Friday, November 30, 2007

Shrek the Halls?

Shrek the Halls?

I’m normally not one to expect TV Christmas specials to uphold the true meaning of Christmas. A secular program is going to be secular. However, when a secular program subtly and not-so-subtly moves from secular to sacrilegious, that’s going too far.

So, it was with a desire to relax a little and with low expectations that my wife and I sat down the other night to watch the premier showing of Shrek the Halls. We watched half of it before we had to turn it off.

From an artistic perspective, the show left much to be desired. It seemed to have been given little entertainment thought other than making a boatload of money off of the legion of fans of the three Shrek movies. But, I’m not a Hollywood critic, so that’s not the true focus of my thoughts.

Boring is one thing, supplementing the true meaning of Christmas with secular additions is another, but supplanting the Christ Child entirely is an entirely different matter. Two examples stand out.

When Santa comes to town, everyone erupts into the singing of “Hosanta!” That’s right. Instead of “Hosanna!” sung in worship of Christ, it was “Hosanta!” sung in worship to Santa.

Then, after several minutes of build-up, Shrek finally agrees to read The Christmas Story. Here I thought we might actually have a scene like the memorable one from A Charlie Brown Christmas. You remember. Linus shares the true meaning of Christmas by reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. I guess times really have changed in these past 42 years.

What does Shrek read when he reads The Christmas Story? He reads “Twas the night before Christmas.”

Ah. So now we know the rest of the story. The Christmas story is about worshiping Santa with “Hosantas!” and it is telling the narrative of Santa coming to town, instead of worshipping the Christ Child and telling the narrative of God coming to earth.

That’s the last time I will watch Shrek the Halls. Sucker that I am for a good Christmas special, I’m not a sucker for supplanting the Savior with Santa.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Venture Smith: Pulling the Rope in Unison

Venture Smith: Pulling the Rope in Unison[i]

It has become something of a cliché to imagine that Black families today find it difficult to experience stability because of a long history of instability caused by slavery and racism. While not at all minimizing the obstacles that enslaved African American families have faced, history paints a truer and more optimistic picture of their response. Though everything fought against them, enslaved African Americans battled gallantly to maintain family cohesion—a cohesion that provided a sturdy platform from which to handle life courageously.

Enslaved African American couples sustained strong marital relationships. Venture Smith was born in Dukandarra, in Guinea, about 1729. Kidnapped at age eight, Robertson Mumford purchased him a year later. After living with Mumford for thirteen years, Venture married Meg at age twenty-two. They remained together for over forty-seven years, through many trials and tribulations, until parted by death.

Venture’s narrative contains an explanation for their marital faithfulness. On the occasion of their marriage, Venture threw a rope over his cabin and asked his wife to go to the opposite side and pull on the rope hanging there while he remained and pulled on his end. After they both had tugged at it awhile in vain, he called her to his side of the cabin and by their united effort they drew the rope to themselves with ease.

He then explained the object lesson to his young bride. “If we pull in life against each other we shall fail, but if we pull together we shall succeed.”

Jennie Hill was born and enslaved in 1837 in Missouri. Florence Patton interviewed the ninety-six-year-old Hill in 1933. During her interview, Hill adamantly resisted the notion that enslaved families lacked closeness. “Some people think that the slaves had no feeling—that they bore their children as animals bear their young and that there was no heartbreak when the children were torn from their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state. But that isn’t so. The slaves loved their families even as African Americans love their own today.”

Communicating the message of African American family love was so important to Reverend Thomas Jones that he bore witness to it on the very first page of his narrative. “I can testify, from my own painful experience, to the deep and fond affection which the slave cherishes in his heart for his home and its dear ones. We have no other tie to link us to the human family, but our fervent love for those who are with us and of us in relations of sympathy and devotedness, in wrongs and wretchedness.”

African Americans have a great legacy of family love. That legacy, modeled by Smith’s family, Hill’s family, and Jones’ family, teaches that hardships do no make it too hard to love.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

African American Spirituals

African American Spirituals: Telling the Rest of the Story[i]

To appreciate the meaning, message, and mutual ministry of the slave spirituals, it is vital to understand how and why they were composed. Carey Davenport, a retired Black Methodist minister from Texas, had been born enslaved in 1855. He vividly depicts the spontaneous nature of slave spirituals. Sometimes the Colored folks would go down in dugouts and hollows and hold their own service, and they used to sing songs that come a-gushing up from the heart.”

