Pastor King: Remembering King as a Pastor-Theologian

King and the Cross

Every January communities throughout our nation, especially communities in Mississippi, customarily host prayer breakfasts to kick-off the federal King holiday. Over the last few years I’ve participated in programs to pray or offer encouraging words about how best to embody King’s vision today. Some time ago, maybe about five years ago, I was blessed to keynote a MLK celebration in my hometown of Hazlehurst. This year I was blessed to keynote a prayer breakfast in the town of Monticello. I was invited to join in celebration with the Lawrence County branch of the NAACP by its branch president the Rev. Dr. Eugene Bryant. Bryant, who also serves as the NAACP’s state director for Religious Affairs, graciously requested my participation because he felt that as a young man I would remind the great people of Lawrence County that an emerging generation of convictional leaders will continue the good fight.

Throughout the King holiday weekend I remembered how I came to have such an affinity for King’s life, leadership and legacy. One of the things that stands out the most to me about the civil rights leader is that he was more than that. In fact, he saw himself primarily as a preacher and it was that sense of calling that compelled him to apply a theological vision to a nation in need of social salvation. I lament that too many have tried to whitewash King’s religious convictions, making him into a religionless Everyman suitable for a secular, post-religion audience. To be sure, King was always gracious to those who were of other religions and even those of no religion. But until his death King sustained a belief in God, a personal God of power and hope. A God who makes ways out of no ways. A God who created a moral universe whose arc bends toward justice.

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I spoke from that sense of King’s legacy while on stage in Monticello, connecting the dots between spirituality and social justice, evangelism and activism, religion and revolution. King, just 25 years old when he began his pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and only 39 when he died in Memphis, stood before the giants of racism, classism, and militarism with a radical belief that God was on his side. The animated audience was thrilled by hearing that connection and, I pray, felt God nudging them to greater works.

After the prayer breakfast, I was honored to have a cup of coffee with Rev. Dr. Bryant and another local pastor at Ward’s, a local burger joint. There Bryant shared his heart. As a much older man, he reflected on his years in the justice struggle, his call to—and run from—ministry, and what it means to be a socially conscious pastor in rural Mississippi. He was glad to see a new generation emerging, for he is looking to us for the next leg of the race. How refreshing and humbling it was to hear an elder talk about younger leadership with such enthusiasm and criticize his own generation of Christians for not being visionary enough to make room for us. We all lamented the struggles of being pastors with transformative visions while serving people who could care less about the future. Be we also remained hopeful that God was doing miraculous things throughout churches in our state. Though some churches are dying (and should die), there are many others that are either being revitalized or being planted. I believe that they will provide the balanced mission we need. Committed to the Gospel and both its personal and social implications, churches can truly set Mississippi on fire for the Lord’s glory.

In this way, as a pastor-theologian, I look forward to living out the kind of theological vision King offered the Church and nation in his day. What our churches, churches here in Mississippi, need today are pastor-theologians who think critically and convictionally about our faith in relation to soul salvation and social liberation. We need to see the multiplication of such servant leaders who are traditional enough to learn from the past and innovative enough to be missional in a 21st century world. Moreover, we need churches yearning for this kind of leadership, filled with people who will support and work toward the fulfillment of fresh ecclesial vision. Sadly, too many churches have been mastered by mediocrity and have settled for a day that has long died. But, as King once said, “I believe in the future because I believe in God.”

King Looking

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Wise Men from the East: What We Should Learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church

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My Christian formation is rather eclectic. The lion’s share belongs to the Baptists and Pentecostals. I grew up in a nominal Baptist family and the church we attended for much of my youth was rural and folksy. Every now and then we attended the Seventh Day Adventist Church down the street on Saturdays (I remember that the food we ate after service was divine). It wasn’t until my teens that I joined a church, which was United Methodist, but with its rousing Gospel choir and new school pastoral leadership, it felt more like a big black non-denominational church. My conversion, my affirmative answer to God’s work of grace, was through a variety of Pentecostals and Charismatics. I learned much from each of these Christian tribes and am to this day shaped in large measure by the ecumenical Afro-evangelicalism that each of these movements share in.

But what has attracted my theological imagination in many ways has been the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodoxy is rather strange to most Southerners but what I found among them is a rich tradition that spoke to my sensibilities in many ways. While at Duke Divinity School I took two classes under Father Ed Rommen, one an introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy and the other a course on a modern Orthodox theologian named Bulgakov. Admittedly, my Protestant Evangelical bias wouldn’t let me get down with bowing to and kissing icons. But the mystical theology and social engagement within the Orthodox tradition is amazing. Go here to learn more about their faith.

