To celebrate MLK Day weekend, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church hears from one of the nation’s great preachers

The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. appeared Saturday as a McClendon Scholar and Sunday in the pulpit

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr.

LOUISVILLE — Last September, just about the time of his 88th birthday, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., had a transformative experience. It was so life-changing that he wasn’t sure the people present at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. as well as many more online would want him to deliver his planned talk, “How Can We Heal Our Nation?” as part of the McClendon Scholar Program.

“I am not the same Jim Forbes you thought you were inviting,” said the senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. “I’ve had a real transformation of consciousness.”

On about Sept. 6, “something happened to me, and I’ve never been the same,” said Forbes. Here’s what Forbes heard from the Almighty during the encounter: “From now on, you must fully dedicate yourself to being a spokesperson of my intentions for the Earth. You must give up trying to please, seek to discern my will — and then live it out and speak it forth as frequently as you can.”

“I’m not here to give you a good Jim Ford stem-winding speech,” Forbes said. “I’m here to be a spokesman for God on how we can heal the nation.”

Forbes then read the first of what would be several poems he’s written to help explain his transformation. This one said in part: “When the world became so violent and filled with hate,

You revealed inside of me a defective character trait

That would hamper my service to you in these awful times of strife

I had developed a personality of niceness sustained throughout my life.

You reminded me that you preferred unadulterated profanity

Rather than niceness that covered up rage on the verge of insanity.”

“The new me is steadily learning to live free. This Jim Forbes may fuss, cuss and discuss vehemently,” he said. “Still want me?” Those in attendance said they did.

Paired in conversation with the Rev. Joe Daniels, pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., Forbes said he’s been hearing from God that we can’t heal the nation on our own. “Human beings are so much of the endemic problem,” he said, turning in his Bible to 2 Chronicles 7:14 to read these words: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Daniels wondered: Where does that humility start?

Again, Forbes turned to his poetry:

“When God is acknowledged as God again, we can confess our original sin

When truth and justice recover their place, the nation can face the issues of race …

God will inspire beloved community, making more complete our humanity

Healing infirmities we’ve known from birth, bringing the joy from heaven to Earth.”

In addition to humility, we’re also called in the biblical text to seek God’s face. “Ever since my change, I think of myself no longer as an independent,” Forbes said. “I am me, we and thee.”

“I believe in God’s love, God created of God’s own self a miniature deity, and that God is shacking up inside of every fiber of little old me,” Forbes said. “Can I say it again? The Creator of the universe, the sovereign ruler who brought existence into being and sustains everything, has inserted that self into every fiber of my being … There’s a God in there, and that God is tethered to the sovereign ruler of the universe.”

“Doesn’t that make me something?” he said, strutting and grinning.

“I believe the same God in me is in you. Every fiber of your being bears the presence of the creative power of the universe. You’re some powerful dude,” he told Daniels.

Then Forbes turned to the audience. “If I mess with you, I’m messing with God. That’s why I won’t mistreat you. I don’t have the courage to mess with the God in you.”

The Rev. Joe Daniels

With all that needs to change in the world — Forbes had a long list of them, and he asked people to say, “That’s wicked” after he named each one — Daniels asked why the church has been so silent about it.

“I said we can’t change it, but I snuck something in on you,” Forbes said. “The God in you is not just a God of benevolence … The God in you is quantum energy of love, and if that love is given full expression, you have cosmic companionship, as Dr. King said.”

“God’s love is constantly working to try to get us to come to our senses — to recognize we have false security, but God’s quantum energy of love inside of you, miniscule as it might seem, is so powerful that … much change will begin to happen. The God in me will make me love you.”

In response to an online question, Forbes disclosed some rules “the Lord gave me for engagement with adversaries.” They include:

  • Patiently and gently listen to adversaries’ beliefs. “Hear the deep source of their anxiety and fear,” Forbes suggested.
  • No longer avoid talking with people who disagree with you. “Hear them out until the root cause of the disagreement finally breaks through into clarity,” he said. “If you don’t hang in there, you won’t get it.”
  • “Some people may never hear how stupid they sound until trying to get you to understand the justification for their bigotry,” he said. “When they do, it may hit the ground with a slow, resounding thud.”
  • “Don’t let their defensiveness hide under the hood of seething silence,” he said. “Listen with a disciplined readiness to hear their strong feelings. You may discover what you may have done to provoke heir resentment and resistance and their hatred.”
  • One last suggestion, “just for strong folks,” Forbes said: “Diligently provoke a verbal exchange short of violence. … You may get a knot on your head or a busted lip. The knot on your head may prove to be worth the wisdom that may settle into your brain.”

Listen to Forbes’ 90-minute conversation with the Daniels here.

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