Tuesday, October 20, 2020

my 30s come to an end!

Today is the last day of my 30s!

I am a 7 on the Enneagram, which means that I love to find ways to have fun, I love to plan and anticipate fun, I like variety and expansive vision, and I do not like pain of any kind.

It means a lot of other things too, of course. 

I have known my Enneagram number for more than 15 years, but it was during my 30s that I really started to do any work with it and to learn more about how I instinctively respond to stress, to disappointment, to feelings (mine and other people's), to loss, etc. It is not an exaggeration to say that doing Enneagram work is one of the three most important personal choices I've made in the past decade. And at least one of those other important choices was heavily informed by that work!

The Enneagram is a tool for spiritual transformation, because it enables us to see how our instinctive motivation drives us, and then allows us to make shifts that change our trajectories into more Christlike ways. It has had an impact on my self, my spirituality, my relationships, and my leadership style. It's not a panacea or magic, it's work just like any other inner work, but it is worth every moment of the doing, even when it's hard or painful. And you know that if the pain-avoidant 7 says that, it's really worth it.

Fascinatingly, when I started this 30 day countdown, I did not plan the topics of each day in advance, nor did I choose the poetry ahead of time. Often the topics came to me during the day -- through the various tasks of the day, or the reading of the day, or just out of the blue. Which means that I have not actually picked a poem for this last day of my 30s. It seems like the kind of thing I ought to have done, to choose the end point I wanted to get to...but perhaps it's because it isn't an end, just a turning, that I haven't. 

All the poems I've read this month have been by women, often non-white women, because I think it is important to have a wide variety of literary experiences (and I'm a 7, I want a wide variety of EVERY kind of experience, ever!) to form us into the people we are created to be. But the snippet that keeps coming to mind as I think over these past 30 days and the (hopefully) years to come is actually from TS Eliot. I hate that I'm about to be predictable in my final poetic choice of my 30s, but doesn't it seem just right that 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

I think that is the ultimate goal of Enneagram work -- to lead us through the explorations of ourselves and our relationship to ourselves, God, other people, and the world, so that we can find our way back to the essence of who we are called to be, and live from that deepest reality and truth.

So...happy birthday to me!
Today

my 30th birthday party




Monday, October 19, 2020

The penultimate day of my 30s

in the centre of the maze at some palace in London, spring 2016....
this expression is the one I could always hear on the phone, too.


I never expected to end my 30s an orphan.

My birthday will mark 15 years since I last heard my mother's voice, and writing that sentence still takes my breath away.

It's also now 10 months and 19 days since I heard my dad's voice.

My mother was 47 years, 2 months, and 10 days old when she died. My dad was 59 and 1 month, according to his death certificate, though that's probably a few days too generous. 

And now here we are, and I am 39 years and 364 days old. Throughout my 30s I have been acquainted with the ups and downs of a lifetime of grief, how waves come and go when least expected, and how sometimes when you most expect it, there's numbness instead. But even after being motherless for all the major life events of my 30s, I still did not see it coming that I'd have no parents in my 40s.

My dad was prone to the most ridiculous phone calls -- he would phone at strange hours because he never quite worked out the time zones (whether I was 2 hours or 8 hours ahead of him it always seemed just a bit beyond him!). He would call and literally say nothing and I was always making faces at the phone as I tried to figure out how to get more than a one syllable answer. He repeatedly apologised for voting for Reagan that one time, and swore that he'd always voted a straight Democratic ticket at every other election, because he wanted a country that was safe and good for me as well as my brother. He once promised that if I sent him a cookbook for Christmas, he would go vegetarian for a year. (Except for fish, because who could give up salmon? I chose not to argue the point, and sent a cookbook....a cookbook I now have on my own shelf, with all his sticky notes flagging recipes he tried.) 

I spent a lot of vacations in my 30s traveling with my dad -- which means that I planned and he paid. We visited all sorts of places and even though I was often annoyed at his complete lack of a sense of direction and his inability to tell me if he was having a good time or not while we were actually there, when we went home he always called to tell me how much fun he'd had. 

When I made a mistake on my taxes, and then made a worse mistake in fixing that first mistake, and then was too embarrassed to admit that mistake for about 5 years, he rescued me, and finally did so without a lecture about how to read my bank statement.

All those years I was desperate to be a real grown up and at the same time so grateful that my dad was there to help when I couldn't make it work...and yet I still never saw this day coming, when I wouldn't get a birthday card that said nothing but "love Dad", or a midnight phone call with his half-laugh. 

