Are you Bound by the Spirit and the Power of Tradition?

When returning to Florida once, I arrived at Miami International Airport on a flight that brought us low across the Everglades. A young woman sitting at the window next to me was fascinated at the sight of thousands of tiny islands and miles of water that spread across this part of Florida.

There was no sight of civilization anywhere; nothing but an ocean of grass and cypress trees that reached to the horizon. And then my eye fell on a scene that moved me in a strange way. “Look there,” I spoke to her, and pointed to a particular island, “Do you see that?” She strained for a better view, gasped and turned back to me wide eyed.

Below us on an island, utterly isolated from the rest of the world, was a clearing with a cluster of thatched huts that could easily have been a scene on the Amazon. The plane was low enough to identify palm-frond roofs and posts of Indian chickees on a small beach. “That is a Seminole village,” I explained, “They are Miccosukees—true ‘native’ Americans.” She was amazed at the sight. “How did they get out there?!” she asked. “They were born out there,” I said, “Some have air-boats but many still rely on dug-out canoes.” I went on, “Would you believe there may be Indian children down there who have never seen a white man’s face or a television—or an automobile?” She was amazed and kept staring at the village until it was out of sight.

Within a few minutes we landed in Miami, a sprawling, glittering metropolis, famous for every extravagance and luxury known to man. A short time later I was on an elevated super-highway heading home. Everything around me seemed to deny what I had seen from the plane window. But the picture would not go away. It seemed impossible that just a few miles to the west, surrounded by an ocean of cypress and saw-grass, suspended in a time-warp, was an ancient civilization that had changed little from the life-style of 2,000 years ago.

I was genuinely puzzled that two radically opposite cultures could co-exist only minutes apart.

My question to the Lord was, “How have they done it?! How is it possible for the Miccosukees to be that close to the modern world and successfully resist it?” That was not a criticism. I too am part Indian descent—Cherokee from my father, Iroquois from my mother—and I respect my ancestors’ way of life. Occasionally, I visit the villages and before Chief Billy Osceola’s death, counted him a dear friend. But the question kept stirring my mind: “How have they done it?!”

God’s answer came in a surprising way. Clearly, I heard Him say: “The spirit that causes Indians to reject benefits the White Man offers is the same spirit that causes Christians to reject benefits I offer.” I held my breath. The thought was astounding. He continued, “It is the spirit of tradition.”

HOW TRADITION SURVIVES

Instantly, I knew what God meant. Jesus told the Jews, “You reject the commandments of God that you may keep your own traditions.” (Mark 7:9.) Traditions survive for centuries because the spirit working in them persuades people not to change—even when the change is beneficial. Change is viewed as loss. It is feared. For that reason, ancient Seminole tradition is hard as flint. So is the white man’s.

Whether we are struggling against Protestant tradition, Catholic tradition, Seminole tradition, ancient or modern tradition, makes no difference. The same spirit takes advantage of human weakness and works its intrigue through all of us. Hear this: Tradition freezes us at our present level of achievement. It prevents us from moving forward. The spirit’s purpose is to paralyze progress.

The loss is horrendous.

Seminoles die of snake-bite when some of the best hospitals in the world are just a short distance away. Tradition yells at them, “Don’t go to the White Man! Use your ancient medicine!” Many yield. Others don’t. But Native Americans are not alone in that tragic attitude. In some way, we all victimize ourselves.

During the typhoid epidemic in the early 1900’s, countless Americans died needlessly because medical practice still held the tradition to “starve a fever, feed a cold.” With food nearby and doctors looking on, numerous victims slowly perished from malnutrition and starvation. In our own way, we Christians do the same thing. Religious tradition starves us from truths known by other Christians and prevents our learning about their experience in the Holy Spirit.

I know. For years I suffered from that tragic mindset. I was ordained to the pastorate in 1949, and for the first 27 years of ministry I knew absolutely nothing about the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Religious tradition kept me from receiving truth from others or discovering it for myself. For nearly three decades my congregations suffered tragically because of my lack of knowledge. During those years I never saw a single person be miraculously delivered from drug addiction, disease, alcoholism, depression, homosexuality, or other life-crushing problems. It did not happen. Nor did I expect it to. My answer for those needs was secular therapy—not God.

That neglect finally ended in 1977 when crisis forced me into a deeper search for the Holy Spirit. After agonizing personal grief, I finally stepped out of a long, dark tunnel into the light of God’s Kingdom. That transformation was so total, so life-changing, that I would choose death before I would go back. I blame no one but myself for my failure. The Bible’s message about the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit is very precise and clear. I should have recognized my need for deliverance from traditionalism much sooner than I did.

HOW TRADITION TAKES HOLD

But are there not benefits to tradition? Yes, and that is the reason we love it. There are many legitimate expressions of tradition. Tradition is familiar, comfortable, and predictable. It can be very beautiful. But because of that good quality, religious tradition usually pushes deeply into places where it does not belong. Like any other form of habit, it removes the necessity of decision-making. Making decisions requires mental energy; life is simpler if we do things by a habitual routine. At the same time: Tradition can only turn its eyes on the past. If it looks to the future, it ceases to be tradition.

This is where it becomes deadly to the church. Like my Seminole cousins, we let tradition isolate us on denominational islands, refusing to learn from others, and living far below our privilege. Evangelistically, we paddle along in dug-out canoes when we could be flying overhead in the power of the Holy Spirit. We survive on garfish and coonti roots, fight mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, when just a few miles away are the bright, beautiful lights of the Kingdom of God. Those lights challenge us to change. They tell us Heaven has so much more than traditionalism has allowed. By that I mean: The full Kingdom-message of the Holy Spirit’s miracles, signs, and wonders, is desperately needed by the modern church.

Religious traditions strip us of the benefit they once afforded.

Those power-enduing parts of Scripture have been emasculated and demoted to nothingness in many modern pulpits. (Mark 16:17,18, Acts 1:8. 1 Corinthians 12-14.) Thankfully, believers in all Christian bodies, like Seminole children, are looking up from their islands to see magnificent sights in the sky. Satellites, supersonic jets, aircraft of every kind, streak through the heavens above. At first, these sights are frightening and uninformed people wonder what they are. In the past, when new truths challenged the church, tradition threw blankets over everyone’s head and said,

“You don’t need to see that! You already have all the truth. Stay like you are!” But the planes, like the call of the Holy Spirit, keep reappearing day after day; finally, frustrated Christians become determined to learn the truth about them. They suddenly throw off the blankets, leave their islands, and run toward the Light. Others stay behind on the safety of the beach, yelling, "You'll regret leaving this place!" And, true, for many, the journey is difficult, the water is deep, dangers crowd the way, but the blessing gained makes the losses worthwhile. These brace souls make a discovery which you also may need to make: 

There really is life beyond your island. 

That new-found life in the Spirit is beautiful, awesome, exciting. You don't want to lose it. Be honest. Are you possibly on a religious island? Are you missing something vital in your Christian walk? Does God's light in the distance challenge you? Go! Find out what it means! Throw off the blanket. Run toward the Light. Receive all the Holy spirit has for you! Something really is lost "behind the ranges! Go and find! Go and find!" There is life changing spiritual discovery waiting for you. Matthew 15:3. Mark 7:3. Colossians 2:8. 1 Peter 1:18.