A Few Thoughts: Thinking Through Ephesians 6:13

There is always the thought: when is something going to change.
I have been toiling the roads of theology, ministry and church for over 20 years: I have been through 5 church plants/church renewals, I have been a part of a pastoral staff at an all-white Lutheran church, endured a racist candidacy process with people whom claim to love the same God as me, I have sat in rooms with Bishops/prophets/apostles/elders, I have had conversations with some of the greatest theologians in the country, I have interviewed at more churches than I care to admit and applied to more than I remember, and I am entering my second semester of a PhD. in Theology and Ethics. And, I ask myself, what am I missing?
I am not sure but I keep plugging until something changes. I have been told that maybe that is God’s way of telling you that you should be doing something else. All these doors keep getting slammed in your face, when will you get the message that God does not want you in the church. God keeps closing the doors so that you will move on to something else. My reply, “Maybe you are right but I’m going to walk this out a little while longer.”
I felt like writing today because I needed to express where I am in my soul. This is where I am in my soul. It is that moment when you have made all the moves you can make, now you wait for God to make the next move. Having done all the stand…stand. (Ephesians 6:13)
The church and the academy are tricky places to understand even when they, supposedly, represent God.

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Late Night Reflection of the Gospel

The implicit search for truth is an uncanny presentation of courage. One must muster the power to see past their own myopic point of tension in order to develop a plan of change. It is change that we struggle with not difference. Change requires a total rebuilding of what we have held on to for so long while difference recalls upon past or present realities that will inform. Change calls for reformation instead of acceptance. For most it is easy to accept people but it is hard to change ones heart about what they have done. The old cliché, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is parenthetically used to soften the ugliness that we harbor within our Christianized hearts.

The body of Christ has mangled the relational aspects of the Gospel and pawn them off as cheap jewelry. We have forgotten how to love with unadulterated, fierce intensity but replaced it with rhetorical sidesteps of utopia – “skubala.” The Gospel presents love with a captive freedom that harnesses beauty. It invites us all to the table of the Eucharist/Communion with the intention of robbing us of our pride, misconduct and hatred in order to pollute us with sharing, honesty and love. It is the Gospel that renders us to places where we may not understand but allows us to wrestle with the Spirit of God to unpack our confusion.

The body of Christ has conflated the Gospel with self-righteousness only to find that they are violently incompatible. The Gospel is only suitable for a perichoretic situation that represents community with high awareness. The importance of self is lost in the push to secure love for all. There is no self-identification due to the overshadowing pursuit of community –no one is free until everyone is free. If we lived within that frame of thought greed, hunger, and racism would be wiped out by the next day.

That is the Gospel –the anomaly of the church.

Welcome to the Fraternity

The tragicomedy played out in life is one filled with constant shifts and triumphs. The price of the ticket to experience the opportunity to explore what it means to come and dwell with us (John1:14) –the incarnation –is one that is a life changing event. There is a real and present danger that resonates within the incarnation though triumphant for the masses, it is potentially deadly for the one called to incarnate.

To live a life where you are called to live out the incarnation, existentially, is a life where service is greater than salary. This prophetic presence speaks of a revolutionary, radical fellowship that invites all to experience the high call of leadership of dying empty. The capacity to understand with extreme levels of empathy that surpasses the superficial and misguided sympathy exists as strange fruit in the life of one who stands with courage. It is the effort to exude courage within a framework that is systematically engineered to destroy those who take a stand. This vocation where theology places you in the center of an incarnational moment en route to an introduction with a revolutionary paideia –the process of educating man/woman into his true form, the real and genuine human nature. Cornel West simplifies it with these words

“..I would just characterize it as moving from the superficial to the substantial, moving from the frivolous to the serious, and then cultivating a self to wrestle with reality and history and mortality and, most importantly, promoting a maturation of the soul.”