It's been so long since I reconciled myself to the reality that I never get to have a grown-up friendship with my mom...I wasn't really prepared for not having one with my dad either. 

So I suppose the lesson is one I didn't have time to use: treasure those bizarre phone calls and weird gifts and exhausting holidays. 

Today's poem is a song by Carrie Newcomer...because it really is how I think of my life, as before (when I had parents) and after. And I think it describes my dad's life too....before Halloween 2005, and after. 





Sunday, October 18, 2020

praying the whole truth -- a sermon on Hannah

Rev Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Praying the Whole Truth

1 Samuel 1.1-20, 2.1-10 (NIV)

18 October 2020, NL3-6, Becoming God’s People 6


After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.

It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading today is from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2, and I am reading from the New International Version.


1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

 3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, ‘Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’

Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’

12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’

15 ‘Not so, my lord,’ Hannah replied, ‘I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’

17 Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’

18 She said, ‘May your servant find favour in your eyes.’ Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.

19 Early the next morning they arose and worshipped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’


2 Then Hannah prayed and said:

‘My heart rejoices in the Lord;

    in the Lord my horn is lifted high.

My mouth boasts over my enemies,

    for I delight in your deliverance.

‘There is no one holy like the Lord;

    there is no one besides you;

    there is no Rock like our God.

‘Do not keep talking so proudly

    or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

    and by him deeds are weighed.

‘The bows of the warriors are broken,

    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

    but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

    but she who has had many sons pines away.

‘The Lord brings death and makes alive;

    he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

    he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust

    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

    and makes them inherit a throne of honour.

‘For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;

    on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,

    but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

‘It is not by strength that one prevails;

10     those who oppose the Lord will be broken.

The Most High will thunder from heaven;

    the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

‘He will give strength to his king

    and exalt the horn of his anointed.’





Hannah was feeling really low. She had no children, in a culture that placed women’s value and their security in their sons. Without a son, she was in a precarious position — if her husband died, for instance, she would be completely vulnerable with no protection or resources. And without a son, she was worthless in the eyes of her society, and even the rest of her family. Her one job was to bear children and raise a household, and so she was seen as a failure.


And, of course, her fellow wife was bullying her about it. So there was nowhere to get away from the shame and despair, as even in her own home, the taunts followed her. And when they went up to worship, despite her husband giving her two portions at the meal afterward, everyone knew that was just pity, an attempt to cover the fact that she would soon be alone in the world. 


Elkanah tried to help, and I think we should give him his due for continually reaching out and reminding Hannah that she was loved, even if she couldn’t feel it. However much she cried, he kept telling her that to him, she had value, no matter what society said, no matter what Peninnah said. He showed her his love by giving her extra portions at the festival feast, even when she didn’t feel like eating. He tried his best, however clumsy that might have been, and he did what we want people to do if someone they love is in poor mental health — reach out and offer support and love. Sometimes they can’t hear it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


Hannah, in her desperation, went into the temple to pray. At the time, the tradition was for people to pray aloud, but Hannah was so down that her voice wouldn’t even come out. She didn’t need anyone’s attention, though, except for God’s. She prayed and prayed and prayed, pouring out her heart and soul, her sadness and despair, to God, begging for God to change her circumstances and her life.


The priest, Eli, could not hear what she said to God assumed she must just be drunk. 


That’s when Hannah discovered that she still had some fight left in her after all. She’d laid her troubles at the feet of the Lord, and when confronted by someone maligning her, she found her voice. On behalf of distraught people everywhere, she corrected Eli’s wrong assumptions and reminded him that just because he couldn’t hear didn’t mean it wasn’t an earnest prayer. 


The story says that Hannah went home feeling better. She stopped crying and was able to eat. Her outlook improved, and then she did indeed receive what she had prayed for: a son, whom she called Samuel, and when he was weaned, probably around age 3 or so, she took him back to that very same temple and dedicated him to the Lord’s work, just as she had promised God she would.


Now, I want to be very clear about something important: prayer is not a cure-all for mental ill health. We should not read this story and say “if I just pray harder, God will make me feel better.” And we should definitely not read this story and then say to someone else “you should just pray more and God will cure your depression, anxiety, or eating disorder.” 


What I think we can say is that the kind of prayer where we bring our whole truth is important. Whether we have all the right words to say, or no sound comes out no matter how hard we try…even if we feel like a complete mess…no matter how deep our despair or how big or small our problem…whether we think God will care or not, and regardless of what other people think…fully laying our burdens before God can bring us some relief, or can show us a different perspective than we could see before, and can give us a sense that we are not as alone as we feel.


