Tradition and Trust
It would be hard to find a place that is more traditional than St. John’s. That’s kind of our niche in the market so to speak as people are attracted to our history and liturgy. It’s not only what we do but how we do it that appeals to our longstanding and newer members alike. It could even be said that our traditional approach represents something strong and steady which the citizens of our community draw on whether they have ever attended worship here or not. Just knowing that we are here, and have been here since 1834, is a witness to the Almighty God’s constant grace and mercy.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in a parish similar to St. John’s in many ways, an old parish located in the middle of downtown in a southern capital city. I also grew up in a time when a lot was changing. The civil rights movement was taking place. Questions about our involvement in Vietnam and the ethics of our government were being asked. In the 60s and 70s, doing things in a different way became the fashion. It was a time of unrest. Yet the church I attended seemed to stay the same in most ways. As I grew up in a shifting world, the church taught me, subconsciously at least, that God was changeless. It was a message that provided me a secure and peaceful foundation as I searched for my own purpose in a world changing quickly.
Even though the church gave me that sense of steadiness, it was actually changing pretty dramatically itself, I now can see. I only remember one rector all through my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. But there were lots of changes around him. Many associates came and went. We experimented with numerous trial liturgies and finally changed the only prayer book I had ever known. Women began to serve on the Vestry and the Episcopal Church began ordaining women. These were dramatic changes. And even the rector, who was such a constant, was a man who boldly embraced changes. He was forward-looking and seemed so secure himself in the constancy of God that he could lead us through big changes with a sense of calm.
Tradition isn’t just doing the very same thing over and over again. Tradition isn’t even something that looks primarily at the past. Tradition involves embracing God’s grace as we have known it in our history in such a way that we can look ahead with a sense of promise and trust. Superstition suggests that it is only in the obsessive repetition of our habits that we can impose any control over events. Tradition suggests that only God actually has any control and that we are to put our trust in him above our own desires. When Tradition does look to the past, it is to gain hope and grounding for what is to come.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the Episcopal Church is considered to be among the most traditional of all churches yet also is among the most progressive. Our liturgy is remarkably similar to what has been done since the earliest years of Christendom. Other churches have given up on the traditional form of worship. We continue to hold it fast. Yet we allow for questions of faith to be asked, deep mysteries to be pondered, differences of opinion to be expressed. Tradition, it seems, gives us the safety to delve deeply into life’s harder questions. As we return to that which is age-old, we are better equipped to evaluate all the changes taking place around us. Tradition prepares us for changes that are needed.
God is changeless. But God is unlimited. God is so changeless that he encompasses change. For humans to equate God’s changelessness with our own desire to keep everything just the way it is certainly is not what God intends. God’s changelessness challenges us to grow and change in many ways. The value of tradition is that it keeps our focus on the eternal ways of God and that allows us to deal with necessary changes here on earth.
But often we confuse tradition with just keeping everything the same. St. John’s offers us a model for our own lives. Look at all the changes that have taken place here over our many years. We have adjusted many times to various shifts. One can feel the Holy Spirit at work here but not because we just keep doing the same thing over and over. Tradition evolves and grows. Tradition carries us into all that is good. The notion that everything that is good has already been done seems pretty shortsighted.
Tradition is trustworthy as it points to God who forms trust itself. Trust, by its very nature, is something which moves forward. When I trust, I draw on what has been accomplished thus far, and I live in the hope that what is coming will be good for me.
Tradition and trust. Don’t cling too tightly to what you are comfortable with. Tradition and trust do not hold us captive. They empower us to live into the fullness of today and tomorrow.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.