On Sunday morning, I preached at a predominantly African-American church on the South Side of Chicago. As a minister who preaches mostly in all-white or multi-ethnic contexts, you can imagine my excitement to enjoy a taste of home. The familiarities of the old school set the pace for the day. I was escorted to the Pastor’s Study. The deacons and ministers circled around me for prayer before service began. Various mothers of the church, seasoned prayer-warriors who know my father, and my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father (you get the picture) greeted me with smiles and hugs drenched in a warmth that could soften any heart. I sat in service—enamored by the cathedral setting, the echoes of amen’s from the congregation, the giggles from little ones being hushed by their mothers, and the exuberance of the elders as they led in worship and told their stories. Ah! I was home!
But perhaps like many of you I couldn’t help but drift in my thoughts as I imagined the audacity of someone entering this hallowed hall to do the unthinkable which happened last week in Charleston. And, much like all last week, I sat befuddled, saddened, and yes, a little angry. Then it happened. Just before I got up to preach a brother led the congregation in the old hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven.” The melodies of Zion saturated that great hall. And for five and a half minutes, the earth stood still and there were no problems in the world. Everyone was glad. We were all filled with joy. The hopes of four generations represented in that church bellowed out euphonies which have yet to be duplicated outside of the obscure churches that blanket the urban neighborhoods and the rural countrysides. “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus sing his beauty and his grace. In the mansions bright and blessed he’ll prepare for us a place. When we all get to heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus we’ll sing and shout the victory!” The way we sang was laden with hope, assurance, and peace. As we sang, my eyes remained fastened heavenward as my heart was reminded that, “It’s gonna be alright.”
I stood to welcome the people. I honored the fathers as it was Father’s Day. And I shared with them my feelings about the tragic events of the past week. Before I began preaching I exclaimed the one hope the Lord had given me. It went like this, “I’ll remind us that as African American people, we have been through worse than this. This fact doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel as incensed as we do nor does it mean we should not do all we can to put a stop to such things. But in that we’ve been through worse we’d do well to remember that the same God who brought us through before can certainly do it again now. And more importantly so, as Christian people, we’ve been through much, much worse. And the God who walked with us in ages past is the same God we serve today. We cannot do much in the way of politics and movements. But we can certainly do something among those who live under our own roof. And we can certainly do something among those who live in our own neighborhoods.” The church responded with hearty “amens” and we were on our way.
After events like Charleston, some of us feel saddened and disillusioned so as to drift into a perpetual melancholy. Others are so incensed and embattled that our words speak before our minds process and before our hearts lament. And what happens is that we’re either disheartened by the lack of nothing being done or perplexed by all that is being done that will never be enough. Welcome to the human condition. Folks don’t want to hear this because of its clichéd overtones. But goodness it’s true! We need the wisdom and peace and language of Christ to set the tone for what happens next.
This entry is devoted to this need—because my thoughts have been all over the place! I’ve mourned so much this week. I’ve mourned how this young murderer’s actions were relegated to an attack on the Christian faith as opposed to what it was—an attack on African American Christians. I’ve mourned how I haven’t mourned over the lostness of this 21 yr. old disillusioned, racist young man—it was THURSDAY (two days later) until I prayed for God to save this brother and heal his heart. Jesus told me to pray for my enemies!! And I failed to even THINK about HIM for two days. I’ve mourned how the thrust of the post-Charleston vanguard has centered upon removing a flag. Though I want it down, I think to myself, “It’s a win and it’s a start…but it’s a cheap one that still won’t solve the deep issues. And I fear we’ll stop at that and celebrate a victory.” I mourn that many are looking for political victories in lieu of relational ones—as if legality ever changed a wicked heart. I mourn that we are enthralled with yet one more sensationalized news topic and have confined our Christian response to tweets and blogs (yes, I’m hypocritical). I mourn that some of my colleagues in the pastorate may think that their sole responsibility was to talk about Charleston or not talk about it, say a prayer this past Sunday, and call it a day. I mourn.
And this perhaps is the only good and wise thing we can do right now—mourn…lament…feel. I’m convinced that my Lord can use this to His glory. He showed us this Himself. Jesus knew he would save the world through his sacrifice on the cross. He knew that he would be successful in his effort. He knew that the world was broken. And he was the only one who could fix it. Yet before he marches into Jerusalem, he weeps, he mourns, and he laments over the discord among his people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Mt. 23:37) The thing is, he knew the answer was coming, but he took the time to lament with us. And that’s what we can do now—mourn with those who mourn.
It doesn’t end there of course. Surely we’ve got work to do. But I fear the work we’re doing now is indicative of a lack of lament and an overload of anger and bitterness. And that kind of work usually falls pitifully short. That anger is real. I feel it! But I can’t allow those feelings to shape how I respond. That’s not the stuff of change. Yeah, do the political stuff. Talk about flags and talk about guns and talk about whatever—but realize that at the same time, this ”work”, however crucial, may prevent us from the harder, more fruitful work—getting into one another’s lives and making solid efforts to understand each other. Young Dylann confessed that he almost didn’t go through with it because those people, so different than others he likely associated himself with, were so nice to him. And I think to myself, “Imagine if he’d enjoyed the opportunity to experience that niceness his entire life?” Imagine how the racially sensitive events of the past year might have played out if EVERYONE involved had more “nice” friends in their circles that were from different sides of the tracks? That’s my hope for me…that’s my hope for us…that’s my hope for Charleston as we push forward. If ever there was a time for those of us who lack the sweetness of multi-ethnic diversity in our friendships to try something new, that time is now. Relationships with each other is the missing piece. I’ll never understand someone who is different from me until I do the hard work to get to know someone different from me. Is this not how Jesus bridged the gap with us as he walked with real people during his earthly ministry?
My words have likely failed the sentiments of my heart in this post. For that I apologize. So let some better words be the theme of this entry. They come from bereaved family members in Charleston, who, looking upon their relatives’ killer said these words: “I forgive you”…”I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you”…”Hate won’t win. My grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies live in love.” These words are the stuff of change. Their lament made way for Christ’s glory and gospel to shed light in a situation crowded with darkness. Whatever actions of ours that may ensue in this, may God grant that we follow their lead.