A Golden Calf and Some Other Animals

West Side Moravian Church
October 9, 2011

Some Other Animals

The river otter

I saw a river otter the other day. I almost missed it. I was walking along the bank of the river when I noticed a something floating in the water next to me, only about half a meter from the shore. The object in the water, half submerged, was rough in texture and a sort of colorless brown. It's really a rather non-descript sort of thing. I thought it was a clump of forest debris – dead leaves and grass, probably.

(I have the advantage that I can see the scene quite clearly in my memory. Close your eyes and imagine towering cedars overhanging clear, flowing water; that will be close enough.)

As I said, at first I categorized the object I saw as a clump of floating debris. Floating debris travels with the river's current and often gets hung up on the stones and tree roots which extend into the water. In the back of my mind, based on my classification, I was predicting that this debris would behave in the same way as other clumps of grass and leaves.

But it didn't. It was moving faster than the bubbles in the brook. And when it approached a root in the water, instead of getting caught and stopped, it moved a bit farther out into the current. This clump of debris was not behaving the way floating debris ought to behave. And so I looked again. And when I looked more closely, I could see little feet moving under the water's surface and – with extra careful observation – I could make out a nose and some eyes. It was not a clump of debris at all, but a river otter swimming downstream.

I tell this story to show the power of mental boxes. When I saw an object in the river, I quickly made a first guess about what it was. I put the observation into the mental box called floating debris. Based on that, I was able to make predictions about how the object should behave as it floated down the river. Then, when the predictions were contradicted by observation, I knew that I should look for differences between this object and dead leaves. That is, the discrepency between my expectations and the reality helped me to focus my attention.

As human beings, we are driven to classify everything, to put everything we see and hear into neat categories. This tendency to make boxes can be very powerful, when used effectively. It is how I discovered a river otter swimming next to me on a late summer day.

The woolly bears

A few weeks ago I was bicycling to Kewaunee. The woolly bears were out. The caterpillars seemed to be enjoying the extra warmth of the pavement along the back roads where I was riding.

woolly bear
Woolly bear caterpillar

The parents of woolly bears are ordinary moths, nothing you'd take much note of. But the caterpillars are interesting and beautiful. They have forests of colored spines all over them, black bands at the front and back and a golden brown or orange stripe around the middle. The woolly bears usually show themselves prominently just as the warm summer is cooling into autumn and human thoughts begin to dwell on the coming winter. 1

Since we humans are thinking about the winter and wondering whether we'll be dealing with bitter cold or snow that piles meters deep, and since the trees and crops and wild animals all seem to be preparing for the winter, and we see the woolly bears crossing the road in their bright orange and black during this time, we put the woolly bears' coloring in the box of preparing for winter. Thus we conclude that the colors must be predictive of the winter weather. 2

The entomologists will pooh-pooh this myth with long explanations of the successive instars of the Isabella tiger moth, but I can refute it much more easily than that. As I rode along through Brown and Kewaunee Counties, I noticed some woolly bears that were nearly all black; they had hardly any orange stripe at all. I couldn't help asking myself, What is that supposed to tell me about the winter? A few miles farther down the road, I saw several woolly bears with broad orange stripes; they were nearly completely orange. Is it probable that this winter is going to be warm in the Town of Montpelier but severe in West Kewaunee?

In the case of woolly bears, our mental boxes fail us. The box is too big, or it isn't aligned very well with what is going on in the lives of woolly bears. The caterpillars are getting ready for winter, but they aren't changing their colors based on winter weather which hasn't happened yet.

What you do

Other things we just do

Employment: Taking that next promotion or moving to that next employer in order to make more money working at a job you don't like.

Paychecks: Hiding your rate of pay as if it were important – or as if your own payrate were unfairly larger than everyone else.

Highway driving: Enabling speeding by others by speeding up yourself or by maneuvering in traffic so as to help them to endanger themselves and others.

