Found Faithful: Being Authentic in an ‘Itching Ears’ Culture

Looking

 

“When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:13-15 (KJV)

During the first few years of public ministry, it was difficult to find my true voice and vision. It was easy to parrot famous preachers (I wanted to preach like Noel Jones and TD Jakes for the most part). What was more tempting was to be seduced into being what church folks expected me to be. And they surely expected me to be many things. Like picky mall consumers or fickle music fans they demanded me to thrill, excite, inspire, and engage them in whatever ways they craved. And for a while, I capitulated. I conformed. For the Baptists, I tried to have a melodious close in the style of Franklinesque whoopers; for the Pentecostals I tried to give what they consider to be rhema and conclude the message in such a way that they would wail out to God at the altar. For the dignified I desired to impress them with my intellectual sophistication, dropping enough polysyllabic words and name-dropping enough well known literary and intellectual giants to make them smile. To be sure, I possessed a number of satisfactory qualities: I have the charisma, a certain evangelical fervor, the intellectual and emotional prowess to communicate the Word of God with power and clarity. The problem was that I too often preached to impress, not to instruct, inspire and instigate positive, Spirit-led change in the hearers.

It has taken some time to prayerfully discover the “me” God was calling me to be in ministry. Certainly, I was stirred by many of my preaching elders and longed to sound like them. But I had to become comfortable in what Duke Divinity School homiletics professor William Turner calls “my preaching body.” God uniquely gifted me how God wanted me to sound. To be anyone else was to deny God’s wonderful design for my life and ministry; it was in some way a sin, the sin of telling God I don’t like the way You made me.

Sadly, ministry in the church in America isn’t much different from media and music industries. It can often be about staying hot, edgy, mainstream. It’s a hustle when seen beyond the holy veil of deeper spirituality and discipleship. It’s a matrix filled with things contrary to what the Word of God instructs, and it takes profound courage to not say Amen to this peculiar culture in which preachers bear witness to Jesus. The religious consumption of dear believers sitting in the pews can be unrelenting. If we are not careful, we preachers end up being performers scintillating itching ears while not changing stony hearts.

I wanted to get invited back to preach, I wanted to be loved. Somewhere in my ministry journey, however, I came to a liberating moment. Instead of seeking to please people, I now seek to please God. Or, should I say, I’m striving to do the latter. How mesmerizing it is to be adored, to be welcomed back to a pulpit. But I appreciate with greater clarity that God shaped my voice and God gave me a vision. I won’t fit into prescribed boxes very neatly. Though I may remind you of someone you’ve heard, I’m not a cheap copy of an expensive original. I am who I am. I don’t whoop enough for some, for others I’m too animated. I don’t cite enough theological jargon and systems of thought in my messages for some; others say I’m too intelligent not to. Though I’m committed to justice, I’m committed to a Crucified and Risen and Ascended and Soon-to-Come-Back Jesus, which is frightening to the more conservative or liberal folks (all depending on which part of the statement they take as offensive). My being fluidly shaped by Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and several non-Christian philosophical and spiritual traditions throughout the years makes it hard to brand me. Some people fear that. I say, “Praise the Lord, I’m free.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asked his disciples about what others were saying about him. He wanted to know how they “branded” his ministry and the man himself. Jesus asked about other people’s perception of who he is. But then he turns around and asks those closest to him the same question of identity. “I’ve been with y’all for some time. Who do you think I am?” he asks. Peter articulates a divine revelation of Jesus’ Christhood and Jesus is well pleased by this. But what is most amazing about this passage is that Jesus remained unmoved by other people’s perceptions. He knew who he was and he would be that no matter how much he would be misunderstood, misconstrued, misused, and altogether missed by folks looking for him to be someone he was not. What’s more, in John he begins to share more about who he is, saying variously “I Am…” He knew who he was. Being affirmed by his Father before the foundations of the world and at the waters of his baptism, he knew exactly who he was. Affirmed by God, we may seek but don’t ultimately need the affirmations of the crowds, for the same hands that applaud you today may seek to crush and suffocate you tomorrow.

Seek to know who you are, really! Behind the mask, the swagger, the makeup, the pretense, the public demeanor, comprehend the deep mystery of being you. Don’t seek to be a fad, only fashionable for a season; seek to be true and you’ll never go out of style.

 Altar

My wife, Allison, and I praying and worshiping at the altar.

 

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Dreaming of a Colorful Christmas: The Nativity and Our Racial Imaginations

Nativity

When did you first know that you were black?

