Welcoming, Sharing, and Messing Up
From Christa-Aikins Hill. Throughout the summer, as a part of our Sunday service, we asked members of Germantown Mennonite to share an answer to the question "Why Church?" Each person brought a unique perspective on what brings them to church, what challenges them, and what "church" means to them. Christa Aikins-Hill shared this reflection on July 31.
My Lord, what a morning! My Lord, what a morning! O my Lord, what a morning! When the stars begin to fall. You'll hear the trumpet sound, To wake the nations underground, Looking to my God’s right hand, When the stars begin to fall.
Oddly enough, this African American Spiritual was the first spiritual I ever sung, and it was with an Icelandic children's choir when at the age of 12. “My Lord, What A Morning (or “Mourning”) was arranged and harmonized by Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), an influential black composer who was passionate about preserving the tradition of African American spirituals. These are hymns of soulful depth and rhythm that express the profound faith of slaves in the face of unspeakable injustice. The imagery of My Lord, What a Morning offers a glimpse of this faith. The tears of mourning that flow out of oppression and marginalization give way to a new morning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
A brief summery of my own Church history. I grew up in church. Slept in a nursery with many other babies in Calvary Baptist Church, Bristol P.A. Dad would come home from his day at the office and I'd run out to meet him and he'd pick me up with a “swoooshhh” and I'd take his pen from his chest pocket and throw it on the church parking-lot ground. That was our routine. I had my first wrestling match and fights at church, first stitches in a chair accident in church. First potluck. At age 6, when my parents became missionaries to Iceland, It was house church and somewhat mandatory sunday school at the neighborhood Lutheran parish. As a teenager I became embarrassed with youth gatherings at my house that were “churchy”.
At age 12 I joined the Lutheran church choir and fell in love with old scandinavian harmonies and Christmas concerts that featured opera singers and harps. I learned what “heavenly music could sound like. When we'd come back to the U.S on furlough, I met my first anarchist boyfriend in church and saw what a “youth-group” was. In my high-school years abroad, I learned that certain of my girl-friends were excluded from leadership roles at church, despite their gifts and that those that smoked and sinned were not acceptable members.
Later, during college I church-hopped a bit, sang with an amazing Catholic choir in Denver where I naively partook (is that a word?) of the sacrament and felt the most connected and involved in the eucharist- in fact moved to tears, before realizing my error. Then I gave it up- realizing that my theology, philosophy and feminist classes took that place for church gathering. I became disillusioned with church. I hated chapel at our University, it was mandatory.
I met my husband Timothy in '98, we married in 2000 and moved overseas to Greece. Then it was a 10 year church “vacay”, dotted with occasional optimistic church visits to places we thought were accepting under the auspices of being “international”, but they only made me feel angry and isolated. The increasing non-acceptance of my sister's vocation as a minister and her marriage to my sister-in-law caused me to take a long hard look at “why church”, and “which church”. So I just stopped going. It was just too painful.
Finally, during a 2 year stint in Northern N.Y. - Timothy and I briefly “claimed church” at a progressive Christian worship service at a local University chapel. All were welcome, and I saw that message being acted out sincerely. I fell in love with Gospel music through the influence of Rev. Shaun Whitehead. Thanks be to God.
When we moved to Philly after the economic collapse in Greece in 2011, a friend recommended we try Germantown Mennonite. Though my favorite and influential philosophy professor during University was Mennonite, I didn't necessarily think I'd become one. But I did and joined in 2015, because I believed that this church was different. You were not afraid to talk politics, to act on your beliefs, to be accepting of people like my sister, to speak of Christ, or sing the old songs that many of you grew up singing in 4 part harmony.
When I was asked to join the worship committee I gained a deep respect for the “behind the scenes” workings of church, tedious to plan, yes, but GMC's core value of creating a “meaningful worship experience” every Sunday where the Spirit can be present is a value that I have learned to respect deeply. I still believe in this Spirit, where 2 or 3 are gathered. I really do.
Why church? I believe in specific churches or collections of people gathered, flaws and all, to create space for belonging in this messed up, lonely, complicated world. This is a place to be safe but held in tension with a place to be challenged by the radical message of Christ. Does our community outside these doors know we are here? We are doing much, but we still need work. I want my friends to know about this place. I love the fact that our pastor is away leading a delegation in Palestine, so Gretchen and I are sharing today!
When the “stars begin to fall” and things are so difficult in our world- can we become this space where 2 or 3 are gathered and the presence of the Spirit is palpable and moving? I think we can. I also think we can still share deeper and wider. I will finish with this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber:
“Church is messed up. I know that. People, including me, have been hurt by it. But as my United Church of Christ pastor friend Heather says, “Church isn’t perfect. It’s practice.” Among God’s people, those who have been knocked on their asses by the grace of God, we practice giving and receiving the undeserved. And receiving grace is basically the best shitty feeling in the world. I don’t want to need it. Preferably I could just do it all and be it all and never mess up. That may be what I would prefer, but it is never what I need. I need to be broken apart and put back into a different shape by that merging of things human and divine, which is really screwing up and receiving grace and love and forgiveness rather than receiving what I really deserve. I need the very thing that I will do everything I can to avoid needing. The sting of grace is not unlike the sting of being loved well, because when we are loved well, it is inextricably linked to all the times we have not been loved well, all the times we ourselves have not loved others well, and all the things we’ve done or not done that feel like evidence against our worthiness.” ― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People