Mother Mary

A couple of weeks ago, I needed space and time to pray. I was on my way to the gym and decided to stop off at the Catholic Church immediately opposite the gym where I was headed. The elderly women who staffed the church were pleasant, if a bit guarded as

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they contemplated a big Black man in a somewhat rough neighbourhood asking about access to the building. The main church building itself was locked; only the office was open. The ladies directed me to a grotto on the property and said I may pray there as long as I wished. I thanked them, and walked over to the less than impressive section of the church’s grounds, sat down on one of the two rocks available, folded my hands and lifted up my eyes only to be greeted by an even less impressive statue of Mother Mary.

Now, one must understand that though I emerged from the Protestant stream of Christianity – indeed, the fast flowing Pentecostal stream – I have never had the aversion to Catholic iconography, statuary, and ritual that many others have. For reasons I cannot delve into here, these have never bothered me too much. Indeed, I have always found them beautiful and uplifting in their way. I have fond memories of watching the Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with my mother. Beyond this, my work within a broadly evangelical and largely white Christian ministry has broadened my exposure to forms of spirituality that may be traced to Catholic traditions, particularly contemplative practices. Despite this affinity for the aesthetics of Catholicism, and my appreciation for what I’ve gained from their contemplative tradition, I must confess, I have never connected on a spiritual level with their use of statuary and iconography.

Given this, I had no expectation that sitting in a poorly designed grotto, and looking at an even more poorly sculpted statue of Mother Mary would be in any way significant.  It was, quite simply, a quiet – if uncomfortable – place to pray.

I was mistaken. As I lifted my eyes to the statue of Mary, I was met with an overwhelming sense of presence – a presence I shall come to describe in more detail shortly – and also a deep awareness of a truth which is not in any sense that profound at all.

Jesus had a momma.  Of course that Mary was the mother of Jesus is nothing new or surprising. But in that moment, it was not a biblical idea that seized me. It was, rather, that Jesus had a momma – and a momma is different that a mother, despite the etymological similarity of the words. Momma is an informal term, a form of address that denotes intimacy and connection. It is a child’s term that teenagers ache to graduate from to the even more casual ‘mom’ to distance themselves from the deep feeling of dependence and weakness that ‘momma’ entails. And Jesus had a momma. Mary was his momma.

Irma was mine.

Now here I must return to the sense of presence I spoke of earlier, for, despite my theology, my Pentecostal Protestantism, and yes, perhaps even my prideful assumption about what prayer is or ought to be, I was met by an overwhelming sense of presence of my own momma. It is difficult to say more about what that experience was like, and certainly I cannot tell what we discussed, but it was in that moment that I understood why people pray to Mother Mary. There is something about maternal presence that draws out of us that which otherwise would remain buried. We who have been blessed with good relationships with our mothers, and with fond memories, even when those memories and relationships are tinged with the inevitable brokenness that marks all such human relationships, we know something of that closeness one only feels in the presence of momma.  So momma and I had a talk; I talked to her, and she with me. You could call it a prayer; Mother Mary stood beside in silent witness to those moments.

I do know, of course, that all Christian prayer is directed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, our intercessor and Lord. Nothing that occurred in this moment of prayer in time has changed that truth nor my affirmation of it. In fact, my affirmation of the reality of Christ’s intercession was strengthened in those moments as I was confronted with the profundity of His own identification with us. In his weakness and infirmity, Jesus too had a momma. He needed his momma. She was there when he performed his first miracle, and in fact she was the one who gave him opportunity to do it.  It is no surprise that when his disciples ran away at the end, his momma was there – watching, making sure her baby was okay, even though she knew that he wasn’t and even though his sacrifice was for her too.

So it was with me in that moment. I needed momma, so she came. I talked/prayed to and with momma and she shared her wisdom with me as only she could.

After a while, my prayers ended. I had to take a call from a work colleague. The moment passed. I let the elderly women know that I was done with my prayers and thanked them for their hospitality. And I left, grateful to God for the time spent.

