A few years ago, the Denver Zoo had a Polar Bear donated to them, under the condition that they would build it a state-of the art place for it to live. They agreed, and accepted the bear. During the construction of his new home, they made a small cage for Mr. Polar Bear to live in. The problem was that the space was so small that the bear could only take three steps, turn around, and then take three steps.
The construction took three years. But it was worth it. The new home for the polar bear was very impressive. It had waterfalls, and caves, and wind. The only thing it was missing was the Klondike bar.
And when the moment of truth arrived, when the bear was released into its new home, it stepped in, took three steps, turned around, took three steps, and turned around.
I’m a big fan of Christian History. I love studying it, and learning from the way saints in the past have tried to be God’s face to the world. In studying Christian tradition, one of the things that I’ve learned is that there really aren’t very many new problems. We’re dealing with the same stuff we’ve always dealt with. Including the problem of tradition.
When Martin Luther walked up to the Wittenburg Chapel door and nailed his 95 thesis on the wall, it was a watershed moment for Christianity. Luther really wasn’t trying to stir up the whole world, as much as just point out some things that he thought the church could do better. But a ball started rolling that would change tradition forever.
When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone got together they decided to form a unity movement in a world divided by Christian nuances and sectarian ideas. Luther’s protest had created the unintended consequence of making ever little disagreement Christians had, something to separate over. And Campbell and Stone disagreed on a lot.
Matter of fact, the things they disagreed on would split most movements, but for them it was the foundation of one.
They were, we were, a unity movement.
Because eventually, the world of Protest caught up with the Restoration Movement with a vengeance. And we learned to protest about every little detail. In the particular tribe that I belong to “Churches of Christ” I’ve seen us have church splits on every little detail. From how we would serve communion, to if we would pay the preacher. (Maybe that’s a more valid argument to have).
And to our shame, we exported these traditions.
The Mission of Tradition
Last week I was in South East Asia talking to Church of Christ missionaries about some of the struggles that they have with serving in their context. Many of their problems came from someone, years before them, who went and taught them the same divisions that we as a tribe had started off trying to avoid.
I met people in places like Cambodia, who said they couldn’t get the other Church of Christ in the nation to talk with them or work with them, because their church clapped.
As in clapping their hands, while they were singing and worshipping…in Cambodia. Which is a much more celebratory culture, than the Scandanavian Caucasian world that this particular church was sending missionaries from.
That’s what it looks like when you export a tradition without thinking about it.
That’s what it looks like, not when you have a tradition of mission, but when your tradition is your mission.
A few months ago, I read a letter written to a worship minister. The person who wrote it was upset about the new songs that were being introduced to the church. Specifically, one song really rubbed the guy the wrong way. Here’s what he actually said to the worship minister:
“I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday’s new hymn – if you can call it that – sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this – in God’s house! – don’t be surpassed if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need.“
Just As I Am.
We church people don’t change well. And this, In fact, can be one of our strengths. I get that we don’t need to marry ourselves to the spirit of the day, but I do think we need to pay deeper attention to our tradition. And we must learn how to bring it to bear on the culture and time that we are living in.
Because every tradition, at one point, was a break with the status quo. Every tradition started off with trying to do something new and fresh and compelling. And over time, what was once revolutionary becomes static and codified.
We stop paying attention to what the tradition was trying to do, and only focus on what it did.
We started off as a unity movement, and now we don’t talk to the other churches in town.
Every tradition starts off as a break in something else. That’s part of the tradition.
So maybe the best way to keep tradition, is to learn how to break it better.
In other words, it’s time to step out of the cage.