The Truth of Tradition

II Thessalonians 2: 13-17

We have a new Star Wars on the scene. Good entertainment but hopefully it does not reflect the philosophy of the larger culture today. In the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi sternly tells Luke Skywalker, ‘Stretch out with your feelings,’ ‘Let go your conscious self and act on instinct…’” This last piece of advice comes when Skywalker is foolishly trying to destroy the evil Death Star by using a computer instead of his feelings to hit a target the size of a grapefruit while flying 300 miles per hour at an altitude of 20 feet.

The same sort of keen advice about the power of feeling is dispensed in the second Star Wars movie. Nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker is about to risk his life in a 300-mile-per-hour race of pods, or space chariots. So the Jedi knight naturally thinks this is a good time to offer the child useful advice about feelings. “Feel, don’t think,” barks the master.

This illustrates a primary reality in our current culture, a switch to a feelings-centered morality and way of living. Values created by feelings have taken precedence over traditional values. The late well-known psychologist, Carl Rogers, “Doing what feels right proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide to behavior which is truly satisfying.”

Now if this be a widespread attitude in contemporary society, then it constitutes a real crisis for Biblical faith. Because at the heart of this kind of faith is the conviction that a real, healthy, productive, loving life has its foundation in ancient traditions, not contemporary sentiments and feelings. “God chose you to find salvation, life, in the truth you believe. Stand firm then, my friends, and hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us.”

This means then, first of all, that there is a truth, a perspective, a wisdom that is not abstract nor theoretical, but that is essential to real life. If you don’t take the trouble to learn it, your life will sooner or later approach disaster. Only as you know it, will you truly live. You can’t just improvise your way through challenges, relationships, struggles, setbacks from day to day, guided by your gut feelings, and make a success of living, any more than you can run a business or do surgery by instinct.

Back when he was CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson asked his executive assistant one day, “On just what basis did you reach that decision?” The assistant replied, “Well, in the final analysis, I guess it was a visceral decision.” Watson replied, “Well, if there are going to be any visceral decisions around here, I’d like to use my own viscera.”

No less than in the management of finances or organizations, there is a truth you must learn, must trust, must know if you want to live wisely, healthy, well. Because it is, finally, ideas in your head, understandings of reality, perspective on life that makes life go or gets you in trouble. There is the story of three people visiting and viewing the Grand Canyon: an artist, a theologian, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of that massive abyss, each responded with a cry of exclamation. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint.” The theologian said, “Ah, what a wonderful example of the handiwork of God.” The cowboy said, “Aw, what a terrible place to lose a cow.” There is a truth about life, a perspective on life you must know in order to live well. And you do not learn it by experience or experiment. It is not the product of modern research or therapeutic insight. It is not new at all. Writer Lincoln Barnett once described the excitement of a group of students emerging from a physics lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. “How did it go?” one of them was asked. “Great,” he replied, “Everything we knew last week isn’t true.”

It’s not that kind of truth at all. It is not progressive truth, it is perennial truth. It is not the truth of discovery, it is the truth of receptivity. It is the truth of Moses and of Jesus. It is the eternal wisdom, the word of God.You see, to be a Christian, if it means anything at all, means at least this. It means the judgment that the final truth about life and how to live it happened already a long time ago. It means the humble judgment that an old story and a venerable teacher know more about how to live than I do. And only as I place myself under their tutelage will I get it even half right. Only as you become a student of this ancient book and leader, will you develop a perspective on reality that will enable you to live the truly fulfilling and happy life.

In Chaim Potok’s novel, “In the Beginning,” a brilliant young man, David Lurie, passionately probes the Bible. He loves to sit on a bench in the heart of a park where he seems to be alone. He reflects, “I had been doing a lot of sitting on park benches these past years. They were good places for reading…I liked parks, I had the world visible to me while I read. It was important to have it visible so you could see how your reading changed it.”

Modern culture has lost touch with this, hasn’t it? Our forefathers felt strongly about study of the book, reflection upon the words of the Master Teachers as central to any healthy perspective and existence. When Harvard University was founded in 1636, the trustees issued this statement, “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound know-ledge and learning.”

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? The idea that this kind of learning is essential to the life of a mature adult is anathema in an age of all kinds of soporifics and sensations, of soaps and silver screens. Can you even imagine products of contemporary culture believing that there is a age old wisdom surpassing the shrinks and sophisticates of our time, that there is an old book that will make the ultimate difference in their days, that learning from Jesus is more important than learning from Kellogg or Mass General or Ann Landers or Oprah Winfrey?

Of course you can’t. And the result is a population of people running around with a lot of crazy ideas in their heads. Ideas like: I must be in this mess because I did something bad. Or, I can’t be happy if I am rejected or lonely. Or, if I am not a success, life is not worth living. Or , God will punish me if I defy my mother. Or ,I’ve got a right to go for what I want. Or…I could go on and on. Most of the people I meet who are in real trouble, who are stuck in life, are people who are the way they are because of crazy beliefs, are people who need desperately to discover and appreciate an old wisdom which is the gift of God, the truth which is life.

That’s all I try to give you week by week. Nothing I say is new, nothing. If I repeat the name, Jesus, a lot, it is because I am trying to say what he says a lot. If the words sound new, it is because I am trying to win your respect for the old by changing the angle a bit. If I say it eight different ways, it is so you will get beyond the cliches to the content. But I struggle to give you nothing but the truth once for all delivered in ways that are inviting and thought provoking. Because the quality of our lives depends upon it.

