sportswriter Bill Simmons. Anyone who can get me to read a 736 page book on basketball - a sport I really don't even care for that much - must be a pretty good writer. I've been reading just about everything he has written for close to ten years now. Recently he launched a new website - GRANTLAND.COM - that has a bunch of super-talented writers covering all kinds of sports and cultural topics. I don't agree with everything they write, nor do I agree with everything Simmons writes. But I enjoy reading their stuff and it gets you thinking.
The other day, Simmons wrote about the NBA (naturally) and included what he called "the eight deadliest words in sports." Because that's the way we've always done it. It really got me thinking about how that phrase in not just deadly in sports, it can be deadly in every area of life. It kills new ideas, hampers innovation, thwarts progress. Now, I can relate to what Professor Umbridge says in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We don't need progress for the sake of progress. But... There is a time and a place for staying the main road. And there is a time to find a new road.
Because that's the way we've always done it. Isn't that how I got so fat? Isn't that what nearly killed American car companies? Isn't that what has (probably) irreparably damaged the newspaper industry and the music industry? How many businesses have gone under because that phrase seemed to be tacked onto their mission statement? How many churches are struggling because they won't change to meet their new neighbors or the new culture? I'm not talking about changing the inherent values or heart of something. But we certainly can look at changing the way things are done.
There are times when we face a situation and there is a logical solution. It makes sense. It is just what to do. Years ago, I asked myself why no one ever used waffles as a bread substitute in breakfast sandwiches. No one could give me a good answer. So I tried it and it was glorious. Waffles, cheese, sausage, eggs. Amazing stuff. Thinking myself a genius, I went one further and asked why no one ever used Toaster Strudels as the bread substitute in breakfast sandwiches. So I tried it. Blueberry strudels, egg, cheese. It was one of the most disgusting things I ever ate. There was a very good reason why no one used glorified Pop Tarts in a breakfast sandwich. [Years later, some brilliant person would go through this same question process with donuts and a hamburger. The jury is still out on that one. All the people who have tried it are dead.]
But there are time when that solution doesn't make the best sense. But we keep doing it. Why? It reminds me of a story I heard in a sermon years ago. There was a family once that got together for Sunday dinner - a very special tradition. The youngest son had recently gotten engaged. This was his new fiance's first big family dinner. To reach out to her, the mother took the new daughter-in-law-to-be aside and was showing her how to go about crafting the meal. She explained all about what is included: mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, homemade biscuits, peach salad. Finally, she got to the centerpiece - the roast. She took out a magnificent piece of meat out of the fridge and laid it on the counter. She sprinkled it with salt and spices. Then she took a huge knife and cut the end off of it and placed it into the roasting pan and slid it into the oven. The girl was a bit hesitant, but couldn't help herself. "Why did you cut the end off the roast?" The mother looked at her quizzically and replied, "I'm not sure. Probably because that's the way we've always done it." The other children all explained that they did the same thing. Their spouses admitted they didn't understand why, but they did the same thing because the mother had told them to. No one knew why. Finally the mother said it was because her mom had told her to. About that time, the grandmother in question arrived with her bowl of peach salad and basket of bread. The youngest son looked over and asked her, "Why did you tell mom to cut the end off the roast?" The grandmother thought for a minute. "I never told her to do that." The mother responded, "Yes you did. Every time I watched you make Sunday dinner, you cut the end off the roast." The grandmother started to laugh. "I never told you to do that. You saw me do it and copied me." The mom was getting a little frustrated. "Showed me, told me. Whatever. Same thing. I got it from you." The grandmother nodded, "Yes, you did. I cut the end of the roast because I didn't have a roasting pan big enough to fit it in."
In that story, there was no good reason to continue that practice. It had outlived its purpose. But no one changed it because that's the way we've always done it. We hear this all the time. Think about some things in your life that you would answer with that phrase. Why do you sleep on the side of the bed you do? Why do you comb your hair the way you do? Why do you buy a particular brand of food? Why do you use a particular translation/version of The Bible? I know that there are practices I have that don't necessarily need to continue. I used a rigid folder system on my computer I developed over many year using Windows machines. Now that I am exclusively on Macs, it isn't as important. But I can't get over it. [Shoot, the fact that it took me so long to switch computer brands could fall into that as well.] We separate our clothes into separate colored loads. That makes sense, except for the fact that we don't have many new clothes that would be bleeding, we wash in cold water to hold colors, we used detergents that hold colors, and there are new items that help catch colors. I sleep on the right side of the bed. I have a pattern I use when brushing my teeth.
There are habits that we get into. Not necessarily a bad thing. But those habits can become ruts. And living in a rut can make you stubborn and rigid. So when a new idea comes along that genuinely is better than ours, we fight it. We won't acknowledge its legitimacy. It can't be a better option because that's the way we've always done it. This isn't about questioning every single believe or teaching. But I think there is something to be said about questioning the methods. Why do we vote on Tuesdays? Why is there an Electoral College? Why are there only two political parties? Those made perfect sense back in the day, when transportation was harder and education was limited. But are those the best systems now? I don't think questioning that is the same as questioning the validity of the Constitution or freedom itself. But some people would raise the hair on their backs just the same.
