Great Expectations

Glory

“…It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself.” John Calvin

Standing in the living room, mid-sentence in prayer, I heard the Lord’s voice interrupt mine. “This is going to be an awesome August.”

I know there are many you find suspect the idea of God speaking to us in audible ways. Certainly there are those who’ve heard a voice they ascribed to God and as a result did things that were definitely more sinister than holy. Then there are others who mistake the mental echo of their inner voice with God’s. I’ve surely been in the latter category. But with emotional maturity and spiritual discipline I’ve come to recognize when it’s God dialoging with me. That day in July was such a time.

I hurried to my home office and wrote those prophetic words down, excited about the uncertainty of their meaning. I simply trusted God to be God and was going to get out of the way. Now that August is over, I can testify that the Lord was true to his word.

One of the greatest ways August was awesome was in the way Jesus reminded me to keep the main thing the main thing. Nine years ago I received a commission to return from North Carolina to Mississippi following seminary. I knew then that my mission was to be part of a spiritual revival God was sending to Jackson, a revival that would also impact the social and political dimensions of our city and state. Admittedly I’ve been irregularly timid about that, at times fearing what others would say about this “weird” Christian who’s too smart to be weird. To be sure, I’ve long struggled with insecurities. Thinking myself to be unattractive and inadequate in my youth, I’ve often sold myself short and hesitated taking risks in education and in the Kingdom. Growing up relatively poor, at least in my earliest years, in a railroad town with few opportunities contributed to that sense of inferiority. And so did the constant and unfair comparisons I made of myself with others I thought to be “better” than me. What made things worse is that I came to know the Lord and accepted his gracious invitation to eternal life through the noisy crew of believers whose ecstatic lives were deemed by many religious people as superfluous spirituality. In other words, we heard that it doesn’t take all that, “all that” being jubilant worship, intense prayers coupled with fasting, and a life of holy modesty and expectation of divine interventions. Being peculiar in the Bible Belt is a rather odd adventure.

But the Lord has a thing for weird. In 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, Paul wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 

I therefore gladly trust the Lord to order my steps, and he has not led me wrong yet. From about 2000 until now I’ve had fifteen years of walking by faith, seeking Christ’s wisdom for where to go to college and seminary, who to marry, how to pastor, and so on. Trust me, I haven’t always gotten it right, especially when I try to “help God out.” But when I didn’t lean to my own understanding, God blew my mind.

I needed that reminder this August. It’s so tempting to be pulled toward every direction and to get lost in others’ expectations of ourselves. But I’ve regained my focus. Mystic Howard Thurman wonderfully stated, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” What makes me come alive is being an instrument of God’s peace and power, reforming his Church through his Word so that the Church can be the agent of salvation and renewal in communities desperately in need of love, light, and life. I am a preacher, pastor, and theologian before I am an advocate, life coach, or anything else that is important but not ultimate. That doesn’t mean that I won’t or don’t do other things: I’m still proud to be a professor, administrator, civic leader, and my greatest joys and responsibilities come from being a husband and father. We can drive in different lanes but we better know where we’re going and who’s getting us there. Thus I refuse to feel guilty if I can’t make every event, serve on every board, or speak on behalf of every movement that requests my influence. I must be selective and know that “no” is liberating. I’m sure this is true for you as well.

One way this truth was reinforced was through my participation in Stronger Together: A Night of Unity. I was humbled when Jerry Mannery, Executive Director of the Mississippi Mass Choir, called to get my insight about whether this was a good idea. I told him, in essence, that it was a God idea and that God’s hand was on it and gladly helped him bring his vision to pass. It was a night to remember and mutually uplifting. Nearly four thousand saints from myriad denominations and races came together under the shadow of the Cross to demonstrate that we are many members but one body in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). Baptists and Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites put aside differences to keep the main thing the main thing. God was glorified that night. And I was edified. Nine years later, after hearing God tell me I had to return home, I occupied a seat in a historic event that reminded me of my calling to bring together saints of all races, nationalities, and denominations for the glory of God and for the edification of Christ’s kingdom. A special blessing for me was to briefly tell how Mt Helm Baptist Church shares our history with First Baptist Church. One hundred and eighty years ago enslaved Africans worshipped in the church’s basement. That night I was able to stand in the pulpit once forbidden to my ancestors. What a mighty God we serve!

