I was born to preach the Gospel; to show other people that we are all loving brothers and sisters with unlimited potential in God. Sounds easy enough, satisfying enough; but for whatever reason people have doubted my call from my first acceptance of it up until today. Just a bit of what I’ve heard in the last 12 years from family and church folks:
“You can’t preach. You haven’t been through anything, you got no story. What are you going to preach about? How your daddy bought you a new car while you were getting Cs in college? God is good!”
“You like Buddhism and all that other stuff. I seriously question your commitment to Christ.”
“I knew a pastor who accepted the gays–turns out he was gay. Are you gay? No? Hey, just asking, heh heh. You did go to Morehouse.”
“I can’t imagine you preaching. You’d make a good surgeon though, have you thought about that?”
“Everyone knows Freemasons worship the devil.”
“I saw some of the stuff on your blog, and frankly it concerns me.”
And my all-time favorite:
“You ain’t no preacher! Every black man who doesn’t have a job thinks he’s a preacher!”
With church, family, and friends like that, who needs enemies?
I’d like to think I didn’t ask for this. I remember being 5 and meeting a Franciscan friar in his brown robe. I understood that he worked for God, and that had to be a good way to go. He seemed peaceful, but I knew even then I could never be a monk, no matter how cool they sometimes make it look.
I was baptized at the age of six– Baptist born, Baptist bred. I could recite scriptures, I could pray publicly -seemed like we all could. When I was 8 there was this high school boy at our church. One day, the pastor announced that the young man was going to be a preacher. The congregation was so proud. The pastor handed him a stack of books and he nearly folded under the weight of them, all to big laughs and applause. “Kind of presumptuous, isn’t he?” My young mind concluded. “How could anyone–especially a kid, really claim to hear from and speak for God? I’ve never heard from God. Kind of cool that he gets to sit next to the pastor though…Just holding all those books makes him look smart….I wonder if he’ll really read them and how long it will take….”
Church was a big part of my life growing up. Choir rehearsal, youth group, Sunday mornings: church was probably my main extracurricular activity through high school, though there were others.
By college I’d developed a resentment for the Bible and church. Oh I attended regularly freshman year–seemed like a good thing to do far from home, it felt familiar, if not completely essential at the time. When I came home from my first year of college, my parents insisted I get a job. I saw an ad: “$400 a week guaranteed.” Not bad for the 1990s with no college degree. Turns out it was selling Kirby Vacuum Cleaners–they cost about $1500 back then. Sales. I learned a lot of the secrets to sales success that summer. Think Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie. If you don’t know who they are, just think of achieving everything you want out of life while maintaining your integrity. Sales gets a bad rap as being an industry full of scheisters.
But the principles Zig was teaching made a lot of sense against in light of all the Scripture put in my head growing up.
“A positive attitude, may not get you everything, but it will always get you more than a negative one.”
“Smiles are contagious.”
“You’re the only thing blocking your success.”
“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
“Everyone takes you more seriously when you wear a tie, even you.”
“We’re not here to make a lot of money, we’re here to help people…help people and you can make a lot of money.”
Sales has everything to do with faith. I learned how to visualize success–how to turn nothing into something. I had reasonable success as a Kirby dealer; some of the people in the office saw my knack for it and told me I was a fool for going back to college. Stick with them and I could be a millionaire in 10 years. My boss was 27 and making six figures.
I came back to school truly inspired to succeed. I set some goals, and my grades shot all the way up. One class in particular really shaped my belief system. Theories of Personality with Allen Carter. Every class, he strutted in to the room and wrote on the board: “WHAT IS THE BASIS OF YOUR IDENTITY?” He used to spend entire class sessions not dealing with the syllabus material, but ranting about how life is just a game we play; how fear, anger, and guilt control us; how there’s a difference between what is and our view of what is; he talked a lot about “Rev. Jebedizah,” his representation of the hypocritical church. Here’s what got me on the first day when one poor student told him the basis of his identity was being a Christian: “All of you following Rev. Jebedizah, telling you that if you don’t follow God’s rules, God will send you to hell. F@#k God if God hates me enough to send me to hell.”
F@#k God?! I really did back away from him out of fear he’d be struck down. I always thought he was bitter about something that happened to him at church in his youth. He turned us on to The Celestine Prophecy and A Course in Miracles. Here’s this psychotherapist, he helps people, his philosophy was unconditional love–why such a chip on his shoulder about religion? When I told my mom about the mind-blowing class, she brushed it off: “Psychologists are all crazy.”
I started hanging out with the young preachers on campus. There are always a few dozen aspiring clergypeople at Morehouse and Spelman. We didn’t all automatically get along, but there was a community. I liked to talk theology with them, but I didn’t consider myself “one of those guys who wants to be a preacher or pastor.” Silly looking back on it, thinking I could play with fire but not get burned.