The incarnational, paideia experience re-informs thinking and reshapes the narrative. Meaning becomes more subjective in previous places where it materialized as rhetoric. The cost of experience becomes a soul-wrenching testament that speaks through a closed mouth. This theo-tainment of beholding takes a real presence as others begin to perceive how God through the hardship of life refashions the heart. Dr. Martin Luther King encounters this moment while sitting at his kitchen table,

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”

“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.” I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

We all have moments in our lives when the call of God becomes an existential reality. We are part of the sovereign plan that God has orchestrated to produce his will. The method may be extremely chaotic from our vantage point but ultimately it places us in the impetus of what will evidently need.

Over the past year, I have encountered such an experience with God. I have been through some of the lowest times of my life to the point that I contemplated taken my own life. It seemed that everything continued to get worse and worse as the weeks went by. It then culminated with me be arrested for something that I didn’t do and spending some time in jail. That time changed me more than I realized. At the age of 40, I have never been in handcuffs. Yes, I have seen many people go to jail as well as work their way through the judicial system. But until my experience, I could never understand the lingering aftermath of jail until I went. Though I was innocent, I had the experience that reshape my entire narrative.

As I navigated through the murky waters of confusion and pondering the” why me”, I received some good wisdom. My friend, professor and mentor said to me, “Brian, welcome to the fraternity.” He started to unpack a system that has proclivities to place all black men in handcuffs at least once in their lives. His disquieting connections help me make sense out of the senseless. It was doing my incarnational,paideia experience where I had to the chance to see first-hand what injustice looks like from another perspective other than being black. Now, I was black in handcuffs (feet and hands) and was treated as if I was truly the wretched of the earth. As I talk with young brothers –black ,white and Mexican –my heart was troubled at the criminal element that governed their entire mental model. They were comfortable with being incarcerated.

As I laid on the steel bed, I reflected upon Jesus coming and dwelling with us on Earth. I thought that it had to be something special for him to allow himself to be incarnated into a place that was so foreign to him as jail was foreign to me. The ability to display love at such a high order in an unfamiliar place brought a sense of urgency that I have been unable to shake. Being incarnated into that jail made me come to some realization that the church is losing, and losing bad.

This new fraternity is not one that we celebrate but one that we hold with extreme empathy. It is one where the danger of incarnation becomes a burden and our greek letters are…

agape

That is word agape’ which means love…Dr. Martin Luther King articulates agape with these words:

Agape is not weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.

So as I crossed over a couple of weeks ago, Brian was destroyed and renamed inmate 251456, and resurfaced as one ready to serve. This new fraternity though forged in the fires of shame and embarrassment has transformed and re-established the essence of Sankofa in my life.

Welcome to the fraternity!!!!

Pastor- The Theologian in Residence

What is a theologian in residence?- a pastor. This is the question that we must unpack as we seek a the call of God. This earnest need to connect real life with a theological solution that addresses issues presents “tensions.” Michael Eric Dyson refers to this tension when he states:

“So there are tensions and, in fact, these multiple tensions define my intellectual projects and existential identities: tensions between sacred and secular, tensions between the intellectual and religious, tensions between preaching and teaching, and so on. But I think they are useful, edifying tensions, tensions that help reshape ongoing evolution as a thinker, writer, teacher, preacher and activist.” [1]

These tenuous moments serve as truth that emerges out of the context of one’s experience.[2] A theologian in residence is left to wrestle through such tension in order to provide answers to a searching congregation. It is the tensions that present issues that the theologian in residence is left to find solutions or at best opportunities to develop the faith of the people.

It is James Cone who articulates this tension as a clarion call, “It seems that one weakness of most theological [thinking] is their “coolness” in the investigation of an idea. Is it not time for theologians to get upset?”[3] This call to serve and attend represents a selfless act of bravery and a revolutionary spirit. The role of a theologian in residence is necessary in such a broken and misinformed society. This society forming a world of colonized thoughts must be invaded with theological depth that awakens the people to the obvious. No longer can church be the humdrum of the masses that affords churchgoers free networking opportunities and catwalks to display their new fashion sense with reluctance to provide biblical insight. The theologian in residence must become a catalyst for change, an impetus for creative ideas that reconnects the community back to God.

