Beyond Tradition: Be a People Person

I taught my church’s young adult bible study last Tuesday night. We began a series on moving “Beyond Tradition.” We’re focusing on the ways an over-reliance on tradition(s) can hold us back from where God’s spirit may be leading us.

We opened by listening to “Thank You Lord (For What You’ve Done For Me)”, the classic 1990 gospel recording by Bishop Walter Hawkins & Love Center Choir and led by a young Bishop Yvette Flunder. For those in black church and gospel communities, this 1990 recording continues to resonate as a testimony of God’s presence, protection and providence in one’s life. (As a side note, I love how the musicians switch to a reggae riddim during the bridge about 3:25 in).

We followed with a close read of John 8:1-11 where Jesus encounters the “woman caught in adultery.” Three points were emphasized:

  1. The role of pharisees and scribes as “elites” or authorities on the law.
  2. The biblical definition of adultery as when a man has intercourse with a married or engaged woman and the violent(!) punishments for the offense for both parties (See Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10, Leviticus 21:9 & Deuteronomy 25:11-12)
  3. How Jesus “remixes” the law/tradition in a liberating way.

A core lesson for our group is how Jesus deftly exposes the tradition-based self-righteousness of the scribes and pharisees (“Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”) while offering sympathy and encouragement for the woman (“Neither do I condemn you”). Jesus’ response is a radical shift from the punitive punishment of the law to a restorative accountability for all (“Go and sin no more”).

We then recalled and reflected on the lyrics from Walter Hawkins’ Thank You:

It could have been me (thank you)
outdoors (thank you)
with no food (thank you)
and no clothes (thank you)
or left alone (thank you)
without a friend (thank you)
or just another number (thank you)
with a tragic end (thank you)
but you didn’t see fit (thank you)
to let none of these things be (thank you)
cause everyday by your power (thank you)
you keep on keeping me (thank you)
and I want to say…
Thank you Lord for what you’ve done for me!

In the context of this lesson, these lyrics came across as self-righteous for some in our group. Recalling this song pushed us to reflect on the self-righteousness that permeates our tradition(s). It is often subtle, well-meaning and unintentioned (as I believe it is in that famous Walter Hawkins recording), but is no less hurtful to people who have been or are ill, unemployed, underemployed, homeless, friendless or reduced to a “statistic.” We become like the pharisees and the scribes in this text who want to condemn another for their perceived “sin” or use their condition to remind us of how “holy” and “righteous” we are. Thank you, Lord, for what you’ve done for me, because you didn’t do anything for them.

We closed our session by listening to another song, by Atlanta-based recording artist Donnie. “People Person”, tells the stories of everywomen and men who may have their own hangups, shortcoming and vices, but also offer good to the world. He sings:

Well I know this girl named bonita
She’s what all the boys call a freaka
And if you don’t want to get fined
don’t you put no swine on her plate

And I know this dude from the islands
He want boom boom for the batty man
But I heard from above came true meaning of one love

Well I know this dude who’s a pusher
He got any drug you can think of
And he’ll sling it your way every day but the Sabbath day

And I know this small sect of Muslims
Who don’t like drug dealers so they kill ’em
But every three from afar you can hear them praying to Allah

In the chorus, he quotes John 8:7, singing, “So who are we to give up on anyone, let he that is without sin first cast the stone” and implores the listener to “be a people person” or one who has empathy and hope for all people to live into their potential.

Sometimes, the “law” or “tradition” can keep you from being the “people person” God calls you to be. We can use our church traditions, from high church stoicism to high praise pentecostalism, to lead us to believe we are “better” than others, but this scripture should remind us that Jesus’ call for love and a “common wealth” grounded in concern for the outsider because we are all “working out our salvation.”

Jesus was a “people person”. Are you?

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