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.

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…

Butt Dialing God

“…pray continually…”
–I Thessalonians 5:17

You ever butt dialed someone before? You know, your phone is in your pocket or purse, and somehow, you call someone by accident. You didn’t realize you called them. More importantly, you have no idea that they are listening to your current conversation. Friendships have been ruined over this phenomenon.

I think we’ve all been guilty of butt dialing God. No matter how much or how little you pray, there are still moments most days where you are living life, times you’re just having a conversation, or losing your temper, or sneaking around trying to get away with something, and you’re not really not praying in those moments.

Except you are. If the person you just butt dialed hears you say something incriminating, you can’t go back later and say you didn’t really mean it. They caught you in a total moment of candor.

Similarly, even though you usually only talk to God with head bowed and eyes closed, anything you say over drinks, in your sleep, or in the heat of passion, God hears that too. And even though it’s kind of like you butt dialed instead of calling intentionally, you’re still making the bed you’ll have to lie in later. You can’t go back and tell God, “that’s not really who I am.”

“Every word is a prayer,
So in life’s small matters
Be greatly aware!”
-SWP

 

Playing Church

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for to humble oneself? Is that what you call a day acceptable to the LORD?” Isaiah 58:5

One of the best parts about being a kid is that you can play all sorts of make-believe games. You can play army, play doctor, play house…you can even play church.

You ever seen kids play church? One gets to be the preacher, jumping up and down, shouting hellfire and damnation. He or she may even put a bathrobe on for effect. The congregation has their fans, their costume jewelry, they’re pretending to catch the Holy Ghost–just a bunch of immature kids horsing around.

clown church

Hate to say it, but in many of today’s churches, the commitment to discipleship and sincerity of worship isn’t much more sincere than it is for those kids playing church.

Like the Israelites in Isaiah, most churchgoers know God has been good to them, but we want to know why God hasn’t been great to us. Yes, the basic necessities are covered, but what about, the desires, the ambitions, the dreams, all of the great victory that is supposed to come with following Jesus? When do we get some of that? Many Christians wonder.

With anything, we get out what we put in. A lot of church folk serve our time on Sundays, then go about being their our true selves during the rest of the week. Sunday is only 14.3% of a week. If we’re spending that much time focusing on holiness, wisdom, love, and self-control, and the other 85.7% of our lives in darkness, is it any wonder why we are where we are.

This may not apply to everyone, but almost everyone who goes to church has “played church” at one time or another.

True worship, Isaiah teaches, is not about form. It’s about making a difference in people’s lives. Yes that means feeding the hungry and fighting for equal rights, but “freeing the oppressed” is also about letting go of grudges and hatred and resentment, because feeling those feelings towards others holds us back as well.

Some of us are looking up in the sky trying to figure out if God is for real. Meanwhile, God may be looking down on us trying to figure out if we’re for real.

Flashes of Greatness

There’s a certain NBA player who is extremely skilled, but I just can’t bring myself to be his fan because I get the feeling he is an underachiever.

He has always had solid statistics, but one night early in his career, he exploded for 37 points, and also had highs in rebounds and steals, leading his team to a hard-fought victory. As soon as the game was over, he turned to his coach and told him: “Do NOT expect that kind of performance from me every night!”

We all have flashes of greatness from time to time. The unfortunate thing is that we are satisfied with the rare flash. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” we figure. Sometimes, we just get lucky, but those rare moments of excellence and genius can’t be duplicated regularly, can they?

“I’m glad you liked my article, but I couldn’t possibly write one every week.”

“Please don’t ask me to dance.”

“Last month’s sales were abnormally high, but now it’s back to normal.”

“Remember that poem I wrote back in `94. Talk about inspired!”

“Sure I did it once, but all the planets were aligned or something. Trust me, I suck, and everyone who knows me knows it’s true.”

Nelson Mandela says we are more afraid of success than we are of failure. The flash of greatness is not supposed to be a fleeting moment of satisfaction in an otherwise crappy existence. It comes to show you what you truly are capable of. 

The next time serendipity allows you to exceed your own expectations, do everything you can to keep the ball rolling.

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.

Less Seth More God

Right before I preach, I usually offer up some sort of prayer asking God to move me out of the way and preach the sermon through  me.

I asked to be moved out of the way because the best sermons are the ones when people truly receive a word from God, not a person. Something powerful and fresh, something that each individual feels is just for them. A message that will resonate with them for months and years to come and change their lives for the better.

Since I can’t possibly write and deliver anything that magnificent on my own, I pray a lot during the sermon writing process. Then, just as I’m about to preach, I throw up one last prayer: “God, let me decrease so that you may increase.”

I gotta tell ya, that prayer really works. When you sincerely pray to have your ego, your pride, your crude sense of humor, your fear, and your unworthiness pushed aside and replaced by God’s wisdom and power, some amazing things can happen.

Then I realized, this prayer is too good to only use at the preaching moment. Why not use it all the time? Headed into a meeting? “God, move me out of the way so that I can listen and speak with your wisdom.” Feel an argument coming on? “God, fight this battle for me, because I like to fight dirty, and without you, I will only make matters worse.”

There is a small, dense, profound book called Light on the Path by Mabel Collins that perhaps says it best:

“Stand aside in the coming battle, and though thou fightest be not thou the warrior.”