Howard University Professor on God’s Presence, Wisdom, and Heart for Righteousness | The Best Samaritan with Jamie Aten and Kent Annan


I have known Kenyatta for over twenty years, since we were classmates at the seminary. He has always been faithful and thoughtful, which leads him to interact with the scriptures in a way that connects with the real world in a way that I find uplifting and heartwarming, insightful and inspiring, as you will see in this conversation we had about his most recent book. —Kent

1. In your recent book, Just Living: Meditations to commit our life and our time, you write: “No wonder the prophet [Amos] refuses the designation nabi (“prophet”) and says: “I am neither a prophet nor a son of a prophet; but I am a shepherd and trainer of sycamore trees ”(Amos 7:14). To which God said: “Not so fast, sir! I have a mission for you, Amos… ”This“ Not so fast… I have a mission for you ”of God’s call can seem both heavy and light. Why is it essential to spend time in scriptures, prayer, and reflection as we seek to be faithful in our call to love and serve our neighbor (a theme of the Best Samaritan)?

Part of my goal in writing a book of meditations is to help individuals – whether practicing Christians or religiously discontented people – see the great value of having reflective theological conversations with God and their neighbors who meet in the intersection of Scripture, contemporary culture and religious faith. Specifically to your question, I believe that such conversations are essential because, as in the case of Amos, the God who calls is the same God who draws us into spaces that resist our word and oppose our work. . It is not only the testimony of the prophet Amos but that of Jeremiah Jonah, Ezekiel, Daniel and many others that God has entrusted with the task of truth. The Hebrew prophet had two main tasks: to listen to God and to spread what is heard.

2. Of all the times I have prayed, read and heard sermons or reflections on the Our Father, I had never thought of it through the prism of proximity. You wrote: “Luke’s file contains no appeal for divine favor. What we have here in the annals of Luke are five requests for God to act. Each request of the Our Father is a request for closeness: teach us to pray so that we know that we are not alone in this world; give us food for our body daily; kiss us so that we know that we have been forgiven; and thy kingdom come, may it draw near as it is beyond our reach. These are all requests for real presence … ”What personal devotional practices have you found that can help us experience the grace of God’s closeness to us?

I firmly believe that God desires to reward our conscious efforts to desire God and participate in what God is doing in the world. The work of petition itself is a kind of pouncing on God’s mercy, recognizing that in our weak acts of devotion and service, what is often revealed is that we are more inept than faithful. So, ascribing some spiritual value to everything I do and do helps me decompartmentalize things to seek a more integrated way to achieve devotional enrichment, and this decompartmentalization is an intentional blurring of the sacred / secular duality that suggests that God can only be experienced access and grace in well-defined spaces because of our serial practices and ritualized behavior. My best practice of personal devotion is stillness. Sitting with myself and paying attention to the breath I breathe is pretty revolutionary in these times.

3. We were together in a small group in our dormitory at the seminary who prayed and sometimes read the scriptures together. I had learned lectio divina in class there and had used it for the first time in this group. It has become a deeply influential practice in my spiritual practice and in my work for over twenty years. What are some of the group practices around prayer and devotions that have been most successful for you as a community seeking to live in righteousness?

I teach a first year spiritual training course at Howard University once a year, and have exposed learners to lectio divina, which I believe has generated rich and meaningful religious experiences as students are awakened to the presence of God after being guided as a group through a more deliberate approach to Bible reading. Prior to the publication of Just Living, my spiritual training course served as an informal discussion group. Each class session I have opened with a moment of focus using a selected meditation. I would assign 4 to 5 readers to read the accompanying Bible passages, and then invite participants to join me in praying the corresponding prayer. And as a final task, open the group to dialogue, using question prompts. At the end of the semester, each student composes their own meditation using the same writing model.

4. This prayer you wrote resonated with me and I imagine it will be with a lot of people as we come out of Covid: “Satisfy my weary soul today, dear God. Make my life brand new; deliver me from shame; purge me of the guilt that hangs over me; and help me understand the depth of your steadfast love, salvation and forgiveness. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen. “Can you recommend a scripture passage that might be good for those who are weary of life and who might feel weary of doing righteousness right now?

Several biblical passages come to mind. I’ll share some of these (and their relevant themes) from a broad piece of scripture advice – from the Torah, prophetic literature, the Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalyptic literature. Consider the movement from the human situation to the fulfillment of the promise in the following: Genesis 21: 9-21, the saga Hagar and Ishmael – Abraham and Sarah (abandonment, helplessness and the promise); Isaiah 40: 25-31; 55: 1-9 (exhaustion, power, strength and renewal); Matthew 5: 1-11, The Beatitudes (poverty, mourning, spiritual satiety and promised reward); Romans 8: 18-28, Future Hope (spiritual slavery, community suffering, slavery, freedom and kindness); and Revelation 7: 9-17, The Righteous Kingdom of God and the Eschatological Vision (hunger, thirst, death, power, blessings, comfort).

5. Your father was the first African American to graduate from Baylor University and a recent fellowship from the Department of Religion was appointed to Baylor. In the scholarship text you are quoted as saying, “He wasn’t the type to be the first black student at Baylor. He was more concerned not to be the last. As we seek to faithfully follow Jesus and bring justice to our neighbors, how can this help us look back to the generations that have gone before us and look forward to the generations to come?

The Akan of West Africa created the image of the Sankofa bird, which I think captures well which might answer your question. The mythical bird Sankofa carries an egg in its mouth and its paws are planted forward, while its head is turned in the opposite direction to symbolize that the past informs the future, and that it is never taboo to go look in the past. Although he left too early, my father’s testimony was a compass for me. His deep religious beliefs and civic engagement despite battling chronic illnesses for most of his adult life inspires me as I walk my own path of distinctive ministry. Whether pushing his wheelchair through the halls of the hospital or lifting his frail body onto a stool from which he preached every Sunday, witnessing his relentless determination to serve God and humanity as he has done inspires me to live also in my particular calling as a practitioner of the clergy, researcher and theological educator. As new knowledge is gained and new theories emerge on how to develop effective ministries, I am drawn to elders and ancestors who have walked and talked with God until they get the sustainable resource that only God provides: wisdom.

The Rev. Dr. Kenyatta R. Gilbert – professor of homiletics at the 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 is the author of countless sermons and lectures, as well as four books: Exodus Preaching: Crafting Sermons about Justice and Hope; Justice pursued: the black preaching of the great migration to civil rights; The Journey and the Promise of African-American Preaching; and Just Living: Meditations to engage our life and our time. His writings have also been featured by media such as PBS NewsHour, Sojourners, Word & Way and The Conversation. In 2011, he launched The Preaching Project, a ministry to equip ministers to better serve African American churches and communities.


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