Agency

“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” Well, why don’t we? I think it’s because we idolize things.

Idolatry is a big deal in the bible and in our history. The second of the 10 Commandments is “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.” Idols were little statues that were worshipped as a symbolic representation of a deity in the ancient world. Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli took this literally and smashed all the stained glass and chopped up all the statues at his church. Our Congregational ancestors kept with that idea in our stained glass which is beautiful, but without faces or images.

That doesn’t mean we’re without idols. An idol is that allure… the great thing of our desire. Once we get the idol, then the troubles that are facing us will be gone. It’s in all our movies. Once James Bond gets the secret file or golden gun, then he can defeat the villain. Or once Frodo gets rid of the ring, then all shall be well. Idols can work both ways. One such idol that we often don’t recognize is the idol we make out of other people. How we project onto them all our troubles.

Theologian Peter Rollins tells a story that exposes how we project our troubles onto idols.

There was once a man who had been shipwrecked on an uninhabited desert island. There he lived alone for ten years before finally being rescued by a passing aircraft. Before leaving the island, the man gave a tour to his rescuers. He brought them to a clearing showing them three buildings.

Pointing to the first building, he said, “This was my home. I built it when I first moved here all those years ago.”

“What about the building beside it?” ask one of the rescuers.

“Oh, that is where I would worship every week,” he replied.

“And the building beside that?”

“Don’t bring that up,” replied the man in an agitated tone. “that’s where I used to worship.”[1]

I love that story as it shows the lengths we’ll go to in our projection. The man was alone on the island yet had two places of worship. When things weren’t going well, he projected his issues on that building and was able to maintain the fact that he was right.

Jesus asks us today, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” He meant it in terms of taking one another to court, but I think it’s bigger than just that. We take each other to court by thinking that if we just prove that person wrong, then we’ll be good. Once we win over that idol, we’ll be good. Once we find the RIGHT place to worship, or get the right car, the right bed sheets, whatever it is… but the truth is we’ll just be as miserable as we were before.

Why don’t we judge for ourselves? Because we’re too busy projecting onto others all of our issues without doing the soul work of confronting and dealing with ourselves.

There might be someone in your life who is just human sandpaper for you. By them showing up, you’re annoyed. Just the mention of their name, and there’s this internal flinch. They trigger you and you about lose your mind. Often it’s because you’re seeing something you don’t like in yourself manifested in them.

It’s like those big-name preachers who preach about the evils of folks drinking and doing drugs and sleeping around. They preach so much about it because there’s a part of them that wishes they were out doing the same thing. Or you find out they are doing those things when they fall from grace! Or the preachers who are fixated on being homophobic who are often gay themselves.

It’s why I preach all the time on love and compassion because I feel I lack these attributes, and I’m trying to grow toward that. Often the person or issue we have the strongest feelings about is an invitation to ask better questions of ourselves. What is it about this person that is getting at me? What is it about this issue that is lodged within me?

In certain theological circles, the answer to all this is a call to the obedience to God and God’s ways. Just submit to Christ and follow the Spirit’s leading. I’m going to say, sure… that’s a good idea. Yet it never really quite landed for me. I often would just be passive and wait for the perfect moment. It reminds me of that joke of the guy in the flood.

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

“Better get in, Preacher. The waters are rising fast.”

“No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

“Come on, Preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee’s gonna break any minute.”

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a state trooper calls down to him through a megaphone.

“Grab the ladder, Preacher. This is your last chance.”

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

God smirks and asks, “What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

The God we get in Christ is one that wants our agency. Jesus tells us all these parables to wake us up and get us thinking. Jesus’ first words are, “Repent and believe the kingdom of God has come near.” The word for repent is less, “sinner change your cheating ways” and more, “think differently after this experience.” We have to think. We have to choose to live in the way of Christ.

The way of the world is that if someone hits you, you hit them back. Jesus says, “turn the other cheek.” The way of the world is that if someone declares war on you, you go to war against them. Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” It’s a counter-intuitive way of going through the world. It requires our action, our reflection, and different choices than our pride often allows.

I saw this most recently in Alex Jones, the media personality who declared that the shooting at Sandy Hook was a fake. For years, this man said it was a hoax. Oh, how I wish that were true. All those kindergartners… It’d be great if that never happened. But it did. Instead of listening to the grieving parents and instead of issuing an apology or changing his ways after listening, the host just kept at it. And now he owes millions in damages. Why didn’t he settle? He was projecting. His ego. He couldn’t admit he was wrong. He didn’t want to learn. He couldn’t face the pain of the event nor how he added to the pain. I mention this episode as it could be any of us. There is something within us all that wants to stand our ground. We resist repenting as it’s harder but truly I tell you, that is where the kingdom is. I’m not saying each of us wantonly causes national harm, it could be about Thanksgiving 1996 and what placemats were out and we just won’t admit it was the blue ones and not the beige. Or we won’t admit that a coworker was right and caught our mistake. I hope you get the picture.

Why don’t we decide for ourselves? Because we’re busy projecting the things we don’t like about ourselves onto others. Because we have idols in our lives. Because we’ve been taught to be passive and obedient and all the while, God has sent us two boats and a helicopter.

Now there are times to be passive and silent. Prayer. Vacation. Hikes in the woods. We need discernment to help us see when the kingdom comes near. We need time to grieve and to think and find clarity in our lives. It helps us figure out what is a goal and what is an idol. It helps us figure out, “oh, that’s why this person or this issue has so much energy for me.” It helps us say with all grace, “God be with you” to those who don’t like us, for our spirit set off some inner demon in them.

Why don’t we settle? Because we’re tempted to let things take the path of least resistance, but that is not the way of Christ. We do have to submit and be obedient to the way of Christ, yet we also must actively choose it. God wants our agency. For God made each of us unique and original. It’d be a shame if we died a copy of someone else. Put your armor down. Admit when you’re wrong. Smash your idols. Choose Christ and settle your disputes as best you are able.

Works Cited

[1] The Idolatry of God: breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction, page 57-58.

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