James Ellis III (DMin, Western Theological Seminary) counts it a privilege to be called by God to preach. Born in Japan, he has served in the US and Canada. As an ordained African American pastor, he has served as a chaplain in Christian higher education and has extensive experience leading White, Black, and multiracial churches. When not preaching or writing, he cheerfully chauffeurs his wife around to sample ice cream, dabbles in photography, and unashamedly avoids raspberries, wasabi, and camping.
What is your hope for how you new book, An Inward–Outward Witness, might impact readers?
I want An Inward-Outward Witness to help correct some of what the Church in the United States has gotten wrong about suffering. More Christian clergy and laity than we care to admit foster a kind of soft prosperity gospel, and the denominational (or nondenominational) association does not matter much. Presenting itself as subtle and largely innocuous, you can find it everywhere. It takes a different shape and speaks with accents divergent from what, for example, is usually associated with slick mouthed televangelists. It has been normalized, however, to treat Jesus as an accommodating genie who has pinky-promised his followers to enjoy lives of relative ease. We feel entitled to upward mobility, an idyllic retirement, successful children who make us look good, and little, if any, proximity to disease, broken relationships, or serious loss. In truth, although the Christian life should not be branded as one of perpetual doom and gloom, we dishonor the importance of holiness, if we go around acting like an orb of divine protection is supposed to keep all dangers, toils, and snares at bay for the faithful. K. Chesterton told us in Heretics, his 1905 book, that, “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.” These COVID-19 years are a case study demonstrating how even Christians can peddle fiction, and tightly cling to bogus doctrine and loud idols. Calamity, whether experienced personally or communally, does not necessarily always reflect the natural outcome of some poor decision. Life, rather, on this side of heaven is tarnished. Period. Point blank. It is torn up from the floor up and will always be until Jesus returns to issue a moratorium on evil, chaos, and suffering. Until then his ambassadors will have trouble.
How do the requirements and challenges of preaching inform your writing? What does the writing process mean to you?
I would like to think that valuing an economization of words is an asset of my preaching and writing. In both I strive to make compelling yet concise points in crafting a bridge between the Word of God and life today. I like to artfully say or write what I feel needs to be shared and then move on, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they are as nimble, competent, and discerning as I believe them to be. Nevertheless, communicating the Gospel through either means is a different experience today, arguably, than ever before. The Western mind is beset by instant gratification, an abbreviated attention span, distrust of the Church, and a level of indifference toward faith that requires any level of sincere renunciation and sanctified grit. Some people would rather hear what Google or Siri, or a social media friend or follower has to say about God than a trained preacher or writer. Crying over that spilt milk though we may at times, this is the epoch before us that be faithfully traversed “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) As for the writing process, it is a lifeline for me. The late Eugene H. Peterson was my friend and mentor for the last five years of his life. He encouraged me to write most of all to honor God by passionately cultivating what had been deposited in it for God’s glory. In that way, writing is a serious venture whose fruit I leave in God’s hands. All authors want our books to sell millions of copies, even if fame itself may be less appealing, I think it is fair to say. But since bestseller status is a massive exception to the rule anyways, what matters most, at least in my field, is whether we will write to help people better serve the Lord and the world he loves or if we will write towards probable likes, retweets, or stardom. People of my generation are familiar with The Incredible Hulk show where Lou Ferrigno played the green-skinned side of Dr. David Banner, who before transforming would dramatically exclaim, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” I am the better version of myself when writing (and preaching) regularly and developing new book projects.
As a people of faith, how can we make the inevitable suffering, as you describe as the “clever tentacles of catastrophe” more meaningful in our lives?
If ‘hardship is the pathway to peace,’ which is a standing mantra within certain recovery or addiction circles, then our internal lives are renovated, and we inch closer to Shalom with acceptance. Whether purely circumstantial or triggered by one of our choices, life is ripe with all manner of catastrophe. We should walk circumspectly, do good deeds, and pray a lot, but it will not grant an exemption from suffering. We live that way as a response to Jesus’ sacrifice for us, not as spiritual fire insurance or convenient evasion. Life’s often untimely and unpredictable, frustrating hardships are opportunities to reaffirm our trust in Jesus to do what we cannot, alongside the standing invitation to fashion a Micah 6:8 testimony marked by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God in the face of trials and temptations. Sadly, in some Christian circles toxic positivity rules the day. There is a belief that if we never name the elephants in the room, well, then they are incapable of existing and wreaking havoc. But that is asinine and false, and only produces deadly outcomes. We would be better off accepting that if our Lord and Savior willingly laid down his life as a ransom for many, then Scripture is well within its rights to declare, by way of Jesus: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24) God is always up to something far beyond human cognition and sight, etching a vibrant mosaic of experiences that encourage a guttural, functional dependence on Him.
