My Moment to share my reflection from the last several months
It has been a minute since I have written anything on this page and although I have had many thoughts that have been put to paper, they have not made the cut to publish. Each day of this pandemic and sheltering in place has been challenging for the entire world. Although we have history on our side regarding humans surviving major viral epidemics, there is for us today a more intense sense of uncertainty, unrest, and impatience for this to come to an end soon. Countries around the world are seeing people protest their government’s decision to actualize shelter in place orders. In the US, leaders in some faith communities have been openly defying orders against large gatherings for religious and non-religious purposes and even bringing lawsuits against their state leaders citing the First Amendment right to assemble and freedom of religion. It has also sparked intense political actions with the hopes of one side beating the other with propaganda for or against more government spending and fully opening the country before an economic collapse happens.
On a more personal note, it has made me more grateful for each breath I take and each day I am afforded to live. Hearing of the deaths of acquaintances, friends, loved ones from the COVID-19 virus and the thousands of others who have contracted the virus and are fighting for their lives or have recovered has certainly made life more sobering. The biggest challenge for me has been making the adjustment of being a virtual pastor. While doing video and teleconferencing is nothing new to me, virtual preaching has certainly been different. I was fortunate to have begun the process of live streaming services some time ago, I am one of those pastors who understood the future of those services but was unprepared to have to begin it under such conditions. The congregation I have been blessed and privileged to under shepherd is thriving and even growing despite not meeting in person. They certainly inspire me to continue studying to show myself approved as an unashamed workman of Christ.
I am certain that historians will look back upon this moment in time and mention the tenacity of the people in the world amid a global pandemic. Even after we are back to some sense of normalcy, it is still my goal and obligation to be an empowering and liberating voice of justice for those who are in need of hearing it. It is my goal and obligation to continue serving this present age my calling to fulfill.
After conceding having an affair on his wife, Pastor John Gray of the Relentless Church, took to the pulpit to defend himself. In an article by Paul Mason published in the Empowering Everyday Women (EEW) Magazine, Gray in a sermon titled “Graveyard Shift states” I saw people—bless their hearts—online talking about, Pastor John talked about suicide. I didn’t say that I went and got a gun. I didn’t say I bought pills. I said the enemy put thoughts in my mind, and people tried to make that like I was out of my mind…“And you know what’s funny? It wasn’t devils that made me feel that way; it was people.” Gray went on to quote scriptures from Genesis and Proverbs as a defensive response to those who chose to speak out about his situation. In both quotes, Gray misappropriates scripture towards those he sees as not being faithful Christians for not concealing the matter. While I am all for keeping home business in the home, this is not one of those moments.
Gray raised his profile from lowly preacher to mid-level celebrity after co-starring on the daytime television talk show “The Preachers” alongside Dr. E. Dewey Smith, Dr. Jamal Bryant, and Orrick Quick. From there he and his wife have starred in their own reality television series on the OWN network. It was these and other church platforms that propelled him into the national spotlight and brought the added scrutiny of his public and private life. Going from preacher to pop culture shifted the culpability of his actions to full public commentary. This is not to say that he is entitled to such, but it comes with the territory (and should I ever get to the level that he is I should expect the same).
Scripture presents us with case scenarios of how we should deal with individuals who have failed because of public or private sin of some kind. While the Old Testament provides plenty of case studies in the human frailty of highly gifted persons, the New Testament provides better insight because Jesus of Nazareth and Paul the Apostle both had personal interactions with those people. In John 4, Jesus was brought a woman who was caught in the act of adultery to which he responded to her accusers by writing something in the sand and giving the famous quote “he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He later meets a single Samaritan woman at a local well, engages her in conversation, and after telling her of her past and current relationship status, helps empower her to become an evangelist on his behalf. It appears that Jesus was more concerned about the victim being oppressed than those who would call out the cause of their oppression.
Apostle Paul seemingly has a different approach. In his first response letter to the church of Corinth, he directly addresses an issue of sexual immorality and stated that “although absent in body but present in spirit, I have already judged him who has committed this as though I were present” (I Corinthians 5:3). Paul had proclaimed appropriate condemnation and punishment for the individual even though he was not physically present to do so. He had written that because the Corinthian church had more pride in themselves they had chosen to not adequately address the direct inflammation of sin that had become a part of their church body. Paul later writes in Galatians that individual believers should be so interconnected that whenever one sees another brother or sister overtaken in any trespasses that we should reach out to that person regarding our own sensitivity and culpability to sin in like manner (Galatians 5:25-26, 6:1-10).
