Black Faith and Black Health: Lessons for Lent and Life

Dr Selina Stone explores Black Christian spirituality and shares why it’s important to be honest with God and the necessity to match faith with action

In my most recent book, Tarry Awhile: Wisdom from Black Spirituality for People of Faith, I do what is rarely done: I speak about how we as Black people encounter God. I wrote this as someone raised as Pentecostal, who has had many opportunities to experience God in different Christian traditions. For me, fasting was familiar – not fasting from social media or TV, but from food and drinks for six to 12 hours. Extended prayer meetings, tarrying services, prophecy and visions, speaking in tongues, morning devotions, and memorising Scripture were all familiar. But silent prayer, contemplation, written liturgies, and seasons like Lent were all unusual. And yet many of our early African church fathers and mothers developed and shaped many of these aspects of Christian spirituality too.

Whichever tradition or spiritual practices are familiar to you, one thing is sure: we have often inherited ideas about who God is and how to connect with Him, which do us a disservice as Black people.

Toxic theologies tell us our Blackness is opposed to Christianity – and we must choose between the two. We were told we must become like white Europeans in order to be saved. These are lies spread by white figures and traditions in the Church’s history which wanted to keep us mentally as well as physically chained. We were told our spirituality should focus on personal purity, rather than on how we treat our neighbour; that we should be concerned with going to heaven after we die and ignore evil and injustice in the here and now. This kind of dualistic faith does not reflect the holistic messages God gives to people throughout the Bible. Our connection with God is sacred and we must, like all people, be mindful that the God we are worshipping is not an idol made by human hands.

Black spirituality – our capacity to experience the Divine – is a gift to us when it remains committed to truth-telling. This is a challenge when the truth is difficult to face. But since the Holy Spirit is known as “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:13) we should not be surprised that honesty should feature in our spirituality. This means telling the truth in our times of prayer alone and also together. It means bringing our personal concerns to God about our lives, the issues of poverty, violence among young people, and war, which shape our life together.

This can feel like a challenge if we imagine that God wants us to be good rather than truthful. In this scenario, when we come to God or church, we will spend our energy attempting to present ourselves in ways to gain acceptance. In our singing and prayers, testimonies and preaching, we try to perform perfectly and put on a brave face to impress God and others. And yet, in the Scriptures, we find moments of direct honesty with God and others. The psalms are full of moments of lament and sadness, where the psalmist cries to God: “Are You asleep?”, “Why have You let this happen?”, “Why don’t You help me?”

We can be assured that spiritual health requires telling God the truth about how we feel; He sees our hearts anyway. Emotions are an important signal to us that something is not right and needs to be addressed. We might address the issue through prayer or by talking to someone, but suppressing our feelings is not spiritually beneficial in the long run, and it does no good for our emotional health.

Our prayers might also be accompanied by action, and this is an important lesson for us who seek a future in which justice (righteousness) and peace are present in greater ways in our human experience. Some of the great heroes of Black faith have proven that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:20). We learn this from grandparents, parents, good pastors and ancestors who paved the way for us. Praying one thing but doing another is a special kind of religious hypocrisy. We must tell the truth – confess – where our hearts are hardened, where we refuse to love as God does, and where we have chosen to prioritise personal gain ahead of God’s interests. God, who is full of mercy, will surely meet us with an open heart and give us the strength to do what we cannot in our own strength.

Lent is the perfect season to allow God space to work in us and to lead us ever more to become those whom God has called and chosen.

Dr Selina Stone is Postdoctoral Research Associate in Theological Education at Durham University and author of Tarry Awhile: Wisdom from Black Spirituality for People of Faith. Visit https://selinarstone.co.uk

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