On “Total Praise”

Congratulations, Dr. Debra J. Mumford, on your installation yesterday as the Frank H. Caldwell Assistant Professor of Homiletics! And many thanks for your address, “Total Praise: A Vision for Holistic and Interconnected Christian Lives.”

While yesterday was a noteworthy and memorable day for many reasons (first day of classes for Fall 2008; official launch of the Seminary’s new logo and “look,” including a new logo for the Women’s Center, and the festivities associated therewith), Fall Convocation was the high point of the day, and Debra Mumford’s sermon was the high point of that high point. This says a lot, since the Convocation was full of high points, including a rendition of the anthem “Total Praise” by the new Mount Zion Baptist Church Choir, accompanied by Kilen Gray, Dean of Students, on the piano, lyrical liturgical dance by Katrina Pekich-Bundy, and stirring charges from Martha C. Taylor and Scott Williamson.

Dr. Mumford’s consideration of “Total Praise” began with a reflection on the anthem, a composition by gospel composer Richard Smallwood*, and moved quickly to pose the question what does a life of total praise look like in a world affected by globalization? She “unpacked” her answer to that question in light of Paul’s use of the body in Romans 12:1-8, noting that the famous charge to “present your bodies a living sacrifice” is a charge to a plural “you,” more the “y’all” of the assembled church, who are being called as an interconnected whole to be “transformed by the renewing of your [communal] minds” for discernment of the “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God, and for the use of the many gifts given to the formally and functionally diverse members of that body.

I was particularly shaken up by the epistemological reading of diversity she uncovered here: how can we discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God if we IGNORE some of the members of this interconnected body — for a few examples, our deaf and blind and differently abled members; our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members; our other-denominational members? For that matter, how can we discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God while ignoring members of other faith communities, and the presence and claims of animals and the environment? Recognition and appreciation of diversity, listening to and respecting that diversity, is imperative for even beginning to understand the will of God, and of God Godself, the creator of all this diversity, whose love “transcends all human understanding.”

She linked this insight to the challenges of taking this interconnection seriously in a “global marketplace” where we are surrounded by goods and services being manufactured in other parts of the world, by people working abusively long hours for impoverishedly low wages, in a global economy that too often imperils the very life of earth and its inhabitants of all species. This makes interconnected, holistic Christian living a matter of fully embodying “total praise” in the activities of our daily lives. It makes staying informed, making decisions about where to shop and what to buy, how and how much to drive and what to do with our time and our money outside of the Sunday morning sanctuary matters of Christian discernment, worthy of our communal reflection and dialogue.

I think I would want to embrace this message even if I weren’t the spokesperson for the Women’s Center at LPTS. However, since I am, I’ll note that “honoring diversity in God’s good creation” is our central mission, and the message that it is central to the enterprise of “faith seeking understanding” of God and God’s will for that creation meets us as a profound affirmation. We hope we will contribute many and diverse opportunities to pursue and cultivate the knowledge and love of God, and the discernment of that “good and acceptable and perfect” will of God, with this year’s activities and programs.

So, congratulations, Dr. Debra J. Mumford, newly installed Frank H. Caldwell Assistant Professor of Homiletics, and praise God for blessing this community with your presence.

*Note: A video of the 1996 Atlanta introduction of “Total Praise”, with full orchestra and Richard Smallwood on piano, to which Dr. Mumford referred in her sermon, is online on YouTube.

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