“Out of the mouth of babes… hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies…”
“…Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise.”
We have just finished midterms and I haven’t written anything thus far this semester, primarily because this semester has been one of extreme academic rigor and therefore is required a higher level of focus on school work. I warn all current and future students of the Interdenominational Theological Center, do not take Intro. to New Testament Greek, Preaching in the African American Tradition, and Church History I concurrently. Nonetheless, I have risen to the challenge and am glad to admit that I am doing well academically. However, every now and then, God allows you to experience things that make you really sit back and think, meditate, and pray. I understand the vulnerability of testifying; however, I believe firmly that we “overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony.” So, I hope that my transparency will aid someone in their journey toward ministry. Last Sunday Night while visiting Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ for their regular evening service, a young Morehouse College student by the name of “Josh” gave the sermon. Friday Night, while visiting Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ for their GloryFest Revival, I was allowed the privilege of hearing Min. Torey Fountain, a 15-year-old Baptist minister, render the sermon from the topic “A Work in Progress.” Forty-Eight hours later during Sunday Morning Eucharist at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, a youth, Mr. David Winston, rendered the sermon from the topic “Not to be Served, but Serve.” Looking at these young people accepting and operating in their divine calling brought back memories of my early years in ministry, both good and bad.
I was licensed to preach at the age of 16. During the time when most people my age were concerned about who they were taking to the prom or when the next Usher CD was coming out, I had given my life to good, not only for salvation, but at an even deeper level, in the area of service via ministry in the Lord’s church. What possessed me to do at such a young age, I have no idea; however, I was obedient to the Spirit of God and walked confidently, yet warily into vocation. Theologian Frederick Buechner describes one’s vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I knew from a young age that I was called, and therefore I would submit, to be God’s vessel for ministry; however, I had no idea what all that would entail. Following my then church’s Baptist tradition, I gave my initial sermon and was from there on thrust into the limelight as what many considered a exemplary youth, an example to my peers, and the son so many wish they had. Young preachers are celebrated at “Gospel Savants,” possessors of such great insight and wisdom despite lacking in years. We are celebrated, yet we are also terrified. We struggle to cram the ever expanding self into the role to which we have been called. When I arrived at school that Monday, word had already circulated that had transcended the realm of normal youth and had stepped into a realm dominated by men two or three times my age – I had become a Preacher.
No one told me about the rough road that lied ahead. No one warned me of the trials and the tribulations that would be the mainstay of my journey up to this point – trials and tribulations that transcended the normal pubescent angst that accompanies so many young people. In my maturity, I don’t place the blame on anyone because my entrance into the sacred courts of ministry was a new – I broke a glass ceiling. I was a pioneer for people in ministry, I was willing to engage this area as a young person. As I grew in ministry, I was concomitantly growing in my personhood, my “be-ing.” Growing up in high school, because of my new vocation, I was not invited to share in the rites of passage of other people my age (Senior Skip Day, After Prom Parties, etc.) and operated in a sphere all my own, a sphere of loneliness. Vicki Winans is famous for a song, “As Long as I got King Jesus, I don’t Need nobody else” to which I would have to disagree. As a being existing in an eternal community (God as Trinity – Creator, Son, Holy Spirit), God likewise created us to be in community, not only with Godself, but with each other. In Meditation XVII , John Donne, Anglican Priest and English Poet, states, “No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main.” Centuries later, Karl Barth, Modern Theologian, claims that while are individuals selves, we are parts of a more inclusive whole and therefore we straddle the continuum between nurturing the self and sharing in communion with others. The individualistic theology proffered by Vicki Winans’ gospel song does not accurately describe our relationship to one another as individual selves within the human family. Conversely, Hezekiah Walker’s gospel song, “I need you to survive” posits a relationship between humanity that stresses an interconnectedness, a interdependence among each other. As a young person growing up, we become who we are through the affirmation of our peers; however, with the lack thereof, I had to rely on older people to affirm me, which was also difficult.
