Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Give Me That Old-Time Religion?

One Christmas during my childhood, my family received a small electric chord organ and several songbooks. The organ allowed budding musicians to make music using a simple system of numbers and letters. Notes corresponded with numbers that were played with the right hand, while a series of buttons, played with the left hand, produced chords.

One of the songbooks we received included a gospel version of the spiritual “Old-Time Religion.” Because I liked pushing the chord buttons as much as the keys, I didn’t always pay much attention to the time signatures. Instead, I would often play songs at a pace I liked. As a result, my family was often subjected to a rather plodding version of the song:

Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
Give me that Ooooold-Tiiiiiime Re-LIIIG-ion/
It’s gooood eee-nouuugh for meeeeeee.

While my love for spirituals like this one has only deepened—and the gospel music tradition I’m a part of allows for a lot of creativity with meter—I wouldn’t say that I practice “old-time religion.”

On the one hand, I deeply value the heritage and theology of those who originally sang this song, and I share with them the Christian beliefs described in statements like the Apostles’ Creed.

On the other hand, these old-time co-religionists would likely be taken aback by my life. I’ve studied theology more broadly than they did, and am influenced by a number of denominational traditions. I have attended some churches where blue jeans and T-shirts are the dress code, and others where we sit around small tables in a cafĂ© rather than gathering in pews. I suspect that my tendency to research, analyze, and re-analyze theological questions would strike them as tedious, unnecessary, and perhaps bolder than becomes a young lady. And the sounds of today’s gospel music would scandalize them.

Yet while my life doesn’t look or sound like old-time religion, I’ve had several opportunities to reflect on traditional Christian language. I’m occasionally surprised—and changed—by moments where its firmness and clarity cause me to reflect on my life.

For example, some time ago, I was in a friendlationship—you know, a hybrid involving mutual caring, lots of time spent together, an emotional connection, but no romantic commitment—with a man I cared for very deeply. The problem was, I wasn’t totally sure where his faith was. I knew that we’d grown up in similar Christian traditions, and because I really liked him, I’d put off asking some questions I knew I’d eventually need to settle.

This went on for a while, largely because leaving important questions unanswered is key to maintaining a solid friendlationship. During that time, other friends listened to me analyze and re-analyze my not-boyfriend’s words for signs of shared faith. Eventually, my friend Ed—a big-brother figure who, along with his wife, listens to my romantic ups and downs—gently interrupted one of these talking sessions with some direct questions. When I didn’t have the answers, he got very quiet.

“You know, LaTonya, at some point this becomes disobedience,” he said. Ed pointed out that holding these questions in without pursuing answers was not a positive direction if my hope was to marry a man who shares my Christian faith. Later, when I spoke with my mother about my questions, she posed one of her own: “Is your friend apostate?”

Um, wow.

“Friendlationship” is not part of the shared vocabulary of Christians throughout the ages. But “disobedient” and “apostate” are definitely shared concepts. Up until that point, I’d simply thought of myself as very, very patient. But hearing these “old-time” words applied to the choices I was making (or choosing not to make) sobered me. Even before the friendlationship reverted to a friendship, I realized that I needed to be willing to ask tough questions earlier.

More recently, I asked my mom (an example of a Titus 2 woman in my life) to pray me through an interpersonal challenge. I was struggling with anger and unforgiveness, and I couldn’t get past it.

I expected Mom to pray that God would comfort me, that he would soften my heart, and that somehow I’d end up feeling better, so I could behave better. Then, she began:

“Heavenly Father, LaTonya would like to repent—” Mom paused. “Honey, that is what you’re doing, right? Repenting?”

I was taken aback. I’d expressed that I knew my behavior wasn’t right. But hearing the word repent clarified what I needed from God. As real as my feelings were (and Mom did pray for them later), I needed God’s help to turn around and go in a different direction. I agreed: “That’s what I need, Mom. I need to repent.”

Yet again, language—historic language that isn’t always prominent in seeker-friendly or postmodern settings—served as a prod in the right direction.

I’m not sure what became of the chord organ. And while I still listen to the song “Old-Time Religion,” I wouldn’t describe my own faith that way. But I remain grateful for the words I encounter in the Word—and in the loving Christian community I experience through friends like these. These words are good enough for me.

Also posted at Image credit:

No comments: