VIEW VIDEO I’ve been thinking this week about family traditions, which we used to have in my family until my granddaughter was born and tradition went out the window. When my siblings and I were young and had birthdays, we received one present, a cake, and Mom would make our favorite meal. No guests other than family, and the birthday present was never of our choosing. That was what Christmas was for, you told Santa what you wanted, you had a say in the matter. But birthday presents were surprises, usually chosen by my father who worked as a bug spray salesman and gave us bug spray promotional items. One year I received a radio in the shape of a bug whose bug antennas were actually functioning radio antennas. When my father’s company expanded its product line to include High Seas aftershave cologne, that year’s birthday present was a replica of a sailing ship. Birthdays in our house were low-cost affairs, but always interesting.
Our granddaughter Madeline is turning nine this week and we have been asked to host the party. There’ll be 16 third graders and numerous relatives in our home this Saturday from 2-4. I’m not sure yet if I will be in attendance. I’ve asked Stacey to find me a speech, somewhere, anywhere, I really don’t care. This is a clear departure from Gulley tradition, the extravagance of this party, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
While I enjoy the familiarity of traditions, I’m not opposed to creating new ones, so long as they are helpful and don’t involve 16 third graders. But one does things for grandchildren one would never have done for their own children.
We’ve been dwelling on the topic of depression and the practices and habits we can cultivate to enhance our moods and enrich our lives, after we have consulted a doctor to address the biological causes of our depression. Today, I want to talk about the importance of traditions and their role in improving our lives. We humans are tradition-creating machines. Our sacred books overflow with stories people celebrating significant moments in their lives. God saves the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and the Passover tradition begins. Jesus is born, and the tradition of Christmas takes root. Jesus dies and is raised from the tomb, so we invent the Easter Bunny hiding eggs, which makes no sense, but there you have it. We are tradition-creating machines.
We create traditions because they serve us well. When they no longer serve us well, we abandon them. In this meeting, we’re trying to decide whether someone has to be a member to serve on specific committees. That’s been a tradition so long it’s in our Faith and Practice. When that tradition began, most Quakers believed membership in a meeting got you a ticket to heaven. People used to believe that. But we don’t believe that any longer, do we?
I remember years ago, this was quite some time back, when a woman approached me whose father had died. I had met him a time or two, and then he died, and she asked me if we could posthumously make him a member of the meeting. She was very distraught, worried her father was in hell, and wanted to know if I could just sign a piece of paper that said her father was a member of the meeting so she could bust him out of hell. Weird, isn’t it? I signed a letter made out to “To Whom It May Concern” saying he was a member, even though he was dead. I figured it wouldn’t be the first time someone became a member of a Quaker meeting and was never seen again.
There are members of our meeting we never see, who give little evidence of valuing the Quaker testimonies. And there are non-members who have invested themselves in the life and work of this meeting and embody the values we cherish. So this is causing us to look at a long-standing tradition and ask ourselves if we’re still well-served by that tradition. If you have a tradition in your life that doesn’t serve you well, that doesn’t help you navigate life with joy and purpose and meaning, it’s time to let it go. Our unswerving devotion to unhelpful traditions can make us miserable.
When I became your pastor back in the last century, there were people here who were made miserable by my theology. I could tell by watching them. They were wonderful people, but listening to me every Sunday was driving them crazy.
But there’s that pull of tradition. They thought they had to come to Fairfield, even if it made them miserable. A few of them asked me to change my theology. I told them I couldn’t go back to my old theology, that “the mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions,” to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes. So I told those Friends, “I know it’s hard to listen to me. Sometimes I can barely listen to me. But I don’t expect you to believe something just because I do. I don’t want you to change your beliefs just to make me happy. Find a community that makes you happy. Find a new tradition.”
Here’s what good traditions do for us, and why they’re so important for our well-being and happiness. Two things. This is important. Good traditions connect us and reconnect us with people we love. We never do traditions alone. Traditions, by their nature, involve others, and those others are ideally the people we love. If we find ourselves continuing a tradition with people we don’t love, people who demean us, who bully us, who degrade us, it’s time to end that tradition and start a new one with people who treat you with the dignity you deserve. Good traditions connect us and reconnect us with people we love. That’s the first thing a good tradition does.
The second thing a good tradition does is this: good traditions reinforce our core values. We’re honoring the birth of Jesus this month. We do that because honoring the life of Jesus reminds us of our core values—compassion, love, generosity, and forgiveness. We need to be reminded of those virtues, don’t we?
When we fear and demonize immigrants, we need to remember that Jesus was an immigrant and was carried in his mother’s arms to a better place, so we remember compassion.
When we condemn Muslims or trans people or Proud Boys, we need to remember Jesus was also hounded and condemned, so we remember love.
When we blame the poor for all their difficulties, when we equate poverty with immorality, laziness, and stupidity, we need to remember that the son of Man had nowhere to lay his head, so we remember generosity.
When we hold grudges, when we allow slights to embitter us, we need to remember Jesus forgave those who hurt him, so we remember forgiveness.
Good traditions reinforce our core values. That’s why we come here every week, to remember our core values, lest we forget.
Pick your traditions, Friends, and pick them carefully. When a tradition no longer serves you or others well, when it degrades you, cripples you, and diminishes others, that is a clear indication that tradition has outlived its usefulness. Good traditions connect us with good things, with the people and values we love and cherish. Pick your traditions, Friends, and pick them carefully, as you would the loveliest fruit on the finest tree.