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Friday, September 26, 2014

Tradition

     But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
     So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
-2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 (NIV)


I got a call this week from a domain hosting company, about a web domain name a group of church leaders I was working with had purchased a few years ago. Without further use for it, we had let it lapse. Somewhere along the line, I had become the administrator, and the company was calling to get me to renew.
     I told the lady who called that I didn’t want the domain name anymore, and she told me she could cancel it for me. “What is the User ID and password?” she asked.
     I had no idea. I wasn’t the one who had originally purchased the domain, and if I had been told what the User ID and password were, I had long since forgotten. I had to confess that I didn’t know.
     “That’s OK,” she said. “Do you think you can answer the security question?” I doubted it, but told her to go ahead and give me the question.
     Then she read it, and I realized that the person who originally bought the domain had been thinking ahead to a situation like this. The security question was, “What can wash away my sins?”
     I’ll give those of you who, like me, grew up singing that song in church every other Sunday time to scream out the answer. (You might just whisper it to yourself if you’re reading this at work.) 
      For those of you who didn’t grow up singing it in church, the answer is “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
     Bet a fair number of you are humming it right now.
     I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend recently about worship. Or, rather, we were talking about what happens when the church is together for worship. (Those are probably different, but hopefully related, subjects.) Specifically, we were talking about the importance of tradition in worship, even in those churches where Tradition (with a capital T) is considered a problem. Because, whether you acknowledge it or not, tradition is an important part of what happens when the church gathers for worship.
     That’s because, I think, traditions develop out of theology and values. If you have the theological view, for instance, that Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist — even the language you use shows the influence of tradition — if  you have the theological view that in this part of the service God imparts grace to the worshipper, then the way you do it will reflect that theology. Likewise if you consider it nothing but a memorial meal, in which the church is active and God is just an interested observer. Some values will probably be attached to that; if God is acting during that part of worship, it will likely be heavy on ritual and ceremony, and the liturgy will be nailed down. If it’s primarily the church that’s acting, it will likely be less ceremonial and ritualistic, and there may be room for considerably more improvisation and variation.
     There are theology and values driving the kinds of music a church chooses for its worship, or the Bible translations a church reads from together, or the mode of baptism used, or how the worship space looks, or even the dress of the worshippers. Theology and values drive the formality — or informality — we expect of the worship service. It drives the way worshippers behave, whether they shout “amen” or clap or raise hands or sit still. Some of that theology and some of those values lie closer to the surface. Some we largely inherit from previous generations, without giving it a lot of thought. All of that — the theology and values that color our expectations of what “worship” looks like. They form our tradition.
     Sometimes, to be honest, tradition can suck the life out of worship. It can prevent a church — or a worshipper — from allowing the possibility of the Holy Spirit working through other forms, other traditions. It can turn what should be a life of gratitude to God into a colorless, empty life of drudgery. Tradition can break hearts instead of lifting spirits. It can enslave instead of liberate. Jesus warned against this very danger. When the preservation of tradition becomes the point of a church’s existence, then the work of God is undeniably compromised.
     On the other hand, Paul praised the church for remembering the traditions he had passed on to themeven if they needed a bit of an adjustment. Clearly, then, traditions aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes they’re just what we need to recall what God has done for us, or to consider what our lives should look like as a result of his work. Sometimes tradition helps us to make sense of the world, to connect to something we know as we navigate something unfamiliar. 
     Remember that scene in Titanic? There’s panic and chaos on the deck as the ship starts to sink. Below deck, and older couple huddles together in bed, a man sets a clock, the captain stands lonely at the wheel, a woman tucks in her children. As people fight over lifeboats, a group of musicians on deck begins to play Nearer, My God, To Thee. It changes nothing, of course. The ship is still sinking. Most folks don’t even seem to pay attention to the musicians. And yet, we know as viewers that the song matters. In some ways, it makes more difference than anything else happening. The scene seems to say that traditions keep us calm in the midst of chaos, even right to the very end. They anchor us to something larger than ourselves, broader than our own lifespan, deeper than our own reserves of strength. 
     The gospel is itself a tradition. No one on earth today was a contemporary of Jesus, or has ever been acquainted with anyone who is. No one today has ever seen an original manuscript from any book of the Bible. The gospel itself has been passed down through the lives and words of people who believed before us. That accounts for the myriad different ways that believers have chosen to live that gospel out in their lives. But it’s no less true for having been passed down through all those centuries. In some ways, it’s more authentic now than it’s ever been.
     Our best traditions connect us to the gospel in ways that resonate with us, reassure us, remind us of the work of Jesus and its meaning for our lives. The traditions themselves aren’t the gospel. It’s independent of them. They can be confused with the gospel, and come to mean more to us than the gospel, but that doesn’t make the traditions themselves a problem. For my son, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” might not resonate as much as another song, or another tradition, but we all need traditions that connect us to the work of Jesus to calm our fear, remind us of our hope, and answer our questions. So explore your traditions. Reflect on the songs that give you hope, the prayers that encourage you, the practices in your church and in your personal life that connect you to the gospel. Develop new ones, with your church, your family, your friends.

     You might find that the traditions you keep will answer some security questions for you, too.

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