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A Return to Big Words

Conversations at the barbershop reminded a Divinity School student to focus on words that really matter.

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.


About the art:

The Palace Barber Shop by Ernie Barnes, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust.

Ernie Barnes was a professional football player and artist from Durham, N.C. Places in Durham are frequent themes in his work, including this painting of the Palace Barber Shop, which was torn down in the 1960s.