Being superstitious is very common among sports men and women and also in the theatre. All sorts of behaviour is tried in order to ensure success and to avoid bad luck. Superstition can also enter into religion as happened to the Israelites. Having lost a battle they sought a way to ensure that their next battle was a success. In doing so they stepped outside what God had told them to do and made the Ark of the Covenant into some kind of magical object. The elders and the sons of the priest colluded with this behaviour. Of course, that was all a long time ago and we have learnt a lot more science and so on since then. Sadly that doesn’t necessarily prevent us from moving from faith to superstition.
On Thursday, at the 2pm SLT service, I gave a reflection about superstition and faith which is reproduced here. The readings were 1 Samuel 4:1-11, Psalm 44:10-15, 24-25, Mark 1:40-end.
I wonder if one of your New Year’s resolutions was to get more exercise. Walking is good exercise of course but perhaps you were thinking of taking up a sport. I did a bit of research and found out some pointers on how to be successful in various sports.
If you fancy baseball it’s important that you talk to your bat and also that you sleep with it. Before picking it up you should always spit on your hands. Never lend your bat to another team member. Whereas it’s right to talk to your bat you should definitely not talk to the pitcher. If you hit a winning streak do not change the meals you eat or the workout routine you are following. If you are losing in the later innings of the game, do not turn your cap around.
Of course, you may prefer to try tennis. Do remember that it’s bad luck to hold more than two balls in your hand when you serve. (I’m fine on this as I have small hands.) Whatever you do, make sure that you are not wearing anything yellow. You can bring yourself good luck by walking around the outside of the court when you switch sides.
You may think that something a little more sedate like golf would be better for you. Remember when you begin a game to use only odd-numbered clubs. Balls numbered higher than 4 are certainly bad luck. On the other hand, if you carry coins in your pocket that will bring you good luck.
Perhaps a bit of amateur dramatics would suit you better than sport. You would get out and meet new people and have the fun of dressing up. Endear yourself to your fellow actors by wishing them to ‘break a leg’ as they go on stage, particularly on the opening night. Do not say ‘good luck’ as that is sure to bring about bad luck. Avoid whistling in the theatre. Don’t say the last line of the play in the dress rehearsal and don’t say the name of the ‘Scottish Play’ in the theatre’s green room or bad luck is sure to follow.
You might by now be wondering what use my advice is. It’s weird and apparently makes no sense at all. However, all of what I have told you are actual superstitions in the world of sport or the theatre. Normally intelligent, reasonable people start doing strange things in order to hopefully bring themselves success in their chosen field.
In the reading from Samuel something very similar goes on. The Philistines, originally called the Sea People, had settled on the coast of the Mediterranean between Egypt and Gaza. In the time of this passage they were well established in the south-west of Canaan and were threatening Israel. They had a very well trained professional army and were extremely capable in war. The Israelites did not keep a permanent army. Instead they called up men who normally worked on the farms when a battle was threatened.
It’s easy to see why the Philistines won the battle at Aphek. It seems that the elders of Israel had not expected to be defeated. Despite the huge difference in experience between the two armies, they had anticipated that God would have given them the victory. In order to make sure such a defeat could never happen again, they made the decision to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh. The Ark was supposed to be kept in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle, the most sacred part. Instead it was taken out and the room desecrated by those who should have known better.
This shows just how little the Israelites understood God. Instead of having the awe due to God, the elders are treating God as a thing, a talisman, a good luck charm, like a rabbit’s foot or a four leaf clover. The Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of the presence of God, a holy object, has become a magical object which will give them the victory. The Israelites had turned away from God, retaining only a form of godliness, and effectively turned to idolatry, making the Ark their god. It’s worrying that the elders and the sons of Eli the priest collude in this.
It is so easy to revert to some form of folk religion and superstition. In the same way that sportsmen and women go through bizarre rituals in order to ensure victory, the Israelites were remembering past successes and trying to ensure that they were repeated. They were trying to control God, to force his hand. They had made the connection between God, the Ark and victory and they were using their flawed understanding to try to bring about what they wanted by having the Ark lead them into battle, something they had never been commanded to do by God.
Contrast what happened in the case of Jesus and the leper. The leper came to Jesus and asked for his help. He presented his need, begging to be healed. He affirmed Jesus’ power to heal and then he waited. He remained in God’s hands, the outcome depending entirely on what Jesus chose to do. No superstitious mumbo jumbo, just a humble presenting of himself and his need. Once he received his healing, Jesus sent him to express his gratitude to God by making the right offering at the Temple.
It’s very difficult to leave ourselves in the hands of God. I’ve known people say that they won’t pray for themselves as God has others who are more needy so they don’t want to take up his time. Like the Israelites, they show little understanding of God. He can deal with each of us as though we are the only person in the world. He does not have a limited amount of power that has to be eked out so all can get a bit when they most need it. Apart from a lack of understanding, I think pride is behind this reluctance also. Once we pray to God we are handing him the chance to help us, rather than helping ourselves and for many people that is just too difficult. They would rather come up with their own way to a solution.
Listen to what Sophia Loren said:
‘I’m not a practising Christian, but I pray. I read the Bible. It’s the most beautiful book ever written. I should go to heaven, otherwise it’s not nice. I haven’t done anything wrong. My conscience is very clean. My soul is as white as those orchids over there, and I should go straight, straight to heaven.’
Sophia had found the magic spell that would make things work as she wanted and get her a guaranteed place in heaven. Pride had blinded her and she was trying to control God or even circumvent the need for him.
As Christians we take Jesus as our example. In the Garden of Gethsemane he poured out his distress to God but then handed the outcome to God and waited: ‘Yet not my will but yours be done’. And as we will pray shortly, Jesus taught us to say: ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven.’
It is so easy to stray from the truth. Even the elders and the priests did so in Samuel’s time and I’m sure some do even today. We need to constantly go back to the source of our faith, the Word of God, and learn afresh what it says, day after day. That is the route to victory in life and a vibrant relationship with God.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor