About a year or so ago I was invited to speak to the State Memorial Holiday designed to honor the valor of the fallen citizen/soldiers of the South in Montgomery. I have been questioned and criticized for doing so. Therefore it would seem appropriate to answer the questions and in so doing address the issue of What? When? and Where? – would I agree to speak?
My initial response to the request for multiple reasons was to say no. But in light of my denomination’s recent overture to pursue racial reconciliation in our church and nation, I agreed after being assured that I would be free to speak from a Gospel perspective while acknowledging the historical realities related to the state holiday. In fact the sponsoring organizations readily and graciously agreed. The reasons I was asked are because of the Civil War leadership battlefield tours I do for military units, police academies, student groups and non-profit leadership entities which again I only do if they will allow me to share not only Biblical principles of leadership but also the Gospel and its claims on these battlefield “staff rides.” For 40 years 18th and 19th Century history has been my bridge to various segments of the culture to which I would not normally have the opportunity to speak as a pastor but can as a historian. Also contributing to the reason for the request for me to speak were the PBS documentaries and various video productions on the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Reconstruction where I have participated as a “talking head.”
As to this particular talk which has been questioned I do not have a manuscript to publish since I do not use manuscripts. But I will share with you both the flow and essential content of my 20 minute talk from the written notes and outline I took to the podium.
The title/thesis of my talk was “Voices from the Past Calling for Personal and Racial Reconciliation in the Present and for the Future.” I began with honoring the memorial purpose of the holiday by acknowledging the documented valor of both the Northern and Southern citizen/soldiers. I then moved to highlight some of the “voices from the past” who promoted reconciliation after a fratricidal war and the resulting success in what the historians now call the “Era of Reconciliation – 1880-1920.” I also used examples from the sponsoring organization who by decorating both Northern and Southern soldier’s gravesites at battlefield cemeteries after the Civil War prompted an admiring article in a Northern newspaper that contributed to the birth of our National Memorial Day in May. Other personal and historical efforts at regional reconciliation as “voices from the past” were further recounted after which I challenged the audience to not only “remember” history but to “make” history by intentionally making a present and a future commitment to go beyond regional reconciliation and intentionally pursue personal and racial reconciliation in order to overcome the present destructive divisions in our nation and from our national history. I also affirmed our nation’s present desperate need for a Gospel Awakening through a God-sent revival to His church.
I was going to use the extraordinary example of First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery and their Statement of Repentance under the courageous leadership of their Pastor/Session which the Lord convicted them to do (which I understand is now available on line). I was familiar with it as it had been developed out of their thoughtful application of the Embers to a Flame strategy#2 on Corporate Repentance. But since I had not obtained their permission I substituted references from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and his Second Inaugural Speech which was graciously received by those in attendance.
I then shared the Gospel principle that authentic reconciliation only comes from men and women who are first reconciled to God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ by proceeding to II Corinthians 5 where the Apostle Paul identifies the Gospel as “the ministry and message of reconciliation.”
Moving on I appealed to incidents from the lives of two adopted sons of Alabama, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver by first affirming their Christian foundations and then the impact of their lives in the limited but amazing progress of post-reconstruction racial reconciliation. I won’t take the time to give all that I said but I did dwell on the amazing fact that within three years of establishing Tuskegee in the Black Belt of Alabama, Booker T. Washington had the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners working, eating and singing hymns together for workdays on the newly constructed buildings of the famed Tuskegee University. Some of the buildings are still standing and the fingerprints of those who worked on them can still be felt in the bricks to this day.
In this brief response I won’t recount all of the illustrations used. But, I must note I was compelled to also recount Booker T. Washington’s courageous speech at what today is Piedmont Park in Atlanta for the segregated audience at the Cotton Exchange Expo where he manifested unbelievable courage while calling for racial reconciliation in the South. I confess to having stood on the spot where he made that speech with hatred directed at him from both sides of the segregated crowd, while also trying to imagine the personal fortitude it took to speak under the hateful glares from all sides and then his wonderful skill as an orator as he overcame his fears and their hatred to draw the entire crowd to his yes incomplete, but clear call to racial reconciliation – imploring them to come together illustrated by his clasped hands and “drop down your bucket.”
