Friday, April 18, 2014

A Tradition Like No Other

Within my christian conversation circles a negative, even sneering, tone of voice often accompanies the idea of tradition (or traditional). Tradition refers to human ideas, not divine. Tradition regurgitates the old rather than celebrating the new. Tradition reflects yesterday it doesn't anticipate tomorrow. Tradition binds and limits us. To meet the challenges of today's world we need to break free from the traditions of yesterday. Innovation, not tradition, provides the key to the future.

Sports are no different from the rest of the world. No one uses tennis racquets with wooden frames just because Rod Laver did in the 1950's. Golfers always look for the latest and greatest material for to help them hit longer and straighter. While drivers today are still referred to as "woods" they're often made of advanced metal alloys.

While golfers embrace new club and ball technology the sport still retains a reputation as a generally quite conservative. The sport has generally done an excellent job of embracing both tradition and innovation. Nothing encapsulates this creative tension better than The Masters.

Masters Tradition
  • The tournament is always at the Augusta National Golf Club.
  • Previous champions and events at specific holes are referenced frequently.
  • Each of the holes is named after a flower.
  • The club carefully manages sponsorship and media presentation. According to the coverage itself carries a more formal style than other golf telecasts; announcers refer to the gallery as patrons rather than as spectators or fans (gallery itself is also used), and use the term second cut instead of rough.
  • For the first 40 years of television coverage, CBS was forbidden from broadcasting from the front 9 holes.
  • The Masters requires caddies to wear a uniform consisting of a white jumpsuit, a green Masters cap, and white tennis shoes.
  • And of course, the Green Jacket Ceremony as the previous year's winner hands this year's winner their Green Jacket symbolising their membership of the August National Golf Club. (There's a trophy too.)
  • You'll find another good list of traditions HERE.
Masters Innovations
  • The over-under (+/-) to par scoring system now standard around the world was first developed at the Masters.
  • The Masters was the first golf tournament to be televised, starting in 1956.
  • In 2014 The Masters provided 5 internet channels totaling 125 hours of additional tournament coverage.
  • Over the years, the Masters has frequently adjusted the course. In 2006 the club lengthened the course by about 500 metres. Fairways and greens have also been narrowed over the years to increase the "bite" of the course. A good graphical display of the changes can be found HERE.
Now About the Church...

Churches have always struggled with maintaining appropriate degrees of tradition while responding innovatively to cultural movements around us. Some churches seem so traditional they've almost lost all relevance to their neighbours. Other churches are so innovative and rethink so many methodologies and teachings that they isolate themselves from other churches and seem sometimes to emphasise their innovation rather than the life-changing Good News of Jesus.

The vast majority of churches undertake the same quest: to present the timeless message of God's Good News in culturally relevant ways. 

This statement sounds simple, but churches often disagree about what is methodology and what is message. We all agree that corporate worship plays an important part in the life of a Christian and we mostly agree that music styles represent methodology rather than message, but the history of "worship wars" in the church indicate that this distinction is often lost.

We all agree that reading and studying God's Word is vital to spiritual growth. Yet it is so easy to start a large-scale debate by championing or criticising a particular translation of the Bible. Why? Often it's just because we like the translation with which we're most familiar: a tradition.

I'll close by illustrating the tension and value of tradition using the celebration of Easter.

Easter undoubtedly represents a tradition. The Bible never commands an annual resurrection celebration. Most churches celebrate communion throughout the year as they follow Jesus' instructions at Last Supper to remember his death and resurrection. So celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday is something almost all churches will do whether they call it Easter or not.

In a very real sense Easter is not really a separate celebration, but an amplification of existing practices. I personally find the practice of pausing throughout Holy Week to remember what Jesus was doing at this exact time the week of his death and resurrection. As I write this on Thursday night Jesus was probably in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. Although the exact date of Passover moves around the calendar I can (in the Northern Hemisphere) approximately experience the same weather as Jesus experienced. I can look at the same stars. I can feel the same winds. History was forever changed on this day!

Easter adds a level of intimacy to the Lord's Supper. We can celebrate the Lord's Supper any Sunday in Summer, or Winter. But only on Easter can we say "This was the day the tomb was found empty." The rest of the year we have to say "This was the day of the week the tomb was found empty." For many people that distinction is significant.

How do we balance tradition and innovation around Easter?
  1. Proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  2. Ensure the celebration includes communion.
  3. If people with barely a passing interest in the things of God will come and hear the Gospel presented at sunrise... then have a sunrise service. Innovate.
  4. If people with children will attend a church service so their kids can gather Easter Eggs afterwards... then hold an Easter Egg Hunt. Innovate.
  5. If Up From the Grave He Arose is a traditional Easter song... then sing it. 
Successfully integrating tradition and innovation will always provide a challenge. Easter gives us a great opportunity to practice both extremes at the same time.

Sure, the first century church didn't celebrate Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday the way much of christendom does today. But I'm confident that each year when Jewish Passover rolled around the church paused and remembered the events of that Passover week not so many years earlier.

The great challenge for the church is to avoid confusing the events, the message, and the significance of the last week and hours of Jesus' life with the traditional celebrations many churches practice today. Take away Palm Sunday. Take away Maundy Thursday. Remove Good Friday from the calendar. Turn Easter Sunday into Regular Sunday, and the message of the Gospel is just as true and powerful as it has ever been.

If we create some new traditions in a children's play, a breakfast before worship, a sunrise service, or even an Easter Egg Hunt the Son of God on the cross still carries our sins. Perhaps in the future these traditions will be replaced by a new innovation, a new way of remembering, but the tomb will still be empty.

If the Masters can demonstrate that tradition and innovation can coexist, the church should be able to balance these competing values also. Our greatest responsibility remains to continually preach Christ crucified, resurrected and reigning today.

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