I am thinking today about a colleague of mine with whom I worked in my first job at the Baptist Sunday School Board. His name was D. P. Brooks, and he was always called “DP.” I don’t know what those initials stood for; but anyone who knew DP had little doubt what he stood for.
DP was close to retirement in 1978 when I moved to Nashville. He had had a long career at the Baptist Sunday School Board and at that time was the editor of Adult Bible Study, the largest circulation Bible study quarterly ever produced by the BSSB (or LifeWay Christian Resources, as it is now named). We worked together in the Adult Life and Work Section; and appropriately, life and work were the focus of DP’s thinking, commitment, and being. He believed that the gospel should be lived, not just studied.
DP came out of the Sandy Creek tradition in North Carolina Baptist life, but his study at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary embedded a deep devotion to Christian ethics in the weft and woof of his being. He not only believed in the Bible, but he believed that its words should be practiced. To him, faith that did not produce a radical redirection in the way a person lived was not faith at all. In the midst of a growing shift in Baptist life toward a focus on the inerrancy of “the Word,” DP would have been classified by the “Word” folks as an advocate for the “social Gospel” (though his critics would have disputed even the capitalization of “Gospel” here, since many of them saw no Gospel in the serious application of biblical principles to the central core of Christian faith and daily living).
DP had a broad range of ethical concerns that he kept before his colleagues as we developed and planned the Life and Work curriculum. He was passionate about issues of race, economics, equal opportunity, help for the poor and weak, exploitation by the privileged, humanity dignity, war, environment, and most any other issue that would be labeled “liberal” today. I would classify his as a modern-day Amos who looked at American society and voiced God’s displeasure at its trampling “the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[ing] the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7). In many ways he was a prophet whom the people of God commanded, “You shall not prophesy” (Amos 2:12).
I did not always agree with DP, but I never doubted that his “radical” convictions grew out of a deep commitment to the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was able to pull out of almost any passage of Scripture some deeply significant moral issue that required radical change of direction in our personal lives and in our corporate and national experiences. That really is the essence of the prophetic voice, and it is a voice that is spoken too softly today or is quieted by both the secular media and the “moral majority” that are more focused on issues that serve their causes and that ignore the poor and the outcasts around us.
I don’t have all the answers about how we should be handling the issues we are facing in our country today; but something within me still hears the voice of D.P. Brooks that chides my conscience that we are missing the important moral and ethical issues as we squabble over budgets and deficits, jobs and welfare, individual responsibility and community needs, the rich and the poor, war and peace, economic growth and moral integrity, the environment and standards of living, me and we. In the midst of these weighty issues, the church seems to have lost its voice. We’ve lost it because we have become too much like the scribes and Pharisees confronted by Jesus in Matthew 23:15 for their striving to make converts (NRSV) or proselytes (KJV and NASB) when they should have been making disciples. We have infantilized the church by focusing on getting people to confess faith without calling them beyond that to loving God and loving neighbor in real and concrete way.
D. P. Brooks was a discipler who recognized that the task of the church is not completed when we baptize converts. We must go on to active and concrete expressions of love for God and neighbor that change our entire moral compass and lead us to Christlikeness. DP may be “resting in peace” now, but he has left a legacy of dis-ease in my heart about truly living out faith daily.