And There Is More…

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 8:27-38.

“Have you been SAAAVED?”

People ask me that sometimes.

I say Yes, I’m a Christian. I’ve been baptized, confirmed, and ordained. I serve as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

And they ask me again, “But are you SAAAVED?!” They want to know whether I can identify a particular moment in time when I made a decision to “give my heart to Jesus.” Depending on the theological orientation of the person asking the question, they might also want to know if that decision was accompanied by baptism by immersion, falling down under the power of the Holy Spirit, or ecstatic speaking in tongues.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage or discredit any of these phenomena; many faithful Christians (including not a few Presbyterians) have experienced changed lives as a result of them. My only problem is when people treat these blessings from God as criteria by which one person can judge whether or not another person counts as “a real Christian.”

People who speak of being “saved” in this way typically think of salvation as a one-time event, but I think this conception falls short of what we find in the pages of the Bible. What I take away from my reading of the Scriptures is that salvation is not a one-time event, initiated by the Christian through an act of faith, but an ongoing process, initiated by Christ through an act of grace.

My favorite response to that question (“When were you saved?”) comes from the prominent 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, when was the exact moment when you were saved?”

Karl Barth responded, “I was saved at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, in the year 33 A.D.”

When people ask me whether I’ve been saved, I want to say, “Yes, I’ve been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, thank God, not by virtue of my own merits or pious experiences, but by the limitless grace of God that has been made known to me in Christ Jesus and never stops working in me to finish the good work that was begun at the creation of the universe.”

So, are we saved? Yup.

Salvation is a process: an ongoing process whereby we are continually growing in our knowledge and love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves. There is not a soul on this earth right now who can rightfully claim to possess the fullness of salvation. There is no one who has achieved (or received) perfect knowledge and love of God. No matter how good or wise we are, there is always room for us to grow. With God, there is always More.

Jesus talks about that very thing in today’s gospel reading. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And he gets the answers then being generated via speculation in the rumor mill. Unsurprisingly, these ideas conform to the religious concepts and categories of their time. “Jesus is a prophet,” they say, “like Elijah or John the Baptist; he is a messenger, sent by God, to tell the people of Israel something important.” And to this, Jesus says in effect, “Yes. You’re right. I am a prophet, I do speak truth to power, I am here to set God’s people back on the right track… but there’s more.”

So, he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter takes it to the next level, he says, “Okay Jesus, I get what you’re doing here. You’re a prophet, but not just a prophet; you’re more than that. I say you’re the Messiah: God’s anointed leader who will march into Jerusalem by the power of the sword, kick out those pesky Romans, and usher in a new Golden Age of purity and prosperity.” As Peter speaks, I imagine the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on. Glory! Glory, hallelujah!”

This is Peter’s idea of what it means to be the Messiah. This is his answer when Jesus asks him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Jesus says again, “You’re right: I am the Messiah… but there’s more.” I am marching to Jerusalem, not to conquer and kill, but to be killed. And our people will not receive me, but reject me. Peter’s definition of Messiah is entirely inadequate. There is more to Jesus than that…

And Peter, bless his heart, does exactly what any of the rest of us would do in his situation. Does he sit back and rethink his previously held assumptions? Does he thank Jesus for this valuable perspective and insight? No, he gets angry and rebukes Jesus for challenging his preconceived notions.

Don’t we all do the same thing? We don’t like it when people challenge our assumptions about the world. Jesus is like that neighbor kid who comes over to play and breaks all our favorite toys. That’s just who Jesus is. No wonder nobody likes him. No wonder the people rejected him and had him killed. No wonder his closest disciples betrayed him, abandoned him, and eventually denied they even knew him. Jesus doesn’t know how to play nice. He’s doesn’t leave well enough alone.

But what we fail to see is that Jesus does these things to us, not because he’s the mean bully from down the street, but because he loves us. Jesus loves us exactly as we are, and refuses to let us stay that way. He knows there is more to life than we have heretofore conceived. And he wants us to experience its fullness in abundance, but first he has to pry us loose from those old ways of thinking and behaving. He has to deconstruct our feeble, limited ideas about who he is and what he means.

The people said he is a prophet, and he is more than that. Peter said he is the Messiah, and he is more than that. Christians say he is our Lord and Savior, and he is more than that. Theologians say he is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, and he is more than that. No human words or ideas can ever sufficiently sum up the totality of who Jesus is. Anything we can say about him, he is all that and more.

