If you’re a careful rule-abider, few things are more frustrating than being one-upped by a careless rule-breaker.
The British soldiers battling in the American Revolution certainly felt that pain. After being carefully trained to fight according to formal European rules of engagement, they met up with informal, untrained American colonists who thumbed their noses at the rules and instead utilized Indian-style guerrilla warfare tactics.
The British generals dug in, thinking their rigorous adherence to the centuries-old battle system would eventually force the patriot rebels to surrender and thus prove British superiority. They insisted on marching in formal lines, right out into open fields, clothed in brilliant scarlet coats. This system worked when the enemy fought by the same rules, but the Americans didn’t pay attention to the rules. They looked only to the intent of the battle–to secure freedom from an oppressive government.
The British deemed the Americans as uncivilized and ignorant. And, indeed, in many ways the Americans were. But in the heat of battle, that patriot boorishness would ultimately prove quite effective.
So effective, in fact, that future armies would begin to adopt more of these techniques.
The British should have taken their eyes off the details of proper fighting technique and looked at the bigger picture instead. They just couldn’t do it, though. It wasn’t in their blood. (Which, by the way, would end up spilled all over the New World real estate.)
Let’s face it–some people are naturally careful and detail-oriented, and some are not. I definitely fall into the not category. I’ve tried really, really hard to be careful, but my mind wanders off on rabbit trails constantly and I inevitably stop paying attention to whatever my hands are doing at that moment and something bad happens. It’s a very good thing that I’m not a neurosurgeon.
It’s also completely to the credit of God’s protection that each of my six kids has made it out alive.
Even on the rare occasions that I succeed in staying focused, I’ll inevitably find that it was only because I overlooked something else.
Like the time when, while carefully putting together a nice outfit for church, I borrowed a pair of shoes from my mother. It was for a service in which I would be the piano accompanist for a music special. I was delighted when my visiting mom happened to bring along a pair of shoes that matched my skirt even more perfectly than any of my own did. Mom hadn’t planned on wearing them that morning and let me borrow them with the cautionary reminder that my feet are slightly bigger than hers. She also voiced her concern over my habit of shunning pantyhose in the summer and wearing them over bare feet. She said something about my feet sticking uncomfortably to the insides–a warning to which I merely rolled my eyes before going on to carefully ensure that the shoes’ color and style worked with my outfit. They were perfect.
I went to church happily with my family that morning, feeling quite fashionable for once. Sure, I had to keep my toes curled up inside the short shoes, and there wasn’t even a hint of arch support inside the ballerina-type flats, but that was a small price to pay for cuteness. My high arches could easily survive an hour without support.
Everything was going swimmingly until I had to walk up to the piano at the front of the church. The congregation had fallen completely silent as I made my way from the back of the sanctuary–the place where one sits when one is married to an introvert.
My journey forward into the hushed stillness devolved into a traumatic odyssey as I realized, too late, that bare, sweaty arches will create suction against flat cuteness.
Suction that sounds exactly like flatulence with every step.
Unbelievably, I was suddenly walking on whoopee cushion shoes that weren’t so cute after all.
I might as well have ordered them out of one of those elderly people’s gadget catalogs.
I hesitated after the first reverberating perrfftt, but then kept going, knowing that saying something like, “Oh, dear–it’s the shoes!” would probably just make me look truly guilty. It was so awful. I tried to pull my feet out of the shoes a little bit, but of course, Mom was right. My clammy bare feet were glued fast to the shoes’ lining. The whole doomed walk was punctuated with noises that made me sound like someone who was either very rude or very ill.
Except for a few coughs and snickers, the polite congregation remained silent as, red-faced, I pootzed my mortified self up to the piano bench and plunked out the opening bars to the hymn, “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows.”
(Okay, maybe isn’t wasn’t that hymn. But it should have been.)
And so, as in the case of 18th century British generals and first century Pharisees, I would have been much better off being less careful about appearances and more practical regarding results.
In New Testament times, the Pharisees were the ultimate, cautious rule-abiders. Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 23 when he said,
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”(NLT)
The Pharisees were like the British generals. Their stubborn focus on propriety, appearance and tradition kept them from seeing the bigger picture. They had lost sight of the law’s intent–the promotion of justice, mercy, and faith for the Jewish people–and instead used it as a vehicle to showcase their own piety. They made great shows of giving exact tenths of every bit of their income to their religious cause, but neglected to quietly use the same resources to relieve the common people’s burdens.
So many unnecessary Redcoat deaths resulted from the British generals’ refusal to part with tradition. And so many Jewish children of God were denied lives of spiritual freedom because of a similar obstinance on the part of the Pharisees.
Jesus, the revolutionary, was the leader of the Old Covenant overthrow. He taught his followers unorthodox tactics that stymied the Pharisees. They were blindsided by his careless habit of violating their traditions and embracing those who were judged as unclean pagans. He had the gall to uphold the Spirit of the law while ignoring their absurdly detailed tithings and fastings and Sabbath-keepings.
Jesus fought smart and he taught his followers to do the same. Like the British Redcoats, the Pharisees’ formalities made them easy targets for Satan’s attacks. Craving recognition, they put themselves right out in the open, almost begging to be penetrated and infiltrated by poisoned pride and hypocrisy darts.
In contrast, Jesus avoided hype and theatrics. He wasn’t careful about crafting an appearance, but focused instead on interior, practical heart matters. He taught his disciples how to steer clear from the temptations of celebrity by staying on the fringes of society. It was safer there.
So, in a weird way, maybe it’s safer to be careless with some things. Part of my healing from Pharisaism would involve throwing caution to the winds and adopting a less formal attitude regarding church stuff. I would have to open my mind, realizing that I just might be part of a new era. A time in church history when our culture and our faith are both required to take the next step toward preparing for Jesus’ return.
Maybe that preparation will look entirely different than anything our churches have ever formally taught us.
Maybe it’s okay that churches are changing–even closing (?)–especially if church growth will no longer be measured in numbers.
Maybe we’ll be part of a revolution.
And maybe, just like when Jesus came the first time, the clinging-to-tradition Pharisees among us will be the last to recognize His face.
Please help me, Lord to worry less about methods and more about hearts. Mine and others–I don’t want to miss seeing you in any of us. Keep me vigilant, ever watching for you, wherever I am…