Testing Oneself for Idols

Thursday, March 10, 2016

It has been almost two years since I posted to this blog, but I was recently asked to present a devotional, and then asked to make copies available, so I am parking it here:

Tonight, I would like to share several verses that have helped me to process some of what I have been experiencing.
Genesis 22:1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

"Here I am," he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
So Abraham corrected God, saying, "No, Lord, I know my doctrine and eschatology. Isaac and his descendants will inherit the Covenant, along with your blessings, and all of the land. His descendants will be numbered like the stars in the heavens. You can find that in Genesis, chapters 15 and 17, Lord. I also know how much you hate the infant sacrifices of the Baal worshipers." 
Or maybe your Bible says something different. 
In all of this, I am probably preaching mostly to myself, because many of you are way ahead of me. 
What I want to talk about is the idols in our lives, because sometimes those idols are very good things. In many ways, Isaac was the best gift God could have given Abraham, but God wanted to see if that good gift had become an idol in Abraham's life.
So God calls an audible. This is football terminology, and I don't watch much football. But sometimes, the team breaks the huddle with a plan, and they get up to the line of scrimmage, and for whatever reason, the quarterback decides to alter the plan. He communicates that with an audible. Then, in a stadium with 50,000 screaming fans, the team picks out his voice, and recognizes it as his, and obeys the new plan.
We pick up the story:
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
God is going to call another audible.
“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Many, many good things can become idols in our lives. Our personal understanding of doctrines can become idols. A church membership can become an idol. I can say, “I belong to the best church in town. I’ve been there 36 years, and it’s always going to be there for me.”

Well, maybe not.

I can say, “Our church gives 22% to missions, and our stableful of missionaries is lighting the world on fire for Christ.”

Well, are those missionaries ours, or Christ’s?

Another time, and another place:
Acts 10:9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 
 (“I think that’s in either Deuteronomy or Leviticus, Lord.”)
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Once again, God is calling an audible.
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Unquestionably, this audible thing opens us up to all kind of antinomian heresies. I think Jesus warned us about that, for example:
Matthew 24:10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.25 See, I have told you ahead of time.
But we also have these words from Jesus,
John 10:25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.30 I and the Father are one.”
I can’t know if you are listening to Christ’s voice. You can’t know if I am listening to Christ’s voice. But each of us has the job of determining whether we, for ourselves, are hearing Christ’s voice. The temptation can be very strong to judge others, and I think Jesus does call us to judge doctrines, like Health and Wealth, or Name it and Claim it—John tells us to test every spirit—but we have to be very careful to judge motives.
This comes from the Apostle Paul:
Philippians 1:12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[b] that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
But Paul, what if someone …?

Paul says, “It doesn’t matter. Christ is being preached.”

But Paul, what if …

Paul says, “It doesn’t matter. Christ is being preached.”

But what if …

Paul says, “It doesn’t matter. Christ is being preached.”

Paul leaves no wiggle room. We may find ourselves uprooted, and ministries taken from us that were sure God had given to us, but when God calls an audible, the only truly important fact is that God has a plan we don’t yet understand.
A final passage: 
Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
The church sprang up in Antioch, only because persecution had driven the believers from Jerusalem. This uprooting could not have been pleasant for the believers in Jerusalem, but it was God’s plan. I saw a similar thing happen in Colombia, when Wycliffe was evacuating the country. People who had been there for 35 years didn’t want to leave. Their identities were wrapped up in their ministries. Good ministries, but maybe it was time for God to shake things up, and move them somewhere else. Most of us don’t move very easily. I know I don’t. I need to accept that many good things have become idols in my life. It only truly becomes doable when we open ourselves to what God might be doing. I think I am at that point. I want to see what God has next.

A Trio for National Limerick Day

Monday, May 12, 2014

--> I realized, working on this project, how lazy I have become, posting my little bursts of creativity to the social networking site, rather than the blog.  There is the immediate reward of a few likes with just a minute or two.  But the post fade into oblivion just as rapidly.  I want to do a better job of putting things here, where they are still accessible in a week, or next month.

I did post these first to the social networking site, as part of an annual reprise of limericks I had written during the year.  I plan to set three of them here, and then migrate another batch tomorrow, and more until all my better limericks are here.  Then, perhaps, I will move some other posts that lend themselves to a better archive.