The journey of the Christian spiritual life is about following this Jesus, who is “all that and more.” Christian spirituality is about remaining continually open to these new depths and new dimensions of God that are being continually revealed to us in Christ. Our task, as believers, is not to plant our flag on a particular ground of theology and defend it against all comers. Our calling is to keep on following, to keep travelling forward into the next truth that Jesus wants to reveal to us.

I love this sentence by the famous Trappist monk and spiritual author, Thomas Merton: “If the you of five years ago would not consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”

Salvation is a journey. It is a process. It’s not about having the theologically correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s about letting Jesus ask us that question over and over again. It’s about growing in love and wisdom, outgrowing the answers we thought we already had. It’s about following Jesus, one step at a time, toward an unknown Promised Land.

Brothers and sisters, we are about to embark on a journey of discovery and discernment this week, as a parish. We have already completed the first phase of New Beginnings assessment program. Now begins the task of looking over the data and deciding together what we will do with it. We may find ourselves facing difficult decisions in the days ahead. We may hear Jesus challenging our assumptions about what it means to be the church.

Because being the church is not about the beauty of our buildings, the success of our institutions, the size of our bank accounts, the style of our worship, or the effectiveness of our programs. Church is about much more than that.

It was two years ago this week that my family and I first arrived in Kalamazoo, so I could begin this call as pastor of North Church. Within a week of our arrival, I made a point of sitting down with my predecessor, our pastor emeritus, Rev. Bob Rasmussen. Over lunch, I asked him, “What do you think this church needs most?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me. It was three words: “Just the Gospel.”

And that’s it. That’s what it means to be the Church. To follow Jesus Christ. To know and love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves. To let Jesus ask us that question, again and again, day after day, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s all there is to it.

We could have the rest of those aforementioned trappings or not. We could go back to being like Eliza Valentine and our first ancestors at North, a crowd of misfits, meeting in the woods, fending off stray cows with sticks, and we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Just the Gospel.” That’s all we need. I want you to remember that as we begin our process of discernment this week. And if you can’t hear that from me, then hear it from Pastor Bob.

On the surface, it might seem like Jesus is that mean kid who comes over and breaks all our toys, but deeper truth is that he loves us. And he does what he does in order to free us from the trappings that hold us down, the lies that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life he has prepared for us to walk in. Jesus loves us and stands in front of us, two steps down the road, beckoning us forward with the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What he wants from us is not a final answer, but another step forward in faith. He wants us to keep asking ourselves that question with the ever-present realization… that there is always more.

America Is Not the Future of the Church (Reblog)

“Statistics show that church actually isn’t dying. But it is changing.”
Another great article from Relevant Magazine. Worth a read.
A few good lines –
“[T]he church in the U.S. is indeed changing and indeed losing some of its unchallenged dominance over the culture … and I actually think that might be a good thing. My hope is that it will remind Christians that “success” isn’t measured by money or power or numbers, but rather by the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where those characteristics are present, the church lives.” – Rachel Held Evans
“Christianity has had a series of revolutions, and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” – G.K. Chesterton

Pastor’s office hours: Time to cut back? (reblog)

Thank you all once again for reading, reflecting, and commenting. I’m surprised and honored that an article I wrote for this blog over two years ago is receiving renewed attention. I’m glad to be on the journey with all of you.

In the same vein as A Growing Church is a Dying Church, I’d like to share this article by Joseph Yoo on Ministry Matters. It’s yet another useful tool for pastors and churches as we try our best to follow Jesus:

Pastor’s office hours: Time to cut back?

In a recent sermon, Pastor Andy Stanley stated that every church has a gravitational pull to be a church that serves only its members — a pull to be a church for just insiders. That’s because 100 percent of the complaints, suggestions, critiques, and comments come from people who are already there — already attending the church. The leadership team feels pressure to bend towards a lot of those complaints and suggestions and in turn they become more inwardly focused than outwardly focused. So the church becomes more and more friendly to the “insiders” because we put a lot of effort into meeting the needs of the “insiders.” It’s easy to ignore the “outsiders” — those we’re trying to reach — because they have no voice within the walls of the church. And they have no voice, no suggestions, and no complaints because they aren’t present.

