So You Want to Be A Preacher–first in a series

If you are like me that could happen at the age of 15; which it did, when I walked down a church aisle, told the preacher God was calling me into the ministry, and the congregation promptly voted to license me as a young preacher.

License is a form of endorsement and is meant to begin the process toward ordination. It was 12 years later before the ordination happened: after high school, college, and seminary.

But in between my pastor paid little attention to me; an elderly woman in the church gave me money to buy books; a pastor during my college days took me under his wing. Other than the guidance of my parents, this was about the only mentoring I had during those dozen years.

It would have been different if I had declared an interest in farming. I could have joined Future Farmers of America, attended all sorts of events, and tried my hand at one project after another, including annual trips to the State Fair.

If I wanted to play percussion in, for instance, the Boston Pops, I could have worked toward that goal by playing in a whole series of musical groups, from the high school band where I did learn to play the drums to the youth symphony that performs as part of Governor’s School of the Arts.

But for the young preacher there was nothing.

Young boys in the independent Christian church denomination can sign up for an annual preaching competition held every year at their North American Christian Convention. I have a nephew who did that.

If I were African American, I might get the opportunity to preach in the middle of the night at one of their many national gatherings—long after the men finish preaching (and they don’t finish until midnight). And once I got to seminary I could enter a sermon manuscript in the competition sponsored by the African American Pulpit.

True: I did get to speak to the youth prayer meeting and one or twice on Sunday morning when the church had Youth Sunday. When I got to college, they were always looking for young preacher boys to lead a weekend revival team of students; and I did that a lot.

But I never took a class in preaching; I don’t remember anyone talking to me about preaching; I am sure I did not ready anything about preaching. Given this, it is a wonder than anybody had the grit to sit through one of my so-called sermons.

Which is why—partly—I am launching The Academy of Preachers.

Another reason is this: for eleven years I have been teaching the “Communication for Ministry” class at Georgetown College. Kids knew it as the preaching class. I have a decade of experience with students who have a passion for preaching.

So I am using some of them—and a dozen others—to help shape this new opportunity for young people who want to preach. St. Matthews Baptist Church of Louisville is sponsoring it; the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis is funding it; and I will take the rest of this week to tell you how The Academy of Preachers has come to be the focus of my life work.

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.

China and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Our local paper carried a story over the weekend describing how China enforces its strict family-planning policies. Hundreds of mothers heavy with child are forced into hospitals for late-term abortions. Chinese authorities frame their justification for such brutality in terms of the wider social good—an effort to control population growth; population size, they contend, impacts basic quality of life, including availability of food, shelter and work.

But the matter once again brings attention to China as a major violator of basic human rights. Jane Deren, Senior Advisor to the Roman Catholic Center for Concern in Washington, D.C., listed twenty areas in which China fails to measure up to basic human rights.

On December 10, the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the most important document of the twentieth century: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 brief articles, this 1772-word document sets forth the moral consensus of the post-war community of nations. Increasingly, the document functions to establish a behavioral norm by which governmental action is judged.

The Declaration was frequently quoted before, during, and after the games of the 29th Olympiad held in Beijing. Human rights activists widely protested the 2001 decision to allow China to host the games. But, as is often the case, money trumps morality; China is the fastest growing economy in the world, an important trade partner with all industrialized countries. An estimated $42 billion dollars was spent on the 2008 Olympics

Working conditions are high on the list human rights concerns in China. The Declaration sets forth the ideal in article 32, which says, in part: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment… to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity… the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The Declaration also declares that everyone, including the citizens of China, “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to change his religion or belief, and …to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Christians, especially, have been denied this right and there is widespread repression of both political and religious freedoms common in most places in the world.

While the Olympics brought increased media attention to these abuses, so also will the thousands of students who are flocking to China. Of the 241,791 Americans who studied abroad in 2006-7, more than 11,000 were in China, a one thousand percent increase from one decade ago. Many of these students will stumble upon occasions of human rights abuses; some will become grass-roots reporters in the campaign to hold China responsible for its manifold indifference to basic rights.

None of these will be more tragic, more traumatic that forcing mothers to abort their children. Decisions about marriage and family are fundamental to human rights, as the Declaration states: “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and to found a family….The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

China has a long way to go—economically, politically, and morally—before it is able to celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Homosexuality: Voters versus Judges

On November 4, voters in California approved a measure that limits marriage to heterosexuals. This trumped a ruling of their state Supreme Court which granted homosexuals the right to marry. This sets up a confrontation between the voting booth and the judicial chamber. Who has the right to decide?

