Sunday, April 15, 2012

"This church sure is...quiet"

Apparently, that's what my newly married mother was told by a childhood friend after she came to visit my father's church years before I was born. My mother, she was raised Methodist...which is part of the reason we as children were allowed to use playing cards (my brother and I taught ourselves poker and blackjack...thank you World Book) and why she was the one who introduced me to alcohol and my brother to cigarettes when we first became curious as children--little bro chickened out on trying the borrowed, lit cigarette just as she put it to his mouth, and I writhed in 8 year old pain at the shot of vodka she'd poured when I asked what was in the bottle my father's job had given him for Christmas. (There may be no link, but to this day neither of us are big users of either alcohol or tobacco.) But yes...she was Methodist...African Methodist Episcopal to be exact--a denomination that is more permissive, and quieter in worship than your traditional Baptist church. Which must mean the Baptist church I came up in was pretty non-traditional when I was a child, because I remember relative calm and none of the fast-paced praise music and dance that most people think of when they think "Black Church". As Bart Simpson once said "Black God rules!"

So today I was leaving church and was walking out with one of the other Black people that shows up to church...the service I attend, and the church as a whole is predominately White with a few Blacks, Latinos and Asians floating around. One thing is particular to Black people though...while other races are likely foreign and new to Christianity, it's pretty safe to assume that if you run into a Black person in a White church, they're making a religious adjustment just as you are. So we talked and he explained why and how he started attending the church and how he wished his wife would come, but that she was apprehensive about the racial differences. I began talking about my own adjustment...from the music to the minority status, and he  continued on, letting me that while his wife was Baptist and used to a high energy service, he was Methodist and found more familiarity and comfort with a subdued worship experience. I immediately thought of the first time I attended church with my apostolic boyfriend's (at the time) family. I was completely overwhelmed. It was loud...louder than I'd ever experienced. People were running and screaming, drums was LONG. I've gotten used to hour long services...3 and 4 hour services feel like endurance races now.

But yes...while I do think there are lines easily drawn dividing Black and White Christian experiences in the US, today was a reminder that sometimes, race gets trumped by other things. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Music and my mind.

This is probably one of the most sensitive topics when it comes to discussing my faith. It played a key part in my breakup with a college boyfriend and to this day it confounds me.

So I was talking with my cousin the other day about the maze of music today that is s=Sacred. I learned some very interesting things from her (she's all music'd up in the degree department) about hymns, the Reformation and the changes in sacred music in the West. The most interesting probably being the recent rebirth of the hymn through artists like Keith and Kristyn Getty. That conversation got me thinking that I need to at least start talking about this.

My introduction to sacred music ran in synch with the rest of my life. An indelicate blend of Southern Black American and carefully tempered White Southern Baptist. Songs like the one above mingled with Kenneth Copeland, Sandi Patty and the big favorite of my brother's and mine...the Prism Series (Red was the best...I don't care what anyone says). day the pastor of the church I was born in died and things changed. A new pastor came in and everything was different. The music, the marked an enormous loss of innocence in my life...and the soundtrack? Modern Praise music. At first, I simply disliked the sound. Kirk Franklin sounded distinctly disrespectful to ears that missed the reserved Yield not to Temptation. After a while though, I began to associate it with loss, corruption, deceit, scandal and the disintegration of the safe and warm church home I once knew. Though I do love some of the chord progressions, I still dislike the general style of gospel music and vocals, so it's hard for me to sort out the scars and my personal preferences.

In high school I played handbells (don't laugh)...and when I say I played handbells, I played HANDBELLS. By my senior year I'd been playing five years and had the distinguished title of "soloist" and co-president. We performed every year at EPCOT's Candlelight Processional during the Christmas season. If you ever get a chance...go. A series of stars every year narrate the story of Christ's birth, accompanied by a mass choir and full orchestra. (I saw it  this year with Blair Underwood and it was amazing). I'll never forget the first performance. Every show ends with the Hallelujah Chorus and, as custom dictates, the audience stands. Apparently they didn't want to write handbells into the arrangement, so we always just stood and looked onall that was Disney that lay before us. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing tears. One woman in particular...crying. I'd never seen music do that before. It was the first time I really understood.

A few weeks later at our high school Christmas concert, our choir mixed up their traditional repetoir with the modernized version of Handel's work. I was offended. It's such a grandiose and uplifting piece and I felt all of that had been lost in a sea of repetition and...volume.

In college I dated...guess what...a gospel singer! He had a gorgeous voice, LOVED his choir...the music, the people, the lifestyle. I went along to some performances...I was trying to open myself up and after all, I was a Christian, I should be able to appreciate it. Each performance felt like I was reliving some quiet trauma. Even the people themselves I found off-putting. He loved the music though...constantly trying to get me to appreciate Donnie McClurkin while I was busy exploring the worlds of Mahler, Maxwell, Mystikal and Queen.  I heard more of the beauty of our creator in Freddie Mercury's "All God's People" than I did in Gospel songs sung straight from the scriptures. I think that's when I realized exactly how jaded I had become.  Not that I SHOULD have liked the music, but I just didn't understand why the personal experience of songs like Amazing Grace didn't seem to exist anymore. I felt lost musically as a Christian.

