On the Corner

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Going through the motions

by Robert Docter

I’ve been thinking that people with a rich tradition sometimes find themselves so busy in maintaining the tradition that they forget why the tradition got started in the first place. Often these are ceremonies of some kind that get passed to following generations inadequately prepared to celebrate the true meaning of the ceremony so they simply go through the motions of the celebration.

Take saying grace before meals. If it is practiced at all, it becomes a quick prayer seeking blessing for the food – sometimes, expressing thanks – often simply a memorized series of words recited quickly prior to digging in.

For Salvationists, the purpose of this act is as a sacrament in which we remember Jesus – something he asked his disciples to do at their last supper together. Often today, the prayer is somewhat of a religious observance, but usually not expressed with recognition of its original meaning – to remember Jesus.

I suspect that we engage in other similar activities in which the original purpose has been long forgotten. Moreover, we’ve abandoned some that seem not even worth going through the motions to achieve. Street meetings – often called “openairs” for reasons no one can explain except for the obvious fact that they take place out of doors, have disappeared due to several factors – mostly pertaining to no one being on the street when the group wants to schedule the event. For years, however, in various corps, bands marched out and formed on the traditional corner and presented the traditional order of service alone, but in hope of someone hearing something on some distant street or behind some open window. Sometimes, they did, but for the most part, maintaining tradition became the end instead of the means to achieve the true purpose – evangelism.

The actual purpose of the old coal scuttle bonnet worn by women Salvationists was as a “helmet” to protect the wearer from flying objects. Since we’ve become more respectable this type of protection is no longer needed. Some sweet saints, however, felt the “tradition” was sacred in and of itself. It became the end instead of a means.

Yes, we’re big on tradition, but we’re not alone. It seems to be part of the human condition and has been for quite awhile.

I kind of like this old-testament guy, Isaiah, who wrote the most beautiful poetry in the Bible and spoke for God. God had him going after the “establishment” with a vengeance when they seemed not to understand his direction for Israel and had thoroughly created a means-end problem. Isaiah reported God’s words faithfully. He wasn’t afraid of “sacred cows.” He told them specifically of the consequences that would follow their choices. He chastised them and articulated God’s desires for them.
God, you see, was disappointed in the lack of sincerity in their worship.

Isaiah would start off making sure his listeners knew for whom he spoke. “Hear the word of the Lord,” he’d say.

Once he took on a deeply ingrained religious practice – that of bringing sacrifices to the temple. It wasn’t the sacrifices that caused the problem. The people seemed only to be going through the motions of worship – obeying the law without the sense of commitment demanded by the law. They were offerings for which the meaning had been forgotten. Means and ends got confused.

Hear the word of the Lord …
The multitude of your sacrifices –
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
I have more than enough burnt offerings …
I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings.
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moon, Sabbaths and convocations –
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me.
… Your hands are full of blood.
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight.
Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right.
Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless.
Plead the case of the widow.

And then, abruptly God changes the tone of the discourse.

Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord.
Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,
Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool …
If you are willing and obedient …”
(Isaiah 1:10-19)

The people of Israel, whom God loved deeply and punished severely, had had a rich history at this point. The memory spaces of their brains locked in on certain traditional rites and practices that they continued to follow. Their problem was forgetting the meaning behind the practice. They knew they needed to be devout. Unfortunately, their devotion centered on practice not purpose.

Some of them, possibly needing to feel close to something spiritually, went up on some hilltops and built their own gods. Other “shrines” of the same caliber erupted in valleys by flowing rivers.

It made them feel good. Who knows what they believed.

Belief does not reside within our emotional system. We don’t feel belief. It is a cognitive process based on thought and guided by faith. To be sure, strong belief often stimulates feeling – sometimes guilt, sometimes despair, sometimes peace and joy. We enjoy those feelings and seek to find ways to replicate them. When our goal is to experience the feeling rather than practice the belief, we are “simply going through the motions” of worshipping God.

I always try to contrast scripture passages I read with my own behavior and with common practices of the Army these days.

The Lord said: Come now, let us reason together. Let’s think about what we’re doing. Let’s examine the purposes of our practices and explore whether or not we are simply going through the motions that result in “meaningless offerings.”

What we need are a few Isaiahs.

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