This dichotomy presented by Paul is what we see being played out in the contemporary church. There are those who would love to call judgment and justice for the moral failures of church leaders and there are those who will not be so quick to act or condemn because they are aware of their own human frailty. We live in an age where social media intrudes on the private lives of everyone. Social media has a way of complicating the nuances of personal and public interactions. Choosing to conceal or reveal is up to individual choice. We all know someone in church leadership who has had a moral failure. We can be discreet in addressing it to those we care, or we can be proud and self-righteous in addressing it. While both can be seemingly done in love, one leads to self-fulfillment, and the other leads to repentance for all.
After nearly 30 years in ministry I’ve come to discover that I have spent a great deal of my ministry life being simultaneously anointed, gifted and toxic. Like many preachers, I spent years developing my craft, shaping my preaching style and personality, and developing a philosophy of ministry that I hoped would be beneficial to those I ministered to. I also discovered that with that development came a lot of personal moral challenges that all my ministry grooming could never quite prepare me for. Because I began preaching as a teenager, I was instructed to take Proverbs 5-8 to heart and “ preserve discretion and keep knowledge on my lips”. I had plenty of ministry mentors who had gone down the path of immorality in one form or another and they did their best to admonish me not to make their mistakes.
While I have never been removed from a pulpit, publicly corrected or rebuked, or ever had any inappropriate behavior publicly exposed and scrutinized, I have had my share of moral failings that have caused me to turn inwardly for reflection and repentance. I went through a divorce that had me emotionally unbalanced for over a decade. I had a relationship at one time that although was innocent, was in hindsight inappropriate. I had been in romantic relationships where I did not maintain sexual purity and continued to preach weekly to wondrous reception. I continue to struggle with general anxiety and feelings of inadequacy despite my training, education, and accolades. I have been the toxic person in relationships that led to others involved being more hurt than helped by me.
There are thousands of other preachers just like me. They don’t make the national church headlines with their routine toxicity. They sit in pulpits or pews with the task of ministering to someone else despite their own misgivings. They are aware of their giftedness and toxicity but are only allowed and encouraged to express the former over the latter. It is quite emotionally ravaging for them. They, like me, are not spiritually or emotionally healthy. They are called upon to be God’s vessels of healing and wonder, leading to the salvific knowledge of Christ the Redeemer, and a life of abundance on this side and eternity on the other. It is a duplicitous life at best and certainly an intoxicating one when the ministry gifts are on full display for people to be in awe and wonder of the individual in praxis but not the toxicity attached.
This is why we find it hard to minister to those ministers who have fallen hard to the duality of their anointing and their toxicity. It’s no different than that of Noah getting drunk and being inappropriately exposed to his grandson after having followed God’s plan of successfully building, servicing, and replenishing the earth. It’s also David having to witness the death of a child birthed out of his coveting another man’s wife and successfully conspiring to have that man murdered. It’ Solomon, who after soliciting the Lord for wisdom, receiving it and the wealth that accompanied it, giving himself over to all the vanities of life and causing his successor to be just as foolish in turn leading to the eventual destruction of the House of David. It’s Peter, the great Apostle, denying Christ before those who sought him executed, or the Peter who chose to be hypocritical in his praxis of faith in front Gentiles or Jews.
The point I hope to get across is that as ministers, preachers, prophets, apostles, pastors, evangelists, teachers, or any other title one wishes to utilize, we are well acquainted with our anointing and our toxicity. There are those of us who are more disciplined in our concealment of it than others, but it is still very present. Scripture assures us that we have an Advocate in our toxicity. We have a Christ who wholly identifies with us yet can shield the wrath that our toxicity incurs. The author of Hebrews in 4:12-16, reminds us that our Advocate is one who is fully aware of us in our entirety. He through our engagement of the scriptures, can discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. He beholds the nakedness of our humanity, encouraging us to hold fast the profession of our faith and calling, and empowering us to boldly come to Him to obtain the mercy and grace to help in our time of need. It is ok for us to be anointed and toxic, but we must always know that God is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast of our anointed and toxic lives and ministry, but most of all, He is our Eternal Home.
