Innovation, the Child of Tradition

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“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,  “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”  He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 NRS).



I was raised to have respect for tradition.  It’s an important value of Southern culture.  There is comfort in the normalcy of tradition, as well as a sense of connectedness to those who have gone before.  For some, there is too much monotony, and a pervasive sense of doing things simply for the sake of doing them.  Jesus came from tradition and honored it, but he also challenged certain traditions when they became a stumbling block to God’s people.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17), testifying to his understanding that there is great value in that which has come before, therefore it should not simply be cast aside.  However, just ten chapters later, Jesus tells the Pharisees that their blind adherence to tradition actually prevents them from following God’s word.  How do we honor and respect our traditions, especially in the Church, while making sure we are able to meet the needs of the community? 


(Image courtesy of pamkelley.com)

I find that Tradition has a fantastic child, Innovation.  One definition of Innovation is to make changes in anything established.  Rather than to think of it as invention or introducing something totally new.  When we seek to innovate on tradition in Christianity, we begin a process of renewal.  This is precisely what Jesus was doing in his ministry; showing humanity how to renew their relationship with God through Jesus’ sacrifice for us.  It’s all too easy to say that this music, this order of worship, this building style is traditional, let’s do something totally different and it will be better.  Innovation seeks first to understand the tradition: why does it look or sound this way?  What is the history behind it?  With a firm grasp upon the history of the tradition, it then asks how can we make this more accessible to today’s culture?  What can we do to make others find connection to the ways of the past?

If we simply discard everything traditional for the sake of modernizing the Church, we instead find that we lose something of our identity, our history, and our original purpose.  If we look at the tradition and find that it is not Godly or creates a barrier to our ability to embody and worship God, then by all means find another way.  I find that when I begin to explain why I wear this robe, or why this hymn is sacred, or why we take the time to pray over our offerings, that there is a sense of understanding and appreciation.  Suddenly that which seemed antiquated is familiar and acceptable.  But I have to take the time and be willing to instruct, even more importantly, I have to be open to questions and wondering.  All too often it is easier to say, “that’s the way it’s always been” or “because I say so.”  We do it as parents, as leaders, as teachers.  Jesus welcomed questions and helped people to understand why.  Are we to do any less?  Let us always be willing to examine ourselves and our Church, but never be too quick to throw away our traditions.  Instead, let us educate ourselves and seek to learn why, then set out to innovate.  The One who is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) does so by using what currently exists.  God doesn’t cast us aside and create all new people to populate the Kingdom of God.  No!  God renews us and creates in us newness!  Just as God breathes new life into us, we are empowered to breathe new life into the Church.

I remember something Confucius wrote in The Analects that always inspired me as a Christian:
“I transmit but do not create.  I trust in and love the ancient ways” (Analects 7.1).

Let us endeavor to transmit our tradition through the gift of innovation, so that people will come to know, to trust in, and to love Jesus Christ in ancient ways made accessible through new means.  When we do, I believe that we will find that our tradition does not make us break the commandments of God, but rather inspires us to work even harder to be the light of Christ to the world as our spiritual ancestors have for almost 2,000 years.  That is a tradition worth preserving and worthy of celebration.


(Image courtesy of seedmagazine.com)
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