This first was inspired by a news story on an Argentine invention capable of collecting up to 250 liters of methane a day, fresh off the cow.

News article here
Bessie and the Flatuflask
By Brian T. Carroll (May 11, 2014)

If this Hindenburg bovine looks nervous,
She’s a conscript to climate-change service,
She is chewing the grass
And passing the gas
To recycle, reuse, or repurpose.

      *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *   

The second also owes its inspiration to South American animal husbandry, the outfit worn by  Boneco, the beekeeping donkey:

News article here
Boneco and the Bees Knees
By Brian T. Carroll (March 8, 2014)

A beekeeping donkey, Boneco,
Wore duds that were short of Art Deco.
The vital motif
Was bee sting relief
So of Vogue, he was willing to let go.

      *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *   

The third rose from the ashes of a strange bureaucratic pronouncement on the benefits of the Beijing smog: That the cloud would protect the city from American laser weapons.

Breathe Deep, Oh Apparatchik
By Brian T. Carroll (Feb 22, 2014)

A theory by Prof. Zhang Zhaozhong
Esteems smog, but I won’t play along.
He’s been breathing that haze
And he’s singing its praise
But dang, Zhang Zhaozhong, how wrong!

News article here
Photo credit here

Japanese Landscapes @ the Clark

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Saturday, I celebrated my birthday with a visit to the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, and took along my wife and my father.  I try to get this museum as often as their exhibitions change, and Near and Far: Landscapes by Japanese Artists.  Rotation 1: Imagination of Nature closes December 22.  Its companion, Near and Far: Landscapes by Japanese Artists. Rotation 2: Idealization of Reality, opens January 6.
We arrived just a few minutes past 1:00 pm on Saturday, just a little late to catch the beginning of the weekly docent tour.  Our three doubled the audience to six as Sonja Simonis, curator of this exhibit, talked about the individual artists, the 29 landscapes on display, and the represented traditions and influences, especially as the Japanese adapted what they learned from the Chinese.  The Clark Center invites young scholars for assistant curatorial internships, and Simonis is the 18th intern in thirteen years.  She told me she did most of her studies in Berlin, but researched her thesis in Japan.

The collection goes back into the 15th Century, and some of the commentary refers back to about the 10th.  Several traditions are represented: Zen priests who painted as a path to enlightenment; Daoists who painted as a path back to nature and tranquility; bunjin, or literati, men of letters who painted as a pastime and to share with their friends; and professional painters who decorated castles for the Shoguns and Daimyo.

One of the oldest pieces, Mountains by a River, is attributed to Kenkō Shōkei (active about 1478-1506), a Zen priest who studied paintings from Song and Yuan China.  In the Zen tradition, landscape paintings—usually of fictitious locations—served as meditative devises.
Detail from Mountains by a River, a matching pair of hanging scrolls, attributed to Kenkō Shōkei.  Ink and color on paper.
As an example of the professional artists, the Kanō family ran an art school and served wealthy patrons, from the late 15th Century, until near the end of the 19th.  In its fifth generation, a prodigy named Kanō Tan’yū appeared before Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa at age ten.  He joined the palace staff at age 15.  As Simonis explained, Winter Landscape demonstrates how Japanese painting of this period retained a preference for extended empty spaces, a characteristic of Zen.  Only later, under Chinese influence, did painters choose to fill the entire frame.
Winter Landscape (above), with detail (below), by Kanō Tan’yū (1602-1674).
Itaya Keishū (1729-1797) founded a school in Edo (Tokyo), and worked for the Shogun.  In Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape, I was most intrigued by the painting’s three sets of angles.
Itaya Keishū (1729-1797), Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape, hanging scroll, colors on silk.
One set of angles is established by the house and the fence in the foreground.  The right span of fence points to the bridge, and the left span points at the contemplative priest.  A second set of angles comes from the mountains and the pitch of the roof, and a third in the branches of the tree.
Detail from, Priest Looking out into a Snow-covered Landscape.
The majority of paintings in this exhibition date from the Tokugawa period.  The Shogunate cut-off Japan from outside influences, allowing only one Dutch ship a year to land at Nagasaki, and a small trickle of Chinese to visit.  With Japan’s historic ties to Chinese literature and art thus inhibited, a yearning after things Chinese found expression in a school of art called Nanga.  These artists (Bunjin 文人, or, "literati") were united more by the self-identification as intellectuals than by specific artistic techniques, but they tended to choose Chinese subject matter, and to tag their paintings with Chinese-style poetry.  Even after the fall of the Tokugawa, as European techniques made their way into the paintings, the subject matter and poetry remained Chinese.