I then I tried Christian rap...yeah.

A few years later, I took guitar lessons at a community college. Our instructor, Bill, was working on his degree in jazz guitar and played at his church. The man played an amazing lead. He asked who I wanted to emulate as a guitarist. When I said Brian May, he stretched out his hands and gestured for my guitar. He immediately started to play in May's distinctive style. I felt a shock run through my body at hearing my little strat belting out the string of jaunty chords. May's music is full of laughter, pain, intensity, happiness, frivolity...I've never heard his emotional range anywhere else and there was no one else I wanted to sound like. I asked what, technically, made it so special. In all of one minute, he explained to me what made the sound unique (beside the self-made guitar) and showed me how to do it. It was so sweet.  Bill is one of those people who makes you feel more musical just by talking with them. One afternoon after class, he sat with two of my best friends and joked about how he, being White himself, never quite understood why his racial brethren clapped on 1 and 3, and then had such a hard time doing so...and then were so happy when they did it. I heard God when Bill played.

I am still...very confused. Perhaps more than ever. If you ask me what sacred music I like, I can tell you old things: songs from old Black folk like Lonesome Valley above that can make me wail with a pain I've never known...but not much new that officially counts as "Christian".  As my cousin explained when it comes to church music...everyone swears their way is right and there probably isn't anything more personal when it comes to the worship experience.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hurt feelings and an off morning

Sundays sans church have become weird for me. My alarm went off this morning and was greeted by a lovely case of vertigo. By the time I stumbled out of my bedroom, Melissa Harris Perry's show was on MSNBC.

I'm really enjoying it and hope it has a long life on the's simultaneously smart, deep, relevant and light, covering everything from the impact of the death of the Notorious B.I.G. to economic policy reform. Harris-Perry, a professor at Tulane, is openly Mormon and liberal. One would expect to to hear explanations of Palm Sunday and quotations from the book of Samuel from more conservative stations, but no, this was happening, and does happen, on the most liberal of the cable news stations. 

I believe Harris-Perry is a bit of a special case...being Black, the world expects her to be a member of the faithful, despite political alliance...and I think she opens up an important door in Christianity. The one labeled "Liberal Christian"...or at least "not-Republican Christian." She facilitates the discussion of faith in politics from a seldom-heard perspective and has kicked off the discussion of how liberals can frame political discussions around faith, an area where they are particularly weak. 

I've watched the Christian Left since their inception as an organization jump, dive and parry with the Christian right over many issues, hoping that, even in their occasional misguided steps (there are quite a few issues and concepts I disagree with them on), they would redirect the focus of what it means to be Christian in America toward something deeper than a shared cultural expereince. I saw this morning's show and discussions of climate change policy as a function of Biblical stewardship as a step in that direction. 

One point she made was in reference to the way Rick Santorum, the candidate with the most religious platform, speaks. She made the very accurate observation that his speech is very much centered around his own people and protecting his own kind. I knew exactly what she was saying.

Why does it ring true for me? Well, I feel a lot of personal dislike for my kind and widespread disregard for humanity in general from the Right. I'm no Democrat, but the all-too-frequent cries of pro-life in the same breath as being pro-war and pro-death sentence strikes me leaves me questioning the party's true overreaching values and unable to see ties to some of the most important and self-sacrificing tenants of Christianity. 

That point though, is still a bit removed. I get reminders every now and then of the hearts of some of those who claim the title of Christianity in my life. Those reminders hurt on multiple levels. The Trayvon Martin case has been the most recent instance. I saw too many people entirely too willing to bear false witness in the form of doctored articles about the dead teen passed around Facebook. Normally, I stay out of these frays. Good seldom comes from detached arguments in cases like these, but one of the pictures passed around was an outright lie and had been outed as such by the creator. I responded briefly to one post, mentioning that it was a fake, and saying that I had learned a lot about all the people around me, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Black, White, Asian, Gay, Straight and otherwise, by how they responded to the case. The response was that I was too hastily judging and that I couldn't know people's hearts (mind you, I didn't post what I actually thought of anyone). 

I gave that some thought, and I quite confidently believe that to be untrue. Luke 6:45 tells us that "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks". That is where my issue with the Republican party's deeper than seeing general disdain for people who have my skin color. It lies in the core of policy and attitudes. I still though, do not measure individuals by the groups they align themselves with...people's reasons for joining things are just too broad, and anyone could find many faults with me for being a contributing member of the Christian problem, is that I see callousness in policy and that same callousness in too many Christian individuals who are members of said party. 

I say all that to say that all churches and individuals, The Christian Left and The Christian Right, need to put down the political box they want to put God in. He's much bigger than either side.