These were not polished, practiced anthems designed to entertain. They were personal, powerful psalms designed to sustain. “Songs were not carefully composed and copyrighted as they are today; they were ‘raised’ by anyone who had a song in their hearts.”

Slave spirituals were shared songs composed on the spot to empathize with and encourage real people in real trouble. Anderson Edwards, a slave preacher, remembers, “We didn’t have any song books and the Lord gave us our songs and when we sang them at night it just whispering so nobody would hear us.”

The creation of individual slave spirituals poignantly portrays care-giving at its best. When James McKim asked a slave the origin of a particular spiritual, the slave explained, “I’ll tell you; it’s this way. My master called me up and ordered me a hundred lashes. My friends saw it and are sorry for me. When they come to the praise meeting that night they sing about it. Some are very good singers and know how; and they work it in, work it in, you know; till they get it right; and that’s the way.” Spirituals were born from slaves observing and empathizing with the suffering of their fellow slaves as a way of demonstrating identification and solidarity with the wronged slave.

Creating and singing spirituals in the middle of their predicament became a means for reciprocal bonding. Slaves wove the words into the fabric of their worship and into the tapestry of their everyday life together. This resulted in communal empathy. The flexible, improvisational structure of the spirituals gave them the capacity to fit an individual slave’s specific experience into the group’s experience. One person’s sorrow or joy became everyone’s through song. Singing the spirituals was therefore both an intensely personal and vividly communal experience in which an individual received consolation for sorrow and gained a heightening of joy because his experience was shared. It was a lasting portrait of the truth that shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.

In the very structure of the spirituals, we see articulated the idea of communal support. Frequently the spirituals mentioned individual members present, either by name—“Sister Tilda, Brother Tony,”—or by description—“the stranger over there in the corner.” This co-creation included everyone in the experience of mutual exhortation and communal support. Drawing from the Bible, Protestant hymns, and sermons, the slaves fashioned spiritual music which expressed their faith in moving, immediate, and dramatic terms.

The spontaneous creation of the spirituals exemplifies what people-helpers call “staying in the moment,” “being present,” and “immediacy.” The African American spirituals demonstrate that caring for people is not so much about skills, but about artful connecting through real and raw relating.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Maria Stewart: A Voice for the Voiceless

Maria Stewart: A Voice for the Voiceless[i]

In September 1832, in Boston, Massachusetts, Maria Stewart (1803-1879) did something that no American-born woman of any race before her undertook. She mounted a lecture platform and raised a political argument before an audience composed of both men and women.

According to her personal testimony, she was a woman of profound Christian faith, moved by the Spirit to “willingly sacrifice my life for the cause of God and my brethren.” In the climate of that day, she did indeed take her life in her hands. In her characteristic fiery style, familiar to readers of her articles in The Liberator, she argued against the colonization movement to ship African Americans to West Africa. Using biblical imagery she challenged her racially mixed audience asking, “Why sit ye here and die?”

She called Blacks and Whites to action, in particular urging Black Americans to demand their God-given rights. Her message was unsparing and controversial, intended as a goad to her people to organize against the tyranny of slavery in the South and to resist and defy the restrictions of bigotry in the North.

To fully comprehend Stewart’s staggering accomplishments, we have to backtrack to her less than advantageous upbringing. As she tells her story:

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803; was left an orphan at five years of age; was bound out in a clergyman’s family; had the seeds of piety and virtue early sown in my mind, but was deprived of the advantages of education, though my soul thirsted for knowledge. Left them at fifteen years of age; attended Sabbath schools until I was twenty; in 1826 was married to James W. Stewart; was left a widow in 1829; was, as I humbly hope and trust, brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, in 1830; in 1831 I made a public profession of my faith in Christ.

Married at 23, widowed at 26, converted at 27; she challenged a nation at 28. In the fall of 1831, she entered the offices of William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the newly established abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Stewart handed Garrison the manuscript of her challenge to African Americans to sue for their rights. Relegated to the paper’s “Ladies Department,” both ladies and gentlemen received her confrontation.