In your book, you observe a lack of “teaching or modeling the grit and grace necessary to faithfully respond when abstraction grows fangs.” What is the power in grit and grace and how can it be taught?
Like anything, we retain information best by a combination of direct instruction, demonstration, and practice. You may have read books about how to change a tire and even sat through a workshop on it, but until you have a handful of incidents under your belt doing it, your comprehension is limited. And even then, you can still always use refreshers through the years. Grasping grace and grit is similar. They are critical concepts and if one is understood in isolation or is outright misunderstood, it typically serves as the foundation for avoidable drama. To ride the grace train with no concept that excellence, hard work, and perseverance are still pivotal can land someone on a dark path. And minus the free acceptance and rest grace offers, one can also easily turn grit into an idol of works righteousness. Rightly understanding them, however, in conversation with one another and embracing their tension and complementary nature provides holy fuel needed for the road ahead.
What was the most meaningful or surprising experience you had in the process of writing An Inward–Outward Witness?
Writing is hard and writing a book is even harder. It demands an unthinkable degree of devotion, sacrifice, research, and imagination. Like preaching, by default it is also a lonely endeavor. You can have all the collaborative brainstorming sessions you want beforehand but stepping into the pulpit to preach is a solo adventure if there ever was one. Of course, God is present, but your best friend, spouse, or seminary colleagues are not. You, alone, must open your heart and mouth to preach, that people have an opportunity to believe in the one they have first heard about. (Romans 10:14) Similarly, outside of ghost writers largely reserved for the famous of the famous, no one writes for you but you. The most meaningful aspect of writing An Inward-Outward Witness is what also regularly leaves me in awe and wonder about preaching; the fact that despite all your sacrifice and preparation, God is the multiplier. He does the heavy lifting. What we do matters since we do have a part to play, but despite our inadequacies and missteps and whatever we have done well, God makes all the difference. I never want to forget that whatever good I may accomplish through writing is only possible because of the Good Shepherd’s persistence and presence in my life. I can also say that Western Theological Seminary’s Chuck DeGroat was a joy to have as my doctoral advisor, as he supported me in crafting my final praxis in ways that helped its transition into a manuscript I could easily submit to publishers. It was wonderful having an accomplished pastor, professor, and writer (his latest book is When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse) to be such a significant resource.
What is the central lesson of hope that you can offer to communities greatly impacted by the// pandemic? What advice do you have for new pastors entering their roles in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Pandemics are one of life’s greatest gamechangers. In their aftermath, it is more about hitting Control+Alt+Delete to adopt a new normal than reverting to how things were. Specific tectonic shifts make musing over yesteryear’s realities harmful. From early 2019 to today, so much has changed. Pandemics are merciless and it is always business, never personal. COVID-19 is a microbiological bug that could care less about anyone’s racial identity, politics, or educational level. One central lesson in this season is that while hope is available, it can also easily slip through our fingers like the slime toddlers love to make a mess with. People of hope can quickly become your run of the mill nihilist, in form or function, when life feels too agonizing. My counsel is that if you want peace, contentment, and joy, you must understand they will not indiscriminately fall as manna from the sky. You must contend for them, prioritize them, value them, and submit to them while learning to lament well. This is done best in authentic community with fellow believers. For pastors beginning on what we hope is the latter side of COVID-19’s wrath, I encourage you to trust that though flowers will fade, and grass will wither, God is more than worthy of our loyalty. Another way of putting it is Job’s words: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.” (Job 13:15-18, KJV) Do not waste precious time and energy spinning your wheels towards perfection. Instead, humbly accept your call to servant-leadership and do not flee from occasions to reverse the disappointing trend of Christians calling evil good and good evil. (Isaiah 5:20) You will be shepherding sheep still reeling from the complexities of viral and racial pandemics. They have suffered an eerie frequency of loss, both of lives and relationships, which then triggered perhaps more disdain and doubt than some knew was bubbling beneath the surface. Nationalism, greed, racial hate mongering, violence, and one shameful church scandal after another have tainted their critical analytical skills and left their hearts compromised and up for auction to the highest bidder. They need care and compassion as well as accountability around how holiness is a non-negotiable Christian commitment. If you love Jesus, and I believe you do, feed his sheep. (John 21:15-17) However, you will not feed them a healthy and steady diet if you are afraid of them.