Spirit Speech


That the Holy Spirit is present in preaching is something we take for granted. How the Spirit is present is a question we seldom ask. Luke Powery suggests that we fail to ask that question to the detriment of our preaching. Drawing on the tradition of African American preaching, he locates the Spirit?s activity in the sermon in two primary places; First, in celebration, the joyous acceptance of God?s gifts to the church and to the world. But equally as powerful is the expression of lament, the lifting up of our ...
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Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching

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That the Holy Spirit is present in preaching is something we take for granted. How the Spirit is present is a question we seldom ask. Luke Powery suggests that we fail to ask that question to the detriment of our preaching. Drawing on the tradition of African American preaching, he locates the Spirit’s activity in the sermon in two primary places; First, in celebration, the joyous acceptance of God’s gifts to the church and to the world. But equally as powerful is the expression of lament, the lifting up of our sorrow, grief, and suffering. In these two experiences the Spirit plays the decisive role, enabling the preacher to lay the congregation’s joys and sorrows at the feet of the living God, and announcing God’s presence in both our celebration and our lament.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687659746
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2009
  • Pages: 184
  • Sales rank: 1,434,686
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Luke A. Powery, Th.D., Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics

Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, NJ 08542-0803

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First Chapter

Spirit Speech

Lament and Celebration in Preaching
By Luke A. Powery

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-65974-6

Chapter One

Toward a Pneumatology for Preaching

If you got religion, show some sign. —Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin

There is so much love of the Spirit in black churches. —Karen Baker-Fletcher, Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit

A Spiritual People

Near the conclusion of The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Dubois proudly proclaims that African people brought "three gifts" to America—the "gift of story and song," "the gift of sweat and brawn," and the "gift of the Spirit." Similarly, Karen Baker-Fletcher says, "Spirit is not a gift of the White man. Spirit is for all in all, and our ancestors brought it with them from Africa." The embrace of the Spirit in African diasporan cultures may be the reason Henry Mitchell boldly asserts with evident bias that African American culture is the "most responsive culture to the movement of the Holy Spirit" in the United States. His stance breathes of cultural arrogance because he seems to suggest that other cultures are not as responsive to the Spirit as African Americans when in fact it may be that other cultures just respond differently to the Spirit. Even within a particular cultural milieu (for example, African American), response to the Spirit is not monolithic. Despite this critique of Mitchell, his statement does indicate the general importance of experiencing and manifesting the Spirit in African American religion.

The gift of the Spirit, a topic that is usually muted in most theological discussions, will be the focus of this chapter. It will present a sociocultural perspective on the work of the Holy Spirit as found in African American Christian cultural contexts in order to reveal the particular setting of African American preaching practices, which are the homiletical foci in this overall project. Through this cultural perspective, the Spirit works materially and holistically in individual, communal, and social realms. This holistic material pneumatology forms a theological framework out of which the gospel is proclaimed and through which the presence of the Spirit in preaching may be discerned. Naturally, manifestations of the Spirit are culturally dependent, thus, what is revealed about the experience, expression, and manifestation of the Spirit in African American Christian religion is distinctive. African American Christianity asserts, more than other traditions, that the Spirit must be embodied in word and deed for genuine, robust worship to occur. As many African Americans assert, "if you got religion, show some sign." For African American Christians, outward signs of the Spirit are vital for authentic spirituality to be discerned in a person or community's life.

This chapter will deal with a brief history of the spirit of suffering that African peoples have endured; the belief in and experience of the Spirit's real, sustaining presence; and the embodied expressions and outward manifestations of the Spirit through the human body, language, and hospitality. It will become clear that the holistic work of the Spirit in many African American settings is not primarily cerebral, but material, and can and should be expressed and discerned through human beings in action, including the act of preaching.

The Spirit of Suffering: A Lament

James Cone, the esteemed Black theologian, notes, "There is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience. Truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of black people. This means that there can be no Black Theology that does not take the black experience as a source for its starting point." With this rationale, I begin this deliberation about the outward manifestations of the Spirit in every aspect of life by painting a picture of the historical experience of African peoples, an experience of lament. One can view the black religious experience as the "meeting of God in the depth of the despair and loneliness of slavery"; therefore, a study of the manifestation of the Spirit in African American preaching must begin with the pain of unjust historical subjugation, because these are the black spiritual roots of preaching. Howard Thurman truthfully declares that "suffering stalks man, never losing the scent, and soon or late seizes upon him to wreak its devastation." Indeed, suffering's havoc is not limited to African Americans but is universal; yet, as African American homiletician Cleophus LaRue notes, the distinctive power of black preaching is not a matter of special techniques, but of "extraordinary experiences," experiences of marginalization and powerlessness stemming from the "school" of slavery. The "black church was born in slavery" and it was an "ungodly, unjust, undeserved" "burdensome context." Black preaching expressions are historically rooted in lament.

