A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Church: Shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof?

I am so grateful to Sheri for bravely pioneering this unbroken (at least in my life) blogging territory. But really since it’s inception, I have anticipated the day I would be able to shove aside other obligations, push back daily chores, scrub away stubborn reservations and doubts and make room in my life for this new discipline. For writing is not only a joy, it is a necessity. As a pastor, I get to feed that need on a regular basis through sermon preparation and writing. Yet thoughts, ideas, questions (always questions) continue to spill over the edges of my conscious, demanding my attention as relentlessly as an impatient seven year old - yes, I have one of those!

This last week, my thoughts settled over the idea of “tradition.” My favorite Broadway musical is “Fiddler on the Roof”. This is the story of one man’s struggle to loosen his grip on tradition in the midst of all sorts of personal and societal chaos and upheaval. His daughters capably teach him, maybe more than he wants to learn. In the end, though tradition remains vital, he comes to accept the way in which family, relationships….love, trumps tradition.

As a pastor, I am both dismayed and intrigued at the slumping attendance in most mainline denominational churches. What’s going on here? Why is church no longer feeling relevant or meaningful for increasing numbers of faithful people? While there are many pertinent streams of thought, I have to wonder if perhaps the church doesn’t clench tradition a little too tightly in its fist?

In Mark, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t follow the church’s traditions. Jesus, a little ticked with their lack of vision, calls them hypocrites and then says, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

I get where the Pharisees are coming from. First Jesus and then Paul seem intent upon stomping all over sacred traditions. Forget about circumcision. Yes, you’ve been doing it for like 15 or 16 centuries, but it really doesn’t count for a whole lot with God. The purity codes, so not necessary. Get over the division between yourselves and Gentiles, that’s just downright wrong. Time to start over.

It’s like first Jesus and then Paul are taking a sledgehammer to all the traditions that bound the Jewish community together and gave them identity. And the people in charge of preserving this way of life are understandably livid…..and hurt…..and scared.

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” What is God’s commandment? Love. Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment. He replied, to love God and to love others (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28).

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with tradition. In fact, we need tradition. It gives our life structure and in a world where not much is certain, tradition reassures with its predictable nature. But tradition has got to be in service to God. Things go wrong pretty fast when this order gets upended. And it seems to me the church is one of the worst offenders in allowing traditions, far beyond their expiration date, to spoil and go bad.

The good news is that in allowing old traditions to die a good death, we make room for new traditions to take hold and help in shaping our lives, our communities and our congregations. Endings birth new beginnings. If we dare release our grip, it might just be exciting to see how new traditions breathe fresh life into our beloved Church. May it be so.

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