lords of tiny skull sized kingdoms

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  And Jesus answered him, “It is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
him only shall you serve.’”
                                               Luke 4.4-8

Richard Foster Wallace was arguably one of the most influential writers of my lifetime.  His works provoke deeper thinking about life and its meaning.  His life and its struggle are a tragic tale of suffering.  Time Magazine in 2015 claimed that his graduation commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 is the best graduation speech of all time.   I have listened to it at least 20 times.  I have it on my kindle and quotes of it laying around. 

The speech begins with a short story on the state of our unawareness:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The speech walks the graduates through how they will spend much of their lives chasing the American Dream, and yet "There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration."   He ends his commencement speech by talking about how all of this is really just another form of worship (i've emboldened what stands out to me):   

The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship ... is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

What Richard Foster Wallace nudges us toward is how all we do is worship, and whether we spend our life asleep or awake depends on what we are worshiping.

I think it would help to point out, that the biblical idea of worship is not merely praying some words, singing a song, or showing up on Sunday.   I've said this a couple times, but in case we forgot, when Luke records Jesus' quote from the Deuteronomy 6.13 our attention is to be drawn not just to those 13 words, but the entire context of the Shema (6.4-15).  The Shema defines worship as the ultimate affection and devotion you give to anything.  We do this with our heart (values), with our soul (essence) and with our strength (energies).   Yes, worship can be given in the form of words, but only when it comes from the heart, soul, and strength. 

The old English word for worship, meant to give worth, value to something.

Most scholars see Luke's rendering of Jesus with the Devil not as a Pitch-Fork-Pointed-Tail-Satan getting Jesus to prostrate himself before the Red Devil; but, the devil becomes the personification of 'the kingdoms of this world.'   Perhaps Jesus was in a place of transfiguring prayer (like Mt Transfiguration) when he became aware of how to conquer Rome, how to influence the Hellenistic culture, how to overpower King Herod and win over the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) and he hears this voice making it clear to him that all of this he can have without any suffering or rejection.   As he listens in to where these ideas are coming from he becomes aware of the Serpent in Eden.  The Devil is the personification of all of these thoughts, words.   Jesus knew he could have it but he had to acquiesce in two ways. 

First, if Jesus would put all of his value and worth into the kingdoms of the world, he could have it.   If he prized and valued the kingdoms of the world as his top priority, his ultimate value he could totally have it.   Right then.  All he would have to do was give his heart, soul and strength to it and it was his.    

Second, "if you will fall down and worship" (Matt 4.9).  If he bows down to Satan remaining in control.   Satan will let him have the glory or it, but Satan remains in control since Jesus must bow.   If Jesus bows down and will not be able to stand up for the poor, to not advocate for the marginalized, to defend the children, and to love the outcasts and sinners.  If he bows the system and the kingdoms will continue to operate by fear and power, by force and hate, by racism and prejudice.   For all intents and purposes, he would simply be the lord of a tiny skull-sized kingdom.

We only have eyes for whatever we worship.
We see ourselves through the eyes of whatever we worship.
If the object of our worship is below us we conform to it.
If the object of our worship is above us we transform to it.
In the end, whatever we worship we become.  
In between the beginning and the end, we're enslaved to whatever we worship.  
From the First Breath, we only had eyes for a Creator who kissed us to life.

I've attached an abbreviated clip of the speech.



Prayer.  Pray a transformational prayer around Deut 6.4-15  
Conversation.  Have a conversation with Cleopas about either what you are hearing or experiencing God saying to you today in the Shema.  How you are you being challenged to respond to his voice.
Reflection.   Reflect on your transformational prayer, what words are resonating with you?