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Idols in our Pockets

“…Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless.” 1 Samuel 12:20b-21

Idolatry doesn’t have to be explicit. In fact, it normally isn’t. When we think of “idol worship” we tend to picture people bowing before an elaborate shrine with some small statue of a foreign god at the center. In a way, this picture of idolatry makes sense. Christians have (rightfully so!) gained their understanding of idol worship from the Old Testament. In Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12, we read that Israel turned to and trusted a golden calf for their prosperity and salvation. 1 Samuel 7 tells us that the Israelites were worshipping “Baals and Ashtoreths,” which were physical representations of Canaanite deities. In 2 Kings 23, we even read that King Solomon of Israel built places of worship to multiple foreign gods in the heart of the Promised Land itself.

An Asherah Pole was a physical representation of foreign goddess, Asherah.

When surveying the Old Testament stories of idol worship, we modern, Western Christians may be tempted to think that we have successfully avoided such sinful practices. I cannot name a single Christian who has erected a stone altar on the side of a mountain in the wilderness and travels there to offer praise and sacrifice to a foreign god. But just because the form of idolatry may look different, it does not mean that we have kept idolatry at bay. This ancient world with all of its shrines and idols and deities seems so distant from our modern sensibilities. But is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his book You Are What You Love, lays out a kind of thought experiment that has been haunting me lately. He says to imagine an alien ethnographer who is sent to Earth to study human culture and to take the findings back to its home planet. Imagine that this alien gets beamed down to your kitchen table one morning while you are eating your breakfast. The alien sees you, sitting there eating and hunched over a tiny glowing rectangle. The alien, watching intently for nearly half an hour, observes that this glowing box is clearly important to you because the amount of time you spend focused on it as opposed to your spouse or your food or anything else in the room is excessive. The alien concludes that this small, bright rectangle must be an object of religious devotion—a kind of idol that humankind spends many hours each day worshipping.

When I read Smith’s thought experiment, I was immediately stung with conviction. How many times have I mindlessly scrolled through a feed instead of engaging with my family or reflecting on my day? How many times has my iPhone kept me from stewarding my daily responsibilities as a student, friend, husband, and father?  More importantly, how many times have screens kept me from communing with the one true God, the One who is always inviting us into deeper relationship with Him? In our secularized context, where the temptation to worship other gods and bow down to false idols seems so distant, we need to be taking an account of our lives and asking ourselves if we have simply erected new, shinier idols in their place.

At its most basic level, idolatry is the continual engagement with lesser realities that keep us from the worship of and communion with God. As our technological world continues to fashion together objects that are more attractive, more addictive, and more all-consuming of our time and devotion, we as Christians must reflect on our use of these objects so that we can navigate away from idolatry and towards deep friendship with God.

Of course, technology such as smartphones, laptops, smart watches, tablets, and televisions are not the only modern day idols that we have erected in our lives. An idol is simply something that captures your heart that is not God Himself. However, it seems to me that technology, with built in features that are explicitly designed to clamor for our attention and cause addiction, pose a very immediate and grave threat to our spiritual health both as individuals and as body of believers. This is because technology’s very nature is to keep us hopelessly unreflective through endless and addictive distraction.

This is a serious problem for Christians because Scripture teaches that the remedy for idolatry in our lives is a kind of deep remembering of who God is and what He has done on our behalf. By “remember” I do not simply mean a kind of cognitive act where we dust off some old memories, but a kind of engagement with God’s story and our place in it that brings us into deeper communion with Him. This is what worship is. To keep idolatry far from our lives, God calls us to participate in everyday practices that bring about a kind of remembering that anchors our hearts in Him. Communion, Sabbath keeping, prayer, shared meals with fellow believers, praising God through song, and so much more all constitute daily and weekly practices that pull us into remembrance of who God is and what He has done. Through these practices of remembrance, our identities are more fully formed by God and His story as opposed to the false idols of this world.

Are you beginning to see the insidious problem that technology presents? In 2018, all of us have not only a powerful potential idol in our pockets, but this “potential idol” also makes it nearly impossible to engage in the necessary practices that will heal us of our idolatry. In other words, our smartphones not only act as a kind of temporary distraction from God, but their very nature causes them to break in and interrupt our attempts at remembering who God is.  I cannot tell you how many times my phone has kept me from entering into a full posture of worship of God. It happens every day. I attempt to enter into a time of scripture reading and prayer, and I hear my phone buzz or ‘ding’ and I am distracted. Once I am distracted, I pick up my phone and begin to scroll until my attention is no longer on God but on some political Facebook post that I disagree with or a highlight video of my favorite sports team. Now, when I try to re-engage God in prayer, the thoughts of my heart are scattered and are in conflict with one another. Before I know it, I am late for work or class and I have to run out the door.

