A Tiny Story about Oral Roberts

This really has little to do with Oral Roberts himself, who died today at the age of 91. The story has much more to do with my Grandpa who was a fan of Oral’s, and of my Grandma who (to my admiration) wasn’t.

My grandparents lived in rural Pennsylvania, on top of an Allegheny mountain. The context of this set of memories is the late 1950s, and the mountaintop is relevant because that meant black and white television signals from Dubois would make it weakly to the tinfoil-enhanced rabbit ear antenna on the brown Philco in my grandparent’s front room.

It was enough of a signal for Grandpa, in his early 70s and slowed down by a stroke, to have become a big fan of two made-for-the-new-television-medium phenomena: professional arena wrestling and televangelists. Dick the Bruiser and Gorgeous George shared grandpa’s imagination with the two earliest TV preachers, Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts.

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I was about 8 or 9 when I became aware of Oral Roberts through grandpa’s receiving of Robert’s monthly magazine, which he received for sending money to the Roberts ministry. It was a magazine which, in my memory, more resembled a comic book. The one I remember specifically chronicled a miracle healing which occurred during one of the Oral Robert’s crusades. One panel depicted a man sitting in the audience while a healing was happening on the platform many rows in front of him. He was healed while someone else was being “HEALed” by Roberts. And you knew this had happened because yellow lightning was shown going into (or coming out of) the man’s knee!

I don’t know why this fascinated me, but it did. In fact, I think I can say this little Oral Robert’s comic book was the beginning of  a life-long fascination with the marketing of Jesus on television in America and my own attempts to follow Jesus in spite of that marketing. I don’t know for sure if that was the starting point or not, but I do know I was spooked/ fascinated/ curious as hell about those lightning bolts.

And so, apparently, was Grandpa in his own way. He would kneel in front of the TV with his hand on the screen when Roberts prayed. Sometimes, several cousins would sneak peeks around the corners of the room with me while this was happening. It was not an occasion for giggling, though- not at all! I really did wonder if we would see lightning bolts on grandpa, because I knew he was praying about his stroke-slowed body.  We didn’t see any lightning. Neither, I guess, did Grandpa.

But Grandpa continued to send Oral Roberts money. It wasn’t much, maybe 50 cents every couple months. I found this out years later from my mom and one of her sisters, though, that Grandma often intercepted this miracle money on the way to the mailbox and slipped it into her apron pocket! She had never had much extra money (in fact, NO extra money much of the time), and she just decided that those quarters would be as appreciated by her at least as much as they were appreciated by Oral. 

I love the example set by Grandpa. And I love the example set by Grandma, too. I appreciate the faith Grandpa lived, but- like Grandma was- I am no fan of those who stand between the faithful and God with promises of super-conductivity.

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Dick the Bruiser

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Fight Club in Jerusalem: A Modern Christian Parable

From the BBC, 11/9/08:

“Israeli police have had to restore order at one of Christianity’s holiest sites after a mass brawl broke out between monks in Jerusalem’s Old City.Fighting erupted between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion.”

Here’s a video. Now, “Get Ready to RUUMMMMBBBLLLLEEE….!”

It’s a live action parable of the abysmal silliness that so much of the world’s Institutional brand of Christianity has descended and solidified into.

(Quick note: This is is the kind of blog entry that I will get emails about, and maybe a few comments lamenting my “embrace of secular humanism.” They will prove what I am about to say. If any of those critics would ever share their names, a discussion might be possible; but- alas- they almost always are sent by “A Friend” or “Anon” or “Concerned.” Oh, well..)

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is supposedly built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. The administration of that shrine has been historically shared by several Christian denominations, the logistics and traditions of which are of no relevance to the following points:

1. These are Christian monks fighting about space in a building. A thing. A humanly crafted and built place which may or may not be directly on top of the landmark that it purports to be.

2. The fight is not about care of the facility or its proper preservation as an historical place. The fight is about rules, egos, doctrine..religious trespassing, I guess we could call it.

3. Jesus is not visible. Which is almost always the case where people are busy buffing idols to a holy sheen.

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Now, back to the U.S.of A. Parables are, after all, analogies that mind-changing lessons may be drawn from for those who, as Jesus said, “have ears to hear.”

1. We Christians fight a lot in this country over space in “holy” places, too. Most people would deny that they consider government buildings and various monuments around the country to be semi-sacred, but remember the fight several years ago to remove a wrongfully placed chunk of granite with the Ten Commandments on it from the Alabama Supreme Court building? Or, take a look at these recent “prayer warriors” taking their very public prayers to God about their shrinking 401k’s to Wall Street:

wall street Yes, you are seeing correctly. They are praying, hands pressed on a golden bull. A friend of mine asked, “What could be more ironic than this? Answer: nothing.”

