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

Irony, Paradox, Tension. A Christmas Journey..

In a court of law, the whole story would be torn apart by even a mediocre prosecutor as soon as the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were used in the same sentence.

The defense could very well sway the jury by bringing out their main witness- Joseph, the put-upon and betrayed, but also believing, forgiving, and accepting fiance of the young “virgin mother.” 

Throw the dice. OK, 2 out of 3? 4 out of 7? Rock, Paper, Scissors? Eenie, meenie, miney, mo? Draw straws. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth; who’s lying?

Who is being good? Who is being bad?

Here’s one more really great thing about the Christmas story that not many people have considered: it makes no sense. Two completely different birth stories- Matthew’s and Luke’s- that come together only on Hallmark Christmas cards and childrens’ Sunday School handouts. Unlikely scenarios, difficult time-lines, and a cast of characters that includes a chorus of singing angels- it is through that wild potpourri of people and events that Jesus the Messiah appeared in the world, and turned that world into a new creation.

Luke 1: 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

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It made no sense and neither, if we admit it, does much of life. If we had a nativity story that followed a logical, consistent, and progressive series of facts, we would have every right to question all of it. When that kind of defense is put forward in a criminal court- when all of the witnesses and facts line up in perfect and straight rows, the prosecution can pretty easily show that there has been collusion and rehearsal in the presentation of a fictional defense.

Life, as we live it, is rarely an either/or set of decisions. We deal with people both as we hope they will be and as they are. We enjoy the food at a restaurant even though the service has been lousy. (Both/And) We do not throw our kids out of the house because their room is an unhealthy mess (Either/Or).

We learn to cut slack because slack is being cut for us all the time. We learn to give love and accept grace because we’re accepting love and extending grace all day long in our daily affairs. We may talk a lot in black & white, and even make some decisions based on what seems good and what seems bad, but we live in the inconsistencies of human interaction and in the chaos of a world that always being recreated.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a mess. So messy that Mark and John ignore it altogether. But that makes the story a lot like us. At least a lot like me. I’ll let you decide for yourself. That way both you and I will be right.  

Death? Not me! (part 5 of a series)

“[The] philosophy of exemptionalism, which supposes that the special status on Earth of humanity lifts us above the laws of Nature. Exemptionalism takes one or the other of two forms. The first.. is secular: don’t change course now, human genius will provide. The second is religious: don’t change course now, we are in the hands of God, or the gods, Earth’s karma, whatever.” (E.O.Wilson, Creation- An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, W.W.Norton & Co., 2006, p.83)

The philosophy of exemptionalism is an easy one to adopt as one’s personal worldview; in fact, we’re naturals at it! Here it is, stated in its most elementary form:

“All that bad stuff that will happen to you won’t happen to me- I’m special.”

This a belief that seems in history to just as easily evolve into a real psychosis of specialness. There are those persons who believe they can fly. And people on the sidewalk below them discover they how wrong, how not-special, they really were. There are those persons who believe they have been exempted from the side effects of tobacco, alcohol, or general slovenly living. Most of them discover by the age of 55 or so that “tomorrow” was not the best time to have waited to change their ways. And whole empires have thought of themselves as eternal when in fact, as the Holy Roman Empire discovered, they were just one angry, marauding hoard away from being a mere collection of sovereign nation-states.

And many of us harbor that deeply held and precious, but absolutely stone cold crazy belief that we will not die because there is technology just on the horizon that will save us, or a medicine that will cleanse our bodies of 40 years of smoking, or because our own ability to get out of the way of explosions, highway accidents, and gunfire. (“I never thought such a thing could happen to me!” the lucky ones say.”Those things aren’t supposed to happen in our neighborhood,” the formerly exempted ones proclaim.)

Or (we say) that Death, while important, doesn’t really matter because eternal life, with Jesus or with forty grape-laden virgins or any of a number of other scenarios based on one’s doctrinal beliefs subscribed to while one was still alive and of sound mind and body, will be the order of eternity. We SAY that, but then we pour fortunes into squeezing an extra couple months, a year, or a few years out of an increasingly painful, weakened, or dependent life.

In both ways of approaching Death (or not approaching it), fear is the prime mover. It is the fear of meaninglessness, nothingness- the bottom line fear that maybe our professions of faith are only words we have said, or that maybe technology or pharmacology might be too late for us. (“Damn the FDA!”) We don’t want the days and years to add up to a whiff of smoke or the memory of the last friend or relative left standing. So we are afraid, living our lives in a reserved but ever-present dread of the end.
The profession of faith can dull the sharp edges of contemplated death, but- for whatever reason(s)- the ‘sting’ is still present.

I think there are superficial reasons why that is so; and some deep reasons why that is so. And there are even deeper reasons that every human being on Earth shares. All of the various reasons are interesting (I think) and need to be talked about. The deepest reasons, however, are profound and- once we understand how we share them with all human beings- they can serve as areas of new empathetic relationships among various human groups from whom we might otherwise feel separated. They can further help us understand why we want to shoot over the heads of those who others are telling us to call the Enemy. And they can help understand what it is about us, and the Other, that truly is special.

