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One church tolerated children sexually abusing one another until encountered by

a really lively Word. Another tolerated abuse of women by a powerful member

until encountered by a lively Word. Koinonia: No buddy ship of the complacency



Books by Ralph G. Clingan

Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age, an intellectual biography of Clayton Powell, 1865–1953

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A Lively, Living Word

By Ralph Garlin Clingan


I started to sing in churches when about 20 years old, and they asked me to preach and heard a lively Word, and I have been a lively preacher, now in my 66th year. A history of music, teaching homiletics, and preaching around the world was mine. I discussed six things I learned about lively preaching of God’s living Word, although I learned a lot more about it than that. I hope you learn at least these six things and that you actually preach lively sermons. Then, God just might use your sermons and celebrations of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to change everything.

1. Honest, truthful living in harmony with God’s actions as attested to by the Scriptures constitutes a lively, living Word. A church council in a Masai village in Kenya purchased land on which to build a church campus. They laid out the foundation, but a drought struck the area. The village council asked the church if they could take back the land in order to raise crops to feed the people. The church council did so.  As the villagers started planting seeds, their elders asked the church council why they had not asked for a refund of the money they paid for the land. The church replied that feeding and saving the people was more important than money. Led by the village council, the entire village became members of the church. What is the reputation of the church in which you preach? What is your reputation? They did something new because of a lively sermon.

Lively preaching can take longer than seven years to transform a given church’s reputation in a  community. What took a few months in a newly evangelized Kenyan village may take fourteen years in a conservative suburb. Three churches in the New York City area, and one in Illinois that I know about will radically alter their architecture according to the needs of the communities they serve and the acts of God because lively preachers have been busy in those communities from seven to fourteen years. Such transformation takes an inner liveliness and thoroughgoing integrity. Transformation by a lively preaching of God’s Living Word is not in any way, shape or form cheap, easy grace.  

2. Communities of complacent, apathetic people respond best to honest, real enactments of God’s truth. We tend to learn more from doing than from listening. Listening to the Word is how we come to take the Word seriously, as matter of vital, lively concern to us. The text of the sermon should concern us personally. Preachers must be lively children at play. How can we change from readers of deadly dull, boring essays to lively preachers of sermons? The first two clues:

1. Honest, truthful living under Biblical circumstances and,

2. Honest, real enacting of God’s truth.

I administered the Lord’s Supper on a Youth Sunday. A teenager preached a lively sermon on Luke 7.36–50. She asked us to answer two questions. Three things we think of homeless people, and three things we think of race. After her wonderful sermon, I asked children in the church to share their answers, which, although different from hers, added to the liveliness of the sermon. I have used collegial methods to make the sermons lively. No cheap grace there, either.

3. Lively, living proclamations of God’s actions provoke people out of apathy toward concerted, committed enactments of God’s actions under the circumstances of the Biblical texts so as to transform reality. One Sunday I preached a Gospel text in which Jesus called people to leave everything and follow him. I gave an Invitation to Discipleship at the conclusion of the sermon. Lo and behold a woman came forward to dedicate her life to Jesus. She wanted to follow him with her entire being. She had been provoked out her apathy and was ready to move toward concerted commitment.

For three months, she came to see me almost every week. She devoured the Spiritual classics, the daily Bible readings from the Ecumenical Common Daily Lectionary, and anything else I could give her that I knew would enable her to form a living bond with God. Piece by piece, as the Spirit moved in her, a history of  abandonment by her mother and verbal abuse by her alcoholic father revealed a fragile person struggling to find some way to trust herself and others. She created a safe haven for wild animals injured by encroachment. She identified so closely with them, however, that she lacked the drive, confidence, and aggressiveness to advocate their cause boldly enough to bring in enough money to support herself and her mission.

For another three months I met with her Board of Directors. I guided them to develop a set of by laws and a manual of operations, and a plan for fund raising, growth, and development. The Director had been making dentures and the like for dentists, and failed at it. As the Board took control of the future of the wildlife refuge, they paid her enough money so she could stop the teeth business and rehabilitate wildlife full time. The transformation God started with a sermon that provocatively challenged an entire congregation and a new convert began a chain reaction of transformations: In the woman, in her Board, and, most importantly, in the lives of thousands of animals, birds, and reptiles successfully healed and returned to their natural habitat.

