Bears of No Brain at All

“Think, think, think…” (Pooh says, tapping his forehead.) What’s as good for Bears of No Brain at All as it is for Bears Who Fear Their Brain Is Going–or Gone? Using words, thinking, communicating. It’s the last day of June, and I haven’t posted anything yet. My goal is to write monthly, but I haven’t been inspired. Why the pressure? It keeps me writing and using words. I like having to think, think, think.

Constant rain and flooding in the Hundred Acre Wood threatened Pooh’s honey stash, so he set about to make sure it was safe on a tree limb. When there’s trouble, I like to make sure my honey jars are safe, too. I’m posting some thoughts about trouble and honey jars on this rainy, ordinary sort-of-day, since nothing extraordinary has suggested itself to write about, and Pooh’s illustration made me smile.

This is an except from my journal for the One Year Bible reading for today.

June 30, 2020

Thank you for the rain coming at the end of several yard days in a row and the cool temps that give transplants time to take root. Thank you for establishing the work of my hands in such a practical way. Will you bring your fresh rain of words to my heart and head this morning? I’m having a hard time waking up and focusing in the fog. Dazzle me right outta my drizzle.

2 Kings 17-18:12

From this I read that Israel is defeated by the Assyrians after a 3-year-siege of Samaria, Israel’s capital city. Its upper classes are taken away to Assyria, and people from other nations are brought in to take their places. These folks don’t know Israel’s God and worship their own gods instead. Lions come in and kill many of the newbies, and the news that reaches the king of Assyria is that Israel’s God has brought in the lions because the new residents aren’t worshiping him well on his own turf.

Assyrian reliefwork, from palace in Nineveh. 650 BC

This report is astonishing because it’s made by an Assyrian, who correctly surmises that God isn’t feeling neighborly with his new neighbors and sent the lions to say so. What’s even more surprising is that the king of Assyria agrees with his opinion and sends one of the captured Samaritan priests back to teach them the worship ropes.

God’s own people as a whole haven’t put 2 and 2 together like this for over 200 years, which is why they’ve been captured and carried off in the first place. Since the time of Solomon, there’s been state sponsored idolatry, and the kingdom that once boasted of the greatest wealth, splendor, power, wisdom, and monarchy of any other kingdom on earth has been divided up and conquered. God’s law was clear:  idolatry = judgment. 

The Assyrians at least understood that Israels’ God had different rules than their gods, and that the rules needed to be followed so that the lions would stop feeding on Elroy on the corner and Bud and Bernie across the street.

Why don’t the Israelites get it?

It’s not like they haven’t been warned. Amos told them exactly how they’d go into captivity if they didn’t repent for their idolatry. Long before it happened, he’d said they’d be led through the city walls with fishhooks in their mouths (Amos 4:2-4), which as it turns out, is just how the Assyrians treated their captives (Guzik’s commentary).

So what has taken even a basic understanding of their own God and his law right outta their heads? I’m assuming they didn’t want to be captured and forced into exile. How is it that the Assyrians get what’s going on better than God’s people do, a people who have had God’s clear words about how to worship him for generations?

Israelite Limestone Incense Altar, 9th century BCE, from Megiddo, copyright The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Hundreds of years even before Solomon, Moses hung out on Mount Sinai with God and brought down those stone tablets. The first and foremost command of which was “…have no other gods before me,” (Ex 20:3). Simple and straightforward.

There’s a long list of what Israel has done to get conquered and kicked out of their Promised Land in 2 Kings 17:7-23, but the bottom line is this: they’ve worshiped idols, the very gods of the people whose land they took over, the same gods who couldn’t protect their worshipers from the Israelite invaders in the first place. Go figure. God’s people over time have done the exact thing God said not to do: trusted in the idols that God’s already beat.

Crazy town.

Artist sketch of Baal, the Cannanite god

For all of the juicy details given in 2 Kings 17 of the current situation, the key for how they missed seeing God’s hand in their misfortunes, from the time of Solomon to the current king, Hoshea, is found in verse 15, “They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

Other translations say they followed vanity and became vain (NASB), they lived a nothing life and became nothings (MSG), they followed false idols and became false (ESV). The original Hebrew word here is “hebel” which means “empty, air, delusion, vanity,” (Dilday). The point is, they became like what they worshiped. They worshiped nothing real–only empty air, a delusion–and that’s what they became. Empty headed. Or in what might be the words of Pooh:  Bears of No Brain at All Who Prize Their Empty Pots.