Theologians can no longer argue over mundane doctrines that only serve to augment the ego. Therefore, theology must be used as a gauge, a tool to break through into new intellectual spaces for communal advancement. Theologians must do the hard work of developing ideas that benefit the believer in objective means rather than subjective arguments, resulting in a “deep faith” dipped in love that does not subscribe to destructive doctrines.[4] These destructive doctrines become subversive and counterproductive as the church goes forth to reach the un-christian—those shaped and impacted by culture rather than biblical faith.

The posture of the theologian in residence must be one that is bothered by the insensitive nature of a community that allows its people to suffer.  Mere homiletical ingenuity without practical engagement renders the church useless –great preaching with no action.

The church is on the eve of losing its missional ethos much the same as Hip Hop lost its face to face value. In its inception, Hip Hop was something that had to be experienced as well as heard. The experience of Hip Hop was in the actual hearing of break beats being manipulated by the DJ. Then the emcee pronounced social commentary through your speaker which would become the centerpiece of all parties and entertainment. There was no Twitter or Facebook to announce the function; you had to be in the area to experience the move. Once the record companies started to see the financial gain that was produced by Hip Hop, the experience was minimized because the experience could be manufactured through a record. So the face the face aesthetic was lost due to corporate takeover. So the message became convoluted with sexual trash instead of the very social commentary that brought it to the forefront. Thus Hip Hop lost its way and the church has fallen victim to the very same aesthetic. It has lost its impact in the community because it has rejected its reason for existing—making disciples. This is the societal change that theologians in residence must find solutions for in order to be transformative in the community.

How do we construct societal change through a theological lens? ­­–is the question. The theologian in residence must adopt what Amira Baraka denotes as a “report and reflect” as he describes black artists during the Harlem Renaissance.[5] The goal is to “report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering” that change becomes imminent and obligatory.[6] The “tensions” are escalated daily in order to reshape the narrative through the work of the never ending questioning and assault for truth.

These tensions produce a spiritual salt pack to the spiritual nose of the theologian in residence. Every now and then we must be brought back to reality even as it relates to our faith. As leaders, we get quite complacent with our position and thus rest on our morals. That is around the time that God allows the truth to come and knock at our door. These tensions are constant reminders that we are not too far removed from those whom we serve. This drives home the fact that we must always be mindful of brothers and sisters still trapped in the pitfalls of an unredeemed community, fighting for the opportunity to see what lies outside of that dismal world where “the street corner has become a sanctuary community.”[7]

This is where the hard work begins for the theologian in residence –the constant battle of answering the unknown questions while pointing all people toward Christ. It is the job of the theologian in residence to wrestle with the work of the Lord as an “exegete, prophet, teacher, preacher, and philosopher.”[8] It is becoming all things to all men; it is walking humbly; it is the tedious work of the search, all for the glory of God. The theologian in residence embodies an ethic that is so consumed by God that theology is ever present in everything. There is nothing that is not impacted by theology which includes the theologian. It is this molded mind, this vulnerable space called a theologian that has experienced formation in God that makes the search renewed daily. It is this need that is beyond human understanding that forms the passion of the theologian-“a traumatic event that challenges a person to become a theologian…”[9]

I conclude with the words of a friend, Joseph Boston:

“Being a theologian isn’t the safest way to work out your faith but it’s the best path to having an authentic faith.” (1 Peter3:15)

 

[1] Michael Eric Dyson. Open Mike (United States: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 12.

[2] James Cone, God of the Oppressed (United States: Harper San Francisco, 1975), 17.

[3] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (NY: Harper and Row, 1989; reprint of the 1969 original),2-3. The italicized/bracketed words are mine not those of the author.

[4] This is a thought conveyed from a conversation at Princeton from words spoken by Otis Moss III as he reflected on William Sloan Coffin.

[5] LeRoi Jones( Amiri Baraka), Home (New York: William Morrow, 1996),251.

[6] Ibid.,251.

[7] Harvie Conn. A Clarified Vision of Urban Mission. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing,1987), 44.

[8] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 8.

[9] iJudith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. (New York: Basic Books,1992), 178-188