Recently, three mother bears were needlessly killed, and nine bear cubs ended up at her refuge. Hers is the only wildlife rehabilitative agency licensed to rehabilitate bears in her State. All because of a lively, living proclamation of God’s actions that provoked at least one person out of apathy, transforming her and, through her Board and volunteers and their concerted effort, transforming reality. Lively preaching of the Word opens the door for someone to begin a journey, a life long journey of transformation by God. The sermon I delivered was only the tip of an iceberg: No easy, cheap grace, please.

4. God’s actions are uncontrollable, and whatever provoked us to change in a worship service probably was uncontrollable, too. As an educated, trained, professional instrumental and vocal musician and actor, I brought many performance skills to ministry. I spontaneously wove songs and choruses into sermons, as I had experienced with Rev. Stanley Taylor in my childhood. I played a Cherokee Flute or Clarinet or Saxophone to deliver the Word. Frequently I spontaneously mimic a person in the scenario of a Biblical text. The more uncontrolled the insertion, the more natural and effective it was. The uncontrollable nature of it kept it authentic, not contrived or phony.

A woman fell over on the pew from a heart attack while I was preaching. Immediately I left the pulpit, went to her and sent an elder to call EMS. While they came, we administered the Pastoral Rite of Wholeness to her, prayed for her, and kept her still and calm until EMS technicians arrived and took her to the Hospital. This was not an isolated event, as I learned from hundreds of conversations with other clergy, but amply illustrated how we get changed by what cannot be controlled. The Lord God inserted a lively Word to which we had to pay attention. Struggle the good struggle of faith; no easy, cheap answers.

5. Preaching  is a craft with tools and technique. Using tools and practicing technique always felt strange at first, but as we got used to them, they became habitual, integrated parts of our natural personalities. Voice training, I recall, felt really strange. I had to breathe, form words in my mouth, project, and engage resonators, all of which felt unnatural. I kept up a regular rehearsal routine until the technique no longer felt strange, but became natural. My Reed instrument teacher told me how to become a great instrumentalist. First, play the notes. Second, play the phrases. Third, interpret the phrases dynamically. Fourth, allow the music to play you. Preaching involved the same process. The more years we practiced the process, the shorter the time sermon preparation took. I taught that every sermon should have four theological ingredients. The notion did not originate with me. I learned it from the same theologians everyone else studied, or should have studied.  

A. The action of God attested to by the text. There was no one “Kerygma.” God cannot be limited to just one action. The Bible attested to many divine actions. Our journey into Jesus Christ may start through a narrow opening, but becomes ever broader. If Jesus was the only door to God’s sheepfold, the door is open to all who come in. The text pointed beyond the translation toward an encounter with God, an enlivening epiphany.

B. Every time the Bible attests to an action of God, how God’s act varied from other divine actions and the acts of other deities and people and how God’s act provoked and changed people gets in there, too. I call that the Didache, or teaching function of the Biblical text. The disagreements among Biblical books of the same historical periods arise from the various ways their communities and/or authors performed this function. How a preacher allowed the Biblical authors and editors to disagree revealed her/his theological maturity. I always energized congregations by making them aware of the lively disagreements among the Biblical materials. 

C. Of course, what God does changes the people involved and they form a community around God’s action. That is “Koinonia,” or fellowship. A very important part of any sermon. If all we lead people to do is care for the people they have known for three generations, what good have we done? One church tolerated children sexually abusing one another until encountered by a really lively Word. Another tolerated abuse of women by a powerful member until encountered by a lively Word. Koinonia: No buddy ship of the complacency, but a lively fellowship of authentic people being transformed by God’s lively Word.

D. Naturally, such a fellowship reaches out to change the world. I call that part of the sermon, “Diakonia,” or service. I heard about a sermon a Divinity School student had preached just the previous week, in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The evidence suggested that the lively job done of preaching God’s Living Word had moved the community to action to change the world. If ever an event laid bare the sick bones of a dead nation, it was the Katrina/Rita disaster. His sermon enlivened the community to grow new flesh on old bones and go to New Orleans and Mississippi.  

