I have heard debates about the place of old Negro spirituals in the church since the world is different now and since churchgoers are more accomplished than in the days that moved people to sing from a soulful place deep within. There was one spiritual about the gratitude for having a praying grandmother. Today, I am thankful for both of my praying grandmothers. I was on the younger end of the spectrum of the grands of both of my grandmothers so I didn’t have the length of life experiences with them that my siblings and older cousins did. I am thankful now that their prayers had power then and that they intended for God’s blessing and favor to rest on them and their “seed” (as Big Mama would say) for generations to come. I often joke about how “I’m not a really good church lady” because I can’t always tell you when the next Bible study will be held. I don’t generally remember the focus or date of the next special event at church and I will miss literally “a month of Sunday’s” in order to spend time with myself or my family. There were times in my life when church folk would guilt me or shame me for my absences and lack or participation. It bothered me to the extent that I discussed it with my mother and I remember her saying, “Well, God put you in this position. He knows your schedule and He understands that your life isn’t like everyone else’s life.” I am thankful for Mama and her faith and trust that our God knew that change and opportunity would dictate new perspectives on my needs, my practices, and my responses the same.
From my childhood to this moment, I have searched for the meaning of the church and religion in my life and in the lives of those around me. I have seen women take a break from gossiping about somebody’s “inappropriate” outfit to give a sanctified, loving hug to another sister who likely spent her last check on her outfit without contributing anything to the church offering. I have heard Mama talk about the church man who came to their house to criticize my grandfather for “taking a little nip” of alcohol then telling my granddaddy he needed to excuse himself to the outhouse where granddaddy stashed the good bottle. Surprisingly, the good church dude always left the bottle a little less full after his trip to the outhouse. I wrestled silently with the grown folks who criticized kids, in general, but skipped church on youth Sunday. I have struggled with those who use scripture to oppress others without ever envisioning the words they recite might apply to them. I tried to understand why someone might honestly have an expectation that all people would accept and adhere to their interpretation of the law if it never seemed to apply it to themselves.
I remember when Mama gave me permission to wear pants to church. I was really grown with two young children living in a very frigidly cold Midwestern city when she came to visit. She was the same woman who, during my teen years, saw me leaving the house in pants to go to a Saturday afternoon youth meeting at church and made me change into a skirt because it was “still church.” Mama told me that “only death or marriage” would get me out of Old Ship A.M.E. Zion Church when I wanted to go to a Baptist church where the choir director blended hymns with gospel music during the service. I said all of that to explain how thankful I was that my mother believed that God mad me to “think about things differently than most people” and that she affirmed that unique quality in me. At every phase of my life, she listened to my worries and frustrations displaying a quiet, discerning spirit. She was my quiet in my storms. If only we had more folks who saw themselves as the quiet in the storms of others we know and those we encounter. I guess it is hard to see yourself quieting someone else’s storm when that might get you emotionally weighed down or make you feel the need to share your resources or contacts with that person. Surely, sharing resources would mean foregoing opportunities designed only for you. And this thought gives rise to more questions in my head: Why are God-fearing, God-loving people so worried about sharing “their” stuff with other folks? If it’s really all God’s stuff and God made everything and everybody and if God will provide, why so much resistance? Why the selectivity in what we choose to share and with whom we elect to share? Why do we purportedly embrace and attest to a life of global love for humankind yet tell all of God’s children of His love and the prosperity we can have through Him then use His words to oppress and shame? Is it because shame and guilt demonstrate grace and mercy? Do we really believe that God hears the prayers of those who righteously judge everyone outside of their circles if they fail to hold themselves and those within their circles accountable for their ungodliness? Is it about faith? Is it about God? Is it about the resource, human and otherwise? Is it about the sharing of our stuff or is it just about power and control?
Mama was a lefty who the teachers tried to force to write with her right hand. Why wouldn’t the teacher force Mama to do that? Everyone else in the class used their right hands and there had never been a need for the teacher to provide instruction in penmanship to a left-handed student. Instead of banishing Mama and other lefties into exile or some other dark, cold, isolated place, someone figured out how to build desks for left-handed folks. We figured out how to sit at a table so that our elbows didn’t bump when we ate meals together. We also learned later that those folks who seemed weird, abnormal, and different because they were left-handed added richness to our communities of educators and leaders. My big boss is left-handed as were many presidents of the United States of America, including the current president. What might have been the result in the leadership trees of our country and my university campus if the laws banned left-handed people from being just who God created them to be to do only what God placed them here to do? What would have been the outcome if the interpretation of the scripture remained so narrow that it suffocated the breath of life that was fueled with God’s will? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I consider these questions and others as I watch people tell the world that they stand with God and with me.
I consider how to stand with them as they stand with hate. I try to understand how to stand with them as they refuse to talk about what is happening right in front of us all. I am told to just wait and God will fix it. I am told to just have faith and it will be alright. I am told to pray more and pray without ceasing. Hmmm. Then, I have more questions: Did the tea go into the Boston Harbor without human assistance? Did the Big Bang also create the American Red Cross? Did the legions leave the man and go into the pigs because of a miraculous work of man? Was the Jim Crow South a new south without the work and voices of change from people? While I don’t know the answers to most of the questions raised in my head around the mergers of life and religion, I know that religion lived well is lived out loud in practice by people.
We must be the voices of the messages we claim to represent. We must see other folks with the clear, unbiased lens used by our God. We must acknowledge that it won’t be easy because we are full of bias and scars from our personal journeys. We must exercise flexibility in our thoughts and perspectives to give folks permission to be who God called them to be doing what He called them to do. We must become content and satisfied that we are not God and that the things we judge are His way of presenting the things in which we need greater depth of understanding. Then, we need to do the hard work of getting comfortable in that uncomfortable territory while implementing the advice we gave other people – be faithful and trust in God’s mighty power to see us through the situation. In developing this healthy quest to love the questions beneath the symptoms makes us like the physician who welcomes opportunities to spend time exploring the symptoms reported by the patient to determine what might be beneath the surface causing the pain, the discomfort, or the red, burning, inflamed spot on the skin. Physicians know that watching the patient suffer won’t stop the suffering. They also know that saying to the patient, “Stop suffering” or simply looking away from the symptoms of the patient won’t end the suffering. The symptoms that anger or repulse us or those that impact others in the community may only change when we develop a healthy curiosity to seek to at least hear the heart of the person walking in the eye of the storm. The world we live in only gets better when we believe that sitting in the eye of the storm is safer and more beneficial than playing the role of storm chaser.
The truth is that nobody really expects that life will be perfect, but everyone has some expectation that somebody will care when the imperfection visits their space. Faith, hope, courage, and change live within each of us. Challenge yourself to use these to enter the world of a person whose position you disagree with most. Then, challenge yourself to sit in the eye of the storm with that person and apply every survival coaching tip you have for them to yourself until.