Recently, I have been thinking about how we pass on the faith to others. I have been reading a series of book by Andrew Root (Lutheran seminary professor) which looks at the ministry in our world today (which he calls ‘a secular age’). These books have engaged me in thinking about how we do ministry in our world today as the world has changed around us. Even though our methods and approaches may change, the core of the gospel is always the same—Jesus Christ. And at the center of what the church is called to do is to pass on the faith that has been handed down throughout the ages.
The Gospel of Luke begins by stating ‘to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us’ (Luke 1:2). Also, in the book of Jude (one book that most of us know very little about) the author said that they ‘write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.’ (Jude 3). Hence, passing on the faith to many future generations. Both these passages reinforce the notion that the writers of the books contained within the New Testament wrote so that the message of salvation in Jesus would be passed on to others.
When people think about what it means to pass on the faith, most of the time our thoughts would go toward reading the Bible, attending Sunday School, or worship. Others may think about how instrumental a particular person was in passing on the faith—a parent, a grandparent, a Sunday School teacher, a coach, a mentor, or maybe even a pastor.
One of the ways that the faith gets passed on from generation to generation that we may not think much about is through music. The hymns we sing in worship are a rich source of understanding the gospel. We may not think much about them. But hymns tend to stay with us for a long time. I have seen many times people who suffer from memory loss and not able to communicate very well, be able to sing the words to a hymn like Amazing Grace. Also many who can’t quote a Bible verse, can sing at least the first verse of a variety of hymns (particularly some of the Christmas carols).
Over the next year, I am planning on taking time to write and reflect upon particular hymns. I am starting with reflecting upon one of my favorite Christmas hymns—I Wonder As I Wander (WOV #642)
This Christmas hymn is not one of the more popular or well-known hymns, but it is one of my favorites. In many ways it tells the story in a very down to earth way. The person is wondering under the sky about ‘how Jesus the Savior did come for to die for poor odr’n’ry people like you and like I’
It tells the story of ‘when Mary birthed Jesus, all in a cow’s stall, come wise men and farmers and shepherds all.’
The lyrics remind us that Jesus came for all in an ordinary place and that regular people came. All this so that God can do something extraordinary—Jesus to die for all and be Savior and king.
The other thing about this Christmas song that connects with me is the origin of the hymn. We do not know who actually wrote this song. It came into public use through a man named John Jacob Niles. He dedicated his life to collecting spirituals and music from Appalachia. He spent years wondering around the Appalachian Mountains in search of the origins of all kinds of songs. One day in December, he was in North Carolina and he overheard a solitary voice that belonged to a small girl sitting on a bench by herself singing a song, that Niles had never heard. He sat down and asked the girl where she learned the song. She told Niles that her mom taught it to her and that her grandmother taught it to her mom. And that was all she knew. Niles took a paper and pencil and wrote down the lyrics.
Over the years, Niles tried to find out more about the song that the small girl sang that day. But he never was able to find out more and in fact was unable to find that little girl again.
The book ‘Stories behind the best-loved Songs of Christmas’ by Ace Collins describes it like this:
‘It was as if the little one had been an angel sent to deliver a message, a message that embraced the wonder of the Savior’s birth and sacrifice. Because of a chance meeting between an unknown child and man who spent his life wandering America in search of music, the world gained an unforgettable Christmas ballad that has never ceased to cause those who hear it to wonder.’ (p. 90)
May this Christmas song enable you to wonder as you wander about the gift and blessing of Jesus the Savior who came to die for poor ordinary people like you and I. And help us to pass on the faith to others.