Reflections from an AME Prayer Vigil

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Last evening I was greatly blessed, together with many members of the congregation I serve, to participate in a prayer vigil for the nine victims of the racist attack on Emmanuel AME in Charleston.  The service was held at Allen Temple AME Church about a half mile from our church in Greenville, SC.  I hope and believe that our presence played a positive role in ministering to our aggrieved fellow Christians.  I know that we were spiritually uplifted and encouraged both by our reception and by the service itself.  Nothing that happened in this service surprised me, since I have long held a high opinion of the spiritual vitality of gospel-centered black churches.  But it occurred to me that others may not have had many experiences of this kind, and that readers might be informed and encouraged by the following reflections:

1.        The importance and value of crossing boundaries that separate Christians from one another.  I have not had much interaction with AME churches and my many connections with African American Christians are mainly limited to those who share my commitment to Reformed theology.  I live in a part of the South in which blacks and whites generally get along but seldom interact, in part because of the distrust that African Americans have with good reason developed towards whites.  Sincere invitations to the African American community to attend our events have met little success, which has taught me that the burden is on white Christians to reach out personally across the racial divide.  Our attendance at the AME prayer vigil thus resulted from my driving over to their church on Friday morning to personally express love and sympathy and to inform them of our prayers.  The result was a warm, brotherly conversation with a pastor from the AME church, who expressed his thanks and offered to call me to confirm the prayer vigil's timing.  I had missed a service the previous day - the morning after the murders - which had been terminated by an anonymous bomb threat.  Lamentable as that was, it did provide me with an opportunity to attend the rescheduled event last night.  I came, along with some members of our church, simply to join in worship and prayer.  What I did not expect was an invitation for me to speak and pray at the service.  What a blessing and reward I received for the simple act of personally driving over to extend Christian love, and how eager my fellow believers were to receive it!

2.       How much I learned by joining with my African American brothers and sisters in this service.  I say this not as something that surprised me, but it certainly blessed me.  I know that some Reformed folks do not think that members of a "liberal" denomination can be true Christians, but how wrong they are about the men and women with whom we prayed last night.  Of course there are differences between our theology and pastoral practice.  But most of the pastors spoke in a manner that was steeped in biblical scholarship and evangelical theology.  One of them made the insightful comment that 65 of the Bible's books speak to us but the book of Psalms speaks for us.   He then prayed with great biblical eloquence and gospel power out of selected psalms.  What a blessing!  Another pastor made the comment that the problem of racism is not so much about skin as it is about sin.  He then prayed against the power of sin within us all that is redeemed by the precious blood of Christ and overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Naturally, a great deal of grief was shared at this service, and I did gain insight on the perspective of African Americans on the racial divide of our nation.  Several of the pastors were personal friends with the slain, and pastor/state senator Clamenta Pinkney was mourned by another senator who was a close friend.  Some anger was expressed, but never with sinful overtones.  All the grief and frustration was delivered into the nail-pierced hands of a sufficient Savior, and his mercy was the solace that we all sought together in the service.

3.       The unity that Christians experience through the bond of Christ's blood and the indwelling Holy Spirit.  As I had expected, we white believers felt completely at home.  Sure there were differences in style, expression, and, dare I say, volume.  But these were our people and we were their people.  From the moment we walked in the doors (their sanctuary actually looks quite a lot like ours) we felt completely at home.  The church members were so grateful for our coming and we were so blessed to be there.  But our bond resulted from more than Southern hospitality.  It was our shared faith in the blood of the cross, the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit, and the uplifting experience of gospel-infused corporate worship that made us feel the oneness that is ours in Christ.  To this end, I and others from my church were greatly helped by our congregation's commitment to Christian hymnody.  As I have often experienced, both overseas and in cross-cultural settings in America, the heritage deposited in our hymnals is a great bond of shared Christian culture.  Last night's service was concluded by the singing of It Is Well with My Soul, and I was blessed to see the white members of my church and the black members of the AME church singing passionately together without either making recourse to the hymnal.

4.       The extraordinary spiritual blessing that occurs when worldly divisions are transcended through Christian faith.  So far, readers may wonder why all that I have written would not be true of any other biblically faithful prayer service.  The answer is that there is a particular joy and spiritual vitality when Christians gather as one in Christ who would never experience such unity outside the gospel.  When the pastor called me out of the pews to speak and pray I was astonished by the precious invitation of ministering the gospel in a setting where outside of Christ I would not likely get a hearing.  What a joy to encourage them with the spiritual power that results from the bold witness of forgiveness, love, and heaven-sent peace which our whole world so greatly needs to experience.  What delight I felt to mingle with the other pastors, receive their thanks, and express my sorrow - a love made so much more valuable since its sole origin is in the grace of the Savior who died for our sins.  How glad I was that my wife came with me and brought all of our children!  It was a precious experience, overflowing with redemptive authenticity, that laid bare the grace of our Lord that truly overcomes the world!

5.       The glorious reminder that our sovereign God brings good out of evil and extends special grace in the presence of spiritual darkness.  There was nothing good about the savage murders that took place in that Bible study and prayer meeting in Charleston.  But how wonderful that our gracious Lord brings marvelous good even out of terrible evil.  The greatest evil ever committed was the judicial murder of Jesus Christ, God's Son.  Yet by his grace, God made the cross the greatest good that ever came into this world.  I thought of this as I exchanged cards with the other ministers and as we looked forward to future opportunities for prayer, ministry, and brotherly fellowship - opportunities I would never have enjoyed unless God prompted me by a shocking tragedy to drive over on Friday morning and express loving Christian sympathy.

In sharing these reflections, I mainly wish to express my profound gratitude to the loving Christians of Allen Temple AME church who so graciously and enthusiastically welcomed us, as well as to the faithful members of Second Presbyterian Church who answered my last-minute summons, and even more to the reigning Savior who lavishes grace on his needy people.  I further hope that it encourages readers - especially white pastors - to drive down the street, to show up at the prayer vigil, and personally cross the racial and other worldly divides that inhibit fellow Christians from enjoying the rich blessings of our unity at the foot of the cross.

Posted June 20, 2015 @ 1:34 PM by Rick Phillips
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