The Death of Death!!

“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions, Harcourt, 2008, p.1)

In Saramago’s most recent novel, everyone in a particular small European country inexplicably stops dying. The Queen mother, on her deathbed, stays there. Healthy persons who are injured or become ill go to hospitals and stay there, too. Life goes on the way it always has, until it is time to die.

Chaos follows. Nursing homes and hospitals overflow, life insurance companies grow wealthy, while health insurance and pension funds and the funeral industry go broke. A calamity overtakes the church, and the hierarchy from the pope on down, begin praying that God return death as a fact of life! Death- the fear of it, the theological threats able to be made because of it- had become the primary sustenance of this country’s church and nobody’s dying meant no one was bothering with church anymore!

Saramago is one of the world’s living literary treasures- he sees the world differently than most people; he sees beyond the superficialities of life and into the real and true underpinnings that define the ‘stuff’ of life. And he doesn’t hesitate to indict us as a society for our peculiarities and vagaries, even though he does it with humor, even gently. Death he says, is a big deal- of course! But we also tend to make it into an even bigger deal for financial, religious, and other societal reasons!

The funeral industry, the entire insurance industry, and (Saramago would say) the church industry- all are built upon the foundations of death’s inevitability. Those “industries” depend on death (again, Saramago says). Therefore, death in a modern sense gets dressed up in ways death was never dressed up in before. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book An American Way of Death, was an expose of what she named the “death-care industry” in America: the funeral business. Hers was an indictment not only of high pressure sales techniques being used at the time, and of genuinely underhanded marketing, but of the industry’s simply making of a much, much bigger deal about funerals than any other country in history had done for persons other than royalty. What we had come to think of as normal- funeral homes, embalming, sealed and expensive caskets, and flowers- Mitford exposed as purely American ideas, successfully sold! (In the later, revised edition of her book, she added a chapter on the frequent collusion of funeral homes with local pastors: “Nosy Clergy” the chapter was called.)

Death had become- and largely remains- Death as a series of exclamation points!!!!! And that emphasis obscures the true nature of Death’s marking the end of a life, the end of a period. The Death of a body need not be a disruptive, climactic extravaganza. The death of a body is the cessation of breath, stillness, and the preparation of those nearby, for burial. The remembrance of the soul, the person, the consciousness which gave the body animation and distinction- that remembrance can be, should be acknowledged and honored. That remembrance is a very real psychologically and emotionally necessary period at the finish of a time. But it is not easy to do. There are decisions to be made, people to call, flowers to be ordered- Did anyone call the florist? There are clothes to be chosen and- one limousine or two? How many songs, which songs, who should pray, and- oh my god- do we go with ebony, bronze, or walnut, or- gross!- plywood? Do you have the checkbook with you? Open? Open? What, I have a choice?

Such is life, but c’est l’muert, too! We need respect and quiet, and we need to be able to note the passing of time without trying to stop the passage of time. We need to remember, and keep walking. Others have always done it that way, and we used to. We’ll be looking at some ancestral memories of those times soon.

Things I Believe; Things I Wish For..

(from the 2006 firstmorning newsletter)

Things I believe..(you can quote me!):

  1. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance. It only becomes bad if you build a fort around it to defend it against new information.

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1938 Book Burning in Germany

  1. If we didn’t know we were going to die, there would be no reasons to paint pictures or compose music.

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Cave drawing-France, Mexican String Art, Painting by Toulouse LaTrec

  1. The worst moment in Christian history was the day, in 325, that the Emperor Constantine marched his army through a river, pronounced the men baptized, and declared the Roman Empire to heretofore be the Holy Roman Empire. On that day, Christianity ceased being a movement and became an institution.

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  1. The Bible is not a god. It is a collection of documents inspired by human interactions with God. It is the best place to learn about God, but not the only place. Wherever there are birds and wildflowers- those are excellent places for doing that, too.

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  1. Anything that is done to intentionally hurt a child is evil.

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abandoned- Honduras; propagandized- Libya; overfed- United States

Things I wish:

  1. I wish Bill Watterson was still doing “Calvin and Hobbes.”

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  1. I wish Oxfam America, Doctors Without Borders, and Kairos Prison Ministry could have the money that is flushed down the toilet every time a check is written to a televangelist.

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www.oxfamamerica.org www.doctorswithoutborders.org http://www.kairosprisonministry.org

  1. I wish the world wasn’t being homogenized into the image of an American suburb.

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Krakow, Poland London, England Kyoto, Japan

  1. I wish there was a really good home for every single dog.

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  1. I wish Europe and the United States were willing to clean up the three centuries worth of mess they made in Africa.

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Refugees in Darfur, Sudan..the world is too busy elsewhere..

The Rapture- if you’re reading this, you missed it..!

