The Gods We Worship

May 15, 2015

My second prod to think and write about belief in God comes from my experience in Turkey and Greece, where “gods” were everywhere—or at least remnants of worship spaces, icon niches, and other ancient signs of pantheism and Greek/Roman mythology. Walking up the hill through the ruins of Delphi (Greece), we encountered the monument to Argos, the sanctuary of Gaia, and the great temple to Apollo. In Ephesus (Turkey), strolling down the main road made of marble, we saw what is left of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World, but represented now by only one surviving column). Hadrian and Domitian have their temples, too, giving some evidence to a Roman emperor cult.

The point is, in ancient Greece and then Rome, objects of worship, gods if you will, were present and the focal points of cult worship, treasure-building, and interpretation of life. We get a feel for what this dynamic produced, by recalling the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace . . .. 18. . . Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? . . .

22Then Paul . . . said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . . .

29 . . . we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31)

Pow! The dark backdrop of paganism provides dramatic contrast to the light of Jesus Christ, the one who has been raised from the dead and thereby having a rightful claim to supremacy over all other deities.

Yesterday, I wrote about the “nones,” those who do not believe in anything particularly. An irony of history is noted in the accusatory language directed at first century Christians, who were called “atheists” because they did not embrace the pantheon! Here we have the two extremes, those who claim no god whatsoever, and those willing to identify anything with deity.

The great contribution to the world of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that there is only one God. Whenever pagans—be they Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Incan, you name it—are engaged in dialogue with the Christian faith, the first step toward faith is not necessarily to meet and submit to Jesus Christ but to espouse monotheism. The idea that our fortunes and futures rest upon only one God—the Lord Almighty, the highest power with no rivals—represents a huge leap for a vast number of people around the globe. This is not only an ancient challenge, or a foreign challenge. I suggest also that monotheism is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

We are people of no god or of many gods, or perhaps the wrong god. Belief in no god requires a person to self-define goodness, rightness, and meaning. Belief in many gods requires a person to keep them all appeased somehow, like the Chinese acrobat spinning several plates at a time. Many deities command our frequent and intense attention, our money, our commitments and our loyalty. I can think of a few: the iPhone, the television, our homes, our money, our places of employment. We sacrifice ourselves at their altars every day it seems, and yet we do not comprehend that this is worship of a materialistic pantheon. When we do get it, God Almighty turns our world upside down and everything has to be realigned under God’s banner.

In my next post, I will expand on the possibility of worshiping the wrong god.


Technically speaking, I am unemployed. All that means is that the work I do is self-directed and without remuneration. Working at home, alone, usually means work without encouragement or even accountability. My admiration for the world’s great writers grows by the day, as I appreciate more fully the inner perseverance needed for literary productivity.

My big issue now is that there are too many other things to do besides writing, each requiring intense concentration until finished—the kind that pushes all other priorities to the margins.

  • Memorizing a lot of music really fast. My husband and I are participating in a choir tour, as guest choristers, for a series of concerts in Seattle and then in Alsace and Germany. We are rehearsing at home, alone, until dress rehearsals in early June. That means reading and learning notes and words, getting in shape vocally (after a lousy winter of lost voice), and committing to memory eighteen pieces, ten of which are new in the last week!

  • More medical surveillance. Six medical appointments in two weeks may not seem like that big a deal, but time in the waiting room and conversations with doctors, plus whatever changes to meds or diet or monitoring, all scream “interruptions!” While on my trip to Turkey, I carried a list of meds and their times of administration, so I wouldn’t get off track. Right now, that’s six times per day. I’m hoping after one of today’s doctor visits this will go back down to twice a day. [I remain in awe of the fact that my father-in-law, in his late-90s before he died, took only one blood pressure pill a day!]

