I grew up in the church. It was the center of life back in the day. It is where I spent my Sundays during the 70’s, 80’s and a little less of my 90’s. As our parents and grandparents went about the business of the day to day schedules, bulletins, and fellowships, we kids met up, cut up, got told off by the ushers, played Heart and Soul on the piano between services, walked to get penny candy in between services and generally fought to play the tambourine. Church is where I learned to play the tambourine—where I learned the way to make it fly and amp up the already swinging and swirling worship stomping that generally took place during second service—usually when a visiting church and their choir were center stage. Any time, anywhere I find myself with a tambourine, I thank the church I went to for the crash course.
You couldn’t be off beat and keep the tambourine. And we were pretty blunt about each other’s playing. You might strike it for half a song, but if you weren’t cutting it another person would snatch it out of your hands and you would just sit there sulking for a hot second. That tantrum would be over pretty quick because the glares of the others would tell you that you didn’t cut the mustard. You would then be demoted to the hand clapping brigade. This wasn’t so much a demotion, but a way for you to learn to clap on 2 and 4, and do that rhythmic, syncopated clapping thing that just seems to happen in black churches that whips things up a bit more.
Here is where I have had every Jell-O salad under the sun—lime and pears, lemon with carrots, some pistachio whippy thing, a pink dream we affectionately call fluff in my parents’ house, and every layered, colorful concoction any church mom could think of to put on the dessert table next to the chocolate cake, pies and cobblers and what my cousin and I call church cake—box yellow cake with chocolate icing. It seemed that no matter what church we went to for a meal, you could always count on this particular cake being served, so we just named it church cake. To this day, if we see that cake, we give each other a sideways look and giggle because we already know what the other is thinking.
Church for me was a second home. You could see all of the neighborhood kids you ran the streets with from Monday to Friday, in their Sunday best. You pretty much tried to keep your manners in check as not to embarrass your mother if she was more than a certain length away, where she couldn’t poke you, give you that “look” and say Amen and Hallelujah without calling attention to her reprimanding you during the service. Your reward was being able to sit with all of your friends. Your punishment was to be dragged back to your parent’s seat to sit beside them the entire time. So you quickly learned to straighten up or be forever banned from kid island. However, it was inevitable from time to time, that when the service dragged a bit, kids got fidgety and someone’s mom would be swooping up and purposefully marching their kid out the swinging doors—you went downstairs if you were really acting up. And if your mom was an usher that Sunday, she had free reign to throw the index finger into the air and march toward you in her black and white outfit and escort you out, because there was always another usher there to take over.
In church is where I saw carefully crafted shade being thrown during testimony and watched the neighborhood gossips sizing up their chosen victim—the celebrity of their after church phone sessions. If someone had done anything that even seemed “a bit much” they were sure to be the topic of post-church discussion. After church we just talked in our house about how ridiculous it was—to be on the receiving end of such malice when your only crime was being a human being. Maybe your hat was too big; you wore a white skirt without a slip underneath, or found yourself with child with no husband to go along with the package. “Judge not lest ye be judged”, didn’t seem to bother these people whose tongues tended to be tempted far too easily to twist around someone else’s misfortune. Here is where I saw hypocrisy in all its forms. And it went on unchallenged and undisturbed until my grandfather called it out one Sunday.
My grandfather Harold wasn’t much of a church going man. He was more of a spiritual person who believed that he could just as easily praise the Lord while working in his garden. And enjoyed his way of worship a bit more, since it made sense to him, and kept him from seeing the jockeying for position that often happened in the church, that irritated him so much. He also was a very blunt and observant man who could not tolerate even a hint of hypocrisy. Well, on this day, I think he had his fill of it. He was one to admit his own shortcomings, and did so as he started his speech during testimony. Now I have seen and heard a lot during this part of the service, and while it is typically reserved for speaking about how good God has been to you, it was often used as a way for people to get big issues out in the open–a sort of question and answer portion—without questions and a whole lot of answers.
On this Sunday, he came to church. I don’t know what prompted his attendance that day, but if I thought it was going to be a “just sit beside my grandfather until church is over” kind of day, I was mistaken. He put his hands, shaped from years of hard work in the mines and in the soil on the pew in front of him and slowly raised himself up. All of us who knew him, knew that something was about to happen that we were not sure to miss. Something that we would never forget and talk about as a family to this very day, usually whenever we get to reminiscing about him and his being gone so long.
