To Pat Robertson: On Haiti, the Devil, and the Problem with Answers
January 14, 2010

To Pat Robertson, anyone else at CBN, and other Christians who might be reading:

I felt a mixture of deep sadness and white-hot anger when seeing this…

I watched Sanjay Gupta interview the president of Haiti (watch from 0:50), and one line that struck me was when Sanjay asked President Preval why he was staying at the Port Au Prince aiport, to which he simply replied, “My palace collapsed.”

It’s powerful to see the contrast between a proud man prognosticating in front of a camera in his ivory tower and a broken leader not knowing what to do with hard facts.

Why do we humans, the religious especially, feel compelled to have an answer for everything?

Never mind the fact that the facts to which you (Pat Robertson) referred are debatable. The reference to Hatian leaders making a pact with the devil  centuries ago has been improperly used for years by some Christians to support whatever claims to authority they feel they have. Apparently this information has been passed from religious leader to religious leader without anyone thinking to re-check the facts. Several years ago, a Haitian-born minister (and PhD ) discussed his own research of the related facts on his blog, so there’s no need for me to go in depth here. But I must say, from the perspective of someone familiar with ministry, that ministers have a terrible habit of latching on to things they read or heard from other preachers who heard it from other ministers who possibly heard it from someone else who either adjusted the facts to fit their message or even made it all up. Besides this, you also might want to realize that there are also many Christians in Haiti…some of which might even watch and donate to CBN. Were they cursed too? …But that’s another story.

My primary issue is not about the validity of your facts, it’s about why you said them in the first place. I just want to strongly recommend that you step out from in front of the camera and keep quiet for a few years at least. Take a cue from people like Franklin Graham in this situation. Your words are heard by millions, so you must choose your words wisely. If you have a hard time with that, just please keep your mouth shut, or at least just keep your opinions off-camera. This is for your own good. I know you are surrounded by an inner circle of yes-men and yes-women, so they probably haven’t told you this, but you have lost your credibility. Most of the world thinks you’re crazy. Sure, you can argue against that on the basis of your Bible or what you think your God has told you or that you think what you say will save people. But, just so you know, and I say this as a recovering Christian who is trying to maintain balance in his perception of preachers like you … YOU’RE NOT HELPING!

If God is anything like the picture you paint of him — a god who is bound by some sick sense of justice; an “almighty” god who would somehow be bothered if a small group of slaves at one point were willing to do anything to have their own land and freedom back; a god who would hold that against the people of that nation for centuries; a god who didn’t have the power to overrule some pact with a devil to offer grace and help to suffering islanders; a god who, apparently still bound by old-covenant law rather than the love his new-testament son gave away freely, thought it better to destroy thousands of poor people than to urge a wealthy Christian TV mogul to shut his fucking mouth and go get his hands dirty helping people — if that is the case, your god must die, because no one in their right mind needs another god like that. The actions of Al Qaeda have proven that already.

So please wake up. You do not have divine right to this world. And you do not have all the answers. Even if you think you do, we do not want them. The fact that you seem to have a difficult time with is that most answers are conjecture. Answers are not truth.

But perhaps there is the possibility of truth. Perhaps there’s one answer that might wake you up. And that’s the day when you realize that you are only human and when the world asks you for your perspective, your answer will be simple: “My palace collapsed.”

[Now, I apologize for writing in such an angry tone. For a far better, more mature reaction to Pat Robertson’s comments, check out Donald Miller’s blogpost about it.]

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Three Lives, Part 3: Oral Roberts (really?)
January 9, 2010

Oral with Elvis

It had been more than a decade since I last laid foot on the Oral Roberts University campus. I drove to Tulsa to visit some old friends, and while I was there I’d stop by the ORU library to return some *slightly* overdue books — 13 years overdue to be exact. As soon as I got into town I went straight to the library, dropped the books in the return slot in one stealth move and quickly shuffled off to wander around campus.  I made my way to Christ Chapel, where odd things like this frequently occurred (quite interesting from 3:45-5:00) —

And I was in Christ Chapel when other thing like this messed with me:

It was in Christ Chapel that I experienced a variety of moments that totally confused me, caused me to lose faith and feel spiritually inadequate, and even some moments of peace, so to say the place caused great tension in my life is an understatement. Christ Chapel at ORU was the birthplace of my doubt.

So as I sauntered up to the back doors of the chapel, I felt the tension coming back. I had grown and changed a lot since I was last there, but still the confused feelings from my college days flooded my mind. I paused at the 15-feet-tall doors and accepted the fact that they would probably be locked because it was summer and the campus was nearly empty. But something compelled me to grab the massive handle and tug on one door. It was unlocked. I pulled the door open just a crack and….

This is a weird piece to write because my thoughts are so conflicted. Let’s get back to Oral for a second. (If you’re not familiar with him, this 2-minute vid summarizes his controversial life and you can read how he’s relevant to my blog in my Definitions page under “Charismatic.”) It’s well-known that Oral was no stranger to controversy, and it’s no stretch to say he was narcissistic. It seems to me his ministry started out with sincere and loving intentions and a passion for helping people, but as he grew in popularity I think yes-men surrounded him, his ego swelled, and although his ministry impacted the world (for good or bad) his own world apparently included few more than himself. One notorious 1988 occasion had him locking himself in his Prayer Tower, which was sort of the epicenter of the campus and his ministry, and telling the world that God would kill him unless he raised millions of dollars (which he did).

Oral was one of if not the original televangelist, one of the first “faith-healers,” one of the fathers of the “prosperity gospel,” and the first person to effectively bring Pentecostalism beyond the realm of toothless Appalachian snake-handlers and into mainstream consciousness. He hosted people like Elvis, multiple presidents including JFK, and other mainstream celebrities on his show and on campus, and he garnered respect from thousands for his devotion to his God. From my experience, while he was definitely in his own wacky world, he apparently cared deeply about people and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place than what he found it. He wanted people to get relief from the poverty and sickness that he experienced growing up.

And he was determined as a jackass. How else could one man believe so deeply that he heard God tell him to build a university to educate men and women to positively impact the world…and then actually build it. (By the way, ORU is not just a seminary or place for training preachers; it’s a full university and Oral wanted desperately to see its medical school and cancer research center succeed.)

So when I was walking the halls of campus last summer, when I looked around and saw all those Jetsons-looking buildings, it was obvious that this empire of sorts was built by a visionary. And then I re-read the vision statement that was inscribed all over the place: “Build Me a university. Build it on My authority and on the Holy Spirit. Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is seen dim, My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.” — That was what Oral believed he had heard straight from God’s mouth. I don’t know if he actually heard from God or whether he was a fraud, maybe a bit of both, but it’s apparent that he had good intentions and otherworldly motivation. He wanted to help the world. To be sure, he messed up some people, but he also helped some too.

So to see videos and posts throughout the web with people saying how terrible a person he was and such, while I don’t disagree with all of them, it makes me wonder what makes us think that we’re any better than him. We’re all fucked up. We all have our narcissistic days (whether we admit it or not). True, all of us don’t have the hearts and minds of thousands hanging onto our every word, but if I did, I bet I’d go a little crazy too. Regardless, even if he was a little off, he drove his ministry like a man who had, in fact, been somehow in touch with something beyond us, boldly making actions he knew no one would understand. This is why to some he is a prophet and to others he is a devil. To me? I have no idea what to say because all my experiences with him, his ministry, his family, and his university are filled with tension. Which brings me back to that summer day as I was about to open the doors to Christ Chapel:

Those memories came flooding back as I pulled the handle. Memories of some of the most confusing times in my life, the feelings of spiritual inadequacy because I couldn’t hear from God like others; I couldn’t feel God’s presence like others; I couldn’t believe what the Bible said, and I didn’t know how to pray. So I hated this place. Oral Roberts and his university were a scam. …And I felt the tension coming back….I pulled the door open just a crack and out came an incredibly peaceful sound. A welcoming sound of a single person calmly playing the piano in an empty chapel, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner. I opened the door wide and stepped inside. I felt welcomed by a special presence. I was surprised by how peaceful I felt. This did not sit well because it did not justify my angst. I felt like the place was just there, like a blank canvas waiting for whomever to do whatever they felt they needed to do to find peace. It had no judgments against me. And so I realized that maybe I was the one carrying the judgments, choosing to hold onto the confusion and restlessness. It wasn’t all Oral’s fault.

