The Other Side of the Pilgrimage
As a new teacher at a New England boarding school I asked a long-time administrator about the rules. I had not seen anything in the faculty handbook about rules and I was, like everyone in a new place, anxious not to start out by breaking them.
“Rules? Well, we don’t have rules as much as we have traditions.” I asked how I would know what those traditions are and he smiled: “When you break one of them you will know.”
He was right. It took me some time to discover the difference between the two, but when I did I had a new appreciation for the distinction.
Rules multiply and become more specific. Rules are especially good at addressing particular situations, but they proliferate.
On the other hand, it only takes a few strong traditions to set the boundaries or, like a deep keel, keep a ship steady. Traditions allow for some innovation while rules typically lead to greater and greater specificity that eventually quashes all creativity.
However, breaking rules is almost never as traumatic as breaking traditions. It takes a long time to establish a tradition – like always vacationing in a certain place or opening one gift on Christmas Eve. The upheaval over breaking an established tradition is long lasting. I suspect Jesus made far more enemies over offending traditional thinking about the Messiah than he did for breaking a few rules.
I’ve just returned from my first trip to Israel, and I suppose that is what has me thinking about rules and traditions. There were plenty of both – especially in Jerusalem where the concentration of Orthodox Jews is much higher.
I had no compelling desire to go to Israel, but it was a good opportunity to travel with friends and family. I did not have great expectations or, frankly, look to have the Bible come alive and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, I’m not sure what my expectations were. Like most pilgrims and tourists to the Holy Land, there was the thought in the back of my mind that going there would have an effect, but mostly I was simply intrigued. I read a couple of books suggested by friends to give me a sense of perspective, but there is no way to prepare for the complexity of the situation.
While at the Western Wall praying for close friends, I realized the wisdom of N.T. Wright’s words. We do not come to the Holy Land to have a deeper experience with God or, as he puts it, “to look for selfish refreshment, to top up our own spiritual batteries while forgetting everyone else. We are called to discover the other side of pilgrimage: not only to go somewhere else to find God in a new way but to go somewhere else in order to bring God in a new way to that place, not by tub-thumping evangelism or patronizing, well-meaning but shallow advice, but by our presence, our grief, our sympathy, our encouragement, our prayer.”
Of course, I took pictures, and that is what I want to share with you today.