Web development: Copying into your home page a Java script that rewrites the page's entire document source instead of (for example) properly coding the server A (or CNAME) record or having the server provide a 301 or 306 status response.

Politics: Supporting (or opposing) more guns, or more stringent tests in schools, or tax breaks for businesses just because you are a conservative (or a liberal) and that's the conservative position, even if it isn't clear what is conservative about a particular proposal.

Religion: Installing a generic religious statue (said to represent an apostle) in a bare niche in the wall on the grounds that a niche ought to be filled, never mind the architectural and theological reasons for leaving it empty.

We all have another box called just what you do which contains all the behaviors in which we engage without questioning: It's just what you do. Like all our human boxes, this one can be helpful or hurtful or sometimes just silly.

Have you ever been to a business meeting where you had to sit through a horrible PowerPoint® presentation – not because PowerPoint® was the appropriate tool for communicating the information, and certainly not because the presenter was expert in writing presentations of this kind, but just because, in the presenter's mind, PowerPoint® is what you do if you lead a business meeting?

I've been watching the original Perry Mason TV shows recently – that was my grandparents' favorite TV show when I was around 8 years old. Those old episodes remind me that one of the behaviors not questioned at that time was smoking; for many people lighting a cigarette was just what you do. It had been that way for nearly 100 years, but by 1960 we knew well enough that smoking was harmful. The behavior wasn't adequately questioned, partly because it had been put into the what you do box.

On the other hand, that very same mental box can be a positive tool for organizing our lives to do good. The American Red Cross earlier this year released the story of a man for whom donating blood was in the box labeled just what you do. 3 Most people here, perhaps every one of us here, has some activities that help other people in our what you do box. There's no need for us to spend a lot of time deciding to do these good things; it's just what we do.

A Golden Calf

Make us a god

At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Hebrew people made poor use of the what you do box.

The Hebrews had been living in Egypt for 450 years. During that time their status had gradually degenerated from being the family of the vizier Joseph to being an abused servant-worker class. Moses, one of their own who had been raised in the royal palace but later had fled the country under a cloud of suspicion, had returned claiming to speak for the God of their ancestors. Using a string of disasterous events, the oratory of his brother Aaron, and a bit of deceit, Moses got the entire population released from service and had led them far away from civilization to this rocky hill.

Having arrived at this remote and frightening place, Moses proceded to climb up the mount by himself, leaving his brother and the rest of the population below.

And so a month goes by. We know that Moses was busy talking with God and receiving detailed instructions for the people. The people at the foot of the hill, however, have no such information. Moses has been gone a long time. He might have been bitten by a snake or eaten by a lion – after all, we are not in Egypt any more! Moses may never come back down. And this wilderness of dry rocks and thunderstorms is a scary place for people who have lived in the Egyptian lowlands for 20 generations.

When Moses was with the people, he was like a god to them, as the Lord had said. But with Moses gone it was as if there was no God. In a strange and scary place, without their leader, they needed God more than ever before. They needed to remind themselves of how strong God is. They needed to remind God how much they needed God's help. In other words, they needed to worship.

Well and good. But how do you worship an invisible God while camping out in an uncivilized land? Clearly, there are some things that you just do: You build an altar, you make an offering, you eat. And of course you set up an image of your god so that you can see the god and the god can see you. That's what you do if you are religious in the ancient world. Egyptian or Hittite, Canaanite or Babylonian, Greek or Cyprian, that's what you do.

Don't be too harsh on them. They knew the Lord had brought them out of Egypt and they knew they needed to worship God. If it were us, we'd make sure that we had benches to sit on, grape juice and bread to eat, an organ to play while we sing, and of course we'd put an empty cross up front. That's what we do, even in a strange land. It wasn't so different for the Hebrews.

They went to Aaron and said, Make us a god.

The Golden Mind

Out of mind

No wonder that high up on the mountain God was giving a command to Moses that the people should make no images or bow to them. That idea of golden calves was in their heads, in their box called what you do. God was saying, Get that out of your heads. It is not what you should do for me.