That’s a question I remember being asked by a professor when I was a Duke Divinity School seminarian. It was a question about racial identity and formation, a question that points toward what W.E.B. DuBois called the “problem” of blackness.

Growing up in a Mississippi railroad town that didn’t get the news that America was in a post-Jim Crow era, I guess race was always part of my formative experiences. My father devoted his adult life to civil rights litigation, suing governors and legislators and city officials in order to make the Magnolia State a more racially equitable place. And my mother, who long experienced the triple jeopardy of being a poor-black-woman, constantly reminded my little brother and me that the world was a mean place for black boys like us.

But it wasn’t until the first grade that I really knew down in my bones how bad it was to have been born black. Prior to Christmas break (we called it that back then) my first grade teacher gave our class a picture of the nativity to color. The nativity, made up of those cherub-faced Hallmark people, included Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus; there were angels and wise men too. Already, at the age of six or seven, I had a vivid imagination. And so in my first grade mind, I envisioned the nativity scene as what Josiah Royce and Martin Luther King called the “beloved community”. I looked around the classroom and saw all these variations of brown: chocolate and coffee, chestnut and bronze, mahogany and sepia, coal and copper.

And then there was my teacher, not really snow white but the color of sand. No, peach, that was her color. Peach. And so, with all shades of brown and one peach I gathered the appropriate Crayola crayons and colored the people in my picture in a way that reflected to colorful diversity in our classroom. And I was proud of my work, my labor of love.

“You have to do yours over,” my teacher scoffed. I was confused, somewhat dismayed. I thought I did a great job. I thought she would like it. But she informed me that my picture was historically and biblically inaccurate because Jesus and the angels and Joseph and Mary were white, and I had colored each of them various shades of brown.

Now, I didn’t fully grasp her complaint. It would be some years before I truly understood the science fiction of race and all of its horrors. It would be decades before I knew how pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific forces conspired to make black inferior and collaboratively construct a racialized world through conquests and colonization and slavery and genocide.

What I did know at the time, and readily stated to my teacher, was that everyone in the room was some kind of brown and that she was the only peach person in the room. So I made Mary peach (I guess I also offended her by making Joseph and Mary an interracial couple). My teacher was not amused. Nor was I. She insisted that I do it over, color Jesus and his family and the angels white, or I would have to see the principal, who was a black man.

I saw the principal (I inherited both my dad and mom’s stubbornness) and he too insisted that change the color of the holy people in the picture. And after protesting further, rejecting his insistence that I color the lovely picture over, my parents got involved. My mother gave my teacher and principal a piece of her mind, letting them know that she and my father taught us to respect and honor our racial and cultural heritage and that there was nothing wrong about her son’s creative license. My dad, too, got involved, writing my teacher a six-page letter expositing theological, biblical, cultural, and historical arguments for why I was to be defended in my interracial imagination displayed on cherubic Hallmark faces.

This Christmas season reminded me of that rather interesting teachable moment. When FOX News’ Megyn Kelly said that Jesus is white, it sparked a firestorm of debate on cable news and on social media. It made plain the basic assumption of a certain racial imagination in this country: that a Palestinian Jew from the Near East was a pale figure from Europe; that the incarnate Son of God has a preferential option for white America. To be sure, when Michelangelo painted Jesus, he did so in his image, not as the Lord truly appeared two millennia ago. But throughout the world many see Jesus as a white man and to demand otherwise is to commit a heresy, as it were. In one very significant sense, it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was. In Evangelical parlance, it’s Christ’s atoning red blood, not the color of his body, that matters most. But anyone familiar with how whiteness has been deployed to dehumanize other races, and how a white Jesus has been exploited to divinely sanction white superiority and European domination of the world will note that the conversation about Jesus’ skin color is more than a conversation about phenotype. For behind it is an anthropological idolatry and an ecclesial heresy.

The corrective isn’t just putting dreadlocks and dark skin on Jesus, making him into the image of a Rastafarian. The corrective, at least to me, is to take the power out of white supremacy and its religious zeal and anchoring. It is to show it to be a lie from the pit of hell, a Luciferian doctrine that diminishes the image of God in some for the false exceptionalism of a few. I still believe that Jesus was some shade of brown, maybe olive or wheat or something, and that he looks more like an Arab than an Aryan (a la German nationalism), and that whatever his color, he loves us all. And one day, soon and very soon, white and black and everyone in between will be able to sing in the words of that old hymn:

Red, brown, yellow, black or white
We’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world
   

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Jacskon: A Beloved Community

Rhodes Mic

“The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2009 I returned to the City with Soul on a mission. My theological vision of a better world was affirmed during my three years at Duke Divinity School, and I was ready to put my faith to work in Jackson. Call me crazy, but I believed that God was up to something in our capital, and I wanted to be a part of it.

