Tuesday, March 22, 2016

God Is not a Gumball Machine...

I wanted to share some things that I learned from Kate Bowler's book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. She studied the Prosperity movement for 8 years and wrote her book for her doctoral dissertation. The book is good but because it is her dissertation, it's a bit dry in places and somewhat repetitive as she covers all bases with various groups in each chapter. But it's still surprisingly readable - I really enjoyed it.

The study, as she put it, was not just academic for her because she was chronically ill during the last years of her research. Then, after her book was published and her health had improved, she was suddenly diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She is about 34; she and her husband have a toddler.

I learned about her through her blog entry called, "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me." And I really respected her for her honesty in that article. It was short but had a huge impact on me.

One of the things that really stood out to me from her book was about how the Prosperity movement started. It apparently began as sort of a mish-mash of Eastern mysticism, positive thinking, and cherry-picked Scriptures, among other things.

What really caught my attention is that during its formative years, leaders began to delve into the names of God, delineating Hebrew names such as "Jehovah-Jireh", "Jehovah-Rapha", etc. There's nothing wrong with looking at the names of God in either Hebrew, Greek, English, or whatever. It's good to know and think about the attributes of God.

But they specifically wanted to know these names so that they would know what "buttons" (i.e., names) to push in order to get what they wanted. And that's why they began to search out the hyphenated Jehovah names.

Basically they taught that if you called on God as JEhovah-Rapha, then he had to heal you. IF you called on God as Jehovah-JIreh, then He had to fork over money or some type of material blessing. When put that way it sounds kind of crass. So I need to say that's not the terminology Kate used; it's mine....

The hard core prosperity preachers saw salvation as a legal contract that included forgiveness of sin, instantaneous sanctification, restored dominion over life and death (back to Adam and Eve before the Fall), physical healing, and material blessing.

They saw this contract as legally binding on God. If you were saved, then He HAD to heal you; He HAD to give you your requisite number of years on earth; He HAD to bless your socks off with material wealth; and He HAD to give you deliverance from any trials life might try to throw your way.

The power of positive thinking strand in all this eventually morphed into: if you say something negative such as "my cancer is not responding to treatment" or "I'm having a lot of pain" - then you lost your contractual right to healing. By your spoken words you are healed and vice versa.

She emphasized that there are a lot of variants on the prosperity Gospel movement - not everyone believes the same things. In looking for the good in the movement, she said that they do get people to work hard and they excel at having faith. The unpleasant secret within the movement is that people often feel isolated and judged when they are sick or in trouble. Essentially, when they experience their greatest need, the church is uncomfortable with them.

She said that the prosperity Gospel measures their faith and spirituality by external things which keeps the believers on a treadmill of "try harder." And that basically they are working from their desires backwards to God whereas, as a Christian, she feels we should start with God's desires and work backward to ourselves.

In her blog she said that she knew her friends and acquaintances in the prosperity Gospel would say that she lacked faith and that was why she was suddenly very ill. Some "hard" prosperity Gospel people would attribute her illness to some sin she had knowingly or unknowingly committed. Most would reason that it could never be God's will for a toddler to grow up without his mother - that the death of a mother of a young child would violate Romans 8:28 - therefore it was clearly not God's will for her to die young.

But since she was not God, she couldn't honestly say that it was best for her toddler to grow up with a mother. Because, unlike God, she could not see the end from the beginning.

I apologize for this being so long. Right after I read Kate's book, my study group started a book by an evangelical Bible teacher on the names of God. (Now my church is getting ready to start a similar study by a different evangelical Bible teacher.)

KNowing that the "names" studies - which have a lot of good in them- originated with not-so-good-scholars, some of whom lacked integrity - and was for the primary purpose of knowing how we could turn God into a gumball machine - that knowledge has kind of put a "brake" on my thinking as I've gone through this study.

It seems to me that studying the names of God - in any language - is like standing on a grassy plain that has a sudden drop off. As long as my motive is to know God's attributes so that I can worship Him better, it's all good. Even taking comfort as I call on God by different names and titles, reminding myself of what He can do, that is good too. Last night I fell asleep running the attributes of God through my mind and this morning I woke up with His names and titles still on my mind. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

But emphasizing His names (and/or how they are pronounced) so that I can demand blessings, favor, and rewards now and in the Millennium- to me that is when you have stepped off the grassy plain and will eventually find yourself struggling to get back on solid footing.