Stewart entitled her work Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build. She told her readers that she “presented them before you in order to arouse you to exertion, and to enforce upon your minds the great necessity of turning your attention to knowledge and improvement.” Here we have a young, female, African American widow writing in a White male abolitionist tabloid as a spiritual director to motivate her people to learning and action.

Stewart adeptly inspires her audience by helping them to envision and unearth their buried talents and abilities. “All the nations of the earth are crying out for liberty and equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! And shall Afric’s sons be silent any longer? Far be it from me to recommend to you either to kill, burn, or destroy. But I would strongly recommend to you to improve your talents; let not one lie buried in the earth. Show forth your powers of mind. Prove to the world that though black your skins as shades of night, your hearts are pure, your souls are white.”

Stewart grounds her exhortations in her understanding of racial equality. “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such. He hath formed and fashioned you in his own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect. He hath made you to have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea (Genesis 1:26). He hath crowned you with glory and honor; hath made you but a little lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5) . . .” Using the biblical truth of the imago Dei (image of God), Stewart guides her readers toward the counter-cultural but scriptural truth that, “It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principles formed within the soul.”

Stewart also confronts past failures and challenges toward future exploits. “O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. O, ye daughters of Africa! What have you done to immortalize your names beyond the grave? What examples have ye set before the rising generation? What foundation have ye laid for generations yet unborn?”

In perhaps her most frank comments, Stewart challenges Black women not to “bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles.” She explains that Whites “have practiced nothing but head-work these 200 years, and we have done their drudgery. And is it not high time for us to imitate their examples, and practice head-work too, and keep what we have got, and get what we can?”

How prescient. How far ahead of her time.

And she’s just warming up. Stewart also exhorts to a spirit not of aggressive anger, nor of passive resignation, but of assertive courage. “And we have possessed by far too mean and cowardly a disposition, though I highly disapprove of an insolent or impertinent one. Do you ask the disposition I would have you possess? Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted.”

What an inspiring challenge. Stewart is reminding African American women that God endowed them with an equal measure of spiritual power, love, and wisdom. They do not have to take a backseat to anyone. Her message rings true still today.

[i]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daniel Alexander Payne: The Rosa Parks of His Day

Daniel Alexander Payne: The Rosa Parks of His Day

Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement” according to the U.S. Congress. On December 1, 1955, Parks became famous for refusing to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a White passenger.

Her actions started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was one of our nation’s largest movements against racial segregation. In addition, it helped to launch Martin Luther King, Jr., who was involved with the boycott, to prominence in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks has had a lasting worldwide legacy.

Seventy years earlier, Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) engaged in a similar, but lesser-known act of civil disobedience. Had his actions been more widely reported, Payne might today be known as the “Father of the Former-Day Civil Rights Movement.”

Born to free Black parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Payne was an early leader in and the official historian for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC). Leaving the South in 1834, Payne studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, and then ministered for over fifty years as a pastor, educator, and influential bishop.

Payne’s ministry returned him to the South in the twilight years of his life. When he was in his seventies, he refused to stay on a train where he would have been seated in Jim Crow conditions. Standing his ground and confronting the White authorities on the train, he said to them, “Before I’ll dishonor my manhood by going into that car, stop your train and put me off.”

Payne describes the scene after he left the train. “The guilty conductor looked out and said, ‘Old man, you can get on the platform at the back of the car.’ I replied only by contemptuous silence.”

Payne then carried his own luggage, walking a great distance over “a heavy bed of sand” to his next speaking engagement in the deep South. Payne literally walked the talk. By doing so, he was the predecessor of later-day Civil Rights leaders such as Parks.

How did such courage develop in Payne’s life? Where did such conviction emanate from in his background?

Payne himself credits two men in his life, the one his biological father and the other his spiritual mentor. Payne’s father started him on his purposeful life. “I was the child of many prayers. My father dedicated me to the service of God before I was born, declaring that if the Lord would give him a son that son should be consecrated to him, and named after the Prophet Daniel.” Payne marveled at the sense of self, the sense of masculinity, that his father conveyed to him.

