Messages on the Wall
My knowledge of the bible is rather superficial. If it were not so, I would be able to put my finger on the exact passage I was searching for. But I can’t. I know that it is in the Old Testament, and probably in one of the early books – possibly Exodus or Leviticus – but just where, a quick scan has been unsuccessful in locating. Thinking about it now, it must surely come after the account of how the ten commandments were collected by Moses on stone tablets from the mountain summit.
The passage I am seeking refers to the injunction upon Hebrews to place in a small leather box fastened to the forehead (I think it was called a frontlet), and in the cylindrical container fixed to the door-posts of their houses, the text of, if memory serves me rightly, the first two commandments. Thus the true believer would be constantly reminded to love God and honour his elders and ancestors. Or then again, perhaps it contained all the commandments.
As usually happens with me, what brought the elusive passage to mind was a quite unrelated, trivial event – a card my daughter brought back from an American holiday. She gave to my wife, who framed it and placed on the wall by the front door. It reads, “Do you want to speak to the man of the house, or to the woman who knows what’s going on?” The implication that I don’t know what is going on is quite scurrilous. However daughters and wife are firmly of that opinion. I have lost the argument, and so the matter rests.
Placing texts, sayings and slogans upon the walls of buildings has a long tradition. In mediaeval times those on the churches would frequently be in Latin. The chapels of the Victorian era had texts from the bible in English, enjoining the congregations to seek the Lord, or worship in holiness. Framed samplers, poems, quotations and the like have been hung upon the walls of our homes, certainly since Victorian times, and possibly earlier than that. In the last century a common injunction was to “Bless this house” or the statement that “Home is where your heart is”, or possibly “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”. Modern texts are inclined to be less pious. A mother I know has a notice in her kitchen, “You have two choices for dinner, you can either take it or leave it”.
Perhaps the modern equivalent of the frontlet is the T-shirt emblazoned with words, sometimes funny, occasionally rather rude, often with a political or social message. But, in contrast with the ancient Hebrew leather box, seldom carrying a religious text. The frontlet, the small box containing the text hanging on the forehead, was there so that the holy words were literally before the wearer’s eyes at all times. Wherever he or she went, however the head was turned, there in front was the word of God. The wearers could not be unsure of the obligations religion imposed upon them, and which were accepted. As the Jew entered or left his house he would touch the small cylinder on the door-post in an act of obeisance, and as a reminder of the demands of his faith.
The text on the wall, the cylinder on the door-post, the ornament on the head, or even the sticker in the car rear window, in addition to reminding the owner of his opinions, serve another purpose. They say something about the owner or the occupier to the world at large. Sometimes it is a simple message or slogan, or a demonstration of the sense of humour of he or she who displayed it. But the ancient Jew gave a more substantial message to the world about himself. It was, “I am a Jew and as such I accept a way of life which requires me to love my God, the only true God, to honour my parents, to refrain from actions which the religious law prohibits, and to undertake the obligations my faith demands of me.”
In other words, the display was both a private reminder and a public demonstration of belief. And both aspects of faith are essential to the good life.
Let us take first the private reminder. A common theme of a number of hymns we sing, and the prayers we repeat, is that we must have before us, constantly, an awareness of the essential bricks of which the house of faith is constructed. The need for tolerance and understanding; the place of forgiveness, charity and humility; reverence and awe are a part of our religion, as are exultation and joy. The Jew of old put them literally in front of his eyes. We may not do that, but yet they should be, to coin a phrase, at the front of minds.
All of us know how easy it is to repeat sincerely the tenets of faith, and then to fudge them, or forget them in the course of daily life. It is one thing to say we must forgive those who trespass against us, it is quite another to put that noble aim into practice. Love of neighbour is a central plank of Christian belief, but applying it in real situations can be, to put it mildly, at times sorely trying. And so it goes for many of the other articles of faith.
The Jews of old were probably, nay certainly, patchy, as we are today, in the application of high ideals to everyday life. But they endeavoured to remind themselves of what was required of them from their God. The words were constantly before them. Their houses had the texts upon the entrances and exits. Most of us, dare I say all of us, have selective memories and an ability to over-look the inconvenient. We need reminding of our vows as was once said on the theme of forgiveness, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
If the words are not literally before our eyes as was the case with the Jews of the Old Testament then, we have to carry before us, at least figuratively, our statement of belief, as a reference against which we measure our actions.
And now to the second point; that of displaying before the world our posters and placards, our texts and stickers. I said they say something about ourselves to others. True as that is, it is not always the case that what is portrayed is to our advantage. Sometimes we see slogans and messages on walls which are intended to humiliate others, or to fill them with fear. We have all seen photographs and film clips from Belfast or Londonderry of wall murals proclaiming hatred, or twisted, triumphal rejoicing. And in our own towns and cities graffiti attacking minority populations is, sadly, all too prevalent. Those responsible for such scribblings say much about themselves, as they proclaim a message which both saddens and disgusts most of us. Other messages are comparatively innocuous. Seeking to persuade in some way, or advertising our membership of a group or our profession perhaps.
But the important messages about us are today’s equivalent of the ancient Jewish frontlet and the text on the portals of the house. They may not be visible in the sense that the eye may behold them, but they are clear and unmistakable nevertheless.
The Jew who attached the commandments to his home was saying to the world, “I endeavour to live by those precepts, and I invite you to judge me against those standards. I am not hiding the rules by which my life ought to be lived. If I fail I will not, and cannot, pretend the rules are other than they are, or that I was unaware of them.”
Matters are little different for us. Our faith is understood by others in how they see us as we speak to or act towards them. Our real beliefs are interpreted by those who observe our actions. Our neighbour is aware of what our true principles are, not by examining the doors of our houses and our facial features, but through our relationships with him. We may believe that we subscribe to the dogma which includes tolerance, but if that is not how the world judges us, because our deeds and actions contradict this precept, then what is written on the walls of our houses by us is in contrast with the opinion of the world. By your deeds so will you be known.
And if we can put up a message based on love and understanding upon our walls, which is seen by others to be valid and true, so we are also capable as a race of defiling our walls with vile and disgraceful graffiti. We may not physically take our spray paint cans to cover the walls with massages to frighten and denigrate others. But, if by our words, our actions, by our whole demeanour we give out messages of hatred, then it is as if we have actually written the words upon the surface of the buildings.
On the outside of our places of worship we put up posters. They give details of what to expect within – the name of the church, the denomination, the times of services, perhaps a wayside pulpit, occasional sermon subjects and so on. All useful, helpful information to the passer-by.
But as individuals we carry other posters round with us, as sandwich boards hung about us. They proclaim what we believe that we may be reminded – lest we forget. And we write those words ourselves in our own hand. But others add their contribution to our posters. Words that compare statements with deeds. Words that cast us as Priest, Levite or Samaritan; as arrogant hypocrite or humble repentant sinner; as a brother or sister, or as an indifferent bystander.
Our beliefs are the frontlets before our eyes; we must strive to ensure that our walls and gateposts carry the same text. As the words of the hymn put it: “Be what thou seemest, live thy creed…”
C.J. Rosling 3 March 1996
Mexborough 3 March 1996
Hucklow 16 March 1997; Doncaster 10 July 2005; 27 July 1997
Fulwood 11 January 1998