebration to the LORD," he isn't announcing the presence of a brand new god, he's asserting that this bull is the image, manifestation, and presence of YHWH in the world. And this presence is one emerging not out of thin air, but from the temples and palaces of the conquering nations surrounding this rag-tag band of former slaves.
"My dad can beat up your dad."
-Me, lying to my friends in 3rd grade.
The people of YHWH, in the absence of Moses, whom (along with the rest of the Hebrews themselves) YHWH repeatedly refers to as "his image" throughout the book of Exodus, decide to fill the empty space their leader has just left behind with what they believed to be an appropriately god-like symbol, a bull.
Put baldly: maybe ancient peoples may not have been able to crush candy on their phones while simultaneously navigating a one-ton vehicle through heavy traffic at 60 mph, but they certainly weren't morons.
Which means the transgression greeting us in the actions of the Israelites is found not not in their rather strange belief that a statue they've just made out of party jewelry is a god, but instead represents a far more insidious confusion about what YHWH's image truly is in the world.
Both for them, then, and us, now.
The question at the center of the entire book of Exodus is whether or not YHWH is merely yet another powerful and capricious deity, enslaving and subjugating inferior peoples to prop up those faithful to his cause. Or, in freeing slaves, empowering murders on the run (ahem, Moses), and inhabiting bushes on the outskirts of civilization, is YHWH up to something altogether different from what most of us have in mind.
Which is an incredibly important discussion, because as with studio apartments in Southern California and Whoppers decomposing in your parents' garage refrigerator, our gods shape us and then we in turn, shape our gods.*
(*NOTE: Special thanks to Rob Bell for this illuminating framework of the ways our conceptions of God shape our concrete responses in the world.)
“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your bother Aaron shall be your prophet.”
Several chapter preceding Exodus 32, YHWH greets Moses with the unexpected announcement that he is not only to return to Egypt and demand the release of God's people from bondage, but in so doing he will be "like God" to Pharaoh, and Aaron--his brother--will be his prophet.
Upon crossing the Sea of Reeds and just before embarking on their rather prolonged wilderness wanderings, the Israelites find themselves at the foot of another mountain, one named Sinai. Here they are greeted with an invitation to not only remember the God who has freed them from the enslaving deities and powers of Egypt, but also that everyone gathered at the foot of the mountain is to consider themselves "a kingdom of priests" and a "holy nation" sent out to "be a blessing to the world".
What then makes the actions of the Israelites so confounding to God and Moses in Exodus 32 isn't that they've depicted YHWH incorrectly, it's that despite a great number of actions and words to the contrary, they've rejected the very bedrock narrative of what it means to be a part of this new people YHWH is forming in the world.
Because YHWH isn't from Babylon or Egypt or Persia or Rome or Europe or America. YHWH refuses to enslave and subjugate. You can trust YHWH, even if you don't quite know the way. You can follow YHWH, even in the darkness. You can depend on YHWH to deliver enough food for today.
In the unfolding story the Bible reveals to us time and again is the presence of God in all the abandoned places and people on the underside of deeply religious empires. Even as we turn the page to the "New" Testament, we encounter this backbeat quietly filling every jot and tittle as God (once again) inhabits not a throne or a king, but a peasant child born to a teenage mother in a backwater village right under the nose of imperial fear and violence.
A child who would grow into a man without a home or a pulpit, who wandered from town to town reminding all those within earshot of God's presence in the forgotten nooks and crannies of the neighborhoods and their hearts. A man who would -- thanks to his politically subversive message of sweeping societal and religious restructuring -- find himself on the business end of an executioner's stake at the behest of those leveraging religion for eternal security and imperial blessing.
A man inspiring other women and men to band together with slaves and eunuchs and prostitutes and immigrants and anyone else willing to break bread with those whom one of the early pastors in this fledging movement jokingly called "the garbage of the world". Not in order to organize and then grapple for power, but to bring resurrection and liberation to any institution hell-bent on enslaving the many on behalf of the few.
All in service to a day in which every ruler, principality, and power would finally be laid low, and every person bringing up the rear (time and again) would be brought to the front of the bread line. A day these early Jesus followers believed existed not sometime off in the future, but in the very concreteness of today, as they sought to bring heaven to earth with every breath and every heartbeat.
The insidious pull underneath the soaring rhetoric of our sermons, songs, and sanctuaries is to gather up our most precious belongings in order to fashion a respectably impressive God of which we can all be proud. Our institutions, priests, sacraments, and celebrities all work cooperatively in removing from view the one foundational truth of the Judeo-Christian worldview,
namely, that everyone's a pastor: most especially if you're hungry, angry, naked, broken, oppressed, and enslaved.
The incarnation of Jesus ins't the long-awaited for answer at the end of a rather short conversation about post-mortem destinations, it's the beginning of a much longer story about life in the present. One offering all people at all times a chance to create God again and again out of the rough cuts of their sagging waistlines, rising hairlines, and soon-approaching expiration dates.
"From dust you came, and to dust you shall return."
The stubborn idolatry plaguing humans across the ages is one encouraging us to reject the divine image already beating and breathing within us, no matter the way we stammer some sort of breathless answer to questions about our "religious views". When we wistfully appeal to the clouds or the starts or even those hogging the mic at the front of the sanctuary to finally get in gear when it comes to combatting the ills besieging our world, we are setting up ourselves up for a profoundly disappointing -- if not endless -- wait.
Christianity is the counterintuitive reminder that God became a person, and you're already a person, so it's past-time you became the image of God to the world in your own wandering, sometimes half-finished, and breathtakingly self-sacrificing death on the altar of the universe. Whether or not you write or preach or pray or sing, you are -- especially if you're limping -- a pastor.
If I'm recollecting accurately, what real pastors do is dig up (like a dog in the backyard) moments of sacredness and authenticity struggling to surge through the cynicism and toxically self-interested religiosity filling the air around all of us. Pastors don't create, or protect, or own sacredness, they curate it and bring it to light in the decrepit and long since abandoned corners of our globe as a way of illustrating to us that the one thing still worth believing in underneath the noise and discarded cellophane packaging of our once mighty religion is:
buoyant, inexplicably humble, resurrecting-the-dead-kinds of love.
So get to work reverends, we got fireworks left to light.
*photo credit: Creative Commons