I then shared a couple of other illustrations and used a quote from one of the sponsoring organization leaders who had passionately said, “we only want to remember our history and must not let hate groups hijack our history.” I affirmed her desire to “remember history” only adding that we should “learn from history – not to live in the past but to learn from the past in order to live in the present to change the future.” My personal plea was to hear the “voices from the past” calling us to now in the present move from commendable regional reconciliation to the imperative of personal and racial reconciliation -which can only be authentically done when those who have been reconciled by Christ through the Gospel of grace, graciously, intentionally and personally engage one another to listen, to learn, to repent, to forgive and to be reconciled.
I concluded with two requests in the name of the Gospel – One – if you love Christ, then you must “love your neighbor as yourself” with no partiality and don’t just remember history from yesterday but make history today and let’s start in our own state of Alabama. Two – the only way to keep hate groups from hijacking history is to make a history filled with the love of Christ to others.
I have left out a number of the comments but this is the essential flow and elements from my notes. I also hasten to add it was graciously received at the conclusion of my invitation to Christ, and my challenge not to wait for politics or programs but to intentionally pursue person to person reconciliation in the present culture to change our future.
Now, as to the framing issue of my philosophy of Gospel ministry which affects my decision on “Where, What and When to Speak,” I resolved a long time ago after I preached a sermon from Mark 5 on Jesus going to the paganized communities of the Decapolis in the evangelization of the demoniacs and when I preached on the criticisms as well as the not so veiled accusations of Jesus on the optics of Him being in the presence and pursuing tax gatherers and prostitutes – which was culturally and religiously unacceptable. Therefore, I have resolved that if I am free to preach the Gospel and advance its claims – then by God’s grace there is no place I will not go; no person so lost that I will not pursue, no power so threatening I will not face while believing there is no person saved who cannot change and be changed by God’s grace. So, if I am free to present the Gospel and its claims and the Gospel call to repentance, by God’s grace, strength and power I will go.
The question for me therefore is not whether I will go but what will I say and how must I say it? Not too long ago, I went to a forum dominated by an LBGTQ agenda requiring proactive police protection. Again symbols and signs surrounded me at the event. But I went because I was free to share the Gospel and its claims and except for minor incidents was again graciously received. If I am invited by an organization focused on racial issues (of which there are many in our country) to do one of my talks on Booker T. Washington or George Washington Carver or to the talk I do on The Biblical Worldview in the Letters from the Birmingham Jail (Martin Luther King) and if I have the freedom to present the Gospel I’ll go to those events also. I believe the Lord can save and change anyone through the power of the Gospel and when He changes them He will bring them to repentance and reconcile them not only to the God of glory but to others while changing their relationships and everything around them.
So, if He opens the doors I’ll go and ask Him for the strength, wisdom and power to proclaim the Gospel of saving grace to any and all of this fallen human race made in the image of God and anticipate with joy seeing men and women from every ethnicity now reconciled to God and with one another to exalt Christ their King. I long for my children and grandchildren including three precious African American grandchildren to know, believe and see this in their lifetime. Most of all I long to see it around the Throne of Grace in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
In this particular instance, the response to this talk was gracious and receptive which in light of its content I was not necessarily expecting. I am grateful for the Lord’s strength to overcome my fears and inadequacies which are many. But more important to me is the fact that I have received calls from attendees thanking me and asking what their next steps in racial reconciliation could be. The Gospel opportunities presenting themselves more than compensate for the criticisms. Actual meetings are already being set up with those who are asking where and how do I/we start. Not an overwhelming response yet, but some response and I am praying for an ultimate harvest of Gospel fruit and the repentance that brings joy to the angels in heaven and a Gospel culture of repentance and reconciliation on earth through a revival in this nation.
Another confession – I would love to hear again the words of bewilderment uttered by Benjamin Franklin during the Great Awakening – “It looked like the whole world was going to church.” What he didn’t understand is what his friend George Whitefield kept telling him – The reason the whole world is going to church is because the church is going into the whole world with Christ and for Christ.
Everyone Evangelizing Everybody, Everywhere, Everyday by God’s grace and for His glory until He comes or until He brings me home is my humble answer to Where to Speak? What to Speak? and When to Speak?