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Not Waiting for Superman

November 16, 2010

My brother and clergy colleague Kenneth Thrasher, pastor of The Church Exalted in Hazlehurst, MS, asked me the following question: “[…] now that you’re at the “helm” of Mt. Helm, what’s your chartered course(s) in these areas?” He was referring to my statement that I hoped education, racial politics, and the role of young leadership would change in MS. I took time to respond to his question by addressing Mt Helm’s focus on education and economic empowerment. My response follows:

 

We’re still discerning how God will lead us specifically, but I’ve prioritized education and economic empowerment as our missional goals for the next 5 years. We will be an ambassador for educational excellence, advocating for creative reform and a more holistic approach to 0-21 yr old cultivation. As a church, I believe we are charged to empower young ppl with the spiritual and moral foundations they need to understand their value, overcome meaninglessness, and envision destiny. We will also seek to diplomatically connect various stakeholders (parents, teachers, education advocates, etc.) from public, private, charter school grade and collegiate communities. We will also help educate and empower ppl to be gainfully employed through trainings, mentoring, dress for success, and most importantly, through helping our communities understand and then enact the power of entrepreneurship. All of this, of course, will be a collaborative effort between our church and other faith communities and public-private friendships.

This is not a thorough answer but begins to articulate my vision for our church’s initiative for educational excellence and economic empowerment in our communities.

Your ideas, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Your contributions to this conversation will assist us in our mission to “demonstrate and provide Christian transformative leadership in our city, our state, and our world in the power of the Spirit.”

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Free to BE Me: Living Authentically in Ministry

November 4, 2010

“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) or, and more tempting, to be seduced into being what church folk 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. 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.

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 take profound courage to not say Amen to this peculiar culture in which preachers bear witness to Jesus. I wanted to get invited back to preach, I wanted to be loved. Somewhere in my decade of ministry, however, I came to a liberating moment. Instead of seeking to please people, I now seek to please God. 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; other 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 others 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.

Pastors as Christian Educators

October 15, 2010

from Will Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (p 71)

There is much to be said for the pastor being educated in the classical forms of Christian ministry.  The church has much experience as a minority movement.  We need to draw from that experience today.  In that regard, I predict a recovery of the classical shape of ministry: to teach, to preach, and to evangelize through the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order.  I sense the end of a proliferation of ministerial duties and a reclamation of the essential classical tasks of Christian ministry.  Because so many of our people have not been well formed in the faith, pastors now must stress doctrine, the classical texts of our faith, our master narratives, the great themes.  The culture is no longer a prop for the church.  If we are going to make Christians, we must have a new determination to inculcate the faith.  In some ways our age parallels that of the Reformation, in which the church was faced with a vast undereducated, uninformed, unformed laity and clergy.  Pastors must be prepared to lead in catechesis, moral formation, and the regeneration of God’s people.

The Genesis of the ‘Black’ Church

October 14, 2010

What follows is an excerpt from PBS.org’s “God in America: The Black Church.” It details the origins of the black church from the time the first enslaved Africans, many of them Catholic, came to the so-called “New World.”

New historical evidence documents the arrival of slaves in the English settlement in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. They came from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, in present-day Angola and the coastal Congo. In the 1500s, the Portuguese conquered both kingdoms and carried Catholicism to West Africa. It is likely that the slaves who arrived in Jamestown had been baptized Catholic and had Christian names. For the next 200 years, the slave trade exported slaves from Angola, Ghana, Senegal and other parts of West Africa to America’s South. Here they provided the hard manual labor that supported the South’s biggest crops: cotton and tobacco.

In the South, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded in England, made earnest attempts to teach Christianity by rote memorization; the approach had little appeal. Some white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in the balconies. Occasionally persons of African descent might hear a special sermon from white preachers, but these sermons tended to stress obedience and duty, and the message of the apostle Paul: “Slaves, obey your masters.”

Both Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed black men to preach. During the 1770s and 1780s, black ministers began to preach to their own people, drawing on the stories, people and events depicted in the Old and New Testaments. No story spoke more powerfully to slaves than the story of Exodus, with its themes of bondage and liberation brought by a righteous and powerful God who would one day set them free.

Remarkably, a few black preachers in the South succeeded in establishing independent black churches. In the 1780s, a slave named Andrew Bryan preached to a small group of slaves in Savannah, Ga. White citizens had Bryan arrested and whipped. Despite persecution and harassment, the church grew, and by 1790 it became the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. In time, a Second and a Third African Church were formed, also led by black pastors.

