I had a friend contact me recently, asking me some tough questions. He wanted to know why I am preaching a message of radically following Jesus, while at the same time authoring an ebook about traditional Quaker worship. Isn’t this a contradiction? Why am I promoting a particular denominational heritage when my core message is profoundly challenging to any sectarian tradition?
That’s a fair question. I guess it would be a contradiction if our only possible responses to tradition were slavish adherence or insurgent defiance. If tradition is the same thing as dogmatism, then by all means we should abandon tradition, lock, stock, and barrel!
That’s not my experience of tradition, though. It’s certainly true that our rules, rituals, and distinctive forms can be a stumbling block to faith. They can become idols, worshiped in their own right instead of God. But this is a distortion of the true intention of genuine tradition.
At best, our Christian traditions are useful tools, passed along from our spiritual ancestors, that help us learn how to follow Jesus in our own time and place.
I need this kind of tradition. I rely on the help and guidance of my spiritual ancestors to know which paths are best for walking, and which are just going to lead me into the bushes. It’s when I truly understand the tradition of my particular community (Quakers) that I am best equipped to bring a Spirit-led critique to the many ways we’re off track.
Can tradition be abused? Of course. Anything that’s beautiful can be turned into an idol. But, to me, that’s not a convincing argument for ditching the tradition altogether. I need these tools, even if they’re dangerous.
For me, the real question isn’t whether to throw out all the guidance our spiritual ancestors have left us. The deeper challenge is figuring what we’re going to do about it. What does it mean to connect with the life and power that gave rise to the tradition in the first place?
At times, that’s going to mean laying aside some of the religious ways that I consider most precious. There are moments in life when throwing out the rule book is an appropriate response to God’s love and power. As Jesus himself demonstrated, sometimes radical change is the only way to be faithful.
Our traditional faith and practice is meant to guide us to Christ, not replace him. Unless we’re willing to send our sacred cows out to pasture, we’ll never have room in our barns for the humble manger of Jesus.
So, I hope that my use of traditional Quaker practices doesn’t get in your way as you seek to know Christ better. If Quaker peculiarities are a stumbling block between you and following Jesus, then by all means leave them behind!
For many, however, I suspect that the Quaker tradition will be valuable. I hope that these resources will help you connect more deeply with the Holy Spirit, the radical fire that has ignited countless generations in loving community.
What do you think? Is all this tradition a waste of time, distracting us from the real work that God has for us? Or maybe you think I should be much more respectful of tradition than I am. Is tradition too often discarded in the name of the next big thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!