Last weekend, I decided to visit my uncle’s church for Men’s Bible Study. It had been a few months since I had seen anyone in my father’s family, so I figured it was about time I make an appearance. However, I am always a bit ambivalent about attending this Bible Study. It feels awkward.
The first time I attended this Bible Study was last summer. My frat brother came along for the adventure because he was in town. I had warned him that I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that my uncle’s church was pretty traditional. My uncle currently serves as the bishop of a small denomination called the Gospel Spreading Church. In its heyday, it was one of the most progressive African American denominations. Its founder, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, was the first African American televangelist. Since then, the church has fallen into a bit of a rut. My uncle has been working diligently to try to rebuild. Unfortunately, his own illness and the recent death of his wife have greatly diminished his ability.
When my frat brother and I arrived to the Bible Study, we were slightly alarmed. There were only four other people who were in attendance–the bishop (my uncle), the bishop’s brother (my other uncle), the bishop’s son (my cousin), and the bishop’s nephew (my other cousin). As a result, my uncles seemed to use the Bible Study as an opportunity to talk about their hopes and dreams for our family. (One actually mentioned the importance of being “a good Christian and a good Clayton.”) Needless to say, it wasn’t what we were expecting. It was much more centered around my family than I had anticipated. Thankfully, my frat brother was a good sport. We laughed about it as we debriefed at Bobby’s Burger Palace a few blocks away on Penn’s campus. After that, I began attending the Bible Study occasionally, but I never invited anybody else to come with me.
On Saturdays, things were pretty much routine. The group was once again made up of two of my uncles and two of my cousins. We were discussing Chapter 11 in Tony Evans’ book No More Excuses. That chapter was slightly difficult for me to read because I felt that Evans’ choice of language was a bit brash at times. (It wasn’t profane or anything, but my time at Yale Divinity School made me aware that a lot of people would overlook the intent behind his statements due to the lack of sensitivity in his word choices.) However, I didn’t mention any of my reservations because I figured this wasn’t the time for me to try to rock the boat. We ended up having a pretty rich discussion about God’s definition of manhood, but a lot of it went over my head since I was the only man there who was single and without children.
Right before the Bible Study ended, my uncle (not the bishop) began talking about the importance of having a strong sense of personal identity. He decided to use me an example of someone who is comfortable in my own skin. I should have expected it. After all, my uncles on that side of the family have always told me how proud they are of the man that I have become (in spite of my current status as a broke PhD student and minister who is trying to bring in some side income as a blogger, consultant, and freelance writer). Of course, I never took their words to heart. I can’t afford to believe my own hype. God has too many things left for me to accomplish.
As I reflected on how I was feeling about my uncle’s statements, I began to think about my father. Years earlier, he had been a child in this same church. To call him a trailblazer is an understatement. He was the only child in his immediate circle to travel across the city to attend Central High School (my alma mater), one of the most prestigious magnet schools in Philadelphia. Upon graduating, he went to college in spite of his parents’ protests. His mother was convinced that he couldn’t go to college and live right as a Christian, while his father just wanted him to be a boxer. Then, years later, he decided to go to medical school to live out his dream of becoming a family practitioner. As a result of his educational attainment, his nine younger brothers and many others in his community all had the option to pursue higher education.
My father became a hero to his family and his church. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to handle the burden. My mom used to tell me stories about how my father would stress himself out because he took so much responsibility for the well-being of the people who surrounded him. He was overwhelmed, but he wouldn’t allow anyone to see it because he was afraid of what would happen if people actually realized that he was fallible. Over the years, he drifted away from the church and his family and has surrounded himself a lot of superficial relationships that ultimately led to his current state, which would accurately be described as a fall from grace. The constant adulation from his family proved to be too much for him.
Now that my father is out of commission, my brother and I have been placed on the pedestal that formerly belonged to him. I guess that’s why I always feel so awkward about attending this Bible Study. I see what being on that pedestal did to my father and I would rather not have those same issues in my life. At the same time, I may not have to worry about that. Unlike my father, I am not afraid to admit to my flaws. In fact, I blog about them regularly and often use them as sermon illustrations because I find it easier to be myself–a flawed man used by God–than a soulless, misleading, and image of perfection.
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