I think we in the West would learn much from our brothers and sisters from the East.

My friend Anthony Bradley, who too has an affinity for the Eastern Church, posted the following on Facebook:

“Orthodox Christianity has been on the right side of racial justice in America upon arrival. Orthodox Christians may be the only community of Christians in American history who did not encourage or defend racial oppression in the 20th-century. Three cheers for The Greek Orthodox Church on this MLK-Day weekend!!”

If Bradley is right (and I think he is), we can indeed learn much from the Orthodox. Take a look at some of their engagement here. What was and is it about their theology and life in Christ that called them to resist white supremacy and institutional racism in this country? Why did they stand with Martin Luther King, on the right side of history, when many Evangelicals (both white and black) told him to slow down or go home? With the resurgence and introduction of Reformed theology among a new generation of black Christians, one wonders what we can imbibe from the East, a tradition older than Luther or Calvin, and one that hasn’t been schizophrenic about theological anthropology.

Though we certainly will not agree with everything the Eastern Orthodox believe, there is yet much we can learn from them about what it means to be the Church, to be Christ-like, to be stewards of the mysteries of God. May their wisdom teach us new insights about ancient truths.

Amen

 

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Using Our Sanitized Imagination: Why We Don’t Really Like MLK

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On January 15 Martin Luther King Jr would have turned 85 years old. This coming Monday our nation will pause, as it does every third Monday in January, to remember through word and deed (though mostly word) King’s transformative life and leadership. Or at least we will remember the parts that suit our particular and parochial political visions and philosophical worldviews. Indeed King was a civil rights leader, a peace activist, and someone who abhorred poverty. He was all of these things and more. But depending on who you speak to about him, you will only see facets of his complex mission and self-identity.

There will be conservatives who will remember nothing more than King’s dream that content of character, not color, will matter most in the Land of the Free. Many liberals, secular in their outlook, will reduce King to civil rights activism, not appreciating that he was foremost a Baptist preacher motivated by the social imperatives of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. This interestingly selective appropriation is not peculiar to King’s legacy. Even now conservatives and liberals are proof-texting sections of Pope Francis’ words and actions to either loathe or love him based not in the composite reality of who he is, but who they want him to be. To be sure, people of varying ages and places have done that with Jesus, turning the Creator into our preferable images. And similar to the old saying, if they did it to Jesus, surely they’ll do it us.

Pastor-theologian Leslie Callahan highlights the discomfort some have with King’s prophetic vista for the nation in a blog she posted this morning. There she writes, “University of Pennsylvania professor and poet Herman Beavers was invited and then disinvited to give a lecture on Martin Luther King at Moorestown High School in New Jersey.”  Professor Beavers was disinvited because there was fear that he would share the truth about the things King prophesied against, and how such prophetic witness is necessary in confronting contemporary social sins like racism, classism, and militarism. We like King as long as his baritone words stir our souls. We are afraid of him if those same words stir us to action.

We don’t have to fully agree with every strategy or action or philosophy King espoused. King is not divine, messianic, and above reproach. I certainly do not follow his theological liberalism and have profound issues with some of his gender politics. But to dismiss him in all of his complexity because his faith or his moral frailty or his radical (yes, radical) dreams are too much for us to digest is not defendable.

Until extremists on the left and right, and all of us in between, see King for who he really was and hear what he really said, we’ll continue to have sanitized imaginations and fail to truly honor his life and legacy, one that gave all so that this “nation could arise and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

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“Full of Sound and Fury”: Why the Sanctified Church Needs Reform

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Zora Neale Hurston, the preeminent author who would be 123 years old today, once averred that “the Sanctified Church is a protest against the high-brow tendency in Negro Protestant congregations as the Negroes gain more education and wealth.”  By “Sanctified Church,” Hurston was referring to the growing constellation of black Holiness and Pentecostal churches that emphasize the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and whose worship culture and Christian spirituality is enthusiastic, ecstatic, countercultural, and at times otherworldly. In a real sense, many in the Sanctified churches sought to preserve the inherent dignity in expressions most noted among the peoples of West Africa who were enslaved in this country. Leaders like Charles Harrison Mason were intentional in keeping the holy dance and shouting as central to the liturgy, a revolt against the assimilationist ways of other black Protestants who imitated Anglophilic respectability and refinement in their services.

