Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Treasuring Christ in Our Traditions with Noel Piper

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Leslie Basham: When does an activity become a tradition? Here’s Noel Piper.

Noel Piper: The things that we do regularly, that cause us in our deepest being to know and love and want God—to have our lives infiltrated by God—those things are traditions.

Leslie: Happy Thanksgiving! This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: In 1 Thessalonians we’re told to "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for [us]" (5:18).

I’m convinced that the attitude of gratitude can transform the way you look at any situation. I’m so glad that we have a day set aside to be reminded how important gratitude really is. I hope that for you today Thanksgiving isn’t just the name of a holiday, but that it reflects your heart attitude as well. Even in those times when our eyes are filled with tears, we can lift them up and say, “Lord, I thank You. I praise You! You are still real; You are still in control, and I give You thanks in the midst of these circumstances.”

I’m so glad that in the United States we have a day set aside to be reminded how important gratitude is. I know we also have a lot of listeners to this podcast from other countries around the world. So even if it’s not an official holiday where you are, I hope that all of us will make Thanksgiving the attitude of our hearts.

As you know, holidays can be a time of unusual busyness and stress, but they can also point us to the things that matter most. Earlier this week Barbara Rainey gave us several practical suggestions on how to keep Christ central during the holidays.

Today, Noel Piper is going to pick up that same theme. Noel is the wife of pastor and author, John Piper. She’s the mom of their five children. She’s written a number of books, and she has a passion for making holidays special. Today she’s going to talk to us about why markers throughout the year are important.

She’ll show us how to use those special days to point others to Christ. She delivered this message last year at the Gospel Coalition’s national women’s conference. Let’s listen.

Noel Piper: Today, what I want to do is turn our thoughts to just one aspect of homemaking. Homemaking is huge! I just want to turn to one aspect, and that’s traditions—treasuring Christ in the traditions of our homes. I hope by the end of our time together here today, you’ll see what an important role our traditions can play in centering us, ourselves, as well as others, on Jesus.

I want to make it clear up front that this is not a how-to session. I am not going to tell you what to do. What I want to get at is your heart, so that you’re examining what it is that’s most important to you. What your real treasure is—Who your real treasure is, and whether your traditions are reflecting that to others and are helping you love Jesus more.

I want you to think about what you’re doing in your traditions. You might be doing really excellent things. You can have two people who are doing exactly the same thing in traditions—for Christmas, for Easter, for birthdays, whatever—and for one, it’s pointing them toward Jesus and helping others to understand, and for the other it’s just “what we always do every year.”

So you could be doing something excellent, but if you’re not thinking about where that activity is coming from, why you’re doing that, how it expresses your love and appreciation for God, then it’s empty in a way. No tradition is totally empty—I don’t want to say that—because there are a lot of family-strengthening things that happen in traditions. But as far as helping a family see Jesus better, or helping you see Jesus better, I don’t want our traditions to be empty. I want us to think about what we’re doing.  Realistically, in most homes it is you, the homemaker, who is determining what traditions are followed in a home.

Okay, so how are we going to discover what we need to know about traditions? Our oldest son is almost forty, but I can still hear in my heart and head his sing-song six-year-old voice reciting James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Every good gift, including traditions, comes down from our Father in heaven. He’s the inventor of traditions and giver of traditions just like He’s the inventor and giver of every good thing.

So I’m thinking if we want to know what traditions should be for us, we should look and see what He says about traditions. I just picked out a couple of places in the Old Testament where God gives instructions for some of the traditions He wants His people to follow.

In Exodus 12:42 (I want you to be listening for what the purpose is for these traditions), “Because the Lord kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt, on this night all the Israelites are to keep vigil to honor the Lord for the generations to come” (NASB).

So because the Lord kept vigil . . . Traditions help us remember what God has done for us. They help us to honor the Lord. Traditions are an occasion to acknowledge and give glory to God. 

We’re going to follow on now to Leviticus 23, starting at verse 42, to get a couple more things. This is about the Festival of Booths. “Live in [booths] seven days. All the native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in [booths] when I brought them out of [the land of] Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (vv. 42–43 NIV).

So your “descendants will know.” Traditions are for the sake of the next generations. “I am the Lord your God.” He’s saying that to the people He’s talking to here. He shows Himself to us while we are carrying out the traditions that are for the next generations. So, that means traditions are not just for the next generations—they’re for us, too.