Prayer is not a substitute for health care. It is, however, crucial to our well-being.


It turns out that it is also crucial to the well-being of the whole world. Hannah cried out in the midst of her suffering, and God heard her — and the answer to her prayer was not only for her, but for everyone. She begged God to bring life into the barren wasteland, to change things around. And God listened, and in love addressed both her immediate need and also the larger situation of the whole people. 


The son Hannah prayed for would indeed change the world — first by upending the household, because no longer could Hannah be the target of scorn and bullying; and then by upending the religious system, as he spoke God’s word to the priest Eli and his corrupt sons; and then by upending the political system, because Samuel would be the last of the judges, the one who would anoint the first kings: Saul, and then David. It is Samuel’s work that will bring the nation together and make the rest of the biblical story possible. And all because Hannah took her burden to God, and laid it there, trusting God would hear even if no one else understood.


When Hannah brought Samuel back to live at the temple a few years later, she did not pray silently but instead sang a song that celebrated the bigger picture she had come to see. Hannah’s song, and later Mary’s magnificat, which is based on Hannah’s song, is a reminder to us all that we can and should demand that God use his power to turn things around, to bring life out of death, to reverse the injustice of this world and create a new system where no one is put down, bullied, devalued, or left out. After all, God is in the business of new life, and Hannah shows us that we, God’s people — however messy our own lives may be — have the power and the privilege to speak to God and ask for big things.


Obviously not every prayer from our own suffering will also be of national or cosmic significance. But Hannah had no way of knowing that her prayer would change the course of history, and neither do we. What we do know is this: God hears us no matter how feeble our voices, and loves us no matter the trouble we’re in. God cares about suffering, and God has a proven track record of changing lives. And sometimes one small thing leads to another, and another, until it’s actually quite a big thing. God may well answer one prayer in a way that sets a whole world-changing vision in motion. 


So don’t hold back, but bring your whole self to God — and see what God will do.


May it be so. Amen.







3 days left of my 30s


I was in my 30s the first time a friend moved away, rather than me being the one who moved away. I had moved a lot in my life (in fact I often use the number of addresses I've had as one of the things I say whenever I play "two truths and a lie"), and apparently had lived 30 years without ever registering that I was always the one leaving.

It was a very strange and surreal feeling, when friends decided to move -- and they only moved a several-hours-drive away, not even super ridiculously far. We still saw each other, just obviously less frequently than before. But going from a couple of times a week to maybe once every 6 weeks was a shock to the system.

A few years later, friends moved much much farther away, like practically into never-see-you-again territory, and I'm not sure I'm over that yet, honestly.

It's a weird thing, to always have been the one that left and then suddenly be the one left behind when people went on to new adventures. Even as I type that, it feels so silly, and at the same time weird to think about the two different forms of the word "left" in the one sentence. Perhaps that was part of the issue.

I don't know if I can articulate having learned anything from that, other than to notice that it was a new experience and to finally feel what others must have felt all the times we were the ones to move.

Then, of course, I made a huge move, and even already here I've been the one to go away and leave behind friends (friends made during my placement in Edinburgh...which feels a million miles away during a pandemic, even though it's only 2 hours on a train!). I am hoping to be in this place for a long time, but this is also a place where not many people seem to move away, so hopefully we can be together here for a good long while. Because I don't like goodbyes, really.


Together, by Carrie Williams Clifford (2 of 4 stanzas -- click through for the rest!)

O, come, Love, let us take a walk,
Down the Way-of-Life together;
Storms may come, but what care we,
If be fair or foul the weather.

When the sky overhead is blue,
Balmy, scented winds will after
Us, adown the valley blow
Haunting echoes of our laughter.




Saturday, October 17, 2020

the final four days of my 30s

 it's hard to believe that it's finally here -- the last few days of my current decade. 

This week, as you know, I received the delivery of the birthday present I got for myself: a candy apple red Kitchen Aid stand mixer, with an ice cream maker attachment and a pasta roller attachment. When I moved to Scotland 3.5 years ago, I couldn't bring my Kitchen Aid with me, because the electrical situation is different, so I sent it to my aunt -- but I kept the attachments. My former KitchenAid and its attachments had been my mother's.

Unpacking those attachments, the very last things to be unpacked from my move, 2.5 years after they arrived in this house, was so beautiful.

