Brother Will Campbell, a hero among many

campbell-big.rOne of the greatest pieces advice I received in seminary came from a veteran pastor who told us to have some good heroes and mentors.  He knew that vocational ministers get lonely at times and that we need people to look up to who understand our profession.

I had several mentors and heroes at the time–my undergraduate New Testament professor, my youth pastor who conducted my wedding, and several others.  But that pastor also encouraged us to have heroes who were authors, activists, and the like.

So I started to collect memoirs and books by people whom I gravitated towards during those formative years.  One of those authors and activists was Brother Will Campbell, who passed away just last month at the age of 88.

Will Campbell, a native of the South, was educated at Yale but came back to speak out against racial segregation and all things Jim Crow.  He attended the very first Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and also accompanied nine black students into the newly integrated Central High School at Little Rock, Arkansas.

But this was no mere Southern Baptist, Civil Rights activist.  He also committed his life to being pastor to folks who were in the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups in his home state of Tennessee.  He figured that if Christ loved everyone, then so should he.

And he did.  Brother Campbell became known as the Bootleg Preacher without a steeple and went beyond the walls of the church to show Christ’s love for everyone on all sides of the Civil Rights issue.  It wasn’t uncommon for him to be marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., one weekend and then do a funeral for a Grand Dragon the next weekend.  That’s just how he rolled, as they say.

When asked how he managed to be a minister in so many circles, he wrote that any divisive social issue, such as race relations, is a “human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take sides.  You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it” (Kyle Childress, “The Steeple Dropout”, Christian Century 10 July 2013, pp. 12-13).

Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, came from his memoirs, in which he recorded his own journey with Christ and his fellow southerners with humor and whit that not many people can emulate.  That’s what attracted me to this hero of faith.

My first exposure to Will Campbell was by way of VHS documentary.  In the video, Brother Campbell was being interviewed and his life chronicled.  The reporters and videographers followed him around his home, his neighborhood.  They recorded his interactions with the locals, and there were quite a few “bleeps” to edit out the crusty language for which Brother Campbell was known.

When I read one of his award-winning books, “Forty Acres and a Goat,” which was both incredibly funny and uniquely moving, I learned just how courageous Brother Campbell was.

He told of his travels across the south when he worked for the Southern Conference, traveling miles by pick-up truck with a pet goat for company.  If someone he visited didn’t like him, at least there was a chance to  warm up to the goat.  Who knew a goat would build bridges across ideological and political divides?

It made me laugh, it made me cry.  It gave me hope and it reminded me why I became a pastor in the first place.  Now that’s what a hero is supposed to do.

Other books that Brother Campbell wrote included “Brother to a Dragonfly,” perhaps his best known memoir, and a novel, “The Glad River.”  Both are stirring accounts of life in the segregated South, usually with a redemptive undercurrent that shows God’s miraculous work even in places we least expect it.

I enjoy reading Brother Campbell because he is a person filled with profound hope.  He confronted darkness with enlightening humor, bondage with a liberating message of love, and prejudice with poignant whit and satire.

Even on my worst days in ministry, when heroes are needed the most, there is always something about Brother Campbell that makes me laugh and see God as the one who calls all of us to live beyond ourselves and beyond the walls of the church.

Yes, there is light out there, and Brother Campbell reminds me that the darkness will never overcome it.

Seek to integrate all aspects of life under the lordship of Christ

According to author Robert Mulholland, the goal of spiritual formation is to be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  Many folks think that when we are conformed to Christ, we act, look, and talk differently.  In many cases this is true, especially after a conversion experience.

For others, being conformed to Christ seems to make them turn into someone they are not.  Eventually, those who wear the mask of Christian conformity tire of the theatrical act and wonder whether or not “playing Christian” is even worth it.  Christianity is not a masquerade ball, and faith founded on pretense is flimsy at best.

When the Spirit conforms us into the image of Christ, we are actually called to shed our masks.   Jesus makes us fully human and forces us to live into who we are as unique individuals made in God’s image.  Jesus does not require us to be something we’re not; we can accept who we are just as we are.

One of the ways to live into a life of abundance and acceptance is to align all of who we are under the lordship of Christ.  There is no aspect of our being, from the intellectual to the physical, which escapes God’s transformative engagement in our life.  And those who live in the Light have nothing to hide, even if their life is a total sum of repeated failures and fragility.

As a typical guy, one of my strengths (and, inevitably, my weaknesses) is that I am able to compartmentalize many aspects of my life.  For instance, if I make a mistake at work, it does not necessarily affect who I am or who I intend to be when I am at home.   Each facet of my life fits into a separate box, neat and tidy.

This is different from how my wife goes about life; she sees everything as interconnected.  If I say something when we are at Wal-Mart on Monday that hurts her feelings, she will remind me on Friday that I have yet to apologize.

My wife reminds me that my actions, much less my Christian life, influence every part of who I am.  The person I am on Sunday should be the same person I am Monday through Saturday.  The Christian that I appear to be in church is supposed to be the same Christian I claim to be in my relationships, career, and personal life.

Though I can separate the stresses of work and family into neat compartments, God wants me to understand that every facet of my life plays a part into a dynamic and integrative whole.  Being conformed into the image of Christ means that I connect these loose threads and weave my life into a tapestry that reflects God’s glory and honor.

As you work, play, and relate this week, ask yourself several questions: Do I see Christ as a participant in everything I do?  Do I still hide some parts of my life from God?  Am I a Christian because Christ has a claim on my whole life, or am I only wearing a mask of Christian religiosity?

In the Old Testament, the Shema stresses: “Listen, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today” (Deut. 6:4-5, NLT).

Only when we take off our masks and align all of who we are under Christ’s lordship can we discover our true, authentic selves—the very people that God intended us to be.