Lent and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

I am still chewing on C.J. Thompson’s sermon from last night’s Lenten mid-week service. In it he invited us to examine our lives this season in an effort to see if there were any golden calves in the way of our relationship with God that needed to be ground up. It is a question that is worth pondering not only during Lent, but each day.

He was referencing the text from Deuteronomy 9:13-21 that tells the story of Moses coming down from the mountain, tablets of law in his hands, to discover the people dancing around and worshipping a golden calf. The last part of the text says, “Then I (Moses) took the sinful thing you had made, the calf, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it thoroughly, until it was reduced to dust; and I threw the dust of it into the stream that runs down the mountain.”

As the text was being read, I marveled at the violence of the verbs: burning, crushing, grinding, throwing. This golden calf is such a danger, such an offense, that Moses wants to obliterate it. One also gets the sense that Moses is afraid if the slightest remnant of the thing remains, someone might be tempted to scoop up even the dust of it and set it on an altar.

It was while I was reflecting on this violent text that C.J. made the connection I wish he had not made, turning it from a curiosity, an odd text for those of us who like to think of ourselves as biblical scholars to haggle over, and making it instead deeply personal. No longer was it a golden calf that those Israelites bowed to long ago; now it was my own golden calf, my own attempts to seat someone other than God on the altar of my life.

As I reflected, I saw traces of gold everywhere. The first thing I look at most mornings these days is the state of my retirement account, and find it determining my mood, praying my morning prayers to the gods of money and security. I rushed by my daughter’s bedroom door last night in a hurry to get to my favorite television show, completely ignoring her requests for “one more story,” telling myself that I was tired and I deserved some peace and rest, bowing ever so deeply to my golden self. Our presbytery is conducting a series of discussions leading up to what could be a controversial vote, and I find myself joining in the caricatures of those who disagree with me, silently wishing that they would just stop talking, believing in my hubris that my opinion is the only correct one on the matter, doing obeisance to the gods of pride and perspective. I could go on. The golden calves are numerous, crowding out the path, limiting my vision, burying my faith.

Just when I am ready to give up on the idea that I can ever clear out all these shiny cows, I am reminded by the final image of what I tend to forget: I cannot do this work on my own. The waters running down from the mountain, into which Moses throws the dust of the idol, symbolize for me the waters of baptism, in which God takes me as I am and washes me. It is God who sets me on the path. It is God, in the Crucified One, Jesus Christ, who comes to me, to us, right in the midst of our idolatry and makes a way where there was no way. The Lenten journey is not ultimately about what we do or don’t do; it is about what God longs to do in us and through us.

Lent is a time, I believe, when we are invited to practice disciplines that open us to the grace of God; a grace which pours down off the mountain, washing up all that hinders our walk, and renewing our faith. Perhaps the best I can do is invite God to take all those golden calves and burn/crush/grind/throw/wash them, and me.

There was a lot to chew on last night, and you can probably tell I am still chewing. What do you think? How would you respond to the invitation to address all those golden calves in your life?


2 thoughts on “Lent and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

  1. As I was walking this morning, pondering the “golden calf of the moment,” I rounded a corner and saw the moon – huge, low, orange beautiful. And then all of a sudden I heard the birds singing, and noticed the trees starting to bloom, and I had to just praise God for all the awesome things that He does. And I was struck by the fact that in spite of all the incredible things God does in the world, he still cares about me. Even when I can hardly clear the noise and clutter of the distractions in my world away to focus on Him. That is humbling. And makes me want to work harder to walk with Him.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Carol. I’m glad you were able to sense and affirm God’s deep and abiding care for you. Without that grounding, we would never have the strength to examine our lives and identify those golden calves that need grinding up.

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