Numberless students felt that my method of preaching felt strange. They had a hard time figuring out which parts of the Biblical text fed which of the four parts of the sermon. Their first efforts reflected this creative tension. Eventually, however, the learning process I learned as a musician and as an actor, worked for them, too. One student became so proficient that a few years later, he preached in a church attended by James Cone, Theologian at Union Seminary in New York, and his wife. Mrs. Cone approached Grant Johnson after the sermon, and said, “Your sermon had everything my husband says a sermon must have. It had kerygma, didache, koinonia, and diakonia.” Grant replied, “Yes, that’s how I was taught to preach in seminary.” Jim Cone asked if the preaching teacher was African American. “No,”  replied Grant, “he’s white.” Talk about strange; yet as natural as the ravens Jesus told us to ponder (Luke 12.22–24). No amount of racial or ethnic pride can explain how the authenticity of God’s lively, Living Word overcomes easy, cheap forms of grace.

6. Love is the liveliest living Word of all, and the uncontrollable liveliness of God involves us in the most passionate love making of all. The Song of Solomon described the sort of uncontrollable, loving passion for one another a couple of lovers have for each other. The apostle Paul wrote that such passionate, uncontrollable love, an all consuming flame, is the gift of the Holy Spirit that mandates that a couple marry one another (1 Corinthians 7.9, 14, 36). God called us to love people.

Baptism bound everyone who received the sacrament into a community of love. I taught a night class for storefront preachers and other preachers with no formal training during my years in Atlanta. I brought a Gospel text for us to read and grow sermons. One night we discussed Jesus’ parable in which God said that when the blessed visited prisoners, they visited God (Matthew 25.36, 43, 45). One of the brothers said, “I visit the Atlanta City Jail, The Fulton County Jail, the Georgia State Prison, and the Federal Penitentiary every week.” I asked why he did so much and he said, “Because someone visited me when I was in prison.” When he said that, my eyes were opened and I recognized who he was. I called out the exact date and place where I had met him. I asked if he was baptized, and if he was baptized in Brooklyn, which church. Then, equipped with that critical information, I called his pastor, who honored the baptismal covenant of passionate love for one another. The pastor enabled him to be released from prison, and honored his desire to become a preacher. A very good lover of God, as attested to by his many jail and prison visits! No easy, cheap grace in his lively preaching.

What could preachers authentically bring to the privilege, task, and duty of proclaiming the living Word? I asked that question and wondered: Can authentic people enliven sermons and liturgies realistically? Could lively preachers serve God’s action by honestly enacting the truth of God’s action to provoke people out of apathy to enact God’s actions under the circumstances of Biblical texts and transform reality? I hope the six ways of enlivening sermons I discussed here prove helpful in your efforts. There’s a lot more to lively preaching, but I feel strongest about these six aspects. Most of us know that homilia, the Greek root of homiletics, means conversation. Engage members of your worship team and congregation in lively conversations about the Word and discover how lively God’s Word can become. It will change everything.

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Ralph Garlin Clingan. Against Cheap Grace: In a World Come of Age: An Intellectual Biography of Clayton Powell:  Clayton Powell (1865-1953) was one of a very few African-American religious, cultural, and social leaders of his era to oppose what he called the "cheap grace" of racist conservative and liberal ideologies in what he called "a world come of age." His use of what a sociologist and several philosophers called «the emotionalization of the ideal» changed his congregations, cities, and nation, as well as one German Sunday school teacher—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ralph Garlin Clingan explores Powell's role as a radical, progressive prophet with a well thought out program of emotionalizing the ideal of the meek, universal love of Jesus Christ, the center of his life and ideal church, and raising a standard for his community and the world. Powell is discussed in the context of his sources, current Bonhoeffer scholarship, and today's issues.


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The Rev. Ralph Garlin Clingan, PhD, H.R., moderates the Public Policy Advocacy Network and represents the Board of Directors of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association to the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA). His books include Against Cheap Grace in a World Come of Age, an intellectual biography of Clayton Powell, 1865–1953, Vol. 9, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Studies in Religion, Culture, and Social Development, edited by Mozella Mitchell (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2002), and An Action Preaching Manual, available in Korean and English from Seoul, Korea’s Preaching Academy, 2005. Another book on how to prepare a sermon quickly, which will contain three years of Clingan’s sermons, will be available from the same publisher later in 2007. Dr. Clingan taught homiletics and liturgics in The Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, 1980–1988.

posted 15 December 2007 

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

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#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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