Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL American Idol

Do you miss “American Idol”? TV’s classic reality-talent show came to a relatively quiet ending earlier this year, culminating 15 years of good, bad, and occasionally ugly singing by eager and ambitious young men and women. From the show some real stars were born, and it inspired a horde of similar programs, such as “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent.”

But from the start, they got it wrong. Because the real American idol is still very much with us. It just doesn’t sing. It’s adorned by images of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson (for now – soon to be replaced by Harriet Tubman), Grant, Franklin, and others. Yes, it’s Money.

It’s ironic that our currency and coins bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” because judging by our materialistic, consumerism-driven society, if there’s anything we really trust in, it’s not almighty God but the “almighty dollar.”

A couple weeks ago we commemorated the 15th anniversary of what we all now identify as “9/11,” when terrorist-commandeered commercial airliners targeted the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, turning them into infernos. Perhaps you recall the days after the horrific events, when then-President George W. Bush sought to restore calm, promising “we will rebuild,” and that the entities responsible would be punished severely.

Do we carry our "god" in our wallets?
Toward the end of his speech, Bush offered a subtle reminder: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop….” He also urged Americans to continue traveling without fear, taking family vacations, and maintaining their spending practices.

Without question, the President was seeking to offer reassurance that life as we knew it wasn’t coming to an end. But he also was acknowledging the wheels of the USA are greased by free spending; to cease doing so would have lasting, disastrous effects on the economy. Fifteen years later, nothing’s changed.

I’ve been participating in a series called “Gods at War,” examining false gods or “idols” that compete with the true God for allegiance. Money – or wealth – is one of those “gods.” Thinking about idols, we envision people worshiping icons or statues in various forms and sizes. But idolatry requires no religious context. To venerate money, we need only go to a bank, an ATM, a card-swiping machine at a retail checkout counter, or even a computer where we enter credit card numbers to buy what we need – or think we need.

Author Kyle Idleman states money becomes an idol when it shifts our focus from God. Or when we assess our value based on our valuables. Money – or the things it can provide – takes on god-like proportions when it becomes one’s purpose for living, as has been the case for many men and women. You might know some of them.

Materialism and greed aren’t unique to the United States. Even in primitive societies, the person with the straw-topped hut will envy someone with a tin roof. But in America, where most of our poor would still be regarded as affluent in many Third World lands, money has dominating influence.

Part of the problem is our inability to answer the question, “How much is enough?” Because most of us, if we’re honest, would respond, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I don’t have it yet.”

We can blame the media, advertising, or our “I’ve got to have it, and I’ve got to have it now!” culture. But ultimately we must confess that too often we’ve let money and its offspring command the throne of our hearts.

So what’s the solution? Maybe we simply need to get back to basics. When Jesus declared, “You cannot serve both God and money (mammon)” (Matthew 6:24), He wasn’t speaking idealistically or euphemistically. He was saying we should recalibrate our priorities. Who or what are we going to serve? Which gets our worship and adoration?

The gospel of Mark tells of a rich young man who approached Jesus asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). He told Jesus he had faithfully observed the commandments throughout his life – at least he thought he had. Jesus responded with what we might call “tough love.” He said, “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21).

If you’d been in that situation, how would you have responded? It’s easy to declare, “My money and my stuff have no hold on me.” But if someone insisted we demonstrate our loyalty – God or possessions – which would we choose? God, the Creator of the universe, or money, the designer of our particular “universe”?

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus was straight-forward: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Do we worship gods that moths and vermin and thieves can take from us? Or do we worship and obey the God who provides treasures this world can’t touch or snatch from us?

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