When I shared with family and friends my desire to return to Mississippi and to participate is something great here, I was understandably greeted with their skepticism. How they yearned for me to be successful in some cosmopolitan Promised Land far away from the land of my birth. Too many years of backward thinking, racial politics and status quo leadership convinced them that if I moved back home, my vision would soon become a nightmare. But I came home anyway, being led by the Spirit to a place that shaped me more than I desired to admit.

My dream was neither deferred nor denied, thank God. I arrived to a Jackson that was being blessed by a kind providence. A lot of good was happening, and a discernible excitement abounded in the streets and in hushed conversations around the city. There were many problems still plaguing the capital city, to be sure, but I sensed the Lord was up to something marvelous.

I still believe that. The city’s urban renaissance and beautiful people of good will have granted me sustained hope in that not-yet-seen something that compelled me to return nearly two years ago. Jackson is changing, being renewed day-by-day, and I’m humbled to say I’m here at such a time as this. And though this chocolate-vanilla swirled city has the usual litany of problems of comparable metropolises, too many of us have an indefatigable faith, hope and love for Jackson to be great. We have glorious days ahead. We will see the best of Jackson.

But before we pour the celebratory wine (or grape juice, for the prohibitionists out there), we must understand that there are things that could indeed defer our dream of a better, more blessed Jackson. I am admittedly afraid that all our development will make us blind to the need for us to cultivate community—beloved community. The only way to sustain our growth is to make Jackson increasingly safe for dreamers of a better world.

As a Christian preacher, I am always concerned about the least of these, those whose backs are against the walls. I’m concerned about absolute gentrification that treats poor brothers and sisters like lepers needing to be quarantined. I’m concerned with sinful racism, sexism and classism continuing to limit our collective vision of the somebody-ness of all God’s children. I’m concerned with the dearth of visionary, moral leaders who will inspire diverse peoples to imagine together a just and open society for everyone who will call our city and our state home.

This isn’t liberal romanticism, a utopian dream. The hope for a beloved community is the solution to preventable but potential chaos. Love, truth and justice are as important—no, more important—than rehabilitated houses and new businesses downtown. We need our tribalism to give way to a deep sense of interdependence, a sense that we need each other to survive and thrive.

This new way of living together as strangers-turned-friends will come about not by sheer inevitability but though sincere intentionality. We have to be co-creators of the community we want to see in Jackson. God willing, we’ll do just that. If we don’t, the City with Soul just may lose its soul.

My prayer is that all of us, especially those of us in religious communities, will see the greater need for a human renaissance in Jackson. My prayer is that we will lead with civility, compassion and courage toward a more perfect union, starting in our own backyards. May God hasten the day when all God’s children will dwell together in unity, in the bond of peaceful sibling-hood. On that day, the world will look upon Jackson and see the kin-dom come to earth. They will see, in flesh and blood reality, the beloved community.

This piece was originally published in the Jackson Free Press.

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Jackson’s Josiah Generation

Jackson

Tuesday, December 10, I was honored to share this brief closing message at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast hosted at the Jackson State University E-Center. 

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, fellow faith leaders,

A fistful of decades ago, a Baptist prophet named King stood in a Pentecostal pulpit in Memphis and declared that, like Moses, he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land. That prophet like Moses was signaling that another generation was about to enter this Land even if he wouldn’t make with them. Since then we’ve talked about the emergence of the Joshua Generation as if forty-five years haven’t passed us by. May I announce to you, my brothers and my sisters, that the Joshua Generation has been around for a long time, that they have been there and done that? And I think I ought to tell you that we’re already in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Yes, there have been some giants in this land. Yes, there have been some fortified cities in this land. Sometimes the milk has been sour and the honey has crusted, but we’re in the Promised Land.

We thank God for the Joshua Generation, for because of them we’ve come a mighty long way. But I’ve come to decree and declare that God isn’t through with us yet! The Lord is raising up another generation, the Josiah Generation. Josiah, Hezekiah’s great-grandbaby, was a young king of Judah. And as king, he was called, compelled, to bring reform, religious reform, to Judah because he knew that God would not bless his nation’s mess.