Once in our minds, once an idea is in the box we label just what you do, getting rid of the idea is a very difficult task. Perhaps you remember the stories from the times of the Judges and Kings, how the Hebrew people again and again set up calves and bulls and images of Astarte and of Baal. They had even taken to worshipping the bronze snake which Moses made later in their time of wandering. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it was a hard command for God's people to hear. How do you worship something that you can't see? How do you worship a God of light and smoke? It turned their world upside down.

Getting things out of the just what you do box is hard for us, too. Perhaps that's why Paul described the change as a mental transformation. To live rightly with God, we may need to throw away even those assumptions about a good life which we never question. To live as God's people, our understanding of the world may have to turn inside out.


How can we know, then, what should be in our minds? How can we know what belongs in the mental box for faithfulness to God? Remember my story about the river otter. My first best guess about floating debris was wrong. But I learned that my guess was wrong. I noticed discrepancies between what really happened and what would have happened had I been right: Floating debris does not avoid tree roots or swim faster than the water flows. From these discrepencies, I knew to look more closely, to be ready to change my mind.

Like the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai, we may be wrong about God, about worship, about what it means to live faithfully. But we can notice when the results of our behavior don't match what we ought to expect. The important thing is that we have expectations about the fruits that should come from living with God. Here is where Paul's words to the Philippians come into our story.

Paul says, Be happy in God. Do the things I do leave me happy in the presence of God? Do I find myself coming to God excited about what we have been accomplishing together? If so, then I should keep on doing what I'm doing; there is something good and right in my life. If not, there is a discrepancy and I should look again.

Paul says, Let your gentleness be obvious to everybody. If the people around me perceive a gentle soul, then well and good. If not, I need to look again at what I do.

Paul says, Don't worry about what you need; instead, bring your needs to God. In other words, worrying shouldn't be in that box labelled what you do. What should be in the box is conversation with God – talking with Jesus about what you need rather than worrying about it. When I'm worrying instead of talking, I'm probably trying to take on God's job. That's the woolly bear error: I'm making my box of things I do too big, or I'm not aligning it very well with the jobs that God assigns to me.

Stepping stones

We humans make mistakes. We assign dishonorable behavior to the box labeled honorable. We assign injustice to the box justice and actions that are obnoxious to God we label pleasing and excellent. We humans make mistakes. But what is worthy of praise is that these mistakes can be the stepping stones that lead us nearer to what is right and true. We can tell when our lives are consistent with God. We can see that mistakes lead to inconsistencies. Where there are inconsistencies, we can look again, more closely.

For the week ahead, I suggest using Paul's criteria to check your assumptions about what you do. Are you worrying about what you need, or are you talking it over with God? Is your gentleness obvious to everyone around you? Are you happy in God?

Think about these things.


1 Familiar, densely hairy black and red-orange caterpillar often seen crossing roads. Setae stiff and roughly of 1 length. Coloration as well as widths of orange and black bands vary considerably, with black portions giving way to orange as caterpillar matures. Food: grasses and forbs. Caterpillar: overwinters, September to May, and again in summer; 2 generations.
Wagner, David L., Valerie Giles, Richard C. Reardon, and Michael L. McManus. 1997. Caterpillars of Eastern Forests. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team, Morgantown, West Virginia. FHTET-96-34. 113 pp. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/insects/cateast/index.htm (Version 11APR2001). Specific page: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/insects/cateast/pyrrisab.htm
2 Common folklore has it the severity of the coming winter can be predicted by the amount of black on the banded woolly bear, the Isabella tiger moth's caterpillar. However, the relative width of the black band varies with age, and has nothing whatsoever to do with weather (Wagner 2005).
cirrusimage.com; downloaded September 25, 2011.
3 Bill Williams; donating blood is a part of who we are as a family.
American Red Cross, news release, Blood Donor Says Giving Is Just 'What You Do'; dated Monday, April 25, 2011; downloaded September 25, 2011.

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