Worship & Identity

When your son asks you in the time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the LORD our God has commanded you?” Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of
Egypt with a mighty hand.
Deuteronomy 6.20-21 

This scripture, so ancient and yet so timely, speaks to me volumes about something I have contemplating lately: the place of ancestry in understanding my identity both spiritually and naturally. Recently I had the opportunity to do some research on my family lineage through the website Ancestry.com.  I was able, because of some family stories that I knew and names with which I was familiar, to trace back to the 1870 census on both sides of my family.  Prior to that, the names disappear because during the 1860 census my forefathers were not people but property.  Any hope I have of identifying them beyond that point diminishes rapidly.  I could, if I were a serious researcher, perhaps track back to a particular plantation, look at slave schedules, and research the slave owners – all of which would be very difficult to do.  My lineage disappears because of one simple reality: we were slaves.                         

 This is no shock but it does pain me.  To see the name of my great-great grandfather who could neither read nor write nor properly identify the year of his birth, and to know that he was during his childhood merely a means of production to increase someone else’s wealth is no easy thing.  To know also that for years afterwards his descendents lived on the margins of society, never enjoying the full rights of citizenship until the years just prior to my own birth is likewise no easy thing.  The beauty and the pain of my research is that I and my forefathers are in some sense inextricably linked together.  It is un-American in many ways to say this, because the American identity is intimately bound up with forging a new identity, unencumbered by the past or by the obligations which family and culture may impose.  Yet it is true and is, in my view, much more biblical. 

In the scripture cited above, the answer given through the ages to the children of Israel about the laws and the festivals and the commandments of God was rooted in an always accessible historical event in which the past and present collide; “We were slaves.”  This is no mere rhetorical device, but was a reminder to every generation that no matter how far back the events of the Exodus recede, they too were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt and God delivered them from his hand.  In the same way I can look down my family tree and say that we were slaves in Mississippi; we were slaves in Kentucky; we were slaves, but the LORD delivered us. This historical memory was an integral part of the Jewish identity and to the identity of Blacks in the
United States and in both cases was closely aligned with their understanding of what it means to be the people of God.  Although the connections to this history are less viscerally obvious in the contemporary Black church, the feeling of it, the essence is still evident, particularly in the music and worship legacy.  Indeed one of the most celebrated aspects of Black church is the music which is at once traditional and contemporary, technically complex and improvisational, and characterized by both strong vocal leadership and congregational participation.  It involves the whole of a person – body and soul, and requires, yes even demands the full engagement of the congregation for it to really be done at all.  More to my point however, it emerges out of the full context of the Black American identity as people who can say, “we were slaves.” In some sense every person is invited to make the song or the worship experiences their own; to interpret it afresh and realize its applicability in their own lives. 
 

Here then is the question and the dilemma I face every Sunday at church as I worship with my Korean American brothers and sisters:  how does worship that emerges out of the full experience of the Korean and Korean American identity look?  More broadly: how does the historical reality of God’s working in and through Asian and Asian American people show itself in the liturgical practice of Asian and Asian American congregations?  Many times the worship I hear (and not just in the Asian context to be sure) seems disconnected from the history, culture and identity of the people who sing it.  It is not that Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin is sung that is the problem.  In fact one of the things that I’ve often seen done by Black worship leaders is to take songs they’ve heard in White worship contexts and sing them in such a way that though technically similar are radically different.  They make it their own. The problem is rather that the goal is to imitate as closely as possible the style and technique of the White worship leader with little thought or effort given to making it uniquely Korean or Chinese or whatever.  All too often worship (and church in general) in the Asian American context is simply, “a bad system poorly imitated,” rather than being an authentic expression of the good news made known through the identity and history of Asian people.  My prayer is that I can one day soon come to church and hear good Korean American gospel music… something with a lot of seoul!

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What is health?

Day by day our television sets and internet connections are filled with advertisements of products and medicines that promise to increase our health and bring us to a state of higher or better performance.  B list movie stars endorse weight loss products and plans and virtually every month a new supplement or diet plan is introduced all with the aim of making us healthier people.  Most likely the most important issues confronting the United States government today is the large number of uninsured and underinsured persons in the
United States.  Health is clearly at the top of the priority list.

In the areas of health and wholeness, we increasingly look to experts: doctors, dieticians, nutrionists and the like, to give us guidance and leadership in our quest for good health, long lives, and wholesome diets.  These experts offer sometimes conflicting, most of the time confusing advice that so threatens to overwhelm us that we generally respond by picking only a few cherished gems of information and relegating the rest to the back of our mind as so much useless or superfluous information. 

This concern with health, wholeness and well being is not restricted to our concerns  about our physical well being; nor has the reliance on expert opinion and comparative studies.  Over the last twenty years, the language of physical and mental health care professions has entered the church with a vengeance and permeated our understanding of what it means to live and function well as the body of Christ.  We talk of healthy churches and the dysfunctionality of relationships as if this was the preferred language of the New Testament writers.  Further, we employ a type of comparative analysis in our search for health.  We not only compare ourselves and the life of our congregations to those described in the pages of ther New Testament, but we, increasingly compare ourselves with other churches, seeking to find “best practices” in order that congregational health may be achieved.  We read the work of experts who diagnose from a distance our condition and prescribe the appropriate doses of scripture, purpose, and vision to cure our disease. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong and certainly not sinful in utilizing this language or conceptualizing congregational life in this way, it is a method fraught with the same challenges as those found in the ever growing beast that is the American health care system.  Faced with a constant stream of advertising in the form of conferences, books, and yes, even online journals, we have become obsessed with our failure and do not look to the guiding light of the bright and morning star in order to steer our course, but to lesser lights which seem less mysterious and more accessible to us.  For example, while I admire and appreciate the work of Rick Warren in the Purpose Driven Life, might it not just be the evangelical church equivalent of the South Beach Diet – a quicker, less painful way of achieving what we all know can only be really achieved with the steady application of self discipline through diet and exercise? 