God is doing a new thing in Jackson. God is doing a new thing in Mississippi. I prayed and fasted during August and with renewed energy I feel like running on to see what the end is going to be.

May an awesome August give way to a spectacular September, not only for me, but for all who love the Lord and expect from him great and mighty things!

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Alcorn: Where Knowledge and Character Matter

Oakland

Courtesy WJTV News Channel 12

 

Ken Gordon, a master photographer and graduate of Alcorn State University (ASU), posted to his Facebook page a breathtaking video about his alma mater. The short film is an aerial survey of what Alcornites affectionately call “the Reservation”. There we see stately buildings with classic walls daring to stand on lush emerald hills and between peaceful valleys. The campus’ nearly 1,700 acres are shown, illustrating that Alcorn has the most naturally beautiful campus in the state. There is something indeed majestic and mystical about Lorman’s little slice of Paradise. I often hear from alumni and current scholars that there the air is a little cleaner, the water a little sweeter, and milk and honey flow freely beneath the shade of giant trees. I’m not sure about how the air and water quality compares to other places in the Magnolia State or the world, but there is something undeniably moving about this institutional gem situated in Southwest Mississippi.

Underneath its beauty is also resilience. Alcorn has been through much since 1871 but, as ASU History Research Associate Dr. Josephine M. Posey in her authoritative history notes, Alcorn has come against great odds and persevered. This is because her people are noble and of great faith in what’s possible. I soon discovered this when I arrived there in 2013. The bravery and fortitude of the students, faculty, staff, and alumni make this HBCU a standout in the SWAC and across the nation. It is also unique in another, deeper way. Though modern in many aspects, Alcorn still has the mystique of black universities of yesteryear when the agenda was both education and moral formation. In other words, at Alcorn we address head and heart because for us knowledge and character matter. Many of us image for students the respect and dignity we effortlessly deserve through our words, deeds, and clothes. Good manners, social etiquette, and a global perspective are mixed into the strong tradition of academics, agriculture, and athletics. Serving at Alcorn has been like stepping into a parallel universe of mores and folkways long forgotten or dismissed by those now too “evolved” to be old school. But it’s the dual purpose that makes us special.

This has been especially true regarding the respect for religion and religious leadership. By this I don’t mean that everyone at Alcorn is religious, or that every religious person walks the same spiritual path. We certainly have persons of different faiths and some who are skeptical of God-talk. But my time on the Reservation has been one marked by religious hospitality. I serve as Director of Student Religious Life, which means I coordinate the religious dimension of the student experience. Nonetheless students aren’t the only ones who value the presence of spiritual leadership. Staff, campus police, and faculty often call on me for guidance. And there are ways in which the religious vision of many Alcornites is old time: it’s big mama’s religion for the 21st century. Admittedly I enjoy being in a place that still holds mutual respect for clergy. I don’t feel like a figure head or a nod to a religious constituency. Many at ASU see religion at is best as valuable to the human experience, especially to the education and development of young (and not so young) men and women who need a moral compass as they navigate life and work.

I thus cherish being part of Alcorn’s fabric by cultivating the ethical and spiritual dimensions of students. This is not done forcefully but rather in invitational ways. In other words, we are not forcing people to be religious but inviting students and others to experience the good religion offers to body, soul, and mind in the context of higher learning. There are already students of deep faith or students seeking for deep faith who are alike interested in what we offer across the spectrum. Helping them find purpose and direction at one of the most pivotal junctures in their lives is fulfilling. And I’m privileged to offer that in a culture where I’m not a stranger because of my faith. I am mentor, coach, pastor-figure, and a safe and listening ear when needed.

