Jesus said: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended …” John 20:17.
I was going through my contact list on my phone, determined it was time to clean it up a bit. Then I came across my Dad’s contact information …
On Sunday we are going to hear an extended passage from the Christian Testament – Act 17:16-34. It’s one of the more famous “sermons”, delivered in Athens by Paul who was recovering from a paroxysm as a result of being surrounded by idols. Some Christians point to this episode as an example of how evangelism ought to be. At first glance it certainly appears as if Paul gets over his anger and finds a way to engage his audience.
Are they my “idols”, or my “peers”? Writer and playwright Monica Byrne recalls a moment when she realized that her idols in her field of interest were standing in the way of her becoming all that she could be. She was taking a writing workshop and had brought two pieces to her instructor during one of their meetings together. One was Monica’s own; the other was by a famous author Monica placed on a pedestal. “My story was inspired by hers,” Monica explained to her instructor. “Her story is so amazing. I can’t tell you exactly what she’s doing, I just wish I could do it, too.”
The lawn mower had been starting very hard last summer and into the fall. I need to bring that mower in before next summer and have someone tune it up for me, I thought to myself. That was probably the biggest difference between my Dad and me … Dad could fix anything. He was a consummate “tuner-upper”. I always wished I could be like that, but I couldn’t hammer a nail straight if my life depended on it. And as far as “tuning up” a lawnmower was concerned … Forget it.
The statues in Athens were awash in the currents of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Stoicism is characterized by the mastery of one’s emotions. “Reason” – that was the catchphrase for Stoics. To bring one’s will in alignment with nature is to attain the “virtuous life”. Paul’s outburst when he first encounters the scene in Athens made the Stoics think of him as a “babbler” (more about that word on Sunday …). But for Paul – the Pharisaical Jew who was conditioned in every cell in his body not to represent the divine with any image – in stone, in wood, or any other medium – that the Athenians had surrounded themselves with such things was incomprehensible. It made absolutely no sense at all to Paul. And so … the debate was on.
Just what does an “idol” do to us? Is it easy to recognize when we fall under their spell? The pinnacle of my father’s ability to tune up and fix things took a sudden and dramatic turn just a week or two before he died. He revealed something to me that unraveled an assumption I had held about him for 62 years.
Her instructor looked her square in the eyes after reading the two pieces Monica had brought with her – the one she had written herself, and the one Monica’s idol had written. “I think yours is better.” Monica was stunned. Wait … What?! The “idol” first listed, and then was suddenly pushed off its pinnacle. There was still plenty to be respectful of, but Monica found herself not having to strain nearly as much to see or appreciate her “idol”. In fact, with a little more time, she came to see those “idols” as peers – highly respected for sure, but not “gods”.
“You know, Mark,” Dad said to me, looking right at me, “there was hardly any project I began that I knew how it was going to end.” A pause … Wait … WHAT ?! I came close to experiencing a paroxysm. “You mean,” I said to him, “before you took something apart, you weren’t sure what you were going to do, or how you would put it back together?” The frail and dying 90-year-old looked at me, a telling gleam in his eye, and nodded.
“You know,” proclaimed Paul to the Athenians¸ “I can see you are very religious. The “god” you are seeking after doesn’t live in these stones … In fact, God lives in you. Our living, moving and being – it’s all in God …” Wait … WHAT ?! That was shocking news! And now it wasn’t Paul who was babbling. Some folks were immediately relieved, and inspired to believe in the risen Christ Paul was teaching about. Some thought it too good to be true. Some were just more comfortable with their idols – their own assumptions – to make any change in their behavior.
Idols tie us down and limit our horizons. God – in whatever ways we truly experience the divine – sets us free and opens our eyes to new possibilities.
Monica Byrne just had her first book published on May 20.
The other day – a first for me – I pulled the spark plug on the lawnmower.
Dad’s love and influence on my life does not depend on him being in my “Contacts” on my phone. I did cry a bit when I hit “delete”; but Dad is no more living in my list of “Contacts” than God would be residing in a rock, no matter how polished. You can love without idolizing … and maybe our ways of doing “religion” can become the most dangerous idols of all.
 Monica Byrne: Idols and Peers. http://www.glimmertrain.com/b88byrne.html.
 The Girl in the Road. More info at http://www.monicabyrne.org/books.html