Now, those passages—and a lot of others—are talking about big celebrations for the Israelites that happened just once a year, or even less frequently, maybe. That would be comparable maybe to Easter and Christmas for us—the big celebrations that happen once a year. Those passages, plus that once-a-year-ness, bring a couple of questions to my mind. 

Are those the only occasions that kind of celebration is for—those annual or special events? Are traditions mainly for the kids and the next generation's sake (I’ve already given you a hint to that answer, haven’t I?). What even makes something a tradition?

I’m going to another Old Testament passage. You might want to turn there with me if you have your Bible to Deuteronomy 11. We’re going to skip around some in that passage. This is a passage I like for lots of reasons.

The first question I’ll think about is, “Are traditions mainly for the kids’ sake?” Look at Deuteronomy 11:18, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul” (ESV emphasis added). So God’s talking to the adults and saying, “You get My words into your heart and your soul, you adults.” Actually, at the very beginning of the chapter He gives the reason for this—why He’s talking specifically to the adults and not just to the congregation as a whole.

So go to Deuteronomy 11:2, He says specifically, “Consider today (since I am not speaking to the children)” why? because they "have not known or seen it." He’s going to talk about it—"seen" what? You "consider the discipline of the LORD your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm.” He goes on for quite a long way, here, with the works of God.

The children haven’t experienced that yet. They’re just starting to experience it. You adults have experienced these things from God—both the hard discipline and the mighty works of God, His greatness, His outstretched army of mercy, of help, of salvation. Then He repeats it again in verse 7, “Your eyes have seen all the great work of the LORD that he did” (ESV).

Tradition first of all is for our own hearts and souls. And where our own heart is, is going to make a huge difference in how our traditions play out for pointing us toward Jesus. I want you to notice that He’s talking to all the adults—not just the parents. This is a community. The Israelites all come from one father, so in one sense they’re all one family—in the biggest sense—as are we here. We are all in the family of Christ.

That means in that broader sense that all the children of the people who are part of the family of Christ are our children. So even if you don’t have children living in your home and you’re part of a church family, there are children there who, in some sense, are yours. And there are other children in your wider circle. You have grandchildren or nieces or nephews, neighbor children, the children of co-workers.

Maybe you help out in school or Sunday school. I bet almost all of you can think right now of children who are in your circle, even though you yourself may not have children in your home. So all of you fix your hearts and your souls on God’s Word for the sake of those children who are part of your life.

And whether or not you have children in your life, you have other adults who are being touched by your traditions as well. You never know the ripple effect that God may work through you to some adult who’s close to you, and then on through that person to the next generation. God works in very tangled, complicated ways sometimes—mysterious ways—to make Himself known. You won’t know how that’s playing out a lot of times, but be faithful.

Back to verse 18—what makes something a tradition? Deuteronomy 11:18: “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul . . .” and then after you’ve filled you own heart and mind with God’s words, “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you’re sitting in your house, and when you’re walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (ESV).

Now, anything you do as often as sitting and walking and lying down and getting up might become a tradition, because repetition is part of what makes a tradition. If we do something just one time, we don’t call that a tradition. Tradition is something we’ve done enough times that we start to feel like that this might be what we will do regularly on this kind of occasion. It’s going to be something that has some significance. Nobody calls teeth brushing a tradition.

Some things are just habits, and they’re good habits. I would like you to brush your teeth, but this passage makes clear it’s talking about something important. Talk about God’s Words in all these most mundane, regular, repeated parts of your day—of your week. God’s Word—that’s pretty significant, and I see the heart of tradition for Christians right here in verse 18: “You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul.”

Here’s the difference between tooth brushing and tradition. You might think of what I’m going to say now as sort of a definition of tradition. The things that we do regularly that cause us in our deepest being to know and love and want God, to have our lives infiltrated by God, those things are traditions. And then as there are other people in our lives, those things touch other people as well.

So the things that cause us to love and know and want to know God more, and the things that we do regularly. I would call the time you spend regularly in God’s Word an everyday tradition. Anything that’s putting God’s Word in you and in the people who are close to you—your children, your Sunday school kids, whoever—I call that a tradition. It's something that happens very regularly with great significance.

