Howard University Professor on God's Presence, Wisdom, and Heart for Justice
Rev. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert
I’ve known Kenyatta for more than twenty years, since we were seminary classmates. He has always been faithful and thoughtful—which leads him to interact with Scripture in a way that connects with the real world in ways I find challenging and comforting, insightful and inspiring, as you’ll see in this conversation we had about his most recent book. —Kent
KENT: In your recent book, Just Living: Meditations for Engaging Our Life and Times, you write: “No wonder the prophet [Amos] refuses the designation nabi (“prophet”) and says, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and dresser of sycamore trees’ (Amos 7:14). To which God says, “Not so fast, sir! I have an assignment for you, Amos...” That “Not so fast...I have an assignment for you” of God’s calling can feel both heavy and light. Why is it essential to spend time in Scripture, prayer, and reflection when we’re seeking to be faithful in our calling to love and serve our neighbors (a theme of The Better Samaritan)?
KENYATTA: Part of my aim in writing a book of meditations is to help individuals—whether practicing Christians or religiously disaffected persons—to see the great value of having reflective theological conversations with God and their neighbors that meet at the intersection of Scripture, contemporary culture, and religious faith. More specific to your question, I believe such conversations are essential because, as with Amos’s case, the God who calls is the same God who draws us into spaces that resist our speech and oppose our work. This is not only the prophet Amos’s testimony but that of Jeremiah Jonah, Ezekiel, Daniel and several others whom God commissioned to assume truth-bearing tasks. The Hebrew prophet had two principal tasks: to hear from God and disseminate what is heard.
Of all the times I’ve prayed, read about, and heard sermons or reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, I’d never thought of it through the lens of nearness. You wrote: “Luke’s record contains no appeals for divine favor. What we have here in Luke’s record are five requests for God to act. Every petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a request for nearness: Teach us to pray so we can know we are not alone in this world; give us food daily for our bodies; embrace us so we might know we have been forgiven; and let your kingdom come, let it come as near as it is out of our reach. These are all requests for real presence...” What personal devotional practices have you found can help us experience the grace of God’s nearness to us?
I am a firm believer that God desires to reward our conscious efforts of desiring God and to participate in what God is doing in the world. The petitionary work itself is a sort of throwing oneself upon the mercy of God, acknowledging that in our feeble acts of devotion and service what is often revealed is that we are more feckless than faithful. Thus, assigning some spiritual value to all that I do and am doing helps me to decompartmentalize things to pursue a more integrated way of obtaining devotional enrichment, and this decompartmentalization is an intentional blurring of the sacred/secular duality that suggests that God can only be accessed and grace experienced in well-defined spaces because of our serial practices and ritualized behavior. My best personal devotional practice is stillness. Sitting with myself and attending to the very breath I breathe is quite revolutionary in these times.
We were in a small group together in our dorm hall in seminary that sometimes prayed and read Scripture together. I’d learned about lectio divina in class there and first used it in that group. It’s become a deeply influential practice in my spiritual practice and in my work for the past twenty-plus years. What have been group practices around prayer and devotions that have been most fruitful for you as a community seeks to live justly?
I teach a first-year spiritual formation course at Howard University once a year, and I have exposed learners to lectio divina, which, in my estimation, has prompt rich and meaningful religious experiences, as students are awakened to God’s presence having been guided as a group through a more deliberate approach to Bible reading. Before Just Living’s publication, my spiritual formation course served as an informal focus group. Each class session I opened with a centering moment using a selected meditation. I would assign 4-5 readers to read accompanying biblical passages and then invite participants to join me in praying the corresponding prayer. And as a finishing task, open up the group to dialogue, using question prompts. By the close of the semester, each student composes their own meditation using the same writing template.
This prayer you wrote resonated with me and I imagine will with lots of people in this emerging-from-Covid moment: “Satisfy my weary soul this day, dear God. Make my life brand new; deliver me from shame; purge me from the guilt that weighs heavily on me; and help me to understand the depth of your steadfast love, salvation, and forgiveness. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.” Can you recommend a Scripture passage that could be good for those who are weary of life and might feel weary doing justice right now?
Several scriptural passages come to mind. I’ll share some of them (and their relevant themes) drawn from a broad counsel of scripture--from the Torah, prophetic literature, the Gospels, the Epistles, and apocalyptic literature. Consider the movement from human predicament to promise fulfillment in the following: Genesis 21:9-21, the Hagar and Ishmael - Abraham and Sarah saga (abandonment helplessness, and promise); Isaiah 40:25-31; 55:1-9 (exhaustion, power, strength, and renewal); Matthew 5:1-11, The Beatitudes (poverty, mourning, spiritual satiation, and promised reward); Romans 8:18-28, Future Hope (spiritual slavery, communal suffering, bondage, freedom, and goodness); and Revelation 7:9-17, God’s Righteous Reign and Eschatalogical Vision (hunger, thirst, death, power, blessings, comfort).
Your father was the first African American graduate of Baylor University and a religion department scholarship was recently named at Baylor. In the text about the scholarship, you’re quoted saying, “he was not caught up in being the first Black student at Baylor. He was more concerned with not being the last.” As we seek to follow Jesus faithfully and do justice for our neighbors, how can it help us to look back to the generations before us and look forward to the generations coming after us?
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The Akan of West Africa created the image of the Sankofa bird, which I think captures well what might speak to your question. The mythical Sankofa bird carries an egg in its mouth and its feet are planted forward, while its head is turned in the opposite direction to symbolize that the past informs the future, and it's never taboo to go and fetch from the past. Though he was gone too soon, my father’s witness has been compass-setting for me. His profound religious convictions and civic engagement despite battling chronic illnesses most of his adult life inspire me as I journey on my own distinctive ministry path. Whether pushing his wheelchair through hospital corridors or lifting his frail body upon a stool from where he’d preach each Sunday, witnessing his dogged determination to serve God and humankind in the way that he did provokes me to likewise live into my particular calling as a clergy practitioner, research scholar, and theological educator. As new knowledge is acquired and new theories emerge on how to grow effective ministries, I find myself drawn to the elders and ancestors who walked and talked with God until they obtained the sustainable resource which God alone provides: wisdom.
The Rev. Dr. Kenyatta R. Gilbert — professor of homiletics at Howard University School of Divinity — is a nationally recognized expert on African American preaching. A prolific writer and oft-featured expert on Black preaching, civil rights, and social justice, Dr. Gilbert has authored countless sermons and classroom lectures, as well as four books: Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons about Justice and Hope; A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights; The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching; and Just Living: Meditations for Engaging our Life and Times. His writing has also been featured by such outlets as PBS NewsHour, Sojourners, Word & Way, and The Conversation. In 2011, he launched The Preaching Project, a ministry aimed at equipping ministers to better serve African American churches and communities.