Thursday, February 17, 2011

Real Faith for Real Life

I know that tradition has its limitations, but it still strikes me as shortsighted for pastors and congregations to show a hostility towards it, especially pastors who hail from long-standing church bodies with adherence to liturgies. Why, I wonder, do these pastors insist that it is the tradition that is the problem with their congregations, not the solution? Why are they willing to separate something as important as traditional worship from older parishioners for their new vision?

Certainly, anyone should be able to admit that if tradition means that we use a certain doily sewn by a certain member from the 1950s, then tradition can be problematic. That breeds an ownership mentality in the church , and that is surely not what we mean by “tradition.” If tradition means doing anything, including worshipping, a particular way just because that is how “it has always been done,” then tradition can be problematic. Even an old soul like me abhors meaningless clinging to tradition because of a fear of change.

That kind of traditionalism aside, it is not hard to find an antagonism to even the best that tradition has to offer. Those sentiments seems to be rooted in the belief that our new day demands a different kind of church, and certainly a different kind of worship. One pastor put it this way: “The danger for the church today isn’t the challenges of the modern world but the temptation to escape reality by hiding behind tradition. We want to help people find a faith that really works for them in their real lives.” While I appreciate this pastor’s zeal, his love for his people, and his earnestness in helping a troubled world find answers, there is at least one assumption that calls for redressing.

That assumption is this: there is a “real life” somewhere out there, so far removed from the traditions of the Church, that only a contemporary faith can speak to it. What do these real lives look like? I suspect only this pastor can fully answer, but I would guess a “real life” is something like this: a life that is burdened by busyness, burned out on work, in conflict with family and neighbor, skeptical of God and consumed with the day-to-day tasks of keeping a home and raising a family. You see, tradition doesn’t really help people solve all the problems of this “real life,” because tradition is only really concerned with lofty doctrines and dry solutions. Tradition and this real life are like ships passing in the night.

What people need, the argument must surely go, is a church/pastor that helps people cope with this “real life.” As Rick Warren often says, people need “fewer ‘ought-to sermons’ and more ‘how-to’ sermons.” Sermons then might focus on healthy marriages, stress reduction, conflict resolution even things as mundane as time management. People aren’t looking for a re-posting of any 95 theses; just give them something that will get them through the day.

To be fair, sermons without application can be awfully dry. And while they are necessary at times to teach and instruct God’s people, sermons that only focus on doctrine will not communicate that God’s word is indeed living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). But how does the pastor know when to stop descending into the real lives of people, who are, after all, sinners? What is the criteria that a pastor might use so he or she knows when to stop digging? What is a reason that a pastor might refrain from abandoning the gospel in an effort to speak to the “real life”?

Good preaching, it seems to me, can be at the mercy of tradition and still speak to the modern life. The problems that plague us are not new, nor are the solutions; there is nothing new under the sun. So good preaching doesn't just comment on the mundane problems of this world, but actually peels back the curtain on the mystery of God's kingdom. It invites the faithful to a glimpse of the transcendent.

Our day-to-day life is, in fact, not our real life. It is, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, like looking through a mirror dimly. In our real “real life”, the eternal one to which the baptized look forward, we will then see God face to face. In the presence of God, all the promises of salvation and mercy fulfilled, we will be in awe at the throne of God and declare: “This is the real life.” And we will more fully understand Mark Twain’s quip: “Why do we cry at a funeral and rejoice at a birth? Probably because we’re not the person involved.” No point in crying for a person who is finally experiencing the real life.