April 2, 2018

The Whole State of Christ’s Church, Part 2

Sleight of Hand

Grayson Warren BrownMy father was a magician. No, kidding, my father really was a magician. It was his hobby, and was the great love of his life. Let me explain.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my mother and father had an “on again, off again” relationship. Truth is, it was much more off than on. But when they were together, he would often talk to my brother, sister and me, about the great art of prestidigitation. In some ways looking back on his life, one can see a certain amount of un-fulfillment. My father worked every day in a factory that made medical supplies. He spent day after day, year after year, toiling in a factory while he dreamt about being on a stage in Las Vegas, or the famous Apollo Theater, wowing the crowds with his great feats of magic and illusions. He did get chances to perform, but they were at small venues like birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs. And on a few rare occasions, I would have the chance to go with him and see him perform.

My father belonged to a small club of other African-American magicians that would meet up in Harlem, the great Black Mecca for African-American culture, jazz, and art in New York City back in the early and mid-1900s. I remember as a kid, my father once taking me to the club where all of these kind of aging black men, all who had names that began with the words, “the great…”. (My father was known as “The Great Chan Du Bay.) And the vague memory I have of accompanying him to that club can best be summed up by the scene in the movie, The Sunshine Boys, where Walter Matthau and George Burns are reminiscing about the great days of vaudeville. All of these men clearly loved being magicians, and even though none of them ever made the “big time,” it never diminished their joy at being able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, or make a coin disappear and reappear behind someone’s ear.

In one of those “off again” moments in my parents’ relationship, my father passed away from a stroke while I was still in high school. I mention this because since he died before I started writing and performing, he never got to see my career as a musician and a composer and liturgical artist. I think he would have been thrilled.

Now I bring all of this up about my father, to make a point. One of the tricks my father was really good at was the art of what was called “sleight of hand.” Now, I realize that trying to describe how this is done on paper may turn out to be a bit hard to follow, but stick with me and you will see how this trick works.

The way this would work would be my father would take a coin in his left hand, appear to put the coin in his right hand, blow on his right hand and when he opened that hand, the coin would appear to disappear. But what he was doing was concealing the coin in his left hand and then cleverly and quickly he would put his left hand in his pocket thus hiding the coin so no one could see it. But in order to pull this trick off, he would make huge exaggerated moves with his right hand thus focusing everyone’s attention away from the hand still holding the coin. Thus, the term, “sleight of hand.” (Magicians have a strict code regarding giving away secrets, but I’m sure none of them would mind my pulling the covers off of this one small trick…I hope.)

The asterisk theory

Now I wouldn’t blame you if at this point you were wondering what on earth all of this has to do with a blog that is supposed to talk about things like religion and faith and liturgy etc. The connection can be found in what I call the asterisk theory.

Once when I was in East Africa, I attended a small Mass, where the celebrant asked me if I would share some thoughts about the gospel with the congregation during the homily. Now besides the dozen or so people who accompanied me from America and Canada, the rest of the congregation were all native Africans to which English was a second language. So I said to the people gathered that I had been thinking a lot lately about how the fundamental word of God has no asterisk. And I said that I did not know what the Swahili equivalent of an asterisk was, but the best way to describe it in English would be to have you look in any publication for something that looked like a small star at the end of a sentence. I told them that if they saw that little star, that meant no matter what they just read, there is something else coming that’s going to amend that sentence or paragraph, and you needed to look for the other small star (because they always come in pairs) to find out what it was. And so by example I told them, that if they got a flyer that said a new store was opening up in their town, and in big bold letters it said that the store would be open every day of the year, if at the end of that sentence there was an asterisk, they needed to find the other one to find out what other information they needed to be aware of. And so, in big bold letters the flyer might say “we are open every day of the year*” but if you follow the asterisk, in small print it might say; “except Christmas, New Year’s, Jan Kapor, my cousin Ruth’s birthday, the third Friday of every month, all days beginning with the letter T, the entire month of June, and all major holidays and weekends.” But the gospel message of Jesus Christ has no asterisk. When the Lord tells us to act a certain way towards people, he means all people. And so in the Gospel of John, Jesus issues a new commandment. It is not a suggestion, it is not an idea or a notion, it is a commandment. It is emphatic and unmistakable:

