Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lenten Series #11: The (Black) Church

I have been on-call this weekend, meaning that I must stay within city limits and deal with any issues sent to me through our safety and security office. All weekend I debated with myself whether I was going to church today. If I do it will have to be a church in town, and the only place I have truly enjoyed has been the Methodist church. I may try the Baptist church again once my car is up and running. But the Methodist church is walk-able.

The truth is I have not been in church in weeks, except the times when we have had “Black Church in Grinnell” which is a university sponsored service that I assist in leading. With that said, this is the only black church experience we have in town!!! This means that if I wanted to have a familiar church experience, I would have to travel an hour away to Des Moines. You guest it right, brother did not make it to any corporate worship service today. 

Hence, I want to talk about church for a moment. Particularly, the black church, but I am sure there is cross over between other types of churches. I thought about this blog when a fellow minister posted a link on his FBprofile to an article that asked the question “What will be the role of prophetic black churches on the national stage in these current national conditions?” I read the article and it took me back to my time at Candler during our many talks as I completed by MDiv degrees with Certificate in Black Church Studies and Baptist Studies. I love the black church for it is home and will always be! But I am not happy for what the black church has become, or better yet, from my eyes, it saddens me that we have fallen away from being the moral compass of our society. 

In addition, while preparing this blog, I thought about the study that just came out by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which in summary suggested that this generation is less religiously affiliated then older generations. I am always asked by those who find out that I am a young ordained Baptist minister, as to why young people, in particular young adults, are missing from our traditional black churches. I often ponder why? Therefore,  i wish to share my thoughts. I have gathered these bullet points from my experience at, not just my home church, but from colleagues and their churches as well. If it only pertained to my church in Baltimore, then I left it off this list. I also want to note that not all of these pertain to my church. And here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order)…

1. That I would have to dignify that I am not only talking about my church. There are many who know my church or are part of my church that may read my blogs, and trying to figure out who/what exactly Michael is referring to. It is sad that we look for gossip rather than dealing with and working with the truth. 

2. Pastors who can preach but not pastor. (Especially among large congregations where the pastors only really know those who are active or the families that have deep root in the church). I do believe some are called to just be preachers, and that is okay!

3. Corruption within the church and pastors/deacon-boards/hand full of folks with all the power

4. Lack of dealing with sexuality (read my blog - Lenten Series #2)

5. Exclusion of people (women, young adults, GLBTQAAcommunity, mentally ill, homeless, drug addicts)

6. Mental health issues are not addressed. We begin to exclude, in many ways, those who are. Another thing... Depression can’t just be prayed out!! It is even taboo to talk about “seeing some on” to help deal with issues (counseling, psychiatrist, therapist, etc.)

7. Over Utilize some gifts/people while not recognizing or under-utilizing others

8. Either young adults being neglected or seniors being neglected. It is sad when folks love going to their church because the pastor preaches their souls happy, but they can’t find any other ministries of the church that met their needs. Now I am not just blaming this on the church leadership, instead stating some facts.

9. Not acknowledge sexual abuse! Continuing to allow perpetrators to have power while quieting the victims.

10. Marrying any and everybody in order to increase church membership (in other words, not taking seriously premarital counseling)

11. Neglecting the local communities around our churches (where over 75% of our larger churches’ memberships are coming from outside the two-mile radius).

12. Worshipping the Bible rather than God. Some folks can quotes scripture front and back but can’t even see God and experience God moving in this world today!

13. Lack of sincere love for one another! Instead there is backbiting, distortion of truth, seeking to hurt each other.

14. Ohh and let us not forget preachers gathering to see who preaches the best, whoops the best, wears the best, got the numbers, etc. that we neglect the mission of the black church. to be a prophetic voice for the marginalized and oppressed, unless it "can preach" and we get folks to say amen!

Some of these things, I will go into deeper during this Lenten journey, but I just wanted to list a few issues that continued to be raised when discussing the state of the black church with friends and colleagues. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are great thing about the black church and maybe I will talk about them tomorrow or later in the week. I will say that I know I would not be who I am today without the black church, in particular, my home church, New Shiloh Baptist (Baltimore, MD). They have stood by me and have been a source of strength and encouragement as I walk this path God is leading me through. My pastors have been very supportive and I love them both. No they are not perfect, and I don’t worship the ground they walk on. But, I respect them both because they have given so much to me and my church family, and have been my mentors in many ways. I know that I can call on them for anything at anytime.