His father did so not only by naming, but also by modeling. Of his father, Payne testifies, “He was an earnest Christian and a class leader, having two classes under him—what used to be called the Seekers’ Class and the Members’ Class. He was a faithful observer of family worship; and often his morning prayers and hymns aroused me, breaking my infant sleep and slumbers.”

Though empowered by such spiritual fatherly nurture, Payne felt the wound of fatherlessness when his father died when Payne was four. After his mother passed away when he was nine, Payne’s great aunt raised him. Seeing his need for a father figure, he joined a church and was “assigned to the class of Mr. Samuel Weston, who from that time became the chief religious guide of my youth.”

As valuable as these two male mentors were in Payne’s life, he credited another Male (the God-Man) with being his essential model. “The glorious manhood of Jesus Christ is the only true type of real manhood. . . . Study him, study him as your model; study the perfect model of manhood until he shall be conformed in you.” Payne copied the Apostle Paul’s male mentoring model. “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Similarly, Rosa Parks’ courage was embedded in her through her upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she was mentored during her lifelong active membership. Here she heard of the inspiring exploits of AMEC Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. In 1995, she published her memoirs, Quiet Strength, which focused on the role that her faith played in her life. Parks also noted the impact on her life of her mother, a teacher, who home-schooled her until she was eleven.

Rosa Parks and Daniel Alexander Payne—both lived courageous, exemplary lives of racial reconciliation. Both were inspired by empowering spiritual mentors. Both are African American heroes of the faith whose lives are worthy of emulation. Both deserve their place among that “great cloud of witnesses” in God’s hall of faith.

[1]Excerpted with permission of Baker Books from Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

African Americans and Biblical Counseling

African Americans and Biblical Counseling

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on African Americans and biblical counseling. Leaders in various biblical counseling movements lament the low percentage of African Americans attending their conferences.

Why? I think my study of Black Church history provides a convincing answer. Working on my book Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, my co-author and I were looking for any and all instances of what today we call biblical counseling—whether by pastors or lay people.

We looked for examples of:

*Soul Care for Suffering and Sanctification: Sustaining and Healing—Comforting those sinned against in a fallen world.

*Spiritual Direction for Sinning and Sanctification: Reconciling and Guiding—Confronting those sinning.

We certainly found reconciling and guiding.

However, we found a greater preponderance of sustaining and healing.

Here’s the issue. Some current models of biblical counseling focus almost exclusively on confronting sin. In fact, some leaders in some of these movements will tell you that people simply don’t come to them for issues related to suffering. Of course, this may have much to do with the message being communicated that biblical counseling is about sin and not about suffering (a false message, by the way).

African Americans, given their history of suffering, have grave concerns with any model of biblical counseling that spends the bulk of its time confronting sin while ignoring suffering. For African Americans, progressive sanctification is just as vitally related to suffering as to sinning.

For African Americans, pastoral counseling and pastoral care is equated at least as much with sustaining and healing sufferers who have been sinned against as it is with confronting Christians who are sinning against God and others. This in no way minimizes their hatred of sin, their view of depravity, or their focus on God’s glory. African Americans, however, understand from the Bible, Church history, and their national history, that true pastoral counseling, lay counseling, biblical counseling, and pastoral care must deal both with the sins we have committed and with the evils we have suffered.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Rule Over!"

“Rule Over!”

In my previous blog, I asked and answered the question, “What are the first words spoken by God to a human being?”

The answer? Not Genesis 1:28, but Genesis 2:16.

Genesis 1:28 was spoken to Adam and Eve, and thus chronologically had to occur in the context of Genesis 2:21-25.

Think about the implications of this.

Immediately before the Serpent tempts Eve and Adam, God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiple: fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Many have wondered how Eve heard the words God told Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 about all the free-to-eat trees and the one forbidden-to-eat tree. Obviously she had heard, since she (mis-quotes) God. So, either God told her but it is not recorded, or Adam told her. Either way, she was told.

But more pertinent to this discussion is that we do know what she was told by God before the Serpent tempted her. “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Ringing in Eve’s ears, and Adam’s, should have been the words "Rule over!”

Subtly tempted by he Serpent who was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made, Adam and Eve should have continuously reminded themselves, "Rule over!”

And what about us?

Ringing in our ears do we hear the empowering words “Rule over!”

When we feel like life is too much, when we are overwhelmed, when we are tempted, do we give in and give up, or do we rule over?