Those eight words are triggered - and often nullified - by just one word. Why? It seems like a bit of a cop out. It really isn't a good answer. And it is kind of a testimony to the fact that there may not be a good reason. It is healthy to ask yourself why you are doing certain things from time to time. That is how innovators and inventors get started. They look at situation and ask why it is that way. Then they try to find out if there is a better way to do things. That is where the Fords and Edisons and Jobses and Zuckerbergs get started. Why? But instead of replying the eight words, they answer just two. Why not?
Jesus was like this. He was approaching a religious establishment that had done things a certain way for hundreds of years. Back in the day, when The Law was established, it made sense. But over the centuries, traditions and teachings had added to and colored that Law. It was barely recognizable. And, the whole point of The Law was to point to the coming Messiah. So when Jesus showed up, there was a whole lot of people who could only answer His appearance with because that's the way we've always done it. The leaders would ask Jesus why he was doing certain things. And He would more often than not respond back with a variation of "Why aren't you?" Why was He hanging around with sinners? Why was He talking to women? Why was He hanging out with Gentiles? Why was He wasting time on children?
The religious establishment was so entrenched in their systems that eventually they killed Jesus. They couldn't take Him upsetting their apple cart (or temple tables). Their devotion to their rituals blinded them to a new way to do things. Jesus's teachings were revolutionary only in the fact that they flew in the face of the rules and structures of the time. But they were always in agreement with the heart of The Law - "Love God, Love Others." Like Jesus said, "Love God with all your heart, mind, body, spirit. Love others as yourself." The whole of The Law distilled into those things. But the people had gotten so caught up in only walking one mile and not working on the Sabbath. They were so worried about keeping up with each individual rule they forgot the WHY behind it. Why were they not working on the Sabbath? Why were they supposed to give or pray or sacrifice?
Jesus got so angry at this. One of the times we saw Him get super angry was when they dragged a crippled man before Jesus to see if He would heal Him on the Sabbath - breaking the Law by "working" on a healing." Jesus got so ticked because they were so committed that to their rules that they didn't even care about this guy. He was a pawn, a tool. They weren't brokenhearted at this man's plight. They weren't happy he got healed. They weren't amazed at the miracle or demonstration of God's power. They were angry that Jesus showed them up. We saw this same battle time and again. It didn't stop after Jesus returned to Heaven either. After the Early Church started, the establishment found themselves fighting time and again with members who were asking "why" and weren't satisfied with the answer.
My great fear is that the modern Church is drifting into this same area. So many churches are so caught up in doing what they've always done that they are completely missing the fact that the world is dying all around them. The old programs are not reaching the new culture like they used to. The old way of doing things is not necessarily going to have the same results. I'm not calling for an abandonment of the core beliefs of the Church. I'm saying we need to to examine why we are sharing those beliefs the way we are. Again, we are becoming so attached to our rules and programs that we often are missing the core message of "Love God, Love Others." The Bible never told us to sing from a hymnal, have Sunday evening services, have AWANA, do Tuesday night visitation, set up a children's choir, go to youth camp, sit in pews, or have a giant building. None of those things are necessarily bad things. BUT, WHY are we doing those things? Is there a good reason? If so, then keep on going. If the answer is because that's the way we've always done it, well, that shouldn't cut it.
I think some churches have gone to the opposite extreme. They've jettisoned everything - even the important things. That is NOT what I am advocating. But, we need to start asking ourselves why we insist on certain things. Why is the offering put where it is in the order of worship? Why do you have an invitation? Or, why don't you ever have one? Why do you only do Communion twice a year? Why do you sing the first two verses of a hymn and then skip to the last? Why do you preach on tithing? Why do you use that particular Sunday School curriculum? If you ask that, and at the end decide things should stay the way they are, well you are even more steadfast in your stance. Good for you. But if you end up with because that's the way we've always done it, then pray and ask God if there is a better way.
Our final goal should be to increase God's Kingdom, lead more people to Him, share the transformative power of God's Good News, help people grow in their walk with Christ. The rest of that stuff is all trappings. It is ways to accomplish those goals. If we end up spending so much time and efforts on the programs, we'll miss the point. The reason all of this really hit home with me this week is that I am speaking at chapel on Friday at International Community School. This may be the last time I address the senior class there. They are very dear to my heart. When they were freshmen, the school made the questionable choice of letting me teach them Bible. I was terrified and in over my head. I thought about all the Bible classes I had taken over the years. And I knew that they were going to get some very solid teaching from my fellow Bible teacher, Greg Willson, that would make up for any stupidity I imparted. So, I approached the class with the simple question of "Why" hanging over everything. Why does it matter if we believe this? Why is this so important? Why did this happen the way it did? I wasn't so concerned about ramming home the exact order of the Israelite kings as I was asking why the desire to have a king was so significant. The kids had not really been forced to look at the Bible that way. [I can't take credit for this. My college Sunday School teacher, Jeff Kipi, did the same thing with us. It floored me. And it changed my life.] We have had a very special connection from that class onward. I love those guys and gals. And it is sad and thrilling to see them moving on. I see amazing potential in that group of students. They are the kinds of people who can change the world. That isn't going to happen by them resorting to because that's they way we've always done it. It is going to happen by them seeking and looking for new and better ways to do things. So, if one of these kids comes up to you and asks you why, go on the journey with them to figure that out. It may force you to change some things. It may even change you. And it will give you a better answer when someone asks you why.