So tradition for a Christian is laying up God’s Word in our own hearts and passing His Words to the next generation. That would be another way of defining tradition.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that I see two kinds of celebrations. We’ve got the big celebrations, the “especially” days—Christmas, Easter, birthdays, funerals, weddings. The once-in-a-while events that are like landmarks in our year or in our lives. The way we celebrate those, the focus of that observation, has great potential for good in our lives and in our families and in other people whose lives are touching ours. It does so by rekindling our own love for God and by increasing our knowledge of Him and by reminding us and others who God is and how He works.

Among the kinds of things we do in our celebrations, there some things I would call neutral. They don’t point us toward Christ; they don’t point us away from Christ. That might include some of the food you have for Thanksgiving—something that’s special to you. You feel like that’s what you want to do to make the day more celebratory. We have a lot of those things in our lives; however, it would be really sad if that’s all we had—the kinds of things that are just neutral as far as pointing to Christ and helping us to love Christ better.

Make sure that not everything is neutral in the way you celebrate. We had a friend in college one time who used to react strongly when he heard people say things—with good intentions—like, “Everyday should be Mother’s Day,” or “Every day should be as significant as Christmas.” He would explode and say, “No! Every day is not the same! We need ‘especially’ days.” That’s what I call those once-a-year or those special things—especially traditions.

A couple of questions that might help think through what you’re doing: “Am I focusing on God’s work so that my appreciation for Him grows?” Another would be, “Do others see why I’m celebrating?” Our big, "especially" kinds of celebrations can help us see God in our home and help us know our places in our families and in our communities because of the security traditions give and the love that traditions show.

Then there are the everyday traditions. Think again of Deuteronomy 11. Sitting and walking and lying down and getting up are just plain sitting and walking and lying down and getting up unless you plan to surround those times, somehow, with God’s Word—unless you’re thinking about it. Planning is important.

There are some traditions that you may look back on and realize, “That just sort of almost started on its own. We weren’t even thinking what we were doing, but it’s a really good thing. I’m glad we’re doing it.” One example of that for us is the baby tradition I used to have with [our daughter] Talitha—a bedtime tradition: “Mommy loves you, and Daddy loves you, and (depending on how long it was before I wanted her to go to sleep) naming all her relatives who love her. It always ended with, “Most of all Jesus loves you most of all.”

You often hear a baby talking to himself or herself after you shut the door. I could hear her in there saying, “Momma, Dadda, moooo Jesus!” Well, that’s a good thing. I’m glad she was remembering that. There are going to be some good things like that just because of the heart that you have that loves God. You’re going to realize, “That’s good, I want to keep doing that!”

But usually, it takes planning to surround the everyday things with the significance of God’s Word. There are some everyday traditions that our family has done very often and very regularly. By the way, those are the two words I would use with everyday traditions. They’re not really necessarily literally every day, but they’re very often and very regular.

Just off the top of my head I was writing things down here: We attend church regularly, we used to set aside Bible time for our young ones in the morning so that they could learn to have devotional time for themselves. If they were readers, we’d have a Bible story book or a devotional book at their level of reading. If they were pre-readers, we’d try to find some recorded Bible stories that they could listen to, or songs that were Bible verses to memorize, something like that. We prayed before meals. We had family devotions daily.

Not everything is specifically what you might call “spiritual.” While the children were folding laundry, I would read aloud to them, because they liked to be read to, and I hated to fold laundry. [laughter] And the books were a whole range of things, but it’s going to be things that are helping us understand the world from God’s point of view, as best as we can. And we read books that are true, whether they are fantasy or not—if you know what I mean.

And then, in every book you read, you are going to come across things that maybe aren’t quite the way you think they should be, and then that gives you something to talk about, too. So reading aloud together. Then the children took turns having a Saturday lunch date with their daddy. Now Talitha’s the only one home, so she gets to have almost all the Saturdays.

My husband and I pray for each child by name each day, and each daughter-in-law and the grandchildren. As the Lord blesses, the list gets longer and longer. That usually happens when we’re praying together before bed. That happens most nights.

Now, those are things you can begin to take for granted after a while, like you do with most habits—you just do them. And that’s not a bad thing, to take these things for granted, because they are good things. They wouldn’t have happened, though, if at some point you hadn’t planned to do them. So, planning is important.

Now those things that I just listed, I just said you can sort of take them for granted. Are they habits or are they traditions? And I would say, “Yes, they are both.” Not every habit is a tradition, but especially the everyday traditions, you can pray, will become habits.

