Friday, February 11, 2005

The Albatross of Tradition

I spent yesterday morning in a meeting with the church's insurance man. Nice enough guy. Seems like a knowledgeable fellow, hard-working and all the rest. But I can't help it. I hate insurance.

A comedian once said that insurance was legalized gambling. A health insurance company says to you, "I bet you won't get sick," and you answer, "Oh, yeah? Just watch me." And we find ourselves actually wanting to get sick so we get some money back out of that policy we pay on every month. Well, maybe that's a little extreme. But there's nothing I hate more than sending a check for the car insurance knowing that in all likelihood it simply goes to the insurance company's account and sits there. I know, I know, peace of mind and all that stuff. It still doesn't make me rejoice at sending out a few hundred dollars. I hate insurance.

The church decided to reassess our insurance situation in part because of a nearby church which was burned down about six years ago. The arsonist was caught, but still we realized that it really can happen. Then another church in our denomination burned last month. So we called the agent and set up today's meeting. Have I mentioned that I hate insurance? As I looked around at the church, I saw precious little that couldn't be replaced with something better. Carpet, sound system, tables -- they've all seen better days. Even the new additions and refurbishments to our building were quite replaceable.

I remember talking to the pastor of the nearby church which had burned. He said that he doubted that church would have grown any physically or spiritually if it hadn't been for that fire. And instead of being shocked, I understood exactly what he was saying. A church -- like most big organizations -- doesn't like change. We become too comfortable with the status quo and it takes something big to get us to move. We live with the albatross of tradition around our necks, unable to remove it.

I read an interview with Tony George, the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now the Brickyard, as it is known, is overflowing with tradition. And racefans, like churchgoers, sink their fingernails into the woodwork and refuse to let go. Mr. George said that the best thing about Indy is the tradition and the worst thing about Indy is the tradition. I shouted a hearty "Amen!" from my seat in front of my monitor. The traditions are celebrated, but efforts to change anything are met with howls of protest. Tradition is wonderful and terrible at the same time. The traditions of Christmas and Easter often give more meaning to the celebrations. But sometimes the traditions become the focus. We have to find a way to perform all the holiday activities because "it just wouldn't be right if we didn't," as if Christmas would be less meaningful if we didn't drive around for an hour looking at the displays in the park.

Jesus had some pretty nasty things to say about the people who valued tradition over substance. Why would we think that our traditions are more important than the ceremonial washings of the Pharisees? What is it about tradition that makes it hang around our neck, unable to escape from it? Does the very existance of physical structures like the church building promote tradition about Christ over relationship with Christ?

I hope that our church can rid itself of this albatross. I don't want to lose every tradition. I just don't want to celebrate tradition for tradition's sake. And I don't want anything getting in the way of serving Christ on His terms. I want to insure (if you'll pardon the expression) that the past is celebrated, but not consecrated. The temptation to honor the means instead of the end is a strong one. I pray that my church and its pastor rely on the Holy Spirit to distinguish between honoring man and honoring God.

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