So much of my life has been taken up with religious ritual that there hasn’t been much room left for actually living and experiencing the reality of what Jesus taught.
I was reminded of this when reading Matthew 5:23-24, when Jesus said, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.“
Well, over the years I’ve “offered a lot of gifts at the altar.” I’ve prayed a lot and studied the Bible until my knees hurt and my eyes blurred. I’ve given a lot of offerings in money to my church too, sat for thousands of hours in church services and ceremonies, taken pages and pages of sermon notes, and sung multiple hymns. I’ve done my time, gone through the motions. I’ve left a lot of gifts at the altar of religious ritual.
But one day it hit me that all my religious rituals were only a thin veneer covering a rather nasty inner self. I remember the occasion vividly. I had just preached what I thought was a scorcher of a sermon and I glowed in the aftermath of a job well done. It was in the car on the way home, however, that I blew up at one of my children. I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember the contrast between how religious I felt after my sermon and the reality of how quickly and horribly I turned nasty and very unreligious with my child.
It was too late to leave my gift in front of the altar and be reconciled to my child, because my sermon had already been done. But what I could have done was stop the car at the first available safe spot on the road and apologized to my child for snapping at him. In other words, don’t let too many miles go by without admitting I was wrong. I wish I’d done that. I didn’t, so the rest of the journey was awful. I stewed with guilt, and he stewed with “What on earth was that all about?”
The obvious gap between my religious rituals and the reality of my actions really hurt our relationship. I can see why he left off attending church with us in his late teenage, because if all that ritual we’d gone through as a family couldn’t stir me to make a simple apology when needed to keep our relationship as father and child intact, then what was the point of it all?
No wonder he left church and home. It was heartbreaking, because he really struggled without the warmth of family. I see now why Jesus said what he did. A simple “drop everything” on my part until my son and I were “reconciled,” and what a difference it would have made to our relationship for the last twenty years. What we’ve both missed out on instead is so sad.
I’ve heard it said by many teenagers who left church and home that they left because of the hypocrisy they saw in the church, and especially in their church-attending parents. Hypocrisy is a tough word to take, because Jesus used it often in describing the most religious people of his day too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites,” he yelled in Matthew 23:27. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside you are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
I don’t like reading James 1:26 either, that says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” There’s that gap again, between all that religious ritual we do and the reality of our actions.
So what’s the cure? Well, fortunately, James also comes to the rescue in the cure too, because in James 3:17 he says, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.”
What a gift from God that is. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It comes from God. He’s the source of it. And it has nothing to do with religious ritual either. He’s interested in us experiencing the reality of his gifts, not us giving gifts to him. In other words, “Less ritual from us, and more reality from him.”