  • Processing the lessons from the Turkey/Greece trip. How glad I am that I took only 850 pictures! Even so, they all must be labeled, and my faulty memory of their significance must be augmented by notes, guidebooks, and others’ pictures. One of my 2013 regrets was having the debriefing of our Africa trip truncated by the immediate illness and cancer diagnosis to follow. I don’t want that to happen again.

  • Making a baby quilt for my niece delivering her first child later this month. It is only a half-day project, but it looms big in my mind, for some reason. Silly, really.

The task list is different, but the effect is the same as when I was an overworked pastor: just too many irons in the fire, requiring too many areas of expertise and hours of concentration each. And this doesn’t even count figuring out the direction of my blog or finishing Slaying the Beast, which requires maintaining a train of thought over a few days to accomplish the next step. At times like this, I am paralyzed by perfectionism, indecision, guilt and dread.

So what is going to help me?

  1. God is going to help me, by reassuring me that he notices what I am doing and loves me. He is not withholding his love until I finish something; he does not wait to extend his mercy; his steadfast love for me is being poured out upon me right now.

  2. This may seem strange, but I also imagine that Jesus is chuckling at my folly and inviting me to enjoy these activities, because they are “me.” He would say, “Jettison the guilt and the dread; have a good time doing what you love! I’m right alongside you.”

  3. Taking more time first thing in the morning to let God breathe life into me through his Word. Like a mini-retreat, this pause de-clutters my mind and ultimately helps me focus on the tasks that follow.  

  4. Start. Something. Give it an hour, and assess. Keep going if it is gaining traction, or move on to the next thing and give it an hour. Repeat in cycles, punctuated by a turn in the garden or a ceremonious cup of tea. Once one of these activities takes on a life of its own, submit to it and keep going. Dinner can wait. Laundry can wait. Facebook can wait.

  5. Thank God enthusiastically and often: I am alive and have the freedom to make choices. Life is not boring. These projects all have the potential to bless someone. God is good and worthy to be praised.

In my next post—whenever!—I’d like to ponder the question, So what’s so hard about writing a blog?


12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”

18I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

It certainly helps to have traveled in the region to which Paul speaks in his letter to the Colossians. In the letter’s closing passage, Paul mentions some place names, so let’s look on a map to get our bearings.

Asia Minor is the region we call Turkey today. Asia Minor MODERN Map On this map you can see Istanbul to the north, straddling the isthmus (now divided by the Bosphorus, a channel between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, with direct connections to the Aegean). Istanbul was previously known as Constantinople and before that Byzantium. If you take a wide view of the area, you can see its stupendously strategic location. No wonder Constantine preferred it over Rome as the new capitol of his empire.

South and west, along the coast, note Izmir, known to us in the Bible as Smyrna. About forty miles south of Izmir is Ephesus, known for its temple to Artemis and the site of three years of ministry investment by Paul.


Paul’s activity was concentrated generally in the western region of Asia Minor, and the letters to which he refers in this passage draw our attention to the valley and hills about ninety miles east of Ephesus. IMG_6627Within ten to twelve miles from each other, we find Laodecia, Hierapolis, and Colossae. Of the three, Colossae was the smallest, having seen better days by the time of the Apostle. Today it remains unexcavated, though I walked on the mound under which fascinating archaeological layers undoubtedly lie.

Laodecia, on the other hand, was flourishing at this time, known for its woolen mill, eye care, and a first century medical school.IMG_1291 Hierapolis, while mentioned only as a beneficiary of Epaphras’s ministry, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perched on a hillside commanding spectacular views of the valley below. It was known for its textiles and hot mineral springs. [Neighboring Pamukkale is where I had my Turkish bath.] Of interest to us is that all three cities sustained paralyzing damage in the great earthquake of AD 60, within a few years of Paul’s writings. It appears that Colossae never recovered, but Laodecia was prosperous enough to fund its own reconstruction, and Hierapolis rebuilt as well using not marble but black stone that does better in earthquakes and bad weather.

