The words we speak make the world. The voices to which we listen shape our imagination. The songs we sing confirm what we will believe. In poetry and song, these are the stories we tell. If you truly want to know who someone is, don’t settle for a few details from his or her life — listen to the stories. It is the stories that animate principles, promises, and pronouncements.
From the flickering flames of campfire to the illuminating lights of the cinema, stories have guided tribe and tradition. During the month of February, recent American practice has been to listen to the stories of Black history. A vantage point that gives context for the resilience and resistance of people around the globe whose heritage makes them part of the Black Diaspora. When these rehearsals are documentaries, such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th or 20th Century Fox’s Hidden Figures, we become exposed to what Paul Harvey coined as the rest of the story. History doesn’t change because we view it from a different perspective. But the viewer changes.
In her astounding TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story, we risk a critical misunderstanding.1 A well-told story extends a covenant. It proposes a contractual agreement: the audience will suspend a portion of its preconceived notions to experience something fresh. Storytelling is the inheritance of every human being. It is what we do to remind ourselves of who we are. It is how we teach our heritage and espouse our values. While entertaining, stories capture our imaginations and form communities by the episodes they share. Stories enable us to reflect deeply about our lives by helping us remember what has been, and imagine what might be.
The stories of our lives are what most characterize our identity. In other words, the stories we consistently tell ourselves and others form the answers to “Who am I” and “How do I fit into the world around me?” We are the stories we tell. It is an ongoing process that allows us, over time, to develop and revise our stories and open up new possibilities of our lives.
In this month, we are reminded that before Denzel Washington began acting, Martin Luther King marched. And before King marched, Tuskegee Airmen flew. And before they flew, Mary McLeod Bethune taught. And before Bethune taught, Harriet Tubman ran. And before Tubman ran, Solomon Northup played the violin. The portions of this story in need of retelling are long and varied and bear evidence of promise.
During this month, Christians begin to tell a fresh portion of their own story. The season of Lent begins a new liturgical season, when the church is poised to prayerfully prepare to celebrate Easter. Acts of self-denial through fasting enable us to position ourselves to truly appreciate the full assault on death that is wrought by Jesus’ resurrection. We have an even larger context to keep in mind as we tell our personal, communal, and even national stories.
Recognizing that our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories summons the Christian community to know and tell our story. The opening chapter of the story of the people of God is neither national nor imagined. Rather, it is the edited story of a vulnerable God who has never abandoned the promise to form a people who bear the birthmark: divine facsimile. It is the story of a beloved community whose lives have been written by God, edited by Jesus, and transformed by the Holy Spirit. And so, as we celebrate the stories of the Black Diaspora and retell our Christian journey to the cross, may our lives be transformed into video-clips of the story the Creator of the Universe is narrating.
In honor and recognition of the tradition of “telling the stories” during Black History Month, we are please to share the work of Rev. Dr. Joy Moore. Serving as assistant professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA., and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, Joy J. Moore, PhD (Brunel University/London School of Theology) teaches in the area of homiletics and the practice of ministry. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Joy seeks to encourage theologically framed, biblically attentive, and socially compelling interpretations of familiar passages to help people understand the critical issues influencing community formation in contemporary culture.
Somebody ought to say something. There is urgency in the words of the prophet Isaiah. The time has passed for clever clichés, purposeless platitudes, and exhausted editorials. Ancient Israel and the community of faith today require a word that is purposely provocative. As Cleophus LaRue puts it in his book Rethinking Celebration, preachers need “to stop putting so much emphasis on celebratory endings to our sermons and focus more on the substantive content in our sermons.”2 The text describes a community whose religious rituals have divided them into combative factions (58: 4). God is not pleased with the seekers who desire knowledge of spiritual practices or devotees demanding religious dogma. Someone must announce that disenfranchising those in need of welfare and ignoring the suffering of children and the elderly, even while keeping devotions and fasts, is rebellion in the eyes of God. The Lord requires acts of justice rather than tactics of convenience. Apparently exploitive trade agreements, militarized violence, and deportation campaigns are not twenty-first century anomalies. The prophet calls for an abandonment of partisan pledges, viral voices of criticism, and media-sanctioned slander (58:9). Only such recommitments make us worthy of the anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing.
The first-century Christian was no less tempted to partner with government as if the knowledge of good and evil were better than a right relationship with God. Paul’s words to the community of faith in Corinth downplay the opinions of the holders of conventional wisdom. His letter favors tangible demonstrations of the Spirit that bring a witness to the presence and power of God. Do not confuse the letters of Paul as a beta-version of early morning twitter posts. While Paul is not seeking to be crafty, his reliance of the Holy Spirit insists on exhibiting the mind of Christ. Like scholars today who deliberate over the ancient text, expect that those who come behind us will scrutinize every post related to #blacklivesmatter. In what ways have we submitted our witty aphorisms to the promises of God’s reign? The characteristic of Paul’s effectiveness lies in a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). The mind of Christ exhibited in the character of the believer threatens the oppressive, hedonistic, idolatrous conventions of the culture.
According to Matthew, Jesus said the acts of grace that reminded Israel to practice justice will enable the world to glimpse the righteousness of God’s reign. When we recognize that we are indeed the people of God whose words and actions are a testimony to the peace of Christ, we refuse to accept the constructed lies of segregation. Words and acts that are detached from public discourse fail to season the stale lies dispatched by the powerbrokers of nation and commerce. Proclamations of the justice, peace, and righteous of the Creator God that do not offend the nation-state are not Christian speech. We are to shine a prophetic light of truth on the lies coming from market-driven advertisers and a power-driven administration. By strategic action we avoid reducing God to acceptable adjectives; diminishing doctrines to political postures; and limiting the gospel to propaganda. Whether in protest or civic service, only when our righteousness exceeds that of the legislators and appointed leaders will Christians offer a hopeless world a vision of God’s beloved community. Like Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., our witness is not to abolish the law but to enact laws with justice for all.
The psalmist reminds us that generosity and justice will irritate the wicked, but those who favor mercy will “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright” (verse 4). It will not be claims of piety but practices of justice that evoke God’s blessing. The wealth of the righteous does not purchase positions of power but provides for the poor. The righteous are not afraid of evil policies because their merciful and gracious acts rise like a beacon of hope in the darkness. Rehearse the ancient playlist of the people of God to enable today’s spoken word, slam-poetry, and contemporary gospel to give voice to a movement that separates itself for partisan policies and finds communion among those who greatly delight in the commandments of God. All other desires amount to nothing.
1 Chimamanda Adichie 2013 TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” http://www.npr.org/2013/09/20/186303292/what-are-the-dangers-of-a-single-story Retrieved September 15, 2015.
2 Rethinking Celebration: From Rhetoric to Praise in African American Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, ix