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Without Knowing Your Tradition, It's Hard to Know Who You Are
by Rev. Dave Roberts.+

Many times throughout the Old Testament, the Jews are reminded to keep their traditions alive and to pass them on to their children. It is part of their identity and, as long as it doesn’t violate the Word of God or diminish it in any way, they are encouraged to continue in them for future generations.

Jesus did warn the Pharisees in Mark 7:13 that they had made the Word of God of no effect because of the traditions they had passed on to those who had been looking to them as religious leaders. But note that He was talking about the traditions they had passed on, not the ones that are good traditions. And there are good traditions.

One of the things that I notice the younger generation doing a lot is discarding the old to make way for something new, whatever it may be. There is something called “The Emergent Church” which, from what I can tell, is a revival of the old liberalism/modernism of the last century. Some who follow it try to return to some old mystical liturgies and whatnot but are still chucking the evangelical traditions of their parents to make way for something that is “a brand new tradition.” That’s kind of an oxymoron, though, because a tradition is something that takes time to develop, especially if it is to be established and to endure for years to come.

I would like to suggest a couple of traditions I’d like to see restored that have somehow faded to the point of where, when I try to demonstrate them to even our own home fellowship here, they are foreign entities to those under fifty. One is hymns. While the age-spread here at Church of the Risen Christ is between 19 and 67 (no names, thanks!), no one under 40 seems to know what hymns are. In Colossians 3:16, St. Paul encourages us to make use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” but most of the younger generation wouldn’t know much beyond psalms, only because there’s a book of the Bible with that name, and some might think that “spiritual songs” are the spirituals that African Americans used to use in the days of slavery.

I guess I decided to have us return to using hymnals because I realized that part of the legacy I needed to pass on to the next generation coming up is the tradition that we once knew. My cousin Ellie, in Colorado (but formerly from New Yawk), is still trying to find a church in the evangelical mecca of Colorado Springs where they use hymns. She told me not long ago that when she walks into a new church and sees drums, guitars and the like, she wants to leave. She was raised in the Evangelical Free Church in the 1950s and hymns were the norm. I remember them too from the time I became a Christian in the Baptist church nearly five decades ago.

When I mentioned my desire to see our church start using hymnals to our weekly ministers’ group, Pastor Cecil Meadows told me I didn’t need to buy them because they had 16 of them sitting in storage that they’d be glad to give us if they knew we’d use them. He did and we did. And we still do use them. We don’t use them exclusively but at least my folks’ repertoire of hymns is taking form now and one gal told me that one song we did stayed with her all week.

The theology is what I guess I’m looking for in our worship music, as well as worship and praise. But it’s hard to worship God with hypnotic, repetitive choruses that don’t say anything of substance.

In fact, one song I heard in a church in the Midwest repeated “You are beautiful” so many times with no qualification of who “You” was, that any Baha’i or Hindu could have sung it as well. Another church farther east I visited was playing a repetitive chorus when I walked in and was (I timed it, seriously!) still singing it 35 minutes later! While those folks were pleasant and joyful, they didn’t know basic theology and I doubt could have defended the Faith in the face of a heretical belief if it came into their church. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that we should just use hymnals and just be able to offer a Christian apologetic on call. No. I feel there should be a balance because a lot of good worship music is out there that is not in a hymnal because they are not hymns. That’s OK. As long as the Identity of God is clear and Jesus is glorified, there’s a place for it in our corporate worship as well. But to raise a whole generation of Christians now who have never read, much less heard,

There is a Fountain
Filled with Blood, A Mighty Fortress is Our God
or The Church’s One Foundation

is our being remiss at giving them a tradition that describes the history of our Faith and the development of its unique theology that flies in the face of heresy or false belief systems. There are serious, eternal reasons why the Christian Faith is unique and stands alone in a world of increasing chaos.

Amazing Grace is about the only hymn anyone of that generation has heard. Even then it’s been so over-used by the secular world because it, well, face it, goes great with bagpipes, that the meaning of the lyrics is still unfamiliar to most people who are clueless about the Christian doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone. As an aside, find yourself a hymnal or look it up on the Internet:

The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Read all the verses and you’ll realize that this, the national hymn of the United States of America, can no longer be sung in public because it would be so terribly politically incorrect now. And, like abortion, we allowed it to happen, ever so slowly.

One other tradition that I believe is still useful but must sound archaic to many of you reading this: Taking your Bible with you to church! Even before I was a Christian, I still took my Bible with me to the liberal church in which I grew up because that’s what people did in the 1950s and -60s. In fact, I’ll give you a little story about when it probably saved me from serious assault one day on a street in Brooklyn.

While I was living in Queens, one Sunday I took up a friend’s invitation to visit her church in a very bad area of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was 1967 and racial tensions were heating up that would explode the next year throughout that whole part of New York City as well as Newark, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere. I got off the A-train (the same subway line that Duke Ellington sang about because it connected the two largest Black areas of New York, Harlem and Bedford- Stuyvesant) at a certain station on Fulton Avenue and walked several blocks south past burned out tenements and apartments. A group of small Black kids ran up to me and spit on me calling me “whitey” and telling me to my a- - out of there. I had my Bible in my hand and kept walking until I came to the Church of God in Christ on the next block and for the next several hours experienced one of the most powerful moves of God I had ever known in any church. But that’s another story for the Memoirs one day.

As I was getting ready to leave to walk back north to Fulton Avenue, pick up the A-train and head back to my apartment in Queens, a heroin addict came dragging himself up to me on the sidewalk, very high, and telling me I was crazy to be there. But then he said, “hey man, you gotta’ Bible! Today is my mutha’s birthday and she be dead. But her fav-or-ite thang in there was the 23rd Psalm. I can’t read, my man, but can you read it to me?” I said I’d be glad to and read the psalm to him slowly while he nodded along. I asked him if I could do anything else for him and he said “no man, I don’ want no money or nuthin.’ I just wanna’ remember my mama today. Thank you, suh…” and he shuffled down the street. If I hadn’t had my Bible in my hand, I wonder if a different scene could have gone down. The murder rate was very high in that part of Brooklyn and the streets I walked, even on that sweltering July day, were deserted. I never saw anyone except him and those kids earlier; anything could have happened and, typically New York, no one would know anything.

I still take my Bible to church when I visit somewhere but I am amazed that almost no one of the younger generation does. Why? Because most of the churches they attend these days have big screens on which they show the Bible verses the pastor is using during his message. That’s fine BUT it doesn’t help you know where to find them when you go home and try to look up those verses in your Bible later. One of the benefits of having read it in your own Bible at church, at home, on the subway or anywhere, is that you can almost remember where you saw it on the page or that Proverbs comes after Psalms. But don’t ask them to find Nahum!

I guess I’ve beat this to death and can call it a message. I mean, we don’t have to insist on “King James only” or that you even have to bring your Bible to church but it would sure help if I knew that people were using it, even marking it with footnotes, anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, few open a Bible during the week and are at the mercy of the big screen at church.

Rereading this message, I realize that I’m starting to sound like a crotchety old guy who is mumbling something like, “…in my day, we used to…” I don’t mean to come across like that, but let’s not forget that we have a tradition of respecting God’s Word. For me, that means not putting it on the floor or on the seat of a chair – something that Muslims see as highly offensive and convince them that we don’t regard our God’s words enough so we really do need the Quran after all. Let’s remember that people died for centuries to ensure that we could have God’s Word in our hands today. Because of the current age’s lack of reverence and ignorance of our tradition, I’m afraid we’ve lost sight of not only the Bible itself but also Who and what’s inside.

© Copyright 2010 by Dave Roberts

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