When roots become ruts

When I was a seminary student training to be a therapist, one of my theology mentors advised us to “pick a rut and stay in it.” He had grown up on a farm, or as he liked to put it, as a “son of the soil.” The metaphor of wagon wheels making well-worn ruts in the road came naturally to him.

He knew that we would be exposed to many different and competing theories of psychotherapy. He knew that we would be tempted to become eclectic in sloppy ways, borrowing ideas and practices from different sources, haphazardly trying things to see what worked.

What he meant by “picking a rut” was that we should choose one theoretical orientation and try it on for size for a good long while. We should stay with it until we learned it well, until it became second nature to how we saw our clients and helped them through their difficulties. Then, and only then, would we be ready to branch out to other theories, integrating new ideas into a strong and consistent core.

It was good advice, which I now pass along to my own students every year.

There is, however, a downside to ruts. 

We are creatures of habit, for good and necessary reasons. But not every rut is a good one; some habits of thought and behavior need to change. Problem is, we may not be aware of our ruts. And when someone points them out, we resist. After all, our ideas, beliefs, perceptions, values, and behaviors don’t exist in isolation from each other. Sometimes, messing with one means messing with a whole lot of others, requiring a radical reassessment of who we are, what we do, and why.

That kind of reassessment is threatening. 

And as the prophets of old could tell you, people in power don’t like to be threatened. When they hear a message they don’t like, they want to kill the messenger.

In response to the trumped-up charge of blasphemy against Moses and the Temple, Stephen was ramping up his rhetoric. He had told the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. He had reminded the ruling council of the rampant idolatry that resulted in the people’s exile.

And now, it was time to turn his attention to the Temple.

In some ways, as with his summary of the story of Moses, Stephen’s retelling of the history of the temple is unremarkable:

The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built a house for God. (Acts 7:44-47, CEB)

Stephen surveys a wide swath of Israel’s history here, and he has his facts straight. But as some scholars have noted, given the presumed importance of the Jerusalem temple in the minds of the people Stephen is confronting, he gives the Temple insultingly short shrift. His emphasis is on the mobile tabernacle that traveled with the people, and the whole history of the temple is tossed off in just a handful of words.

Stephen then begins to force the point: “However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands” (Acts 7:48). He quotes the closing chapter of Isaiah: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. “What kind of house will you build for me,” says the Lord, “or where is my resting place? Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?” (vss. 49-50; Isa 66:1-2). 

In other words: how could anyone presume to build something with human hands that could contain the God who created everything, the God for whom the very earth is merely a footstool?

Stephen doesn’t say it outright, but the members of the Sanhedrin surely get the implication. The Temple was made by human hands. So was the Golden Calf. The calf was evidence of the people’s idolatry, of their rebellion against Moses, of their rebellion against God.

And two plus two equals four. What the Sanhedrin and the temple leadership had taken for granted as their religious roots had become idolatrous ruts, making it possible to do ungodly things in the name of God.

As we’ll see shortly, Stephen will finish his testimony by calling the council out directly for their hypocrisy. But first, let’s pause in the next post to reflect on whether we have fallen into idolatrous ruts ourselves.