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