March 13, 2017 Tom Berlin

The Rhythm of Life

Years ago there was a movie titled “White Men Can’t Jump.” I went to church in Bo, Sierra Leone today and thought of a sequel: “White Men Can’t Clap Either.” The music was beautiful. Six part harmony that gave new life to old hymns and blew the roof off the church with dynamic African praise choruses.

Picture me, a white man of calm church heritage with a few scattered friends from America in a full sanctuary of Sierra Leoneans who can sing and clap and dance out a rhythm that brings energy to their worship. Energy does not do this justice. Think dynamism. Vitality. Oomph. Even some zing. I have to tell you, church is rarely this powerful where I grew up. As every song changes, the congregation enters into a new rhythm, and I can barely keep up. Okay, I can’t keep up. I am embarrassing. The bandleader at the church I serve once told me that as the lead pastor I had to join the band when they sang and clapped to be a good example to the congregation. I looked at her and said, “Sing or clap? I doubt you’ll get both.”

Musical people do not understand my limited ability. You talk about it like it is arithmetic. I experience it as calculus. In Sierra Leone it is quantum physics. Every time the rhythm changes, I try to adjust. I stare at the clapping hands around me, and I’m still offbeat. It is just so humbling, because not only can they sing and clap, this congregation sings alternatively in English, Krio and Mende. I am English-only, standing there counting in my head 1-2-3, 1-2-3, only to realize everyone else is clapping 1-2, pause, 3-4-5, pause, 1-2, pause, 3-4-5. If they had taken me to the hospital next door and asked me to perform an appendectomy, the patient would have a better shot at success than that song.

In the midst of all my effort, I began to feel like the Lord was trying to tell me something. Truth is that I have a rhythm problem in my spiritual life as well. God gave the universe a rhythm. The seasons come and go. The earth rotates every 24 hours. It revolves about every 365 days. There is to be a pattern to our lives as well. Created in God’s image, we are to have a rhythm of joy, peace, love, kindness, respect, gentleness and self-control. There are days and seasons when I get out of tempo there too. Angry when I should be gentle. Quiet when I should speak against injustice. Unforgiving when I could demonstrate love. Ungrateful when I could experience joy.

There is a flow of God’s Spirit that requires us to surrender and just let ourselves be absorbed by its cadences. You know that moment when you are in the flow of God’s will. Love is a joy. Gratitude overflows. Compassion comes naturally. Peace passes all understanding. When I am in that space, I am in full community with God and those around me. When I am not, I am a guy working very, very hard to get it right who is still offbeat and out of synch with others. I create confusion where others bring harmony.

I laughed at myself, standing in church, celebrating the occasional moment of cohesion I enjoyed with the musical savants who surrounded me. I don’t get it wrong all the time, but there is plenty of room for humility and no need to keep track of my neighbor’s efforts. As the voices sang, hands clapped and people gently danced in their pews, I was humbled, and thanked God for such patience in the efforts of divine grace shown to an offbeat guy like me.

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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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