Matthew 23:4 – “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."
I like listening to my husband’s stories of his childhood in the Bronx and he loves holding court telling them to me. One of my favorites is the time his father called him “sugar-coated” when he was a young man. I’ve since watched my husband “work a room,” schmoozing everybody within reach, and I distinctly remembered when he schmoozed me – staying on my trail for two whole years before asking me out for a first date.
He also said his father would often say to him, “Who you trying to fool?” when he flipped from his everyday mode to his sugar-coated mode. Somehow, children never understand that their parents tried everything they try to get away with with their own parents; and they always, somehow, seem to know when a kid is putting on airs; putting up appearances under certain circumstances, all the while hoping that that it will lead to the conclusion or result they desire.
I have since learned that he (my husband) isn’t all he cracked himself up to be, but then again, no one is. There are those, however, who schmooze only when they have to—to get what they want; and those who live their lives as “sugar-coated” people. As soon as the affairs of church are behind them, the god-mask comes off and they return to the evil beings that they were before and after the services. The line of demarcation is in whether or not they are “hitting someone up” for a favor or to fulfill a certain need, and in how they are living their daily lives. It is true that we can catch more flies with honey…but there has to be a dividing line between a moment of need and desire, and the place in which we live and conduct our activities of daily life.
In my mind’s eye, the church (the body of Christ in the church, that is; not the building) is supposed to be a place of refuge and sanctuary of the heart – the one place we should be able to go at least one day out of a week and not have to deal with the mess we put up with every day. Church was somehow supposed to be “different,” a lifeboat, or a shelter, or a lighthouse, in a time of storm, in the time of trouble – “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more…” Romans 5:20.
There is a human factor that can’t be denied. People are what they are, in church and out of it. My grandfather, a man they called Papa Doc, could put the fear of God into the young men of St. John A.M.E. church by asking them one simple question: How ya living, son? When he asked them, he put his right hand on their right shoulder with a look of genuine concern on his face. Once his hell-raising days were over and he trudged on into the “kingdom of God” with a hurt back and messed up leg, he felt it his bounden duty to charge the other young men with avoiding the life he had lived and the mistake he’d made as a young buck himself. He spent his days afterward being true to that which he had committed himself to. At my grandmother’s funeral, the minister said of him, “Sister Doctor told me before she passed on that ‘He wasn’t always good, Reverend; but he’s sho’ a good man now.’” We could do nothing but bow our heads and say Amen. We knew of our grandfather’s past during their 67 years of marriage, and it was the most appropriate thing he could say without outright lying.
It was a time when black men ran the streets and got saved when old age stopped them dead in their tomcatting tracks, and black women who didn’t want to serve the Lord simply didn’t show up at church at all rather than live hypocritically. The women who attended our church took the lives they sang about in church home with them; the men in church were too young to tell Mama no, or too old to be running all over town ‘acking’ a fool.
As he upped in age and lived on past his wife’s death, we’d hear from the boys in our church about how they were scared to death of our grandfather, and about the impact he’d made on them just by asking that one question and keeping tabs on them – one black man trying to provide a refuge for others because he knew where they were headed if they got off on the wrong track. Only one of those young men that we grew up with has ever served a day in jail or gotten into any more trouble than the rowdy rambunctious behavior that is common to young men of all races and nationalities.
No matter the situation, however, the one thing that the men and women of religious ilk were highly sensitized to was those who said one thing in church and did another thing when church was dismissed. There was always that, “I believe in God, too; BUT…” But what? I wondered, as a child. Either we believe in God, or we don’t. What is a “but” when it comes to believing in God? What is the exception, or the dividing line, between belief and behavior? As I have gotten older, I’ve seen that there isn’t one. Either we’re in or we’re out. Period. Fence-sitters don’t make the grade.
When some of the women wore lace doilies on their heads at Holy Sacrament, it was supposedly an indication of submission to God. If they folded their hands right over left to receive the Holy Communion from the pastor, it was a sign of reverence to God. We stayed outside of the pulpit and did not set foot inside out of respect to God. We were baptized (christened by sprinkling or pouring, rather), or commanded to “join the church” at a certain age (usually 12), or we put our hands on the Bible in an act of allegiance to God. Ritual observances that were concocted by mankind to indicate the living of a holy and sanctified life: Yet, “Who were we trying to fool?” From Methodist to Mecca, religious practices and observances happen all day every day of the week; but according to what I’ve read in the Bible, there is no reason to believe God is hugely impressed by any of it.