When I looked closely at Landscape after Dong Yuan, by Nakabayashi Chikutō (who predates the opening of Japan), I was struck by its near-Pointillism, a technique I associate with late 19th Century, European Impressionists.
Landscape after Dong Yuan, by Nakabayashi Chikutō (1776-1853).
Thus I enjoyed a moment of smug satisfaction when the label said, “Dong Yuan (died ca. 962) was one of the “Four Masters of the Song Dynasty” (960-1279) and particularly famous for his pointillist painting technique.  Here, Nakabayashi Chikutō successfully employs this painting method in order to create a calm and relaxed atmosphere.”

Nakabayashi served as a Nanga theorist, painting and writing in Kyoto.

Mizuta Chikuho (1883-1958) taught painting and frequently served as a judge in art exhibitions.  In Fairly Unsettled Weather (1928), a figure in a blue kimono looks out from the window, the painting’s only deviation from a shades-of-gray color scheme.

Fairly Unsettled Weather (1928), with detail at right, by Mizuta Chikuho.  Ink and light colors on paper.
The exhibit places side-by-side three paintings by Fukuda Kodōjin (1865-1944).  As a young man, he earned his living as a poet, first with a volume of Chinese style poetry, and then selling haiku to magazines.  He was also a master at calligraphy.  Later, he developed his own style of painting.  Or perhaps I should say several styles, because each of the three Kodōjin painting in this exhibit demonstrate a different approach.  A web search turns up a recent book on Kodōjin, by Stephen Addiss, with over 100 of Kodōjin’s haiku and tanka poems.  Each poem works in tandem with Kodōjin’s art. The representative ink paintings each distort space, somewhat whimsically, but my favorite, Plum Blossom Library, also used color.
Plum Blossom Library (1926), with detail at left, by Fukuda Kodōjin (1865-1944).  Ink and colors on silk.
The inscription reads, “Drinking alone, wine beside the flowers,
Spring breezes fluttering the lapels of my robe.
With just this peace my desire is fulfilled, while the world’s affairs leave me at odds.
White haired but not yet passed on,
These green mountains a good place to take my bones.
Who understands that this happiness today lies simply in tranquility of life?
(trans. Jonathan Chaves)

Color and detail also attracted me to Komuro Suiun’s Mount Hōrai.  A contemporary of Kodojin, and another Daoist painter of the Nanga School, this painting pictures the palace of the Daoist Eight Immortals, who live in a place without pain or sorrow.  Near the inscription, a flock of crains symbolize luck and long life.

Mount Hōrai, with detail on right, by Komuro Suiun (1874-1945).

The most dramatic piece is also the most recent (1984). The full 12 panels of Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol (1928-2010) extend 72 feet, but the display room could only comfortably hold the four panels at the right end of the series.
Twenty-four feet from the 72-foot long of Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol.
Even so, I enjoyed both the full effect from standing away, and the close-up details of careful study.
Detail from Hekiba Village, by Araki Minol.
Born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Araki Minol began painting at age six, surrounded by Japanese, Chinese, and Russian influences.  He trained and had a very successful career as an industrial designer, with homes in Tokyo, Taipei, and New York, and life-long association with clients like Tandy/Radio Shack.  Only late in his life did friends convince him to display his paintings.

In this video, I attempt to catch the sweep of Hekiba Village.

The second half of this exhibit begins with a lecture by Sonja Simonis, at 2:00 pm.,  Sunday, January 6, 2013.

One final thought: Beside the art gallery, the Clark Center has a bonsai garden, and this has recently been redesigned to better show-off the collection.

(My review of a previous exhibition at the Clark)

Lamentation of a Parent, Grandparent, and Teacher

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I took this picture during a school lockdown in 1994.  In Colombia, unidentified soldiers had stepped out of the jungle within a mile of the school, so we locked down until we could be sure for whom those soldiers fought.  My junior high students sat for two hours before the all-clear, joking nervously and missing lunch.  But we were in a war zone, where one understands, at least intellectually, that violence is a possibility.
 In California, I once locked down with 4th graders while a funnel cloud passed us by.  Before terrified ten-year-olds, the teacher must be strong, even casual about the situation, and compartmentalized.  But now, even during our school’s annual lockdown drill, I have to stop and consciously gain control over the catch in my voice.