I think a lot about the ten Boom family. Corrie and Betsie were both ill in Ravensbruck. They both were severely underweight. Betsie had a heart condition; Corrie had edema. They were both healed.

Corrie spent some time in the camp infirmary before she was released - they wouldn't let her go until her swelling went down (because it made the camps look bad to release obviously ill people). Even though the infirmary was far from wonderful, she did get well enough to be released.

Betsie died in the camp. Her healing came in Heaven. Of the two women, Betsie had far more faith than Corrie did.

Finally, recently I heard an interview with Miss Hellen Roseveare, a missionary doctor to the Congo in the 1960's. For five months she and others were held prisoners by some very brutal rebel soldiers. She was severely beaten (her back teeth were kicked in) and she was raped twice during those months. AFter she was rescued and returned to the U.K.,sometimes people would come up to her and say, "Why did God rescue some of you but let this poor English boy die over there? Why wasn't He good to these others too? Why did He let them die???"

She said that she and others who had been rescued would look at people like that and think something along the lines of: are you serious?? The ones who were shot were the fortunate ones!! We are still living in pain!!

In fact, right before the first rape, a soldier put a gun to her forehead and told her to proclaim their patron saint as the savior of the world. She said she didn't even have to think about it; she knew that was not right and that Jesus was the only Savior the world has. So she just blurted out that she could not say that because it wasn't true and that man could only be saved by Jesus.

At that point, being a doctor, she hoped that the soldier would go ahead and shoot her in the head because it would be clean and quick and she knew that if he didn't, what would follow would be savage, humiliating, and hard to recover from. And it was.

God is not a gumball machine. We don't know the earthly end from the beginning in our individual stories and the stories of those around us. His names are wonderful ways of worshiping Him, reminding ourselves of His attributes. But they aren't buttons we can push on demand. Or say correctly with the certainty that we'll be rewarded for how we say it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Here's to Beverly Carter....