For so many Alcornites faith has meant fortitude. Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams once told me that when she was a student at Alcorn chapel service was required. Students who be dragged out of their dorms and escorted to Oakland Memorial Chapel for worship and character formation. With all she has been through, she testified, it was her abiding faith in God that saw her through. Mother Myrlie knows that. I’m sure she and countless others knew that when they arrived to campus. There are others, however, who in varied ways get that while there. One of the blessings I receive each spring near the end of the Ethics course I teach is hearing students say that I taught them how to be better people. Without preaching to them (I think) I simply remind them that they are Alcorn Braves called to higher ethical excellence. Whether in the Chapel or in the classroom, they are learning that knowledge and character matter.  I am blessed to serve students (and others) of diverse faiths and to do so on a campus where faith, character, and spiritual life are explored and seen as important dimensions to educational vocation. In a speedily secularizing nation, I hope Alcorn will continue to demonstrate that a quality education must address the whole person. I believe we will.

And that is why Alcorn State University will remain a giant in learning’s band.

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Learning What Counts

MFM

As part of the national Million Father March, I was pleased to put on a suit and, with Allison, take Duke and Jozy to New Hope Christian Preschool for their first day of class. The twins were also dressed in “vest and tie” and were ready to begin their first semester at one of this country’s finest Christian educational institutions. Founded in the 1980s, New Hope Christian School (NHCS) holistically ministers to preK-6th grade students and their parents. As Dr. Jerry Young, the school’s headmaster, often says, NHCS not only teaches children how to count but also what counts. Believing that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) they “assist Christian parents in fulfilling their God-given responsibility to educate and train their children by providing them with a God-centered, Christ-honoring education.” Thus, the school’s mission is to “prepare students for life as Christian role models and leaders who choose character before career, wisdom before scholarship, and service before self.” These are a few reasons Allison and I chose to educate our sons at New Hope. We want Duke and Jozy to be smart, well-rounded people. Most of all, we want them to be God-fearing men who will one day confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus is Lord. Being in an environment like NHCS academically extends the foundation we are laying for the boys at home.

Being a parent, pastor, and especially professor reinforces my conviction regarding the need for comprehensive Christian education in the formative years. As the Director of Religious Life at Alcorn State University, I stress to students our institution’s motto: Where Knowledge and Character Matter. Both knowledge and character are essential to true education. One without the other is deficient. It’s best to get that truth when we are young but no time is too late to absorb its power. This is no less true for me when I teach Ethics in the spring. Every Alcorn scholar who comes into my class knows that I’m interested in making them smarter and more ethical. I want them to make better life decisions, to reflect on their choices, and to treat themselves and others with respect and dignity. It blesses me when students tell me how much they learned—about the subject and about themselves—as result of the class. This will hopefully be part of our twins’ DNA going forward.

C. S. Lewis quipped, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. maintained that intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. There was a time when our society as a whole would nod in agreement, even say “Amen,” to both of these statements. But over the last few decades we have become more pragmatic and career-oriented about education. We seem to have abandoned a love for learning for learning’s sake and a sense of how education can make us better people. Though New Hope is certainly not the only school reminding us of the importance of character education, it is certainly a welcomed interruption to our contemporary sensibilities. Whether on Main Street or Wall Street, we need to once again educate people in ways that make all of us people of virtue and not vice.

There are surely less expensive ways to make sure Duke and Jozy have a solid Christian worldview through formal education. I often joke that for what Allison and I pay for preschool our sons should be able to walk on water, among other things. But it’s worth it. As a product of public schools I want Duke and Jozy to benefit from a Jackson Public School education as well (because I’m that committed to Jackson). In the meantime, I unapologetically submit my children to the character and content formation they are getting at NHCS. If the trend continues, they will be reading well beyond grade level and be exposed to arts and sciences early on. This is because NHCS is committed to “high academic standards for each student, with the expectation that all can succeed.” Duke and Jozy will also be tutored in responsible, moral agency and the good news is that they will be intelligent and wise, just like their daddy (and mommy too).

The way the world is going, there can be no better start to our sons’ life than an excellent Christian education from New Hope Preschool.

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A Thinking Man’s Religion: A Religion I Can Feel Sometimes

Altar

Me, with Allison, at the altar after a mighty move of God.

