It is not unusual for me to sit in worship experiences and for others to see me in suspicion that I am disinterested or preoccupied. I’m sure it doesn’t help that what is getting most of my eye contact is not a choir, dancers, preachers, or powerpoints. Indeed, my cell phone seems to have me entranced at times and the glow surely illuminates my face as I bring it close and in view without shame or at least without recognizing just how focused I must look. However, those who are unfamiliar with this practice of regular engagement with my electronic device of choice is that I use it to pull up scriptures listed in the bulletin (so I won’t be searching for it when it’s time for the scripture reading), opening up an app for note taking, thinking up hashtags to go with any tweets or social shares for this occasion, and drawing. Most often I am sketching ideas that come to mind during this occasion, visual reflections of what is happening in the moment, filtering through the distractions, the frustrations, and the thoughts of even at times wanting to leave and replacing those feelings with my own spiritual discipline of seeking God’s voice in the midst of my experience. Recognizing the spirit in the words shared, the movements of the participants, the theme of the occasion.
Even in what seem like the most wonderful worship experiences to some, I often find myself distant in grasping what others catch with great ease. I have never been “slain in the spirit” or “filled with the holy ghost” in a way that moves me to fall, shout, or otherwise share the power and hold God has on me in my praise and worship. Nope. I tend to be pretty chill. I’m actually more likely to be distracted by such things than moved. But, when I pause to intentionally find my place in the space of worship, I find that anywhere I go God is present and often speaks to me in a way that I find precious and valuable. This is something no one can take from me. This is something that doesn’t fit within the box of “black church” or “traditionalism” or “contemporary worship.”
Yesterday I attended the 5th Sunday worship service lead by the Tennessee Conference Black Methodists for Church Renewal hosted by Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church. Indeed, this was a black church experience. It was quite familiar and lived up to expectations. It is clear to me as I reflect on this experience that I often only felt compelled to stand because it was custom. I felt the need to pause and take cell phone pics of the dancers or otherwise engage with what was happening in more acceptable ways because I wasn’t feeling comfortable sitting hunched over looking at my cell phone the entire time, presumably disinterested. While it is true that much of the service itself was not exactly what I find the most compelling in worship, it was not disinterest that bothered me so much as I kept pausing to follow the crowd and ignore my pull to draw. I was doing some of this for the sake of others opinions and desires for congregational participation. Ultimately, I made excuses and reasoned my way into clapping and singing along, but the reality is that I wanted to draw. So, ultimately, I did. Often times with breaks, but soon enough I couldn’t hold back anymore. Eventually, this image started to take shape and my mother (who was sitting next to me) caught a glimpse at my sketch in progress. Her reaction was so affirming I felt free to do what was on my heart.
Mind you, I was indeed finding myself occasionally checking app notifications as I can become so easily distracted, but straight away I was back at it.
So what was I thinking as I drew this sketch? I was thinking about the value and beauty of being black and in The United Methodist Church. The struggles and times that lead to this point in our existence. In essence, I wanted so much so badly for this population, but also saw struggle, aging, frustration, as if it was lying under the surface of our skin, but no one wanted to admit the shortcomings, the limited impact of late, the struggles that haven’t been fully uncovered and named. Yet, I saw hope. It was hard for me to see myself in this picture. How do I fit into this organization? Is it open, ready, willing, able to accept me fully even though I know some see me as under qualified in wisdom, needing to be taught some things, and even for some that I am not “black enough” in my demeanor, priorities, attire, traditions, speech, and style of playing and singing music.
I am enough of whatever God has in mind for me. I know this, so what used to pain me greatly in hearing such things now just stings a little and is at times even an encouragement for me to move on, move forward, and do God’s will, following the call to ministry on my heart.
So, I draw. I sing. I write. I dance. I live. And, maybe one day again, I will be a part of the organization and mission of BMCR which I value dearly. Maybe I will be active not only in my own way on the sidelines, but in the collective effort as a part of this group to build up the body of Christ in a way that genuinely builds up leaders, encourages black young people to lead and follow their passions, teaches history and teaches what’s happening now, that instills wisdom, values the hope that comes with change, and embodies living a life in Christ as more valuable than any style of music, style of preaching, way of worshiping, and more important that any persons title, tenure, and ability to carry on traditions.
I this drawing I see an old yet important face. I see a smile that comes so easily in remembering and giving thanks for the past. I see a weary soul that wants great things to come. I see a difficult balance in thoughtful reflection between what has been and what is to come as the future is not clear. It may just be that the complexities of being black in The United Methodist Church will fade even further until this entity is little more than a nice name, a simple symbol, and no one will know what church renewal meant to these people. They will just recall in passing conversation that they were black and they were Methodist and then history will find a way to repeat itself.
I sure hope that’s not the case. I hope the balance favors on the side of hope and true renewal thrives. Unfortunately, the future is not as clear as we might like to think sometimes in our efforts to control and even claim things (often “in the name of Jesus”.) So, I thank God for giving us Jesus, for providing us moments to connect, to worship, to know him for ourselves. I thank God for moving even when we are not with it and not ready for change. I praise God and give great thanksgiving for a chance to know this hope every time I pause to draw and reflect and every time I learn to walk by faith a little more confidently.
While I look forward to the next time a congregation says phrases like “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good” I look with even greater anticipation towards when black lives are again a vibrant and powerful presence in movements of change and spiritual growth in the church, in our homes, and in our hearts and minds. Here, in us, God lives and may his praises continually be in our mouths.