So it is good that I first saw news of the Sandy Hook shooting while I was alone in my classroom during lunch.  As a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, I cried.  Then I compartmentalized, taught my afternoon classes, and went home to let my four and six-year old grandsons present me with an early-birthday batch of raisin cookies.  Today, I will celebrate that 63rd birthday with a museum trip, and intellectualize.

The violence is common enough—even in elementary schools and movie theaters—that we have rituals for dealing with it. 

One group of us divides into Pro-Gun and Anti-Gun factions.  That is a debate we ought to have, though probably less driven by the most immediate atrocity.  Prudence and self-defense may require that some citizens keep guns, but from scripture I draw the principle that trust in weapons is misplaced (Isaiah 31:1 and 2:7), and the glorification of weapons is idolatry.   I waver over where to draw the legal lines on guns, but as a nation we trust and glorify them, and there the lines should be at zero.

Another group points to lack of mental health, to the breakdown of the family, to a culture of violent video games, and to hopeless poverty.  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  Every year I see students who are in need of better help than the schools are equipped to handle.  I see boys, especially, trying to understand manhood when they have no fathers with whom to relate.  This very week, I had several boys excited to show me videos that glorified lone attackers who vanquished large armies.  And I just heard the verdict on a shooting a few years ago in the park around the corner from where I live.  A lone gunman sprayed bullets into a pick-up soccer game, wounding one player.  Charged with 10 counts of attempted murder, he received 500-years-to-life.  The shooter was 16.  Fatherless.  Without a DREAM Act, he was also a boy without a country, no hope of ever belonging anywhere.  Except to a street gang.

Yet, curiously, the shooters in mass killings like that at Sandy Hook or in Aurora have mostly been white, middle class, and American born; as have been their victims.  The other kind of shootings, kids killed one or two at a time as some gang initiate tries to prove his mettle, probably claim more victims in total, but make fewer headlines.  The spontaneous monument in the photograph below sprang up after three boys were attacked in a yard across the street from where I pick up kids for Sunday school.  One seventeen-year-old died.  He had been a friend of the kids I pick up.  The young shooter, who received a life sentence, was a recent alumni of the school where I teach.  Easy guns.  Video games that glorify the lone shooter.  Hopelessness and lack of belonging.  Spiritual deadness.  Isolated, these do not create shooters.  Together, they will.

But to cope with this, we compartmentalize.  We intellectualize.  We blame-shift.  We look the other way that our drones are killing children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We try and hide the fact that, each year, a million American children are denied even a day of birth.  We flee from the knowledge that the stores we frequent support firetrap-sweatshops in Asia or Latin America, and that the chocolate we eat was harvested by child slaves in Africa.  We have met the evil, and it is us.

Psychically we cannot carry these burdens, individually, or as a people.  It is too heavy.  We try to imagine ourselves standing in the way of all this, correcting it, or even absolving ourselves of our complicity in any of this, and we can’t.  It is too overwhelming. 

But it is not too heavy for God.

And God hears our cries.

I am driven this morning to read Daniel 9:4-19, and to use his prayer as my model.

4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 5 we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances. 6 Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land.

7 “Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day—to the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, those who are nearby and those who are far away in all the countries to which You have driven them, because of their unfaithful deeds which they have committed against You. 8 Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. 9 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; 10 nor have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. 11 Indeed all Israel has transgressed Your law and turned aside, not obeying Your voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. 12 Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Your truth. 14 Therefore the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice.

15 “And now, O Lord our God, who have brought Your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and have made a name for Yourself, as it is this day—we have sinned, we have been wicked. 16 O Lord, in accordance with all Your righteous acts, let now Your anger and Your wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become a reproach to all those around us. 17 So now, our God, listen to the prayer of Your servant and to his supplications, and for Your sake, O Lord, let Your face shine on Your desolate sanctuary. 18 O my God, incline Your ear and hear! Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Your name; for we are not presenting our supplications before You on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Your great compassion. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.”