The Cultural Head Nod

On a steep uphill climb during a college retreat, this freshman and first-generation college student felt rather lonely. For multiple days before the retreat, I had been steeped in the challenges of dissecting financial aid nomenclature, navigating an obscurely written campus map, and combing through my nearest Bed Bath and Beyond to stock my empty dorm room. My parents weren’t there to drop me off (we could only afford one plane ticket from New York to Chicago), and I had no compass to guide me through the uncharted territory I faced. Thinking  about all of the unknowns ahead, I lay in my twin bed the night before the retreat feeling totally and utterly alone as a single tear dropped down my face and onto the dry, brown carpet below me.

During the retreat, as other people walked up the hill around me, all I could do was gather the characteristics within me that kept me where I stood. I thought about the courage I had to leave home, the perseverance I had to never give up, and the drive I had to get more educated. I gathered those characteristics in my heart as I climbed alone.

And then something happened that’s happened before, except it felt different than it ever had. For as long as I can remember, there has been a cultural tie amongst my fellow Black men in any state I have ever lived in or visited. As we walk by one another, no matter the place or time, men in the Black community nod at one another.

A simple head nod.

And in that silent nod packs a thousand words. Words like:

“I’m there for you, brother.”

“Good to see you, my brother.

“Don’t give up.”

“You’re not alone.”

“We got this.”

“Let’s do it together.”

“Things will get better.”

“A new day is coming.”

“Just you wait, man.”

“Keep it moving.”

“Look how far we’ve come.”

“Look how much we’ve been through.”

A whole symphony of sounds and phrases can come to mind with a simple head nod of acknowledgment.

Is this not what God does for us? Proverbs 3:5–6 says:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.

God gives us a cultural head nod each day. When I wake up and open my Bible app first thing in the morning, God is saying,

Nod—“You’re not alone.”

When I pray to Him in my darkest hours, God is saying,
Nod—“A new day is coming.”

When I come face-to-face with something I don’t understand, God is saying,
Nod—“Keep it moving.”

And when I dare forget His sacrifice on the cross, His blood that covers me, and His innocence put up for my redemption, God says,
Nod—“Look how far we’ve come.”

I cannot, by my own reason or strength, save myself or get myself out of my sin condition. Only Jesus, who dropped His crown-of-thorns-ridden head for us, can dig me out of the pit and miry clay that I sit in.

Last week, our church community was faced with the death of a boy who had just started fourth grade. He died tragically in a car accident. What do you say in a moment like that? What do you say when our hearts don’t understand the what and why of a situation? What do you say when the way seems cloudy? What do you say when you question everything? You look at the one who nods—Jesus—and you trust Him with all your heart. You bow down to Him, nod your head, and realize that He is worthy of our submission. He is worthy of our trust. And you allow God to lead you every step of the way as you mourn.

It’s a powerful thing, that head nod.

So whatever hill you are climbing up, whatever space you are navigating, and however you are feeling—even if it’s lower than you could ever imagine—look to the one who nods toward you. Look to Christ, who will never leave you or forsake you. Look to the one who nods when you are climbing steep hills.

Scripture: NIV®.

You’re never alone when facing the steep hills of life. Read the story of Jeremiah and how he overcame tragedy in R. Reed Lessing’s new book. 

Order Overcoming Life’s Sorrows

Picture of Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling
Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling is an LCMS pastor and Lutheran university educator. Dr. Bolling holds a BA in theatre from Concordia University Chicago, an MDiv from Concordia Seminary, and a doctor of education (EdD) degree from Concordia University Wisconsin in leadership, innovation, and continuous improvement. His dissertation was focused on human resource development in under-resourced urban ministry structures of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (How LCMS Pastors Are Developed through Mentorship). Dr. Bolling currently serves in a dual call as pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and as assistant professor of leadership and theology in the online modality and coordinator of multicultural engagement at Concordia University Texas. His passion for urban ministry, education, leadership, nonprofit management, mentorship, diversity/equity/inclusion, and distance learning are all married in this dual call as he serves the saints of Bethlehem and the students of Concordia University Texas simultaneously. Dr. Bolling has also spoken at numerous conferences, on podcasts, and at churches, schools, and events within our church body, reflecting the love of Christ and prodding deeper conversations about deaf, urban, and cross-cultural inclusive ministry. He has taught in half the schools of the Concordia University System, thoroughly realizing the depth of knowledge our Concordia schools have to offer to the world they engage. Dr. Bolling has been married to his beautiful and talented wife, Lorenda, for six years. Lorenda serves as a preschool teacher at Word of Life Lutheran School. Together, they have a four-year-old son named Lincoln and a two-year-old daughter named Monroe. Both children were born in different years but on the exact date—October 5! They currently reside on the south side of St. Louis, Missouri.

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