Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Recognizing Traditions And Customs

Old stories can still do the job of illustrating the point. I was thinking today of the mother teaching her daughter how to bake a ham. As she prepared to cook it, she took a kitchen knife, cut off the end, then put it in the roasting pan. The little girl said, "Mama, why did you cut off the end of the ham?" The mother replied, "Because that's the way my mother taught me how to cook it, so I always cut off the end." "But why?" pressed the daughter. They decided to give grandma a call to clear up the issue. "Grandma, why do you cut off the end of the ham before you cook it?" asked the girl. Grandma said, "Oh, honey, when I first married, I didn't have a pan big enough to put the ham in, so I always cut off the end to make it fit. I guess it just became a habit."

One generation had a good reason to do what they did, and succeeding generations followed suit, but they did not have the same reasons. What for one was merely an expedient to baking a ham became for the next, "The way it's done."

I wonder if that's true when it comes to things like worship traditions, or other activities associated with "church." Whenever I have suggested that today's Christians practice things that are little more than traditions or customs, it always seems to bother some who hear it said. It's as if the idea that every single, minute thing we do isn't totally biblical is a savage heresy. Yet, the truth is that our assemblies are driven by social norms, architecture, personal likes and dislikes, and more. That does not make them good or bad, it's just a fact. Some of these things are very good, and others less so. The fact that something is a tradition or custom does not make it automatically wrong. It doesn't make it automatically right either.

I think the ability to acknowledge our traditions and customs is liberating. A lot of people seem to operate under stress and guilt because they know they can't qualify everything they do, nor the way they do it, from clear biblical teaching. If we could just acknowledge that some of our practices are traditions, it would relieve us from a defensive posture we can't support.

Let me give you an example of traditions that I believe to be moved more by social norms and architecture than by anything particularly biblical. Several years ago, my family and I were part of a congregation that met in house churches on Sunday nights. It was an absolutely great arrangement, but we discovered that we had a problem.

One Sunday evening, the fellow, whose house we met in, asked if anyone would like to take the Lord's supper. There were two or three who did. He turned to one of our ladies who was sitting in a chair in front of the stereo system, on which sat the plate with the bread and the tray with the cups of grape juice. He said, "Brenda, would you pass the plate to so-and-so?" Brenda did just that, and then repeated the action with the juice.

The next week it was all over church that we had women serving communion! My first reaction was something like, "What?!" Then it hit me. We certainly did. We had one woman who served the bread and the juice to the two or three people taking the Lord's supper. Guilty as charged.

Then I was hit again, "Wait a minute! This is a problem of architecture and social custom." At the church building, in our "official" auditorium with the table down front, behind which four to six guys would line up to pass the trays, this was viewed as a "leadership" function. Thus, we wouldn't dare to give the job to the women. But sitting around a living room, the most natural thing in the world was for the person sitting in front of the stereo to reach around behind herself, pick up the trays and pass them to those taking the supper. In fact, her action was not different at all from the way she participated every Sunday in that church auditorium. There she just didn't make the first pass. It seems to me the problem here is largely social custom and architecture that determines our practice.

I've heard people say that women don't serve the Lord's supper because it's the job of men to lead. Let's assume, for a moment, the male leadership argument is correct. Somebody still must explain how serving bread and fruit of the vine becomes something other that just that: serving. And, if it is serving, then how does it become a forbidden activity to women?

Lest you think I'm saying that we ought to put the women up in front and let them serve communion, you've missed the point at least slightly. Perhaps we shouldn't have a problem with women doing that at all. However, remember that I started all this by saying we need to acknowledge how traditions and customs determine our actions? It's not always wise nor profitable to dump traditions on the spot for different ones. Traditions and customs, by definition, do not come to be overnight. It takes time. And, one of the ways traditions change is by first recognizing exactly what we're dealing with.

If you want to continue cutting off the end of the ham before you put it into the pan to cook, you wouldn't be wrong to do so. But, neither would you be wrong to leave the end alone. It would probably be easier to change behaviors by first understanding why it was done the way it was done to start with, and then determine whether the same reasons still exist.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Would Jesus Have Done With Her?

News programs earlier this week provided more than ample information about the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Smith had become famous, not just for her striptease act in Houston, TX but for marrying at the age of 26 and oil tycoon who was 88 or 89 years old. When he died a short time later, the court battle between Smith and the tycoon’s other relatives over millions of dollars of estate money kept the headlines hot.

I believe she had a TV show a few years ago that was supposed to be one of those “reality” programs. Her lifestyle, her weight gain and then the amazing weight loss, and the continued star-fashion media that surrounded her kept her in the news and constantly characterized her as a dizzy blonde bombshell, drug user, and sex icon.

Well, no more. She’s dead. The last news reports failed to provide solid information as to the cause. It appears there was no physical trauma to her body, which leaves questions about drug overdose, suicide, or perhaps even murder as possibilities. The public will have to wait until the investigations are over.