When he began, he respectfully stated all of the things he had seen and heard from some of the most reckless “Christians” in the flock. And in time, he delivered an oratory worthy of the highest merit, because he had the strength to call things like he saw them. It wasn’t elaborate and vague. It was the heart of what the majority of people were thinking and had spoken about in hushed tones along the outskirts of the church, and not so hushed tones in the comfort of their own homes. They were thinking it, but he said it. At the height of this speech, he uttered a phrase that we all use to this day to describe those hurtful types that seem to infiltrate the fibers of the fabric of the Word. The kinds of people who care more about title and position, and are forever hoping that people surely have forgotten their wayward deeds of younger days:
Church Angels, Street Devils
At this point, our eyes were transfixed upon my grandfather. My mother and one of her best friends were in the choir in full view of what was going on—not surprised because they knew how my grandfather was, but I think as shocked as we were that he was actually calling people out in church for their double dealing. I also surmised that my mom probably felt like a hostage. When someone else’s family member is in the spotlight, it is exactly that, someone else’s family member. But when it is your own, and they are commanding every ounce of attention to be had–even though it was a worthy thing to be saying–the invisible strings of association connect themselves to each person automatically. It was my grandfather, but it was her father, and she was trapped in the choir section, in full view of everyone, no matter if she agreed with what he was saying or not. She agreed, but my heart went out to my mom before I was absorbed into the scene being set before my very eyes.
You see, my grandfather understood the missteps of life. What he did not stomach well was the penchant for others pretending that they were ultra-holy and defaming others for their troubles and tears. He hated injustice equally as he hated people who were fake—you know those smile in your face while they stab you in the back kind of people. Chances are, if you’ve made it this far in life, it isn’t without a few wounds in your back from people like this. Well, on this glorious Sunday, my grandfather had his fill of the lot. And when he finished, the silence in the sanctuary permeated every corner and blank space. Our Reverend at that time, looked pleased with what he had just heard, because he too had a few yet to heal wounds from misguided word daggers and gossip. I never knew what prompted my grandfather to say what he did on that particular day, but it has gone on to shape me in ways that I never thought it would.
Truth be told, I am a messy Christian. I may do some wrong, but it is never intentional. I may not look like your typical Christian, but that is because I don’t know what a “typical” Christian is supposed to look like. The roadmap of my life would be confusing to read, even harder to decipher–fraught with so many U-turns, wrong ways, and rest stops–even I have to wonder some times if I am going to get to where I am supposed to go, wherever that is.
You see, in my house, we serve the Lord, but our principles line up with works of compassion and love. We don’t damn others to hell because it isn’t our job to do so. We don’t subscribe to some Earthly way of doling out forgiveness–only if we think you’ve earned it. We associate with people that most Christians don’t—lest they dirty their ill-fitting robes of smugness. We understand how love can transform a hardened heart because we’ve lived it. We understand that kindness is class, not some inflated and convoluted idea that class is only what you can pay for or the people you name-drop. We understand that this place is not ours, but that we are borrowing it and need to return it in the way that it was promised to us. And most importantly we don’t just associate with “our type of Christians”–closing the door to real interactions and life lessons to be learned from moving amongst varied individuals, not fan clubs of our own creation.
From what I have come to understand from the teachings I have been exposed to, is that “all fall short of the glory”. And that we should do less smiting and more meeting each other—all people—on a common ground. We must not give absolute reign to the false prophets of greed—who show us who they are by their works and not their words. It is this framework that I choose to live by. I choose the common sense values of the Word to help me navigate this Earth and all of the serpentine turns that occur within it. We are all broken people. None on this Earth are perfect—not even the ones who try to act as if they are.
In conclusion, it is the broken shards of your life– these imperfect facets of your journey—they are what make a mosaic beautiful to behold. And it is most often that the light shining through the broken pieces, is what lights the way for others. Yes, I am a messy Christian. I am a messy Christian in the way that finger painting is a messy undertaking. The many colors of who I am in time, with wisdom gained through experience and maturity gained through growing through my stages of immaturity, are what I hope to leave hanging on the refrigerator for all to see when my day is finally done.
Life, by its inherent nature, is messy. In this scattered, two left feet kind of world, your dance is yours. You’ll miss a step, you may trip and you may even fall flat on your face. Your life is your dance, make it count for something. Leave us your own perfectly imperfect work of art, because you never know who you’ll inspire.