Finished undergrad and when I walked across the stage, I had no idea what was next. Right around that time, a lot of strangers and friends began making references to me being a minister. Sometimes as a joke, sometimes by “mistake”–one time a pastor I’d never met started prophesying over me in a grocery store: “you’re a powerful Gospel preacher and you don’t even know it!”
One night that summer, I was alone reading “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. It was an old, tattered copy that belonged to my childhood pastor. His widow gave it to me, and I still cherish it. Anyway, I was up reading it, and it felt like the spirit of that pastor (he’d been dead 10 years) came into the room. It told me “preach.”
I said “OK.”
Fast forward one year. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer in Haiti. I knew the preaching thing was somewhere deep down, but I was 23, single, not so hard on the eyes, and the volunteer culture was like a perpetual Spring Break in the Caribbean. In the midst of those hedonistic Peace Corps days, I started attending a Pentecostal church. I was drawn in by the electric guitar–you could hear it way down the street. I used to sit in the back, but they seemed fascinated by the black American, and maybe I enjoyed the attention. Soon enough they asked me to sit up on the rostrum. “But I’m not a preacher or anything.” Oh, just come on. I guessed it was because I was American–like a dignitary or something, not realizing they saw something and I was the last to know.
Then the pastor and 3 or 4 other ministers at the church in Haiti invited me to a meeting. They had a copy of “The Prayer of Jabez,” a very powerful short Christian book, but their copy was in English. Could I tell them what it says in Haitian? No problem. About two chapters in to interpreting the words of the book into Haitian, all the ministers remarked: wow, this is deep. You should preach at our church sometime! “No, I’m just reading the words out of the book. It’s Bruce Wilkinson who’s deep.” Another chapter: man, this is great–you’re really going to have to preach for us one day. “I’m just translating. I can’t preach, really.” Another chapter: Man, this is good stuff. We’ve decided you’re going to preach on the 4th Sunday in January.
That first sermon was on a Sunday night. I prepared like a mad man for weeks. When the time came, I mounted the pulpit with a French Bible, a Haitian Bible, an English Bible, and several pages of notes spread across the podium. I was too nervous to focus on any of it other than some of the notes. The congregation saw this American up there with all these books and I think they were expecting something special to happen. I didn’t die; but it wasn’t much more special than that. L’Eglise Du Dieu Vivant (Church of the Living God) graciously let me preach a couple times a month over the next year and a half. They had 5 or 6 services a week to fill, so me being a willing and modestly able preacher was a win-win.
That was around the same time I decided to apply to seminary. Even though I loved preaching by then, I somehow still told myself I didn’t want to be a pastor. Harvard Divinity School sent me a beautiful rejection letter. (Did I mention the Cs in college?) I somehow got in to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, the oldest independent seminary in the nation–great school, great reputation, top-notch faculty. Why did they take me? They seemed very impressed with my Peace Corps service. Also,
they were in serious financial trouble at the time, and I’m pretty sure they accepted everyone with a pulse that year to get their numbers up. God was in the mix and it was meant to be.
There are several highlights from my time at Union: There were the theological crises: times when my intellectual doubt far outstripped my faith, only for my faith to grow back stronger than before. There were the study trips to Brazil and Bolivia; all the great books; my 3 year stand up comedy career; Shiloh Baptist Church in Harlem where Pastor Calvin Sampson taught me about combining “the learning and the burning”; best of all, I met Isis at Union. She just kind of fell in my lap one day, lucky duck that I am. We met on my parents 35th wedding anniversary and got married less than a year later.
Shiloh Baptist was good to me for a while. Rev. Sampson let me preach my trial sermon May 30, 2004. I came from Ephesians 2:14, preaching about how Christ has destroyed the barriers of hostility between us; he has made the two one. Home run!
That was some years ago, and my call is still evolving. “Think And Grow Rich” (a very spiritual book) says we have to identify our definite chief aim in life. Mine is “to show each other our loving and limitless nature.” I haven’t always lived up to that, but that’s my calling. I love preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. I love calling people on their birthdays and letting kids beat me up and arguing scripture and resolving conflicts and singing loud and cracking jokes during wedding ceremonies and having my phone ring around the clock; I even love funerals. Despite accomplishing my aim in some very demonstrable ways, sometimes I feel my call is still doubted. Like I don’t get the respect I deserve–don’t they understand who sent me and what I’m trying to do?
But there’s no room for blame in this game. People don’t always get me–I don’t always get me. I just feel fortunate to know what my life is for, and that I’ve helped a few people discover what they’re here for as well.
Onward and upward, Beloved.