“Given your faith tradition, why did you major in Philosophy?”

That was the question my professor asked as we walked together across the University of Mississippi’s campus. I was a sophomore who only recently changed my major from International Studies to Philosophy. He was getting to know me better and his question presumed that students from Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal backgrounds were suspicious of the subject, thinking it would challenge their cherished beliefs. But I don’t think he was trying to insult me, the only black student majoring in Philosophy at the time. As philosophers often do, he was simply trying to get answers.

I told him that my faith was strong. I had been an agnostic during my teenage years and a radical encounter with God opened me up to mysteries that can’t be evaded by science or philosophy. I was also called into the Gospel ministry and that too was a miracle. Majoring in Philosophy would help me in attempting to explain to others what I experienced, so that they too may come to faith in Jesus Christ. I was a man of many questions and I didn’t want shallow answers to them. I was sure others wanted deeper answers too.

My professor was satisfied with my response. He was not seeking to turn me into an agnostic once more. I think he found it both odd and inspiring that a man of deep faith did not shy away from deep inquiries.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a thinker. I read voraciously. I have more books than clothes. Bookstores and coffee shops feel like a second home. Colleagues recently nicknamed me “Professor” and it was thus fitting that I be employed by Alcorn to teach Ethics. Well read, well dressed, and well mannered, I fit the respectability politics of the black bourgeois even though I’m a country boy at heart.

But what confuses people is that I also have a religion I can feel. A religion in which signs and wonders are so common they are ordinary. Dreams, visions, prophetic utterances. Worship that lifts you into the third heaven. An unshakeable commitment to the crucified and literally, bodily, and historically resurrected Lord Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. I have seen bodies healed, demons cast out, alcoholics sober up by the power of God. Mines is not the thinking man’s religion, so I’m told. But I wouldn’t have a religion I couldn’t feel sometimes. It was good enough for Paul and Silas. It is good enough for millions of Christians in Latin America and Africa and Asia. It is good enough for me.

In my life I have connected religion of the head with religion of the heart (and religion of the hand). Many see me civically engaged or writing blogs and articles. They think I’m all hand or head. But what really motivates all of that is the heart religion God gave me when I was seventeen. It was a peace and power for which I long sought. I grew up thinking the religion of my youth was nothing more than therapy that kept people unchanged and in their places. Some of that is true. And that must change. But what the Lord gave me in the twilight of my high school years was life altering. And even when I tried to run from it, God had a way of chasing me. Even after I received the call to ministry I resisted because I was only a few months away from moving from Hazlehurst to Oxford for college. Growing up a sheltered kid, I didn’t want to be branded as the preacher boy. But in God’s providence, a woman of God who never met me before had a word from the Lord: “The Lord said stop running!” You can’t hide from God.

I long for justice and human flourishing. I want everyone to have good food for nourishing, a safe home for shelter, a viable career. I want Mississippi to move from the bottom to the top. I want jobs, entrepreneurship, a creative economy, and shared prosperity for all our citizens. I want a broken criminal justice system fixed and I want excellent education and adequate healthcare for everyone.

But if that’s all we have, it’s not enough.

More than anything I want every soul to encounter the God I met for real when I was seventeen. I want God to radically change lives in ways that no government, business, education, or culture can.

I want others to have a religion they can think through, a religion they can feel.

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Black and Purple: A Better Way Forward

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad took me to see the Honorable Louis Farrakhan when the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader visited Jackson. I was much younger, probably in elementary school, and very unaware of the significance of attending the event. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall anything about it, including Min. Farrakhan’s message. What has remained with me was the shock I experienced when security searched me and my brother for weapons. I can still see that table weighed down with glocks, rifles, and other arsenal. Following the event, or maybe before we gained entrance, I asked dad why did they have to search children. He replied by sharing with me that many persons attempting to kill Farrakhan would put weapons on their children to conceal their murderous intentions. My younger mind was blown.

Though I remember nothing about the event itself, I would hear the Minister’s messages several times thereafter. A local public access channel aired his sermons. One of my high school English classes let us watch the Million Man March live. Though I understand that Farrakhan is much reviled by many Americans, including blacks, I have resonated with much of (though not everything) he has shared in the messages, interviews, and articles I’ve been able to watch and read.