Click here to read the rest of the article

(Reblog) Plague on both their houses: The real story of growth and decline in liberal and conservative churches

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Eastbound, WA. Image by Joe Mabel. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reblogged from ABC News (the Australian one):

As it becomes clear that the fates of liberal and conservative Christianities may not be as distinct as is commonly assumed, the time has arrived for a re-evaluation of liberal Christianity. For conservatives, the task is to stop interpreting the demise of liberal congregations as a victory for evangelical Christianity, and to explore what might be learned from the fact that liberal Christianity’s roots lie in the attempt to adapt and respond to cultural diversity and modern individualism. For liberals, the challenge involves far more than finding the courage to address the significant decline in church membership. Their task begins only after acknowledging that liberal Christianity has a real problem transmitting itself to subsequent generations. As Steve Bruce has observed, liberal churches generally appeal more to disaffected conservatives than they do to people with no previous background in Christianity. This fact suggests that liberals need to give greater attention to why the doctrines and traditions of Christianity should matter to someone not already familiar with them.

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Carnock Church Ruin – North Side. Image by Nigel J C Turnbull. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reblogged from Thom S. Rainer.

A truly frightening and sobering analysis.  Here is a summary of Rainer’s report:

  1. The church refused to look like the community. 
  2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  
  3. Members became more focused on memorials. 
  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing.
  5. There were no evangelistic emphases.
  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted.
  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter.
  8. The church rarely prayed together.
  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed.
  10. The members idolized another era.
  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate.

Click here to read the full article

Re-Blog: Why I’m Done “Growing the Church”

Reblogged from Joey Reed, a United Methodist pastor in Tennessee.

No more just “growing the church”… Unless you mean something different when you say, “Grow, Church.”

Click here to read the full article

He talks about tossing the concept of “church growth” into the garbage (where it belongs).  In its place, he advocates placing “Growing in Grace”, “Growing in Love”, and “Growing in Depth”.  These things, Reed says, will make for a growing church.

I’ve had similar thoughts of my own in the past:

A Growing Church is a Dying Church

Needless to say, for those who have read my stuff before, I’m right there with you, Rev. Reed!

Not One Stone: Facing Mortality, Finding Meaning

Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock at the site where the Jerusalem temple once stood. Image by Peter Mulligan. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Click here to listen to this sermon on our church’s website

A middle aged man goes to see his doctor for a physical.  At the end of the examination, he asks, “Well Doc, do you think I’ll live to be a hundred years old?”

“Let’s see,” the doctor said, “do you smoke?”

“No,” the man said, “absolutely not.  Never.”

Doc: “OK then, do you drink?”

Man: “Not a single drop in my entire life.”

Doc: “Do you eat a lot of sugary or fatty foods?”

Man: “No way!  I’ve always been very careful about what I eat.”

Doc: “Do you drive very fast?”

Man: “Never!  I always drive 5 miles an hour below the speed limit, just to be sure.”

Doc: “I don’t quite know how to ask this one, but have you had a lot of girlfriends?”

Man: “Absolutely not.  I’m celibate and I’ve been celibate for my entire life.”

Doc: “Then why on earth would you want to live to be a hundred?!”

Why indeed.  You and I live in a culture that has mastered the art of denying death.  Everything from anti-aging cream to plastic surgery is designed to keep us from facing the reality of our own mortality.  Consumer advertising and commercial television keeps us distracted from thinking about death until we absolutely cannot avoid it anymore.  At that point, if we so choose, they can give us drugs that will “make us as comfortable as possible,” effectively tuning us out until our bodies stop functioning.  Our culture’s goal, it would seem, is to first ignore and finally numb the dying process so that we won’t ever have to come to grips with it.

Of course, the wisest among us don’t wait until that point to reflect upon their own mortality.  They find their own way to accept it and even make peace with it.  For these people, thinking about death doesn’t have to be something dark or morbid.  In fact, it can give their lives a sense of meaning and purpose.  People who know and accept the fact that they are going to die live with a conscious awareness that they have a finite amount of time on this earth and it’s up to them to make the most of it.

If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time?  What do you want your life to stand for?  When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you?  These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.

When we accept that this life will not last forever, we realize that it cannot be an end in itself.  Like the man in the joke, we have to ask ourselves: what’s the point of living to be a hundred years old if all you’re going to do is eat Brussels sprouts?  The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself.  Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.

In spite of our culture’s death-denying attempts to distract or numb us, each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself.  We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them.  Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before.  It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

However, it’s at this point that our cultural programming kicks back in and tends to shut us off toward the next step in our development.  Our culture is so individualistic that we don’t even think about the larger social bodies of which we are a part.  We tend to stop with ourselves and not notice how it is that an awareness of mortality applies to larger realities.