Why should Christians care about any of this? For one reason only. Anna Nicole Smith is today’s Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery of John 8, or any number of other biblical characters. I suspect attitudes toward Anna Nicole were the same ones held about those ancient women. “She’s immoral.” She’s a junkie.” “She’s a golddigger.” And, I’m using the kind words. I have no doubt but that those harsh, common, 4-letter kind of words were used frequently to describe her. It is understandable; after all she flaunted her sexuality, and demonstrated her immoral lifestyle for profit. Regardless of her true motivations, she lived by an ethic that few of us would want for our daughters or sisters.

We still need to ask, “What would Jesus have done with her?”

What did Jesus do with the woman at the well? What did he do with the woman in John 8, caught in the very act of adultery and legally due a death sentence? Perhaps we need to sift through all the surrounding discussions and get to two vital points that tell us what Jesus would have done with Anna Nicole Smith.

First, he never condoned the sins of either the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery. Their sins were real, and their sins separated them from God, and if you’re thinking that somehow Jesus overlooked their sins, you’d be wrong. Whatever we do with Anna Nicole Smith, and thousands of people like her, we need to know that sin is wrong, and we need to acknowledge it.

But second, Jesus offered forgiveness. Without excusing sin, Jesus refused to condemn sexually immoral women. Instead, he provided a way out of sin. This is the forgotten and neglected issue. It is what Christians often allow to slip away unnoticed. I wonder if Anna Nicole Smith heard the first point, but not the second?

In one of the news clips I saw the other day, showing the now dead Smith at earlier times in her life, I noticed that she wore an interesting necklace. It was a fashionable cross. Now I don’t know why people wear crosses as jewelry. I have written before on this subject, and have said that it is surprising who wears crosses and where they wear them. It’s interesting that people would wear the symbol of Christian faith while living out a life that is anything but Christian. So, I can’t tell you what Anna Nicole Smith’s motive was for wearing that piece.

Neither do I know that she had an ounce of faith in Jesus Christ, or that she understood much, if anything, about the call of the gospel and how it changes true believers. But I do wonder if a single ray of hope in an otherwise dark life.

Personally, the whole of Smith’s life is unpleasant. I heard two talk-show hosts mention her death the other day, then one of them said, “You know what, I just don’t care.” The other replied, “I don’t either.” And that was the end of the discussion on their show. Perhaps that was best – no more mention of it, but I was sorry for their attitude. Anna Nicole Smith was a human being. Regardless of her lifestyle, her irreverent behavior, her blatant disregard for God, I know one thing about her that doesn’t get much press: she was loved by God. In fact, God loved Anna Nicole Smith so much he sent his Son to die for her.

Perhaps Smith’s death can encourage some young person to avoid drugs. Maybe her early demise can move another young person away from the whole sex business. It’s possible that her sad life will motivate another person to try a different road. Then again, maybe Anna Nicole Smith will remind Christians about who God loves, and who Jesus died for. Just maybe we’ll get the point that Jesus didn’t die for all the good guys but for sinners. He didn’t die to mock their sins, he died to forgive their sins.

We still need to ask, “What would Jesus have done with her?”

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Back On The Blogging Scene

I have discovered that I am a busy guy! You would think I already knew that, but sometimes life just gets in a whirl and it takes me a while to realize just how busy I am.

Now that the excuses are out of the way, I want to say (for anyone who might care) that I am back on the blogging scene and will do my utmost to post much more frequently and on a regular schedule. Exactly what that is I do not know at the moment, but it will certainly be better than the past several months.

I also decided not to post more CrossTies Devotional Articles as blogs. No need to do that. First, it's overkill with the articles since they are readily available elsewhere, and second, it's too easy to use them instead of writing blogs as I originally intended.

I will also try to do a better job of promoting the blogs. That hasn't been done at all. So! Here we go.

Today, I want to comment on some things I've been reading in other people's blogs. I am impressed with what I'm reading. Hopefully, that is because I am rather selective in what I read (re: my earlier comment about being busy). Without naming names or blogs, let me list a few things I'm noticing.
  • Writers are evidencing a serious spirituality. There is less concern with appearances, patterns, and shallow thinking. I'm reading people who are wrestling with serious subjects with deeper thinking.
  • Writers are showing more concern with scripture, its meaning, and its application to modern life than to traditions and custom. Surely, this is good for it is the very thing we have always urged others to do.
  • Writers are more concerned with the weighty subjects and less concerned with minor things. Again, this is one of those things we have demanded of others, but we haven't always done this ourselves. Good for those will challenge us this way.
  • Writers are demonstrating an awareness that we do not exist in a vacuum, but instead, we live in communities of people. We can't stand outside the community and expect to reach the community. We must engage people where they are.
This is all positive news for people who are seriously interested in following Jesus and not just "doing church." So, thanks, guys (& gals!) for what you're doing.