My latest viewing came while watching the Empowerment Encounter on The Word Network. The live show is hosted by Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant, founder/pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple. Bryant is both a neo-Pentecostal African Methodist Episcopal (AME) televangelist and a rising leader in justice movements. He has been on the frontlines of rallies for justice for Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. In his interview with Farrakhan he shared that during the Baltimore uprising he, along with other pastors, helped forge a peace treaty between warring gangs. He was thereafter convicted by the division between churches and the chasm between Christians and Muslims. In order for there to be a sustainable peace and justice movement in Baltimore, Bryant affirmed, both the church and the mosque would have to overcome legitimate disagreements in order to demonstrate greater solidarity. That is why Pastor Bryant invited the Nation of Islam minister and promoted the Justice or Else March on Washington, a follow up to the Million Man March which will embrace our sisters in the struggle.

There are deep theological and cultural differences between many black churches and the Nation of Islam. That fissure is well known and we shouldn’t ignore what distinctly defines each institutions. What may be less known is how much we share in common, especially in our progressive conservatism. To be sure, Farrakhan offered a vision for family, education, and spiritual maturity that was truly prophetic and reminded us of the collective strength blacks had in de jure Jim Crow America. Many would dismiss his views on parenting, cultural competent education, and the like as archaic and conservative. I see them as the latter, but not in a negative sense. Let me go on the record and say there are many things we as a people need to conserve. All progress ain’t progress if we’re going in the wrong direction. Though I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he said, the overall shape of his thought articulated things I’ve been feeling for a long time. The “socially engineered savagery” (his words) that plagues so many urban and rural places with violence and moral decay is the result of sophisticated and calculated mental wars waged against the dignity of black flesh. And we are buying into it, accepting it as the new normal, and not resisting in ways we did decades ago, he avers. There are notable exceptions, of course. The Black Lives Matter movement, and related movements of Millennials, are signs of hope, signs desperately needed today.

If Farrakhan left his message there, FOX News would draft him as a regular pundit to speak about black pathology. But there is more. He talked about the failures of the GOP to radically address racial justice and their betrayal of the Party’s founding principles. Though he celebrated Donald Trump for being the only unbought candidate in the race (because he’s got his own wealth), he was shy of endorsing him for President, stating that Trump is wrong on race and poverty. This seething critique of the nearly twenty folks vying for the Republican nomination distinguishes the conservatism of the Nation of Islam from the post-racial conservatism of someone like Dr. Ben Carson.

And if the Minister left his critique there MSNBC would have him on every night. But there was more. He talked about how the Democratic Party has persistently betrayed black America behind. He went as far as saying that our people vote overwhelmingly Democratic but we are by-and-large still a servile constituency. Railing against the Clintons, he further lamented how liberal policies have created co-dependency rather than liberation in black communities throughout our nation. Blacks remain the good and faithful servants of the Democratic Party to our disregard, Farrakhan warned.

This conservativism with radical critique of Empire, or progressive conservatism, as I see it, is much more aligned to most of black Mississippi than what is popularly noted in the press and academy. Yes, we have for about 50 years voted overwhelmingly Democratic, but we share many GOP social values. But we are also born behind the veil of racial terror and therefore resist the race neutrality and dog whistle Confederate sympathies of Lincoln’s Party and its Tea Party offspring. Many of us, especially those of us who are Christian and aware of our blackness in this nation, are more purple than we are red or blue. We are black and purple.

As a Christian black man I sit back and ponder where we are and where do we go from here. Minister Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam gave me a lot to think about. I hope we in the Church will ruminate over these things, have a more united voice, and by the help of God redeem our churches, families, schools, and cities right here in Mississippi. When we move beyond pulpit cliché and partisan talking points then we will be prophetic enough to call ourselves back from idolatry, immorality, and injustice. May Jesus, the resurrected and living Lord of all, give us the courage to speak the truth in love and act justly as we walk humbly with our God.

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