People are mortal.  We know that.  We accept that fact, at least theoretically, even if we choose to ignore it for our entire lives.  However, not many of us stop to think about other things that share our mortality.  These things might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence.  Families are mortal.  Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring.  Churches and other faith communities are mortal.  There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors.  The same thing is true of entire religions at large.  There are very few people on this planet who continue to worship the gods of Mount Olympus in the same way that they were worshiped by Greeks in centuries past.  Nations are mortal.  The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it.  Where is the great Roman Empire today?  Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts.  Species are mortal.  Dinosaurs no longer roam the earth like they did 65 million years ago.  Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal.  One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.

If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible.  Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.

Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel.  The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE.  Jesus, as usual, is walking away from yet another fight with the established religious leaders of his day.  In the previous chapter, chapter 12, you can read about Jesus butting heads with representatives from almost every major Jewish sect and community: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and temple scribes.  The conflict between Jesus and the organized religion of his day had reached such a boiling point that Jesus, in his frustration, was about ready to give up on it.  When this morning’s passage opens with him leaving the temple, he’s not just out for a stroll, he’s right in the middle of storming out in a huff.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism.  They say of the temple, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Jesus is unimpressed.  He says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people.  They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection.  For them, the temple was immortal.  It was an end in itself as a center of worship.  The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.

As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on.  The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal.  It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE.  It was never rebuilt.  The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.

The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable.  The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things.  Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.

If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure.  Nothing lasts forever.  We need to accept that.  What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: ““Do you see these? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  All things are mortal.

The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality.  Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for?  What will people remember about me when I’m gone?  What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole?  What is the meaning of my life?”

We can ask these same questions about our mortal families or this mortal country.  The day will come when the United States, like the Roman Empire, will only exist as a chapter in a history book.  Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves as Americans: “When that day comes, what will that chapter say?”

As Christians, we can also ask these same questions about our church, our denomination, and our religion as a whole.  We need to get over this ego-centric idea that God will protect and preserve us from our own collective mortality.  Just look at the way Christianity itself has changed over the last two thousand years.  We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that the Christianity we practice is identical in faith and form to the Christianity practiced by the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo.  We identify ourselves as Presbyterians, but if John Knox and John Calvin (the founders of Presbyterianism) were sitting in this church right now, they would be horrified by much of what they would see.  Likewise, if a Christian from the year 2412 were to time travel into this sanctuary right now, that person’s faith would likely seem so foreign to us that we wouldn’t even want to call it ‘Christian’ at all.  Just as Paul and Calvin have shaped us, our faith will shape the future long after we are gone and the pressing crises of our era have ceased to be relevant concerns.  What will be our lasting contribution to that future?

Finally, as members of this church, I think we need to ask these questions about our mortal congregation.  This little church has been in Boonville for over two hundred years.  We take great pride in our history and our building.  Maintaining the integrity and beauty of this place is a chief concern for many people in this room.  But all of us together need to hear Jesus saying to us what he said about his own temple: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  This place, this building, and this congregation are all mortal.  They will not last forever.  “All will be thrown down,” as Jesus said.  If our only motivation in coming here week after week is to keep the doors open and the lights on, then we’ve already failed.  We’re like the man in the joke at the beginning of this sermon: we have no reason to live for another hundred years.  Wise individuals live with a conscious awareness of their inevitable death and then adjust their lives accordingly, so as to make them as rich and meaningful as possible.  It is no different with wise churches.

This church will die eventually.  Whether it’s in ten years or another hundred years, it will happen.  We need to remember that.  We need to embrace that truth for ourselves so that we, as a church, can make the most of the time we’ve been given right now.  Knowing that this church will one day die and “not one stone will be left here upon another,” we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we here?  What is this church living for?  What will be our lasting contribution to the life of this community after our doors are closed and our lights shut off forever?  What is the meaning of our life together, as a church?”  Those are the real questions that we need to be asking, not just once for a special project or a mission study, but continually.  We need to set these questions before our eyes like a carrot dangling in front of a horse during a race.  These are the questions that need to drive us, propel us, or perhaps lure us forward into the future.

