A Feature Review of
Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet
Gregory C. Ellison II, Editor
Reviewed by Chad R. Abbott
Her name was Cecil and she was my great grandmother. When I was very young I can recall sitting on her front porch as we overlooked the Appalachian mountainside in south eastern Kentucky. She said to me, “Chad, you are beloved. You are loved by God, dear one.” This memory has always been my spiritual anchor, the very thing that amidst all other things grounded me in my true identity as a child of God. We all go through uncharted territories of uncertainty, grief, and testing that sometimes bring us to the very limits of understanding, character, or clarity of purpose.
We all need a Cecil in our life who, when we begin to question ourselves and feel unmoored, ungrounded, or adrift in a sea of vocational or spiritual uncertainty, is someone we can return to, someone who will hold us in the stillness of the peace of God. In fact, we will need multiple Cecils to anchor us in the current so that we might be held steadfast in faith and in hope. Surprisingly, the anchor that holds us is sometimes someone whom we have never met, but whose words, inspiration, and courage illumine a path for us so that we can see a way forward.
Gregory C. Ellison’s new book Anchored in the Current profoundly offers us one such luminary in the life and work of Howard Thurman. Drawing on one of the more profound images in Thurman’s life, Ellison calls us towards that which anchors us as life’s waters rage and flow and roar around us. He writes, “Anchors provide stability; they ground us, solidifying our sometimes insubstantial confidence.” Ellison offers the reader not just a provocative book “about” Howard Thurman, but a collection of luminary voices whose journey through areas of vocation, activism, education, and spirituality were lit by the work of Thurman’s call to the inward journey with God, to what he called “the sound of the genuine” in every person.
In this inspiring volume, Ellison transports us into the inward journey with Thurman and suggests that we take an intentional pause at four particular stops for reflection along the way. The subtitle for the book introduces us to these four stops as we explore the work of Thurman through the lens of educator, activist, spiritual guide, and prophet. Splitting the book up into four sections to encourage our intentional pause to reflect on these areas, Ellison has invited what he calls “luminary” colleagues to join him in dialogue about how Thurman’s collective work has anchored their ministry, scholarship, activism, and spiritual life. These luminaries range from academics, clergy, poets, filmmakers, non-profit leaders, and contemplatives. From Ellison’s own opening letter to his daughter and his introduction, to Mari Evans’ poetry, the various reflections upon vocational discernment and spiritual engagement, to Elesa Commerse’s postlude sending us forth anchored in peace, this is a worthy book for the vast areas of impact that Thurman’s life and work has direct connection. This is a book as much for the everyday spiritual pilgrim looking for direction as it is for institutions such as the academy and the Church.
Let’s explore these four spaces of Thurman anchoring us in the current. Vocational Anchor: In this section, both Parker Palmer and Barbara Brown Taylor reflect on Thurman as a conversation partner upon which to discuss the art of listening. Palmer, in typical Quaker fashion, establishes listening to vocation as both a solitary and communal act, a framework easily found in Thurman’s expression of the “sound of the genuine.” Taylor furthers the conversation of listening and vocation by drawing upon silence as a gift and how the paying attention to the everyday “really real” can offer deep clarity. Both Palmer and Taylor speak of Thurman as one of the best conversation partners they’ve never actually met and how the voice of another can offer spiritual wisdom as an anchor for one’s spiritual journey.
Educational Anchor: The expression of this anchor may have been the most inspiring and rich in terms of material. Doblmeier’s interlude offers significant insight into listening as a tool that can be embodied in various disciplines from spirituality to film. Then, both Walter Fluker and Shively Smith offer incredibly rich materials for leaders to reflect upon. Smith’s “Thurman-eutics” draws upon the idea of the “Clothesline” as the space for examining and interpreting one’s experience of God and the world. Smith writes, “hermeneutics—the practice of articulating how humans interpret—grows out of the relational self that is seeking to experience God in all people, places, and things.” Smith describes this as a “seeking spirit” that Thurman speaks eloquently to through the imagery of a clothesline as an “interpretative key for how to make life-giving meaning in our pursuits for the life of the mind and the journey of the spirit.” While this clearly can relate to those in education and academia, Ellison’s luminaries in this section suggest that this framework has application across a wide set of disciplines.
Activist Anchor: The section on activism draws upon the wisdom of Thurman functioning as an anchor for those doing the larger work of communal, societal, and even global transformation. Some have seen Thurman as being a personality that was more in the background of the civil rights moment. In contrast, authors Stephen Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, Starsky Wilson, and Liza Rankow offer an understanding of Thurman as a key theological and social anchor in the work of social justice, both in the civil rights era and beyond. Edelman and Wilson speak eloquently of how change is possible for those whose “backs are against the wall.” Rankow finishes out this section by drawing upon the age old tension between contemplation and action. Rankow suggests that Thurman’s vision of ‘Oneness’ creates “an ethical mandate, and it offers a new way to enter the work of social transformation—from the position of oneness rather than dualism.” Thus, Thurman’s prophetic mysticism stands as one of the anchors not just of the civil rights movement, but as a framework for any activism looking towards social transformation.
Spiritual Anchor: In this final section, Ellison compiles a strong collection of voices who draw upon the contemplative element that Thurman is known for. Luke Powery offers a powerful chapter reflecting upon Thurman’s idea of “The Growing Edge” as a lens through which to see ministry. Patrick Clayborn delivers a beautiful reflection upon Thurman’s pastoral work at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples as setting a backdrop for those “apostles” that might follow a similar trajectory for ministry in our current moment. Tyler Ho-Yin Sit also offers a unique picture into church planting through Thurman’s eyes. Finally, Luther Smith, whose previous scholarship of Thurman’s work and even direct conversation with him near the end of his life, extends to us a window into the awakening journey that Thurman himself calls us all towards. Smith encourages the reader to embrace the complex journey between contemplation and social action that remains the anchor in the current of our modern day as social injustices continue to challenge those who walk in the ways of Spirit.
This remarkable book weaves a tapestry of wisdom upon the hard work of discovering how to tend to the inner life and play a role in the work of social transformation. These dual callings are, as these luminaries have so well crafted, both a mandate upon us as individuals and communities. We live into their collective wisdom, and the luminary and anchor of Howard Thurman before them, if we embrace the art of deep listening. This book is not just another collection of reflections upon yet another theologian. The gathering of these luminaries demonstrates with remarkable clarity just how the work of someone like Howard Thurman can still speak in and through the ministries, lives, and communities that are looking for a way to remain grounded and anchored in uncertain times. If ever there was a time when we needed a book that would offer an anchor, a sense of grounding amidst all that seems so unstable and uncertain in our world, it would be now. Anchored in the Current is that book.
Chad R. Abbott
Chad R. Abbott is a conference minister in the United Church of Christ in Indiana and Kentucky. Having served congregations in both the United Methodist and United Church of Christ traditions, he is a pastor at heart, passionate about local churches, pastors, and spirituality. The author of two books, including most recently Incline Your Ear: Cultivating Spiritual Awakening in Congregations, he is a trained labyrinth facilitator, spiritual director, and storyteller.