Black and Anglican: A Maundy Thursday Conversion Story

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Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

The question that follows me as I move through the world as an African American Anglican priest, who identifies deeply with Black culture, is how did such an anomaly occur?  How did I move from the Black Baptist tradition of my childhood to a form of ancient Christianity as mediated initially through the Church of England, but which has been given fresh vigor through the revivals of East Africa and other parts of the Global South? Was I disgruntled with my upbringing? Was there some fatal flaw in the heritage that formed me? God forbid. I remain convinced that the Black Church is the glory of American Christianity, a light that shines in a history too often darkened by compromises of the gospel for the sake of greed and power.  The Black church is not perfect, but it is a modern miracle.

Any telling of my story will eventually climax with the events of this night (Maundy Thursday) over 15 years ago. I tell this story now to remind us of the importance of what we do this night and to testify to the power of the liturgy to do gospel work if we trust the wisdom bequeathed to us.

This story begins in college. College, for me, was largely an experience of disorientation and separation from what I knew.  the University of the South (my college of choice) took me far from the Black Baptist tradition. The school and the surrounding town were largely white with no real opportunity to experience the kind of worship that could speak to my soul like the gospel choirs I knew. In addition, it is much easier to ignore God in college than to seek him out. Therefore, I did what most college students foolishly do. I let a few religion courses and my own desires create insurmountable theological problems. Apparently, these theological problems could only be solved by adopting a moderate form of religion that neither inspired a transformation of life nor provided comfort in times of trial. It never ceases to amaze me how modern biblical and theological scholarship managed to construct a form of Christianity perfectly suited to the modern temperament. I speak of a Christianity in which we can know very little about God and what we do know is that God doesn’t want us to take any of this too seriously. Put simply, I drifted with the current of the culture replacing the received wisdom of the church with fleeting opinions of an increasingly decadent and confused society.

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Church Fights and The Hope of Worship at GAFCON 2018

 

 This grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:8–10)

 

Church fights are necessary, but dangerous. When the faith is threatened, any aspect of it, those tasked with teaching the faith must contend for the truth of Christianity as they understand it.  Those who are taught the faith must make sure that the things that they have been taught are true. We all have our responsibilities.

I was not blessed to come into the church, at least the Anglican branch of it, during a time of peace. Two fights have defined my time as an Anglican. There is the worldwide Anglican debate about the nature of marriage, and there is the smaller fight in the United States for space for people of color in orthodox Anglican settings. I didn’t choose either battle; they chose me.  Both battles come from my reading of Scripture. The same Bible that from Genesis to Revelation sees marriage an union between a man and woman as something reflective of God’s  own love for Israel and later Christ’s love for church also speaks of the vision of the varied ethnicities of the world worshipping around the throne of the Messiah.  Both views have brought criticism and alienation from different sectors of the church. They have also brought real spiritual danger.

Self-righteousness lurks around every corner. There is the temptation to believe that I have the perfect mix of biblical faithfulness and social justice while my opponents on the left and right do not read the Bible correctly. More than that it is bitterness that crouches at the doorway. The cost that we bear as people of color in the ACNA is the unseen wound bleeding on the floor of North American Anglicanism. Ask the black bishops. Ask the clergy.  Then there is the work.  The unending feeling of responsibility to be both prophetic and responsible. Push, but not too hard. We get tired.

The danger, then, in the battles for North American Anglicanism is that one might lose the beauty of what drew us here in the attempt to protect or reform it. I had a vision of Anglicanism that I never experienced, a hypothesis of diversity and orthodoxy in one fellowship. It was a warm comfort on cold nights, a blanket to shield me from the chill of disappointment. That vision become flesh during GAFCON 2018. I walked into the lobby of the conference center and it was so gloriously black and brown that I almost wept.

I noticed first the women first.  The Nigerian, Ugandan, Rwandan, and Kenyan women arrived draped in a dignified parade of color that made my heart smile. It felt like a Christian Wakanda. Then came the bishops and the men in African dress, especially the choir. So much swagger; so much pride. Have you ever finally sat down to eat and realized how hungry you were? Have you ever ended a run feeling good, until the fatigue washed over you, and you realized that you had pushed your body too far? I did not know how tired this battle for a diverse and orthodox Anglicanism had made me until I got a taste of it. I wished that they would have canceled the plenary talks and let the choir sing as long as the Lord tarried.

Years ago, I sat in an Episcopal chapel in Sewanee, Tennessee thinking that this liturgy is beautiful. If only they could add some soul to it, then it would become the eschaton anticipated. The worship of GAFCON 2018 had that soul.