Having said that, during these last few years of my 30s, when I was sans mixer, I learned how to make lots of my favourite things by hand. I never would have thought I would make bagels by hand, because the dough is so stiff, but I do. I never would have thought I'd be hand-whipping cream, or making pasta, or any number of other things, without a stand mixer. 

Of course, one day I stood in the kitchen pining for bagels, and therefore a KitchenAid, and realised that obviously bagels used to be made without a mixer. Clearly people have been making bread, and whipped cream, and all sorts of things by hand for generations. And so I took out my mom's bagel recipe and just...figured it out. And they were delicious. 

In the kitchen I often feel connected to my mother -- it used to be because I used her things, but now, here, when I do not have her things anymore, sometimes it is because I use her recipes. Or perhaps, more accurately, because I carry on her tenuous relationship to the recipe. How fitting, then, that I should have learned in this decade to adapt them further to do it by hand.

I have put a lot of muscle into stirring and kneading these past few years, and I actually wonder, now that I have the mixer, if I will still knead by hand, because I like it. And maybe I will. But it'll be nice to get the hard mixing-in-all-the-flour part done first! Even though I now have a danish whisk (best hand tool for the kitchen that was ever invented), and I love it, there's something to be said for just standing back and pouring the flour through the spout and letting magic happen.

All of that to say...it is possible to make many of my old favourites without the equipment. But I'm still pretty excited to enter my next decade with the equipment anyway!

Today's poem is "When I am in the kitchen" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, and it ends with this:

Oh the past is too much with me in the kitchen,
where I open the vintage metal recipe box,
robin's egg blue in its interior, to uncover
the card for Waffles, writ in my father's hand
reaching out from the grave to guide me
from the beginning, "sift and mix dry ingredients"
with his note that this makes "3 waffles in our
large pan" and around that our an unbearable
round stain—of egg yolk or melted butter?—
that once defined a world.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

8 days...

With 8 days to go before I turn 40, I thought maybe I'd share something frivolous for a change (ha). It was in my mid-30s that I finally learned to wear flat shoes.

Until 2016, I only ever wore heels except for when running. I had (ok, still have) loads of shoes, and exactly zero of them were flats. Even my flip-flops were wedges! I hated flat shoes, how they felt, how they looked, everything about them.

In 2013 I traipsed around Europe for three weeks beginning on my birthday. I took two pairs of shoes -- one black and one brown. Both had square chunky heels, about 2.5 inches. I walked through cities, I hiked up the hill through the forest to Wartburg Castle, I walked along the Philosophenweg in Heidelberg, I climbed church towers, visited castles, got on and off trains....all in heels. I had a fabulous time.

In 2016 I was planning a trip to London with my dad, and then a trip to Scotland afterwards, including running the Edinburgh half marathon. I decided that 2 weeks in London (including a day trip to Stonehenge), with my dad who was about 8 inches taller than me with very long legs, necessitated flat shoes for a change, and I began a quest. I went to shoe stores, I ordered online, I sent things back, on and on...for months I wore different shoes around the church every day trying to figure out what would be best for a lot of walking and standing and general tourist-ing. I finally settled on a pair of shoes that I love love loved, and which I wore practically nonstop for well over a year. Of course as soon as I wanted to replace them, they were discontinued and I have had no luck finding something as amazing, but now I find that flat shoes are my preference, which I never would have expected ten years ago, or even five!

I still wear heels for most Sundays and for occasions, and I love them. But my collection of everyday shoes (still lined up beside the door, as they always have been!) is now entirely flats! It's a fascinating change from my previous fashion sense. Who knows, maybe one day I'll find heels that can carry me on my constant walking (since I don't drive), or maybe I'll just keep expanding the selection until I find the next favourite like those ones I found ind 2016. 

Of course, in 2020 the reality is that since I hardly ever leave the house, I basically don't wear shoes anymore. But one day, shoes will be a thing again!

Therefore, who doesn't love a poem about shoes? this is the middle of the poem:

...
The point is, shoes are important and they are a vehicle for all sorts of messages 
about life and death and love and morality and symbolism
so tell me what it means when the shoe fits
or doesn’t
tell me what it means when parts have to be cut off 
and blood drips from a shoe — 
tattle-tale of the wrong one, the wrong girl,
more fraud than trickster we can’t always mix our metaphors on this;
tell me what it means to be sensible and worthy
to have shoes that bring you back home with three clicks — 
an American fairy tale,I know, I know, tell me what it means 
to follow the path through the woods, 
leaving a trail or covering tracks, 
tell me what it means 
to walk down the stairs and 
keep the shoes on this time
or to go barefoot — 
done with it all, uncivilized perhaps, or post-civilized by now; 
we have seen what footwear can do 
...


