Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Chilly Atlanta

I am discovering I like to blog about my experiences with cities.  I've always been fascinated by the city --maybe because my parents grew up in a city, and chose to give us a rural upbringing instead.  The two brief years we lived in a city (yes, it was Grand Rapids), I loved the sense of being in a neighborhood, a somewhat eclectic community.  There is energy and synergy and all sorts of fun.  There is a downside --traffic and expense!

I went to Atlanta to do some research on my dissertation --I got to handle holy relics penned in the own hand of my subject of study --Benjamin Morgan Palmer, 19th century city pastor par excellence.  I saw his clock, his armoire and a painted portrait of him.  I am beguiled by him, puzzled by him, sometimes angry at him, and sometimes lifted to the heavens by him.  All of this is good --how many people hate their topics by the time they're done with a dissertation?  I cannot imagine ever being less than fascinated by this tragic, gifted, fascinating and maddening man.

On Friday morning, I ventured to the Columbia Seminary library.  Columbia is situated on the "edge" (insofar as I could tell) of the lovely town of Decatur.  It looks like what a seminary ought to look like --lovely historic buildings centered on a green.  The archivist there was incredibly helpful and interesting to talk with.  It's amazing how just talking to people has given me fertile furrows to hoe for this project.  I will be back, DV, to dig further into the treasure trove of their collection.  I spent about six straight hours pouring over very fragile paper written in a very illegible hand.  His handwriting became better as life wore on --I suspect he either switched from a "quill" to a fountain pen (wikipedia tells me they got popular around 1850) or he had a scribe, due to his poor eyesight.  I took only two brief bathroom and water breaks.  I was transfixed by what I was doing --that is an amazing feeling.  Next time, however, I shall bring my magnifying glass.

On Saturday, after a delightful breakfast with a former professor, I went to the new World of Coca-Cola.  Anyone who knows me well knows I am a complete sucker for an ice cold Coke.  I even buy the Mexican stuff with the real sugar.  I had been to the former site, and expected this one to be markedly better.  It wasn't, but it is still a fun place to visit.  What makes Coke such an interesting company is its marketing scheme, best summarized by its early 1970's ad "I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company."  Like Amway or Apple, it is a quasi-religious commercial entity, which is somewhat creepy.  The first exhibit you come upon is the "vault" which supposedly contains the secret recipe.  You are led through an elaborate "security" process, then taken through the story of Coke's humble beginnings to becoming a beverage colossus.  Then you are led into a 360 - degree media room and saturated with Coke images.  At the end, the walls move and there it is --a big steel vault, looking like something off of 24, lit dramatically in red.  Is it really a vault?  Is the recipe really in there?  The world may never know...

But, on from the quasi-religious to the really religious...

the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site.  It is one of the most amazing that I have been to --as far as I can tell, it is part Park Service, and part King foundation.  It is an entire city block, essentially, comprised of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the interpretive center, the King Center and gravesite, his birth home, and surrounding houses.  It was a very affecting experience.  Much could be said but I choose to focus on the old Ebenezer sanctuary, where Daddy King held forth until 1975 (MLK was an associate), and where Mama King was shot dead in 1974 while accompanying worship.  It is a lovely restored space.  They loop several of MLK's sermons, interspersed with gospel classics by Mahalia Jackson and others.  I was alone in the sanctuary much of the time, sitting and listening spellbound, imagining the man himself holding forth from that very pulpit.  I have a burden for racial reconciliation, but no idea, really, what it could look like in our day and age, so I just asked God if he might show me, and perhaps he will.

