In my Dropping A Veil #2 post of last week, I said that I wanted to address two things that I alluded to in the first post, and I wrote about how Christians are all too happy to settle for popular teachers, and don’t really look for writers and teachers who take them “higher up and deeper in.” Realizing that my verbosity had once again gotten the best of me, I ended last week’s post with a promise to address the second topic that had become important in my spiritual life: that of appreciating the difference between the living faith of the dead vs. the dead faith of the living.
“As Shaky As A Fiddler On The Roof”
One of my favorite movies! I could watch that movie at least once a month and never get tired of it. And if you know your movies, you know that Tevye, in the opening scene, tells the audience that life in their village is as tenuous as that proverbial fiddler, but there is one thing that helps them keep their balance:
And now I could go into a quick rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man”, but I’ll try to restrain myself. The second change in my spiritual life in the past ten years has been the acceptance of the role that tradition plays in the Christian life.
I know that tradition gets a bad name, that we know Jesus condemned the traditions of the Pharisees when He said, “You void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (Mk 7:13) Of course, I not only agree with our Lord, I ascribe to the truth He delivered in that statement.
But like so many of Christ’s statements, this, too, is chanted as a mantra and not examined to see what He was actually teaching us. There is a difference between tradition that speaks to us, and mindlessly doing something because “It’s just what we do.” A well-known story to illustrate:
A newlywed couple were approaching the holiday season for the first time as a couple, and were determined to start creating their own memories. The wife had purchased a ham for Christmas dinner, and in preparing it, cut off about 4” of the end.
Her husband was in the kitchen, helping her to make Christmas dinner, and asked why she did that, curious as to why she had cut that part off of the ham. She replied that her mother had always done that whenever they had ham. And now, she, too, began to wonder why the necessity of cutting a portion off of the ham, and so called her mother.
When her daughter called and asked, Mom replied, “Well, I’ve always done that because I saw my mother do that when I was a little girl.” And, like her daughter and son-in-law, she wondered why it was necessary to do that, and so called HER mother, the grandmother, to ask about this.
Grandma laughed when her daughter asked the question and explained, “Oh, that? I didn’t have a big enough pan to bake a whole ham, so I would cut some off so it would fit. I kept the part I cut off for another meal.”
“Physician, Heal Thyself!”
Before you get your knickers in a knot and start huffing yourself up over tradition, let me ask you one question, here at the end of the year. Since we are celebrating Thanksgiving this week, and are entering the Christmas season, do you have any holiday, ahem, traditions that you and your family keep?
We do. Our entire marriage, we put up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, and it stays up until Jan. 6th, the 12th day of Christmas. Within the past 10 years, we have added the Advent wreath to our seasonal celebrations. Most years, we also do an Advent calendar, opening a window every evening in December, leading up to Christmas Eve. Since we have been attending our local Methodist church, we have been attending Christmas Eve candlelight services.
And there are other family traditions, as well, that aren’t spiritual in origin. For example, a few years ago, we started having a “Jewish Christmas”. No, we don’t go to synagogue; Wife was saying that preparing for Christmas, and then doing a big Christmas dinner was becoming too much of a burden, and so, Christmas afternoon, we celebrate Christmas as Jews do: a movie and dinner at a Chinese restaurant. 🙂
How about you? Any family traditions that you keep, at your house? They aren’t meaningless motions to you and yours, are they?
Rote or Reality?
And that’s the key, isn’t it? “Meaningless”. When I was growing up as a Catholic, I could whizz through a rosary, AND be thinking about Hopalong Cassidy at the same time. As you can tell, I never got a thing out of it. Why? It wasn’t mine. It was my mom’s faith, not mine.
In his book, Jesus in the Present Tense, Warren Wiersbe includes this paragraph:
The tradition itself is not wrong, but it is wrong to observe it in a meaningless and routine way and to ignore the Son of God. The late theologian and church historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
My reciting of the rosary wasn’t my faith. I was keeping my mother’s tradition going. However, today, I do use beads when I pray; not a rosary, but a new tradition, Anglican prayer beads. Christians have used beads for centuries for praying (in fact, I recently learned that our word bead come from the Old English word bede which means to pray.)
This past year, I wrote a series about The Apostles’ Creed, and what this 1700-year-old statement of belief means to me. When I say the Creed, I am repeating the same confession of beliefs that Christians down through the centuries have been confessing. Wesley, Luther, Wycliffe, Hus, Zinzendorf, Tyndale, Moody, Spurgeon, Edwards, Cromwell, Athanasius, Chrysostom; all believed in the statements of the creed. Their lives were spent in living that Creed, and their faith still lives in the Creed; when I recite the Creed today, I am joining in this faith that is still living today.
Our local Methodist church usually incorporates a choral reading of the Creed every Sunday (it is memorable when it is NOT included.) Now, I’m sure that there are some (many?) in the congregation for whom it is just a reading, a recital; for me, I am confessing my faith to the world. Glenn Packian expresses this best in his Discovering The Mystery of Faith.
These words form a path, a trail to walk on. When we say them, sing them, or pray them with worship and faith in our hearts, we can remember how many others have prayed these words before us. We can think of the great church fathers, the bishops and theologians, the peasants and farmers, the missionaries and martyrs. We can imagine all the saints around the world who gather each week on the Lord’s Day and say these very same words and sing them and pray them with one voice.
Form or Faith
When I do something just because “well, that’s how things have always been done”, it’s not from my faith. It’s just the form. It may have been a practice carried out in the past by Christians to whom these traditions were real worship, but when I do them without a thought as to the God behind the action, I’m merely practicing Traditionalism, and not worshiping a living God.
Tradition is keeping faith alive. Traditionalism is merely mummifying the corpse that once was faith.
As an example, here is a short clip that educates, seeking to change Traditionalism into viable Tradition.