Word of the day: cephalocaudal

Human growth can be described as occuring in a cephalocaudal pattern. That means that it starts in the head, and then spreads to lower extremeties.

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The head is the starting place, and then the rest of the growth goes from there. The same thing is true for children. Physical growth is consistently measured as occurring from the head down. Makes sense that this top-down patter applies to the types of growth opportunities us adults face.

It’s always cephalocaudal.

“Free your mind, and the rest will follow. Be colorblind, don’t be so shallow.” –En Vogue

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Sermon Series: Perfect Peace

If you think you want to preach, feel free to work with any or all of these concepts at any time:

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1. “How can we sing at a time like this?” Psalm 137:1-4. 1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

2. “How can you eat at a time like this?” Ezekiel 2:7-8.  7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

3. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” Matthew 8:23-27. Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

4. Why aren’t you worried?” Acts 28:1-6. Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

 

Justice HAS been done….

Whoa, wait a minute there, black man, surely you can’t be talking about #Trayvon, can you? How can you call an unarmed minor getting gunned down and the perp going free “justice”?

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Yes, #Trayvon. My heart goes out in anguish. I get it. I live it in the most existential way. 

Then I remember what my best lawyer friend told me: “the court system has nothing to do with justice.”

Zimmerman had top criminal defense minds working for him–he didn’t hire them to seek a blind, impartial ideal called Justice–he hired them to find a legal way to get him off. And they did. When I take the generations of abuses against black people off the table for just a second, I realize something: If Zimmerman was my son or my brother, I’d admittedly be dancing in the streets tonight. Not for Justice, but just because my loved one was not just taken away for 30 to life.

So whether or not Zimmerman does any time has nothing to do with the Universal arc of Justice, it’s still as real as it’s always been. Frankly, lusting to see Zimmerman rot in prison is so Old Testament. My integrity wouldn’t let me fight for reforms to a broken prison system with one hand and shout for Zimmerman to be destroyed at SuperMax with the other. Is there any quarter to forgive George Zimmerman, tough though it may be? Aren’t he and I distant cousins under the same sun?

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The question is, what can I do about it anyway? The gavel has banged. I can cry #nojusticefortrayvon, make my status all black everything– I could even attend a community forum where we all talk about this very real national outrage and say things like “we need a game plan, we need to come together! Yeah!”

 I think about today, 7/13/13…Zimmerman was acquitted, William Gray was funeralized in Philly– students of black history find a notable historical coincidence there. It’s fascinating as we keep striving….

But in that Malachi 6 sense of doing justice, what am I going to do?

Closer to home, a 17 year old black kid stole something from the church this morning, we caught up to him this afternoon. My gut reaction is not to punish, but to pull him in even closer in a spirit of mentoring. Good kid, smart, handsome, shy-but-not-too-shy, in a stable two-parent home, part of the church community–and he’s simultaneously doing dumb ish. He is in fact doing the kinds of things that can get a young black man shot in the wrong subdivision of this great nation.

I know that from wisdom and experience, and I have to help him learn it before he learns the hard way, because one way or another, we all learn. In just the couple hours since this verdict, I literally see my community differently and my responsibility differently. If I (we) can take this feeling and really give all I have to heal the community, I guarantee justice has been done.

The More Things Change….

Today’s Google Doodle (2/19/13) is a model of our solar system, celebrating what would have been Copernicus‘ 540th birthday. He did a lot in his day, but perhaps what he’s best known for is leading the scientific charge to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

Copernicus was a devoted Christian–there technically were no scientists back then, but he did study math, the stars, economics, medicine, and more. In those days, everyone ascribed to geocentrism-the belief that the sun, moon, planets, and other stars all revolve around the earth. 

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Makes sense on the surface if you’ve ever looked up at the sun or night sky. Plus, the Bible backs the idea up:

“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” I Chronicles 16:30

“The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Psalm 104:5

“The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Ecclesiastes 1:5

The Bible, conventional wisdom, and plain old common sense taught people one “right” way of thinking about the issue for thousands of years.

But Copernicus (who was a devoted Christian) and many others weren’t satisfied with traditional explanations. What about the fact that Venus and Mars appear to revolve around the sun? If we assume the sun is at the center, all our other calculations make sense. Just for the sun to provide heat and light to the planet from a great distance, it has to be many times larger than the earth, and that would make it likely that the earth is subject to the sun, not the other way around–call it heliocentrism.

Maybe, just maybe, God made the earth revolve around the sun.

Whoa, that’s crazy talk in the 15th century! People were kicked out of the church, put on house arrest, and even killed for pressing this theory forward. “The Bible makes it plain, so why don’t you just leave it alone, Copernicus?”