There is more to this story and it’s a long one. So I’ll end it here for now. I just have to say that I think Oral Roberts was one jacked-up mofo, and so is his son and his university. But he was also a human who tried to do good the best he knew how. He made it possible for me to get a degree because his university was the only type of school my parents would pay for. His ministry gave me insight into a segment of our society that is still often misunderstood, but a segment that nonetheless believes in something. Even though I cannot believe the same things Oral Roberts and the subculture he created believe in, you’ve got to give kudos to the guy at least for being true to what he thought was the direction he should go, at least he tried to do something positive with his life, which is more than many of us can say. And for that I can say, without any ill feelings, rest in peace, Oral Roberts.

Three Lives, Part 2: Billy Joe Daugherty
January 5, 2010

I would wake up far too early in the morning for an 18-year old. Wander out of my projects-type apartment and down to the ditch, Bible in hand, ready to bask in the purple glow of a pre-dawn session with God. My view was of the 60-feet-tall Praying Hands sculpture across the street at Oral Roberts University. I would meditate for about an hour, trying to squeeze some juicy revelation from the Holy Spirit, drop by drop, into my soul. Then I’d follow a dirt driveway to the back of Victory Christian Center, board an empty bus, and go pick up poor people to bring them to church — the ORU Mabee Center arena — to meet at least 5,000 other folks and hear Billy Joe speak.

He spoke of love and faith…and that’s about it. And he had a funny laugh, like a kid just learning to laugh. But he didn’t wave his fist in the air or try to push people down in prayer or make anyone feel guilty about not giving enough to the church. He and his wife, in their no-nonsense way, seemed to just want to be there for people…something desperately missing from most other churches that size I’ve been involved with. After the  service, Billy Joe would stand at the exit of the massive arena and shake hands with as many thousands of individuals as he could. Often by the time I made my way to him his grip was like a dead fish, but he always made sincere eye contact.

After church, I’d load back onto the bus and take the poor people back home, handing them a paper bag with a PB&J sandwich, an apple and some crackers or fruit roll-ups. Other times I’d help out by serving hot meals to people who couldn’t afford it (and eat the leftovers). And that’s what I did almost every Sunday as a discipleship student at Billy Joe’s Victory Bible Institute. It was a requirement because people were the top priority of Billy Joe’s ministry. And although some of the institute’s teachers and their classes led us to believe otherwise, Billy Joe himself always made clear that Christian ministry was for the people, not ourselves.

Billy Joe Daugherty, the Tulsa mega-church pastor, made the unlikeliest of activists for community service, but I think in a way that’s just what he was. He was so unlike most other pastors of churches that size (in my experience), or pastors who wanted their church to be that size. Sure, he and his wife had a TV show and big Easter and Christmas productions and a call-in prayer service, for which I occasionally served as a “prayer partner.” But he was not a loud man;  did not pontificate with extravagant lectures; did not sweat with holy insanity. But he would sweat alongside us fresh-out-of-high-school Bible students in the middle of an Oklahoma summer to help set up big tents and  feed the poor. And he shook hands. He looked people in the eye and tried to be as present as possible. He spoke gently of how God loves everybody…even the guy who punched him in the face during an altar call (who by the way was brought in on a bus)….

I have many memories of my five years in Tulsa, of both praying across the street from the Praying Hands and trying to vandalize them while attending ORU a couple years later. Some messed-up memories. Some jacked-up philosophy. But none of it was Billy Joe’s fault, I can tell you that. — I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that he filled in as interim president of ORU while Richard Roberts was recently ousted by scandal. Billy Joe just seemed a little out of place in that circle, although he had been part of it for decades. Anyway, he showed me that (some) big-name pastors have hearts too. Just because we see them on TV playing the roles of televangelists doesn’t necessarily mean they are all hypocritical or greedy.

I wish I could play the part of the bitter Christian-turned-agnostic here — that would go well with my black-sheep header image — but I’m trying to get beyond unhealthy negativity. Yes, I have issues with much of what most TV preachers say…but I’d rather not turn into that guy who has a habit of punching them in the face. And Billy Joe’s life gives me hope.

So Billy Joe faded out with 2009, suddenly falling prey to cancer. I had spoken with him on occasion years ago while in Bible school, but I didn’t know him well. But from my times around him, I know he had a good soul. Today, this helps me remember to try not to be too hard on (some) big-name pastors. Just because they’re on TV doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Yes…I think some of them have some major issues and some have hurt a lot of people and I’d better stop now or I’ll get worked up. But they are people too. Maybe not like Billy Joe, but they are people. And if I’m as open-minded and as tolerant as I would want them to be toward me, I will assume that they are trying to help more than they hurt. And I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for giving us hope for preachers, Billy Joe.