Finally, we need to take serious our call to be prophetic voices in this nation and ask for forgiveness for falling away from our mission! I pray for our generation of pastors/preachers/church leaders that we heed the call. The black church must sincerely pray Psalm 51. Personally and collectively. Too often we want folks to personally confess, but collectively, we have fallen in many ways, and corporately we must and should continue to go to God’s throne of Grace.

Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sins. For we know our transgressions, and our sin is ever before us. Against you, you alone, have we sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgement.
Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Do not cast us away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us a willing spirit…
Then we will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you…. O Lord, open our lips and our mouth will declare your praise…The sacrifice acceptable to God* is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
(Portions of Psalm 51, NRSV)

Humility resonance in this Psalm and it funny because we often say how much we want to be like Jesus, and we either forget or it slips our mind that Jesus was all about humility! We have a long road ahead, but I believe, especially when I look at many, not all, of my colleagues who are coming through or went through seminary (some need to go back or stay in!, I’m just saying), I have true hope for the future of the black church, my home sweet home! 

Peace, Love, and Prosperity,


River Cocytus said...

Oh! That's the Psalm.

A few thoughts.

1. Christians when oppressed politically tend to benefit religiously. The standard of devoutness practiced prior to Constantine led the followers of Donatus into error (the Donatists) who thought that if you had apostasized you were done, and if a priest was not personally holy he could not administer sacraments. They were deceived by the situation, wherein to lack a high level of devotion meant to fall away; pagan life was in active resistance to Christian life. Likewise, if we look at the level of faith of Americans - take the Puritans for example, who muddled off into Unitarianism when they became prosperous in New England. When times were hard at the beginning, they were very faithful as a people. So I think we can look at the state of any group of Christians and despair because of their disrepair, but sometimes it is the fruit of them attaining a better standing in the world.

2. Father Tom Hopko says that all of the true prophets of God did not just prophecy against the people in their faithlessness, but also stood as an advocate on their behalf, seeking help for them despite their errors. (This is why what Jonah does is not well received by God.) It even goes so far for a prophet to be willing to shed his own blood on their behalf. One thing about MLK, if we're talking about prophetic roles, is that while I don't know about various political things he supported, in the end I think his heart was on the money; it wasn't just about black people or a particular segment or even just the Christians in our country, but it was about those within the physical bounds of America itself, and 'even unto the shedding of blood.' As prophetic as charismatics tend to be at least outwardly, can they compare to that act itself? In my experience (and it is probably more limited than yours) it is mostly about being seen saying correct and predictive things, more than interceding for your fellow Christians.

This Sunday's gospel was the story of the men who lowered their friend through the roof of a house so they could meet Jesus; it is their faith that helps the man; they act as intercessors on his behalf.

River Cocytus said...

By the way, that's the Psalm! In the older interpretations, 'Jerusalem' is interpreted as the city of God, but as in within yourself ('the Kingdom is within you') so the idea is that once you have been humbled (a broken and contrite spirit) and restored by God (in terms of the city of the soul) then will your sacrifices be acceptable (your works. 'offer young bulls/bullocks upon your altar')

In another note entirely I can recall a certain number of uses of this Psalm in Orthodox worship:

1. It occurs both in the 3rd hour (9 am) and in Compline (after-dinner) services as one of the psalm-readings (usually at the beginning of the service,)

2. It is part of the midnight hour or Nocturne,

3. It is chanted or spoken after the reading of one of the Resurrection gospels in Matins,

4. it is part of the rite of confession, at least on the side of what prayers a person ought to say,

5. and it is spoken by the deacon while he does a great censing, that is, when he 'censes the world' - he goes in a big circle around the whole nave (where the people are) and censes all of the icons and people.

In his exposition on the Psalms to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius writes (c. 4th c): [taken from Monachos]

For he who reads those books is clearly reading not his own words but those of holy men and other people about whom they write; but the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person's feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart's utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51 [in the LXX Psalm 50]; another time, hearing how God helps those who hope and trust in Him, the listener too rejoices and begins to render thanks, as though that gracious help already were his own.

A lot of words here, but a worthy topic! In what time can we say Jesus' words are not true, 'O, you faithless and perverse generation!' But I go with Chesterton (allegedly) on interpreting this one:

The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, "What’s wrong with the world today?" and Chesterton responded simply,

"Dear Sir,

I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton."