Sunday, August 2, 2015

Counting Blessings, Naming Pains

I grew up and continue to worship in church communities where the phrase “count your blessings” is said in response to a wide variety of circumstances. When the storms of life are troubling you, you are reminded to “count your blessings” and know that the blessings always outweigh the problems. In worship, you are urged to “count your blessings,” helping you to realize that you could never count all the many blessings God has bestowed upon you: each breath; each day of life; each need met. Because of God’s grace, our blessings are as numerous as the stars and so with triumphant voices, we often sing: 

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

None can deny that counting your blessings cultivates a spirit of gratitude, a spirit of appreciation for a God who has numbered the very hairs of your head. Whether in song, or in sermons, or in bible study, I received the message that part of the task of being a good and faithful Christian is counting the blessings of a compassionate and loving God. But in this season of my life, I have often wondered: can we make room to name the pain, even as we count our blessings?

I was in need of a place to lament, a space where I could name my pain. I needed a safe place to admit that God has not supplied all my needs. I needed a place to say that God has not done increasingly and abundantly above all that I could ask or think. I needed a sanctuary to offer my lament before God, to confess that I felt forgotten and abandoned. I did not find that place at church on that Sunday morning: every musical selection ended on the high note of praise; each scripture reading chosen was joyful; and the sermon ended on “early Sunday morning” and the joy of resurrection. My heart was not in a resurrection moment, but rather, I sat in the silence of a Holy Saturday season – that period of time when the disciples of Christ had to contend with their doubts and fears and grief. I made myself vulnerable to a sister I knew, who could tell from my body language that something was wrong. I admitted that I was struggling, that joy eluded me. She listened patiently, and then told me that what I needed to do was to feel better was simply to “count my blessings.”

I recognize that we barely know how to sit with our own pain, let alone someone else’s pain. We resort to clich├ęs because we feel we must say something, even if it does more harm than good. At church that Sunday morning, I felt the tension: the admonishment to “count my blessings” was this sister’s way of reminding me that God has come through before and God will come through again. But in my suffering, what I heard was: “there is only room to speak joy, to celebrate, to praise.” I have a theology that makes room for us to name our pains, even as we count our blessings. It is a theology that both allows and insists we ask the tough questions before God. It is not an easy season for me to be in; a season where the questions and the doubts seem to outweigh the answers and the blessings. But if God knows my innermost parts, God already knows that I am struggling.

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: “if you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I think of the scores of other black women I know who, like me, are afraid to name our pain. We are choosing to be silent. And our superficial theologies are silencing us. And so we are dying. We’re dying from the unrealistic expectations of being “strong black women.” We are dying of loneliness and lack of pleasure. We are dying of being “too much” for some and “not enough” for others. We are dying as we press down and ignore the pain and indignities of life. We wear the mask and loudly count our blessings so that others won’t know our vulnerabilities and sorrows.

Yes, count your blessings and name them one by one. But if there are days when all you can do is name your pains instead, know that this is also holy unto God. God longs for and hears the cries of the brokenhearted and not just the praise of the blessed.

 © Yolanda Pierce

Friday, July 17, 2015

No Country For Black Women

As I was leaving campus late one night, a student graciously informed me that my right brake light was out. The next afternoon, as I drove to get the light fixed, I held my breath the entire way. What would otherwise be a routine inconvenience on a busy day, just one of those many errand you do during any given week, became a source of fear and anxiety for me as a black woman. I wasn't worried about the time it would take; or how much it would cost; or if they would find something else wrong with the car; or if I had enough time to get it done and make it back for my 4pm meeting. Instead, I was worried that if pulled over by a police officer because of a faulty brake light (a very routine reason for a traffic stop), it might actually lead to my death. This is not hyperbole. I drove with real fear and trepidation that I would get pulled over, within ten miles of my own home, and might end up in jail…or worse. And this is what it means to be black in this country: events that are typical encounters for some, are potentially death-dealing situations for others.

The story of Sandra Bland terrorizes me because I know that her story could also be my story. She was 28 years old. She had just accepted a job at her alma mater. She was stopped for a routine traffic violation, arrested by the police, and subsequently jailed. And three days later, she was found dead in her cell. Authorities have ruled her death suicide. The stark facts of this case leave us with more questions than answers. Would a young woman take her life after landing a job at her alma mater? What injuries did she suffer as a result of the brutal arrest, which was caught on tape? Did something horrendous happen to her in that jail cell? Did someone kill her or do something so horrendous to her that it made her take her own life? What happened to Sandra Bland? Some of us find it difficult to believe the official report of her arrest and “suicide” because of the many cases where official accounts have been proven false. 

Perhaps the question of what happened to Sandra Bland may eventually be answered, but the answers cannot quell the fear and terror that these cases inflict on black people. I know, without a doubt, that my education, my degrees, my credentials, and my “good citizenship” will not save me from forces that want to criminalize and dehumanize me. Nor will my gender protect me. Racial terror is a reality for black people, from every walk of life. The very real and present danger of knowing that you can obey all the laws, do all the right things, conform to every standard, and still find your life hanging in the balance is an awful way to live. Living under racial terror suggests:

 If I assert my rights as a citizen, I am "combative." If I wait until I reach a well-lit area to pull over, I am "fleeing." If I protect my head and neck from being bashed against the concrete, I am "resisting." If I dare to express my pain and trauma, I am "angry." If I commit a crime at any level, I should accept that I may be summarily found guilty and executed without trial. And if I am killed, I should accept that my death is my fault, despite someone else pulling the trigger. 

And so, I found myself driving to get my car serviced, with shaky hands, thinking about Sandra Bland and her last days on this earth. I found myself reflecting on the racial terror that her death and the deaths of so many others evoke. I found myself crying about the trauma of racial terror that haunts life in America. And all I could think about is how this is no country for black women...

©Yolanda Pierce

Friday, July 3, 2015

Inexplicable Joy

I have struggled to make space for the full range of human emotions that these past few weeks have engendered in me. I wake up still crying in rage at the deaths of 9 Black men and women, killed by a racist terrorist while they were holding Bible study in their Charleston church. I shake with anger at the silence of so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, as African American churches mysteriously burn. My heart breaks when thinking about black women clergy receiving threatening letters for daring to be unapologetically true to their calling and vocation, letters written by someone opposed to women in ministry. I just haven’t had the words to describe the layers of hurt and pain and sadness as I reflect upon both the prophetic witness and the challenges of the Black church, the place that is my spiritual home.

I had made a commitment many months back to preach at a church, which I thought long and hard about cancelling after the events of this past month. My schedule was packed and I was already struggling to find clear words to speak to the media about various events. I had nothing encouraging to offer, no good news to bring. I simply wanted to stay home and weep, to deal with the searing images of two young black girls burying their father. But I had made a commitment, and so I went.

I was sitting in the pulpit and from that vantage point, I had a clear view of the congregation. I saw what I expected to see: an aging African American church. The membership was under 100 people; there were some young people under the age of 18, but mainly members over 60. There were only a handful of men, including the two ministers who shared the pulpit with me. The facility was well-cared for, but worn. The words appearing on plaques below the stained glass windows reflected the names of members who passed away long ago. I was in a historically black city, an inner city church, and a neighborhood that time and gentrification forgot.

But then...

An elder whose face was carved with lines and memories of things he cannot forget, approached the altar and began a prayer of intercession. His firm voice called on the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. He petitioned the Rock, the cornerstone that the builders rejected. His prayers anointed that small sanctuary and the presence of God filled the place. I watched a frail hand lifted up in worship. Dressed in her Sunday best with a wide-brimmed hat in place, this church mother stood with hands uplifted as tears streamed down her face. She, too, was at the throne of grace. Prayers both private and corporate, joined together; the words were indistinguishable, but all our hearts gathered together for this moment of prayer.

On that Sunday morning, there was music and dance; there was laughter and sorrow. Announcements were read and visitors were welcomed. Choirs sang and babies cried. As I brought forth the Word, my message seemed insufficient and my ideas too simplistic. But those same frail hands and lined faces responded to my words and lifted me higher. They encouraged and pushed; they called and they responded. In that small church in a city that stimulus funds neglected, a great cloud of witnesses in this realm and beyond, worshiped with a truth and intensity that moved my soul.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

This church was a place of joy; joy that doesn’t make any sense. These lives did not represent the academy or a comfortably-ensconced middle-class America. This congregation did not have a pastor who marched on Washington or who sat down with presidents. By every standard, this was a poor congregation in a poor city. But there was so much richness present! They were raising grandchildren whose parents were lost to the prison industrial complex. They were awarding scholarship money to graduating seniors, even though some of the members had never finished high school. They were praying for the sick and visiting the shut-ins; filling in the gaps of a racially-biased health care system. This congregation was full of joy. Yes, they were also grieving, angry, and feeling the pain of all the injustice in the world. But there was joy; it was palpable and tangible. And this joy in the midst of so much pain is the paradox of the gospel and the mystery of our faith.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

Joy is finding a way to get up every morning in the midst of a death-dealing culture. Joy is gathering for a barbecue with friends, even when your laughter turns to angry tears. Joy is watching little brown babies dance and clap their hands in a world that often denies them a childhood. Joy is a courageous black woman who dares dismantle a symbol of racist oppression, risking her life and freedom. For those who far too often live on the edges of death, joy is daring to say “I am still here.” 

In a world that refuses to even acknowledge black pain, grief, and sorrow, joy is being able to say: though we may be cut down, we are yet alive. Joy is defiantly rebuilding a church torched by arsonists. Joy is going to Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday morning worship, casting aside a spirit of fear. Joy is simply daring to show up...when the world wants you to silence your voice. For all of you who continue to show up - though bruised, battered, with tears in your eyes, scarred, and broken - know that the world will not and cannot steal your joy.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A "Bitter" Activism

On Tuesday morning, Dave Ramsey, financial guru and evangelical Christian, provided the world with a definition he coined: “Activist: Bitterness that desperately needs a hobby.”

It’s difficult to know to which activists Ramsey is referring, but his all-encompassing definition of the word gives me pause. Was not Jesus an activist? Did he not dare to defy political and religious authority to feed the hungry, heal the sick, honor the marginalized and restore honor to women? Is not the very work of Jesus on the cross the greatest form of activism and advocacy which Christians celebrate? Isn’t Jesus the One who was willing to be bruised, beaten, and crucified – an activist on behalf of all humanity, even for those who reject him? And was not the Apostle Paul an activist, perhaps the greatest missionary of Christendom?

It reveals a deep historical amnesia to call activists “bitter.” Those who worked tirelessly to bring us child labor laws or voting rights or a minimum wage were all activists whose lives and efforts have changed our world for the good. Surely a Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Thurgood Marshall were activists whose social and political agitation changed the course of human history?

But, of course, I don’t believe that Ramsey was referring to these types of activists, the ones which so many Christian evangelicals love to quote – the “good” activists. In his definition, “activist” is a dirty word – bitter folks in need of a hobby. Does he mean the activists of Ferguson or Baltimore or Cleveland? Does he mean the activists who launched #BlackLivesMatter or those fighting on behalf of their civil rights? Does he mean the activists who are rallying against police violence or the activists who are protesting the cradle-to-prison pipeline? Does he mean the activists who are routinely disrupting traffic, shutting down public buildings, and rallying in the streets? You know, the activists that are making life inconvenient for the privileged – those activists you want to ignore and dismiss as “outside agitators?”