More than just about the shouting, the Sanctified Church was a reformation, a call to righteousness and justice within the Church. Reformers like Charles Price Jones, Mason’s contemporary and one-time colleague, believed that the lack of spiritual vitality, biblical ecclesiology, and moral anchoring made black churches deplorable and such reformers prophetically critiqued the status quo, not just of white supremacy, but also among black people. A little more than a century later, the churches that were birthed from this prophetic urgency are now in need of reform and revival.

Though I grew up and have sustained connection with the Baptist church, I was deepened in my faith and nurtured in my ministerial vocation first among Pentecostals and Charismatics, whose deep spiritual insights remain central to my understanding of the Holy Spirit. But maybe more with them than with the Baptists I long saw a need for self-examination (I have a whole lot of critique for Black Baptists, but I’ll save it for a later blog). To be sure, many Pentecostals love the Lord and walk with integrity, but so much of today’s black Pentecostalism is, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A four paragraph article posted at accordingtochris.com in December caused great controversy, alleging that the typical black church is slave religion. Many people asked for my thoughts about the article. I held my peace, certainly finding many elements of the article unfounded. But, by God’s providence, I was able to find the author’s podcast in which he responded to the criticisms brought about by the article.

Christopher Green, a 38 year old licensed minister in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and creator of accordingtochris.com, gave much needed context to his hyperbolic article, stating that the “typical church” he was referring to was in large measure pointed toward black Pentecostalism. Chris grew up in COGIC, is the son of a COGIC bishop, and presently lives in Memphis, TN, the international headquarters of the Grand Ole Church (which, by the way, has its roots in Jackson and Lexington, MS). Affirming that he loves the church, Chris does go on to say in the podcast that he is deeply exhausted by the hyper-sensationalism and performance elements of black churches he’s attended, and that the miserable and morally bankrupt lives of many churchgoers should be a sign that something is wrong.

I agree.

In too many black Pentecostal churches, every Sunday the praise team leader, the preacher, and most assuredly folks in the pews want to feel the glory, have chu’ch, sense a mighty move of God, get they praise on, and so on. Chris reminds his listeners that he, like many of them, loves a good shout and ecstatic praise. He goes so far to say that the black church is the “final citadel for our Africanisms,” maintaining that our churches should not only respect, but also preserve and promote, the forms of praise and preaching typically identified with black Pentecostals (and many other black churches). But it’s the shouting and glory-rich emotionalism that becomes exhausting, especially when folks have shouted but then leave the service to return to broken marriages, impoverished communities, domestic abuse, drug use, promiscuity, frivolous consumerism, etc. No change in the sanctified life makes getting our praise on nothing more than Marx’s opiate for the people—a drug that leaves you addicted and searching for the next, and newer, high.

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Indeed, like Chris, I love worship where hands are lifted, folks are shouting, and the felt Presence of God is in the place. But I don’t simply want a religion I can feel sometimes. I want a religion that I can think through sometimes and that empowers me to change situations to the glory of God and to the flourishing of our communities. And to do that, we need more than powerful music, charismatic preaching, and a sho’ll nuff good time. We need teaching and strategy and biblical theology and faithful spiritual disciplines. If we’ve been having church for one hundred years in the same community, and the community looks like a favela, and the people are bound to sin and systemic evils, then there’s something wrong with that religion.

This is not only true for many (though not all, of course) Pentecostals, but also many Baptists. As someone who’s Bapticostal (with a lot more thrown into my Gospel gumbo) I lament that so many of our churches are whitewashed tombs, alive in name only, salt that has lost its savor. If I had my way, I’d close a whole bunch of churches in Jackson and throughout Mississippi (and not just the Sanctified kind. I’ve got major beef with these want to be black bourgie religious social clubs that pass for churches too, but, again, that’s another blog).

So, though I think Minister Green’s article was hyperbolic, sensational, and in some ways misleading, I do hear his clarion call for reform. And I pray that a mighty remnant will reply to that call in the words of COGIC’s founder, Bishop C. H. Mason, “Yes, Lord!”

This is how a Bapticostal might do it:

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Keeping Hope Alive: My Interview with Joel Osteen

Originally published in the Jackson Free Press as “America’s Favorite Preacher,” the following is an interview I did with Joel Osteen in December of 2012 prior to his first-time visit to Jackson, MS. I wanted to share it with you, again.

