We are, in many ways, products of tradition. In my extended family, a fond ongoing tradition is a weekend each summer when my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and our families all gather together at the country lakehouse where my late grandfather was raised. I can remember numerous summers spent out on the water boating, eating around the clock, fishing, playing ping pong, and sharing stories with family members. Even as we’ve missed participating in it for the last few years living further away from there, it remains stamped in my mind as a life-giving tradition that makes me who I am. In the five plus years my wife and I have been married, I’ve been learning some of the many traditions that serve as sinew in her large family. One, for instance, is the emphasis placed on Thanksgiving. When they gather together for the holiday each year it is always marked by a great variety of foods, including some of Middle Eastern origin—honoring their roots to that familial heritage. You and your families likely have many traditions as well—perhaps even some you don’t consider or realize as such. For many people, even one’s home and work can be looked upon as the continuance of a rich tradition held, shared, and passed down from grandparents to parents to children and so on.
In the church where I was raised, I can recall many traditions. Some were as simple as in what room a certain group (e.g. Luther League) met for Sunday School or annual events such as the big meal and auction held each Fall. Three plus years into being here, I’m still learning a number of the “traditions” that form the congregations I serve. I’d even like to think we’ve together begun new traditions that hopefully will carry on into the future and serve as formative for these communities and fruitful for all involved—such as our annual Epiphany Social Statement Forum where each year during the season of Epiphany we gather in the parsonage for soup and study a social statement of the ELCA, or our growing M&M BBQ Benefit where the congregations of Alma and Edensburg Lutheran Churches join together in serving a meal to those in our shared county and all the proceeds raised are given to local organizations in support and affirmation of the work they are doing to care for others. Traditions—new and longstanding—make us who we are, both as individuals and communities of faith. Many of these traditions are good, faithful expressions; however, some either lose their purpose along the way or are themselves unfulfilling or downright painful for particular persons.
When we join a new community, part of our integration consists of learning the traditions of the place we are beginning to call our own. It is in this process that individuals can often times find themselves stumbling through and butting up against traditions that might be foreign, seem strange, or be accompanied by reasoning that feels forced and frankly unfriendly. This is not always the case; but it does happen more frequently in the church than we like to admit. When a practice, in itself, is held up above those whom it is being pushed upon, we in the congregation have to ask ourselves and others: “Why do we do…?” What’s the origin of this practice? What value do we attach to the ritual? Is there a particular purpose for why and how we do this in the church? How did this event once function compared to how it does now? When this was started, what was the context of the situation? Where does it fit into our identity? Traditions worth having and keeping require intentional evaluation and critical reflection, otherwise they run the risk of becoming golden calves—idols we hold up, impersonal and unaccountable.
In a time when more now than ever the church is considered irrelevant by an overwhelming majority of the population, we need to engage in conversation about why we do what we do. What is the function, purpose, expectation, and hope of the traditions we bear in our individual congregations? The social get-together we have each late summer—with its growing difficulty to get assistance in coordinating and declining turnout—we need not quit it immediately, but rather ask ourselves why we do this event. Is it for the betterment of the community? Does it serve as a means of evangelism and social outreach? Or, is it a relic of time long ago—a means of anxiously clinging onto the past in hopes of returning to what has been lost or changed? The date and time by which we gather to discuss congregational business—with its poor attendance and minuscule input—we need not drastically change it, but rather ask ourselves why this quality of leadership functions as such. Is it something that has simply never been considered worth changing to accommodate others attending? Was its initial conception constructed around seasons of planting and harvest, school activities, or work in general? Or, is it a part of the church that defies the changing context of new and different parishioners over time? As new research is published regarding changes in how adolescent brains function or media is made available for additional means to teach a variety of subjects in new and vibrant ways, even catechesis (Christian education)—particularly how we approach material and teach it—needs to be reconsidered. Is Wednesday night, after students have sat in class all day, still the most appropriate time to gather for Confirmation? Are the years of seventh and eighth grade—when kids are experiencing drastic changes physiologically, along with wrestling through overwhelming thoughts and feelings attached to this formative age—the best possible place in life to introduce such abstract thinking as is needed in discussing deep biblical themes and church theology? Or, has the rite been misfunctioning as more of a means to an end than a step in lifelong faith formation and continual affirmation of one’s baptism? To question a tradition does not mean it is flawed or disposable, but instead points toward our seeking to be reformed and renewed in our mission and ministry as the church.
Daily, we are made new—put to death and raised to new life—in the Crucified and Risen Christ. With this, we look into the future with hope for that day when Jesus will return raising all people to new resurrected life and remaking creation whole again. The Spirit calls us to live and serve in this newness starting here and now within our relationships, work, and many other doings. Part of this calling as Christians means always evaluating what we do, why we do it, and how it can be transformed for faithful service to God and our neighbor. Such critical assessment can find itself met with concern, chastisement, and conflict by those who fear change or root their identity in such traditions. Love, honoring what was, and exploring our shared hope for the future as rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ are crucial for how we grow together as the church in this time and place. Take time, whether following worship, amidst an event, or following a discussion with others, to ponder and perhaps ask fellow parishioners why it is that we do what we do. That consideration and questioning just might be the catalyst needed to reshape or begin a tradition for renewed faithfulness. Let us not be shackled by our traditions, but instead learn and grow in them to be who God creates, Christ calls, and the Spirit enlightens us to be.