Archive for the ‘Listening For God’ Category

Holy Wednesday

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I woke feeling spiritually parched. I didn’t need to write, I needed to read. I reached for a book in search of a cool drink of water for my soul. It’s been a tough Lenten season where I live. And even though a ray of light is beginning to peep through, there’s no denying that the wait has taken its toll on us all. It’s left me fresh out of insight and wisdom.

cup from the wellWhat do I do when my cup is bone dry? I sip from others’ cups. Until a little moisture gathers again in my own cup. And it will. It always does. But today my cup is empty. And it will probably be empty tomorrow as well.

What better way to honor and acknowledge the sanctity of Holy Week than to shut up and listen as others wiser and more Enlightened than myself describe what they’ve witnessed and  experienced on this exquisitely mysterious path toward God. I drink from their cup until my cup is refilled, at which time I can turn around and offer others a little drink to refresh themselves.

Life either dwarfs us or grows us. there is no in between. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. there is only the unending opportunity to become or to die. We see people die spiritually every day. Sometimes the look very religious in the doing of it, in fact. they go on believing, reading, praying, thinking, what they have always thought. In the face of new questions, they dare no questions. At the brink of new insights, they wan tto insights. the y want comfort and a guarantee of the kind of heaven they imagined as children. They think that to think anything else is unfaithful….But those who grow in the spiritual life know that spirituality begins where answers and pictures stop. the spiritual life is seeded in darkness and ends in light. It is about love, not law; it is about grace and energy, the cosmos and creation. It is about hope at the edge of despair and a beginning where only an end seems to be.” (Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir).

Go To Hell

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

If my Old Testament seminary professor hadn’t gotten to me first, I would have given myself over to the study of Church History. Stories of fallen preachers, scandal-ridden evangelists, church heresies, and humans battling for God fascinate me. I’m no scandalmonger. It’s stories of human contradictions and human reversals, including my own, that floor me.

Take, for example, the story of a modern fallen preacher.

Carlton Pearson’s church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in Tulsa, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. Pearson was one of the first black megapreachers back before there were megapreachers. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the pastor. Pearson didn’t have a sexual affair. He didn’t embezzle money from his church. His sin was worse: He stopped believing in Hell. Today Pearson teaches that sincere people who do not directly acknowledge Christ — such as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Unitarians — will go to heaven. The finished work of Christ at Calvary redeemed all of humanity, not just Christians, back to God. To a conservative believer, a Pentecostalal especially, it’s “Holiness or Hell.” Anything else is heretical.

During the 90s, Pearson put on huge revival meetings there in Tulsa drawing thousands of people. I know because I attended a few myself. Based on my husband my computations, our daughter was conceived at the ‘92 Auzsa Conference. But that’s another discussion. (LOL)

Pearson called his revivals “Azusa” Conferences, ‘Azusa’ after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago. At Pearson’s Azusa Conference, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.

PearsonBack then Carlton Pearson served as a “bridge” between traditional black preachers and the contemporary “neo-Pentecostal” movement.  One might say that Pearson was the first African-American to be on national Christian television and getting African-Americans into this whole media age. Azusa provided a platform for lots of big names preachers and singers along with lots of promising, but lesser known, gospel luminaries (like T D. Jakes). One of his biggest supporters back then was his old mentor, Oral Roberts, who predicted that Carlton Pearson would be the next great leader of his people. Everything Pearson did was blessed, or so it seemed, from as far back as his days as a wunderkind and boy preacher growing up in the South.

But one day something happened.

One day Pearson was sitting in the living room of his spacious, comfortable home in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set. There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.

With his own fat cheek baby daughter sitting nearby in her stroller, Pearson sat watching these African people — mostly women and children walking slowly back home with dull empty eyes, swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated, babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. As a man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, Pearson sat looking at those people on his TV set assuming that they were probably Muslim and going to Hell. After all, God wouldn’t do that to Christians

And then Pearson had a revelation.

Pearson said to God, “God I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.” The Spirit of God, Pearson says, responded back to him, ”Is that what you think we’re doing?” ”That’s what I’ve been taught,” Pearson replied. And the voice in his head replied: “Can’t you see they’re already in Hell?” And as clear as a bell, says Pearson, he heard God telling him to preach this new message that Hell is a place in life, and that after death everybody is redeemed. Everybody.

Powerful stuff, huh? Yeah, but dangerous too.

Once Pearson (by now Bishop Pearson) started preaching this new revelation, things started crashing in all around the him.  After all, without Hell to believe in, what’s the point in believing in Jesus and being saved from Hell. After all, if the pastor can change his mind about Hell what else is he likely to change his mind about?

Within a few months of preaching his new gospel there was a mass exodus from his church.  And I do mean a mass exodus. From 5000 members to a few hundred people. As he continued to preach his “gospel of inclusion,” membership in Higher Dimensions plummeted to a tenth of what it had been. He lost his megachurch complex facility because his dwindling congregation could no longer afford the payments, and had to rent meeting space from an Episcopal church across town (a church Pearson would never had stepped into years ago). Top gospel artist friends would not return his calls and found excuses not to go to the Azusa Conference. Invitations to speak at friends’ churches dried up. Pastors and friends around the country abandoned him, including people I know who know Pearson.  Even prominent members of the Tulsa community stopped doing business with Pearson and Higher Dimensions (new name of the church is New Dimensions).empty pews

Pearson underestimated just how conservative conservative theology is.

A member of Pearson’s ministry, a friend of mine, who has remained with the pastor during this downfall and agrees with his teachings on inclusivity admits there were many, many Sundays when the pastor and the handful of parishioners who remained sat in the church and wept from the beginning to the end of the worship service at the sight of the empty pews. Those who left felt betrayed and made sure to let Pearson and others know. “The tide is turning and our church is on its way back, but there were times we weren’t sure our pastor was gonna make it” she told me. “We don’t believe in Hell anymore. But what we’ve experienced for our beliefs have felt like a kind of Hell”

For sure, there’s more to this story. There always is.

