Our worship pastor loves to talk about his Mama.
Kenny is a fifty-year-old Black man, but he still calls himself a Mama's boy, and he always says that his mother was both Mama and Daddy to him when he was growing up, because he didn't have a father. "Mama's the one who taught me how to sing," Kenny says, "she's the one who first showed me that the victory is in the praise.” The first time I heard Kenny say that I didn’t know what he meant, but after two years of worshiping with him, I think I’m beginning to understand.
On Sunday, Kenny started us off with a popular song called, “Raise a Hallelujah,” and we all lifted our voices, clapped our hands, and sang along. Well, almost all of us. There were a few young ones in the crowd who were more compelled to sit than stand, and at least one who couldn’t bear to stay in the room with all that praise going on. When I asked why, after the service was over, she told me worship was the hardest part of service, because “how can you sing songs to a God you don’t know if you believe in any more, let alone love?”
In fact, I think a lot of us have had those kinds of questions here in 2020, especially last week. On Friday morning, after hearing the sad news that Chadwick Boseman had passed away, only five days after the shooting of Jacob Blake, my friend Kristie posted this short statement on her Facebook page: “YOUR BLACK FRIENDS ARE EMOTIONALLY DRAINED.” I was chastened by her expression of grief as I realized I hadn’t spent any time at all thinking about the feelings of my non-white friends that week.
Of course it’d been a busy week for everyone, what with school starting back on Monday, but it was such a welcome return that I found myself basking in the new routine—nearly pinching myself each night at the thought of getting up and doing it all over again the next day. I hadn’t realized how much the loss of going to school had disrupted our sense of normalcy, nor the amount of purpose it brought to our daily lives, until we got it back. Meanwhile, men, women, and children I care about were experiencing brand new losses, amplified by the cruelty of some responses to that loss, as well as the silence of people like me, who were too wrapped up in their own experience to even notice.
For the rest of Friday and Saturday I felt a heaviness that I wanted to press back against, but I couldn’t figure out how. Should I share an inspiring song on social media? Should I try to paint a beautiful picture to lift my spirits? Should I make a home cooked meal and take it to someone I knew? But the weekend unexpectedly turned upside down when my oldest needed to come over and quarantine, after a roommate tested positive for COVID. Luckily, I still found time to read.
Late Saturday night, I finished a novel called The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. I’d intended on picking up her latest memoir at the library a couple of weeks ago, but since it was already checked out, I decided to get another book of hers instead. Providence must have known I needed the stories of these women right now.
The narrative voices in this work of historical fiction are provided by two women living in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s. The first is Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a slave in the Grimke household, and the second one is Sarah, the white woman who owns her. The chapters alternate between their differing points of view, providing a thorough examination of that particular moment in American history.
At the heart of this story is the love of a mother and daughter, forced to make a life for themselves in a world that refuses to recognize their humanity. Handful's mother, Summer, spends countless hours telling Handful the story of where she comes from. She does it first with images from the past using her own voice, but by the end of the book she’s begun telling the story through appliquéd images, on a quilt she fashioned with her own hands. This story-quilt follows the lives of three generations of women, from the Granny-mauma who was first stolen away from Africa, all the way to Handful and Sky, the daughters of Summer, searching for a pathway to freedom.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I have to share a quote from page 289, which finds Handful recently reunited with Summer after a separation of fourteen years. Handful is doing her best to care for her elderly mother, whom she describes as too sick and frail to do the slave chores she’d been used to doing her whole life.
“She sat under the tree every day, working her story onto the quilt. Even if it drizzled, I couldn't budge her—she was like God mending the world. When she came to bed at night, she brought the tree with her. The smell of bark and white mushrooms. Crumbs from the earth all over the mattress.”
That image of God as a heartbroken mother, bent over her own creation, working steadily to make it right, wrecked me—in the best possible way. I thought of Kenny's Mama, who spent her days caring for her family just like I do. I pictured the hard working hands and beautiful smiles of the women I know like Kristie, and Tandalyn, and Christalyn. And then I imagined the tears they've shed, over people they’ve loved and lost, and all the heartache and sorrow they’ve known here on earth. But there wasn’t any pity or shame in my musings because I also know the strength of these women. I’ve seen the truth of their vulnerability, the treasures their faithfulness has produced.
Treasures like Kenny. You see, Kenny doesn’t mean that every time we praise God we're going to “win in life,” or that we'll always feel good, happy, and blessed whenever we sing. What he means is that praising the Lord can bring about a spiritual victory, even when life is hard. And even though we might not feel it at the time, the act of speaking truth out loud can only do us good. Sometimes that good is only one drop at a time, but eventually those drops can fill a heart and soul with the great green goodness of God.
“My weapon is a melody,” the Hallelujah song says, and I can imagine a quilt square with the young shepherd David, who played the harp for King Saul, when he was being tormented by an evil spirit. “Sing a little louder,” the words continue, and I remember that scene in Joshua, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down with a single shout. “Louder than the unbelief,” it says and I can picture a man asking Jesus to heal his son in Mark, chapter 9, as he cries out, “Lord, help my unbelief.”
What if the answer lies in the question, and the way God helps us with unbelief is by telling us to worship him anyhow?
That doesn't mean there won’t be sadness or tears when we sing, but honest worship might be the best way to express those tough feelings. Because not every Hallelujah is filled with joy. Hallelujah literally means “God be praised,” but just because we say it, that doesn't mean we always feel like shouting it out with a smile on our face. And I think that’s okay. In a year like 2020, praising God might seem like a sacrifice, but I think sacrifice is a more biblical definition of worship that the one most of us usually imagine when we hear that word.
As a middle class white woman, I confess I don't have a ton of experience with sacrifice, but I'm thankful I've had the chance to learn more about it these past two years from the men and women at Bridge Church. May the songs we sing remind us that God is still piecing our lives together with care, even in a year like 2020. And may the Hallelujahs we raise still bless the hearts of those who've yet to learn how to sing along.