I did not realize that technology represented an idol in my life until, ironically, I left my phone in the other room one morning and spent some time with God in prayer and in His Word. I was reading through 1 Samuel 12 when Samuel is warning the people against idolatry and he says to “…not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless” (v.20b-21). It struck me in this moment that my phone was an “idol” in the proper sense of the word. It is not only “useless” to “profit” or “save” me, but it actually keeps me from following Christ with all of my heart. I always knew that I spent too much time looking at screens, and I have been constantly trying to put boundaries in place to spend less time doing so; however, it wasn’t until in this moment reading Samuel’s words that I realized that I too was worshipping a false god. The problem because spiritually real to me.

Maybe you don’t have this same tenuous relationship with technology that I describe. If not, praise the Lord and take what I share as a cautionary tale and a reminder to evaluate your life to see what might be keeping you from deeper friendship with God. My hunch is, however, that many of us struggle with this to a certain extent. Whenever I walk into a Starbucks or into a classroom or even to a room full of close friends I see people staring at their screens and not at one another (I am one of them). If we struggle to look up from our phones when we are around friends, how much more are we looking at them in private?

As brothers and sisters, let us be bold and creative in figuring out ways to navigate the terrain of this modern, technological world and know that the glow of this world is but a faint flicker compared to the illuminating glory of the One who calls us to Himself.

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Facing Jericho

And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.   Joshua 5:15 ESV

If you are familiar with often recited Bible stories, then you might be familiar with the story about Joshua defeating Jericho.  Jericho was a city surrounded by walls, and Joshua was the leader of God’s people and the plan was for the army to walk around the city until the walls fell leading to victory for Joshua and his people. However, this strange plan was not just to walk around once, but to walk around the city once per day, for six days. On the seventh day, the Israelite army would march around Jericho seven times followed by seven priests blowing seven rams’ horns until the walls came crashing down and Israel could claim victory. This unusual method separates this story from most Old Testament stories of war.

Before Joshua even gets to Jericho, however, he has an even more interesting encounter. In Joshua 5:13 we notice this language: “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked.”

If you have ever had a big moment coming right around the corner— the start of a new job, a big move, a tough decision, an important day at work— then you have been where Joshua is in this moment. Joshua knows that the conquering of Jericho is ahead because God has promised the Israelites the land, but he isn’t quite there yet. All he can do is think about what is to come and see Jericho in the distance.

When I am in this place before something important, all the possibilities at hand tend to crowd my mind. Maybe you do the same thing, maybe you ignore preparing for the big day that is coming, or maybe you plan and plan to make sure nothing will go wrong. In chapter 5 we see that when Joshua is in this very position, he has an encounter with a messenger from the Lord.

 

When Joshua looks up, he sees a man standing before him. Joshua asks the man if he is on their side or the enemies’ side. The man responds that he is neither, but he is a commander of the Lord- Yahweh’s army. Joshua then falls on his face and worships and asks, “What does my Lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b). This is already very different from my natural reaction to looming, important, and tense days ahead. Joshua encounters a member of Yahweh’s army, worships, and asks how he, the leader of his own army, can serve his Lord. The best part of this story, in my opinion, is the commander’s response.

“‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).

The commander of the Lord’s army does not start off by giving Joshua the grand plan on how to face his enemies and have victory at Jericho. The commander does not give Joshua a pump up speech, nor does he bully Joshua into doing a good job. In a time of heavy stress, the commander tells Joshua that this moment is holy. Not only is this place holy, but Joshua is asked to take his shoes off and sit awhile.

Maybe this command is familiar to you. Earlier in the story of God’s people, Moses is also told to do the same thing when he finds himself standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). We are told that an angel of the LORD (Yahweh) meets Moses in a burning bush, and when Moses turns aside to see the bush, he is told to take off his sandals. This seems to be a common way that God invites His people to just listen and take a moment in His presence.

When Joshua takes his sandals off, the chapter ends. The next chapter picks up describing how Jericho is shut up inside and out. Then the Lord gives Joshua the seemingly silly plan to walk around the city for days. Even though this plan of attack seems strange, as readers who know Joshua’s recent encounter with God, we can be confident in the plan. We see that Joshua is not acting of his own strength or his own thought; rather, Joshua leads God’s people with the plan God gives him.

Later in the story we read that the plan succeeds. God had a plan, and he used Joshua’s leadership to carry out the plan. We see in Joshua that Christian leadership is full of difficult choices and, at times, large responsibilities. However, we also see in Joshua that Christian leadership begins in our devotion to God. Christian leadership begins when believers submit to God, trusting in God’s plan and in God’s ways. Joshua worships before the victory ever happens at Jericho.

This week think about these questions: What Jericho are you facing? What does it look like for you to “take off your sandals” and notice the holiness of where God has you? How can you praise God this week before you see a victory? Sitting with God reminds us that he is a God we can trust. He is the I AM and he calls us to look up, take off our sandals, and know that where we are standing is holy ground— not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor