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Learning from David Wilkerson: A Reflective Moment

David Wilkerson died Wednesday in a tragic car wreck on a rural East Texas highway bridge. I wrote about this yesterday and have had more time to reflect on Reverend Wilkerson’s life and ministry and what struck me again and again as I read his blog posts and some of his books, was how he defied being put in a neat box.  It is a time for us to reflect on the life of the man and the content of his ministry so we might learn from him and serve God’s people.

If you cherry picked his writings you could paint a picture of him to make him in your own image. His theology was classic Pentecostalism and he was a Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist. These two pillars were foundational to his ministry. He was a young Pentecostal minister before Pentecostalism hit the mainstream and became a fashionable faith for well off political conservatives.  Pentecostalism began as a movement among the not so well to do back in the early part of the 20th Century. I think that gave David Wilkerson a heart to go into the slums of New York City and begin a ministry to gang members, drug abusers and prostitutes, people that most churches across the denomination spectrum of the day held in distain kind of like the religious crowd back in Jesus’ day.  He certainly didn’t go there for the money or for that matter with the goal of building a mega-church.  He went there because he heard about the violence and the suffering and he was used by God to change a lot of lives.  Likewise he never lost sight of that ministry but took it worldwide and then in the late 1980s when New York was in the tank awash in poverty crime and gang violence he went back. He took a former theater in Times Square which was the hub of all sorts of nastiness and planted a church there which is there to this day attracting a wide variety of parishioners and pilgrims.  By the church-growth school models it was not a smart move but he was obedient to the call that God had placed upon him two decades before.

His message was influenced by his Eschatology or belief in the End Times.  That message saturates his writings as he called people to be ready for the coming of the Lord, something that if I recall correctly is scriptural even if one does not embrace Wilkerson’s Dispensationalism as their eschatology. The Creed even says it “and he shall come again to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” Wilkerson was a Pentecostal in his understanding of this and also believed that God still speaks today and that the spiritual gift of prophecy was still operative in the church. In this he was not unique even if some of his warnings seemed overblown or did not take place.  However his messages were always full of sadness when he spoke of judgment and he obviously was not watching CNN on a daily basis to check out what changes he needed to make to his message to sell more books and tapes.  He was authentic and honest and the message that he preached came out of a heart that was broken for the people of the earth. Through his work with the least, the lost and the lonely he was very sensitive to injustice, greed and the cult of personality.  When he preached a message of impending judgment it was because he believed it and because like so many of the Biblical prophets, especially Jeremiah who he reminded me of.  One could disagree with his interpretation of the signs of the times but one could never doubt that he actually cared about those he was warning.

If that was all that you wanted to believe about him you could paint him as just another Fundamentalist preacher.  But he defied that label.  His work, preaching and life showed that he was a man who also embraced the call of Jesus to care for those who were not welcome in respectable circles making him somewhat of a social Gospel type as well. In his prophetic preaching he condemned the Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism and some of his harshest messages were to the financial elites especially the banking industry.

Another interesting thing about him was that as he grew in ministry he refused to judge or condemn individuals and unlike many popular preachers had friends who were homosexual.  He did not agree with their lifestyle and he was honest in what he believed about homosexuality when he dealt with them but he did not drive them away.  He hated what he believed were the sins of homosexuals but he actually had compassion for them and maintained friendships with homosexuals, in other words he hated what he believed to be their sin but loved them and had compassion for them.

Wilkerson held himself and others to very high standards of Christian conduct a direct outgrowth of Pentecostalism’s roots in the Holiness movement.  Again he wasn’t a hypocrite, in his writings he admitted his own struggles in regard to his faithfulness and what he believed were his own failings. When one reads his last several months of essays on his blog you see a man engaged in an intense personal spiritual struggle even as he sought to encourage others going through similar times.  His willingness to write about this was remarkable by present standards where so much allegedly Christian preaching is shallow and insipid pop-psychology covered with a veneer of Bible verses and baptized as “Christian teaching” by men and women that never admit their weakness or faults until a scandal erupts and they have to apologize.  His writings as I pointed out last night reminded me of Jeremiah the weeping prophet who undoubtedly suffered from severe depression and even a bit of Martin Luther who struggled with his own worthiness even as he proclaimed the message of being saved by grace through faith.

