Tradition as Storytelling

by Dave Clark

In recent years we have seen the way many worshipers harken back to a more liturgical expression of faith. Certainly, there are proponents surrounding the way the church worships. So what is meant when people refer to traditions? While I cannot offer a single idea I can introduce a varied lens on the way we might look at our personal traditions and the traditions of others.

Tradition as a Telling of the World

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Tradition is a way of knowing, seeing, hearing, and speaking. Ritual via liturgy is the viewing of life as sacred. By creating an aesthetic boundary around a certain creed, experience, perception, or agreement, we acknowledge that although all of life is God-breathed, God does reveal Himself in time, therefore time has value.

For the church, tradition is the sacramental discernment of time and experience. For example, weddings, funerals, inaugurations are ritualized. Why? Because they represent the acknowledgment that we live our lives inside and through time. Time is space in which God creates His habitation. Through rituals, we are acknowledging publicly that we agree God still speaks in time, makes His presence known in time, and honors our rituals and traditions when they accurately reflect His nature. For those leading worship, our outworking of rituals gives context and invitation for the Spirit to bear witness to the truth.

Tradition as a Way of Becoming Human

Is becoming more like God what happens to a person who is profoundly formed through ritual? Can “a person” become “a person” outside a ritualized community? Localized traditions are necessary for the sacralization of life to be made real in the lives of worshipers.

God works in time and is still speaking in time, so we must listen to the inbreaking need for new expressions of our sacramental engagement. Has the Father revealed Himself in a new way? Not “new” in the sense of modern or novel, but the “new”, unfathomable nature of God’s presence. The challenge is always how to preserve perceived traditions while at the same time incorporating other cultures and expressions and embracing change from a biblical perspective. The worship leader who innovates is important but not more important than the worship leader who chronicles the story through liturgical art.

Tradition as Narrative Memory

“Great is the power of memory,
an awe-inspiring mystery.”
Augustine Confessions

In the early days of our Christianity’s emerging story, they were passing on the tradition orally of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did. The telling and retelling of the story was a way for them to articulate their understanding of Jesus. And in the process of storytelling, they are defining Jesus for themselves.

That initial orality is still operative today. In many ways, we are the traditions to which we knowingly and unknowingly submit our imaginations.  Much like 1st Century believers we are defining once again through our traditions who we believe our Savior to be. Traditions are on some level an ongoing retelling of the original organic story.

Tradition as an Activity of the Soul

Stories and pictures have a way of beckoning our hearts towards innocence. Could the beauty of remembering be a way of leaving the present practical world if only briefly for a glimpse at the soul’s narrative in it all?

When traditions are followed and practiced as a labor of love, an animation of these dramas emerges. Great stories honor the act of remembering and provide for us a place to re-live or re-imagine our lives.

Tradition and the Formation of the Imagination

The return for many Protestants to a more sacramental style of worship appears to be accompanied by a return to the enchantment inherent in creation. There is a beauty in the world. How is that beauty manifest in our worship? Andrew Greeley sees the Holy lurking in creation.  He goes on to say, “As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.” This type of imagination can appropriately be called sacramental as it sees created reality as a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God.

For worship leaders, this sacramental perspective is indeed a manner of engagement and a way of addressing and naming reality. Life now becomes permeated by two precious awarenesses: we are human and are embraced by the divine. May our traditions form in us such awe.

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