This milieu of the oppression of African peoples in the Americas has been poignantly described as "terror" by Anthony Pinn. Africans endured the cruel "Middle Passage" of slavery to the so-called New World; this heinous voyage transpired in the belly of slave ships as human moans, shrieks, the smell of filth, and the stench of death prevailed. This terror is the history of struggle for survival as Africans in America, where "dehumanization" ruled through such devices as chattel slavery, causing a "social death," alienation from society. If this was not sufficient, blacks were also viewed as beasts, objects for study, property to be sold and stripped, and as "entertainers" who would at many times wear "rope neckties" (lynching). Capturing the devastation and dehumanization experienced during the Middle Passage in poetical prose, Barbara Holmes argues that lament was the discourse of moans on the slave ships. She writes, "On the deck after evening rations, lament danced and swayed under the watchful eyes of the crew." There was good reason to lament because as early as 1611, Africans were viewed not only as savages but also were considered "deformed" due to their blackness. These "savage" black bodies were the slave master's property. Being property polarized white and black bodies such that bonded Africans could be physically marked through branding (sign of possession) and whip-scarring (sign of punishment); these were signatures of slavery, naming blacks as other or even "bodiless" in a society of white privilege. African Americans, even today, are "scarred" because of this brutal history.

The following account of the treatment of a Jamaican slave is representative of the experience of slavery across the diaspora and reveals the cause of the scar.

Gave ["Port Royal"] a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it 4 or 5 hours ... Flogged ... Quacoo well, and then washed salt pickle, lime juice and bird pepper; also whipped Hector for losing his hoe, made New Negro Joe piss in his eyes and mouth.

It is not surprising then that the spirituals have been called "sorrow songs" and that a black slave could sing and shout,

No more auction block for me, No more, No more, No more auction block for me, Many thousand gone. No more peck o' corn for me, No more, No more, No more peck o' corn for me, Many thousand gone. No more driver's lash for me ... No more pint o' salt for me ... No more hundred lash for me ... No more mistress' call for me.... Many thousand gone.

The slaves sang "Oh, freedom all over me ... An' befo' I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave ..." Sometimes they felt like a motherless child. Sometimes they felt like they were almos' gone, a long ways from home, because of their existential reality of suffering. Death was better than life, so they sang, "Death, oh death, oh me Lawd, Death, oh death, oh me Lawd. When-a me body lay down in de grave, Den-a me soul gwine shout fo' joy." Joy was hard to find in this context because lament was so prominent. Blacks lived the blues, the "black body fighting hard times."

African peoples suffer not only at the hands of the broader society, but also because of the church. In the colonized West Indies,

the missionaries assumed that their ethical rationalism was a mode of life accessible to all. Creole ideas ... were understood by the missionaries only as corrupting superstition. Their practice of ethical rationalism with its disciplines of the body not only repudiated the world of play and its carnivalesque aesthetic, it also sought to stifle in Jamaica an intense eudemonic of freedom which both transformed and re-embodied an African sense of joy in the world.

David Walker in his 1829 Appeal notes that "the white Americans having reduced us to the wretched state of slavery, treat us in that condition more cruel (they being an enlightened and Christian people), than any heathen nation did any people whom it had reduced to our condition." The supposed "Christian" country propagated subjugation, not liberation, for the Christian masters of slaves prioritized the soul over the body. Riggins Earl calls this prioritization the "ideal Christian master type response," which leads to proslavery literature in which the slave of African origin is in theory made in God's image, but "it was the unchangeable blackness of the slave's body, which signified the demonic." The black slave was viewed only as a body and the black body had only one worth—to work for the slavemaster. Enslaved blacks questioned whether their blackness was the creation of the devil as was preached to them. Blackness was a sin and the embodiment of evil. Blacks "became not simply strangers and aliens unfamiliar with Western ways but black devils who cavorted with minions from the underworld." Due to the propagation of a false, distorted, prejudiced gospel, some Africans even accepted the color symbolism of their white Christian enslavers. Blacks could sing "Wash me ... and I shall be whiter, whiter than snow!" thereby unconsciously singing this petition to a white god. By doing so, they implicitly acknowledged "how much separates them from their adopted deity." God, who was white, wanted them to be white also because white was pure, beautiful, and godly.