Repetition is another key piece of tradition. Here’s another way of defining what I would say a tradition is. “A tradition is a planned habit with significance.” So what you do over and over and over becomes a habit, and it becomes ingrained. That happens whether you mean for it to or not. If there are children watching, it can be pretty scary sometimes, the things that you’re teaching your children by doing them over and over again and you don’t even realize what’s happening.

Here’s a story—not a scary story—but just an example of how repetition becomes ingrained. When our oldest was a baby, he had a really hard time sleeping, so we would walk up and down the long hallway, trying to get him to go to sleep. At one end of the hallway, there was a little red light over the bathroom door that told us if the heater was on in the bathroom.

Let’s say my husband was the one walking him up and down the hall. There was always the same song he sang. If it was him walking up and down the hall, that would be my time to take advantage and get in there and take a bath, so the heater—and the red light—is going to be one. So whenever John was trying to get Carsten to sleep he was singing (we were living in Germany at the time) Wer nur den lieen Gott lasst walten, “If thou but suffer God to guide Thee.”

Now, skip ahead ten years. Carsten and our second son, Benjamin, are in their bunk beds. John is tucking them in for the night, and he starts singing that song. Carsten sits up and says, “What was that red light that used to shine when you sang that?” [laughter] We left Germany before he was two years old. I promise you, that was not something we were trying to train him to remember. It just happened because of repetition. (That tells you how hard it was for him to get to sleep.)

Repetition teaches, whether we’re intending it to or not, so that could be another whole session. But just what are you repeating in your life? You’re ingraining something in yourself that you may or may not intend to. You’re teaching the children around you that that’s something that always happens. That’s what our traditions do, too. We are teaching the young ones in our lives, either by default or by planning.

That’s what I’m asking you to do with your traditions—to be planning, to be expressing what’s most important to you. A Christian’s traditions and celebrations should be filled with God and should be pointing us to Jesus. That’s the heart of my message here. Start with God’s Word in your own heart and then plan your traditions in a way that expresses that value.

Another important piece—we’ve already mentioned that traditions are for the generations. When I’m together with the family I was born into, I look at my mother and my siblings, and that’s a real lively reminder to me how important my family has been in my life—in good ways and in hard ways. That’s true for all of us in our families.

Then I look at our sons, our daughter, our daughters-in-law, our grandchildren, and I’m really strongly aware how deep my responsibilities are to the family that’s coming after me. Sometimes I’ve sort of pictured myself as a basketball player, standing at mid-court, catching the ball from behind me and passing it to those who are ahead or me.

Nancy: That’s Noel Piper, talking about ways we can treasure Christ in our traditions. Now, beginning this weekend and for the next several weeks, we’re going to be in the holiday season. This can be for a lot of people a time of worry and stress and financial burdens. It can be a time of trying to impress guests and extra busyness. Or we can breathe and try to be more purposeful in our celebrating of these holidays. We can make sure we’re spending time on the things that really matter. Most of all, we can be sure to use these occasions to point our own hearts and the hearts of others to Jesus.

We’ve just heard a short portion of Noel’s message today. She gave it at the Gospel Coalition’s women’s conference last year. If you go to our website, ReviveOurHearts.com, we’ll link you to the complete message at the Gospel Coalition.

Throughout this month, we’ve been telling you about the 2014 Revive Our Hearts wall calendar. It’s a gorgeous calendar that features the artistry of Timothy Botts. You’ve seen his work in Christian bookstores around the country. We commissioned him to use his skills with calligraphy and watercolor to illustrate twelve names of Jesus.

You’ll get all twelve of those illustrations in this year’s wall calendar. We’re offering to send you this calendar as our way of saying “thank you for your support” when you send a gift to Revive Our Hearts—a gift of any size. Today’s the final day we’re going to be making that offer, so if you haven’t contacted us yet with your gift, I hope you’ll do that. We’d love to send that calendar to you.

You can make your donation by phone and ask for "The Wonder of His Name" wall calendar. The number to call is 1–800–569–5959, or you can visit us online at ReviveOurHearts.com.

From our whole team, here at Revive Our Hearts, I hope you have a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving Day!

Leslie: Thanks, Nancy. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from a woman who had a big effect on Nancy while she was in college. We’ll hear helpful advice on marriage, parenting, and aging without fear. Hear the conversation tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts, with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.