But this morning I woke up thinking about religion, friendship, vocation, preaching, public opinion, beliefs, scandal, the battle for God, and the price that comes with thinking and believing out loud. You get the picture.

The Desert Place

Friday, February 29th, 2008

There is a false and persistent myth that strong people are persistently, perpetually, perennially strong. That creative people are persistently, perpetually, perennially, creative. That people of faith are persistently, perpetually, perennially faithful. These people, so the myth goes, never run out of steam. Never have dry spells. Never experience self-doubt. Never contemplate giving up.

Such people do not exist.

The truth is there are days, weeks, yes even seasons, when the soul is on empty.  Though deadlines loom, your mailbox is full, a new battle awaits you, your readers wonder where you’ve gone, the phone is ringing, and dirty clothes are piled high in the basket, you’re in a drought.

If it weren’t for the many psalms of lament in the Bible, I don’t know if I would have remained a Christian. It’s good to know that when I feel emotionally, spiritually and intellectually adrift, I’m in good company. It helps to know that I have not disappointed God when I feel empty and not up to the next task. God knows. Psalm 42 is my favorite psalm in the bible because I can empathetically imagine the psalter mumbling the words to the psalm to herself in a blues-like fashion as she kneads the bread for an upcoming ceremonial observance or as she gets up that morning to dress to sing in the choir.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

These things I remember
       as I pour out my soul:
       how I used to go with the multitude,
       leading the procession to the house of God,
       with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
       among the festive throng.

  Why are you downcast, O my soul?
       Why so disturbed within me?
       Put your hope in God,
       for I will yet praise the Lord, 
       my Savior and my God.

Thank God, droughts are seasonal. They are not forever, even though they feel like they are here to stay. Even though they make you think that you’ll never be strong again, that your creativity was a sham, and that faith is futile and everyone knows it except you. Don’t believe your drought.

Find some water somewhere and keep moving.

Turn off the computer. Unplug the phone. Go for a walk. Take a long drive. Read a book.  Hold a baby. Take a salsa class. Take a long bath. Kneel at the side of the bed. Put on some music that makes you cry. I did. I’m feeling better already. So good, “I believe I’ll run on and see what the end’s gonna be.”

Believing in Believing

Monday, February 4th, 2008

“The difference between you and me” —a friend’s words to me long ago come to mind often when I stand to preach — “is that you preach your questions, whereas I preach my answers.” She was right. And she has the accolades to show for it. Her reputation as a preacher has far exceeded mine, both then and now.

And if God had not sent an angel in my path one day early in my journey as a seminarian, my friend’s words would have left me feeling like a miserable failure even more often than I normally have these nearly thirty years I’ve been preaching.

At the close of an otherwise forgettable semester in a class on New Testament theology, the professor, a remarkably uninspiring sort who never spoke above a whisper and seemed utterly incapable of answering a question without a question—which might make for a provocative pedagogical style if, as a student, you didn’t have to worry about grades and trying to pass core courses- this professor, who until the end of that semester was never my favorite professor because he never looked us straight in the face but went around with his eyes cast to the ground, always looked as though he was lost in thinking about thinking, said something that last day of class that came as close to a benediction as ever I’ve ever been able to recognize. Removing his glasses and in characteristic fashion wiping them with the lapel of his tweed jack, he said in a whisper to a class of students anxious to be dismissed so we might get a head start on the holiday travelers leaving Princeton for the Christmas break: “And now go out and preach with a bad conscience, knowing that for everything you choose to say in the pulpit, there was something you chose not to say, could have said, but for your desperate reasons chose to ignore. Preach your best, my friends, and then be quick to sit down forever looking over your shoulder at any moment for the disapproving tap of an angel.”

thepulpitI never recovered from my professor’s benediction. It keeps me humble and forever embarrassed at the close of sermons, despite the sometimes applause of audiences. There’s a chance everything I just said up there was totally off the mark. It’s quite possible that I was wrong – wrong about God, wrong about belief, wrong about love and wrong about what’s right and what’s wrong in the world. My professor’s words are never too far off either whenever I dismiss a class at the end of a semester, and I am ashamed of all the things that didn’t take place or couldn’t be done in a semester. I feel guilty that I may have contributed to unleashing another class of simpleminded zealots upon the world.

I was touched by angel that day in class. Relieved of the pressure to be perfect, of having to get it just right, I was freed to tell a story about flawed people grappling to find the words to tell the story of a God, they think they saw and think they heard on some mountain, in some cave, by some seashore, at some supper table. The benediction by an otherwise forgettable teacher at the close of an unspectacular semester of study freed me to preach and teach in ways that might inspire others, including myself, to pray. My task as a believer is not to inspire those who come out to hear me to believe, but to help open up a space in each of them so that belief, if it ever comes, may have some place to take root and grow.

Perhaps that is as honest as any of us can ever aspire to be. To pray, to preach, to teach, and to hope as though we knew for sure that there is really someone on the other side of the door who heals, who hears, who answers. The issue in prayer is not to pray because we are certain, but to pray because we are uncertain. It is a risk where the risk itself is the outcome.

Sometimes believing in believing is the closest you can get to believing in goodness, in grace, and in God. We pray that God is not as put off  by this sort of spirituality as others certainly are.
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As we prepare in a few days for Lent and as I sit trying to prepare myself for the many speaking engagements I’ve agreed to in the coming days, I am reminded this morning of the above sections of Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt which I wrote years ago when I was feeling scorched and miserable from years of ministering on an empty tank.