A few months ago I listened several times to a radio drama put on by Focus on the Family. Essentially, it is the story of a former detective who had a disastrous case many years earlier. A case of a runaway teen who committed suicide before the detective could rescue her.
The drama opens with the detective getting a bizarre call while he's on a talk show. The caller brings up the death of Patricia, now just a closed missing juvenile case in some dusty police records but still very much alive to the former detective-turned- Anglican-priest.
Then the eerie caller says (using a smarmy, falsely jovial voice), "It's deja vu aaaalllll over again... " And it is. The detective-turned-priest learns that another teen-age girl has run away under circumstances that are almost exactly like Patricia's. How weird is that?
As the story unfolds, the nasty caller continues to "check in" with the priest at unexpected times, taunting him, goading him, teasing him, tormenting him.
Because it is a radio drama - as opposed to real life - the priest is able to find the current runaway just in the nick of time and the story ends.
Except not quite...
When the weary priest returns home, adrenaline depleted, soul weary -strange things begin to happen. The caller's voice begins to ring out through his house, describing the futility of what the frantic priest tries to do. The priest runs to the phone and the oily, unseen voice gloats: it won't help you to try to call anyone... the phone isn't working... You are aallll alone...
After a few frantic moments of trying to get to a place of safety, the priest finds himself caught in a surreal sort of evil supernatural surround sound system, while his unseen nemesis' voice becomes harsher and louder until unbearable accusations are reverberating all around the beleaguered priest.
Finally the priest begins to shout the words of the Lord's prayer and the evil voice is vanquished.
Sound hokey?
It did to me too the first time I heard it. But after tangling with someone who can only be described as evil, it didn't sound so cheesy to me the second time around.
On the second go round, something stood out to me that I'd never picked up on before. At the height of this supernatural battle between pure evil and frail, faulty, frightened humanity, the Adversary's voice crescendos until he finally blurts out his real goal - which is nothing short of destroying the human soul. He was never really fixated on the physical death of the teen-age girls - as he puts it, hurting the body is mere child's play; instead his eye was on the ultimate prize which was nothing less than the priest's soul. If he could hold the Father's head, so to speak, under the waters of bitterness, self-loathing, unforgiveness, and hatred long enough, then the priest would lose his love for God and his capacity to love mankind as well. Evil would win.
Which brings me to the real point of this seemingly pointless blog: this week we had a rather sensational murder trial going on in our city. If ever there was a show down between good and evil, I think this was it.
No wicked, taunting voices emanating from an unseen source filled the courtroom, but, still, evil personified in human form was there none the less. Unbridled arrogance, vicious slander, and atrocious poor-me-I-can't-get-justice rants were lobbed around in probably the most stately building in this area, a bastion of marble and stone which has symbolized justice for me as long as I can remember. An august place that even when trimmed with CHristmas decorations still sobers me each time I enter it.
Guilty of a horrendous kidnapping and murder, a narcissist of the first water took the stand Friday and tried to hoodwink justice, the public, and even the handful of people who might have felt some semblance of loyalty to him. IF there was anyone he didn't throw under the bus in a futile effort to save his own skin from a life sentence, I don't know who it would have been.
But this is the deal: over 50 years of her life, the victim - Beverly Carter - did well. She overcame obstacles I couldn't have; she triumphed in that she held steady, kept on keeping on, and obviously brought a lot of life, love, and laughter to others. Her smile pretty much says it all.
What she suffered in the last 24 hours of her life is horrible and I cringe when I think of it. IN fact, I could hardly bear to read about it. Definitely, I don't want to minimize her terror and anguish in any way at all. She suffered horribly for the last 24 hours of her life.
However, when those few hours are juxtaposed against 50 years of living life and living it as well as I think anyone could - it's clear that the decades far outweigh the one day.
The truth is that her suffering was short lived. The truth is that she knew her Creator. The truth is that she suffered for a short time and then moved to another locality where evil is totally unknown. The truth is that she is living There right now, today.
The truth is that the big prize in all this as far as Evil is concerned (and I'm not talking about the human pawn - or should it be spawn? - who showed out in the courtroom yesterday before being justly sentenced to two consecutive life sentences) - as far as Evil is concerned, the real contest here is, I think, for the souls of Beverly Carter's friends and family.
It took 5 or 6 minutes to brutally snuff out Beverly's earthly existence. However, the mental replays of how she suffered can go on and on indefinitely in the imaginations of those left behind.
Plus, while the family was reeling from the senseless murder of Beverly, Evil threw in some of the most vicious lies I've ever heard in an effort to smear this woman who could not defend herself. (Can we say, "despicable"?) Kidnapped. Murdered. And then pilloried to a degree that boggles the imagination.
Enough to crush the heart and soul of anyone who loved her.
Yet, from what I've seen, it didn't happen.
Apparently Evil didn't win.
The family has grieved in untold ways and is still walking a hard road even as I write this. It's not over til it's over and part of this will never be over until they eventually move to Heaven to be with Beverly.
However, almost from the moment it was learned that Beverly's soul had flown to higher places, the family has worked hard at turning the worst lemons life can hand you into life giving lemonade for the many. They have been proactive in launching a campaign to prevent this type of thing from happening to other realtors. They have been gracious under intense pressure and scrutiny. And like their matriarch, they have somehow kept smiling, even through this awful trial this past week.
Could it be that they want justice but at the same time, they don't want to be overcome by evil themselves but rather they want to overcome evil with good?
Whatever their reasons, I hold the family in highest regard for the way they have handled this long ordeal in the public eye. They have done well, far better than I think most people would have done. The way I see it - Evil has deeply wounded them but it hasn't won- obviously Beverly Carter's family can still feel, live, love, laugh - and even show mercy - under the most difficult of circumstances.
When this story comes up in the collective psyches of all who have heard about it, the family hopes that the name of their loved one, Beverly Carter, will shine forth and that the notoriety of the one who murdered her will be obscured by the sands of time.
Amen and Amen...
Here's to a beautiful lady who stayed the course and in spite of the vicissitudes of everyday reality, by all accounts lived a good life. Her smile as well as her family testify to who she was ... and is.
Here's to Beverly Carter, someone I absolutely look forward to meeting when I transition to the only City which has foundations.
Beverly Carter - may her memory - as well as the good her family has tried to bring out of all this - live long in all our minds and hearts.
Here's to Beverly... heart emoticon