Seeing where MLK spent his early days, and hearing about his extraordinary family, and the prospering and then decline of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood --the once-bustling segregated African American community, were quite meaningful.  Yet, even some of the questions asked by well-meaning tourists, I think, belie a latent white privilege, such as "So, they weren't lower class.  I mean, they were educated," as if African-Americans never took steps to better their lot.  In fact, one of the most interesting things I discovered was that there was an evening "institute" conducted by a female, where laboring men and women could go and take college courses, and educate themselves.  MLK's maternal grandfather did just this, becoming both pastor of Ebenezer and a prominent grocer with several stores.  Yes, they were educated, so much so that I thought "I need to make my kids read news articles, formulate opinions and be prepared to make their case around the supper table" like MLK's parents did.  The verse of an old hymn floated through my head afterwards, "Are there no foes for me to face?  Must I not stem the flood?  Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to God?"

I waited for Sunday with much anticipation.  Rather than go to one of Atlanta's many PCA congregations, I chose to attend The Church of the Apostles, whose founding pastor, Michael Youssef, I had long admired.  It is an incredible edifice --the best blend of classic and modern I have ever seen.  I cannot fathom what it must have cost to build --it has 90 stained glass windows in the sanctuary.  Yes, 90 windows.  It has a parking deck --I have never sat in a traffic jam in a 5 story church parking deck before.  There is nothing historically "Anglican" about COA, insofar as I can tell.  It left the Episcopal church years ago, and I am not certain that it is now affiliated with the worldwide Anglican movement in any way.  The only hint of Anglicanism about it was the presence of kneelers --which went unused.  The service was well-done, but almost wholly contemporary.  The eucharist was not celebrated.  There was no "liturgy" --it reminded me very much of my own evening service.  I don't want my above comments to be taken as critical.  The sermon was absolutely arresting.  The service was 90 minutes long.  He spoke on false teachers, on Christ as the only way to God, of the possibility of two eternal destinies, and the need to be obedient to the call of Christ, submitting to him as savior and Lord.

I should've taken the opportunity afforded visitors afterwards to meet Dr. Youssef, but my natural tendency to blanch in the presence of well-known people overrode that desire.  I know he is a Calvinist, and that he had been connected to RTS Atlanta (which used to hold its classes at COA).  I will say, however, that it is the friendliest big church I have ever attended.  The folk seated around me made a point of engaging me in conversation.  They "insisted" I come back next Sunday --I told them were I not six hours away, I might!  The woman seated on my pew next to me had been a dean at Atlanta's International School.  She is multi-lingual, had had a career in international relations and now in retirement works for the Leading the Way ministry.  The Lord recruits some extraordinarily fascinating people.  She said she had been a member of Peachtree Presbyterian, which, in the scheme of mainline Presbyterianism, is definitely on the "right" side of things.  A friend had invited her to COA years ago, and she never looked back.  It is amazing that, for all the church growth strategies out there, friends inviting friends still works best.  Something to be learned from that.

I try to learn things from every trip.  Or, rather, I should say, I try to look for what God might teach me from all the fascinating places he's allowing me to visit.  May it continue!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Attending an Historically African-American Church and what Brainy White Preachers can Learn from African-American Oratory.

It is very dangerous to generalize about the "black church," just as it is about the "white church."  As an African-American pastor friend in Alabama told me, "You will find everything in the black church you will in the white church."  So, I don't title this "A Few Thoughts on the Black Church" as if one experience at one congregation is somehow normative.

I have a sabbatical month, which is a good time to go around and visit other congregations.  I have long wanted to take my family to New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, pastored for several decades by fellow RTS alum Dr. Jerry Young.  The service was reverent and word-centered.  The service was actually quite "presbyterian,"orderly, reverent with responsive reading, the Doxology and Gloria.

It was historically African-American in the sense that the service does build to a crescendo at the end of the sermon, and it does end in what is historically called "hooping," or a musical, lyrical quality. I say "historically" because I have read that younger African-American pastors are somewhat critical of the "whoop," and one cannot generalize that it is a feature of ALL African American preaching as if there were just one style.    Here's an African American take on hooping.  And it was historically African-American in terms of the responsiveness of the congregation, but never in a way that detracted from the message or the worship.

What could we learn from New Hope?

1.) They took their time.  Nothing was rushed.  Everything was deliberate.

