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Praying With One Eye Open

 You shall not make for yourself an idol,.. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God… Exodus 20:4a,5a,b

The book of Exodus records Moses’ visits with God on Mount Sinai. On one of those visits, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments warns against making idols for ourselves because God is a jealous God. I always found this particular commandment troubling because of the description of God as jealous. Jealousy seems too petty for an all-powerful, all-loving God. I remember jealousy as the product of teenage hormones running wild, combined with insecurity and immaturity. Jealousy was ugly, hurtful, and certainly not befitting of God. Besides, what could possibly make God jealous of us?

Based on my nebulous experiences of God over the years, I think using the contemporary understanding of jealousy is misleading. God’s jealousy, in part, has to do with our free will. No one wants love forced upon them, nor does anyone want to be loved because another feels sorry for or obligated to love him or her. That is charity, not love. Deep love is always offered but never imposed. We can accept God’s love or not. God’s love for us does not diminish because we refuse to acknowledge or reciprocate it. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) illustrates the point well. The younger son turns away from his father, but the father’s love for his wayward son never wanes. God does not turn from us like a jealous, spurned lover; rather, we miss God’s reaching out to us because we are focused elsewhere.

God is described as jealous because our experience of God is fickle. We are so wrapped up in our earthly existence that encounters with God are difficult to recognize. Such experiences are usually subtle and easily missed when we are not paying attention. God seldom comes to us as a thunderbolt, but as the wind whispering gently through the trees or a hummingbird visiting the honeysuckle. Paying attention to God and seeking God’s presence is difficult with our endless opportunities for distraction. Our modern-day idols are not carved images of animals or pagan gods, but are our addictions, smart phones, social media, and television – things that keep us out of a deep experience with the present moment. Our seductive idols draw our attention away from rich encounters with loved ones, including our experiences of God’s love. God is not jealous because we spend so much time with the objects of our obsessions. Rather, God hurts because our obsessions keep us from noticing God’s nearness, which hurts us. God hurts for us, not because of us. It is not so much God’s heart that breaks, but ours that would break if we knew what we were giving up for the temporary high of an idolatrous encounter. There is no permanence or security in our distractions, only a diversion from what matters most.

Lest this sound like a holier-than-thou, guilt-imposing diatribe, I confess my own on-going tendency toward diversion from the present moment. I know I cannot experience God anywhere or anytime other than right here and right now, but I struggle mightily with sincerely seeking God on a more than infrequent basis. That is part of our human nature and not cause for guilt or self-deprecation. Rather, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth. God waits patiently for us, as did the prodigal’s father, and in the context of eternity, there is no particular rush. Our very human obligations prevent us from focusing on God in every waking moment, anyway. It is comforting to know, however, that God is accessible should we need a divine encounter.

Praying with one eye open is a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. When we close both eyes to pray, even for a short time, we make ourselves uncomfortably vulnerable – danger could approach that we would not see. We could miss something we want to see – like praying in front of a televised sporting event. Someone might notice and think less of us. Our addiction to earthly affairs causes us to keep an eye open, even though we know we cannot fully give ourselves over to God without loosening the grip our material interests hold over us. God speaks most often in silence and darkness. God’s still small voice cannot be heard over the commotion of our lives, nor will God’s presence draw our attention away from Facebook. God knows we need to turn away from our idols on occasion, close both eyes, and rest in the loving presence of the Divine.

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Life Worship Notes—January 30, 2104 

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments”  Exodus 20:4-6

The first of the Ten Commandments is to have no other Gods before our God. Last week I speculated that the wording of that commandment sounds as if there may be more Gods than one. In the second commandment, God admits to being a “jealous God,” and extols us not to make or worship idols. In Old Testament days, it was a common practice to make and worship various idols. Some were made of gold, others of stone, wood or other materials available at the time. The practice always brought the ire of God.

I wonder what God thinks about some of our current religious and spiritual practices. I often worship in the presence of items like crosses, candles, incense, pictures, and other things of spiritual significance to me. Are those idols under the second commandment? How about praying the rosary, or praying to the saints? In my church, there are no prayers or worship directed to beings other than God; but when we kneel at the altar and gaze up at the cross, are we worshipping the object of the cross or acknowledging the God who died there for us?

I suspect violations of the second commandment have more to do with the focus of our worship, instead of the objects used to help focus our worship. The true idols of today are those objects that compete with God for our faith, attention, and devotion. Television, money, work, the desire for advancement—many things can become the primary focus in our lives, thus attaining “idol” status. When we desire anything more than that which enhances our relationship with God, our faith and trust are misplaced. A promotion at work might temporarily boost our ego or our checkbook, but it will do nothing towards spreading God’s good news, or growing closer to the giver of all things in life. God is the source of our being, not our employer. The second commandment says God is a jealous God. While it is difficult for me to picture God succumbing to a human type of jealousy, it is easy for me to believe God wants what is in our best interest. Certainly, it is best for us to focus our worship on the one, true God, from where unfailing love for us flows.

Come home to church this Sunday. Leave your idols at home…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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