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Joel Osteen’s smile is as big as Texas, and so is his following. As the pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, Osteen, 49, leads America’s largest congregation. He preaches to more than 38,000 attendees each weekend at the church his father founded in 1959. That number swells to more than 7 million when you add his worldwide television audience. Osteen’s popularity and positive messages have made him both beloved and reviled among evangelical Christians. But Osteen and his wife, Victoria, respond to praise and criticism with signature smiles and encouraging words.

I had an opportunity to interview Osteen, who will come to Jackson for his first time Jan. 4 for “A Night of Hope,” a two-hour event that inspires with song.

What’s been the impact of your dad’s life, witness and ministry on yours?

The whole foundation of what I try to teach and inspire people with today. He was a man of integrity (and) was always for people. He wasn’t for pushing people down, but he was always for lifting people up. I saw my dad caring for the underdog, caring for the sick and caring for the people—whether they were rich or poor.

Let’s talk about that word “integrity.” We’ve seen lots of leadership scandals, and we know media love a good scandal. Do you have a preventative word for leaders for before they fall?

Integrity is the foundation of God’s blessing upon your life. You’re right to say we’ve seen a lot of scandals with well-known (leaders), not to be critical. But having gifts and talents doesn’t pan out where there’s a lack of character. Integrity should be something we all strive for, to take the high road, and accept no compromise when it comes to our integrity. I realize there are a lot of skeptical people out there now because they’ve seen ministers they trusted in at one time and who didn’t pan out. I’m inspired to walk the walk and not just talk the talk because it affects many people. When you’re a pastor like you and I, you’re influencing more than just your family. What I learned from other’s mistakes is you can come down a lot quicker than you went up. The first half hour of my day, I’m searching my heart asking God if I’m on the right path. Searching your own heart; that’s the important thing.

Some people may misconstrue your message and think that you’re always preaching blessings without integrity. But you just stated that God’s blessings are contingent upon our obedience. Do you think you’ve been misrepresented?

I think that’s true. When I hear someone criticize me, I think that’s someone who hasn’t actually listened to our message. That’s someone listening to a sound byte or reading out of context. I believe God wants you to be blessed and excel … and have good relationships but, as you said, the foundation is integrity; it’s obedience. Are you growing? Are you dealing with the issues God is talking to you about? I talk about that a lot as well. But some people misconstrue it. They’ll say, “Joel says everything’s gonna be good!” Half of my messages are about overcoming difficulty, being faithful in the midst of trials. God says count it all joy while we’re in the trial.

That last point relates to what you said about your dad and lifting up the underdog. Of course, you may know that Mississippi is often seen as the poster child for everything that’s negative. When you come here in January, what message of hope do you have not only for Jackson but for our entire state, sort of the nation’s underdog?

Well, my message is going to be that God has amazing things in 2013. He does reward people who are faithful. … And a lot of times God judges us differently than how people judge us. God looks at the heart. God uses the least likely people in some instances. God used David who, as you know, was an underdog. Some may come from bad families, but our message will be: You’re not who the world says you are, but you’re who God says you are.

Absolutely. Our governor has made it his mission to curb the number of teen pregnancies and births. One can rightly argue that numerous socioeconomic issues contribute to this epidemic, but also a sense of hopelessness. How do we—politicians or pastors—speak to the latter?

You know it’s difficult. You have to do one person at a time. … You have to let them know God can get them through this. If they take steps of faith, be the best where they are, God can open up doors and bring people out. If you don’t have hope, you can’t have faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for. You have to believe you are a person of destiny. God has equipped you, and no person, circumstance or poverty can keep you from your destiny if you keep moving forward.

That’s excellent. But what about those out there who’ll say that hope and faith God-talk sounds great, but it doesn’t address the racism, sexism and generational issues people face?

I’m not saying it’s easy. I just have to come back to the scripture that says, when you believe, all things are possible. You can get bitter and negative, and I can almost guarantee you nothing’s going to go well. It’s going to help you. So faith is choosing to believe God and his plan for my life even though it doesn’t make any sense. You’ve got to be determined to persevere and be all that God created you to be. I believe our days can end in victory, but we have to do our part.

You’ve been doing A Night of Hope for eight years. President Obama’s rallying cry has been hope and change. Is our nation becoming more hopeful or fearful?

Well, I’m always an optimist. Some people don’t, but I do believe there are good things in store for us. Now we’re dealing with this fiscal cliff, and I’m not thrilled with the divisiveness of politics, but I believe God has America in the palm of his hand, and good things are in store for us. Yes, we’ll face difficult and tough times, but I yet believe America is going to see better days.

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