I’ve been looking at a lot of old photographs lately. I picked up a very odd collection of photographs my mother had in her room. I take greater delight than most in finding an old photograph. A house fire and too many moves have claimed our treasures forever.
I was particularly delighted to find this assortment. It included photos of my dad as a young man, some of his brother and sister-in-law’s trip from Norway to visit us, his son and the 1963 New York City World’s Fair. There were photos of my mother with her siblings. I found photos of my mother as a very young woman with her first two children. How very young my mother looked. Her youthful beauty that she never saw in herself was striking. She always referred to herself as “homely” and as I looked at those pictures, I thought how sad that she never saw what an attractive woman she was.
There have been other old pictures to look at as well. I’ve written before that I had the very unique and wondrous experience of having my faith formed in a Pentecostal church that was made up of Norwegian immigrants and their families. On a whim, I started a Facebook group for this church, Salem Gospel Tabernacle. For a few months, it sat dormant with a few members but no participation.
Recently the group has blossomed to 73 people who have contributed over 100 photos. It has become a virtual church reunion. While most of the participants came after me or are children of people I knew but are younger than I, there is still a strong bond, a connection of those that sat facing the word JESUS in gold behind the platform.
The building had once been a synagogue. When I was a child, there was still a Jewish social organization next door. In the summer, before air conditioning, with the windows open in both buildings, you could hear their dance music. I don’t suppose they heard our string band or orchestra as praises were lifted to the Lord. The sounds of that orchestra, with its mandolin, guitar, banjo, horns, trombone and musical saw still fill my ears. Complimented by the piano and the organ was the vibraharp played by a woman that could use two mallets on each hand making harmony. Sometimes when my father would be cleaning the church, I would take a mallet and play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Happy Birthday or some song I had memorized from piano lessons. It was much harder than it looked.
While my visits back to Salem are virtual, several years ago I visited in person. In May 2002, I had the privilege of preaching behinds its sacred desk, the pulpit, and in front of the gold stenciled JESUS. No one there knew my family or me; all the people were changed. Even the name of the church was changed; it was now Sunset Park Community Church. No longer Norwegian it now represented the community that lived in its neighborhood. It now feeds the homeless and is proclaiming with power the name of Jesus.
The stenciled gold JESUS still proclaimed that the name of Jesus is above every name. As powerful as any icon in a majestic cathedral, seeing the name JESUS reminded me not only of my memories of the past but reminded me that we worship JESUS, the CHRIST, the Son of God and Savior of the world. It reminded me that there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby you must be saved (Acts 4:12). Like the blue neon Jesus Saves sign in a later home church of mine, it speaks the truth. It speaks life.
Having a stenciled JESUS sign is out of fashion. It doesn’t fit with our seeker sensitive mentality. It makes the church look dated. It is a throwback to a different time and era. The name of Jesus has always been offensive to some. Its presence clearly states that this group of people exalts the name of Jesus.
I am glad the people worshiping in the building of Salem have not taken down the gold-stenciled JESUS. I hope they never do. Not because it has sentimental value to me or any other personal reason; or even because of the power of its message. I hope they never take it down because it is who they are and who they have been.
In the push to modernize, contextualize, update, and seem more relevant, we often lose sight of who we are and where we came from. We forget who we are, we want to become like the rest of the people. I grew up when to be Pentecostal was to be laughed at, thought you were crazy or simple-minded. To be Pentecostal was to be on the wrong side of the tracks. Now we are on the right side of the track and we want to be relevant. Reminds me of the story of Israel that forgot that God alone was their King and wanted to be like the other nations.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with some change. I’ve actually always liked changed. I always want the latest gadget and technology. I am not saying we never update our facilities or even our presentation of the gospel.
As I’ve looked at the faces of those whose love for Jesus put His name in gold, for all to see, I have been in awe of them. I have thanked God that they were true to who they were. That they didn’t compromise the gospel for the sake of fashion. That these hearty Norwegians, who every one thought had lost their mind because they were no longer Lutheran, were bold enough to remain true to themselves.
That’s what I think is missing today in our rush for updating. It’s a sense of history and respect for those who came before us. It’s a rush to take down the old and “outdated,” forgetting that symbols of the past, like rituals, are powerful and remind us who we are. Maintaining that which represented sacrifice and dedication to the gospel, no matter how outdated it is, reminds us that we have a distinctive heritage to build on and keep us true to ourselves.