My friends, we’re not in Judah, but I believe God won’t bless our civic and ecclesial mess either. As such, God is raising up some young Josiahs in Jackson! Holy rebels walking the straight and narrow to the glory of God and the good of God’s people.  Transformed nonconformists who will no longer tolerate church as usual. Preachers who are sick and tired of dead churches with dry, do nothing religion in dilapidated neighborhoods. Women and men of God who won’t ask if it’s safe, or politic, or popular, but if it’s right. Faith leaders who are innovative, imaginative, and ignited with holy fire! And after doing all to stand, they stand on God’s word, believing that God is about to do a new thing. Women of Esther’s courage and Josiah’s conviction who believe God is still up to something and that Jackson’s future looks much better than its today.

I forgot to tell you how old Josiah was when we ascended to the throne. Josiah came to power at the tender age of eight years old. Eight, numerologically speaking, is the number of new creation, new beginnings. Like that Josiah, our city is full of young and restless believers who are convinced the change we seek begins with us, that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

God’s doing a new thing in Jackson. He’s raising up righteous reformers who will usher in revival, renewal, renaissance, and revolution in the Church and in the City with Soul. He’s raising up Josiahs downtown, in Midtown, and all around town.

Isaiah 43:19 says, “Behold, I’m doing a new thing, shall you not know it?” God’s People, I just stopped by to tell you the Lord is doing a new thing in Jackson and if you didn’t know, now you know!

Bishop Paul Morton sang, Lord, whatever you’re doing in this season, don’t do it without me.

Well, I’m praying, Lord, don’t do it without some Jackson Josiahs!

Don’t reduce crime without us.

Don’t heal HIV/AIDS without us.

Don’t educate our young people without us.

Don’t take care of our elders without us.

Don’t create great jobs and abundant wealth without us.

And, Lord, don’t fix these old pipes and raggedy roads without us.

Lord, whatever you’re doing, do it with some Jackson Josiahs.

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Mandela and Millennials

Mandela

 

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a founding father of the democratic Republic of South Africa, in the words of Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night after a long rage against the light’s dying. His ninety-five years of life spanned the course of most of the 20th century and the first decade of the new millennium. In today’s memorial service in South Africa, President Barack Obama highlighted that Mandela was born in the first World War era and that he began his freedom struggle in the Cold War years. Those of us in this country old enough to remember the Reagan and Clinton years will recall how South African apartheid, that evil institution, carried devastating similarities to the Jim Crow systems of domination blacks and others suffered under here. Not long after most of de jure segregation was dismantled by the modern Civil Rights Movement, children and grandchildren of those freedom fighters, themselves now the beneficiaries of an imperfectly integrated nation, understood with urgency the import of global white supremacy. Racism wasn’t just America’s original sin; its depravity showed up all around the world. To be sure, many US activists were globally conscious in taking seriously Martin King’s declaration that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. A younger Obama was introduced to activism and community organizing through the American movement against apartheid’s sinister injustice.

As I reflected on Mandela’s life and legacy, and his impact on those of us born after the Cold War, I came across a brilliant piece over at Uppity Negro Network that is most fitting as a Millennial memorial to the Tree Shaker.  Please find it below:

http://uppitynegronetwork.com/2013/12/10/mandela-and-a-millennial-generations-connection-to-the-civil-rights-movement/

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“A Room Called Remember”: An Invitation to Reflection

Necrology

 

Wednesday, December 4, I delivered the following reflection for Alcorn State University’s 2013 Necrology memorial service.

Dr. Brown, with your presidential permission, we have been invited to once again look behind the curtain of eternity. And there behind this opaque drapery is what Frederick Buechner termed ” a room called remember.” This year a few more of Alcorn’s bravest were added to that room. These are they for whom the purple and the gold gave their blood a royal and noble hue. These are they who exchanged their Alcorn Ode for angelic Hallelujahs. These are they who traded in the shade of giant trees for the tree of Everlasting Life. These are they who gave up the crown of gems and put on an incorruptible crown of righteousness. There they are in that room called remember, for it is written “Let not your heart be troubled. If you believe in God, believe also in me. For in my Father’s house there are many mansions, many rooms.” And in that room they’re talking about us in this room. I can hear that great cloud of witnesses challenging us to grieve, to cry, to mourn, yes, to remember, but not like those who have no hope.

They tell us a message that the God of all comfort himself gives: that earth knows no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. That they who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. That weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.

They say to us “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted, ye everlasting doors.”