And here is where so many evangelical Christians display their willful ignorance. The men and women who are even at this very moment are protesting police brutality are doing so in a longstanding tradition that connects with the biblical witness. If you serve a Jesus that disrupted the powerful and shifted paradigms, then you must bear witness to the men and women who today are speaking truth to power, making the comfortable uncomfortable, and turning the world upside down. When black women activists went topless and blocked Market Street in the Financial District of San Francisco to draw attention to black women and girls killed by police, they stood in a long line of biblical wailing women who tore their garments as a sign of mourning and protest. If you are a Christian and you have a problem with activists, you may need to discard the very scripture upon which your faith is built.

It is far too easy to dismiss the activism for basic human rights as “bitterness” when your privilege takes those basic human rights for granted. Too many of the privileged cannot imagine a world in which one has to become an activist, a protestor, and a dissenter in order to demand rights that only some have been automatically given. It is the height of privilege and arrogance to think that the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are activists because they are bored and in need of a hobby. Activism is a matter of life or death for those whose lives seem not to matter in this country; for those whose deaths cannot even be grieved.

It is far too easy to shame activists with words like “bitter,” instead of acknowledging that their activism is fueled by protests against inequity, racism, and systemic injustice. It is far too easy to call an activist “bitter” instead of acknowledging your culpability in unjust systems. I pray that the activists from Ferguson to San Francisco keep exposing the bitter truth of America’s broken and unjust systems – and from these bitter truths may we repent and restore.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What Christianity Can Be

The headlines concerning the latest numbers of the changing American religious landscape are sensationalist: apparently Christianity in America is facing a decline and America is "notably" less Christian. The idea of Christianity's decline in America has been a recurrent theme for at least the past 50 years and the headlines reflect the fear that many in the Christian community have for "dwindling" numbers. But the headlines are wrong on at least two counts: this is not and has never been a Christian nation; and the religious landscape has always been more diverse than the numbers have suggested.

When we claim the United States as a Christian nation, we ignore the fact that its laws, policies, history, and origins have always stood contrary to the values of love. A nation founded on deliberate genocide and enslavement is not a nation that has Christian love as its bedrock. The greatest command - to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself - was never the foundation of this nation's ethos. 

Our claim of America as a "Christian nation" ignores the richness of indigenous spirituality and cosmologies that were thriving before the arrival of Europeans to the shores of North America. The many nations of people who inhabited these shores had were religious people with faith practices - North America was not merely a blank slate onto which Christianity could write itself.

And finally, our claim of the United States as a Christian nation ignores the spiritual and religious diversity that also arrived with European colonization and slavery. As early as the 17th century, practicing Jews and Muslims were living, creating communities, and establishing houses of worship in North America. Simply because the dominant voice of Christianity steered the national discourse does not mean that these communities did not exist and thrive as early as early as the founding of this nation.

What the Pew data does tell us is that declining numbers of Americans self-identify as Christians. Fewer people know or understand themselves as Christians or want to be known by such a label. As a Christian myself, I greet this news with open arms. I am not worried, threatened, or at all concerned about this pattern of fewer and fewer people identifying themselves as Christians. Instead, I see this is an important opportunity, perhaps even a kairos moment.

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will have a deeper understanding of their faith. They will embrace the fullness of being a Christian and not just adopt the term as a convenient cultural marker

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will take the word “Christian” more seriously and not equate it with simply being an “American.”

As the numbers decline…maybe the numbers of Christian need to decline so that a more robust and genuine faith can evolve without Christianity itself.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more followers of Christ.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more lovers of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

Perhaps we need much less civil religion, often couched in American patriotism, and far more theologically sound doctrine focused on the lost and the "least of these.”

I am convinced that Christianity needs more disciples, not members. We need more lovers of God, not pew sitters. We need more agents of mercy, not church boards.

As the numbers of self-identified Christians decline, perhaps what will emerge will be an actual reflection of the kingdom of God: those committed in both word and in deed to walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy. As the numbers decline, perhaps those who identify as Christians in the United States will be shaken from their comfort and slumber and rise up to tend to the business at hand: loving God and loving all people.

© Yolanda Pierce