Spotlight Interview with Senate Chaplain Barry Black: “God has people of faith all over the nation and the world”February 23, 2017
He was Rear Admiral Barry C. Black until he became the 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate. That’s an office that was first established in 1789. Prior to coming to Capitol Hill, Chaplain Black served in the US Navy for more than 27 years. Ending his distinguished career as the chief of Navy chaplains. He has authored some books. His latest one is Nothing to Fear: Principles and Prayers to Help You Thrive in a Threatening World. You can check him out on Facebook at Senate Chaplain.
Listen to our interview here:
Carmen: I have all these personal stories that I want to tell, all of which I am going to reserve for a second or third conversation. I have watched and heard you and appreciated your ministry and your leadership on several occasions, at several events, that I have been privileged to be at where you have spoken. Today, let’s talk about what it’s like to be the chaplain of the US Senate. It’s something you’ve been doing now for 14 years. That spans several administrations. Just give us a sense of the scope of what you do and maybe one of the particular joys you experience.
Rev. Barry Black: Well, I am the pastor for 7000 people who make up the Senate side of Capitol Hill. The Framers in 1789 came up with this notion as the legislative branch was being established. So many of the lawmakers obviously would be away from home so even as the Senate provides a physician to help them with their physical health challenges there is a chaplain in the Senate and also a chaplain in the House of Representatives to help out lawmakers and the members of their staff to have someone who can provide them with spiritual guidance and to keep them healthy.
It’s like being the pastor of a 7000-member church. I do Bible studies, I have spiritual mentoring classes, I convene each session of the Senate with a prayer. I do hospital visitation, workspace visitation, I do premarital counseling, marriage enrichment training, marital counseling, interpersonal relationship counseling. I’m even sometimes from time to time at the bedside of a lawmaker at death. It is a pastor away from home providing the kind of spiritual nourishment and support that will enable our lawmakers to be all that they can be as people of faith.
By the way, Carmen. We have far more lawmakers who are passionate about their faith than most people realize. As I said in my national prayer breakfast speech each week, about 25 to 30 come together for a prayer breakfast at both sides of the aisle represented. They join hands at the end of that prayer breakfast for prayer. Then the next day, again both sides of the aisle represented, senators come together for a Bible study. They take time out of their busy schedules to try to connect with the transcendent.
Carmen: Well, we’ve had the privilege of talking with Senator Tim Scott and I know that he is involved in some of those things. He’s talked about his deep appreciation for that particular kind of connection with other lawmakers. I will observe to my listening audience Pastor Black serves a congregation that does not always agree on every political point. You can serve, you can live in the midst of a politically diverse people and still together honor and seek to serve the Lord, our God.
In Nothing to Fear, one of the things that you write is that distorted theology has been used to justify wars, racial inequality, and premeditated pathology. Now with such a wide variety of thought about the proper use of scripture inside the church, how would you advise that we address as what we might see as Biblical distortions?
Rev. Barry Black: Well, I think the first thing that you have to do, Carmen, is to recognize that there is a right way to divide Scripture and a wrong way to divide Scripture. 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Study to show yourselves, to prove under God, people who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” If you use a proof text message and you ignore the context, you end up with a pretext.
One British theologian said a text without a context is a pretext. You can prove anything if you have enough proof text. The Bible, for instance, says Judas went out and hanged himself. That’s one verse. Another verse in the Bible says, “Go thou and do likewise.” If you pull them together without a context you will be advocating something that the Bible does not.
In the wilderness of temptation in Matthew chapter four, the devil quoted Scripture. He said to Jesus, “Cast yourself down” and then he quoted the Psalms because Jesus had just quoted in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that precedes out of the mouth of God.” The devil said, “Oh, you want to quote scripture, do you?” Then jump off because, “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee and in their hands they shall bear you up. Blessed any time thou dash thy foot against the stone.” Wrongly dividing the word of truth and Jesus responded, “It is written again.”
For every wrong it is written, improperly dividing the Word of Truth as a right, it is written again. We touch on that in Nothing to Fear.
Carmen: You also touch on these principles that Jesus gave his disciples before he sent them out into a dangerous culture. I feel like Christians everyday that’s where they’re headed. They’re headed into a dangerous culture. They’re certainly headed into sometimes enemy territory. They’re headed into it as the very ambassadors of Jesus Christ. I certainly encourage them to suit up in the armor of God before they trek out there. Can you share with us what those principles are that Jesus gave his disciples?
Rev. Barry Black: Well, Jesus said about the commandments, he said, “The commandments all hang on two basic principles. Love God passionately and love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, he said to his disciples in Matthew 10, “I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves.” That’s an impossible situation. Not a sheep but a baby lamb. Not a wolf but in the midst of wolves. Here’s a good Shepherd doing that.
He gave basic principles but they all boiled down to, and we develop them in the book, having a tough mind and a tender heart. He said, “Behold I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves. Be it therefore, wise as snakes and innocent as doves.” Now these are paradoxes and we talk about it, in fact in the first chapter, reconciling these paradoxes. How does one have a tough mind and a tender heart? You need a tender heart.
In the parable of the judgment in Matthew chapter 25, the judge of the universe asks six questions and they all have to do with the tender heart. “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you get me to drink? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick. Did you visit me? I was in prison. Did you minister to me? I was a stranger. Did you take me in?” Okay, that’s tender heart but you also need a tough mind.
If you have a tender heart you can be like Joseph in Genesis 37 who had homicidal brothers. These were siblings who wanted to kill him and Joseph thought he was in Mr. Rogers neighborhood. He had a tender heart and a coat of many colors. We have a chapter called “Do a Reality Check.” He had to do a reality check, that’s one of the principles, so that he knew what he was dealing with. That’s that tough mind that we have.