2. And those American fights over Christian “space” are also about rules, egos, doctrines and religious trespassing. There are those Christians among us who have a vested and institutional interest in keeping the lines between Jesus’ person and the rules and doctrines about his teachings, blurred. Very blurred. Otherwise, there is NO WAY one could move from this:

Matthew 5: 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

to this:

“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran”                                                           

Actually, there is a way, because many “Christian” leaders have proved now that it is NOT how you live that makes you a Jesus follower, it IS what you say. If you sprinkle enough Jesus words often enough into what you say, you get a pass, no matter how outrageous what you’re saying is. That’s what gets me in a little trouble here sometimes- I am one of those who would rather see someone living the gospels, than yapping and yammering about them on their way to Christian cruise ships or as they are deciding where to shop because someone said “Season’s Greetings” to them instead of “Merry Christmas.”

3. Our American Christian idols are as shiny and silly as idols are anywhere in the world where they are hiding the God who is larger than our imaginations. (I love, by the way, historical artifacts, religious or secular. They are often beautiful, always worth preserving, and instructive about particular places and cultures.) I see God being personified in all kinds of idolatrous silliness: political platforms, national flags, religious doctrines, and even- amazingly- Bibles! Bibles- full of warning after warning and example after example of people making idols out of things “not-God” and suffering the consequences for doing so- Bibles themselves have become objects of worship for many, many people. (Wondering about that statement? Listen to a preacher who prefaces, often, his statements with the phrase, “The Bible says..” in order to give validity to whatever it is he wants to say. Watch how those same preachers often wield the Bible like a wooden stake, ready to be plunged into a vampire’s heart.)

So, yes, I laugh at the Greek and Armenian monks in their fisticuffs for Jesus. Maybe it’s a Jerusalem version of the movie Fight Club that became visible for awhile yesterday! If so, the monks should remember the words of Tyler Durden in that movie: “The things you own, end up owning you.”

I laugh at those monks, yes; even as I’m cringing at similar attitudes which could easily give rise to similar actions in myself.  So I laugh and I cringe, but I also let myself be reminded, and corrected when necessary, that it is Jesus who I follow, and not words or things or people that masquerade as him.

Time Out. A Reflection on Rumi, Sickness, and Death

 

Visit the sick, and you will heal yourself.

The ill person may be a Sufi master,

And your kindness will be repaid in wisdom.

Even if the sick person is your enemy,

You will still benefit,

For kindness has the power to transform

Sworn enemies into firm friends.

And if there is no healing of bad feeling,

There certainly will be less ill will,

Because kindness is the greatest of all balms.

(Rumi, of course)

I spend a significant chunk of my time each week in hospitals.  Some of the people I visit are going to die soon and know it, some don’t know they are dying or are denying it, and some are like the rest of us- dying eventually but stopping for a moment to have a baby, get a knee replaced, or unclog some arteries.

I always touch when I’m visiting there, much more than I do with a healthy person on the street or in the office. Hands, cheeks, shoulders, and a kiss on the forehead- I want the person in the bed to remember that not all touches are demands to roll over, expose the vein in your right arm, or a dreamy prelude to “Wake up!” I’m human, though, and sometimes it’s hard to touch, and especially to kiss, but the other person is human, too, so touching always wins.

There are also times when I want to cry, and a few times with those who know they are dying, and who know that I know, that I’ve gone ahead and wept.  Why be falsely brave? These are persons who have affected me as a person, and not only as a pastor, and I will miss them. There are some points, with some people, when I must say “screw the professionalism,” and simply be me. I think it’s probably better to be leaving knowing beyond any possible doubt that you are loved and will be missed, than not.

Sometimes people show me sutures, wounds, and rashes that I don’t want to see. I guess they think preachers have a supernatural ability to not be aghast at some sights, so I steel myself for those potential moments. Only once did I purposefully foil the possibility: when I sensed one young first-time mother was about to show me her episiotomy, I rushed to the head of her bed where that would have been impossible.

I have learned much, so much though, from those who know they will not leave that bed they are in alive. Almost always, there is acceptance, and that acceptance is not always dependent on the intensity of their spirituality, or the complexities of their belief in an after-life. It has much more to do with “the things of the earth, growing strangely dim.” Regrets, guilt, hope, wishes- all of those things we who are healthy and sure we have unlimited days ahead of us in which to suffer or realize, become liberatingly irrelevant. Masks fall. The past and the future become the abstractions they actually are. Serenity moves in.

It is one of the greatest moments in another’s life, and to be able to witness that time of what may be never-before-realized freedom is a gift. In the end, again- for most people- death is not fearsome enemy they had spent their lives, to one degree or another, fearing. Sister Death, St.Francis called her; she is a vital and necessary part of Life.

"The Other Side of the Fence"- Kairos Prison Ministry

“This takes me to the other side of the fence..”

That was Cameron’s* reaction to eating BBQ sliced beef and red beans for the first time in seven years. Cameron is 60, and a long-time inmate of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Five days ago, I didn’t know him at all. Today, I can’t get him out of my mind.

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The Fence is four foot coils of razor wire, attached to the top and the bottom of two parallel sets of 16 foot chain link barriers, in between which there is a 10 foot wide dog track. To even get to The Fence from where we were eating BBQ , involves a hundred yard walk through a no-man’s land overseen by guards in towers with rifles, the entrance and exit of two locked sally ports, and another long walk over caged and gated sidewalks and past numerous prison officers, with radios and handcuffs hanging from their belts and immediate access to in-prison, highly-trained SWAT teams, with weapons. At each of the sally ports, visitors must note the posted signs: “ No Hostages Beyond This Point!” That means that those rifles will be aimed, if necessary, should the occasion ever arise, through hostages.