In the North, blacks had more authority over their religious affairs. Many worshipped in established, predominantly white congregations, but by the late 18th century, blacks had begun to congregate in self-help and benevolent associations called African Societies. Functioning as quasi-religious organizations, these societies often gave rise to independent black churches. In 1787, for example, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones organized the Free African Society of Philadelphia, which later evolved into two congregations: the Bethel Church, the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, which remained affiliated with a white Episcopal denomination. These churches continued to grow. Historian Mary Sawyer notes that by 1810, there were 15 African churches representing four denominations in 10 cities from South Carolina to Massachusetts.

In black churches, women generally were not permitted to preach. One notable exception was Jarena Lee, who became an itinerant preacher, traveling thousands of miles and writing her own spiritual autobiography.

(http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/black-church/)

Water Walking Leadership

October 13, 2010

Michael Jones states, “We are entering a time when the primary leadership challenges will not be technical, but transformational. It is a time when leaders will fail, not because of a lack of strategy or resources, but from a failure of imagination.” I agree with him on all but one point: we’re not entering a time for the need for transformational leadership…we’ve already arrived there.

Leadership today isn’t about having all the right answers; it’s about possessing the ability to ask the right questions. It’s about having the kind of imagination that glimpses the future and courageously and creatively guides others from the “already” toward the “not yet.” Leaders shouldn’t be so concerned with certainty, with having all the necessary facts, but with being creative agents of transformation.

This doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t make informed decisions, but it does mean that some leadership requires leaps of faith. Our world desperately needs leaders who like the Apostle Peter can think outside the boat and dare to walk on water. Yes, we may falter if we get distracted by the stuff whirling around us. But, as the old saying goes, I’d rather risk failing than saying I never tried.

The world is changing all around us and we need people who can usher in a different kind of leadership for a different world. Courageous imagination and ideas will help get us there. Of course this means that those who provide this fresher style of leading will be initially ridiculed. We still joke on Peter for nearly drowning after he got off the boat. But guess what? While the other disciples were too afraid to get off the boat, Peter, if briefly, did walk on water! His faith was momentarily misdirected by the winds and the waves, but for a marvelous moment Peter defied the impossible. Those of us willing to defy the limitations of present realities will walk on water and undoubtedly influence others to do the same.

A Balanced Love

October 13, 2010

In Scripture, Jesus tells his followers to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love isn’t a shallow, syrupy sentimentality. It is often translated into justice, for in the words of philosopher Cornel West, justice is what love looks like in public.

But justice is also concerned with balance and fairness, hence the symbol of the scales. We shouldn’t only seek fairness and balance in traditional understandings of justice (that is, the sociopolitical) but also in every dimension of life. If we are to love God, self, and others holistically, we have to take very seriously the various ways this is accomplished. Too often people (and I’m specifically speaking to self-identified Christians) will discriminate between what parts of this command they’ll take seriously. Church fights and splits, denominationalism and political partisanship all stem from this. We cherry pick what we like about a balanced life with God and leave the rest to someone else.

We’re concerned with justice but not Jesus. We want worship with no work. We like forgiveness but hate faithfulness.

Or we love Christ but have no concern for culture. We despise sin but not when its societal. We disdain God’s adoration but always expect our egos affirmed.

This either/or Christianity isn’t healthy. The same Bible that speaks of personal responsibility speaks of communal and societal responsibility.  It denounces the sins of individuals and the sins of entire nations. It speaks of wisdom and knowledge as well as mystery and ecstasy.

We need a more balanced, both/and, approach to loving God, self, and others with everything we’ve got. We must love justly.

Sailing ‘There’ on Five Ships

October 12, 2010

Going deeper sounds good, but you may be asking how we’re going to get there. With the help of God, we’ll go deeper in every way imaginable through what our pastor has called Our Five Ships:

Bold Leadership – We will be courageously Spirit-led, allowing God to produce through us the personal and social renewal we desperately need.

Life-Changing Worship – Only God can truly change us, and we’ll be transformed by the only One worthy of our worship.

Costly Discipleship – Knowing that the Lord calls us to a Kingdom way of life, we’ll nurture spiritual maturity through biblical teaching and service.

Faithful Stewardship – Everything we have is a gift from God. We’ll use our time, talent, treasure, and truth in ways that glorify our Creator.

Intentional Fellowship – Jesus prayed that his disciples would be unified. We’ll strive for a beloved community, loving across any and all barriers that separate us from God and each other.

With the Spirit blowing in our sails, we’ll navigate across life’s stormy waters to a deeper place in God to his glory.