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I Believe

I believe… today, and everyday these two words cross the lips of many millions of Christian believers all over the world. They are the opening words of the great creeds – belief statements – of the Christian faith. They are intoned with more or less reverence, more or less meaning, more or less conscious awareness of what is being declared. However spoken, they are words loaded with meaning. They are words that are intended to call back to the believers mind the incontrovertible, and essential elements of the faith he shares with other believers around the world and throughout time.  The most general of the creeds – termed the Apostle’s Creed – is held in common by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians.

The declaration “I believe” is a faith declaration – an agreement with the collected wisdom and witness of ancient Christianity.  It is a faith declaration because those who intone the words are not first-hand witnesses of the things they declare. They “believe” that God the Father is the maker of heaven and earth, but were not present to see it. They “believe” that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, but did not witness his sufferings nor hear his cries. They believe, partly because of what they have been taught, but for many, they believe because they have personal experience of the things they declare. These are experiences that cannot usually be put into words that would pass muster in a court of law. They “met” Jesus. They “felt” the Spirit. They “know” the love of God. They believe.

Here lately, the words “I believe” have been most often used as a prefix to a personal pronoun – “I believe, her”; “I believe, him”. Her – Dr Christine Ford. Him – (now) Justice Brent Kavanaugh.  Though it may seem a contrived or even irresponsible comparison, these declarations of belief are also faith based.  No one who has declared their belief in the assault against Ford or in the innocence of Kavanaugh can claim anything like first-hand knowledge of the facts. There is, of course evidence that can be marshaled for either confession. There are many who cite their own experience of sexual assault, or the testimony of others who have been assaulted to point to the plausibility of Ford’s claims. There are others who cite the lack of corroboration of those claims, and perhaps their experiences and the testimony of others who have suffered from false or misplaced allegations.  Yet it seems to me that the evidence in this case is much less important than the confession.

The confession, “I believe”, is more often an indication of inclusion in a particular community than it is of conscious faith. Most people who declare their belief in the resurrection of the dead have not seriously examined the evidence for the claims of Jesus’ resurrection. This does not make their claim deficient, nor does it invalidate the underlying claim. It is simply true. They believe it, at least in part, because that is who they are. They are people who believe in the resurrection.

So too many (though certainly not all) who have made their confession in the midst of the current debate have not really thought it all through. They believe him, or believe her because that is who they are. They are part of a community of belief, a community of faith. Because of this, the confirmation or failure to confirm Kavanaugh the Supreme Court is not simply a matter of politics, or judicial philosophy, or even of evidence – it is a matter of divine import. The wars of religion, long thought to be banished to the annals of history, are beginning to rear their heads again, because how we order our common life is, in the end, always a religious question.

True Humility, Fearless Honesty, and the Need for a New Prophetic Movement in Ghana: Part 1

Some months ago, I was invited to speak on campus to a student fellowship on a topic related to integrity. I cannot now remember the exact theme upon which I was asked to expound, but I do remember that I used words from the Ghanaian national anthem as a departure point for my remarks.  The first stanza of the anthem, indeed the entire song, is a prayer – God bless our homeland Ghana – inviting God to strengthen the nation, and embolden its citizens to resist oppression. The two lines in the song I used in my sermon – Fill our hearts with true humility, Make us cherish fearless honesty – have continued to echo in my consciousness as I consider some of the challenges confronting Ghanaian Christianity.

