As Christmas approaches, I hear a lot of discussion about the way things should be done. Traditions become sacred with repetition, especially when emotions attach to them. Memories of loved ones mingle with the things we do. Eventually, the actions take on such importance that we have a hard time separating our devotion to the actions, from our devotion to those we love. Many people feel grief when their traditions are broken. Styles of music, people not present at holidays, even a change of menu or venue can elicit unexpected sadness from people.
Pavlov is best known for his experiments. He rang a bell just before introducing meat to dogs. Soon, the dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, even when no meat was present. He called this phenomenon “conditioning.” More recently, we have learned that as we go through life, we are linking our emotions to our experiences, millions of them. This is why we feel certain emotions at the smell of evergreen, or pie. An old song on the radio may elicit emotions from us, even if we are unaware of any particular memories related to it. We have linked these inanimate experiences to our emotional life. They take on a life of their own in our hearts, for good or bad. We develop an allegiance to method, which like the response of Pavlov's dogs, loses sight of the original source.
When I attended college, I frequently worked holidays and birthdays. The family gatherings I grew up with were displaced by hectic days at the local convenience store, as people rushed in and waited in long lines for that extra carton of imitation whipped cream. Consequently, over the years, holidays became “just another day” in my emotional world. Worse, I began to dread the day as a time of stress and fatigue. My experiences of holidays over several years linked my emotions and expectations to themselves. Days, events, and methods eventually take on the meaning our lives give them. Unless we pause and reconsider.
The father who takes his boys camping and runs them down verbally the entire time (because they are not doing things his way), has forgotten the goal (bonding with his sons),and has missed the mark. His sons will probably never complain. However, they have now linked camping and time with Dad to painful emotions. Presumably, this is the virtual opposite of what the father had in mind. By focusing on method to the exclusion of relationship, he has lost track of the point. Losing track of the original point is a common human experience, even in the church.
Missionaries will tell you that much about the way we worship is cultural. Most of the methods we use in the church are adapted from the way people are used to doing things in the surrounding community. Arguments about the way things are done miss the point. In fact, some of Jesus’ harshest words were not for sinners, but for those who loved traditions (the way things are done), more than the God the traditions were designed to honor. When we worship traditions (old or new), they become idols, obscuring our view of God. And He is not happy when we put other gods before Him.
When we leave the church because of arguments about the tempo of music or the arrangement of furniture in the auditorium, people are right to question: how is this different than any secular club on earth? Those looking to us for an example, including children, see through our sanctimonious rationalizations. When we act selfishly, people question our faith, or worse yet, THE faith!
So, what is the point we have forgotten? At Christmas, it is that God came near. God so loved the world that He sent his only Son that whoever believes in Him may inherit eternal life. Our appropriate response? Jesus said the entire law and prophets hang on the commands to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We do not walk away from those we love over unimportant (non-scriptural) issues. God has characterized his love with his promise to never leave us or forsake us. Let us learn to love one another in the same manner. It pleases Him so. And isn’t that really the point?
“…You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Jesus) Matthew 15:6-9
"Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.'" Mark 2:27