Son of a Preacher Man

A slightly modified version of the talk I gave to faculty this morning.

Many of you know that I grew up as the son of a Fundamentalist Baptist minister. What you probably don't know -- is that my dad was also the Winner of the Preacher Boy Contest at Bob Jones University. In his junior year. And many of you don't know what a big deal it is to be the winner of the Preacher Boy Contest at Bob Jones University...but trust me, when I tell you, in fundamentalist circles, it's a Very Big Deal.

It was such a big deal, that every major fundamentalist revivalist evangelist on the circuit during the late 70's and early 80s came to hold a week of revival meetings at my dad's church. They often stayed at our home, ate dinner around our table, and *always* autographed the inside cover of my King James Bible.

Probably the most important memory I have of those evangelists isn't the many times they cajoled me to stream down the aisles in repentance with the other sinners. Probably the most important memory I have was the evening that Dr. Jack Hyles preached about the sacrifices that God had called him to make so that he could travel around the country bringing fire and brimstone and theatricality to Independent Fundamental Bible Believing King James Only churches around the nation. Foremost among those sacrifices? His family. Specifically his son.

I sat, there. A preachers son. I had watched people fawn over my father. I had seen how they jockeyed and positioned for his favor or interest. And I heard Jack Hyles tell a story about how he had knowingly sacrificed his teenage son on the altar of his itinerant ministry. And now he knew his son was struggling, but he knew God sometimes asked a lot.

This kind of message was not uncommon in fundamentalism. A message that warned of the dangers of sin, pointed and called the audience sinners and then held the evangelist up as the paradigm for Surrender and God's Answered Call. It's just that on that night, for the first time, I recognized it:

I recognized how easy it was to use spiritual language to abuse powerful positions.

And I went forward a lot less and I started to wonder how much of what I was hearing from pulpits and platforms was motivated by truth and transparency and how much of it was motivated by ambition and showmanship.

I smiled and demurred to parishioners as they promised me that I would grow up to be: "Just Like My Daddy! A Wonderful Preacher!" I was winning preacher boy contests myself as I matriculated through high school, and by the time I was finished with college, I decided to (reluctantly) give it a try and took a year to serve as a minister. The wounds were still too fresh. I saw this will-to-power and these abusive one-down relationships in too many of the preachers and churches I encountered. I renounced my family profession and moved toward a career in higher education.

Even as I was finishing my Ph.D. program, I wasn't sure that I would want to return to an evangelical environment to teach. I had found a nourishing church that had helped me recover some faith in the body of Christ. Partly my own father's unwillingness to sacrifice me on the altar of his ambition or career, and later, his repentance of the sins of fundamentalism -- sustained my faith in God, while my faith wavered in regard to God's people.

I came to Malone because it was a good position, because it was a great department. I have stayed at Malone because my colleagues have opened my eyes and my heart to the various gifts of many religious traditions and the breadth of how Christ has worked in the world and is working in the world.

But it has not always been easy to be at Malone. Many times I have heard people use language that consciously or unconsciously cloaks their fears, their ambitions and their personal preferences in language of spiritual dominion. And I am, in those moments, an angry, afraid, preachers kid sitting in my hard wooden pew steeling myself against the coming altar call.

It is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. On the way to their school this morning, I told my kids the story of John the Baptist and how his hopeful and condemning message thrilled and horrified everyone - Repent! The Kingdom is at Hand!

And then how Jesus started to preach the Gospel of God (which of course, wasn't the 4 spiritual laws or any version of the Gospel that contemporary evangelists use - it was Hope for the Hopeless! Mercy and Justice will Stream Down from Mountains! Repent from your Pride and Hypocrisy!).

Jesus said:

Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.

His message was for religious leaders who had built an empire of power and privilege for themselves. And his message was for those who had been abused by their powers.

We all must Repent! of our own visions and versions of right, and clarity, and boundaries, because the Kingdom of God demands our surrender.

Which doesn't mean we shrink from telling the truth and saying hard things to each other, but it affects the humility that must inform how we tell the truth. It must inform the vision of what we hope to see accomplished.

This is the message of Lent: Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.


Rini said...

And: you weren't kidding when you've referred to your fundamentalist upbringing. May you continue in health and recovery. One day at a time.

Rini said...

p.s. if you decide to leave Malone....