I offer the following as my own observation and reflection on these, but in light of the theme, I offer them in humility, fully aware that I speak as an outsider to the culture. I therefore cannot presume to speak authoritatively or comprehensively, yet as a fellow Christian, I speak confidently (contrary to what many people think, confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive – more on that below), knowing that my position as an outsider affords me a perspective that those inside may not have or share. It may be that I have painted with overly broad strokes. In fact I am sure that I have, yet any generalisation involves some distortion. So I apologise in advance for any offence caused.

humility

True vs. False Humility

Humility is a value that is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of Ghanaian society. Generally speaking, and certainly in comparison to what passes for the norm in other cultural contexts with which I am familiar, Ghanaians are unfailingly polite and relatively deferential, especially to those deemed to be their superiors by age, education, or social station.  Conversation is littered with ‘please’, ‘I beg you’, and ‘thank you so much’ and so on – words designed to smooth social interaction and to leave a favourable impression on the hearers. No one wants to be thought of as proud, forward, or demanding. Obedience and deference to those who are your seniors, to those in authority, and to the elderly, are all (supposedly) highly valued. Aside these conversational conventions, one may also notice the infrequency of people simply saying ‘thank you’ in response to compliments or congratulations. ‘It is the Lord, I’m just his servant,’ or ‘it is the grace of God …’ or something else very spiritual is what may be heard in response. Public ceremonies, whether of a religious or secular nature, often reference God as the source, God’s grace being the reason that this or that thing was accomplished.  This evinces a clear and admirable desire to deflect attention away from self towards others, or to God.

On the other hand, people who are a bit straightforward or outspoken are not infrequently criticised for being complainers, ‘too known’, or proud.  I find it telling that the current President of Ghana, Nana Akuffo-Addo, was previously criticised not for his policies, but because he came across as proud and arrogant. His election is perhaps evidence that he learned his needed lessons in humility. The East Asian proverb, the nail that sticks up is the one that is hammered down, comes to mind. A person seen to be making too much of a fuss about an issue (or about themselves) is considered to be somewhat prideful. After all, why should he or she be the one to speak up? Who is he or she to complain or raise an issue? “Are you the only one?”

Perhaps most revealing of all is the comparative scarcity of, ‘I was wrong. I apologise. Forgive me.’ Oh, to be sure there are apologies. Plenty of them – just that they are usually delivered by the junior to the senior, by the ‘small boy’ to the ‘big man’.  It became headline news when the wife of the then Vice-President apologised publicly for her intemperate remarks – newsworthy because of the comparative rarity of such an utterance. Big men (generally) do not apologise. They explain, they lecture, they receive apologies from others, they graciously dispense absolution. And when apologies are issued, it is often because what was spoken has offended someone, irrespective of whether it was true or not – as in the case when a prominent scientist was called to apologise for offending the dignity of Parliament, not necessarily because of the untruthfulness of his assertions (and I don’t recall the argument being made that his statements were false), but because it made the Parliament of Ghana look bad.

Not too long ago in a conversation with a much younger person, I had cause to apologise to him for something, which I did in my rather straightforward manner.  He responded that it was one thing he really appreciated about me – that I apologise, even though I am a ‘big man’.  And I replied, ‘First of all, I’m not a big man.  And secondly, am I God that I can never make a mistake? Why shouldn’t I apologize?’  He was surprised, but should he have been? I am not God, and I do make mistakes. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes because I don’t realise how I come across more harshly than I intended, but far more often because I am being thoughtless, or selfish, or greedy – or any of a number of other sins that I struggle with. What does his age or my status have to do with it?

Yet all too often, it does.

The result of all this? A pandemic of false humility and a culture of pretense. Boastfulness is concealed under layers of euphemistic language designed to make one seem humble even whilst bragging. Apologies become occasion for ingratiating oneself with one’s superiors rather than genuine admissions of fault and harm, and the big men never  rarely apologize because they are not small boys.

None of this is Christian.

