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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Abandoning the Suit and Tie

I think I’m going to stop wearing a suit and tie to church on Sunday mornings.

Most people who live around the church I pastor don’t wear business suits or ties on a daily basis, so why should they be expected to dress like that for worship? 

I was raised to dress up for church, and so were most of the people who attended Zion Hill when I arrived. We always say “come as you are,” but on any given Sunday, almost everyone in the house will be decked out in their “Sunday best.”

In fact, I think it would make your typical dyed-in-the-wool Baptist uncomfortable to come to church on a Sunday morning in jeans and a T-shirt.

At the same time, I think it would make a typical Los Angeles resident uncomfortable to put on a suit and tie just to come to church.

So, with all other aspects of worship remaining the same, which one makes more sense: Encouraging seekers and guests to dress up in order to fit in, even if it makes them uncomfortable? Or, encouraging church members to dress down so that seekers and guests (and many members) can feel more comfortable?

I can say “come as you are” till the cows come home, but the best way to dress the culture of a church down is for the pastor to start dressing down.

This is actually a pretty big deal for me. I remember trying to wear one of my Parker Lewis rayon shirts to church in junior high and my father explicitly telling me that “we always wear ties to church.” I see where he was coming from, and it happened to be just the discipline I needed at that point. But if dressing up stops people from coming to Christ, dressing up is a sin.

My 10 Favorite Ben Franklin Quotes

I was chatting with a friend today. In the course of our conversation, I heard myself tell him, “Ben Franklin said, ‘alcohol does not drown sorrows, but waters them, and helps them grow.'” He said Franklin was a genius.

Of course he was a genius. They don’t put you on the hundred-dollar bill for being average.

"...on the low from the Jake in the Taurus..."

"...on the low from the Jake in the Taurus..."

Without Franklin’s life and contributions,  the United States would not be as great a nation as it has been and is. I can’t think of another individual for whom that statement is more true. Here are 10 of my favorite BF quotes:

1. He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.

2. He that would live in peace and at ease, must not speak all he knows nor judge all he sees.

3. How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, his precepts! O! ’tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments.

4. If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.

5. Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

6. To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.

7. Force shites on reason’s back.

8. To find out a girl’s faults, praise her to her girl friends.

9. When in doubt, don’t.

10. We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.

My man.

NOTHING Shall Be Imposible

Luke 1:37 says, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible.”

If you take a look through the Good Book, you will see that there is biblical precedent for a lot of supernatural activity. There’s dream interpretation, people making prophecies about the future, healing by the laying on of hands, humans speaking to angels, animals speaking to people, people being raised from the dead–all these miraculous and improbable things happen in the Bible.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. In fact, I figure that since God is all-powerful, all of these things and more are possible, and most Christians agree with me.

dream_of_joseph_champaigneWhat gets me is the way many believers will accept something like dream interpretation because it’s in the Bible, yet completely reject other divine arts like palm reading or horoscopes because they are not in the Bible.

If there’s any kind of wisdom to be gained, help to be given, or knowledge to be revealed, musn’t God somehow be in the mix? I’m talking specifically about things like astrology, palm reading, astral projection, and numerology.

If I’m being a good Christian, I am always seeking Christ and his righteousness first. But there is so much in the world that we can learn about. For example, to my knowledge, algebra is not in the Bible. Still, I’m glad I learned about it because it helps me interpret my surroundings that much better. I don’t think it’s blasphemous to learn about any of the academic disciplines or the arts.

So why are compassionate, wise astrologers often considered anti-Christian? God made the stars and planets, the astrologers are just observing them. It seems like if dream interpretation and healing by touch are OK, and if the wise men followed a star to find Jesus, then astrology is probably all right as well. And that would open the door to a lot of other spiritual disciplines, some of which are not mentioned specifically in the Bible.

I realize I will probably be getting myself into some trouble with some Christians here. Being dedicated to Christ is vital. But being afraid of things we don’t understand just won’t cut it.

You Are The Light of the World

“One life to live,
It’s so hard to be positive,
When niggas’ shooting at your crib.”

Tupac Shakur

Behold an unfortunate truth: in society, success and happiness are more the exception than the rule.