Jeremiah says that those who refuse to listen to God and follow other gods instead become as useless as the belt he buried in the dirt–rotted and ruined (Jer 13:10). Nehemiah says that those who rebel against God appoint a leader “in order to return to their slavery,” (Neh 9:17).

Of course they don’t think they’re returning to slavery. Rebellion feels at first like freedom–freedom to throw off God’s words and ways. But it’s false freedom. Because God designed us, he knows best how we’re made to live. We’re actually only set free as we “run in the path of his commands,” (Ps 119:32). Going our own way denies that truth. And it leads us exactly where we don’t want to go, into all manner of unpleasant things–broken relationships, slaveries, poor health. Psalm 115 says that those who trust idols will become like them.  And what is an idol if not blind, deaf, and dumb?  

These verses explain why the Israelites are so far removed from the Assyrians’ common sense about Israel’s God, that if he’s pissed and sending lions to eat the new neighbors, it’s because somebody’s messed up–a lot of somebodies. If he’s having his chosen people deported, naked, and with hundreds of miles to walk, maybe a gut check is long overdue. Maybe sometime during that 3-year-siege, before being forced to suck fishhooks on the trek to Assyria, somebody should have been asking why there was a siege in the first place, taking fish right outta their mouths.

Assyrian soldiers lead prisoners through a landscape of date palms with river beyond, about 640 BCE. British Museum, London

With the perspective of Israel’s history and the events that led up to its captivity, it’s easy to see how idolatry began and progressed. Jeroboam, the king of Israel after Solomon, instituted convenient worship centers with historic golden calves, along with continuing what was trending: an exciting way to worship God at sanctioned “high places.” It began as a way to keep subjects loyal to the new king of Israel, avoiding travel to the real worship center in Jerusalem, where Solomon’s son ruled.

But as things tend to go from bad-to-worse in a spiritual sort of Murphy’s law, what started as a clever way to have a stable monarchy ended with anarchy instead: sorcery, child sacrifice, pantheism, astrology.  All of these became culturally accepted ways to worship and all of them, God forbidden. So slavery came to Israel all over again.  This time, it was at the hands of the king of Assyria, but it was really God’s hand that came down hard.

It’s easy to see how the nation’s initial wrong turn and willful rebellion persisted, too, since the Bible says of every king during this period after Jeroboam that in God’s eyes, “he did right” or “he did evil.” Good kings or bad, the common theme among the kings is that, except for Hezekiah, all of them allowed the high place worship to continue.

Model of God’s Temple, built by King Solomon in Jerusalem

At first, the high places were set up as temporary worship sites while the Temple was being built. But the people got comfy with convenience and going local for worship. It’s not hard to understand why doing what they’d been doing for years made sense.

But these high places weren’t legit. God had said worship must be of him alone and with his priests at the temple in Jerusalem (once it was built)–no idols allowed. But since everybody had to travel to get to Jerusalem, some farther than others, maybe the attitude of even the kings who brought reforms was, “Well, at least the people are going to church somewhere,” as if how they’re worshiping doesn’t matter as long as they’re worshiping.

But it does matter. While worship is innate (since it’s what we were created for, we don’t have to be taught to do it), we do have to be taught to worship God. This is not innate. God-worship requires that we turn from self-worship to serve him. And who wants to do that?

We also have to accept the terms God sets up for worship. Before Jesus, it was in Jerusalem at the Temple that pointed to Jesus. Since Jesus, who is the new Temple, we are temples of worship, too, because of faith in him. But it’s still only through Jesus that we can approach God. A big roadblock for some.

There are only two roads, and only one of them leads to life. Those who have traveled their self-worship road far enough to smell death at the end of it might get a clue about what’s ahead and turn around. Or those perceptive enough to get a whiff of death on others who’ve traveled that road farther than they have, might back-the-heck-up.

But the ancient Israelites can’t even find the road. Years of blinding, deafening, dumbing, mind-and-heart-numbing worship have cut them off from God, from reason, from understanding. They’ve deliberately turned away from him for so long, they just can’t find their way back, even with his prophets right in their faces telling them how–REPENT!

Maybe they’re thinking, “Repent? Repent for what? I’m not doing anything wrong. Look at everybody else. I’m ok. I go to the high places after all. I worship. I rub the sacred stones. I say ‘bibbity bobbity boo.’ I just gave my infant son to be burned alive, for goodness sake. I’m devoted. See?” 

