A week ago, I took my first trip to the Holy Land. But before I even arrived, I was getting a good dose of Jewish tradition on the air flight.
In the seats directly in front of me sat three Hasidic Jewish men—with the long black coats and long curls of hair down the sides of their faces. For most of the flight, they were calm and “normal” from my admittedly Gentile point of view. As we flew into the early morning hours, I eventually stopped paying attention to them and watched my in-flight movie, unable to sleep.
Then about 6:00 a.m., two of the men in front of me started moving around, as if preparing for something, while one younger guy kept sleeping. The two opened up their carry on luggage and began fiddling with the contents, which was still obstructed from my view by their seats.
Then they got out of their seats and starting rolling up their sleeves. Out came some long thin leather straps, which they wound round and round their forearms. They went through a process of wrapping each arm, and then putting a small black box about an inch in diameter on their foreheads. These boxes, known as “phylacteries,” were strapped to their foreheads with more leather straps.
After about twenty minutes of this preparation, they began rocking back and forth while standing in their aisle. It was clear to me this was part of a prayer ritual, as they read the prayers from small booklets. They rarely made any sound, their reading consisting of simply mouthing the words. So most of the other passengers were never aware of the prayer meeting going on around them.
By around 7:30 a.m., the prayers seemed to subside, and they were seated once again. When it was all over, I had watched them for the entire hour and a half, fascinated by their ritual and respectful of their commitment to prayer.
But I also have to admit I felt it was pointless. Why? Because they had taken something as simple as prayer, communicating with God, and made it into a ceremony where the formality and structure would only have made me feel more distant and removed from God. While the lengths to which they were willing to go to showed clearly their respect for the “otherness” of God, it also kept him at the distance of their arms covered in leather straps and small black boxes.
As a Baptist by faith tradition, I have a healthy skepticism toward anything that’s not specifically prescribed in the Bible. The one thing we’re known for, by both our adherents and critics as well, is being people “of the book.” We believe the Bible is the one sole authority for our lives.
So as I watched these men, I couldn’t stop thinking about how none of what they were taking such great pains to do was prescribed in Scripture. None of it was necessary in order to approach God in prayer.
In a world in desperate need to hear from God, they’d constructed enough barriers that an Olympic pole vaulter would have trouble clearing them.
Please understand, I mean no disrespect to their tradition. But their tradition was, in fact, misplacing the authority of the very Scriptures they say they follow. In their zeal to be right with God, they thought they needed to add even more rules to the essential ones God had given them.
When I finally arrived in Israel, our tour guide took us to many of the sites anyone would want to visit. I was so excited about teaching on the Beatitudes to our group right on the very spot where they believe Jesus may have taught them. But my excitement was somewhat diminished when we arrived on the mountainside and found it pretty much covered by a parking lot, gift shop, and a huge Catholic church. We walked past shrine after shrine, as our guide explained about the architect who designed the church.
But in the midst of all the pageantry and pomp, all I really wanted to see was the hillside the same way Jesus had seen it.
Why oh why, when we finally find something truly holy, do we then feel the need to add to it? We simply can’t seem to resist trying to improve on what God has already done.
You know…just like we’ve all done with our own church traditions.
I was raised in the heart of southern church culture: Alabama. There is no better comfort food for me than an old country church. I love the look of them, even the smell of them.
Heck, I even love potato salad and the occasional casserole.
And yes, I love the old hymns. I have a collection of old hymn books and camp meeting paperback songbooks in my office. I love to play them on the piano so much I recorded a whole CD of them to give to friends.
But when I hear some senior saint complaining they just can’t worship with those new choruses, my blood boils. Why? Because when they said that, they were really saying they loved their hymns more than they loved the Jesus those hymns were singing about.
How can I say that so boldly? Because if you really loved Jesus and not your traditions, you wouldn’t care what kind of song you sang about him! Seriously, the song is just the platter your worship is served upon.
So if someone served you a first class steak, would you really bother to complain about the china pattern on the plate?
When the forms of our worship matter that much, we commit idolatry. It’s the same when we complain that a favorite church program has been replaced. We betray the fact we love the “way” we do church more than we love the “One” whom the church is about. We often love our church buildings more than we love the church members we’re called to care for.
We’ve elevated our personal preferences to a place of idolatry and our traditions to the level of Scripture’s authority. And I shouldn’t have to warn you what God does to sacred cows that get in his way…
Cow-tipping is not just part of southern culture—that tradition goes all the way back to Moses and the Golden Calf.
There was one spot the guide took us to last week that was different than the rest. He pulled our tour bus over at an unimpressive roadside gate, which led to a simple dirt path.
“This was the main walking route between the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus did so much of his teaching) and Nazareth (Jesus’ hometown). That means this is a route Jesus would have walked on multiple occasions.”
As we strolled down the path, tall rocky cliffs rose up on either side of us. The simple dusty trail wound through the cleavage of the two hillsides. There were no shrines, no churches or chapels. I don’t even remember seeing a marker or sign. But our group found a little gathering area where we sat and shared prayer requests with each other.
A tender peace filled the air as people unburdened themselves. When they asked me as a pastor to pray for the group’s requests, I looked around at the cliffs surrounding us as I spoke.
I was talking to Jesus now, while looking around at some of the very sights He had seen while on earth. Nothing man-made was covering the view. It was just as he’d seen it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just strip away all the things we’ve added to our faith? All the things we’ve come to think are so important, but really just distract us and end up being false idols of our faith?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to peal all of it back like an onion, until we got to the heart of our faith?
We could strip it all back until there was nothing left but Jesus. No additives or preservatives. Just him.
To me, that sounds perfect. Because when all the traditions of men have all finally passed away, he is all I really ever needed.
Photo credit: Dave Gipson