I still love and miss these shoes. If you or anyone know know works for Merrell, please bring them back ASAP.

Monday, October 12, 2020

9 days!

 Ok, so....it seems that one of the things it took me until the very end of my 30s to learn is that I may not have actually learned 30 blog-worthy things in this decade. 

Sure, I've learned plenty. I don't mean that to sound arrogant. Rather, I mean...how does one distill thirty things and have them be meaningful enough to actually spend time writing or reading about? 

Not that I think all the things I've managed in the first 12 days or these last 9 will be actually worth spending time writing and reading about. Far from it. (wait for tomorrow's, haha)
In any case, let's call this...during this decade, I learned that sometimes in mid-project, I need a break. And this time I won't promise I'm going to make up the days, because we all know that's not how this is going to go, so I am not going to pretend. That in itself may be a big enough lesson to warrant its own blog post: that it can be okay not to pretend that the break never happened. 

It did happen. And we are in the midst of a global trauma when I have been trying to remind people that our capacity for productivity is not likely to be what it normally is, and it is okay to need a break, to care for ourselves, and to allow space for fallowness where once creativity bubbled. Sometimes we run out of words. And sometimes they will come back in a quick rush that doesn't last as long as we would like, and then we need a nap.

So...mark this past week of blog-silence as: the week I learned to take my own advice, not simply offer it to others.

The poem my friend Elsa sent me for yesterday is basically perfect for this lesson: "After a time" by Luci Shaw. It starts off like this:

After a time of writing

I stop to let my mind breathe.

This is necessary, otherwise

the thoughts turn gray and

drift.

And, well...yep. That's what happened. I'm hopefully back for this home stretch now, though! See you tomorrow.

this is what I look at when I need to let my mind breathe



Sunday, October 11, 2020

In-Between Times -- a sermon on the golden calf incident

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s

In-Between Times

Exodus 32.1-14 (NRSV)

11 October 2020, NL3-5, Becoming God’s People 5


Last week we heard about the Passover meal that the Israelites observed the night before they escaped from Egypt. After that night, they travelled to, and through, the sea, and then into the desert, with God leading them in a pillar of fire to light the way at night and a pillar of cloud to show the way in the daytime. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organise their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, verses 1-14, and I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.



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 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 mould, 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 before 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.

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 worshipped 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.’

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.”’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.





Remember back at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when God first spoke to Moses from the burning bush, and Moses was shy and retiring, and looked for any excuse he could think of to get out of going to confront Pharaoh? He said he didn’t think people would listen to him, he said Pharaoh would just brush him off, he said he stuttered and so couldn’t be a public speaker…


You’d hardly recognise that Moses now! Here he is on top of Mount Sinai, not just talking face to face with God, but actually arguing with God and winning the point—something he was never able to do with Pharaoh. Talk about building confidence! 


We don’t know for sure how long it’s been since God called Moses, but it’s been long enough for arguments with the king and the people, plagues, and finally escaping. The Bible tells us that it took three months for the people to get from crossing the sea to the foot of Mount Sinai. During that entire three months, they’ve been able to see God leading them in the pillar of fire and cloud, and God has fed them with manna and quail every single day in the desert. Before that, of course, they saw God split the sea so they could walk through, and protect them from the Egyptian army. Before that, they witnessed the plagues. So it’s been a while — a year? A few years? — of constantly knowing God’s nearness and depending on God for everything, from daily bread to protection from enemies to navigation assistance.


Then Moses went up the mountain to talk to God again, and unlike the first time, when there was smoke and thunder and earthquakes and lightning, this time it was quiet.


When Moses had been gone for 40 days — six weeks! that’s half as long as they’d been traveling — they couldn’t take it anymore. They were so used to God’s constant presence, they didn’t know what to do when it was quiet. Where is God, if we can’t see the pillar of cloud or hear the thunder? When we aren’t having a Big Spiritual Experience, or when we are away from our religious spaces and rituals that remind us of God’s presence, where is God in the everyday boring bits of life? 


It can feel as if God has abandoned us, when we come down from one of those spiritual mountaintop experiences and then have to go about regular life. Of course God had not left the Israelites alone, and God does not leave us…but that feeling that maybe God wasn’t paying attention anymore must have been strong, because the quietness was so different than how they had experienced God so far. 