I am grateful for the Nigerians, Kenyans, Ugandans, Australians, and Malawians gathered in Jerusalem for helping me remember that our struggle isn’t just against something. It is for something beautiful. When I became an Anglican, I was told that there was this global fellowship of believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation, but it was a concept, an idea. Now I have witnessed the nations gathered.

I know this week in Jerusalem is but a respite, that I’ll return to my country and province. I know that the same struggles will be awaiting me there. But true worship is an encounter with the living God. This encounter changes us and infuses us with sufficient hope to help us carry on a little further. So, will return and I will continue to struggle, but I will do so with joy because I have seen it. A diverse orthodox Anglicanism, isn’t just coming; it’s here.

Esau McCaulley Sr., A Son’s Eulogy for His Father

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I came home from a conference and my son met me at the door. He was upset because the kids at his school had laughed at him. I asked him what happened. He said that the teacher caught him scribbling on a sheet of paper and asked him what he was doing. He told her that he had planned on writing letters to send to our family for Thanksgiving and he realized that he couldn’t send one to my father because he was dead. Then he thought if he wrote a letter my father would see it in heaven because people see everything in heaven  He said that in the letter that he wished my father a happy thanksgiving. Then I asked him whether he had been thinking about my father a lot. He said that he had. I said that I had too and I get sad sometimes.  Then he told me that he keeps thinking about the Eulogy that I gave for my father. Luke said that it is sad at the beginning, but the ending is happy. That makes him feel better.  The Eulogy is below.

 

The Villain, the Victim, and the Victor,

The Gospel of John records a conversation that Jesus had with Pilate in the days leading up to his death.  During this conversation, Jesus tells Pilate that “I have come into the world to testify to the truth.” Pilate responds by asking what is truth?  Stated differently, Pilate says that it is fine to speak about truth and falsehood, good and evil, but what does it matter in the face of your impending death?  Does not the reality of death, then, render all truth meaningless leaving only the question of who has power? Pilate’s question, raises the question of the meaning of all our lives. Does it matter who and what we were if death can simply wash it away? Does my black father matter if his story ended on the side of some road in California far from those who knew and loved him?

The question of who Jesus Christ is, then, cannot be separated from the question of who we are.  My father is dead. Who was he? What does his life mean? Tolstoy the russian novelist, (can I quote a russian novelist at a black funeral) put it this way:

My question –was the simplest of questions, It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”

Has death destroyed my father such that all that remains of him are the bits and pieces of a man that we can cobble together to keep out the darkness?

This is why the empty tomb matters. Not because that one man by some miracle defeated death. No, we believe that this particular man defeated death. His life and loves and actions mattered. The kingdom he spoke about was vindicated by the resurrection. If Jesus’s life matters than all lives matter, even my father’s black life that ended some two weeks ago. Therefore, it matters who my father was, how he lived and how he died and what hope we have for him in the future.  It is of vital importance for all of us who come to remember him that we tell the truth.

 Apart from Jesus, I have probably spoken more about my father in sermons than any other human being. My whole life I have been trying to come to grips with who he was. So, I am going walk you through the three stages of preaching about my father over the last twenty years of my preaching. I would like to use the framing device of the biblical story of the tax collector and the Pharisee.  I am going I am going to speak about my father as villian, then as victim, and finally my father as victorious.  The first two parts may be a bit difficult, but like the story of the tax collector we end with hope.

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Does the Bible Support or Dismantle Racism?

 

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

 

****Editor’s note: I gave this 30 minute talk in Buffalo, NY. at the Nickel City Forum.  It is not meant to be the last word on the topic. Time precluded a more extensive discussion of all the issues surrounding race and the bible.

Since we find ourselves in upstate New York, some seventy five miles from the burial place of that great Black theologian, author, and abolitionist Frederick Douglas, it seems fitting to begin with a quote from him that will orient us toward our topic: Does the Bible support racism or dismantle it? This quote appears in the apendix of his classic work The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave. In his biography, he lodges a sustained criticism of Christianity as he encountered it in America. To ward off the potential misunderstanding of his critique was of Christianity proper he says:

I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion…What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Douglas, then, makes the distinction between the reprehensible practices of the American Christians of his day and the religion of Christianity that he discerned from reading the biblical text.  In this paper, then, I follow the lead of Douglas. You will be disappointed if you where expecting some apologia for Christianity as it was practiced by many (but not all) white believers during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the present day. I like Douglas discern the “widest possible difference.”

