A Return to Big Words

For me, frequent barbershop visits are about much more than good grooming. Going to the barbershop transports me to my childhood. My wonderful father would take my brother and me for cuts. Treks to the barbershop return me to the days of driving my 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier to Curtis Miller's Barbershop in Tallahassee, Fla. It was imperative to keep the flattop of my high-school days impeccably sculpted. Before every major event in my life a trip to the barbershop has been not an option but a necessity. I have sat in the chair of a professional barber before my graduations, my ordination, my wedding and the funerals of those whom I have loved. I have gotten much more than haircuts. I have benefited from wisdom, encouragement, correction, laughter and tears in barbershops in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Maryland. These shops have served as sacred communal space for countless generations of men like me.

The barbershop has also served as a theological classroom. My barbershop habit continued unabated by my precarious economic situation when I was a student at Duke Divinity School between the years of 1996 and 1999. I spent time every Friday at Thorpe's Barber Shop on Fayetteville Street in Durham. I had the privilege of sitting in classrooms with some of the best theological teachers and students in the nation. And when I got to the barbershop with some of my classmates on Fridays we brought seminary into the shop with us. The men and women in the shop looked forward to our arrival every week. They wanted to know what we were learning. They wanted to disagree and agree, they wanted to engage and disengage, they wanted to encourage our theological pursuits and to tell us that our educational aspirations were unnecessary to serve God's church. It was fun. It was heated. It could get tense, even exasperating.

No hyperbole -- we would talk about the JEDP theory. We would talk about the Q source theory. We would talk about hypostasis and kenosis. And folks loved it. I did not realize that these conversations were formational pastoral training. In seminary we talk about ideas with others who talk about ideas, and we are rewarded for mastering the language and techniques of the guild. In the barbershop those ideas needed to be incarnate for the biology professor, the mechanic, the police officer, and the attorney to engage them. People of varying levels of education, exposure and sophistication would engage with bumbling young theologues because we knew that what we were learning was not esoteric. What we were learning came from the thoughtful reflection, intellectual engagement and faithful wrestling of our mothers and fathers in faith. Because we understood that fact, we connected lecture with life in the barbershop. We were saved from the heresy of Gnosticism in Thorpe's Barber Shop. We had acquired no special knowledge. We shared the intellectual gifts and theological heritage of the church with our friends, and they shared the same with us. We honed the skills of listening and learning and teaching every Friday in the Hayti community of the Bull City.

But all was not sunshine and roses. Many of our fellow patrons were suspicious of Duke University because they had deep roots in Durham and knew its history. Many were dubious about the Divinity School and what it taught and stood for. Many were skeptics when it came to Christianity. Many were not enamored of preachers or of the church. All of these complicating factors added texture and depth to our conversations. I learned that my vocation was not to have the answers but to help to escort others into a deeper engagement with the mysteries of our faith even as they escorted me into the same reality. Our Fridays were not exercises in proselytization; they were iron-sharpening sessions.

One day, a gentleman had had enough of me, the bespectacled know-it-all from Duke. He looked at me and said, "You use too many big words!" There was a smidgen of humor in his remarks, but he was serious. His was not an anti-intellectual tirade. That would be too simplistic an interpretation of his gentle yet stern outburst. His was a cry for the church and her servants to be about the truly big words of our sacred texts and proclamation. He wanted less declamation and more demonstration. He wanted more from the church and from me than bland moralism or showing off my recently acquired multisyllabic theological vocabulary. What was I really about? What are we really about? What is the church really about? Who is this Triune God that we talk about ad nauseum? People really do care about these questions.

I read a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon some years ago. She wrote about a drought in our pulpits. A drought not caused by a lack of exegetical rain, but a drought caused by neglecting the big words of our faith. Words like faith, hope, love, grace, justice, peace, and forgiveness. These words are not big because of their many syllables. These words are not big because they are difficult to spell or pronounce. These words are big because they originate in the very being of the God whom we worship, and they come to us only as good gifts from that same God. These words cannot be manufactured by our efforts; they cannot be brought to life through the antics of classroom genius or pulpit proficiency. I learned in the barbershop that God's people, both in the church and out of the church, are desperate to have these blessed, big words spoken into their lives.

My affiliation with Duke Divinity School has afforded me many opportunities. I am grateful for them all. But I did not enter the Divinity School as a theological tabula rasa. I was already formed theologically upon the anvil and cross of African Methodism. It was the pronouncement of big words like justice, peace, love and mercy that first captivated my ears and deepened my faith. The apostle Paul was indeed correct: My faith came by hearing big words that pointed to the reality of God's work in and through Jesus Christ. I have never gotten those big words out of my head.

I left Duke and served as a pastor for nearly 10 years at various African Methodist Episcopal parishes in Florida. I then had the distinct opportunity to return to Duke and work with Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. I have returned to pastoral ministry at the Turner Memorial Church in the Washington Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am blessed to work with Leadership Education as I serve the good people of the Washington metropolitan area. As I reflect on my unfolding vocation, I am clear that I am a big-word chaser. When I read of God's love and justice and peace in Scripture, when I hear God's grace and mercy and forgiveness proclaimed from pulpits and lecterns and hospital beds, I know why I am in the world. I am in the world to hear those words, to speak those words, and to watch God's eschatological dream for creation unfold in the everydayness and brokenness of our world. My work as a pastor and as a managing director at Leadership Education tells me that Christians and our institutions have ears that are as parched as our throats. We want to taste the big words of God. We want to speak them. We know that when these words are spoken they become flesh in our world.

I learned at Leadership Education that some of the best stuff written about leadership is not explicitly about leadership but about the habits and practices that shape faithful people who do good work. Here is a practice that we must all cultivate and deepen. As we go about serving God and participating in God's reign, let us use more big words. Let's use them in the barbershops and grocery stores and outlet malls. I would like to hear more big words from our pulpits and lecterns. How about hearing them from our leaders during this political season? Peace. Justice. Hope. Love. Say these words. People everywhere are waiting to hear us speak them again.

This was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of DIVINITY magazine, published by Duke Divinity School.