On a recent trip to see our niece graduate from high school, Susan and I stayed with my parents, as always when we go to Georgia. At breakfast one morning, I noticed my dad shaking the milk vigorously. I thought this was odd behavior, given that it was unnecessary for the 1% product they’ve started drinking. But I understood why Daddy did it. He grew up in a day when the cream rose to the top of the whole milk, delivered to your door right from the dairy in glass quart bottles with little paper caps. (Well, truth be told, so did I.) Shaking milk was necessary to mix the cream with the milk and get that rich flavor everybody loved.

I was having Sunday lunch recently with some friends, Herbert and Joanie, from a church I have occasionally supplied, and for some reason I told the story about Daddy and his milk. “I do that, too,” said both Herbert and his mother, who was also sharing the meal. “And for the same reason. It’s a habit.” Reminiscing about shaking milk was an entertaining bit of nostalgia and a connection among us all.

There’s no harm at all in shaking the milk jug, even if the practice is now only a habit and unnecessary. Indeed, as I’ve said, the shared memory of the bygone day when the separated parts of milk had to be combined can add warmth to new and old relationships.

But seeing Daddy shake the milk reminded me of what happens so often in the church and other organizations. There was a practice that arose out of necessity, the need for efficiency, lack of resources or for some other good reason. So it showed the wisdom and practicality of the founders or parents or elders. The necessity passed when conditions changed, but the way things had been done still persisted as tradition now spoken of in hushed tones as “the Practice.” Somehow not to preserve the Practice  dishonored the heritage of the congregation or the organization. Anyone who asked about it was automatically branded a trouble-maker and radical and excluded from the inner circle. The Practice had become institutionalized, and some folk made it their mission to preserve it. Never mind that there was a better way or that no one needed anymore to take the time or make the effort metaphorically to shake the milk. “We have always done it that way.”

There’s a reason those are called the “Seven Last Words of the Church.” They are one evidence of a “closed myth,” which shuts out the stranger (like visitors and even a new pastor). They betray the central ethos of the congregation as one that shuns innovation and new ideas, even when the same old thing is not producing good results. So eventually they become an epitaph when the doors finally close and the lights are turned out for the last time.

Some traditions and old practices are great, lovely, and add to the character and appeal of a congregation. But tradition for the sake of tradition, like change for the sake of change, is not a good idea. Everything, no matter how old and supposedly sacrosanct, needs to be judged by whether it shows the love of Jesus and brings people to him, including them in the big circle that is the community of faith.

Now doing that would shake things up!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham