When reflecting on my colleagues’ responses to my original post, I appreciate their thoughtful and insightful perspectives regarding the complexities I attempted to name when exploring what it means to follow Jesus in the Black Church tradition. I was grateful for their attention to what I know to be true but failed to examine adequately in my initial comments – the need for spiritual practices that sustain the follower of Jesus as she pursues the call of justice. I am ending this month’s discussion with a sincere desire to create spaces within the Black Church that allow people to develop routines that strengthen their capacity to remain committed to the work of Jesus, in the same manner that our Savior modeled in His own life.
Several of my colleagues raised significant points in their writings, which highlighted some of the spiritual rituals that are primary characteristics of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In his response, Dr. Ellingsen noted that my reflection “did not address how worship and the Sacraments facilitate following Jesus.” He makes an excellent point, as even Jesus Himself demonstrated how worship (through prayer) and the Eucharist can alert us to the presence of God and God’s desire for us in the world. These practices can encourage us to be faithful to the call of God in our lives, even when it appears that God is requiring us to do something that is beyond our capacity, ability, or even desire. As Jesus is headed towards the cross in the ultimate act of obedience in His life, it is arguably His quiet time with God that gives Him the strength to follow through with His life mission. Even amid His efforts to challenge oppression and proclaim good news to the disenfranchised, Jesus found time to seek God, hear from and receive wisdom from God, and refill Himself in his commitment to justice. Jesus knew that He had to be connected to God if He had any hope of staying faithful to His assignment on Earth.
Likewise, I must always remind myself that followers of Jesus can’t expect to be in the fight for justice for the long haul if we do not find and engage resources that give life to the spirit of God that resides in each of us. There is an ever-growing amount of people, organizations, and institutions that reject any effort to make this world a more just and equitable place. It can be exhausting when followers of Jesus who care that all of God’s creation live abundant lives are in constant conflict with so many who choose to discriminate against certain populations. Such statements are even more significant when I consider Dr. Gushee’s comment when, after writing about the systemic oppression African-Americans have faced for centuries, he notes that “after all, when you can do little to control what others do to you, maybe you focus on what you can do for yourself and what God will do for you now and in the life to come.” I can’t blame those followers of Jesus in the Black Church tradition who turn to practices such as prayer and scripture reading not to invigorate them in the quest for justice but rather to help them weather the harsh realities of being Black. When you “can do little to control what others do to you,” which has been the prevailing narrative for Black Americans throughout history, you might take solace in the fact that you have access to a personal relationship with God that can give you hope to keep living day by day until you see eternity.
However, I also see, through the life of Jesus, tremendous value in engaging in worship, prayer, and meditation as each is a life-giving tool in the journey towards justice. There is a reason why individuals such as Howard Thurman were so intent on emphasizing the inner life and care of the soul – they knew that if one could deeply know and experience God, she could increase the likelihood of gaining the fortitude required to persist in her push for social justice. It is these (sometimes) taken for granted practices that can refocus our attention on Jesus, the one who can provide us with what we need to keep challenging oppressive structures and discriminatory policies. Jesus is, as the Hebrew writer declares, “the author and finisher of our faith” – He is the one that upholds us when the “isms” of life threaten to suffocate our very lives. Therefore, I will leave this month’s conversation with a renewed understanding that to be a follower of Jesus not only means embodying an unrelenting commitment to justice but also a dogged determination to engage in spiritual practices that will refuel, energize, and stabilize us as we pursue this justice.