"You Are Free!"

"You Are Free"

What are the first words spoken by God to a human being?

Most of us would immediately say they are the words spoken in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number.”

However, those words were spoken to Adam and Eve. “God blessed them and said to them. Likely those words were said right after the creation of Eve in Genesis 2:21-25.

So, what was spoken first?

“You are free” (Genesis 2:16).

Think about that!

The very first words God said to a human being: “You are free!”

We have bought Satan’s lie that God is a shalt-not God. Yet God’s first communication with us shouts, “I am a shalt Got!”

“You are free!”

We are choice-makers. We are choosers. We are free.

How powerfully that message should ring in our ears when tempted to sin. How powerfully that message should have rung in our ancestral parents’ (Adam and Eve) ears when the Serpent tempted them.

When you think of God, do you think of the Freedom-Giver?

When you think of yourself, do you think of the Free-one?

When faced with choices toward good or evil, do you hear the words, “You are free!” Free to choose good over evil.

When you are in an intense conversation and words are about to spill out of your mouth--death words, cruel words, harmful words, critical words--do you remember that "you are free" to stop; free to choose life words, constructive words.

We are not controlled by our "personalities," by our circumstances, by others. We are free.

One message pounded into my head again and again when researching Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, is the glaring truth, practiced daily by Christian slaves that "You may control my body, but you cannot control my soul! My body may be enslaved, but my mind is free. I am free!"

If enslaved African American Christians could remember this foundational truth, then why can't we?

“You are free!”

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Beyond the Suffering Seminar

On Saturday, February 23, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., on the Main Lanham Campus of Washington Bible College/Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD, I will present a seminar based on my latest book, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

Interactive Seminar

This interactive seminar will discuss ways lay people, pastors, and Christian counselors of all races can learn from the history of African American soul care to grow in Christ and to minister to those who are suffering pain or loss.

Lay people, pastors, counselors, and students of all races will:

• Be empowered to apply proven ways to help people find healing hope in the midst of deep pain and sorrow.

• Be equipped to minister more effectively in cross-cultural settings.

• Be enabled to skillfully practice historic soul care.

• Be enlightened about how to be a godly male leader by the founding fathers of the African American church.

• Be enthused about how to be a powerful female spiritual friend by the heroic sisters of the spirit of the African American church.

• Be enriched by past African American husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers concerning how to nurture and enjoy godly living in the home.

Beyond the Suffering Seminar Schedule

8:00–8:45 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
8:45–9:00 a.m. Worship with WBC OneVoice
9:00–9:10 a.m. Greetings and Prayer: WBC/CBS President Larry Mercer
9:10–10:30 a.m. Session One: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses: Following the Ancient Paths
10:30–10:45 a.m. Break
10:45–12:00 p.m. Session Two: Watered with Our Tears: Redeeming Pain and Suffering
12:00–1:05 p.m. Lunch Provided
1:05–1:15 p.m. Worship: WBC OneVoice
1:15–2:30 p.m. Session Three: The Old Ship of Zion: Uniting in Christ
2:30–2:45 p.m. Break
2:45–3:55 p.m. Session Four: This Far by Faith: Living the Drama of Deliverance
3:55–4:00 p.m. Closing Comments
4:00–5:00 p.m. Optional Campus Tour and Book Signing

Seminar Registration Fee:

$50.00 ($80.00 for two): Breakfast, Lunch, Copy of Beyond the Suffering, Seminar Notes, and Seminar Sessions are included.

Register Now!

Brief Synopsis of Beyond the Suffering:

The African American Church has always helped hurting and hardened people through the personal and corporate ministries of sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding. This four-dimensional model is the traditional and widely recognized pattern for understanding lay spiritual friendship, pastoral care, and professional Christian counseling. Beyond the Suffering uncovers the buried treasure of wisdom about soul care and spiritual direction contained in the history of African American Christianity. Written with the blended perspectives of an African American woman and a Caucasian man, Beyond the Suffering offers an in-depth exploration of this rich tradition, showing Christians proven ways to help people find hope in the midst of deep pain and sorrow. Pastors, counselors, and lay people, as well as African Americans hungry for the legacy of their ancestors, will appreciate both the history and the practical applications found in this book.