For now, let us appreciate the fact that Paul was writing to real people in real places he had struggled to visit or embrace through letters. What we see in all these sites is the overwhelming presence of Rome, the Roman deities memorialized in great temples, and the signs of everyday life in commerce, agriculture, and in some cases luxury. The maps help us set his message in context, as we imagine ourselves traversing ten miles at a time to visit these cities and observe the result of Paul’s teaching. Given that the occasion of this letter was an apparent concern for the quality and accuracy of their Christian doctrine, the Colossians and their neighbors were challenged to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ and live holy lives dedicated to him despite the distractions of the good life. Sound familiar?

Tomorrow: Paul’s final message

One of the frustrations of international travel for me is the unreliability or unavailability of Internet access. It was clear from my arrival in Istanbul, a population center of 17 million, that Internet usage was prevalent (just like home, everybody walking down the street looking down at his or her iPhone). My hopes were dashed, however. When you get to a hotel touting Internet access, you deal with slow speeds, lock-outs due to overloads (experienced when all 30 of us disgorged from our bus and tried in the hotel lobby to get online at the same time), or outrageous charges for its use. Let’s just put it this way: by the time I got to Athens eleven days later, I was ready to pay $10/day for premium high-speed access.

I know this is hard, but think about what life was like when there was no Internet, no email, no Instagram or Facebook . . . Remember the quaint practice of composing a hand-written letter, addressing an envelope, stamping it, and placing it in the mail for delivery in three to five days? Go back a few centuries, when communication required a person to ride or walk overland (or in Paul’s case, take a boat across the Mediterranean) to hand-deliver a letter. Such a journey could take days or weeks, adding weight and importance to the message carried along. I can guarantee you, nobody sent a picture of tonight’s restaurant dinner or the first pie of the season (like I did on Facebook yesterday). Letters were substantive in information and laden with emotion and thereby the means Paul used to foster unity among the churches.

As Paul closes his letter to the church at Colossae, he sends greetings, gives instructions, and provides some social glue to strengthen the bonds between him and the wider body:

7Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. 8I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; 9he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.
10Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. 11And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

While Paul awaits trial in Rome, the ministry continues to flourish under his direction and with the help of several associates.

Tychicus was on Paul’s ministry team, in this case a courier bringing the present letter and other news about Paul, who is writing from house arrest in Rome. Tychicus was probably from the region of Asia (present-day Turkey) close to Colossae and had rendered help in Ephesus under Paul’s direction (cf. Acts 20:4 and 2 Timothy 4:12).

Onesimus is the slave formerly owned by Philemon of Colossae. In the letter to Philemon, Paul made a good-natured appeal that Onesimus be released from bondage. Onesimus became a part of the ministry team.

Aristarchus, a believer from Thessalonica (in Greece), was under house arrest with Paul in Rome, having traveled with him and been gathered up in the Ephesian ruckus recorded in Acts 19.

This cast, including those “of the circumcision” (Jewish converts to Christianity), demonstrates the importance to Paul of moral support, ministry coordination, and an ever-spreading gospel. He is also concerned that the churches not worry about him; part of the assignment to his couriers is to reassure the Colossians that Paul is doing well and that Kingdom purposes are being fulfilled even in his imprisonment. This surely would have been good news to those who perhaps had never met Paul personally (there is no record that Paul ever visited Colossae) but were aware, through his protégés, of Paul’s unique brand of teaching and his passion for the developing church.

