Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Launching the Academy of Preachers

[Fifth and last in a series]

On Election Day—November 4—I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to hear Shane Claiborne speak in the chapel of Asbury Seminary. Shane is the young man, now living in the Philadelphia are, who wrote the best-selling book, “Jesus for President.” I read it, liked it, and used it as a text for a church discussion class this fall.

Shane is from the Jim Wallis-Tony Campolo stream of Christian living and thinking. Plus the book picks up the Kingdom-Empire theme popularized by John Howard Yoder and John Dominic Crossan. I find both of these influences compelling, which is why I read the book and attended the talk.

Shane is young—just past thirty years old—dresses more like the Jesus freaks of 30 years ago, wore his hair long and covered with a bandana. His voice is high-pitched, his message only barely structured, and his presence less than impressive.

None of that mattered: the chapel was packed—I sat in the balcony and the aisles were cluttered with students. All of which illustrates a fundamental principal of public speaking (or preaching)—when a speaker has a strong, compelling call to a radical vision of life and when the speaker actually embodies the message he or she is describing, it will draw an audience.

After chapel I went to lunch with the president of the seminary, J. Ellsworth Callis. He is an elderly, dignified man, with a wonderful voice and an attractive disposition. He is a Methodist preacher, and a professor of preaching; he is president only for the interim. It is easy to see why people tell me is an outstanding preacher. He was easy to listen to in the diner and I am sure he is easy to listen to in the pew.

We talked about my new venture, The Academy of Preachers; and he was immediately and thoroughly supportive of it. One of the students at the seminary—Georgetown College graduate James Bush—is on the Young Preachers Leadership Team, which will help me design and launch the Academy.

But mostly we talked about the election—it was Election Day, remember—and whether the rhetorical skills of Barack Obama would fuel a renaissance of interest in both public speaking and preaching. It certainly demonstrates, I suggested, the power of pubic rhetoric and its value in establishing vision, mobilizing people, and achieving purpose.

Whether or not statistics will bear out any renewed attention to these things, The Academy of Preachers is carried along by the conviction that gospel preaching is a vocation of enormous social and spiritual significance and that it is worthy of the best energies of the most gifted young people.

I now have recruited 18 of these young people from schools in a four-state area: Anderson University, Oakland City University, St. Meinrad Seminary, Christian Theological Seminary, and Hanover College, all in Indiana; Cincinnati Christian University in Ohio; Trevecca Nazarene University, Fisk University, Vanderbilt Divinity School and Libscomb University in Tennessee; and Georgetown College, Asbury College, Asbury Seminary, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, plus two high schools in Kentucky.

We are ready to get this Academy off the ground!!

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A Revival of Eloquence

A key element of the Obama presidential bid was his rhetorical skills. Beyond question, he has been the most eloquent speaker on the national stage since Martin Luther King, Jr. Not even Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, or Billy Graham had the impact on the general public that the new president has had.

The truth is, Obama has raised the bar for those who would lead the American people. For too long we have settled for leaders with mediocre speaking ability. In fact, it may be that we have in this one election gone from the least able speaker to the most able speaker, just as we have gone from the most conservative to the most liberal. If Obama governs as well as he speaks he will have altered the course of public speech in America.

Just like Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States pushed aside the standard style of his day: flowery, full of allusions and quotations, pompous and very long. Lincoln was plain, simple, brief, and artfully worded. Garry Wills wrote a book about the transformation of rhetoric by Abraham Lincoln.

We could wish the same for Obama. While critics decried his style as “nothing but rhetoric” and “style without substance” the American people were moved by Obama’s soaring eloquence and learned again that the ability to inspire people is the chief element of a leader.

Obama’s skill as an orator surely is rooted in natural ability, disciplined intelligence, and—let’s be honest—the influence of preaching. True, Obama had to adjust his ties with his long-time pastor, but not before the flamboyant Chicago minister embodied for the future President what strong, simple, soaring language can do to mobilize a people.

Obama may have intentionally mimicked Lincoln in another way: including in his emerging circle of advisors people who were once his staunch critics. The book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005 by Doris Kerns Goodwin describes this presidential strategy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can implement it as successful as did Lincoln. That has to do, again, with the ability to govern.

But one thing is for sure: Obama has reinvigorated public speech. People are glad; they voted for him. University professors of rhetoric and high school speech coaches will both be thrilled; perhaps the President’s success will bring into this ancient discipline a new generation of talented young people.

But I represent another legion of people who must take note and give thanks: those of us who mentor and teach young preachers. A seminary president said to me as we lunched together on Election Day: “This is good news for preaching.” I think he is right.

The irony is this: the very person critics once accused of being Muslim, who at a critical time in his march on Washington found it necessary to disavow the rhetoric of his own pastor may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in shaping gospel preachers of the 21st century.

Don’t Send Me Another Check

I don’t want another check from the federal government.

If the federal authorities wish to stimulate the economy and are willing to push the government further into debt, do it in a way that will help somebody and make a difference the grand scheme of things. Sending me—and most of my friends in the middle class—another $600 will do little good. If you send it to me I will pay a bill or two, take my family out to eat, and donate to a food bank for people who really need it. This expensive strategy did not work in the Spring and it will not work this Fall.

So if the government has money to give away, don’t send it to me; and don’t send it to those fat cats on Wall Street either. Rumor has it the managers of this trillion dollar bailout are giving enough to the banks up there so all their buddies can get a big bonus for Christmas. “We want to keep our best employees,” is the rationale—makes me want to curse. Like most ordinary Americans I am incensed that New York bankers whose sorry judgment plunged us into this financial mess are going to be rewarded through the bailout.