Besides, God’s people don’t want to repent.  Even after God’s warnings in the form of famine and drought and failed crops and pestilences and plagues and death from wars and even fire from heaven, they still don’t listen. They’re deaf and blind, after all. They like their cushy lives and their honey jars. Amos describes the women of this time as decadent, fat cows who order their husbands around. Instead of taking the prophets warnings to heart, many brag about the offerings they make to God at their polluted worship sites. They’ve decided how they want to worship, and they’re determined it’s plenty good enough (Amos 4).

Setting aside the fat cows of Samaria, what about me? What’s inside my honey jars? How am I going through religious motions to feel righteous, off on my own? Where am I bowing to cultural markers of goodness and failing to bow to you, God? What are my secret idols, the ones I hide even from myself? I really don’t want to ask you these questions because I know you’ll show me, and I know I’ll be humbled, which I really hate. I like believing I’m above this, but I’m guessing I’m not. Open my eyes and ears. Where are the high places I go to for feeling good enough?

(Since I’m kind of stuck here, I’m gonna move on to Acts and come back at the end.)

Acts 20

Paul makes his last stops on his last journey before his last trip to Jerusalem.  He speaks with his friends and prays and says goodbye.  He feels “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, knowing that prison and hardships face him (20:22), even though his friends warn him not to go (read ahead in 21:4, 10-14).  At every stop along the way, he’s hounded by the Jews who want to kill him.  It’s interesting how alike Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences are with the Jews who hate them.

Paul’s zeal is off the charts. In this chapter, he preaches until midnight one night, and a young man falls asleep and out a window to his death three floors below.  Paul goes down and throws himself on the man, raises him to life, goes back upstairs and eats, and then preaches til morning.

The next day, his traveling companions sail for Assos where they will meet Paul, who plans to join them there, traveling on foot.  So after his all-nighter sermon, he walks 31 miles alone to Assos.  Even hoofing it on this Roman road, it would’ve taken him two days of hard walking.  And maybe he’s not hoofing and just ambling, in which case he’s got maybe three days to walk. And he’d been up all night the night before he first began. 

A portion of the well preserved Roman Road that leads, 31 mi., from Troas to Assos.

But what’s really got me wondering is why does he walk instead of ride in the boat with his buddies?  Maybe to be alone, to gear up for what’s ahead, or to check-in on his feeling of being urged by God to go to Jerusalem: “God, is this really your idea?” Maybe it was to commune with the Savior he’s said he’s willing to suffer for (20:22-24).  Paul was zealous for his faith even before he met Jesus, so being fired up suits his style.  But maybe he wants to make sure he’s fired up for what Jesus has in mind.  He’s “kicked against the pricks (goads)” before, and worked against Jesus.  He doesn’t want to make that mistake again (26:14).

I love Paul’s energy and courage, and his people skills. I love his desire to do God’s work well and to have closure with his friends, to say goodbye.  He’s connected with them and is emotional leaving them, but he’s also determined to do what God’s called him to do, danger-be-danged.  I like seeing how his zeal for doing God’s work doesn’t lift him above others. It connects him to them, opens his heart in relationship. 

I see that life in the Spirit isn’t an ascetic of secluded monasticism.  It’s one of love and community, of connection and even all-nighters talking and hanging out. It’s life-on-life, to borrow a phrase.  But it includes get-alone-with-God time, too, one-on-one time with the Spirit, in privacy and devotion.  This is how Jesus lived, pouring his life out to his disciples and pouring his heart out privately to God.  Both take energy and a lot of time.  Both are needed.

God, it’s easier for me to hang out with you alone sometimes than with other people.  I want to think it’s because I love you, but I really think it’s because I love others so little.  Increase my love, God.  Make me better at giving it.

I’m seeing that yesterday when Kate and the boys were here, I missed a chance to love them well.  I worked in the yard and was only partly available. I enjoyed them on breaks I took, but I made sure I got my chores done.  I didn’t serve them. It seems stupid now, how I traded beloved people for plants.  But it’s what I did, and it’s not the first time. 

Work love deeper, God.  I’m afraid it’s not even scratched my surface.  Plant love in me so deep that it becomes who I am, not just something I try to do, like an add-on, like a check mark.  Let your love make its mark.

Psalm 148

This is such a beautifully balanced psalm, full of rich imagery.  It begins by saying praise God from the heavens–the sun, moon, shining stars, and rain.