True humility, however, regards oneself with what the Bible terms ‘sober judgment’ – that is it has no need of trying to puff oneself up to cover one’s flaws, nor does it boast of one’s strengths. It doesn’t apologise for them either.  It simply accepts the reality that we all are a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, that we’re good at some things, and poor at others.  It receives a compliment with ‘Thank you’ and a wrong committed with ‘I’m sorry’. True humility speaks with simplicity and straightforwardly without the need to artificially degrade others, or inflate oneself.  True humility makes it easy to serve others and even to be served by others, because it doesn’t regard service as something lesser, or beneath – it is just a thing done by one person to or for another. Just as when Jesus served his disciples by washing their feet. It didn’t diminish him, nor did it embarrass him (though it did seem to embarrass Peter). And no one thought the less of him for doing so.  I’m sure Jesus apologized when he made mistakes, maybe inadvertently jostling someone in the market place, or forgetting to bring the milk in (he was sinless, not flawless – and those are not the same).

True humility is marked by a sober, settled confidence that is neither apologetic, nor boastful. True humility is confident and true confidence is humble because it recognises the limitations that we all have and is consequently willing to learn from anyone, without forgetting that you also have a valid contribution to make.  This is the humility I believe we should strive for.

Longing For Wakanda

I wanted to share this because it is powerful, though I have yet to see the film

Sean M. Watkins

I should have seen it. The warning signs were there. I wept when 45 was elected. I retired from being labeled “evangelical” (I never claimed it), given their visceral support and/or inability to address the cultures and context of our nation. I have committed to only reading authors of color for 2018 as a method of soul care as I’ve become allergic to most things that are white-centered. When the trailer dropped during the NBA Finals last year, I tried to quiet an entire section of a sports bar so I could take in everything. I was bated by every hashtag about it. Like most of my friends, I’ve seen it three times—and planning a fourth viewing. All my devices have home screens that reflect the movie. My friends have been doing a Lent devotional on it that I seriously want to be published. When Erna told me it gave…

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Next Time

I met with a dear and old friend yesterday, who is grieving a recent and painful death. We laughed, she cried, we reflected over old struggles, and chatted about recent challenges. I shared what I could of my own wisdom, hard won through griefs of the past – some distant and others nearer – none ever fully grieved or forgotten.

This morning, I chanced upon an old photo of me standing alongside an old friend. I was, perhaps, seven or eight years, and he six or seven.  He was one of those friends with which I’d lost touch over the years as our lives diverged in different directions, but who, upon the rare occasions we would meet would always promise to catch up, “next time.”

So it was the last time I saw him, some five or six or seven years ago, but this time, next time never came. He died some two weeks ago.

I cannot pretend that we were close; we were not. Our childhood friendship was one borne of the circumstances of life, and not from a deep affinity of interests. Over the course of years, our paths had diverged more and more and what closeness and affinities we had gradually frayed, like the slow unraveling of a poorly knitted sweater or cap, until very little remained.

Yet, still, he was my friend and now he’s gone. There is no “next time” for us — only the fragments of memories remain, and those too fade with time.

The strange thing about death is that it undoes us: pieces of ourselves that were constituted by relationships with others are irretrievably lost. We are who we are in relation to others, and as long as those others live, no matter how far or near, distant or close, there is something of ourselves that lives also. When my friend died, part of me also died – the me who was in relationship to him is dead. There is no next time, there never will be a next time. In my grief therefore I am forced to say goodbye to him, but also goodbye to the self that was his friend, and face the future knowing that I will say this same goodbye a thousand times over until I am the one to whom others also say goodbye.

Until next time, my friend.

The Main Character

Every story has a main character – the protagonist – around whom the story unfolds and revolves. It is his or her thoughts and experiences that drive the narrative. All others characters, though they may be important, are really only important insofar as they relate to the central character.

In many respects, that is the nature of our lives. We are the main character in our own story, and regardless of how important another person may be, we tend to relate to them based on our concerns and not as they are in themselves . Even when a loved one dies, it is our own grief that is central to us. This is all quite natural. After all the only eyes I have to see the world are my own.

It strikes me however that Jesus is the one human being who lived and died and yet placed himself as peripheral to his story. He is the only genuinely non-self-centred person in human history. All that he said and did was for others and in response to the Father. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t glorify himself. He didn’t look down on himself (which is but a distorted kind of self-centredness). He was entirely unselfconscious and consequently was entirely free to give and to receive.