This is the problem of putting Wall Street bankers (Henry Paulson and his boys) in charge of bailing out other bankers. They see the world through floor-to-ceiling corner windows on the 85th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. I wonder if the committee to rescue the economy would take a different approach if there were voting representatives from Iowa farms, Michigan factories, Kentucky mines, Arizona hospitals, and Missouri schools—working people who see the world from the ground up, from the inside out.

Here is the preference of one such person: use the money to rebuild and retool America. Paying people—architects, engineers, builders, truckers—to build bridges, roads, sewers, airports, canals, levees, railroads, parks, and schools would put serious money in the hands of those who need to heat homes, buy cars, pay mortgages, visit relatives, and support the grassroots organizations that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and treat the sick.

For almost thirty years we have tried the trickle-down approach—through the years of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Through federal tax policy we have allowed those at the top to get filthy rich hoping some of that prosperity will slip down to the rest of us. It has not worked. Yes, those at the top accumulated a lot of money, but the middle and lower classes fell further behind. Costs of goods went up; wages went down. The disparity between the rich and the poor is a serious economic and moral issue; always and everywhere it is the chief de-stabilizing factor in the human community.

It is time for the bubble-up approach. Sending a check to everyone did not work last spring. Try something else; invest in the industries that build America, that serve the common good, that disperse the wealth to the working class. Such public works programs will work now at they did seventy years ago during the Great Depression and they will leave our nation more secure, more beautiful, more livable, and more able to sustain the economic justice that is a hallmark of truly great civilizations.

A Word Fitly Spoken

November 4, 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in American history: like Pearl Harbour, the moon landing, or 9/11.

On that day I arrived early at the polling place, waited in line, and cast my ballot. Then I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend worship at Asbury Seminary followed by lunch with their president, Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas, a seasoned Methodist minister old enough to be my father. We sat in a small diner in Nicholasville, Kentucky and talked about the campaign for the presidency. On many things we agreed but especially this: Barack Obama has dramatized anew the significance and success of public speech.

Rhetoric is often denigrated as empty and useless; give us policy, we say to the candidate; be practical, we plead with the preacher. But when a holy and hospitable vision is carried along by a simple and soaring eloquence, what comes forth is a transformational power that organization, ideology, or effort can not match.

Part of it is technique: cadence, language, inflection, tone, posture, countenance. “A word fitly spoken,” the Bible asserts, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—rare, to be treasured, and able to captivate the imagination.

“When I come to church,” a woman said to me a few days ago, “I want to be inspired.” Taught, perhaps; warned, sometimes, consoled, when needed—but mostly inspired. What she confessed was the need to be lifted above ourselves, outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves by an appeal to our better natures and our nobler virtues, by connecting us with the spiritual currents of the universe, by instilling within us the possibilities of human endurance and achievement. Such also is the task of preachers.

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme…” the psalmist rightly wrote and sang, perhaps after hearing a preacher extol the greatness of God, the grandeur of love, or the glory of life.

This is the other part of effective rhetoric—a message. Not all rhetorical ability is tied to a good and just theme: think Hitler. But when a generosity of spirit, a wideness of mercy, and a genuine delight in the common good flow out of a speaker into the minds and imaginations of those who hear, transformational things can happen. It is the hope and prayer of all who preach the gospel.

Others will study this historic campaign and learn things about voting and vetting, organizing and mobilizing, friend-raising and fund-raising; these are all important. But as a preacher I am interested in the power of persuasive speech. Obama’s gifts of substance and style have brought him to the White House and have given to us a leader of inspirational power.

Other skills are needed in the White House: discernment, courage, humility, humor, etc; it remains to be seen whether he can govern. But his success as a public speaker has the potential to rejuvenate the vocation of rhetoric. Nowhere is this more needed that in the pulpits of American churches.

Red Church, Blue Church

For many years Sunday morning has been the most segregated hour in America: blacks in one church and whites in another. While the gospel vision of humanity devalues such division of God’s people into this color or that, there is a redemptive element in this fallen situation: namely, that the black church has sustained it distinctive culture and practices and has done so in a way to bless the entire human community.

But in recent years a political segregation has made its way into the church of Jesus Christ. On one corner is the Blue Church, full of people who are voting a straight Democratic ticket; on the other corner is the Red Church, crowded with people who punch the Republican bottom. People in blue churches cannot understand how Christians can vote red; likewise those in red churches swear that Jesus himself would vote only a red ballot.

The division of the country into blue and red has made its way into the church.

This ought not to be. The entire vision of the church of Jesus Christ is set fore square against such barriers—“neither Jew nor Gentile, free nor slave, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Paul the Apostle were writing that text today rather than 2000 years ago would he include political divisions in his list of categories that are trumped by the gospel? Would he not add: “neither Democrat nor Republican, neither Protestant nor Catholic, neither capitalist nor socialist, neither northerner nor southerner”?

If this is true of God’s kingdom and Christ’s church, should it not also be true of our congregation?

Of course, some will protest: Democrats support civil rights and protest war—isn’t this the rule of the kingdom? Other will insist: Republicans fight abortion and judge the lawless—isn’t this the way of Jesus? It is so easy to equate the gospel message with a party platform; from there it is a short step to rejecting fellowship with those who vote the other way.

But human community depends upon civility, respect, conversation, hospitality, and hearing the heart and mind of the other person. What better place for such things to happen than in the circles of a believing congregation. A house of worship can take the lead in transcending the bitter divisions that have plagued church and community and country for thirty years.

Burn your red banners, all you Republican congregations; discard your blue flags, all you Democratic congregations. There is something bigger, grander, more glorious, more significant, more eternal than party affiliation and national elections. John the Prophet gets very close to this when he writes in Revelation, that “… from every tribe and language and people and nation you have made us to be a kingdom and ministers to serve God…”

I will be glad with all the red and blue politics is over and we can get back to being the church of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.