I think that we can really learn from David Wilkerson’s life without putting him on a pedestal and proclaiming him as some sort of extra-special Christian that he would tell us not to do.  He was not a man of pretense and if you read his writings there are in them a sense of humility and unworthiness that at times comes to the forefront.  I think we need to remember him as someone who was obedient and authentic in the way that he lived his life and conducted his ministry.  He didn’t seek out the approval of the rich or powerful and was not one who was a partisan political activist. Where he was politically active it was mostly at the local level in trying to help those without a voice.  He was not a pawn of either major political party. Liberals could agree with his messages against corporate greed while conservatives could agree with his message of personal responsibility.  He was simply a Christian minster who cared about the kind of people that Jesus hung out with most of the time.  He embodied the traditions of his Pentecostal faith and was not a man that pursued the latest and hottest ministry fads.

I think that those things make him unique and hard to copy. There will be those that seek to emulate him and if they do it in his spirit versus trying to “claim his mantle” as some would want to do they will do well. I hope that those that emulate him will do it in humility and seek to be who they are as Christians and ministers and care for those that he cared for rather than trying to mimic his prophetic messages.

As I read article after article about Reverend Wilkerson today I was struck that even those that disagreed with him had nothing bad to say about him. The closest thing to a snarky attitude in an article came from the Wall Street Journal which appeared attempt to smear him by noting that Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were fellow Assembly of God ministers and was the only paper to make light of his preaching.   The “liberal” New York Times, USA Today and others were much classier than the journal in writing about Wilkerson and good on them.

I didn’t agree with his eschatology and some of his teachings as I theological moderate from a catholic tradition. Likewise I see his struggle in his writings and I wonder about the circumstances of his death in light of those writings, but none of that takes away my admiration for his authenticity and willingness to care and be a voice for the least, the lost and the lonely.  We can only hope than in our time of economic crisis and political division that we will have more men like him who are authentic and faithfully proclaim the Word of God while caring for God’s people without seeking their own aggrandizement or power.

We thank God for David Wilkerson and for the lives that were changed through his ministry even as we pray for his family, friends and co-workers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Jousting at Windmills: The Quixotesque Life of Padre Steve

I believe that I have reached a rather Quixotesque stage in my life.  I have in my passion for moderation decided to be fair and balanced and with a rather unexpected result. I now joust with windmills. Some of my fellow Christians have gotten upset at me for doing so as they rather seem to like those windmills. It seems that in the current political climate for a Christian to offer criticism of other Christians or for that matter the conservative political movement is something akin to denying the Deity of Christ or worse.

I have been taken to task for a number of things such as defending the rights of Moslems, women’s ordination, the rights of homosexuals, criticizing conservative talk show hosts (I criticize liberals too but seldom get attacked for that), criticizing the almost incestuous relationship between the “Christian right” with the Republican Party and even more conservative political groups and ideologies and the equation of nearly all things American with the Christian faith by some.

This attitude starts at the top of the Church; Pope Benedict gives a great example to follow when he censured Cardinal Chrisoph Schoenborn of Vienna for criticizing the retired Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Soldano for his handling of and interference in the discipline of clergy in the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. The Pope censured Schoenborn, not Soldano and made the pronouncement that only he could criticize a Cardinal.  Not long afterward the Vatican released a document that supposedly makes it easier for the Church to go after the sexual predators in the Church while at the same time declaring women’s ordination to be a “major crime against the church” which I think is what pedophilia is.  Others have determined that since the world seems to be attacking Jesus, the Christian faith and the Church that criticism of Christian leaders by other Christians is off limits.

I commented recently on the case of Shirley Sherrod an official in the Agriculture Department that was smeared by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and made to look like the very face of racism in America.  A number of hosts on the Fox News Channel ran with the story before checking it out only having to recant a day later, a day after Sherrod had been forced to resign by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilseck and the White House.  It turned out that she was the victim and a story from her life of redemption and reconciliation presented as her being a racist by crafty editing of the video of a 45 minute long speech.  My comment that no matter whether it was Dan Rather using faked documents to try to damage then President George W Bush or Brietbart and his action against Mrs. Sherrod that these actions were both dishonorable.  A now former Facebook friend (she dropped me) and lay member of my denomination took issue with me and in what turned into a rather personal and harsh exchange I was called a number of names and accused of comparing me to her mother and stepfather like them having a “distortion of reality.” This individual chose not to deal with what my comments were but to take my posting as an attack on her conservative views, which they were most certainly not.  I tried to keep on point but this woman would have none of it.  I found the exchange as fascinating as one would a car wreck.  Now to be fair this woman was the only person that acted this way but her passion was to defend the actions of Breitbart and Fox News because “the country was hell bent on socialism” and that she was going to “do whatever she could to make people aware of it.” It was clear to me that she was so tied to her ideology that she could not be objective and I finally left the conversation. Now I know some liberals that are the same way to be sure, but for Christians to somehow almost equate a political and economic philosophy with the faith is somehow rather un-Jesus like.

