Introducing Sean Palmer, the Newest Member of the Missio Alliance Writing Team

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Mark Twain said, “Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” I feel the heft of Twain’s words every time I’m asked to write about myself, as I am right now.

The truth of my life, and most of our lives, is that I’m unremarkable (or at least not anymore remarkable than anyone else). My friends tease me because 4 out of 10 of my public talks begin with a quote from the movie, The Jerk, “I was born a poor, black child in Mississippi.” I start with The Jerk because I was born a poor, black child in Mississippi, not because I am a jerk – some people might think so. What follows Steve Martin’s line is my story of growing up in a small church of Christ in Mississippi. I am a child of the church, churches of Christ, to be precise. That movement, and the American South shaped me, though not in the ways many of my early Bible class teachers might have hoped it would.

In my bones I am a Restorationist, a product of the American Restoration Movement. It’s the movement I claim, though many inside it no longer claim me.

I believe in God and the unique Lordship of Jesus. I also believe in the centrality of the church and it’s role and ability to transform culture, society, and the world from a place of sacrifice, love, and cross-shaped suffering rather than the halls of governing, power, and the disgusting and corrosive nature of the American political system. Somewhere along the line, the church taught me about the beauty of personal choice and piety through practices such as believer’s baptism. When forced, I’d describe myself as an Anabaptist, but that also means I hate to be forced. And I hate forcing.

Yet church wasn’t all I learned in Mississippi. That social location provided me – for good or ill – front row seats to America’s dismissal and destructive racial past. The stories of slavery and segregation formed and illustrated my childhood and adolescent imagination. Up close and personal was my education in injustice, harassment, and the hatred so easily harbored in the human heart. Thankfully, my witness – hopefully – has made me tenderer and not harsher. To paraphrase Dr. King, those who believe in inequality suffer as well, though not equally.

I write and speak a lot about beloved community and the beauty and priority of the church, not because I believe in the inevitability of progress or some kind of eventual utopia, but because I believe St. Paul was right when he announced that through Jesus “the dividing wall of hostility as been torn down.” Reconciliation under the banner of Jesus is the central message of Paul’s ministry and the most neglected theology in the church, particularly the American church.

For those reasons, I’ve spent my adult life as a missionary to the white American church, releasing and remixing songs of truth and reconciliation in the belief that God wants us to sing together. Some folks don’t want to hear it, but if I sing it long enough and loud enough, God-loving, peace-inclined people will join in the chorus with me.

I’m the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speak at conferences and retreats across the country, write articles and books, and co-host the Not So Black and White Podcast. When I’m not writing or speaking I can be found cheering on my beloved San Antonio Spurs or Manchester United.

These are my clothes and buttons. I’m a guy from a nowhere place who was formed by a small, storefront church. I’m a guy who has been given – in this brief moment in history and by the grace of God – a few words to share, places to share them, and a wife and two daughters who love him.