I can honestly say that 2016 has been one of the most productive years of my adult life. It was the first full year in my 40’s and it was full of rewarding and humbling moments. I began the year with high expectations and I end the year with confidence knowing that I accomplished much of what I desired. One of the biggest things from 2016 that I have experienced was a great sense of loss. This came from the untimely death of my beloved nephew Kevin Neal, Jr. and the deaths of so many people who had a grand part in fashioning my youth and young adult development.
Like many persons at the end of the year, I take a moment and reflect on the totality of the year. There is a wonderful exercise that I have been using to accomplish this. I’ll share this year’s with you. How wonderful it is to know I’ve come this far by faith and God’s grace and have yet a ways to go. I’m grateful for all the people, places, and experiences I been graced to have in 2016. As John Newton writes in the third stanza of Amazing Grace ” Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. T’was grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me on.”
10 Highlights (Accomplishments, Best Memories)
- Passing Doctoral Qualifying Exam and becoming an official doctoral candidate
- Serving as a presenter at the Black Non-Believers 5th Anniversary Celebration
- Serving as a Delegate to the 50th Quadrennial General Conference and 200th Anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Being appointed the new Dean of Ministerial Instruction for the South Mississippi Conference Board of Examiners
- Becoming a Spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and Survivors Engagement Lead for Everytown for Gun Safety
- Lobbying with Clergy for Prison Reform
- Lobbying at US Capital with National Council of Churches
- Attending Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE)National Pastor’s Policy Summit
- Celebrating five years as pastor of New Bethel AME Church of Jackson
- Joining a local community choir
Disappointments (Failures, Missed Opportunities)
- Not spending enough time with my nephew Kevin before he passed
- Not maintaining regular spiritual discipline
- Not going to the gym consistently
- Not promoting book, ministry and radio show
- Indecisive about romantic relationships
- Not making time for self
- Not traveling for pleasure
- Not managing finances well
- Not reading more
- Not aggressively ministering to youth and young adults at the church
3 Game Changers (Unexpected Events that shifted my priorities)
- Being featured in the upcoming Exodus documentary
- Getting back in school and passing my DQE, attending Residency II in Atlanta, and beginning the journey of writing my dissertation
- Church Promotion and exposure in local and regional media outlets
3 Things I focused on (What I put the most of my time into
- Gun Safety and Advocacy
- Criminal Justice reform
- Returning to doctoral program and completing my dissertation
3 Things I forgot (What I didn’t get around to)
- Self Care-poor diabetes management and little rest and didn’t journal consistently
- Complete writings I started
- Didn’t engage my creative side-didn’t compose music or write enough poem
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. Genesis 4:9-10
On October 19, 2016, my 18-year-old nephew was shot and killed in another senseless act of gun violence. My nephew was a charming, intelligent, and talented young man who had a lot going for him. Like many teens his age in urban areas, he felt the need to belong. He got with his click, they did typical things people in the hood do. What no one expected was that the hood would be the one to take him out. In only moments, his life was taken and he became another statistic. He became another young brother taken away from us violently. He became another young brother taken by one of his own.
I preached my nephew’s funeral and I wrestled with what to say and how to say it. I knew there would be plenty of young people there. I knew they needed to hear a message of hope and comfort. I knew they needed to hear stories about my nephew’s outgoing personality, big smile, and musical talent. I knew they needed to hear all the good things about my nephew. I also knew something else they needed to hear: I knew they needed to hear the truth.
I wrestled with preaching what they needed to hear. I knew the message would not be one of heaven and angels, and the glorious life of the hereafter. It would be the truth of our silence and passivity leading to so many of our sons and daughters dying needless deaths. It would be the truth of our negligence, passiveness, and silence leading to so many of our sons and daughters are losing their lives to a penal system that treats them as subhuman caged animals.
The truth hurts but it heals. I understand the angst so many young blacks feel. I understand this sense of inalienable rights to claim turf and clicks and amass a rep within the hood. No person wants to seem unappreciated, unnecessary, and unsung. The church and other community and spiritual leaders must address angst. It is the fear of being lost forever that we must combat. It is the distrust of a system that is supposed to protect and serve them that we must address. It is the soul that needs to be actualized and mobilized to see better and greater things not just in the future but in the present.
