How would you like to have your prayers buried on the Mount of Olives?
A tradition in Jerusalem allows those who come to the Western Wall to scrawl a prayer on a scrap of paper and wedge it in the cracks. Twice a year these prayers get scrabbled out and buried on the Mount of Olives. Last week an article reminded me again that the time to bury the prayers had come.
When I saw the prayers in the cracks for the first time, I found it tough to connect with the tradition. It seemed the wall had become the priest between God and people.
What about my traditions? Are they any less bizarre to others, any less potentially hypocritical—even though I know the true Lord and Savior?
Jews pray with their heads covered; we western Christians take our hats off. Their prayers are public and loud and showy; ours are private and quiet and restrained. They rock back and forth and mumble from a book; we bow our heads, close our eyes and utter unrehearsed words.
But even our “extemporaneous” prayers follow traditions, don’t they? Ever heard those who mutter “Father God” in almost every sentence they pray? What about bowing our heads and closing our eyes—where is that in the Bible? Even praying “in Jesus’ name” has become little more than a verbal cue for the end of a prayer.
It’s easy in the familiarity of our own traditions to shake our fingers at the oddities of others. Jews pray while rocking, Muslims kneel with their bottoms in the air, and we Christians bow our heads and close our eyes. But without the heart engaged, our worship becomes as phony as those who don’t know the true God. Blend any tradition—bowing, standing, prostrating, rocking, kneeling or jumping—with no personal relationship with God, and it’s totally pointless.
God cares far less about our traditions than He cares about His Word in our hearts. How do we know that? The Lord said to Isaiah:
This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote (Isaiah 29:13).
Thinking that God hears us any clearer because we bow our heads, close our eyes, and end our prayers “in Jesus’ name” proves as useless as shoving our prayers in the wall and burying them in the ground.
We always have to come back to the simple truth that Jesus refused to commend any religious activity that was not an expression of character.
Adapted from Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus: A Journey through the Life and Lessons of Christ (Regal: Ventura, California, 2008).