From Nowhere to Now Here, 2

Sheryl's pink tambourine was even nicer than this.

Sheryl's pink tambourine was even nicer than this.

I want to tell you a little more about the service at New Mount Zion and about my friend David’s sermon. The service opened with an invocation and some beautiful songs. At the start of one, Sheryl, our shepherd for the day, pulled a pink tambourine out of her purse and, like many others in the congregation, stood to give her praise. My younger daughter was entranced and asked to see it. For the rest of the service, the little one had the tambourine.

The music was awesome and the dancing was beautiful. I’m sure this is why some tour buses dump people off in Harlem to invade the churches, but, although this isn’t my church or my denomination, we were there to honor my friend and, man, I could see the appeal, could understand the desire to witness a Baptist service, even as the service extended on into hour two, three, and eventually four. What an amazing way to worship. You sing “Every time I turn around, Jesus lifts me up” ten times, eleven times, twelve in a room full of people of all ages, with organ, drums, and tambourines and even a few beaded gourds and there a smile comes to your face. You feel lifted. It is not hard to understand and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

People were baptized in a tank high up in the balcony, behind the organ and the simple song for baptism was so beautiful that tears streamed down my face.

We sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and the Amens afterward went on so long that the first little girl who was to lead the dance hesitated. Someone shouted, “Go ahead and dance, baby,” and she did.

Loved ones who had lost someone came forward with candles and their names were read. There was an offering for Sandy Relief (and later in the service two women who’d come from afar to help were recognized) and an offering for the church. The history of the church, in some detail, was read—“by the grace of God, and through the generosity of our parishioners, in such-and-such a year we were able to replace the front hall carpet with new carpet with our church logo on it…” Still, I was impressed to learn that, while New Mount Zion was founded in 1918 but its current pastor, Rev. Dr. Carl L. Washington Jr., is only the third to lead the church.

And we were recognized as visitors and treated like family, welcomed, welcomed, and welcomed again. Once people understood that we were there because the guest pastor was my friend from childhood, people made sure to come to the back to shake my hand and thank me for my presence. I felt so very honored and humbled.

But it’s strange that people leave before the sermon, because the sermon—which began at about 1:15, nearly three hours in to the service—was amazing. The best part. To hear someone smart and charismatic remind you how lucky you are to be alive, how much thanks you owe to God for your life, how much compassion you owe to those who don’t know that yet, how much compassion you must show to yourself for the self you once were and the self you are not yet, well, you feel pretty great and pretty proud. David took as his text I Corinthians 6:11: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Let me tell you, I am burning with pride for my friend. When I think about him in the third grade—he was so funny and sweet, saying “Oo-ee! Crescent rolls!” whenever something delighted him, which was often—and I think about him again in the halls of Garfield High School, showing me his high-five technique, and again, giving what he tells me was the second sermon he ever gave—to see him now, well, wow. Just wow.

And I’d been wondering how he managed to love Arizona so much, given its political climate, but he told us that he’d resigned from the Governor’s Council (of what? I don’t know). He said that maybe we’d seen that picture of her pointing her finger in our President’s face, that he thought that was disrespectful and he knew that the Governor wouldn’t have done that to President Bush. He told he her couldn’t work with someone who couldn’t respect our President.

You better believe this was one of the many times that I joined the standing in affirmation.

That second sermon all those years ago, in Seattle, took as its theme “Jesus Christ A to Z” and it was a kind of rap—it was wonderful and so cool and funny: “A, I am the Alpha. B, I was born in Bethlehem. C, I am the Christ…” For each letter, he had a whole paragraph and I think back from time to time with pleasure at what all the letters might have been.

But yesterday his theme was “From Being Transfixed to Becoming Transformed” and what I admired was its generosity and its straightforward wisdom. It was kind to all, generous to all, understanding of what folks had been through, how far folks had come, and how much more we all have to do.

When you look back in the rear view mirror of your life, think about how far you’ve come, he told us. And thank the Lord, because, let me tell you, he didn’t just bring you part of the way, he brought you ALL the way.

He joked about stains on our clothes and stains on our souls. Unlike your dry cleaner, God doesn’t have a little sign that says “After several attempts, we have determined this stain cannot be removed.”

He told a story of a little boy, in trouble for singing gospel songs in school, and forced to write 1,000 times “God is nowhere.” By around 777, a little space crept in between the “w” and the “h”: “God is now here.”

I have been thinking about gratitude a lot since Sandy. How hollow those “gratitude journals” by privileged people seem: when you’ve just been through something, when you are really grateful, gratitude doesn’t need to be a November blogging exercise. It was part of David’s theme, too, implicitly and, as he closed the service, explicitly.

I’m going to give you ten reasons to be thankful this Thursday:

The Lord got me up today.
The LORD got me up today.
The Lord got ME up today.
The Lord to me up TODAY…

At 2:30, the service ended, I gave David a big hug and he made sure we had an escort from the church to our car. Exhausted and very hungry, we stopped for some fast food and headed back to New Jersey, transformed and bursting with pride. What a great day.