WE ARE OUR BROTHER’S KEEPER!
We are accountable for the life and death of those we care. We can contribute to their empowerment and liberation from a deep anxiety of over-hood exposure. The story says that Cain spoke with Abel before killing him. It does not say what they discussed or what emotions Cain felt, but whatever it was led to him committing a crime that has affected humanity every since. When God confronts Cain, his response is chilling. It reeks of insensitivity to the divine community. It speaks loudly of how easy it is to brush off another black man’s life and meaningless. In spite of this, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God. It spoke of his tragedy as no language could. It lamented his relationship and his death, but it also gave hope. It gave hope because it cried to the Creator. It cried to the Eternal. It spoke with enough authority to cause God to hear and act.
We should learn from Abel’s blood. We should learn to cry out to God against all violence. We should learn that death does not silence the voice of the slain. We should demand accountability in our communities from one another. We should allow the blood voices of the slain to resonate within our communities until we stand and cry No More! Their blood is crying out to us and to God. Are we listening or are like Cain, continuing the passivity of life only asking, “Are we our brother’s keeper?”
September 2015 has is considered as a month to go down in history. There are those who are making deep connections to end time events such as the Rapture of Christians, an asteroid/comet collision with Earth, the rolling out of a global currency, empire, and New World Order, the rise of the Anti-Christ, and at the very least, the destruction of the United States of America as we know it. I have literally watched dozens of hours of videos all seeming to collaborate that between September 21-30, 2015 and early October 2015 that the world as we know it will no longer exist. I must admit some provided some very good arguments, and others were just plain old good fashioned entertainment. I have been amazed at the depth of creativity and research that has gone into many of those YouTube videos. The creators ranged from Evangelical Christian to agnostic anarchistic conspiracy theorists. What they all shared was a common thread of both fear and vigilance.
I will be the first to admit that I am a skeptic. I grew up watching the left behind movies of the 70’s and early 80’s that showed how the world would be in a post-Christian church society. I read the books of Hal Lindsey and others that predicted the great fate of the planet earth. I later followed a pre-millennialist view of end time prophecy that was always dating and naming said events getting every Christian who subscribed to their view rapture ready. I reveled in watching shows like John Van Impe, Perry Stone, and just about any Church of God Prophecy broadcast on television. These persons were clear experts and authorities on all things end times. They marked every new invention, world leader, world event, and anything else as being another sign of the times (with the exception of Prince’s album of the same name). Some had set dates like the infamous October 1988 rapture date. Others simply warned against the use of credit cards with the readable stripes on the back or purchasing groceries from stores that used bar codes. It literally drove many people crazy.
One would think that with all the failed predictions and inaccurate interpretations of scriptures that people would give up trying to predict the end of the world, the rapture, or the return of Christ, but they haven’t. The 2000’s brought the bestselling Left Behind series of books and movies and made some people very wealthy while promoting a misguided sense of urgency for rapture preparation. I witnessed churches showing the movies to youth at lock-ins and conferences. While it brought many people into the church, it also created a warped sense of Christian faith and end time events. It may have also created more problems regarding sinful behaviors among youth and young adults believing that they could sin and still be rapture ready perhaps even without suffering the consequences of that behavior (I’ll sin today and be raptured tomorrow! LOL). The reality has been that The Lord has yet delayed His coming and we must still live with the consequences of our sin and must be in a consistent state of repentance regarding them.
What if September 2015 is the game changing event that leads to a dramatic change in the world, as we know it? Scripture is clear that as believers, we should be prepared as a bride prepared for her bridegroom. We’ve read the story of the 10 virgins, five wise and five foolish, but are we prepared as we need to be? Is there enough controlled chaos in the world that God is ready to end it all just as He did during the days of Noah? Is He ready to create such massive destruction that only He can restore? That has yet to be known, but what is clear is that there is no better time to align oneself with God than at present. There is no better time than now to, as we African Methodists solicit at the call of our sacrament of Holy Communion, “truly and earnestly repent of your sins, walk in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead new life following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways.”
