Friday, February 24, 2012

Whitney Houston Funeral Brings World to Black Church

Whitney Houston's funeral shows off
passion and authenticity of Black church

Watching Whitney Houston's funeral with fellow guests in the lounge of New York's Manhattan Club doubled my enthusiasm for visiting Harlem's oldest Black church the following day.  I figured that CNN anchor Piers Morgan’s amazement at the music, passion, laughter, and authenticity of a Black service would double the crowds at Abyssinian Baptist Church, which normally has strict crowd control for "tourists."

Inside Abyssinian
We passed 500 tourists in line, put a knowing look on our faces, and slipped in a side door--led by my husband's intrepid ex-wife Chan, who is Black and had attended Abyssinian occasionally when she lived in New York.

I am used to being the only white face in a Black church because of my life-changing encounter with the pastor of Highview Christian Fellowship, as told in The Bishop and the Seeker. But my family got more than we bargained for as we found ourselves down a rabbit hole of winding hallways that led first into the children's program, then into the kitchen, and then into the line for the handicapped elevator. I kept trying to blend in behind Chan, but the wheelchairs just kept coming. So we slipped around one more hallway to find an alcove where members appeared to be waiting for the early service to let out. As the doors finally opened, the choir came out,  making me suddenly afraid we were about to walk out into the choir box. In fact it was the main floor of the church, and the usher led Chan down to the third row center--probably a VIP row, surrounded by the white-hatted deaconesses. The Rev. Calvin Butts asked visitors to stand, and several of the deaconesses turned and greeted us warmly. But I think I was still blushing when the service ended two hours later. Here's what the famous Reverend said about the Whitney Houston funeral.

One funeral among many
Rev. Calvin Butts
"I caught as much of the funeral as I could in between the chores my wife had for me... I haven't called Cissy yet; I'll wait till all the attention dies down, that's when people really need to hear from a friend." Then he sai that sad as Whitney's loss was, another death was just as sad last week. An 18 year-old chased into his home by police who shot him in front of his grandmother, supposedly while dumping marijuana into the toilet unarmed.  "I have calls in to both the mayor and the police commissioner about that, but they haven't returned them yet," he said. "They sure are eager to talk to me around election time though."

The REAL contribution of the Black Church?
After polished traditional hymns, the sermon itself was on "narrow is the gate," with calls for social justice via both  personal and political action.
Tara Murphy's
sacred African dance
My family's conversation afterwards showed off the whole Spiral Dynamics of values about church. Over smothered chicken and collards at Spoonbread 2, I said that much as I loved the polished elegance of the Abyssinian service, the unique contribution of the Black church is the more raw passion at churches like Highview. Chan, who came of age in the sixties, disagreed. That rawness fuels stereotypes and is an obstacle to development of the Black community, she said, while Abyinnian's polish--along with its social action and community building under adverse circumstances--is the real contribution of the Black church.

Her daughter Tara Murphy, who leads a troupe for sacred African dance, said that ecstatic expression is key for all of us to connect with the Divine. (Tara had an ecstatic moment herself when one of her heroes, Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey Dance Company, was presented as a new member during the service.) Tara's husband Chris said that modern life seduces us to believe that "progress" can solve everything. But humans need the meditative, mind clearing effect of ecstatic states--and if we don't get it in a context of sacred community, we'll seek it via intoxication with drugs, power, or possessions. "All of you are right," I said. These values are polarities; they appear to be opposites, but each can be served in its time and place.

Go Ahead, Visit a Black Church
Me at
front door

My hope is that the funeral of Whitney Houston will encourage many people to visit a Black church to experience for themselves the transcendent states possible in passionate praise.  And with luck, you'll also stumble upon a church equally eager to encourage you to love ALL your neighbors with acts of service. But take it from me--come in the church by whatever door they hold open. For the gate may be narrow, but the path is straight.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Mature Prayer get Better Results?

Jehovah's Witnesses get their prayers answered more often than members of any other religion, according to a Pew study that Lynne Feldman called to my attention to via the Facebook page for Integral Spirituality Nexus. This intriguing fact made me smile because of my adventure with a family of Witnesses recounted in my book. And it provided grist for an all-too-brief exchange about prayer among some Integral buddies of mine.
New Thought Practitioner:  Affirmative prayer gets results by raising our level of consciousness around circumstance.

Interfaith Celebrant:  That may be possible for people who have achieved the level of "Christ consciousness," but not everyone should expect those results.

Me:  Ah, but a Pew study says the people in  religions that are least focused on consciousness report getting the most frequent answers to prayer--with Jehovah's Witnesses at the top reporting one answered prayer a week.

Senior Integral Guy:  Of course we know from postmodernism that our experience (of the results of our prayers) is shaped by our conditioned beliefs about it.

This rich exchange could be mined for weeks. But only a few hours later I found a transcendent response in  Brian McLaren's latest book, "Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words." In it he lays out four seasons of spiritual growth with spiritual practices appropriate to each one:
  • Springtime of Simplicity (when answers about God are black and white, and  worship is the best prayer)
  • Summer of Complexity (time for confession, petition, and intercession)
  • Autumn of Perplexity
  • Winter of Harmony

McLaren provides spacious definitions of confession, petition, and intercession, casting them in a mature and radiant light (with confession sounding a lot like shadow work). But then in his Complexity chapter he asks the big question:
Will our prayers do the trick, get the job done, flip the switch, close the deal, guarantee results, be effective? Will prayer change things? You may have already noticed that until now I've largely left these questions unasked, much less answered...

Here's why. I'm writing about the summer season of complexity in the spiritual life as someone who has already passed through it a time or two; I've gone on to survive some autumn and winter seasons as well. These experiences have changed me...Back then I would have had a lot more to say than I do now about "praying effectively," "claiming your miracle." and so on.

But from where I am now, with some autumns and winters under my belt, I actually think a better way to deal with these questions is to say, "Yes, think about these questions... But don't pretend you have solved them once and for all. Because later on you'll be seeing things from a different perspective, and from that perspective much will change. What seems like a problem now won't be so much of a problem then. The important thing both now and then is to keep praying, whatever answers come or don't come... Because however much or little prayer changes THINGS, prayer certainly changes YOU, and you need to be changed. Remember that you still have a long way to grow, and the best way to grow is to keep praying, to keep strengthening the sacred connection."

McLaren continues:
In life's summerlike season of Complexity, if we do not practice confession, petition, and intercession, we will not keep growing in the sacred connection.
  • If we do wrong, then denial, pride, or shame will cause us to disconnect. [hence, confession]
  • if we're in need or pain, then exhaustion, anxiety or disappointment will cause us to disconnect. [hence, petition]
  • and if we're faced with the suffering of others, then we'll succumb to the temptations to disconnect through apathy, despair, self-distancing. [hence, intercession]
As a result our hearts will contract, not expand. And as a further result, the world, deprived of stronger compassion in people like us, will inevitably grow worse and suffering will increase.

But if through confession, petition,and intercession, you and I strengthen the sacred connection in the midst of life's complexities, what will happen then? Won't we become--habitually, radically, truly--more aligned with God's compassion, more empowered by it, more resonant with its holy frequency? And won't more of us who are more filled with God's compassion help make a better world?

I absolutely love his perspective. There's still a few loose ends I'd like to tie up in that discussion among my friends. But for me, McLaren's answer transcends the questions. And McLaren's prayers for the seasons of Perplexity and Harmony are simply stunning as well. I am more and more intrigued about the possibilities for a practice group built around "Naked Spirituality."