And then it says praise God from the earth–the sea creatures and ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, “stormy winds that do his bidding,” mountains, fruit trees, cedars, wild animals, cattle, bugs and birds, kings and nations, princes and rulers, old and young, men and maidens.

It ends saying, let people praise God for his splendor above both heavens and earth, which to me means praise God for more than the combined splendor of both heaven and earth, which is a lot of splendor when I think about all of the aboveplus food!

This God, who deserves more than the praise of the entire universe, then raises up his greatest delight, his “horn,” who is Jesus, “the praise of God’s saints.” Jesus is their praise because of his death and life for them.

And who are these saints?  How does he describe them? As subjects?  As disobedient children? As ungrateful rebels?  Nope. They are all of these, so I’m surprised to read this description instead: they’re “the people close to his heart.”

God’s got a chance here to point out what’s wrong with us. He could remind us how we owe him, how we oughta appreciate him, how he’s infinitely better than we are, how we better make good on all he’s given us. But what does he say to us instead? He says we are “the people close to his heart.”

The God of well-deserved praise and glory beyond the glory of this universe (a mind blowing amount, if you ask me) gives us his favorite Son, his perfect pride and joy, his horn, because we’re good enough? No, because we’re “the people close to his heart.”

Well, I’m just undone.  It cannot be true and yet, it says it right here in verse 14.  I feel like I want to say the final “Praise the Lord” at the end of this psalm, flat on my face. Shouldn’t the God-of-the-Universe be doing grander things than reaching out to people who often ignore him, who fall into sin on purpose, who say with their tightly scheduled lives: “Mine matters more”?

I think I would do other things if I were you, God. I’d go find my own fun with the angels and cherubim who worship me 24/7. Or I’d grab my guys in the Trinity, saddle up, and ride some clouds, or ski the river that flows from the throne. These are the folks I’d take along to celebrate being alive with. The ones closest to my heart would be the ones that didn’t cost me anything.

But not you. You condescend.  You reach out. You offer yourself.  You lay down your life.  You forgive. You suffer. You rescue. You pursue. You love. And you call us the people close to your heart, we who are too busy or bored to believe you, or to bother to care for you very much.

I really don’t get you. Who is like you?  I don’t know anyone.  But I do know that because you love like this, I can never close off love to anyone else, no matter what happens. No matter the loss or cost or pain.  You never stop. How can I?

My take away today

What one thought can be made of idols and worship (from 2 Kings), of devotion to you and others (from Acts), of your cosmic glory outside us and your holding us near your heart (from Psalms)? How do these connect for me in one idea for today?

I guess I’m seeing what’s so ugly about idolatry:  it’s my failure to praise God (the one who gives me everything I have and who never stops loving me) and then, to turn and praise something else (that’s really a nothing, a “hebel”) saying, “even nothing is better for me than God.  I’ll take this empty jar instead.”

I feel the thud of that inside me. Heartbreak for God. Alienation for me. And I see captivities that result–those big and little addictions and distractions that take God’s place.  And I feel sick–sick for what God suffers and sick for how his silly children suffer, myself included. I hate sin and how it slaps God right in the heart where he holds me close and loves me so.

Paul got it.  Paul exhausted himself to serve.  Paul was on a literal mission to make the love of God in Jesus known, because Paul himself experienced it.  It had him walking the road to Assos for two days to talk to God on the way. It had him preaching all night to his friends.  Paul was poured into and he poured out. Paul cared about God’s people because God does.

Do I?

God, I see at least one idol for me now, and its a big ‘un.  It’s me.  I’m devoted to my agenda, my own “tightly scheduled life.” I can’t be shaken loose, even when needs in the shape of grandbabies literally crawl on the floor at my feet.  Give me eyes to see what really matters and a heart that fights harder to break away from myself, from my chores, from my sense of what makes me feel “good enough.” Let your love be what I live by instead. I’ll never be good enough. I can only be forgiven and freed up. I want that.

But you’re gonna have to bust me out, now that I think about it.  I’m a Bear of No Brain at All, and I’m addicted to my own way, and I’m afraid I can’t do it myself. And I see that I need it.  And after all I’ve learned today and the way you’ve dazzled me with your goodness and glory, I sure want you to do it.  So please do.  Draw me closer to your heart.

Thank you for Jesus, the horn who moved heaven and earth to make the way.

Pooh illustrations by E H Shepard from The World of Pooh by A A Milne.

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