The dates and scenarios may be different, but the message is an unchanging one. There will be an end. It may come with a raptured church. It may come with a one-world government. It may come with a massive extinction level event. It may come with no global disaster at all. It remains that if it does come, will you be ready. It doesn’t matter to me where you are a Christian following end-time prophecy or an agnostic/atheist simply hoping to escape mass extinction, are you prepared for the end?
The book of Jonah is an interesting one. We find the story of a reluctant prophet who would rather see an entire nation of people destroyed than receive the mercy of the Lord. We see an individual with a divine mandate intentionally attempt to not carry out that mandate. The prophet Jonah boards a ship heading in another direction gets entangled in a storm that forces him to admit his flawed attempt to evade ministry, and eventually gets him the in belly of a large fish that forces him to rethink his relationship and purpose with God. Jonah is indeed one good read. I have found myself in Jonah’s shoes on a number of occasions. I had rather see some persons retained in their messy affairs of life than deal with the mandate of God to minister to them.
What is disturbing about Jonah isn’t that he was swallowed by a large fish or that he reluctantly repents and carries out his mission. What is disturbing to me is the way the book ends. It ends so abruptly. Jonah speaks as if he were the biggest disappointment to his call as a prophet of Jehovah. He had been sitting outside of the city of Nineveh angry at God and himself for feeling as if he had been manipulated by God into carrying out God’s mission. He had understood God’s mercy and benevolence towards mankind. He had experienced firsthand when he was on the boat headed to Tarshish and after he had been thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish. In spite of all of this, even though he was repentant and grateful, he was still reluctant.
For many, reluctance is a big burden of ministry. Those who have been in ministry long enough have encountered individuals they were reluctant to minister to. While there are plenty who rejoice in being called to prison ministry, pastoral care ministry, and especially the pastoral ministry, there are more who are very reluctant to serve “the least of these.” Service requires both the desire to go and the need to follow. What Jonah experienced was nothing short of simply being human. Reluctance is more present in ministry than many pastors and church members would care to admit. It can be challenging when confronting our own biases and prejudices about those we are commanded to serve and minister to.
What makes Jonah’s narrative interesting is the way he confronts God about regarding His immediate compassion upon seeing the Ninevites turn from their evil way. I would argue that there are plenty of clergy just like Jonah. We would rather see God’s judgment and condemnation on people we have deemed undeserving of His grace. Perhaps this is more succinctly seen in contemporary political and religious freedom movements. There are those standing by their right to religious freedom condemning others choosing to express the same. It is destructive and does not demonstrate the character of God to non-believers.
Another interesting thing about this narrative is that while Nineveh likely had early connections to the ancient Jews, that connection had long been lost by the time of Jonah’s mission there. The question then becomes why did Jehovah even desire for them to hear from Him and repent? It was clear that the great city of Nineveh was enjoying prosperity without God and He apparently tolerated it for generations. This could have contributed to Jonah’s reluctance. Think about the number of times pastors have preached in communities infested with crime of all kinds and not one person responds to the invitation to abundant life (not even after funerals lol). Yet immediately after hearing the cry from the reluctant prophet about an imminent overthrow of their great city in 40 days, they all believed God from the youngest to the oldest. Even the king made it a public law that everyone cries out mightily to God so that His anger would be turned away from them. If only people would heed that message now and produce similar reaction, what a marvelous change this country and world would see!
In spite of Jonah’s reluctance, the people still received. It begs the question of how much our reluctance matters when it comes to God’s mission. We may feel like pawns in God’s game of repentance, but ultimately what He desires for individuals gets accomplished. We may go into and come away from a divine ministry assignment throwing a big tantrum, but the reality is we are still being used to the glory of God the Father. Reluctance in ministry does not take away the need for ministry. There will be moments in service to the Father that we will utterly despise, but when the seed has been planted, watered, and grows, it will be one that will bring forth fruit for generations to come.
It’s a new year with new exciting topics and guests for Zera! Tune in today at 11:00 CST at http://tobtr.com/s/7266305
Coming back off break, Pastor Lorenzo Neal returns with discussions on current topics including domestic violence, breast cancer awareness month and how the black church leadership can handle incidents of violence among church leadership and celebrities. Pastor Neal also discusses how the November midterm elections could affect the black church and black community. Tune in and be blessed