Love one another as I have loved you

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jn 13: 34-35

And Jesus tries every way possible to reinforce that idea throughout the gospel. He even goes so far as to say that the people one might decide are not covered by this new commandment, are people whom he actually resides in, thus whatever you might feel about them, is how you ultimately must feel about Him. (Mt:25 31-46). Now of course Jesus knew how that would play out in the human family. Everyone has come across people whom they would not only find hard to love, but would find hard not to outright hate. Even when we come across people doing despicable things, we are taught by God to hate the sin but not the sinner. Did Jesus know how hard it was going to be for most of us to do live by this “new commandment?” Absolutely, that’s why he says in Matthew 5:43, (and the best way for me to make this point is to paraphrase it), “Hey, I know this commandment is going to be hard to follow, but that’s what I’m here for. That’s one of the main reasons you need me and the power of the Holy Spirit in your life, because you can’t do what I am asking you to do on your own. (Romans; 8,) You need me to help you go beyond what your human limitations will allow you to do. I mean let’s face it; anybody can love their friends and hate their enemies. That’s easy. If you want to go around simply hating people who hurt you, you don’t need me in your life in order to live like that. But if you want to do the seemingly impossible, love your enemies, and return goodness in the face of evil, I can help you obey my commandment, and in the end, you will be better for it.”

There are no asterisks in how we should live

Sadly, what too many people in the Christian world try to do today is add asterisk to the central and unmistakable theme of the gospel. And they will often do it with great fanfare and sleight-of-hand to suggests that not only is there an asterisk, but at the other end of that asterisk it will read:

“The following people are excluded from God’s commandment to “love one another” – People who are black, white, brown, gay, poor, undocumented, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, Muslims, Jews, young, old…” and the list can go on and on depending upon what group you happen to be a part of. And here is where the sleight of hand really comes in; those claims are often made with great embellishment and fanfare in the name of lofty things like patriotism, security, and rights, when often they are simply signs of our fears and prejudices. Thus by the time we are through adding all of our asterisks, we convince ourselves and others that God only meant a certain group of people was worthy of His and our love. But one thing my old man taught me about the art he so loved, was no matter how good his magic tricks were, they were only tricks meant to entertain and delight us. He would have been very disappointed if he thought for a moment that we might have grown up believing that he could actually make a solid object literally disappear into thin air. No, for him the thrill was in knowing that you knew it was a trick, but had no idea how he did it. I think for us Christians today, we have to become re-rooted in the fundamental fact of the gospel message laid out by John in the previous passage, including the all-important point at the end of the commandment, which sometimes gets over looked. He says that everyone will know you are His followers if you love one another. Not by what you wear, or how you eat, or what individual you love, but by the way you love all people. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And anything that pulls us away from that message no matter how elaborately it is done, is still a trick to make us feel better about the asterisk that we sometimes try and put on that fundamental message of love.

My new CD, “Praise the Lord in Many Voices,” is a tribute to some of the many cultures I have been able to experience and be blessed by in my many years of working in the universal church. It has gospel music, big organ Cathedral music, bilingual music, reggae music, and even Americana music. It was great fun to write and record and I hope you will give it a listen.

Other popular offerings from Grayson

  • Shout Praise: An Evening with Grayson Warren Brown
    • Concert event filmed live in Las Vegas
      This special DVD presents Grayson Warren Brown in an uplifting musical event with combined gospel choirs from the Las Vegas area.

  • God’s Liberating Justice
    • This revised edition of a classic work examines a variety of social justice issues and provides a scriptural basis for building a fruitful ministry of social justice.

  • The Transformative Power of Faith:
    • This inspirational book features scriptural encounters and personal experiences in an exploration of faith and its power in our lives.

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