He couldn’t leave it alone because the facts told a different story. It wasn’t good enough to accept what he had been taught by other people. He was on a quest to discover what revelations if any God had for the current time.

It must be pointed out that even though he went against what the majority of Bible believing folks believed, and even though he was more right than they were, he didn’t have it completely correct either. The most notable hole in his theory is the concept that the entire universe revolves around our sun. Astronomers building on his work later discovered that our sun is one star out of billions in our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions of known galaxies in the universe.

Copernicus’ work didn’t set out to “prove the Bible wrong,” nor could it. The people who wrote the Bible were inspired. Copernicus was also inspired, and he had the benefit of more knowledge. The Bible says “the earth can’t be moved,” but in fact it’s moving around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at 1000 miles per hour. Whether those facts go against your biblical interpretation or not–you’re along for the ride.

 

My Call to Preach

I was born to preach the Gospel; to show other people that we are all loving brothers and sisters with unlimited potential in God. Sounds easy enough, satisfying enough; but for whatever reason people have doubted my call from my first acceptance of it up until today. Just a bit of what I’ve heard in the last 12 years from family and church folks:

“You can’t preach. You haven’t been through anything, you got no story. What are you going to preach about? How your daddy bought you a new car while you were getting Cs in college? God is good!”

“You like Buddhism and all that other stuff. I seriously question your commitment to Christ.”

“I knew a pastor who accepted the gays–turns out he was gay. Are you gay? No? Hey, just asking, heh heh. You did go to Morehouse.”

“I can’t imagine you preaching. You’d make a good surgeon though, have you thought about that?”

“Everyone knows Freemasons worship the devil.”

“I saw some of the stuff on your blog, and frankly it concerns me.”

And my all-time favorite:

“You ain’t no preacher! Every black man who doesn’t have a job thinks he’s a preacher!”

With church, family, and friends like that, who needs enemies?

I’d like to think I didn’t ask for this. I remember being 5 and meeting a Franciscan friar in his brown robe. I understood that he worked for God, and that had to be a good way to go. He seemed peaceful, but I knew even then I could never be a monk, no matter how cool they sometimes make it look.

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I was baptized at the age of six– Baptist born, Baptist bred. I could recite scriptures, I could pray publicly -seemed like we all could. When I was 8 there was this high school boy at our church. One day, the pastor announced that the young man was going to be a preacher. The congregation was so proud. The pastor handed him a stack of books and he nearly folded under the weight of them, all to big laughs and applause. “Kind of presumptuous, isn’t he?” My young mind concluded. “How could anyone–especially a kid, really claim to hear from and speak for God? I’ve never heard from God. Kind of cool that he gets to sit next to the pastor though…Just holding all those books makes him look smart….I wonder if he’ll really read them and how long it will take….”

Church was a big part of my life growing up. Choir rehearsal, youth group, Sunday mornings: church was probably my main extracurricular activity through high school, though there were others.

By college I’d developed a resentment for the Bible and church. Oh I attended regularly freshman year–seemed like a good thing to do far from home, it felt familiar, if not completely essential at the time. When I came home from my first year of college, my parents insisted I get a job. I saw an ad: “$400 a week guaranteed.” Not bad for the 1990s with no college degree. Turns out it was selling Kirby Vacuum Cleaners–they cost about $1500 back then. Sales. I learned a lot of the secrets to sales success that summer. Think Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie. If you don’t know who they are, just think of achieving everything you want out of life while maintaining your integrity. Sales gets a bad rap as being an industry full of scheisters.

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But the principles Zig was teaching made a lot of sense against in light of all the Scripture put in my head growing up.

“A positive attitude, may not get you everything, but it will always get you more than a negative one.”

“Smiles are contagious.”

“You’re the only thing blocking your success.”

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

“Everyone takes you more seriously when you wear a tie, even you.”

“We’re not here to make a lot of money, we’re here to help people…help people and you can make a lot of money.”

Sales has everything to do with faith. I learned how to visualize success–how to turn nothing into something. I had reasonable success as a Kirby dealer; some of the people in the office saw my knack for it and told me I was a fool for going back to college. Stick with them and I could be a millionaire in 10 years. My boss was 27 and making six figures. 

I came back to school truly inspired to succeed. I set some goals, and my grades shot all the way up. One class in particular really shaped my belief system. Theories of Personality with Allen Carter. Every class, he strutted in to the room and wrote on the board: “WHAT IS THE BASIS OF YOUR IDENTITY?” He  used to spend entire class sessions not dealing with the syllabus material, but ranting about how life is just a game we play;  how fear, anger, and guilt control us; how there’s a difference between what is and our view of what is; he talked a lot about “Rev. Jebedizah,” his representation of the hypocritical church. Here’s what got me on the first day when one poor student told him the basis of his identity was being a Christian: “All of you following Rev. Jebedizah, telling you that if you don’t follow God’s rules, God will send you to hell. F@#k God if God hates me enough to send me to hell.”