I was the youngest of a staff of ministers who spanned in age, including me, from puberty to the Golden Years. I struggled to find my niche, but I guess that can be said of any new minister. Entering ministry involved a nadir period in which the minister has entered this sacred space, yet doesn’t yet know how to navigate this space or where one fits in this space. Every time I was given the opportunity to preach, people would say, “You Preach like a 50-year-old man” or “You preach like a man twice your age.” While reflecting on this in my maturity I realize that they might have been referring to three different phenomena at work in the preaching moment. First, the content of my messages were derived from messages that I had heard, a conglomeration of what I had heard every sunday at my home church. Second, the “anointing” under which I operated and navigated through the preaching moment was not customary of a young person, but was more like that of an older minister. Third, and similar to the second phenomenon, the style under which I preached was based on what I had seen, no necessarily at my church, but in the larger Baptist-dom. The thing that lacked in all three of these phenomena was a voice and style that fundamentally my own.
While listening to the three young ministers, I noticed something that reflected my own experience – young ministers are often the carbon copy of the impression of ministry they are shown grown up. Think of us as lumps of clay. As we are exposed to, and therefore engage in, ministry we begin to reflect exactly what we are shown – we become carbon copies of our pastors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does warrant reflection. Take for example Min. Torey Fountain. He clearly came from a Bap-tecostal upbringing that focuses much on freedom from sin and personal piety (in which we will get into later). He spoke about resisting temptation and about enduring the process – clearly themes that as a 16 year-old he is just beginning to experience. “Josh” spoke from a COGIC background which clearly emphasizes refraining from worldly behavior and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus. Mr. David Winston, from an Anglican/Episcopal background which emphasizes ministry as service and the job of all baptized believers engage in this ministry of selflessness, preached about this very subject. If you ever hear a young person preach, you likewise hear their pastor. This is a phenomena which is not new, but one that must be examined as we look at the ministerial progression of young ministers.
While matriculating through the hallowed halls of Johnson C. Smith University, I was actively involved in the Religious Life Program. We did everything. We participated in Youth Worship services with churches in the Charlotte area. We sponsored evening worship services on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University and on one of these occasions, our then University Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Smith (graduate of Johnson C. Smith Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center) commented that I had yet to find my own voice, that I sounded like a carbon copy of my pastor. Immediately, this struck me as a negative critique. I had been studying the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisolm and these great leaders of the African American community operated in such a prophetic capacity because they found their own voices. While struggling to nurture my individual self against the image that people compared me too, I had settled in an area where my own voice had yet to be found, my own niche had not been carved out, my own ministry was not my own but a copy of what I was accustomed to. What was this voice, well using Susan Bond’s paradigm in her book Contemporary African American Preaching: Diversity in Theory and Style, I will systematically attempt to name and quantify that voice. Bond, assistant professor of homiletics and liturgics at Vanderbilt Divinity School (my first choice for doctoral studies in the aforementioned subject area), highlights the diversity that can be found in African American preaching by opening conversation between preeminent African American preachers (such as Gardner C. Taylor, James Forbes, Henry Mitchell, Ella Mitchell, and Teresa Fry-Brown) based on the following categories: “Nature of the Gospel,” “Purpose of Preaching,” “Relationship Between Preaching and Scripture,” “Relationship between Testaments,” “”Nature and Purpose of Faith Communities,” “Relationship Between Preaching and Liturgy,” “Preaching and African American Studies,” “Preaching and Language Studies.” Now, for the sake of brevity, I will not analyze this “voice” using all of the previous categories, I will simply analyze this “voice” based on the following criteria: “Nature of the Gospel,” “Purpose of Preaching,” “Nature and Purpose of Faith Communities,” and “Preaching and Liturgy.”
When it comes to the “Nature of the Gospel,” I had been brought up to view the Gospel as a liberating in the sense that Jesus’ message came to set us free from sin. Now, I will not indulge in an in depth study of harmatiology, or the nature of sin; however, I will state that sin was defined as actions that distanced one from God, actions such as drinking alcoholic beverages, engaging in pre-marital sex, cursing, homosexuality, etc. Christ’s entire message dealt with freeing us from our natural human propensity to fall away from God’s laws and fall into sin. Therefore the “Purpose of Preaching” was to expound upon this message in a way that hearers/listeners were encouraged to abstain from sin and follow God. I preached in order to convert because I had been brought up thinking that that was primary reason for preaching – to convert poor sinners from their eternal destiny of damnation. That was clearly seen in the fact that my initial sermon was entitled, “Gotta Get Right” in which I engaged in a discourse about the relationship between God’s presence and our sinful actions. Therefore, the “Purpose of Faith Communities” would follow LeRue’s (Bond relies heavily on Cleophus LeRue’s The Heart of Black Preaching, which identifies five domains as dynamics of Black biblical hermeneutic) classification of Personal Piety. According to LeRue, “Personal piety is the most common domain, emphasizing ‘heart religion,’ the centrality of the Bible for faith and life, the royal priesthood of laity, and strict morality.” The church, then, followed Bond’s Sanctuary Modelwhich was mostly otherworldly in focus and in which members were summoned to withdraw from the surrounding, sinful world and “take respite in a community of like-minded individuals.” Part of that respite involved the constant affirmation of the overwhelming moral-decay and subsequent sinfulness of the world and the impending judgement of God on humanity as a whole and sinners as individuals. This was brought about via the centrality of the preaching moment, not uncommon in much of Protestantism. The Pastor, the carrier of the sacred and affirming message, was the central focus of the service. The entire worship experience was centered around the messenger who would answer the question “Is their a word from the Lord?” Now, I will not enter into a dialectic about the inferiority or superiority of that “voice.” Instead, we will suffice it to say that it was not my voice. It was included in my embedded theology, and theology that has largely been replaced by a more deliberative theology through the seminary process.
Entering seminary was a scary process, but one I knew was necessary. I had reached a crises moment in my faith journey, in my ministerial focus. I was searching for my voice. I believe God can speak through a variety of mediums, and one way in which God spoke to me was through Beyonce’s song “Listen.” In this song, Beyonce cries out for someone to hear her voice, a voice that spoke from the depths of her being, a voice the encompassed all of her, a voice that stood in diametrical opposition to the voice she had been given.
I too was looking for my voice. I was searching for a process that would allow me to search through the recesses of my soul and find my voice, a voice that would bring forth “perfected praise.” A voice that sounded like a 22-year-old (now 23), young man on a spiritual journey to commune with the deity. A voice that challenges oppression in society and in the church. A voice that reflects my post-modern context in which the orthodoxy is becoming more and more challenged by views of people who claim an equal assertion of orthodoxy. A voice that resounds more and more with the diversity of humanity and affirms the beauty thereof. A voice that understands that relativity would render Christian truths false because if everything is true, then nothing is true, but a voice that also knows that without a conversation between Christianity and it’s context, this faith, my faith, would become a pillar of salt amidst a world being destroyed, not by the wrath of an angry God, but by the sins of greed, materialism, selfishness, hatred, and ignorance. A voice that restores hope and value to those the church had case aside as “sinners” and “reprobates” via a doctrine and an understanding that existed before people understood human sexuality. A voice that would push the church out an overwhelmingly otherworldly and therefore accomadationalist role into a more activist role in which the church spoke out for the least, the lost, and the left out. A voice that speaks out against “Pastor-idolotry” and pointed to the eternal and eminent presence of God. A voice that is heterodox to some, but a voice finding a niche and operating in the prophetic capacity it was meant to.
So I have spent much time reflecting this week. Reflecting on my early days in ministry and where I am now. And in this reflection I offered the following prayer:
God who created me and subsequently ordained for your service in your church, in your creation, grant me grace that I may find this voice inside of me. Grant me courage to speak when others attempt to silence me. Grant me strength for this process of finding this voice. Grant me peace in the storms that will accompany this life of ministry. God grant other young people engaged in ministry the same courage to find their voices, to speak a contemporary word to a world deeply in need of your abiding presence. Guide their feet as they run this race so that they won’t run this race in vain. Be with them when the road is rough and the discouragements of life begin to seep into their minds. Be a constant aid as endeavor to do your will. Amen.
The Word of Marcus for the People of God…