In so many ways the invitation to Christian discipleship is an invitation to self-displacement, to a radical de-centering of self as the protagonist of our life stories. The paradox of the Christian faith is that life is found in losing it, strength found in weakness, gain is found in giving up pursuit of it.

I must confess that this is incredibly difficult in practice, regardless of how lovely it sounds in theory. Well I suppose the saying is true, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Yet Christianity is exactly about death – about living as though already dead, which is what Jesus himself said we are to do.

I haven’t attained this level of self – displacement yet. Maybe I never will. But occasionally, when I pause the never ending stream of thoughts and emotions of how I feel, what I think, why this one is wrong, what I want, etc., occasionally I am able to catch a glimpse of what it is to live as a side character in God’s story instead of as the protagonist of my own.

The First Time I ate dinner with a multi-millionaire

I don’t recall exactly what I ate, though I know I opted for the chicken instead of the fish.  And I cannot recall the details of the conversations we held. I was far too nervous for any of that, and besides, it has been twenty-five years since I stepped on that elevator and ascended to the top floor of the bank building and entered an exclusive club to dine with a millionaire.

I received the invitation because I, along with several other people, were recipients of a scholarship designated for minorities in a particular field.  The scholarship was substantial – more than enough to cover room and board for the year with some left to spare. The requirements were not as substantial – maintain a certain G.P.A. (which, if I recall correctly, was lower than I thought it should be). The sponsors of the scholarship wanted every year to meet the recipients, to dine with the beneficiaries of his largesse and to see on whom his money was being spent.

The hosts were hospitable. The wife especially had that indescribable quality that so many southern women of a certain age and of certain means possess – that ability to be self-possessed and gracious no matter what the subject of conversation, the level of the person with whom she was speaking, or even the extent of the social awkwardness of her guests. Such women, either through long experience or practical training, are the type that make excellent wives to high flying business executives and politicians.

I remember her quite well because of something that happened that nearly flapped her unflappable demeanour. Something that embarrassed me though I was not the cause.

As I remember, we were engaged in the kind of mindless small talk that seems to dominate these meetings – this chicken is very tasty, I’m not a fan of asparagus – that kind of thing.  Our hostess commented that one or another thing on her plate was very nice. Then, to my shock and amazement, one of the scholarship recipients, a young woman older than myself, a sophomore to my freshman status (and even more awkward than I was) boldly asked her, ‘Can I have some of it?’  The eyes of our hostess widened a bit, but she quickly recovered. ‘Sure,’ she said, and she adopted the unmistakable pose of someone poised to call the waiter to table when suddenly, unexpectedly, my fellow scholar thrust her fork and knife into the woman’s plate, cleaving off a healthy portion of the (I believe) fish, and shoving it with gusto into her mouth.

Now let the reader recall, we were there, all of us, as young minority (read Black) recipients of an academic award dining at an exclusive club with the White multi-millionaire sponsor along with his wife, whose eyes were blinking now in rapid succession as she endeavoured to find a way to respond. My thoughts raced as quickly as my hostesses eyes were blinking. In truth I wanted to give the young lady the stare of death and ask if she’d lost her mind, but that would only serve to make matters worse by drawing attention to her egregious breech of not only social etiquette, but common decency and respect.

So we sat there in what seemed like hours of awkward silence as the young lady unashamedly chewed the food like some kind of cow grazing by the roadside oblivious to the consternation she’d caused. ‘Oh, it is good,’ she remarked as our hostess continued to blink and wear an impregnable Mona Lisa smile. I continued to stare, she and I together caught in a web of social awkwardness and breached dinner table etiquette.

The moment passed somehow and I and our hostess somehow managed together to salvage the conversation and steer a clear course away from the rocky shoals of further social embarrassment. I am not quite sure how the evening ended, but I do recall that our hostess didn’t touch the food on her plate again.