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Don't Write "New Years" in
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
If you're not careful, your past, your traditions can be the enemy of God's New Year's plans for your life and for your church. Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to say that traditions are necessarily bad or that we can do without them. Traditions have several valuable elements.
Traditions Bring Us Joy
Traditions bring us joy. During the Christmas season, for example, I love the peacefulness of singing "Silent Night." I treasure the lights on the tree and the warm memories of Christmases past represented by the unique ornaments our family has collected over the years. I enjoy gifts under the tree and Christmas cookies and getting all the children together around the table. And my wife and I look forward to spotting some mistletoe to give us an excuse to kiss passionately and shock our children a bit.
Traditions are comfortable because they are familiar — comforting in the way that an old shoe is more comfortable than a new one. They fit us well and don't cause us discomfort.
Traditions Empower Us
Traditions are powerful, too. We humans are creatures of habit. Habits structure our days in productive patterns. Get up, comb your hair, eat breakfast, get going with the tasks of the day. And habits keep us from the futility of perpetually reinventing the wheel. Have you ever tried to teach a skill to a child or a new worker? It may take them a while to grasp it, but when they do, this learned skill, habit, or "tradition" of how to perform a task enables them to accomplish a lot more than they could before. Much of the accumulated wisdom we humans possess consists of a statement of what works and what doesn't work, learned through painful trial and error.
Traditions Remind Us of Important Truths
Traditions function as a way of fixing patterns of behavior in order to preserve what is best. For organizations like churches and businesses, traditions are institutional memories or guideposts that keep us from straying from the values and productive patterns of the past. The people of Israel, for example, were commanded to commemorate Passover every year so they would remember how God delivered them from Egypt. Some churches recite the Apostles Creed or a Church Covenant. Businesses paper their halls with mottos and slogans that encapsulate the founder's unique insights on which the company was based. Traditions help preserve for us important truths and values.
Traditions Can Become Hobbles
But tradition can become an empty shell that are devoid of meaning and vitality. A tradition used to have value, perhaps, but not now. Once traditions were guideposts, now they may have become hobbles.
If you've ever been a leader, you've faced the frustration of trying to lead people to do something new. It is said that the Seven Last Words of the Church are: "We've never done it that way before." Corporations suffer from the "Not Invented Here" syndrome. They'll never consider this program, that option, or a kind of music or training that doesn't conform to their past. Tradition-bound churches, businesses, and organizations are so straight-jacketed by the past that they are unable move into the future. In such a case, past traditions severely limits present possibilities. Organizations that cannot reinvent themselves to be relevant in present-day life are doomed. If they can't respond to change, these organizations will die — not quickly, perhaps, but inevitably.
Traditions Resist Change
But it's not just organizations that must be able to change. We as individuals must change, too. In this new year:
- Culture will change in response to current opinion makers, current events, fads, and fashions.
- Circumstances will force us to do things we've never done before.
- A shifting economy will change the way we do our jobs — and whether we have a job at all.
- Physical changes in our bodies will affect our desires, our abilities, and our lifestyles — sometimes dramatically.
- Relationships will be severed or renewed as friends and relatives react to circumstances or move miles away.
If you are a tradition-bound person, this new year will be miserable for you. You will interpret each change as a loss. You will either adapt or you will retreat further into your shell of traditions that no longer work in today's world.
Traditions Focus on the Past
Traditions essentially focus on the past — the values of the past, the methods of the past, the glories of the past. They help preserve value in a world that's constantly changing. But if we're tradition-bound, then we are unable to embrace the present or embrace change. Even worse, we are unable to embrace Jesus himself.
Christianity Is a Relationship, not a Tradition
The Christian faith is not essentially about a building a denomination, or an institution hoary with tradition. At its heart, Christianity is not a set of rules or a religious structure. The Christian faith is essentially about a "now" relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The essence of Christianity is not about the past but about right now.
Of course, faith has an important component that remembers the past. We recall God's saving acts on the cross, for example. We remember what God has done for us in the past. But faith is only alive when it impels us to continue to live out our faith in the present, in the now. St. James said, "Faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26).
Traditions Can Keep Us from Listening to God
Sometimes I find myself interrupting my wife and starting to answer before she has finished speaking. Oh, that makes her mad! But when we are tradition-bound, we do that to God. We stop listening because we assume we already know what he'll say and that he'll never say anything new in the future.
By our traditions we second-guess God about what he wants us to do tomorrow or about how he wants us to react to a situation we're faced with today. Dear friends, this is not just wrong, it is deadly!
The religious, tradition-bound Pharisees of Jesus' day resisted him more strongly than anyone else. And he didn't mince words when he confronted them:
"Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men....You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" (Mark 7:6-9)
Wow! What would Jesus say to your church today? What would he say to you?
Listening to God on New Year's Day and Every Day
Now let's get personal. Is your own personal faith focused primarily on the past, on the traditions of your upbringing? Or is it focused on God in the present, right now? Are you listening so hard to your past that you can't hear God in the present? Are you hard of hearing — spiritually? Your God longs to speak to you afresh today.
Jesus wants to renew his personal relationship with you today, this week. Not just to get together to talk about old times and tell war stories, but to talk about tomorrow, about your future. About the exciting plans he has for you in the new year. We can never let the traditions we value become a substitute for a present day relationship with the living Christ, since the essence of the Christian gospel is that Jesus is alive today!
Why don't you pray right now. Be sure to ask God what he wants you to think about and to do today. Ask what he wants you to do in this New Year. Ask God to share with you his dreams and visions for you and share your dreams with God, too. As you discuss your dreams with the God of the Future, he will guide and mature them.
Lord, I confess that sometimes I have confused traditions with present-day faith. I've coasted on the memories of a past relationship while neglecting to earnestly seek you and your will for me in the here-and-now. Forgive me. Let me hear and enter fully into your New Year's plans for me. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
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