I found my father’s Bible last summer. It had been mislaid.What I found most moving about it, is all the places he underlined, page after page the words that were meaningful to him in his life. My father never had the educational advantages he enabled me to enjoy. But he knew this old book and it did shape his life, encourage and strengthen him in every good deed and word.

Finding that Bible reminded me of a story by Jim Comstock. “Today I wrapped an old dingy, flexible Bible and took it to the post office and mailed it to my daughter in college. If the saying, ‘late is better than never’ is true, then I have done a good thing. But I am not sure.

“Let me tell you the story. My wife and I had just returned from the 150-mile trip from the college. It was late at night and we were tired. We had left early that morning with our daughter, who had been accepted by the college. Her tuition and her dorm bills and other fees had been sent in previously. She was too excited by the change to need us further, and we drove back home without her. It was the first time in our live that our daughter had been gone for any length of time. We went to bed, wondering how other people had stood it.

“In bed I thought things over. I began to think of the time I went to college. My father had taken me to college, too. That was a good 22 years ago. There were some differences in the mode of transportation. My father and I rode up front in the farm truck. In the back was the trunk that I had pitched hay for that summer. My mother wasn’t along because she had to stay behind and keep the cattle from jumping over the fences and getting into the crops. I, the fourth in a line of brothers, was the first to go away to college. And there were brothers and sisters beyond me to use up shoes and to consume groceries. So we went in the truck, my mother cried and I cried, but after we were out of sight of the farm the new changes made me feel jelly-like all over and I was scared. The truck was slow and my father wasn’t used to highways with oncoming cars and people who wanted to pass us and I was glad. I didn’t want to get to the city too soon.

“It was, of course, different with my daughter. We had taken her down during the summer just so she could see the school. On this particular day we stopped at a classy roadside place and ordered fried chicken. In bed I remembered how my father and I had stopped by a little stream of water and ate the sandwiches my mother had prepared. And in bed I relived my daughter’s day. We toured the town for a while and then we went to the dormitory and my wife went in and talked with the housemother for a while. When she came back she was wiping her eyes with a handkerchief and it wasn’t until we were passing through the next town that my wife remarked something about the weather and discovered that our daughter had forgotten to take out the portable radio and record player. I told her that she should have put it in the trunk with the other things, not in the back seat. And soon we were home with the long trip behind us and a new kind of loneliness before us and now I was in bed just thinking about my daughter’s first trip to college and mine and the score of years between. I heard a little sob beside me and I knew that my wife was thinking about the same thing.

“My father didn’t let me out at the dormitory. We looked into living conditions in college during the summer, and everybody advised me to get a room in a private home. It was cheaper, and besides, if a student wanted to work his way ‘through,’ he would have a better chance.” Dorms and fraternity houses weren’t for me. But I didn’t have a room. I had to find one. My father told me that we’d leave my trunk at a filling station and I could come for it the next day after I had found a place to stay. We found the station and we toured the town a little, but the traffic confused him a bit, and I told him that maybe I had better go on my own. I opened the door and I had that awful feeling that a body has when he takes his first swim in the spring and he knows the water is too cold but he just must be brave. And I stepped out onto the street. The water was cold, awfully cold.

“I shook hands with my father and for a long, haunting moment he looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word. I knew that he was going to make a speech. But it turned out to be very brief. ‘There is nothing that I can tell you,’ he said. ‘I never went to college and none of your brothers went to college. So I can’t tell you nothing. I can’t say don’t do this and for you to do that, because everything is different and I don’t know what is going to come up. I can’t help you much with money either, but I think things will work out.’”

“’I can’t give you any advice. There is no need to. You know what you want to be and they’ll tell you what to take. When you get a job, be sure it’s honest and work hard.’ I knew then that it was almost over – that soon I would be by myself alone in the big town and I would be missing furrowed ground, cool breezes, and a life where your thinking was done for you. Then my dad reached down beside his seat and brought out that old dingy Bible that he had read so often. I knew it was his favorite and I knew he would miss it. I knew, though, that I must take it.

“He didn’t say read this every morning. He just said, ‘This can help you if you will let it.’ Did it help? I don’t know. I got through college without being a burden on the family. I have had a good earning capacity since then. When I finished school, I took the Bible back to my father. But he said he wanted me to keep it. And now in bed and too late, I remember what he said at that time.

“’You will have a kid in school. Let the first one take that Bible along,’ he said. Now, too late, I remember. It would have been so nice to have given it to her, when she got out of the car. But I didn’t. Things are different. I was prosperous and my father wasn’t. I had gone places. I could give my daughter everything. My father could only give me a battered, old Bible. I was able to give my daughter what she needed…

“Or, had I? I don’t really believe now that I gave her one half as much as my father gave me. So this morning I wrapped that book up and sent it to her. I wrote a note. ‘This can help you,’ I said, ‘if you will let it.’”And it will help us as well, you know. You don’t have to be a Bible student to stay in touch with this saving tradition. But it wouldn’t hurt to read it again, from time to time, some part of it. The heart of his words, Matthew chapters 5 – 7, his Sermon on the Mount, for example. Fifteen minutes are all it takes. There are other ways to stay in touch with the tradition. “Hold fast to what you have learned by word or by letter,” writes Paul to his friends. Sundays here, teaching in church school, saying thoughtfully each day the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done…forgive us as we forgive,” reading any one of the good books that repeat the old tradition, taking the time out to remember the old songs and stories.

Stand firm then, my friends. Hold fast to the traditions. So may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has shown us such love, and in his grace has given us such unfailing encouragement and so sure a hope, still encourage and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

This can help you if you will let it. It really can.