Thursday, May 16, 2013


Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof? It’s been many years, personally. Yet I can still easily recall its catchy songs if I’m feeling so inclined. And I have been recently; Fiddler’s opening tune bouncing through my brain space. It’s called, “Tradition,” in which the characters describe various roles expected of people in their rustic village.

There’s the papa, “Who day and night must scramble for a living, feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers.” There’s the mama, “Who must know the way to make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home” (the story’s about an early 20th century Russian Jewish community struggling to navigate society changing around them). There’s the son, “I hear they picked a bride for me, I hope…she’s pretty.” And the daughter, “preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks!”

Things have changed, amen? And not just for Jewish communities in rural Russia! Contemporary Americans, when deciding family or gender roles, choose among a range of options, if they choose at all. Most marriages are no longer arranged. Dual income households appear frequently. Just this week, Minnesota approved same sex marriage. Fiddler’s celebrated matchmaker Tseitel would have catching up to do.

Embedded in this song, and much conversation about “tradition”, I think, is a familiar notion, that tradition is something we inherit that’s stable, established, set. On Sunday, I talked with someone about the role of tradition in our faith community. Early Disciples looked down on “tradition,” equating it with “man-made” developments and mistakes. By contrast, they wanted to return to scripture’s original teachings, restoring The early church.

Since then, we’ve learned that such thinking was rather incomplete. For instance, the New Testament says nothing clear on the Trinity; that doctrine developed later. The early church(es!) rarely agreed on how to treat converts, slaves, women. The Bible’s books weren’t decided upon until the 4th century. Before then, various faith communities considered a glut of material “inspired scripture.” All of which is to say that many well-loved theological ideas were the outcome of post-resurrection debates. In hindsight, these are our “tradition”. At the time, they were fraught conversations, new initiatives, creative solutions, hard work.

Many theologians, in fact, advocate an important idea we should take seriously. No “tradition” is ever settled. It’s always in process, evolving. Take the marriage debate. For many good and faithful people, traditional marriage means one man, one woman, that’s it. Such a description, of course, would be news to patriarch Abraham and his several wives. Which isn’t to say those who espouse what they now call “traditional marriage” are necessarily wrong to think thus. Instead, it’s to reframe the question, asking what our ancestors discerned about relationships that inspired them to change tradition and reject polygamy.

And it further highlights another critical fact about tradition, to my mind. Precisely because it’s never settled, filled with competing voices, complicated and unclear, those of us who claim allegiance to a faith tradition have responsibility for its future. Personally, when required to make decisions about our faith tradition- what to accept, avoid, teach, or work to change- I begin with Love. That’s the dominant thread I discern running through the story of Creation, Israel’s sojourns, Jesus’ resurrection, the church’s adventure. The God of all who created all, loves all. And wants us to love all in return. That’s why I support this week’s marriage decision, and why I don’t belittle other faithful souls who disagree with me about that. God’s best name is Love. And that extends to everyone, no exceptions, I believe. But there are forces at work who deny the divine power of love, nurture division and promote discord. Should they, from either within or beyond Christianity, gain control over defining our “tradition”, our church’s work will be harder. Christ’s mission through us will be hurt.

So it’s up to us to take our tradition seriously, wrestle with its complexities, work for its development. We can’t just ignore it or concede to it. Those who gifted it to us are counting on us. I won’t pretend that’s easy, precisely because we might disagree. But doing so, while sticking together in love, is- traditionally speaking- divine.

Grace and Peace,

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