Friday, November 25, 2005

OK, why turkey?

Like most good Americans, yesterday I found myself bellied up to a table filled with mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and of course the star of the show, the turkey. Please understand that if you didn't experience the same meal I'm not calling you a bad American, per se -- just one with poor Thanksgiving meal habits! How can you toss a platter of ham on the table and call it Thanksgiving dinner? Or lamb chops? Or venison? Isn't there only one way to celebrate all that God has given to us? There sure is. It's by serving the one true representative meat.

Alright, I'm obviously carrying the illustration a little too far. Or am I? Serving turkey on Thanksgiving Day is a tradition in most homes. Sure, there's a good chance one of these ignorant birds was on a platter at the Pilgrim celebration. but so was pheasant. Why did turkey become a tradition to the extent where some merely refer to the day as Turkey Day?

Certainly a good size turkey will work to feed a large family. Jamming about fifteen to sixteen adults around a big table and then taking another dozen kids pushing them up to the smaller and more rickety "kids' table" then trying to pass out cheeseburgers or spaghetti just isn't as practical. One big bird will serve the whole assembled clan and allow for a couple of day's worth of sandwiches on top of that. Yet yesterday, I sat down with my wife, three kids and three other relatives for a turkey dinner. That's right, eight of us tried to devour a fifteen pound bird. A lasagne may have been more practical, but turkey is the Thanksgiving tradition.

We get incredibly bound to our traditions. We get romantic notions of "the way things used to be" which often color our outlook on the way things truly are. In this Associated Press article about the changes in the American South, we read about Vernon Yates and his concern about the changes in his town of Cary, North Carolina.

Nearly surrounded by pricey subdivisions, the cinderblock Yates Grocery and Farm Supply sells neither anymore. As if things weren't bad enough, style maven Martha Stewart has chosen this Raleigh suburb to build a signature neighborhood of houses designed after her homes in Maine and New York. Holding court near a potbellied stove, the 69-year-old man in the suspenders and NASCAR shirt laments that his old customers have been replaced by fast-talking, SUV-driving Northerners who don't seem to be able to read a STOP sign. ''It's all gone,'' Yates, pausing for another spit of tobacco juice, says of the Southern town of his youth. ''Everything is completely different from what it used to be.''

How quickly traditions can vanish and how traumatic it can be for those who equate "the way things use to be" with "the way things are supposed to be." According to sociologists, that attitude itself is a kind of tradition which is slowly dying off. George Barna writes in his book, "Revolution",
Change is a natural, positive, and irreplaceable part of growth. Leaders often remind us that what got us where we are is not the same stuff that will get us where we want to go, so we must change. Psychologists remind us that repeating the same behaviors merely generates the same outcomes, and therefore precludes rather than produces positive change. In other words, to grow, we must purposefully alter our routines and approaches. And the Bible is equally clear in telling us that God did not send Jesus to die so we might be comfortable and complacent, but so we might die to self, pick up our cross, and follow the way of the Master.

What's more, Barna shares that the older generations -- the Baby Boomers and the Builders -- are losing their power in society. That power is being seized by two younger generations who embrace constant change and innovation. Thus, the traditional is society will soon be lost. It won't be long before, as Mr. Yates put it, "Everything is completely different than it used to be." But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Barna seems to say it's a good thing. But just look at the pain it's going to cause. The institutional church already holds a very tight grip on tradition. We tend to stick to what has worked in the past, even though our definition of "what has worked" doesn't always square with reality. Too many people in the church live by the motto, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but don't see the cracks in the walls.

To return to my turkey analogy, many people seem to claim that having ham for Thanksgiving dinner is wrong. Pecan pie instead of pumpkin? You must be a heretic! They foam at the mouth as they cling to the bowl of cranberry sauce as if their very lives depended on holding on.

I sure see a lot of this attitude in the church today -- in my own congregation, in other congregations, and in Christians I meet on the street. Some live their lives as if everything rested on the foundation of tradition rather than the foundation of the Gospel itself. Collect the offering in a different manner? It's wrong. Chairs instead of pews? Dishonoring to God. Choruses instead of hymns? Heresy. After all, the previous generations cut their teeth on hymns and pews and offering plates so it must be the method approved by God. Of course that argument falls apart when you read that much of the hymnal is younger than the Constitution, but that can be conveniently swept under the rug. I'm still waiting for some real traditionalists to bring back chanting and speaking Biblical Greek.

The sticking point is determining the line between tradition and Bible. Frankly most traditionalists aren't willing to explore those implications. It's much easier to gorge themselves with a turkey dinner and condemn all those with ham breath.

I love traditions. And at the holidays, I participate in a lot of them. The Advent candle will be lit this Sunday. The tree will be decorated and the Christmas program will be rehearsed. Yet the meaning of the season is not diminished without any of these things. While traditions are not evil, placing them in a position of supreme importance is. A quick glance at the four Gospels will tell us what Jesus thought about elevating tradition to the importance of Scripture. Yet still we are afraid to let go. Is it because we refuse to give up a comfortable life and a complacent faith to actually pick up our crosses to follow Him? I'm afraid in too many cases, it is.

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