Paul’s letter raises at least two questions for us to ponder: 1) Do we see ourselves as members of a ministry team, mutually dependent, affirming of one another, and trusting the good work of others to fulfill the gospel mission? And 2) Is our communication clear, meaningful, edifying, and reassuring to the body of Christ? Paul’s practice shows the strength and wisdom of team ministry. It also demonstrates the power of clear communication, the effectiveness of a gracious tone, and the necessity of keeping people in touch with one another. Food for thought, as we appreciate the “blessed tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”

5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have just spent two weeks immersed in the culture of “outsiders,” that is, those people who are not (yet) included in the household of faith in Jesus Christ. Turkey is, they say, 98% Muslim. Though it has a secular government, its red flag features a crescent and star. It straddles both Asia and Europe, ancient and modern, calm (in the west) and chaotic (in the southeast, at the Syrian border). It is a culture foreign to me, and yet its hospitality, geographic beauty, cultural richness, and historical significance all resonated. I made a habit of coming to Jesus Christ, the Lord, in prayer whenever I was conscious of the local mosque’s call blaring from the minaret. I decide that the discipline of The Hours is worth consideration, now that I am back home amidst the normal racket of American life.

Thirty of us tourists, all with Fuller Seminary in our background, toured sites of biblical and church history interest in western Turkey and Greece. Traveling by foot, plane, bus, funicular, ferry, and cruise ship, we traversed in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul and the Early Church. In most cases, the label “tourist” hung around our necks, automatically making conversation with the locals very filtered. However, there were moments here and there in which we could be salt and light. Never, though, was I able to engage anyone in conversation about Jesus or the Christian faith. The closest I came to substantive (unfiltered) chats occurred on the Aegean cruise ship and on the plane home!

But as I placed myself in Paul’s shoes, and took his exhortation to heart, I realized that outsiders are everywhere—not just in Turkey—and that I have opportunities for salty conversations almost daily. Here at home, for instance, the Peet’s Ladies and the quilt club provide significant moments for cross-cultural communication.

What sort of mindset does Paul describe here that would help me “make the most of every opportunity”?

Wisdom. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.” Wisdom is the God-given ability to assimilate the knowledge you have about God and your conversation partner into a relationally healthy and true encounter. Wisdom draws upon God’s love, power, and direction to know how to act in a good and trustworthy way. Wisdom is not itself knowledge, but the ability to use godly knowledge to form life choices that are life-giving, God-honoring, and respectful of others. Wisdom is always listening for God, which brings us to the second mindset:

Alertness. “Make the most of every opportunity.” It requires God’s eyesight to see the opportunities for Kingdom impact around us. If we are committed to seeing the world around us as God sees it, we will become sensitive to the spiritual needs of others. As this awareness builds, we see opportunities and are called to make the most of them. I see this as a spiritual “seize the day” mentality, akin to the exhortation, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today” in the realm of spiritual conversation. This does not mean that the Christian is in a hurry, or a bull in a china shop. It just means that the Christian is called to be alert to what is going on in her relationships with others and—with wisdom—take the opportunities offered to go deeper.

Graciousness. In my day I have seen enough ungracious encounters between Christians and unbelievers, in the name of boldness and truth-telling, to know that we have a huge responsibility in conversational style. As God has offered us grace, so we are to demonstrate patience, kindness, and understanding of others even as we share an alternative world-view. It is of course not just any alternative—the gospel of Jesus Christ is true and life-changing—but to the outsider it is a radical new way of thinking and believing! Let us be gracious toward those bewildered, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable with the heart of the gospel.

Saltiness. One little grain of salt can work wonders on a hard-boiled egg. So too in conversation with unbelievers, one little comment can transform the taste of the gospel into something irresistible. Let us not be afraid to be specific, true, and pithy when introducing the idea of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior to others.

Responsiveness. Knowing how to answer anyone is a skill and spiritual gift. It is not a know-it-all attitude (arrogance) nor is it uncaring or unlistening (callousness). Responsiveness is the willingness to let our conversation partner ask questions and reveal a personal sense of need, to which we then can address comments or answers. We do not have to be in charge of the agenda at all times! But we are called to be responders who, alert to the opportunities and sensitive to a person’s needs, are ready and willing to enter into conversation with an outsider.

God, by his Holy Spirit, enables us to be wise, alert, gracious, salty, and responsive. Can you see how your ministry with outsiders could be transformed by letting the Spirit work within you?