This spiritualized color symbolism spills over into some African Americans' self-image of embodied blackness. African American writer James Baldwin, reveals his own struggle with self-loathing due to his father's impact on his life. Baldwin thought his father's "deep blackness" was beautiful but his father did not. He had succumbed to the society of white preference. His father believed that "black is ugly." Baldwin says of his father, "Because I was black, because I was little, because I was ugly. He made me ugly." This self-belief in black ugliness is not limited to Baldwin but represents a plague that pervades African American communities to this day. "Self-hatred may be one of the deepest sources of conflict and turmoil within the African-American community. This may be especially true concerning women and their bodies." There is such a "history of ambivalence" about the physical appearance of African peoples, in general, but black women in particular, that self-hatred and cultural humiliation "assaults" African American women by undermining their capacity for "self-love." Their inner vision can be tainted and scarred because of the paradoxical "home" in which they live.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes insightfully analyzes this paradox with the following observation:

In spite of the high premium placed on culturally exalted images of white female beauty and the comedic exploitation that surrounds the large Black woman, many African-American women know that the most respected physical image of Black women, within and outside of the community, is that of the large woman. Although it is respected, it is a culturally deviant image that is not necessarily loved. It is an image of power in a community where women need to be fortified and empowered. Yet some of the most powerless women in the community struggle with being overweight and its unhealthy consequences. It is an asexual image that sometimes permits escape from the constant harassment and sexual aggression, accurately called "hitting on," that disproportionately pervade the lives of those Black women who most approximate white cultural ideals. In the era of "fitness and health" that same image is officially labeled "obese" and makes every large Black woman an immediately suspected case of bulimia.

Black bodies, male or female, may be disdained due to a historical consciousness that perpetuates black as ugly, evil, and even bodiless. This gospel of prejudice attempts to break the bodies and spirits of African Americans. Even aesthetically, blacks have been portrayed as a "grim aesthetic" of monstrous-looking, thick-lipped, large-nosed, deviant sexual beings. Lynne Westfield captures the suffering and brokenness, within and without, of African Americans, when she writes poetically,

so many parts are missing faded damaged it is difficult to re-member my whole danceable self

Westfield believes that the loss of body parts is due to the past and present oppression that African Americans have endured during their existence, thus she laments; it is "difficult to re-member" wholeness. Not only is the black body broken, but also it may even be missing or whitewashed. The African slaves had a right to moan, "I've been 'buked an' I've been scorned ... Dere is trouble all over dis worl'...." The trouble of discrimination and dehumanization created a situation of suffering that stemmed from the outside world that led to suffering on the inside (for example, self-image). This horrible scenario is an "exile" experience, not only historically but also in contemporary times. In her book Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture Cheryl Sanders describes the lives of African Americans, particularly those in the Sanctified Church, as one of an "exilic dialectic." Sanders's metaphor of "exile" is appropriate because African American people have not been at "home" for centuries, ever since the Middle Passage. Within this exilic existence, blacks have been rejected by the landlords of the Americas, yearn for home, and seek to learn how to sing the Lord's song in a strange land. Many times, the "Lord's song," the spirituals, was a lament due to injustice. Moreover, not only does the external locale create an estrangement from home, but also an internal tension or dialectic is present. Sanctified African Americans struggle with negotiating their identity, the "both-and" identity—African American in the world but not of it, static-ecstatic expressions of worship, protest-cooperation methods in education and religious institutions, sacred-secular music. It is a continual "betwixt and between" existence where one is never at home in one of the dialectical poles. In fact, they are a "long ways from home" as the spiritual says because there is a constant negotiation of social reality and identity. Despite living in "exile," African American Christians, in general, have held on to their God and to their Christian religion, declaring, "Ain' gwine lay my 'ligion down."

The spirit of suffering and lament endured by African Americans throughout history still influences the present situation in stereotypes propagated about African Americans in the larger society. It is evident when one considers the prison system within the United States, in which a disproportionate number of African American males are imprisoned compared to other racial groups. This has led to distorted self-images pervading the lives of many African Americans even today. However, there has been a profound sense of endurance and faith in the midst of it all. There are many reasons for this, but one main reason is theological and experiential—the Holy Spirit. In what follows, the belief in the presence of the Spirit and the actual experience of the Spirit in the midst of suffering will be detailed as a tremendous sustaining and sacramental source of hope, a reason for celebration.


Excerpted from Spirit Speech by Luke A. Powery Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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