As I think about this situation I meditate on the 1963 decision by the United States Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the reading of the Bible and the saying of prayers in public schools. This decision was, in my judgment, the correct one. Even though Christians are the majority in this country, we live in a religion-neutral state, one that is commissioned to defend the rights of the minorities—especially religious minorities—when they are overwhelmed by the preferences of the majorities.

Baptists especially have been sensitive to this. For most of our 400 year history we have existed on the margins of the Christian world; for most places in the world this is still true. This experience has made us strong advocates of religious freedom and minority rights.

Only in the American South have Baptists risen to cultural power and social prominence. In that sense, the Baptist experience in the American South has been a test of our convictions. Are we still defending the rights of the minority? Or are we demanding our privileges as the majority?

Had the matter of prayer in public schools been put to a ballot vote in the United States in 1963 no one can doubt that the people would have rejected the Supreme Court and reaffirmed the role of prayer in the classroom. Certainly this would have been true for the South, among Baptists especially.

The same could be asserted for the year 1954 concerning the integration of public schools and also for the year 1973 when the issue was abortion. Other examples could be cited but these suffice to make my point: a popular vote is not the best interpreter of the constitution, not the best gauge of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and not the best indicator of what is best for our nation. In fact, we elect representatives and install judges to think through these things rationally, morally, and legally, and do so in a way free of mass hysteria and popular prejudice.

Twenty years ago a popular vote would no doubt have barred homosexuals from equal access to housing and employment. There are many examples of this prejudice against demographic groups, including those with disabilities. Judges and legislators pulled us into a more just and open society, and most of us recognize the righteousness of these difficult transitions.

A ballot vote by the majority is never the safest way to guard the rights of the minority; that is true for religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. We are seeing this played out again on the issue of homosexuality in California. I for one will not be surprised if the Supreme Court in California—dominated by Republicans—takes a stand against the popular vote and reasserts what they see as a matter of equal treatment before the law.

Can Sarah Palin Be Ready in Eight Years?

Sarah Palin was not ready to be Vice-President of the United States this year. Yes, she was a spectacular stump speaker; and yes, she unleashed a tidal wave of Republican energy; and yes, she is charismatic, charming, and altogether winsome. But she wasn’t ready for prime time.

To be Vice-President and President you need to be able to think on your feet, to know what is going on in the world, and to appreciate the way the world impacts the nation.

The interview with Katie Couric demonstrated in embarrassing fashion the depth of her ignorance—could not name a single Supreme Court decision except Row v Wade—and how untutored she is as to the nuts and bolds of political leadership—she did not know the McCain record on federal regulation. These are not incidental or secondary issues: for you and me, maybe, but not for a person who wants to succeed to the presidency. They are scandalously serious, and for a candidate for such a high office to dismiss them as irrelevant to the national debate is disrespectful to the public she had hoped to win.

The conversation with Katie was bad, but not nearly as incredulous as the interview with the “President of France.” I sat before the television ten days ago and listened with increased astonishment at the shallowness shown by Sarah. Two radio comedians from Canada—station CKY in Montreal—pretended to be Nicholas Sarkozy and led the would-be Vice President on a wacky verbal goose chase. After more than eight minutes of premeditated prankosity, they came clean and confessed, but not before allowing Sarah Palin to make an absolute fool of herself.

I did not even know at the time all the jokes these two disc jockeys jammed into those eight minutes: like calling French singer Johnny Halladay a special envoy to the United States, or identifying entertainer Stef Carse as the Prime Minister of Canada, or naming regional comedian and radio personality Richard Sirois as the governor of Quebec. But Palin had bragged that her proximity to Canada counted as a significant source of international experience, and to be shown up as ignorant as I am about Canadian political life was, and is, a scandal.

I was incredulous that Palin’s managers could be taken in so easily, that such callers were not vetted more thoroughly—or just to think that the President of France would place a call to Palin. What does this say about the people surrounding her?

I felt sorry for Sarah Palin, even as I shuddered at the combination of naiveté and nerve that powered her push for the White House.

Then the pseudo-Sarkozy said, “You know, from my house I can see Belgium.” It was a public poke at Palin’s claim to see Russia from Alaska. Anybody—surely anybody—knows that a premiere in Paris can not see Brussels; anybody, but Sarah, it seems, and there is no indication she saw it as a red flag, a signal that something is not quite right.

Can this woman be ready in eight years?

She charged that Obama did not have the experience to run for President; but at least he had two Harvard degrees, where they teach you where Paris is in relation to Brussels; and at least he had been the Europe, where his passport was stamped by authentic French officials; and at least he had served in the club of one hundred where important matters of state are customary conversational fare.

If Sarah Palin can spend some time on a few more campuses, and can travel to a continent or two, and can eavesdrop upon the debates of those who know that of which they speak, she just may make it to the center of power and privilege a few years down the road.

But I’m still shaking my head.