I just had the incredible opportunity to spend nine days in The Holy Land. Prior to my visit, I would have called this location Israel, but now I better understand why it’s known as The Holy Land. The name fits perfectly. Over 3 million people visit every year–many of them pilgrims from one of three different faiths who relate to the land. It’s impossible to share what I’ve experienced over the past week and a half in a blog post. Actually I’m pretty sure that it is going to take many months just to process the experience for myself. I do, however, want to spend part of this 12 hour flight home to share one thought that might be helpful to all of us on a spiritual journey.
This is another long post, but it’s got some pictures so enjoy.
Our guide’s name was Deeb. He led our group (made up of young clergy in the United Methodist Church) from Tel Aviv to Bethlehem to Jericho to Ein Karem to Tiberias to Jerusalem and many more spots. Naturally, as a group of young clergy, we gave Deeb a tough time. Apparently we are about 30 years younger than the average tour group who typically do a much better job of listening, staying together, and paying attention in general. But we’re sure that Deeb appreciated our humor along the way. By the end of the trip, we were honorary Palestinians and Deeb was an honorary UMC clergy. We had a blast together and I’m going to miss him. Here’s a picture of us in Sabastia; which marks the location of King Ahab and Jezebel’s palace:
I noticed along the way that Deeb would use an interesting phrase as we came to the different sites. “This location marks the tradition of _____,” he would say. When we asked why he uses this language, he explained that many sites have varying degrees of authenticity. The early church would decide to commemorate an event from the Gospel accounts, such as Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree to watch as Jesus passed by. The tree found in the park at Jericho today is obviously not the tree, because it is not over 2,000 years old. Instead, the current tree surrounded by a fence, marks the tradition of Zacchaeus’ curiosity (or faith). Another traditional site is that of the Shepherd’s Field–marking the tradition of the angels’ pronouncing Jesus’ birth. Here is a picture of me and my buddy Drew at the site: (Have I mentioned beards are in?)
There are other sites to which recent archeology has lent either credibility or doubt regarding the actual location of certain events. But Deeb was quick to explain the role faith plays in understanding these sites. Do we who believe in the story of God require archeological evidence to appreciate an account of Jesus’ healing? Is the general vicinity good enough? Does marking the tradition suffice?
All of this conversation around tradition made me think about the traditions in our own churches. Some of us celebrate traditions that date back hundreds of years. Some of us participate in much younger traditions. And still others of us have thrown all tradition out the window in hopes of creating new spaces for new people (who will eventually celebrate new traditions).
Some of our traditions, however, have devolved into traditionalism. Traditionalism is when a tradition becomes the end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Ritual takes over and we are lost to the original intent.
So what is the right answer when it comes to tradition? Should we or should we not? Which ones?
For any church, perhaps a faithful tradition is one that at its worst points people to the story of God and his redemption or reconciliation within the world. And at its best, tradition actually inserts people into his story. Take the burial of Jesus for example. Joseph and Nicodemus default to the Jewish burial tradition in which they had been trained. In participating in this tradition, they were inserted into the story of God’s redeeming love. Here is a picture of an altar from within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where it is believed that Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose:
Traditionalism, however, creates a new story altogether. The tradition itself becomes the new narrative and diverts attention or energy from the core story. A great example is when King Jereboam made the golden calves for the Israelites to worship in Dan so they would not have to go to Jerusalem. Here is a picture that marks the tradition of a temple in the ancient city of Dan where this idol would have stolen the people’s affection for our living God:
Tradition inserts. Traditionalism diverts.
As we examine our old traditions, young traditions, and even new traditions, perhaps we should ask ourselves if these traditions (whatever form they may take) at least point people to the story of God’s work in the world. Or even better, put us in the center of the story.