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I heard an interesting phrase at a conference I attended last week: “Tradition is peer pressure from dead people.”
This pronouncement brought forth laughter from the crowd and contextually was spoken with a bit of derision in its tone. However, of the nine hours I sat in this class, this phrase was the only whole phrase I wrote down.
On the one hand, I could laugh along with everyone else as a pastor who has all too often had to deal with “tradition” in the form of that oft-quoted church phrase, “We’ve never done it that way!” (Translation for non-church folk: “We’ve always done it this way!”) I believe that was the context in which this phrase was intended (to be honest, I don’t know — my mind was already whirling toward what this column is about).
It reminded me of how many grand traditions have been kept out of some false, sacrosanct feeling of obligation to ancestors’ actions. Take, for example, the old cottage our family still visits that my grandfather built in 1933. It was only in the past decade that we added A/C in the form of window units because we never had those before. Open windows had been endured for most of my life because “that’s the way the cottage was designed.”
Finally, someone in the family decided on one of those 105-degree July days that if my grandfather had had the option of A/C, he would have probably loved it! The open window was the A/C of his day! And what many times gets taken for tradition today was simple necessity in the past. And my guess is that if some of those dead people could talk, they would heartily agree that the newer version is much preferred.
For all you church folks out there, you can probably fill a whole book with the list of things like this that the past 2000 years have found written in stone that were never intended to be canonized. From wordings in bulletins to buildings and parts of buildings to anything with some kind of brass plaque on it, there is someone out there who will put so much stock in church stuff that was just utilitarian that they forget the actual canon of the Gospel and Scriptures that the faith is based on!
But what caused a sly smile on my face as that phrase was spoken last week was my twist on the intention of how that phrase was to be taken. Especially as this Sunday is All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have died in the faith, hear that phrase again: “Tradition is the peer pressure of dead people.”
Hear that first word not spoken, but sung by the voice of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition in that voice is something to be cherished even when it may make life harder rather than easier. The peer pressure of tradition that I feel is a sense that was taught to me by my parents first and foremost. Truth, honesty, equality, compassion, empathy and many other characteristics that I try — and many times fail — to emulate were the very traditions that were taught from my earliest memories.
There are schoolteachers whose wisdom whispers in my ears as I move through life as if they were speaking over my shoulder, though I know they have not walked the earth for years. Friends and parishioners whose funerals I presided over still offer guidance to me. And not only my mother and father, but aunts and uncles and grandparents still speak to me in how we hold a paintbrush, how we treat everyone with respect and how we realize whatever we face today that seems impossible is overshadowed by what God can do with just a mustard seed of faith!
It is the tradition of what our family stands for passed from one generation to another. And to quote from “The Sixth Sense,” yes, I see dead people. And there is a sense of peer pressure from that great cloud of witnesses.
I wish I had a great churchy way to turn that phrase into a positive. To tell you that the peer pressure comes from one who tells us to love God and others more than self (and not to hate). That the one whispering over my shoulder says not to worry about what we eat, drink or wear and just to look at how the Father takes care of those birds in the trees. That the Church is not a building; God’s children come in every shape, size, color and packaging you can imagine; and hope, love and truth are not abstracts, but a person named Jesus.
Yeah, I wish I could use that image. But that tradition is modeled not by dead people, but by someone who is very much alive. And, of course, the most important tradition is to share the promise that just as He is alive, so too will be all those others I’ve mentioned, as well as you and me and all God’s children!
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 28 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” appears weekly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.