In my tradition one of the most moving worship experiences we had during the holiday season was the Watch Night Service. On New Year’s Eve we would gather together and through song and testimony we would praise God and rehearse the many ways God had blessed us throughout the year. Then, about twenty-five minutes before midnight my father, who was my pastor during my childhood and youth, would start preaching. He was never a long winded preacher, but on New Year’s Eve it was especially important for him to be concise because he had to finish preaching about ten minutes before midnight. It was vitally important for everyone to be in prayer when the new year started. Around 11:50 everyone gathered at the altar and prayed. Shortly after the stroke of midnight my dad would begin praying aloud. After he said, “Amen” he would say, “Happy New Year” and the congregation would rise from the altar embracing one another and praising God for a new year.
When I moved away from home, I continued the tradition of being at the altar on New Year’s Eve. Even as a young adult when I may have had other activities planned for the evening, church came first. My parents had instilled in me the importance of reflecting on what God had done for us over the past year and beginning the new year in conversation with God about God’s hopes and dreams for the coming year.
Watch Night Service has been a part of the African American Church tradition since December 31, 1862 when black slaves and free blacks gathered together in the safety of churches and private homes in order to await the news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. While I have not been able to find any official documentation of this, I believe many of those early Africans who gathered on December 31, 1862 were part of the Methodist movement. Because as early as 1740 John Wesley began encouraging those in the movement to have a Covenant Renewal Service on New Year’s Eve.
This new year as we prepare for a new president to take office, there are some religious minorities, persons from the LGBTQ community, African Americans and immigrants who are wanting to gather together for safety. There are other Americans who are wanting to gather together for celebration. The difference in perspective on what impact President Elect Trump has had and will have on this country and world is monumental. Unfortunately this difference continues to manifest itself in ways that are divisive, mean-spirited, and at times criminal. I believe God meant for our different perspectives and diversity to be a blessing to humankind, yet somehow we have taken what God meant for good and used it for evil. Rather than learning from each other, we have allowed our diversity to create a culture of ideological isolation. Ideological isolation has lead to “isms”, hate-talk, and intolerance for being in true community with persons with diverse view points. Our ideology has become an idol, and consequently our diversity continues to be a stumbling block for building real community.
It is my hope and prayer that the people of God will start this new year on their knees, truly and earnestly seeking God’s will for God’s people. It is my hope that over the coming year we will break out of our ideological isolationism and engage in meaningful, uplifting, and significant conversation with people who have views that we think are wrong. It is my hope that we will hold one another accountable when we as United Methodist live below our Christian witness and engage in ideological vitriol. This is not easy or comforting work. But it is work that must be done. And it is work that can be done. I have witnessed it. I have seen United Methodists with views as far apart as is possible, come together in conversation and leave that conversation, not having changed their opinions, but with a greater understanding of each other and a commitment to being in community. And all were blessed and all who witnessed it were blessed.
Because God has blessed me so profoundly in 2016, my covenant with God for 2017 is to be a blessing to others by all the means I can; in all the ways I can; in all the places I can; at all the times I can; to all the people I can; and as long as I can by having all the holy conversations I can. I think John Wesley would approve. I pray God will be pleased.