Let us also consider the usage of medical terminology and health as applied in the church.  How does one determine something as difficult to pinpoint as health when even within the medical community the term has changed meaning significantly over the past fifty years?  It seems that we have replaced the brutal honesty of scripture in describing life within the body of Christ with unrealistic perfect images of community that are the ecclesiastical equivalent of runway models. Or perhaps we simply aim much lower, succumbing to the temptation that
St. Paul alluded to in 1 Corinthians, “comparing ourselves with ourselves.”  The apostle, of course, warns that doing so is not wise, and yet we persist in our navel gazing, scale watching, calorie counting behaviors in an effort to achieve what might indeed be the unattainable goal of the perfect church.
 

Notwithstanding the need for pastors, church leaders, and congregants to be honest in their reflections about the state of things within the local body, it is important that none of lose sight of the inherent brokenness of any human  community this side of glory.  This is not suggest that we should merely give up trying to live to the best of our ability in accordance with our understanding of the gospel.  It is rather, an invitation similar to that issued in a recent editorial in the New York Times about the issue of diet and health. Instead of obsessing about what we eat, how much, and what vitamins and minerals are being ingested in every meal, the author suggests that we simply eat food and enjoy it.  Similarly, I believe that our near obsession with being purposeful and healthful within the context of the church may be counterproductive to what we actually seek.  Thoughtfulness and prayerful reflection are good; stressing out over every meal served in the context of a worshipping congregation isn’t. 

Things I miss about the Black pentecostal church

 

As I have been out of my cultural element in church for the last months, I have become very aware of some things that I really miss – things that are both cultural and religious.  Some of them are things which are often held back in the context of “multi-ethnic” communities because they make people uncomfortable; others are quirks of my Pentecostal background. 

Sister & Brother: Growing up, and even now, any adult person in the congregation was always referred to by their last name preceded by a title – usually sister or brother, but sometimes something else, depending on their position.  Even within families, this is true.  For example, at church I never referred to my father except as Elder or Pastor or Bishop.  I had cousins who, outside of church, might be called casually by their first name, but in church became Deacon X or Missionary Y.  I miss that.  It is a practice that is falling out of favor in some Black churches, but it is rooted deep in our culture – to show honor and respect to those who have earned it, and also to acknowledge the inherent dignity and worth of people whose personhood was often assailed during the working week. 

Testimony Service: It doesn’t happen much anymore, but in years past, almost every Sunday service (or Sunday evening service) saw testimony service, which was the congregants chance to sing their own song or tell about some particular thing God had done for them that week, or even ask a prayer request.  Oh of course many of the testimonies bordered on gossip, (pray for my daughter that she wouldn’t be so rebellious…) but there is something very ennobling and participatory about any person, no matter their status or position, being able to participate in the service in that way.  Testimony service was often the most “explosive” part of the service, because a really good testimony could set off… 

Shouting: And by shouting I mean running down the aisles, dancing with abandon, jumping up and down, and of course actually shouting.  It is a spontaneous joyful response to God in worship; and expression of being touched by the Spirit.  You could run, jump, yell, fall out on the floor and it was contagious.  If one rejoiced, others would join in – jumping feet first into the flow of the Spirit and allow themselves to be carried away.  Everyone who shouted had their own preferred style and as kids one of our biggest games was to play church so we could playfully mock Sister So and So – complete with falling out and pretending to speak in tongues (cometiemybowtie… shecomeinahonda) 

Let the church say amen: I miss the “Amens” and “Say that” and “You preaching now, doc,” that accompany almost every good sermon.  The single hand lifted by a church mother signifying her agreement with the sermon, the brother standing up in the middle of the sermon pointing at the preacher, the loud cries of “yeah!” echoing through the sanctuary make the sermon so much more than just … 

Preaching: Now don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy my pastor’s sermons.  They are thoughtful, articulate, theologically sound and generally edifying.  BUT… there is just nothing quite like good old school Black Pentecostal preaching. If you aren’t familiar with it, check out TD Jakes for a sample (although he’s toned down a bit for the TV audience) or even Rod Parsley – who is white, but preaches like a Black Pentecostal.  I miss the kind of preaching that causes you, despite yourself, to want to stand up and holler because it is just so potent and connects at such an emotional and spiritual level. Sometimes the content wouldn’t be that great, but you would leave church encouraged and inspired to “go on a little further in the Lord.” 

Music: I didn’t want to say this one, because people always say this about the Black church, and it gets a little annoying.  But I do miss the music – the improvisational interpretation of songs, the culture of music, the mentoring of young musicians, many of whom have never and will never learn to read music or be trained professionally. 

All in all, I think I miss the very participatory nature of my Black Pentecostal roots.  Church and worship are places where everyone was given dignity, anyone could participate, all were welcome to contribute.  It hardly mattered if you could sing well – you could still sing in the choir.  Even if you were one of the saints who struggled to live right, you could share during the testimony service.  You didn’t have to be a musician to pick up the tambourine and play.  You didn’t have to be on the dance team or go to practice in order to “shout.”  The success of a sermon was not just in the preachers hands, but he could (and did) “wish somebody would help me preach this.”  Sigh… these are some of the things I miss.