Showing up in church on Sunday morning or a Thursday night Bible study with a pious and pretentious acts of holiness or righteousness when a cousin is strung out on crack, a son is in jail, a brother stands in jeopardy of being killed, an older and aging aunt is sitting in a cold rooming house with nothing to eat, a grandchild is failing in school or living in a shelter because we don’t have enough room in our home or heart to help them, a niece being knocked up by a sorry man who refuses to care for the children with which he burdens her, or when America is experiencing, once again, racist activity because those in the church have failed to follow Dr. King’s example and act when it’s time to act—is living a ‘sugar-coated’ life.
I cannot conceive of a God who would “wink with pleasure” when we enter a building with walls and stained-glass windows and go through the motions of religiosity, then allow us to not apply what we’ve learned to the world in which we live the rest of the hours in a day or days in a week. Church attendance and prayer is not all there is to living a godly life as if we mean it.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to come out of his comfort zone in order to provide an example. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) said during the Jena 6 House hearing subcommittee, “He [Dr. King] didn’t do his work so you could drive a Lexus and live in a big house.” Though he was speaking to one certain black man who didn’t take a stand on Dr. King’s legacy when he allowed a well-known incident to take over the city and cause further racial polarization though he had the “discretional latitude” to make it fair; it’s a message to all of us. King’s life, work, and death was not so that any of us could have the ‘freedom’ to drive a Lexus and live in a big house. A white man named Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who lived his life under constant threat of death as an n-word-lover for his contributions to legally obliterating hate crimes for blacks, understood that. To interject a digressive phrase right here, Rafiki told Simba, “You don’t even know who you are.” It would appear that many of us, today, have forgotten who we are and the stuff from which we are made.
If there was one man who showed us that we cannot rest on our personal laurels and call ourselves children of God without being shown up as hypocrites, it was Dr. King. In his speech on the Vietnam War, he stated, “I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Hell, then, must be swallowing up a lot of people even as we speak, and opening wide its mouth for more to come in the future. Give me that old-time religion; it made perfect sense then and still makes sense now.
Though it is not my personal belief that any human being can condemn another to hell—we are all only a wing and prayer away from going there ourselves—I also agree with Dr. King, who agreed with Dante. Neutrality in times of moral crises is, indeed, the next step to hell. Hell on earth and that eternally heated place that some of us dare not to believe in. [I have no personal demons, some like to say. Well, maybe the personal demons have you.]
Jesus didn’t spare His own life on that bend, and it means that though we are saved by His blood and His sacrifice on the cross of glory, that none of us are an exception to making those sacrifices. King’s speech, historians note, is the one that opened wide the call for his assassination; and we all have our theories about who did it and why. However, to mess with war, as we have learned since the advent of the Bush administration in the new millennium, means to mess with the money of those who are rich and powerful, and of those who will use the lives of other people’s children to pad their own pockets and secure the futures of their own posterity. Surely, that would have gotten him killed, so that is a ‘conspiracy theory’ that can’t be too far from the actual truth.
We might overcome one of these days; but in the meantime, living sugar-coated lives while hustling up to the table of man’s rewards for shutting up in the midst of trouble; by denying the facts of life such as they are; by overlooking people who need help; by ignoring relatives who stand in the need of more than just prayer; and by doing nothing more with other human beings than spreading gossip and putting them down, or by heeding others as non-contributive and not worth listening to if they haven’t adapted into notorious fame-by-osmosis (good looks and money), is the thing that makes me want to holla, “Who are you trying to fool?”
Columnist (The Hearts of Black Folk) and Author Rev. S. R. (Renee) Greene is the founder of Open Book Ministries, a social ministry targeted at helping to reduce the rate of recidivism in America and to helping Black Americans learn and understand the power of a KISS (“keeping it short & sweet”) in the language arts. She can be reached through http://www.openbookministries.com/. Her recent book release, “In My Skin,” is the story of her experiences with common black folk while living in the deep south and “overcoming” in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.