Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The words we use, the language that we speak and think with is impoverished. English is one of the most dense languages available to us in terms of actual vocabulary, but it is still limited in our expression. All language is limiting. But speak we must. I think it's good to get that out on the table, once we speak we have already limited our inner meaning, our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our investment in our relationships.

For example, when I shout, "I love you" to my wife as she leaves the house, or when we part company, those three words are a cipher for a powerful relationship that lies at the intersection of our bodies, our history (individually and together), economics, society, time, sickness, commitment, children, and a million other grids of meaning that all overlap and converge in this one relationship. And all that is just with this one relationship not to mention my myriad connections with family, friends, staff, enemies, teammates, neighbors, et. al.

Dealing with others, making ourselves known and intelligible is always mediated through our words (verbal, body, contextual). And those words are always something of a betrayal of our deeper meaning and significance.

One word that kept coming up repeatedly is tradition. Tradition comes from the Latin, traditio, meaning to pass on. Most of us, I imagine think of tradition in terms of set-in-stone objects and practices that are stodgy, yet comfortable. I think of the couple that wants nothing to do with church most of the time, but want to "use" the church, and her words, for the "ceremony." I'm not denigrating this motivation because in it I recognize that people still see tradition as worthy enough to at least bring it out, and dust it off when needed to effectively solemnize an occasion. The thing about tradition though is that we have, especially in the church, but certainly in civil society (see 4th of July parades) objects and practices that are effectively divorced from reality.

The reality is the life of the practitioner. Tradition is meant to be a lived reality, not a series of objects moved in a certain order for magical effect. Words on a page that are moved around (spoken) without being implanted in the life of a practitioner is also life-less and magical. By magic I mean simply prioritizing the object in question with power over life. So in the Church we see in sacramental life prioritizing of the bread and wine over the gathered body of those who believe that God is up to something, in other words the Eucharistic elements have more power to express God than the assembly of believers.

Tradition then, to look back to the Latin, is the passing on of something, and I think that the emphasis has been on the "something" and not on the "passing." Tradition is passing, it is active. The most important aspect of the passing is the activity, the lived activity of the content of the tradition. To put not-too-fine-a-point on it: to shove symbols at people and expect a transformation is mere magical thinking. Instead, what if we passed our tradition by living it actively? Evelyn Underhill, the great Christian teacher, said once that the life of prayer is more easily caught than taught.

Sometimes, actually very often, indeed twice this week, young couples contact me to talk about baptism. The emails read something like this: "Good morning. My husband and I would like to have our 5 month old son baptized. We do not belong to your church, and haven't decided on one as of yet. However, we find this to be extremely important for our son, and an important part of our role as parents. Our other child was already christened by his age, and we would love to dedicate his life in Christ as well." This, to me, looks like non-practice meeting up with objects, for magical effect, perhaps family magic. I used to say to people, "call me me once I've seen you in church for a year." The church is for those who want to walk with God, with the disestablishment of the church there is no longer any social benefit to participating in the church, why does this even matter to you if you don't go to church? I've softened on this. Now I meet with people right away and talk to them about what baptism means and that it is not a private act for family, it is not celestial fire insurance, it is the initiation of this person into the Body of Christ and the people gathered there are going to promise to raise this child, so it might be a good idea for you to get active in our parish so that people aren't adopting a stranger.

That usually is met with surprise, that the small thing they think they wanted is actually pretty darn big. I've not had anyone come and hear all this, then walk away. I'm traditioning them, and myself.

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