F@#k God?! I really did back away from him out of fear he’d be struck down. I always thought he was bitter about something that happened to him at church in his youth. He turned us on to The Celestine Prophecy and A Course in Miracles. Here’s this psychotherapist, he helps people, his philosophy was unconditional love–why such a chip on his shoulder about religion? When I told my mom about the mind-blowing class, she brushed it off: “Psychologists are all crazy.”

I started hanging out with the young preachers on campus. There are always a few dozen aspiring clergypeople at Morehouse and Spelman. We didn’t all automatically get along, but there was a community. I liked to talk theology with them, but I didn’t consider myself “one of those guys who wants to be a preacher or pastor.” Silly looking back on it, thinking I could play with fire but not get burned.

Finished undergrad and when I walked across the stage, I had no idea what was next. Right around that time, a lot of strangers and friends began making references to me being a minister. Sometimes as a joke, sometimes by “mistake”–one time a pastor I’d never met started prophesying over me in a grocery store: “you’re a powerful Gospel preacher and you don’t even know it!”

One night that summer, I was alone reading “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. It was an old, tattered copy that belonged to my childhood pastor. His widow gave it to me, and I still cherish it. Anyway, I was up reading it, and it felt like the spirit of that pastor (he’d been dead 10 years) came into the room. It told me “preach.”

I said “OK.”

Fast forward one year. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in Haiti. I knew the preaching thing was somewhere deep down, but I was 23, single, not so hard on the eyes, and the volunteer culture was like a perpetual Spring Break in the Caribbean. In the midst of those hedonistic Peace Corps days,  I started attending a Pentecostal church. I was drawn in by the electric guitar–you could hear it way down the street. I used to sit in the back, but they seemed fascinated by the black American, and maybe I enjoyed the attention. Soon enough they asked me to sit up on the rostrum. “But I’m not a preacher or anything.” Oh, just come on. I guessed it was because I was American–like a dignitary or something, not realizing they saw something and I was the last to know.

Then the pastor and 3 or 4 other ministers at the church in Haiti invited me to a meeting. They had a copy of “The Prayer of Jabez,” a very powerful short Christian book, but their copy was in English. Could I tell them what it says in Haitian? No problem. About two chapters in to interpreting the words of the book into Haitian, all the ministers remarked: wow, this is deep. You should preach at our church sometime! “No, I’m just reading the words out of the book. It’s Bruce Wilkinson who’s deep.” Another chapter: man, this is great–you’re really going to have to preach for us one day. “I’m just translating. I can’t preach, really.” Another chapter: Man, this is good stuff. We’ve decided you’re going to preach on the 4th Sunday in January.

“OK.”

That first sermon was on a Sunday night. I prepared like a mad man for weeks. When the time came, I mounted the pulpit with a French Bible, a Haitian Bible, an English Bible, and several pages of notes spread across the podium. I was too nervous to focus on any of it other than some of the notes. The congregation saw this American up there with all these books and I think they were expecting something special to happen. I didn’t die; but it wasn’t much more special than that. L’Eglise Du Dieu Vivant (Church of the Living God) graciously let me preach a couple times a month over the next year and a half. They had 5 or 6 services a week to fill, so me being a willing and modestly able preacher was a win-win.

That was around the same time I decided to apply to seminary. Even though I loved preaching by then, I somehow still told myself I didn’t want to be a pastor. Harvard Divinity School sent me a beautiful rejection letter. (Did I mention the Cs in college?) I somehow got in to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the oldest independent seminary in the nation–great school, great reputation, top-notch faculty. Why did they take me? They seemed very impressed with my Peace Corps service. Also, they were in serious financial trouble at the time, and I’m pretty sure they accepted everyone with a pulse that year to get their numbers up. God was in the mix and it was meant to be.

There are several highlights from my time at Union: There were the theological crises: times when my intellectual doubt far outstripped my faith, only for my faith to grow back stronger than before. There were the study trips to Brazil and Bolivia; all the great books; my 3 year stand up comedy career; Shiloh Baptist Church in Harlem where Pastor Calvin Sampson taught me about combining “the learning and the burning”; best of all, I met Isis at Union. She just kind of fell in my lap one day, lucky duck that I am. We met on my parents 35th wedding anniversary and got married less than a year later.

Shiloh Baptist was good to me for a while. Rev. Sampson let me preach my trial sermon May 30, 2004. I came from Ephesians 2:14, preaching about how Christ has destroyed the barriers of hostility between us; he has made the two one. Home run!

That was some years ago, and my call is still evolving. “Think And Grow Rich” (a very spiritual book) says we have to identify our definite chief aim in life. Mine is “to show each other our loving and limitless nature.” I haven’t always lived up to that, but that’s my calling. I love preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. I love calling people on their birthdays and letting kids beat me up and arguing scripture and resolving conflicts and singing loud and cracking jokes during wedding ceremonies and having my phone ring around the clock; I even love funerals. Despite accomplishing my aim in some very demonstrable ways, sometimes I feel my call is still doubted. Like I don’t get the respect I deserve–don’t they understand who sent me and what I’m trying to do?

But there’s no room for blame in this game.  People don’t always get me–I don’t always get me. I just feel fortunate to know what my life is for, and that I’ve helped a few people discover what they’re here for as well.

Onward and upward, Beloved.

How I Prepare A Sermon

About 150 sermons into the game, here are some humble insights into this mysterious process.

1. Decide on a scripture. Every Sunday morning message is rooted in the Bible. A specific passage, rarely more than 5 verses, serves as the anchoring concept. I know I’m going to be able to preach a particular text because I hear the ring of truth in it. It really is like a little psychic bell or clicking that goes off in my head. Sam Proctor (among the best of the old dead black preachers) called it “the certain sound of the trumpet.” Hearing it takes away the butterflies of public speaking because it reassures you that God is on the throne.

2. Explore the meaning of the text to discover its significance and relevance. This is also referred to as exegesis. I put pen to paper to answer some or all of the following questions and more: Why are these verses ringing bells in my head?  Have I ever heard this scripture before? What does it make me think of? What does it say in a nutshell? How do people feel about this one? Just writing all I can consulting only myself and the biblical passage.

3. Dictionary.com. I was advised to find the dictionary definition for every word in the passage. Not always feasible, but we don’t know some words as well as we think we do. Getting into the dictionary just helps you understand what you’re going to be talking about better–and that’s good.

4. Check commentaries. More exegesis, but I think up as many insights as possible myself first, then read what everyone else has to say. I like the Interpreter’s Bible. I also check out preceptaustin.org, the The Urantia Book Paramony, and anything else I can find in my study that relates to the chosen verses. When, where, why and by whom was it written? Got to check the passage in Hebrew or Greek at scripture4all.org, a complete interlinear translation you’ll get something out of whether or not you read Hebrew or Greek. I write down everything that seems interesting, knowing that I won’t use it all in the sermon. There are many definitions for what a sermon is. One calls it “the fruit of exegesis.”

5. Figure out what I’m preaching about. Not the same thing as deciding on a scripture. You’re not preaching about John 3:16–you’re preaching about how much God loves the world or about how we never really die. What are you preaching about? Sometimes you know in the first 30 seconds, sometimes you have to patiently pray your way into it. What are you preaching about? Scary question, but you must be able to answer it elevator pitch style.

6. Look for examples in nature and media. Facebook friends’ status updates, a mall food court, a walk around the block, a dog’s reaction to meeting other dog’s, the pain of dieting, your last argument, an eerie coincidence, good performance art, childhood memories, your last plane ride. When you know what you’re preaching about and keep it at the top of mind, ideas come a-flooding from all angles.

7.Talk to people about it. Work the truths and stories into regular conversation. Find people who appreciate preaching and bounce sermon ideas off ofthem–when you start talking to people who appreciate preaching about your ideas, they usually end up giving you more good ideas to preach. Write them down no matter where you are because you won’t remember them all.

8. Compile all notes. I know for myself that 2 pages of single-spaced notes is enough. More is OK, less than a page and a half of notes is not enough for me, repeat steps 2 through 7 until you’ve done sufficient exploration of a given text.

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That’s about right.

9. Number 9 should have been number 1 to me: pray and meditate. Prayer is the way to see and know the text, the community, yourself, and God ever more authentically. How else can you hope to speak the truth? Meditation does a lot of things as well. One benefit of meditation is that it allows me to intensify the intention behind the preaching. If I aim to be inspirational, I can be more inspirational by meditating on it. If I need to provide healing to listeners, my words become more healing through healing meditation. The more prayer and meditation, the better the sermon–it’s at the beginning, middle and end of the process.

10.Type out a final draft. Whether you work from a manuscript, extemporaneously, off an outline, or without notes, I think it’s good to have the key points of the sermon typed and saved/emailed to myself for easy reference later.

11. Rehearse I’m eternally grateful I was exposed to Linklater’s freeing the natural voice techniques. The more rehearsal, the better. Also important to be acquainted with the ideas you are preparing to espouse. The more I rehearse, the more excited I get about the preaching moment.

You actually read that to the bottom? You probably need to be preaching. Let me know how I can help.