The apostle Paul had a tough mind when they wanted to flog him. Instead of just playing the martyr he said, “Oh, so you’ve begun to flog Roman citizens, have you?” Which was an egregious crime. They said, “You’re Roman?” “Of course, I’m a Roman citizen.” He was able with his tough mind to avoid that kind of beating that came to Jesus in Matthew 22 and said, “Is it lawful to give tribute under Caesar?” They thought they had placed him on the horns of an impossible dilemma. Our Lord had a tough mind and he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”
In this predatory world where people are often trying to set us up, to bring us down, to embarrass us, to embarrass the name of Christ, we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We have a whole section on seven deadly sins. I call them the seven pallbearers that we need to learn how to deal with because many of us misrepresent Christ by being lazy, by being lustful, by being greedy and covetous and there are toxic things that will make us be in danger in a predatory world. The enemy will offer you bait but his desire is to destroy you. That’s the end game.
Carmen, in 1 Peter 5:8, it says, “Be sober, be vigilant, for your enemy, your adversary, the devil, walks about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” He desires to destroy us and the beautiful thing is when we have the innocence of a dove we’re able to do what Proverbs 10:9 says. It says, “If you walk with integrity you walk securely.” We won’t take the bait. That’s the tough mind and the tender heart that is needed to thrive. Not just survive but thrive in a predatory world.
Carmen: Chaplain Black, it thrills my heart to think that our lawmakers and the 7000 people on the Senate side of what’s going on in Capitol Hill don’t just have access to you but that they have a shepherd who loves the Lord and loves the word. I love how quickly you access the word of God. I know that the only way that that happens if your life is saturated with it. I want to honor and acknowledge those truths.
Hey, I have a friend who was in the office earlier and she heard you make reference to a senator who has led African heads of state to Christ. I missed that at some point. She said it was in the context of you basically talking about the kind of caliber of people whom you have the privilege of working in the Senate. Can you reflect on that for us?
Rev. Barry Black: Well, a lot of people who watch television they see the legislative process, Carmen. They want kumbaya moments. They don’t want people arguing back and forth. The reality is that the legislature, like our system of jurisprudence, is an adversarial one. You have a prosecutor and a defense. You have colliding stories. You have perfectly good people, people of faith, who are passionate and patriotic, who believe that there are better ways for government to accomplish its purposes. Those debates often collide when those stories often collide.
Yet, as Paul says in Philippians 4:22, there are saints in Caesar’s household. There are lawmakers whose spirituality dwarfs my own. One of them is the senator who has led 13 African heads of state to Jesus Christ and has only missed one of my Bible studies in 14 years and that was because he had to go to a funeral. This is the kind of spirituality.
We have lawmakers who are ordained ministers. We have lawmakers who have theological degrees from Ivy League seminary. We have lawmakers who were pursuing the ministry, felt the call of God on their lives, like William Wilberforce who in England brought about the total abolition of the slave trade. Took him three decades but he did it. Wilberforce pursued the ministry and was persuaded by John Newton and others, “Why not choose the wider pulpit of the Parliament?” Which he did and God used him in a mighty way.
We have senators in the United States Senate who were pursuing the call of God on their lives. Some of them already involved in ministry, who were called out by God to become one of those saints in Caesar’s household. These individuals are often pastors to me. We need to be excited about what God is doing. Even as in Babylon, just four young men, Daniel and his three friends, were able to change the trajectory of that whole nation. In Daniel 3, the fiery furnace story, Nebuchadnezzar said, “You’ve got to pay attention to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.” Imagine God joining them in the flames.
Daniel and the Medo-Persian Empire was essentially the prime minister. First of three presidents. Before he even had that experience he went into Belshazzar in Daniel chapter five and interpreted the handwriting on the wall and gave the young monarch a history lesson. “Thou, Belshazzar, though you knew these things you still had the unmitigated gall to flaunt your arrogance before the sovereign God of the universe. You are weighed in the balances and found wanting.” Daniel was a legislator.
We have Daniels and Shadrachs, Meshachs and Abednegos and Esthers and Josephs, Nehemiahs … Nehemiah was in the senior executive service of Persia and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days. This was an endeavor that people had been attempting to accomplish for decades. God has his people in the right places at the right time, raising them up just when the nation needs them most. Even more importantly, Carmen, God has people of faith all over the nation and the world. We have far more power than we realize.
That amazing promise in Second Chronicles, chapter seven, verse 14, “If my people” not everybody, just the folk who belong to me, “Will humble themselves and pray and seek my faith and turn from evil” that is so critical. We’ve deviated from Biblical principle, then says the sovereign God of the universe and this amazing prophecy, “Then will I hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land.”
I believe God wants to heal America. I believe that God wants to trigger a revival in America similar to what happened in Nineveh when the King said, “Let’s fast and pray for 40 days.” I believe He wants to do that and the America will become an epicenter of revival that will cascade throughout the world. I really believe God wants to do that. That’s what the great commission is all about, Carmen. Matthew 28 going to all the world. Acts, chapter one, verse eight, “You will receive power and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the world.” We’ve got the power. We just need to connect, to plug in, and to be used for the glory of God.
Carmen: Oh, amen. Chaplain Black, thank you so much. Not just for being with us here today on The Reconnect but for doing exactly what you just described. Helping our lawmakers and others reconnect the eternal with the everyday and do so in ways that access the power of God to bring revival and renewal not only to our nation but ultimately to the world. Thank you so much. We will connect with you again.
Rev. Barry Black: Hallelujah. Praise God and may God bless you, Carmen, and keep you. May his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. Lift the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace now and always. Be blessed.