Whoops !

rapture

It really is easier to read a novel- or a series of novels – about the Rapture, than it is to read a critical history of Rapture theology. Just as it is easier to “believe” in Creationism than it is to study and understand Evolution. Just as it is easier to maintain a fatalistic view of every single thing that happens (“God did it!”) than it is to face the random nature of many (most?) human and physical events, or to accept an iota of personal responsibility when things go wrong. 

Faith has become a short cut around thinking. The words “I believe” have come to mean that whatever pronouncement follows those words is off-limits in terms of criticism. (Although you are allowed, encouraged even, to verbally punctuate such statements with a hearty “Amen!”)

But is being faithful, toward anything, a legitimate excuse for not thinking? Is thinking about faith a forbidden activity? Personally, I don’t think so. I don’t like dead ends in thought, where questions are no longer welcomed, because then the only thing left to do is to build a fort and be defensive about that arrived-at place of thinking.  And that’s also where Inquisitions and Jihads are conceived.

The theology of the rapture is relatively recent, beginning in the early 19th Century. It was an odd interpretation of scripture which found wide acceptance in the reactionary intellectual atmosphere of the time. Times were, in 19th century Great Britain (where the rapture story began), a’changing. Pastoral countrysides were seeing, with greater and greater frequency, the smokestacks of nearby cities rising in ugly industrial salute to the Coal and Iron being burned and formed in a revolution of manufacturing. Urban areas were growing, along with the attendant urban problems of bad housing, crime, and alcoholism. The rich grew richer as the poor grew poorer. As Charles Dickens wrote of what was happening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Some people were feeling left out, and powerless, and in need of a “way out.”

And the Rapture is the ultimate Way Out! Every year for the past two centuries someone, somewhere has claimed that this is the year:  This is the year that the Lord returns for his own!  It’s an appealing hope for many people: it costs nothing, it could happen any moment, and it makes those who know they’re ‘going’ better than those who don’t know they’re not going!

The popularity of the Rapture grows wherever people feel out of control. It gives people who believe they will not be left behind, a sense of power- perhaps even, a sense of superiority, over those who will not make the cut. As the doctrine’s popularity has grown, it has become more complex. Schools of thinking have grown about when the rapture will occur in relation to perceived timetables they are able to find in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  On-line resources are available for wills to be read and messages to be sent to relatives and friends who are left here after the rapture to face the horrors of Armageddon, or not.

When Jesus said, on the cross, “It is finished,” little did he know that 1800 years later the rest of the story would be uncovered. Nor did he know it would all be over in 1992, or not.

God Stuff, Chapter # 8,004,897,254

I sit with a group of people every Wednesday night that help keep me focused on both the enemy and the Great Love. Enough said. If you want to know more, my email is around here somewhere.

stp We’ve been reading together from a book, Sought Through Prayer and Meditation, published by Hazelden. Last night, as we read, a phrase jumped from the page and began running around in my imagination. The phrase is running around there turning on lights, discovering new metaphors, writing poetry, and turning over dumpsters full of old, rancid, even carcinogenic dogma.

Here’s the sentence (found on page 15) in which the three word phrase appears: “The very moment I surrendered myself as completely and honestly as I could, the supernatural rush of the life of God invaded me.”

Life of God.

You may have to bear with me for awhile here, read the white spaces between words and lines, or maybe even allow my words and phrases loose in your imagination, to do there what they will. I promise I will only describe my reactions and thoughts in terms personal to me, without telling you how you must or should or are commanded to react or think for yourself about that phrase.

Because the life of God is different in me than it will ever be in you. The life of God is not a sometimes sharp-edged definition formulated by others and passed on over the centuries through dogmatic teachings, for which I am a modern agent who must somehow coerce you today into accepting this phrase in its ancient form and colors. In fact, I doubt that the life of God has colors which could be defined anyway; they’re probably off the rainbow somewhere in infrared or ultraviolet or gamma light where birds and insects and fish are swimming and flying through colors you and I have never seen (and will never see!). I’m almost certain that the life of God could never be honed or trimmed for the convenience of my linguistic limitations, from the light-year-spanning breadth and quark-deep-depth that the life of God must , among many other dimensions, occupy. I know for a fact and I am proving to you at this moment that the life of God is a force and a fact that cannot be written about, bought from any purveyor of abstract notions, or referenced in Google, history, the Bhagavad-gita, Quoran, or Bible.

The life of God is slippery, and not. It is big, and not. It full, empty, dark, light, complete and whole, partial and growing, Mysterious, and –if not Knowable- perceptible. And that is the word I’ve needed here: perceptible. The life of God is perceptible. But impossible to explain. And now I’m laughing so I’ve just confirmed that the life of God is funny, too.

It is the life of God which I want animating me, defining me, motivating me, and using me. I don’t want your definition of “God” no matter how good that definition is, doing those things. The word “God” in me has been learned. The life of God in me is giving birth:

To the Me with no name.

To the Creation without boundaries.

And to You, whether you know it or not.

(Which is why I’m laughing again, and why metaphors are searching for new homes, why dumpster spills need cleaned up, and why I’m trusting that the life of God has made the jump into your consciousness as well!)