As we neared Canada for our second time in January, returning for my mom-in-law's funeral, I sat thinking about what might be most helpful for my husband and his siblings as they prepared to write their mom's tribute. I envisioned us around the kitchen table that evening, sharing favorite stories...laughing....crying too, but fully immersing ourselves in a rich time of remembrance with the hope that these reflective threads might provide the material for a beautiful tribute. I didn't really think I was going out on a limb with this suggestion. Not only could I not imagine a better way to do this, I couldn't imagine another way, period. Todd was quiet for a few moments and I began to squirm. In those circumstances I would never have shared my reflections if I had thought Todd might not agree. But he shook his head at me. Caught off guard, I offered an argument rather than grace. Undeterred by my logic, Todd stated very plainly that the cozy scenario I was imaging was not going to work. Feeling comfortable speaking on behalf of his siblings, he said that kind of sharing time would be too painful for all of them. He told me they would most likely use a chronological structure as a starting point and that they would work simply to get their thoughts on paper together, without inviting a whole lot of participation. And he communicated all this to me gently. I argued a litte bit more, but then decided to stop, knowing that most likely what I had envisioned would simply happen naturally.
That evening around the supper table, I asked the kids to share some of their special memories of Grandma. Everyone appreciated what they had to say and some of the kids' reflections found their way into the tribute, but Jonathan and Becca's reminiscences didn't prompt anyone else's. Later that night, after the kids were in bed and the in-laws had retired, Todd and his brother and sister worked hard to put their vision of their beloved mom to words in exactly the manner Todd had predicted they would. And together, they wrote a truly beautiful tribute to their mother.
It often takes me by surprise how differently Todd and I think, especially when I make this mistaken assumption that we'll agree. This is alternately frustrating, enlightening, funny and scary. We are surrounded by so many commonalities. And yet how we look at our common view is uniquely our own. So then I think about someone who comes with a different educational background or from a different socioeconomic bracket or a different religion or culture and I'm staggered at how differently we all must see and experience this life.
I used to think it would be cool to sit in someone else's head for a day. Now I tend to think that an hour alone would thoroughly traumatize each of us. Inside my head, my mind is firing constantly, sending me down rabbit trails I don't quite get much of the time, popping up embarrassing or uncomfortable thoughts - everything clamors loudly for attention, so much so that my thoughts alone often make me weary. How then would it feel to experience someone else's inner chaos? How would you attempt to make sense of another person's randomness? How would you respond when you realize how vastly different they perceive the very same realities that surround you? In this mental exercise, I begin to realize how precious common ground is and how lucky we are every time two or more climb ashore on the same sandbar.
I think most of the narrative passages in the Bible would illustrate this point, but for whatever reason, I didn't find it striking until this last week as I read through Naaman's story (2 Kings 5:1-14). Naaman, commander of the army for the king of Aram, was afflicted with leprosy. Naaman's wife had a serving girl, a captive from Israel. The girl happens to mention that she knows a guy from home who could heal her master. Naaman decides it's worth looking into and so he gets permission from the king to head on over to Israel where he comes before the king of that land. This king nearly tears his hair out under the false impression that the king of Aram is trying to pick a fight with him. Meanwhile, the healer, Elisha hears what is going on, calls his leader a bit of a drama king, and requests that Naaman come see him. However, before Naaman can even approach Elisha, Elisha sends a messenger to him, telling Naaman to go bathe in the dirty, stinky Jordan River seven times. Naaman gets all huffy and insulted and refuses to follow the instructions until his servants bridge the gap and convince him to do otherwise. When Naaman emerges from the river fully healed, he tries to pay Elisha back for his good deed, but then it's Elisha's turn to take offense since he gives all credit to God. Between all the hurt feelings, unintended slights, and communication blunders, it's a wonder anything at all gets accomplished in this story.
I pastor a tiny and ever declining rural church in its final stages of life. As we face into our uncertain future, we have needed to be very intentional about time set aside for ongoing conversation and reflection. As part of this process, a few months ago I began having conversations with people centered on two questions. What do you need from church? And, what would your ideal church look like? We're a fairly like-minded group. We don't have the extremes of diversity you would find in a larger congregation. Despite our similaries, it soon became clear that we come with a wide variety of needs and there are as many different notions of the ideal church as there are people who attend. We all understand and approach church differently. So where do we begin?
Interestingly, a starting point may be tradition. Tradition is a double-edged sword. It has a way of sweeping us along under a cloak of comfort and security until we're so far away from the original point of the matter we can't really even remember why we began the tradition in the first place. And yet, we love our traditions. They feed us and give our lives needed structure.
Tradition plays another crucial role as well. Traditions help make sense of our world by standing as common ground, as an equal starting point. We do certain things the same way, maybe for completely different reasons, but we do it and therefore can relate to everyone else doing it, at least to a degree.
In our church, a favorite tradition is our Christmas Eve service. Some of us most enjoy singing our cherished Christmas carols together. Others most appreciate listening to the Christmas story read aloud in the context of community. I suspect a few of our members most anticipate the light-hearted, joyful time of food and fellowship in the church basement afterwards. For myself, the most sacred moment is singing "Silent Night" together in a circle with lights turned off and candles lit, a circle of relationship and inspiration that lights the dark. But it is our over arching Christmas Eve tradition that binds all these different perspectives together into something we can all take part in and share. No matter what happens to our church, no matter if the Christmas Eve service soon lives on only in our memories, it will always be common ground for all of us who have ever taken part.
When traditions are torn away, whether it is lilfe or us doing the tearing, we begin to lose some of our common ground. In the church, people traditions are most dear. You sit beside the same person every week. You "shoot the breeze" with the same people after worship each Sunday. You look forward to the special potluck dish that a certain person makes. You enjoy hearing certain people sing. When these people, key to your experience of church, move away or pass away, these traditions die too. But people traditions are always in flux, always changing. Knowing we have very little control over our people-focused traditions maybe makes us hang even tighter onto our time-honored rituals, sacraments, our traditional schedules and unspoken ways of doing things.
It is no wonder the institutional church dislikes change so much. What sane community would look to voluntarily surrender any bit of its precious common ground. But the idea that tradition can somehow build up a dam which staves off change is a dangerous illusion. Tradition serves an essential role in its unique ability to bind us together. But if tradition becomes the most celebrated common ground of the church, we're left with an insidious form of idolatry.
God's Spirit is always moving, always breathing new life into our tired structures. Most of the time we hear these words on a surface level and find them refreshing and inspiring. But in practice, the implications are terrifying, at least for an institution that thrives on keeping things the same. God's Spirit is always pushing us beyond tradition, beyond our comfort zone to a place where common ground hasn't yet been established.
Naaman is a very good example of someone pushed beyond his comfort zone. At first he resists the call to look at things from a perspective other than his own. But in the end, he is able to make that leap of faith and rely on others to lead him in a right direction. He is scared. He is embarrassed and frustrated. He is confused. But in the end, he is also transfomed. He is healed.
Traditions are of great value. We need common ground. But the common ground tradition provides is transitory. When we cling too much to our traditions, the church begins to lose it's grip on what is supposed to be our unwavering and holy common ground - God. I'm still working through what all it means to be church, but I know the common ground is our common desire to know God, to understand God better, to worship God, to be in relationship with God, to discover new faces of God in each other. May we have the courage to nurture new ways of being and doing, confident in an unshakeable common ground that will outlive all our most treasured traditions.