2.) They make a concerted effort to welcome visitors, and address it in a systematic way.

3.)  They show great honor where honor is due.

4.) They were responsive to the preaching, etc, but not in a way that was disruptive.  I have long said that former Baptists forget all their emotion when they become Presbyterian.  Scripture doesn't forbid saying amen or raising a hand, or an audible response.  The few times I have preached in an African-American context, this has helped my preaching.

5.) The idea that we must abandon formality, a robe (what a beautiful robe!), or necessarily have drums or guitars to reach African Americans seems to be without merit.  This is not an argument for or against, just I think sometimes our judgments are superficial.  There is not one "African-American" style, just as there is not one "white" style.  There are some generalizations, that are useful insofar as they go, as one of the African American boys that I tutor mimics both his own pastor and me, and it is hilarious to see how young black eyes see the stodgy white preacher.

I think that typical PCA preaching could very much benefit from studying traditional African-American style.  The same things that made Martin Luther King such a brilliant communicator still persist in some African-American preaching.  Here's what I noticed:

1.)  Repitition aids learning.  My hypothesis is that because African-American preaching developed in a culture where literacy was forbidden, the most effective preachers knew how to preach in such a way that the main ideas are recapitulated artfully throughout the sermon.

2.)  We need to think more about what people hear than what we say.  This is crucial.  This is what is missing from a lot of Reformed preaching.  We strive for precision and detail and don't take into account the difference between written and oral communication.  It is far more important that we find ways to give people truths to hang details on than to spell out everything in minute detail.  Preaching is not teaching, it is not lecturing, it is not primarily about conveying a multitude of facts.  Preaching is persuasive, hortatory speech.  Dr. Young gave us points on which to hang truth.  The tools he used were the equivalent of "Hear me, church..." though he said it in a variety of ways. Then, he would repeat, on occasion.  It was very effective.

3.) The preaching was symphonic.  It had a rhythm.  It didn't start loud and stay there.  It didn't start soft and stay there.  It was distinct, clear, and vitally conveyed.  It began at mezzo-piano, crescendoed at times to forte, and ended at sforzando.  (If you don't know music, it went from a little softer than medium to all the stops pulled out).  I am a white guy, and I can't pull of sfz without sounding mad, but he could.  That said, it wasn't just a straight line, like a hypotenuse, from soft to loud.  Like a symphony, it had passages and movements, and kept me riveted throughout.

Too much PCA preaching sounds like lecturing.  We want people to internalize a precise outline with multiple points, sub points, etc.  We have lost the sense that a sermon is an encounter with the divine (shameless plug: I preached on this last Sunday).  Christian existentialists are not all wrong, and they are definitely not wrong about this.  Preaching is not a man standing before an audience imparting information to the mind --it is God putting his own message in the prophet's mouth, and pressing it home upon the life.  John MacArthur once said he preached to the mind, not the heart or the will.  That is a big mistake (and I actually think it's not true of him).  These things cannot be separated.  As Edwards pointed out, mind, heart, and will are just short-hand ways of denoting our whole conscious selves.

So, we need to preach like it matters to us.  IF anything is missing, it is this.  It is not a matter of volume --Knox Chamblin was not loud, but it mattered to him.  It's an indefinable quality, but we know when it's not there.

4.) If you're still reading...  True preaching is prophetic.  It calls forth a response.  It is not mere information, but persuasion.  It is saying, "These things matter more than you think they do, they are matters of life and death, they matter more than who won yesterday or how your portfolio is doing or if the crops fail."  It forces the conscience of the hearer to respond: aroma of life, or stench of death.  Who is sufficient for these things?  African-Americans don't tend to get hung up on what parts of life are or aren't the church's business.  All truth is God's truth, and needs to be put forth as the prophets did, calling the people not to halt between two opinions but to choose between Baal and God.

I am rusty at blogging.  I look at my words and think "this should be so much better."  But, there it is!