Is God allowed to be present differently? Or only in the one way we know and expect, and if God doesn’t show up like that, we’ll decide to abandon the whole enterprise?


The Israelites seem to have chosen the latter. They could not figure out how to be faithful in this time in-between the big revelations. For them, it was all-or-nothing: either God had to be visibly present, displaying power, all the time, or else God wasn’t worth following. So they decided to fill that gap with a god they could see, who would never disappear or be cloaked in mystery or stay silent for too long. This god they create will always be immediately available to them, and would definitely not be free to take a different form or work in any different way. He would be the same forever, predictable, just the way they liked it.


It’s very easy to see how this happens, I think. Sure, we look back now and wonder how they could have fallen so quickly into this trap of making a statue, but if we’re completely honest, we do the same. We’d like God to be predictable, and always immediately available in the ways we prefer, and never silent. And when we’re in those long stretches of life when God’s presence is less obvious, we slip easily into filling the gap with something else instead. It’s like the grown up version of the teenagers who party while the parents are out of town. Sure, we don’t make a golden calf anymore, but the fact that our idols are less tangible doesn’t make them any less dangerous.


The people asked Aaron to create a god who would meet their needs and wants, that would make them happy right now…and isn’t that often what we do, too? The instant gratification we get from, say, our beloved traditions…or our possessions…or our work…or even our relationships…or those conspiracy theories that fill the internet and the headlines…all of those can easily become idols that take the place of the true God, who does not exist merely to serve our every desire. 


So many stories of God’s people throughout history are about God making a promise, and then the people faltering in their trust and so taking matters into their own hands, trying to move God’s timeline along. At Mount Sinai we see that they take worship into their own hands, defaulting to the traditions they knew from pagan Egypt, making something that would tide them over until the next big epiphany. Essentially, they were told what God’s love language is, and they ignored that and did what made them feel good instead. It’s an easy trap to fall into — in our human relationships and even more so in our relationship with the Holy.


Part of becoming God’s people is learning how to be faithful to God’s way, to live and worship and speak God’s love language, even when we can’t actually see or even sense God with us, and even if it isn’t the thing that would make us most comfortable. We know that God is everywhere present. We know that God is faithful. The question is how we live as if those things are true in between the big moments when our spirits soar and our hearts are filled with peace. Being faithful when we can see the pillar of cloud and fire in front of us is one thing…but what about when it feels like we’re on our own in the desert?


As we wait in the wilderness of pandemic restrictions right now…

As we wait in the wilderness of political upheaval right now…

As we wait in the wilderness of grief and uncertainty right now…

What idols tempt us?


Perhaps it’s the temptation to find someone to blame — whether it’s another country, or a political leader or party, or the neighbours who don’t follow the rules.


Perhaps it’s the temptation to romanticise “normal” and focus all our energy on getting back to it, forgetting that normal also meant destruction of the environment, overlooking inequality, and shrugging our shoulders at poverty and at underfunding of health and social care.


Perhaps it’s the temptation to insist on the traditions that have formed us, whether or not they lead the next generation toward God.


Perhaps it’s more tangible than that — maybe some of us have given in to overspending on online shopping, or gambling, or drinking, as a way to fill the emptiness of the days.


Whatever idols have crept in to this in-between time, and however seductive they seem, however happy they seem to make us in the moment, I promise they are not up to the ultimate task.


As we join the Israelites in being formed as God’s people, both as individuals and as a community, we would do well to remember that we do not get to control how God appears to us, when or where God acts or doesn’t act, or who God calls. Our job is to keep our eyes and hearts open, to look for God’s presence and action everywhere, not to insist that God will always be one way or in one place. When we begin to believe that God should be predictable and controllable, serving our happiness first, we have made an idol that cannot save us. God cannot be contained in our images or in our ideologies, nor tamed for our consumption or pleasure.


Instead, God asks us to trust. God demands that we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly. God commands us to love our neighbour and our enemy, whether we can see them or not. God asks us to use the gifts and resources we have been given, not to build a monument for our comfort,  but to build up the kingdom of God. And God places us in community, calls us the Body of Christ, so we can support each other, remind each other of the stories of God’s power, and encourage each other to look for God’s presence, even in the everyday. 


May it be so. Amen.







Notes: 

https://churchanew.org/brueggemann/the-golden-calf-and-2020?fbclid=IwAR0ssk6sw7LKJWsLCDhkqQXooyFLzpEcN28jkEEcYondqtDRsTvcuRSr5Lc