Because there’s another one in that room. No, he did not matriculate through this giant in learning’s band. But I see him greeting those Alcorn braves. Some call him the Prince of Peace. Some call him the Consolation of Israel. Some call him the Bright and Morning Star. Some call him the Resurrection and the Life. Some call him a Wonderful Counselor.

But the Psalmist knows him by yet another name. And those in that room know him by another name. And they know that if we lift up our heads and hold them heavenward then the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty.

So I’m asking that the King of Glory, just for a little while, would leave that room called remember, and come on in this room called Oakland. Because my Grandmama told me Jesus is my doctor. He fills out all of our prescriptions. He gives us all of our medicine in the room.

For there is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the grief sick soul.

This is your invitation to remediate, to remember, and to rejoice, to reflection in this room.

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“Pockets of Vitality”?: Black Churches, Decline, and the Need for Reform

empty church

“Negative numbers: The decline narrative reaches evangelicals,” a featured article written by David Roozen and published today at christiancentury.org, avers that conservative Evangelicals churches, once experiencing general positive growth, are now catching up with liberal mainline Protestant churches with rates of decline.

One of the major factors being tossed around by many prognosticators for this gloomy picture is the ways in which Millennials are negotiating their faith, with many of the so-called “Nones” leaving institutionalized churches in favor of a more vaporous spirituality. This exodus, once thought of as a just liberal mainline phenomenon, is now at epidemic proportions for groups like the Southern Baptists, so one story goes. However, Roozen proffers that the decline began much earlier. Citing data from Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, he writes that “a steady slowing of growth […] goes back to at least 1955. Growth fell from over 3 percent annually during the 1950s to about 1 percent through 1980s to less than a half percent through 2005, at which point Southern Baptist declines pushed the entire family into negative growth for the first time.”

Many conservative Evangelical denominations must’ve seen the tide changing long ago. The Southern Baptists, for instance, have invested much time, talent, and treasure in church planting initiatives, wrestled with changing its name to reach a larger population, and even recently elected their first black convention president. Much from them is being written about the need to intentionally address church growth, church decline, and empowering younger clergy for new Gospel missions.

What’s intriguing is that over the same amount of time that mainline and conservative Evangelical churches have been experiencing negative growth, Pentecostal and Holiness churches and movements have grown. Though there is insufficient data for the growth and decline of historically black church denominations, there is also evidence that black churches and other ethnic churches are faring better than their white ecclesial counterparts. Roozen writes

Setting aside questions about historically black churches, it appears that racial, ethnic and immigrant communities are, along with Pentecostal/holiness and independent churches, the pockets of vitality within the overall decline. The Faith Communities Today report A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000–2010 shows that the percent of congregations with a majority of racial/ethnic members increased from just over 20 percent in 2000 to just over 30 percent in 2010 (the report is available at faithcommunitiestoday.org).

The decline trends for mainliners and white Evangelicals causes me to interrogate whether or not this decline will soon reach historic black churches. I’m convinced that it not only will, but already has for a number of such churches. For three years I pastored a church that experienced more than twenty years of steady decline. And according to credible sources historic denominations like the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation’s largest black religious body, is presently experiencing acute decline. I aver that it won’t be long before historically black denominations and local churches will have to intentionally address this crisis through church planting, leadership development, and even more radical interventions. Unregenerated congregations, spiritual lethargy, aging memberships, declining financial health, and missional drift are all parts of a really big problem. Of particular note, the more conservative denominations will have to seriously contend with the pentecostalization of global Evangelical Christianity, shifts in ethical orientations around sexuality and liberatve praxes, etc. To date, many of these groups seem unwilling or incapable of dealing with these matters with deep reflection and moral courage.

As I talk to younger black pastors, especially of Baptist churches, many of them are grumbling about the lack of immediate attentiveness to these matters. As many of them are continualist in their approach to spiritual gifts, they are attracted to movements like Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, which will soon be under the direction of International Presiding Bishop-elect Joseph Walker, himself a relatively young denominational leader. Others are duly aligning or fully vesting themselves in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is aggressively evangelizing black and brown communities. Still others are becoming unaffiliated, preferring the freedom of isolation to the stultification of archaic hyper-denominationalism. Historic black mainlines can no longer think oldest means best. In this day, oldest may actually mean antiquated and near death.

My hope is that revitalization can happen in these so-called pockets of vitality in a largely declining ecclesial culture. May the black churches remain awake during this great revolution and be ready to respond accordingly when decline comes a’knocking.

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