“Living Tradition or Golden Calf?” by Deborah Sokolove

11_Recommitment_Cover9 October 2011

The 17th Sunday After Pentecost


For the last few weeks, our readings from the Hebrew scriptures have kept us walking around in the Sinai desert with the Israelites. Like them, we have been wondering how to live in a strange and often terrifying place, where rules that we used to be able to take for granted no longer seem to apply. How shall we live when the economy is unpredictable? How shall we live when our political system is in gridlock? How shall we live when so many of our brothers and sisters suffer poverty, homelessness, abuse, violence, war, and oppression? How shall we live when death and disease seem to lurk around every corner?


I don’t want to be flip, but Paul seems to have given us the answer in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians. He writes,


Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, however, takes place long before Paul. Moses has been up on the mountain communing with God for a very long time. So long, in fact, that the people were starting to think that both God and Moses have abandoned them there, out in the wilderness at the foot of the mountain. So they ask (or maybe demand) that Aaron, Moses’ brother, supply a new god (or gods, the Hebrew is ambiguous) to help them get out of the mess they are in. After all, they are used to the Egyptian system, which has a multitude of gods. With so many possibilities, they must have thought, if one is unresponsive, just pick another.


There is no record of Aaron arguing, or even having any hesitation with complying. He just takes all their gold and silver jewelry, melts it down, and casts it into the shape of a calf. The text makes no effort to explain why he chose that form, but when it was ready, Aaron doesn’t say it is one of the familiar gods from Egypt, or that it is some new, previously unheard of god. Instead, he proclaims that this statue is the very God who brought them out of Egypt, the one that Moses is talking with up on the mountain. So the people had a feast and worshipped that fake, a golden calf that was standing in for God.


Amy Gray, "Sacred Cows," 2011, gold leaf and paint on woodLately, I’ve been thinking a lot about golden calves. In fact, I’ve brought one with me, along with what the artist, Amy Gray, refers to as rather placid sacred cows. If you look closely, you will see that the calf looks a bit anxious, standing there alone, in the middle panel of the triptych. Meanwhile the more natural-looking cows buddy-up together, two-by-two in the outer panels, or stroll leisurely along in the background, completely ignoring that strange-looking creature in the center.


The whole scene is strange, actually. The lighting is weird, coming from nowhere and everywhere. Everything is outlined in red, like some kind of radioactive glow. These strange parabolic arcs reach upward, as if an alien being had started drawing blood-tinged gothic arches from the land into the darkening sky. And even though I don’t see any celebrating Israelites, I think that God might be hiding in the ominous clouds, so like the ones that covered the mountain at Sinai.


The more I look at that painting, though, the more I identify with that golden calf. After all, sometimes I do mistake myself for God. More often, I’m just wondering how to live in a landscape that looks more than a little ominous, never quite fitting in with the rest of the herd.


One of the things that help me get over myself is writing a weekly report to Peter, who is the designated spiritual companion for my mission group. This is one of the classic spiritual disciplines, or practices, we Seekers have inherited from Church of the Saviour. Like daily prayer, scripture reading, and journaling, some of us are more faithful to this practice than are others. For me, it is life-giving, a way to share my fears and failings, as well as my successes and celebrations, with at least one other person who will hold them in trust and pray for my well-being.


Many years ago, I learned from Kate to review my reports from the previous year as part of my discernment regarding recommitment. I’ve been reviewing do that lately, and I’d like to read a few excerpts to you. I hope that speaking them aloud will help me feel less like a lost, artificial calf, and more like one of you.


July 28, 2010: With only two days before my scheduled surgery, my emotions are all over the place. I am not sleeping well, but often use the wakeful, pre-dawn hours to write in my journal. One awareness that I have come to is that much of the fear is tied to ego-death, rather than literal death. I am afraid of the loss of control, of autonomy, of the intellectual pursuits with which I fill my time and attention. Moving towards surgery is a progressive letting go of all inessentials, of everything that is not immediately relevant to life and physical healing. I feel that I am embarking on a journey into the unknown and unknowable, and I am unable to make any plans for “after.” While I am confident that the doctors know what they are doing, and that the surgery itself will go pretty much as planned, I am afraid of the pain that will take over my life in the hours and days beyond. I worry about how I will manage the long and difficult days of recovery without succumbing to depression or doing something that will re-injure the hidden, internal parts that heal slowly. When I am asked what I will want to eat or do or read after the surgery, it is as if my mind hits a blank wall, and I can only weep.


But I do not dwell in that dark and fearful place, most of the time. . . . I have been heartened by the many expressions of love and caring, the many promises to pray, that have come my way from friends, family, Seekers, colleagues, and students. It is a wonderful thing to know that monks in Maine and Baptists in southern California and Methodists in upstate New York as well as Seekers and Wesley folk are all praying for my healing, as though the Body of Christ were unmarked by the scandal of denominational division . . . .At the deepest level, I feel a calm certainty that all will be well no matter what happens, even as the emotional storms whip up waves of fear and sadness on the surface


September 8, 2010: Despite my best intentions to take it easy these first few weeks back at work, I confess that I seem to be fully immersed in teaching, meetings, class preparations, counseling students, and all the other activities that have filled my life for the last few years. Even the long weekend wasn’t really down-time, as I spent a good portion of it working on my lecture notes for last night’s class. I did sleep most of Sunday afternoon, but found myself resenting the “wasted” time because I had wanted to get into the studio. Too often, if I am not at the office during work hours, it is because I have yet another doctor appointment, rather than resting or doing something restorative. I am often grumpy and out of sorts, feeling like it’s been a very long time since I’ve done anything that is just, plain fun.