But I also want to say this, Christianity is wider and deeper than the last two hundred years of America history. It was firmly planted in Africa before the first European ever set foot on this continent. It has its own history in the East and the West that is full both of triumph and disaster. Let’s not be myopic. We are not the center of the story and the validity of Christianity does not rise and fall with the actions of one people in one country. God has a purpose that spans the centuries and, in the end, he will bring his purposes to pass.

Finally, to press the point home the history of Christianity in this country is more than the history of White Christianity. There is a story to be told about the faith of people of color who have been here from the beginning.  Therefore I take it as read that American Christianity is a mixed thing with its own record of triumphs and failures for which we will have to give an account.

But if a religion is to be taken seriously as a thing to be analyzed, we have to be able to look at what it says about itself, especially in a religion like Christianity that believes that God in his providence has gifted us with an inspired text. So then, does the Bible encode racism or does it dismantle it?

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Tell the Truth: Integrity and the Anglican Communion

 

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A few years ago, there was a movie entitled concussion starring Will Smith. Very few people saw it mostly because the underlining plot was clear to all who had been paying attention. The film was about the impact of the NFL and football in general on the brain. The movie argued that the NFL knew about the negative impact of the repeated collisions on the brain and hid the results to protect the brand. Will Smith plays a doctor who discovers the truth and engages in a long fight to get the data out to the public. In the trailer, we hear Smith say in a somewhat passable Nigerian accent, “Tell the Truth!” Having seen the trailer, and knowing what I knew of football from experience, I did not watch the movie. But Smith’s words, “Tell the truth” stayed with me.

Large organizations with the power to control communications and manipulate public perception often have difficulty telling the truth. This especially true in churches that have a vested interested in portraying a certain image to the world. I confess that in recent years as I have watched the politics of the Anglican communion, especially the information coming out of the Primates’ meetings, I have often wanted to yell in imitation of Will Smith’s imitation, “tell the truth!”

What do I mean?  I will not recount the last 15 years of Anglican politics for those who are uninformed, but this much is clear. Significant portions of the Global South want some discipline to be enacted against churches in the West who have changed their teaching on marriage. This change came even though the overwhelming majority of the communion has not found sufficient theological warrant for such a revision. Large sections of the church in the West, even those who still ostensibly hold to a traditional view on marriage, do not want anything to be done about this revision. For them, marriage is a matter on which people of good will can disagree.

A church that was honest and had the trust of its members would address this issue directly. It would gather its leaders and ask the following question: Is human sexuality a matter of adiaphora or is it church dividing? It would tell the media that this is the topic of conversation. It would say that we are meeting to talk about marriage and not pretend that marriage is some insignificant issue to be addressed before moving on to climate change or something else more palatable to a secular press. It would tell its member churches. It would invite its best theologians to a public and sustained debate. This is what we do in the academy. When there is an unresolved issue, we return to the sources and bring our best to the debate. We publish our works and submit them to public analysis. We learned this from the church that taught us to pursue truth because all truth has its origin in our creator. A church that deserved our trust would then explain to its member churches how it came to its conclusions. This would allow member churches to discern whether the reasoning was something it could support. It would tell the truth.

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The Church as Witness and Protest: A Call to a Faithful Response to Charlottesville

week8-large(Editor’s note: This was a sermon based on Romans 12:1–9.)

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In middle school during black history month we would watch these videos called Eyes On the Prize and  make posters lauding black achievement.  There were posters about George Washington Carver and his varied uses of the peanut.  Alongside Carver, one might find Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad or Frederick Douglas and poignant question: What to a slave is the fourth of July? 

But it is the videos that I remember. They mostly consisted of interviews interspersed with footage that told the story of events like the Montgomery bus boycott or the integration of the lunch counters throughout the United States. Many (but not all) of the leaders of were Christian laity and pastors.  But strangely enough many (but not all) of their opponents also professed the Christian faith. This was my picture of the church, a body in violent and bloody disagreement with itself. But I was hopeful because a knew what side God was on. I knew that he loved his beleaguered people of God drawn from every nation.

But it was hard to erase the images of the dogs and the Billy clubs and the water hoses.

Charlottesville

Anyone who has watched the news over the last few weeks in which White Supremacists marched in the largest number that we have seen in living memory cannot help but wonder what is happening to our country.  better yet we wonder what the church can do in a time when hatred is on the rise and the civil discourse seems to be falling away? How do we respond?