People feel flashes of inspiration, moments of peace, but then usually get sucked right back into the cypress swamp of pessimism, doom, and gloom. They spend most of their days feeling largely hopeless, then they die. 

Part of my life’s work is about reversing that trend. I do believe that in my lifetime, more and more people will develop a reliance on prayer, a Christ-consciousness, true self-esteem, peace of mind, and fulfillment of their purpose. If you have the slightest interest in my blog, you are on your way, even though it may feel like you are swimming against a strong current of negativity sometimes.

My advice to you is to not give in to all the negativity. Know that some people will smirk when they find out you are repeating positive affirmations to yourself. They will try to argue with you when you tell them you pray. If you decide not to seek revenge, they will tell you you’re weak, and it might get to you a little from time to time. If you dare exert some self-control, they will laugh in your face.

 Yes, it’s a challenge to maintain optimism and remain on the righteous path when 98% of the people you know don’t follow it, but the alternative is to slip back into the very darkness you want to claw out of. Stay strong, because the fact is, all of those petty, cynical people actually need your shining example. They still don’t believe that great things are possible for their lives, but you do, and you have to live like it.

Call or email someone today and give them some encouragement. Yes, they will wonder what the catch is. Yes, they will think it’s weird. It is weird, but only because people don’t encourage one another enough. Sure, it’s unusual, but so are success and happiness. Unusual is not always bad.

Read The Barbarian Way by Erwin McManus

Erwin McManus believes that organized Christianity is preventing people from learning about Christ. However paradoxical it sounds, most of us who have gone (or stopped going) to church must concede that he has a point.

McManus came to Christ as a young adult on his own. Instead of being raised and indoctrinated in the church, he was drawn in by the radical love, wisdom, courage, and limitless possibilities that Jesus embodies. But, when he began to socialize with Christians, he found that too often, these things took a back seat to the programming and politics of the church as an institution.

What I loved most about this book is the reminder that it is all right to be yourself as you follow Christ. We can’t let the morays of the “religious club” dictate the direction of our spiritual walk. There is no right way to sing or to serve except the way you feel moved to do so. The author is not disrespectful of church or God–he is simply in favor of letting church be spirit-led instead of allowing an artificial culture to develop and coercing others to buy in.

This book was another reminder not to listen too much to what others are saying. That is always a tough balance to strike, especially for a religious leader. I know the importance of seeking advice, listening to elders, etc. Still, a lot of my vision for Zion Hill and greater Christendom involves things that have never been done before–radical things that I can’t let people talk me out of trying.

If you long for a deeper relationship with Christ that allows you to be yourself, read “The Barbarian Way” by Erwin McManus. But even if you don’t get around to it, just remember that your personal relationship with God is unique and it will take you to some places that seem crazy at times. Don’t be afraid, and don’t fall back in to group-think. If, after praying and weighing all options and advice, you feel compelled to do a particular thing, do it. No one can promise you that you’ll succeed every time or even that you won’t feel any pain. But, as you continue to move according to God’s purpose, things will ultimately work out for the best. Keep the faith.

You Can Be The Best If You Want

If you want to, you can be the best in the world at something. Everyone is born with talent and potential, it’s just a matter of using it.

I can’t tell you what your talent is. I don’t know what the thing you were born to excel in is, but I can tell you that it probably isn’t golf.

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Golf is taken for now. But don’t worry, that just helps you to narrow it down.

What do you like to do? What do you want to do? It’s possible for you to not only do it, but to make a living at it and be one of the best. The first step is deciding what you will do. I for one, would like to be one of the top preachers in the country. I don’t really aim to be better than all the rest, because it’s not a competition. But I do want to be in demand, connect with people, hold their attention like no one else can, make them laugh and think, and lead as many of them as possible toward a personal relationship with Christ and spiritual fulfillment. Plus, I love shouting at people when what I’m saying is right, and not many jobs afford you that opportunity.

Doing that makes me happy, even though doing it well requires a lot of work. But since I enjoy it, I almost always enjoy the work involved. Even on vacation, I can read books, meditate, take notes, let my imagination run wild, and continue to hone my craft.

The world is moving to a place where more and more of us will be working from our deep purposes. If you love painting murals but find yourself toiling in a factory, for example, the day is coming when you will be able to quit your job and paint, if you want.