November 3, 2010: I confess that I am sitting in front of this blank screen, having no idea what to confess, for what to be thankful, or for whom to pray.  . . . I feel very confused about what, if anything, I am called to do that is different from what I have been doing. I want to believe that the work I do as an artist and teacher are important in their own right, that this work really does serve Christ as much as does directly healing the sick and feeding the poor, but, once again, I am filled with questions and self-doubt. How does my very non-worldly art work to stop tyranny and oppression, let alone poverty and disease? I know the answers in my heart, but still, I am filled with confusion.


January 12, 2011: I confess that I am so dependent on my technological connections that I hardly know how to function when they do not work as I expect them to. It is not that I cannot write by hand, although . . . [it is often] difficult and painful. The bigger issue is how cut-off I feel when I am unable to read or respond to email virtually immediately. There is no use lamenting an earlier time when this was not so – the world that I live and operate in makes it virtually impossible to be otherwise, since other people, also, expect that I will respond to emails and telephone calls in a timely fashion. But I do sense that I get more than a little fragmented when I am so connected. I noticed that when I was on the plane, and therefore legitimately unreachable, I was able to focus much more intensely on what I was reading. Indeed, I managed to read two books that have been waiting for my attention for months. There is a lesson in that, somewhere.


February 16, 2011, at Rehoboth Beach: Since I’ve spent a good part of each day writing, it’s hard to think about writing a spiritual report as well.  . . . Sometimes I struggle to actually start writing, allowing myself to be distracted by email or web-surfing, but on average I’ve written over 1000 words every day,


April 13, 2011: On the eve of my 64th birthday, I confess that this year . . . I am feeling the weight of my age. This seems a bit odd and contradictory, because at the purely physical level I am feeling better than ever. I am objectively stronger, thanks to my training regimen, than I was at this time last year. And by most measures, I am healthier than ever, as well.  . . . And for all this I am incredibly grateful and astonished.

Nevertheless, I think that the cancer last summer affected me more deeply than I am generally willing to admit. While I have never counted on living into my 80s or 90s, since both my parents died relatively young, I have not had to face my own mortality in quite such an immediate way. Now, I find myself wondering how long this good health will last; I see myself looking old and tired a lot of the time; I ask myself how many more good years I can reasonably expect to have. Of course, I get no answers, except that it is all up to God.


July 13, 2011: I confess, today, my impatience, my unwillingness to wait for answers, for results, for any indication that what I do each day makes any difference to anyone. Yes, I am caught (again!) in that question of how the work which fills me with joy and for which I have some talent and skill is also a genuine response to the world’s deep need.  . . . I was reminded of the scriptural verse, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” For, of course, that is what I do, or try to do — I help people to see.


August 24, 2011: I confess that I seem to be moving so quickly today that it is not clear if I am coasting easily downhill or merely skating over what may turn out to be thin ice. It’s more than a bit too easy to see dark omens in yesterday’s earthquake, to think in biblical terms of divine wrath at a nation gone terribly wrong. . . .


September 21, 2011: The hours and days continue to slip away with good work, good conversations, intense teaching, and all the matters, both trivial and important, that make up daily life. A printmaking workshop on Saturday and John’s poetry class on Tuesday evenings are unaccustomed excursions into thinking about and doing art in new ways, opening up my thinking and my imagination. I don’t really have time for these extra-curricular activities, but I am also beginning to realize that I don’t have time to not do them, either.


The question I began with this morning is “how shall we live?” But, as these notes from my spiritual reports reveal, we can only answer the question of how to live one person at a time. The community can give us pointers, ideas, notions, but ultimately each of us is called to live in authentic response to the particular gifts that God has given us.

It is not enough to have a generic notion of Christian–or even Seekers–virtues. Even traditional Christian practices like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or healing the sick can become golden calves. When applied too literally and legalistically, we start to worship them instead of worshiping the living God, 

As you have probably figured by now, I often fall prey to just that sort of legalism. When I do, I start to feel like the bewildered golden calf in the painting, someone with a flashy outside who has nonetheless wandered away, outside the community of grace.

Like the Israelites at Sinai who worshipped a golden calf when they seemed to have lost their connection to God, I sometimes forget that that it’s a mistake to substitute a fake for the real thing. I once had a painting teacher who said that if he was not in the studio every morning, he felt like a fraud when he went to teach in the afternoon. I have since learned that I, too, feel like a fraud when I get too far away from the art practice that has taught me so much about both authenticity and discipline.

The tradition of spiritual disciplines that we Seekers have inherited from Church of the Saviour is much older than many of us suppose. It reaches back into the earliest origins of Christianity and Judaism, a tradition of self-examination against the standards that God has written on our hearts. When I keep these life-giving disciplines, like those of the studio, they keep me honest, and keep me in touch with the real, living God. In each new moment, they give me the chance to begin again and again, like a child just starting out, learning how to live.

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