My Call to Preach

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.

Franciscan-Road

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.

SleazySalesman_iStock

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.

“OK.”

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.

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It Was An Accident

When you reach for a knife to cut the potatoes, be sure you’re in the right spiritual frame of mind. Picking up a knife to cut the potatoes is routine enough. But if you’re angry or distracted or guilty because you’re not supposed to be eating potatoes, unless you’re extra careful, you’re more likely to have an accident. Same goes for reaching for a glass of grape juice or holding someone over a ledge as a joke. Regular, everyday routines can turn ugly quick with the wrong frame of mind.

I’m working on thinking positive and staying attentive to the present moment. That’s where the miracles are.

Philippians 4:4 “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whtever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

 

Five Years

There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Answer these questions for yourself–here are my answers:

What would you say to the person you were five years ago?

“No matter how audacious the 5 year plan you come up with, you’ll pretty much achieve it. And if you have little or no plan, you’ll achieve little or nothing. Either way, there’s no telling how hard it will be.”

What will you say to the person you’ll be in five years?

“You are the man in your own little world and all of that, but PLEASE be extra-vigilant about the traps of money, power and sex.”

#trust30

You Know Where God Is

God is everywhere if God is anywhere.

God is in the bed room while you’re having sex.

God is present with every person on every airplane all day and all night.

God is watching the NBA Finals very closely.

God hears the prayers of  your worst political enemies and your closest family.

God is as big as all the supernovas and constellations and shooting stars that stretch out for billions of light years and beyond; and bigger still.

God is active and alive in Hinduism (and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Voodoo, and 10,000 other places). 

The power and knowledge of God are alive and active and available to all who follow Christ.

God is everywhere. If you don’t believe in God and you don’t like what I’m saying, no problem.

The Gay Question

#Trust30 asked me:

What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family? What inspires this belief, and what have you done to actively live it?

I believe loving, committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and receive full rights before church and state.

The Institution of Marriage, in its truest essence, does not need to be defended nor can it be, really, so why try?

It is possible to be Christian and gay at the same time. This fact has been well-documented. So if you’re allowed to be a member of the church while being gay, shouldn’t the church affirm mature gay Christians who want to have a church wedding?

Some choose to biblically prove homosexuality is a sin. Fine if you see it that way. Jesus said it’s the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy. Truth is, we’ll all sinners, anyway. As a pastor, my business model does not allow for me to exclude people just because they live in a particular sin.

My parents, my brother, the clergy in my cell phone contacts, influential people in my congregation, local civic leaders–these are the people who essentially all disagree with me on this point.

The debate around “gay question” is religious, political, and personal–wait, aren’t those the 3 things you’re never supposed to talk about?

So far, all I’ve done about this conviction of mine is write a handful of blog posts, you can search them on the blog. But lately, I’ve been feeling led to really take a stand–that would start with joining the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Whole lotta people close to me won’t like that….

 

If I Had 15 Minutes to Live….

If I had 15 minutes to live, I would probably get as close to my wife and kids as possible. But besides that, I think it would be good to try and write something down for the world. It would go a little something like this:

There are absolutely no limits in life. Wherever you aim is pretty much where you end up. I managed to accomplish some good things in a relatively short life. At the top of that list is leading and inspiring other people to have a closer relationship with Christ/deeper sense of spirituality, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve achieved more than the average person I guess, but so much less than so many of the greats. I always knew I was capable of more, but it was like I was waiting for the next level to come to me–waiting until I got tired enough of my current situation that I had no choice but to change. That works; anger, pain, and dissatisfaction are probably our strongest motivators. But if I could leave people with something, I’d tell them there’s no reason to wait until you’re diagnosed with diabetes or about to get divorced or running from creditors for years before you decide to make a change. In fact, the sooner you start, the easier it will be. For example, I’ve told myself  for the last 3 years that by the time I was 50 or 60, I wanted to be considered in the conversation as one of the best preachers of my generation. I assumed I had 20 years to get there, but if I had known that today was the end, I admit, I would have worked a lot harder to get more exposure and to sharpen my skills.

On another note….

Since I’m about to die and don’t have to put up with so-called Christians anymore, I want all the truly spiritual people (and that’s everyone, by the way) to know that the religions of the world are teaching us essentially the same lessons–love, unity, self-control, peace, joy, faith…. A religion is something that people create in order to get closer to God. If someone wants to get closer to God in a way that you’re not culturally or doctrinally used to, that doesn’t make it wrong. I have learned a lot from Buddhist and Hindu writers in particular–things that are right in line with the Gospel. Don’t ever let anyone limit your definition of or understanding of God, because they will limit your understanding of yourself at the same time.

Time’s up…

Could I Funeralize an Atheist?

Officiated a funeral today. It was good by most standards: 84 year old woman, been in church since she was six, plenty of singing. My sermon was about how she was the glue that held the family together, but since she’s gone, it’s “Time to Step Up” (see II Timothy 4:6-8). Another lady accepted Christ afterwards and I’ll baptize her in 3 weeks as a result of my efforts and the Spirit’s movement.

Eulogies are never easy, but this one was about as easy as it gets considering I never met the deceased. She was a Christian, so I and others definitely talked about how we should be celebrating her transition.

Then that got me to thinking: how would I funeralize an atheist I didn’t know? Atheists deserve to be buried with dignity and have good words spoken over them, too. But no gospel? No using the person’s life as a catalyst to lead others to Christ? No rhetorical flourishes about “looking down from the balconies of heaven?” What would I say? What would we sing?

I guess I’d figure something out, but I really never thought about it before.