As we explore these questions within the conscious awareness of our church’s impending death (whenever that will happen), I believe we’ll start to see a slow-motion miracle in progress.  Even as we are facing and embracing death, I believe that we will also start to experience a kind of resurrection.  It’s been my experience and observation that the most vibrant, active, and growing churches are the ones who have found their reason for being, the meaning of their existence, outside themselves.  These churches are passionate about spiritual growth and community service.  Their members gather together, Sunday after Sunday, not to maintain what they have, but to seek what they desire.  There is a yearning deep within such people for “something more.”  They are hungry for silence, prayer, scripture, and sacrament.  They long to deepen their connection with the sacred mystery of divine love.  This love, in turn, leads them out, away from the church and into the streets of this community where love demands to be shared with hurting people through compassionate word and deed.  This is my vision of a church that faces mortality and finds meaning.  When the day comes that “not one stone will be left here upon another,” such a church will live on in a state of resurrection, even if our doors are closed, our lights shut off, and our roof caved in.  Even then, even if our church dies, it will live.

As a church, as individuals, as a country, and as a species, may we be people who live with a consciousness of death.  May we face mortality and find meaning.  In the midst of these piles of rubble, where stones have been thrown down from the broken remnants of our sacred temples, may we walk together the path of our own, continual, slow-motion resurrection, following in the footsteps of the Living Christ, the Risen One in our midst, the faithful friend who abides with us and guides us on our way.

The Democracy of the Dead

“I handed on to you what I also received…”  Image by Trilok Rangan.


Hacking Christianity has posted a wonderful response to A Growing Church is a Dying Church.  I can’t find an author’s name, but whoever it is has done a fantastic job of thoughtfully analyzing and critiquing my words.  I’m honored that someone would care enough to craft such an in-depth response.  The whole article is worth reading.  Here’s the link:

RE: A Growing Church is a Dying Church?

Why We need Tradition in the Wesleyan Church

Here is my rejoinder to Hacking Christianity’s rebuttal:

It wasn’t my conscious intention to be an “iconoclast of tradition”, but I can definitely see how my original post might read that way.  In my own mind, I’m quite the traditionalist, especially when it comes to liturgy.  If I were going to push against “tradition” at all, it would be two particular kinds:

1.  Nostalgia masquerading as Tradition.  In many cases, “the way we’ve always done it” actually refers to practices that only became established during the 1950s-1970s.  In my experience, those who fight hardest for this variety tend to be baby boomers who want to reconstruct the church of their childhood during the postwar church-attendance explosion.  What they want is a return to cultural dominance, popularity, and (most of all) money.  When they talk about returning to “traditional hymnody”, they don’t want the time-tested theological depth of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley.  They want Fanny Crosby and the Sunday School hymns of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Never mind the horrible theology found in “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”, people want to sing it because it reminds them of days gone by, just like Bing Crosby at Christmas.

When my generation retires, I’m sure there will be plenty of cranky curmudgeons who will torture their pastors about singing “Shout to the Lord” and “Awesome God”.  Rich Mullins will roll over in his grave on that day.

2.  Habit masquerading as Tradition.  “The way we’ve always done it” carries much stronger argumentative weight when people can identify why they’ve always done it that way.

For example, my wife’s grandmother used to always slice the end off of her Christmas ham each year.  When my mother-in-law asked why she did that, Grandma said she didn’t know, it was just the way her mother taught her to do it.  When Grandma later asked her mother about the origin of that tradition, Great Grandma revealed, “Oh, I only did that because the cooking pan I had back then was too small and a whole ham wouldn’t fit!”  All along, they had continued this tradition without knowing why they did it.

Here’s a counter-example of a well-reasoned tradition: My current congregation closes the Sunday service by singing the Clare Benediction.  They began this tradition while they were between pastors several years ago.  There was a long interim period, followed by a tragically short pastorate, followed by another long vacancy.  All in all, it had been about 7 years since they really felt at home with a pastor.  That’s a long time for a church that wasn’t ready to transition to a lay-led model.  The face in the pulpit varied each week (when they could get anyone to come at all), but the one symbol that held them together during that time was the fact that they closed each service with that same sung benediction.  That’s a tradition that means something.  They know exactly why they do it.  Ironically, that same awareness of tradition has allowed them the freedom to let that practice go.  This year, for the first time, we’re not singing it.

G.K. Chesterton called tradition “The Democracy of the Dead”.  I love that.  I want to preserve a sense of continuity with the Church Catholic from all times and places.  If anything, I’d like to see more tradition, not just Amazing Grace but also Phos Hilaron.  I long for us to constantly reopen the wells of living water dug by our ancestors.  Some of my folks dismiss practices like Sharing the Peace and weekly Eucharist without realizing their power as ancient traditions of the Church.

Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked that tradition is not “the dead faith of the living” but “the living faith of the dead”.  That’s what I want for my congregation.