I want to posit Romans 12 as the beginning of an answer to this question. I want to argue that Paul calls the church in his age and in every age to be an alternative society whose holiness and mutual dependence on one another testifies to a different way of being human.  What then is the role of the church in the present moment? The role of the church is to be what God calls us to be: the one people of God saved by the blood of Jesus, who empowered by the Spirit, bear witness to his present and coming kingdom.

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Sit Down, Be Humble: On Speaking about “The Church”

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When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

There is a cottage industry that exists online and in print that offers both a critique and prescription for renewal of “the church.” Part of this is understandable given that many studies have pointed out the increase in the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation.  By far, it seems, that Evangelicals or post-evangelicals write about this phenomenon most often. Every few days, I am treated with yet another book or blog about the impending apocalypse of Christianity in the West.  These writings, especially by post-evangelicals, usually begin by castigating the church for its silence on issues of race and social justice. Another common criticism is that the church is inauthentic. For them church is less real than the fellowship they experience at dinners with their secular friends who seem more compassionate and honest than their small group.

For many of these people, this was a lived experience.  They grew up in very strict Evangelical circles that preached a small version of Christianity that had little time for what the bible had to say about the poor and the marginalized.  I get it. NPR (it seems) cares more about the refugees than the church.

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Mixed-Race Kids, the Church, and the Blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim

 

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Genesis has long been at the center of Jewish and Christian reflection on what it means to be the people of God.  In the Christian tradition, much has been written about God’s declaration that he made man and woman in his image such that all people deserve to be treated with the dignity.  The Apostle Paul, in his letters to Rome and Galatia, forever solidified the importance of the Abrahamic narrative to Christian self-understanding. The story of Joseph, with its stirring saga of family betrayal and God’s faithfulness, has been fodder for many Sunday school lessons and countless sermons.

But attention wanes, and by the time we get to the end of Genesis, which recounts the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim we are no longer concerned with the Patriarchs and their progeny.  We are ready for the Exodus. This is a mistake. I want to suggest that the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh vies for the title of the most neglected story in Genesis and that it has a word to speak to us today because it reveals God’s longing for a multi-colored kingdom.

So now a little bible study. In Gen 48, we encounter Jacob as an old man near death. Joseph, upon hearing that his father has taken ill, rushes to see him bringing along his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. These sons are important because they are of mixed race.  Their mother is Egyptian (Gen 41:50–51), and their father is clearly an Israelite.  When Jacob sees these mixed-race boys, he says:

God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples [עמים] (Gen 48:3–4).

The word for peoples can be misleading. Depending on the context, the word that Jacob uses [עמים] can refer to ethnic groups. A clearer translation of Gen 48:4 for modern ears might read, “I  am going to make you a community of ethnicities or ethnic groups.” Therefore, when Jacob sees Joseph’s half-African sons, he sees their ethnicity as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  These half-African sons, for Jacob, show that God always had in mind the creation of a multi-ethnic family.

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Black Christians and Frodo’s Wound

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‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.’ ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

In the Lord of the Rings four races that have historic reasons to distrust one another must band together to defeat an enemy that threatens to destroy them all.  At the center of this gathering of misfits stands a people (the hobbits) who are perceived as weak and simple. Despite their outward appearance, these small folk are of sturdier stuff than their stature might suggest.  The grand plan for the salvation of the world at the core of the novel is not the acquisition of power, but its rejection. This sacrifice of power is possible because of the shared love that the four peoples discover on mission together.

It is clear, then, that the Lord of Rings posits racial reconciliation, common mission and the rejection of power as the hope of the world.  If this is true, then with all due respect to authorial intent, the hobbits are black people.

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Graduation: Black PhDs and the Title that Endures

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I ain’t in the clan, but I brought my hood with me – Kanye West

It’s beautiful to change; it’s beautiful to grow into my name – Taelor Gray

Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine – Book of Common Prayer Benediction (paraphrase of Eph 3:20–21)

There were times when I thought that I would not make it from one end of the PhD process to the other.  The work was too hard. I was far from home, and everything about Scotland was alien to me. There were no black people and very few clergy in the New Testament program.  But there I was a former pastor lost in a sea of folks who seemed to be professional academics. I felt every bit the outsider. It didn’t help that my work got sent to the drawing board so many times that I thought that I might as well transform myself into a stick man and climb into the board.  “This is fine work, but I think it can be better consider revising the following… (rinse and repeat for 3 ½ years).” Even when you are utterly wrong, the British are unfailingly polite.

So how did I survive? I prayed very hard. I fasted a lot. I had the unwavering support of my wife and my children. But that is a story I will tell another time. Today, as I get ready for my defense tomorrow, my mind drifts towards a particular vision that has returned to me consistently.

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