Life in Healthy Tradition

Let the recovery from the madness of the holiday begin!  Take a deep breath! Let it out and hopefully we can reflect on the joy of the season devoid of the crazy pace of last minute gifts, crowded shopping centers and the discomfort of distended bellies from a week of a non stop feeding frenzy!
Many of us will gather with friends and family, and partake of a variety of seasonal activities.   For some,  decorating the tree or the hanging of the stockings is a special family time.  For others, it’s the Christmas music which fills our airwaves, churches and invades the tunes we whistle as we walk from the car to shopping centre for a last minute item. 
For many of us, our thoughts go to our childhood and the many special moments with folks we love who can’t be with us. The thoughts of those special times may bring a smile to our lips and a tear to the eye.

For me Christmas has always been a great time and full of tradition.  One such tradition for our family is the annual trek to the mountains to harvest our own Christmas tree.  We head westbound with picnic lunches, coffee and hot chocolate in our thermos, sleds, mitts and toques.    We arrive in the snow filled mountains and begin our hunt for the new Rose family Christmas tree.   The hunt is interrupted by snowball fights, sledding, a bite to eat and warm drinks and then back to the business of finding a tree.  “How about this one”  my son calls out pointing to a 40 foot Lodge Pole pine and we burst out into laughter with memories of the movie National Lampoons Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase (another family tradition!).  This tradition is one of many we enjoy as a family.  Do I hope it is a tradition my sons will continue with their families?  Sure I do, but more so, I hope they take to heart the wisdom or the values within the tradition itself – the value of family and relationship.  The tree hunt is nothing more than a means to that end, to enjoy each other and make memories together, to laugh, play and love.

Traditions are often symbols representing values and they become traditions because at one time they answered the cry of someone’s heart.  Tradition serves us in ways that perhaps few of us have considered.  For example, traditions within a family, church or culture at large connects us to a bigger story – we all come from somewhere and have been shaped and formed by many different traditions, sometimes good and healthy and sometimes not so healthy.

    Healthy tradition can help us discover our identity, our story, who we are and where we come from.  This sense of connectedness is important; consider as Christians we are connected and shaped by our past, our history, most especially Jesus.  It is in Jesus we get a sense of who we are as a child of God and our place in the family.  Tradition is also helpful to help us get a sense of how we fit in the larger story.  As a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, what do I value and why? And then, “How then shall I live?”

Healthy traditions are a means of developing meaningful relationship with God.

Healthy tradition can be life giving but unhealthy tradition can suck the life out of you!  I will not address tradition of dysfunction (Addiction, violence, etc) here but rather traditions which perhaps at one time were healthy but over time have become septic and have long since lost any sense of the values or wisdom they once symbolized.    When our symbols remain symbols for their own sake and do not connect us to life, they in fact begin to poison us.  They enslave us to a form which is empty because the symbol itself has lost it’s relevance.   This in no way implies a rejection of the values in which it at one time symbolized, the symbol has simply lost its heart.

I remember as a new Christian I was a part of what many would call a “mainline” church.  The denomination has a rich heritage and in my opinion when she is true to her roots and her values, she is a very rich and healthy tradition.   This denomination values tradition, scripture and reason which I believe can be very rich.  My experience with tradition within that context was not a positive one.   I found myself clashing with symbols which were not meaningful to me and I attempted to create new symbols in new forms with the values intact.  This was met with distrust and hostility because the old symbol was no longer about the value but the outward manifestation.  The means had become the end.   The specifics of the tradition had, in a way, become God, had become their identity. As Jesus experienced, when you mess with peoples symbols, you are bound to cause trouble!   Jules Pheiffer said “Imagination continually frustrates tradition; that is its function” and this was what was happening.  (In fairness to the few folks that were so upset, I was young and had little or no appreciation of tradition.  In honesty, I did not afford them honor and the respect I should have.)

Personal relationship with Jesus is paramount and healthy traditions facilitate that end.  Graham Cooke from England suggests:

“We need to find our security in intimacy with the Father, not in how we can expect Him to do things.  The church usually has it the wrong way around; great security in methods and little security in who the Father is.”

Again, healthy traditions are a means of developing meaningful relationship with God.   When the symbol no longer translates, or communicates a healthy value then the symbol needs to change NOT the value.

Leonard Sweet writes in his book Aqua Church:

“I am a virtual fundamentalist about content (values).  I am a virtual libertarian about containers (Tradition).  Only in Jesus Christ did container and content become one.  Jesus’ comments about new wine in old wineskins remind us that we cannot make an idol of any form or container.  We must not elevate ecclesial form to the level of authority or primacy that belongs only to the content.
Unfortunately, much of the church is as fundamentalist about the containers as I am about content, and as libertarian about content as I am about containers.  Too many churches will only pour living water into something they would like or would pick up.  A lot of churches are languishing because they don’t trust the gospel to fit and fill containers with handles they don’t like.

    The mystery of the gospel is this:  It is always the same (content), and it is always changing (container).  In fact, for the gospel to remain the same, it has to change.  The old, old story needs to be tools in new, new ways.  In fact one of the ways you know the old,  old truths are true is their ability to assume amazing and unfamiliar shapes while remaining themselves and without compromising their integrity.”

Indeed, there is a ditch on both sides of the road.   While tradition can be life giving, it too can become septic and meaningless.  I have heard it said that we need to recapture the church of Acts, however I think it’s probably more healthy to become like the church just before Jesus returns.  However, this church can never be realized without building upon the healthy values and traditions of our rich past.  The health of a tradition has very little to do with it’s age.   Our western culture places great emphasis on new, and very often disparages the old as out of date and irrelevant.   I would caution us, this is a very shallow and dangerous view.  I have become convinced that we have much to learn from our history, from those who have wrestled through ideas, theology, philosophy and more over, those who have wrestled with the very issue which many take for granted.  Ancient thought has provided a foundation of tradition for us to live and grow in faith.   The doctrines of the trinity, incarnation, the resurrection are but a few of the traditions which we owe to the past.  Many of us have benefited from the traditions that have come through the Reformation and the various, rich stories of men and women, who like each of us, have wrestled with the questions of ‘How do we live? How can we have a relationship with Jesus?  What is my relationship to the world?  What am I called to be and do?’  Many of these voices have contributed to healthy spirituality.

Consider Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who said “God is not loved without reward, even though He should be loved without thought of reward.”  He also describes four degrees of love; 1) Man loves himself for his own sake, 2) Man loves God for his own good, 3) Man loves God for Gods sake, 4) Man loves himself for God’s sake.  Bernard of Clairvaux believed as we mature, we journey through the degrees. As we live life, the good, the bad and the ugly, through it all, we can experience and fall deeper in love with God.   This is a brilliant bit of wisdom and a deep value, one which we can be very real to us even though it comes from a voice almost 1000 years old.

In our postmodern age where it is fashionable to deconstruct often times indiscriminately, it may be enlightening to pause and consider the value that tradition may have in our life as a means of rooting us to our family, community, culture and values; not as mill stone to be lugged behind us but as a foundation to stand upon, to perhaps see a little further than those who have gone before us.  The tension, like so many things in the Kingdom, is to continue our journey together, rooted with a historic sense of those who have gone before us, those whom have labored to pass on the hope of Christ, and the call forward, with imagination and creativity, forging today’s traditions and symbols which point to our glorious Lord and Savior for those who have hearts to hear.

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