In other words, getting to the other side of The Fence is pretty much an impossible thing to do if one is a maximum security inmate of the TDCJ.

Unless he is eating BBQ and red beans.

~~

Kairos Prison Ministry is a four day event in which approximately 40 men from the “free world” spend 10-12 hours per day with 42 men who are incarcerated. It is a Christian ministry, and is supported by 30 (or so) women and men outside the prison in a central location who are preparing two hot meals to be brought in each of those days to the 82 men inside. All of that food is the kind of food- fresh, tasty, and unlimited- that the inmates will never otherwise enjoy while they are incarcerated. It is eaten in utter and profound silence, not by rule, but in awe. It is prepared with love, and eaten piled high with the condiments of memories- “other side of The Fence” memories.

The food is but one aspect of our (the various volunteers) attempt to demonstrate to these imprisoned men the reality of Jesus-love. Live music, active ears, open hearts, and whatever semblances of freedom that we can give the men within the confines of a prison gym setting, are our other offerings. But the food (supplemented between meals by several thousand dozen homemade cookies), is the primary gate to everything else. You’ve heard me say before that the most important part of the gospel for many people is a hamburger. Participation in the Kairos Ministry over the past 14 years is where I formed that foundational Truth of my own ministry. I see it confirmed all the time.

Jesus said, when he stood up for the first time in his hometown of Nazareth to announce the new turn his life had taken, that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives, to set prisoners free.” He was reading from the Isaiah scroll which described “The Day of the Lord,” and he said that day had come. That day is both present now, and always coming; that’s what motivates those of us involved in this ministry. We don’t go inside with master keys or literal escape plans. We go inside to demonstrate that prisons can come in all shapes and forms, that captivity is an epidemic human affliction, and that the commonalities which bind us as humans are far more important than the superficialities that we allow to separate us.

Cameron was four years old when his father died. His mother, a drunk, put Cameron and his sister in a series of Texas orphanages, during those times when she didn’t have a boyfriend to semi-support the family. Cameron and his sister hustled rent and food money during those times, beginning when Cameron was 4 and his sister was 6, by picking up bottles on the streets for the 2 cent deposits, by repackaging yesterday’s donuts found in dumpsters and selling them on the street, and by picking up dropped bananas from unloading banana boats and selling them for 3 cents each to those who didn’t want a stale donut!

No mother, no dad, no home. His first time in jail was soon after he joined the Army, and drugs and drinking greased the path for a number of subsequent prison terms. He makes no excuses for his life, though. He regrets his choices, but didn’t even have the ability for much of his life to know that other choices could be made! Hustling at 4 years old for rent and beer money for mom caused a prison to be built for Cameron long before the one he now resides within.

Cameron’s was one of 42 such stories which had the opportunity to be told this weekend, often for the first time. Those stories were not listened to in judgment, nor in some kind of tsk-tsking false sympathy. They were simply listened to and accepted. In return, though, the storytellers were able to see, hear, and feel a response most of them had never before experienced: “I love you, anyway.”

Those words don’t have to be spoken, though sometimes they are. They can be written, perhaps in one of many letters the inmates are given by team volunteers and others during the weekend. Those words can be heard in the lines of a song or the sounds of a blues harp or guitar. They can be felt in the sincerely welcoming, looking-at-you-in-the-eye embrace of a guy who could be out on a boat this weekend but instead has chosen to sit beside you in a prison gym. Those words- “I love you, anyway”- can be seen in the tears which inevitably and often gather in the corners of the eyes of those who are listening.

And they can be tasted in BBQ and red beans. They can enable someone who will never again be able to literally be there, to be on the other side of The Fence, forever.

The most important part of a Kairos weekend is that the volunteers go home. They leave. Many will be back for periodic visits, but the inmates are now able to live within a community of other inmates who have shared their four day experience. Racial divisions, age, faith, gang, and experiential separations, have begun to fade in the Light of human commonality. They have shared laughter, tears, food, time, respect, song, prayer, and natural human empathy in ways that are potentially life-changing.

As those things are for the volunteers who have gone home now, too. This is not a one-way ministry! Our hearts have been broken, too, and are re-forming this day in new and better ways. Part of us lives on the “other side” of that Fence, too, even as we continue to go about our lives in our so-called free world. That’s the Affliction of being Jesus followers. But that is also the flat-out, never-ending, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything Joy.

~~

(Some of you who read The First Morning know that it was during a Kairos weekend in 1994 that I decided to become a preacher. I saw Jesus- alive- that weekend in the simple acts of one of the prisoner-helpers in a way that I had never before witnessed, in a church or anywhere else . I figured then that I might be able to tell about Jesus in that way to other people, too, and for 13 years now, that has remained as my main goal.

I’ll write that story again here soon. For you, but mainly for me. It was green beans that put me on the other side of that Fence, and I need periodically to remind myself of that fact.)

*pseudonym