Obviously in the interest of the truth I was looking for this confrontation, if not with her with someone else because I know that with some people and it does not matter whether they are conservatives or liberals there is no reasoning, no room for differing opinions.  In the religion and politics of 2010 there are no longer opponents but enemies, yea verily mortal enemies who with their repugnant ideologies must be crushed and in fact those close to them that deviate are even worse for they have betrayed the respective orthodoxy of the zealots of the left or the right.  In my rather brief public life writing on this site I have found the nastiest to be the religious conservatives that take issue with what I write.  The attitude reminds me of the Moslem extremists, militant Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Hindu Fundamentalists, all of whom have no tolerance for those different than them and often bent on enforcing their beliefs on those that do not follow their religion often violently.   Please know that I am only comparing attitudes not results as with the exception of a few people American Christians have not resorted to violence to achieve their ends though I would posit that the more radical and politically committed conservative or Fundamentalist Christians that have become with more extreme right wing groups have this potential.

Now as far as matter of criticizing big name Christian leaders which I did last week with the knowledge that some would be upset with me and I confess that I am guilty as charged.  I decided to joust with this windmill by posting a link to an article in that bastion of truth and moral turpitude the National Enquirer which showed the incredibly popular televangelist and faith healer Benny Hinn cavorting in Rome under an assumed name with the rather sultry female televangelist and pastor Paula White. Now White is divorced and Hinn’s wife has filed for divorce but it is not final. In old fashioned fundament talk this is called adultery.  Add to the mix that both are under investigation by a Senate Committee for financial dealings in their ministries.

Now I have a rather unique take on this as I worked for a television ministry the last couple of years of seminary and while waiting to enter into a Clinical Pastoral Education.  While the ministry that I worked with was definitely above board we occasionally had other televangelists including the previously mentioned Benny Hinn visit our studios and basically act like they were better than the people that worked there.  At conferences that our ministry hosted which included many of the top preachers of the day there were some speakers that acted the same way but thankfully some that exuded grace and kindness.  One of the things that I noticed was the vast amount of money involved in Christian Television and some of the rather cutthroat programming and financial practices of the largest network, the Terrible Blond Network.

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s scandals, financial, sexual and sometimes criminal have engulfed many of the largest names in the television ministry and mega-church world.  Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Larry Lee, Bob Tilton, Peter Popoff, Ted Haggard, Earl Paulk, Todd Bentley and others now including Reverend Hinn and Reverend White.  Others have become involved in politics up to their ears or have made incredibly thoughtless and asinine statements on events like the 9-11 attack and Hurricane Katrina. Still others organize book burnings of various types or other thoughtless and even un-Christian displays of hatred and ignorance.  Now this is a pretty impressive list by anyone’s standards and it does not include the host of lesser known others that have had affairs, financial and even violent encounters.  No wonder the name of Jesus is reviled by so many and that the church is held in such low esteem. We bring it on ourselves because we have forgotten the “Big 2,” you know the commandments that if you do them fulfill all the rest, love God and love your neighbor. I think that it was Jesus that suggested that this was important.

I was criticized for posting a link about the Hinn and White story by three ministers and I do not entirely disagree with then nor think that they were out of line to criticize me.  The biggest concern of all three was that with the Church under attack from many quarters as well as attacks on Jesus and Christian beliefs and values that I should not do it especially because of the source of the story, the National Enquirer. Now mind you that that Enquirer is actually, despite its rater sleazy reputation actually breaking stories that the big media initially missed such as the John Edwards affair and the current investigation into possible sexual assaults by former Vice President Al Gore one of which as of yesterday was closed by the State of Oregon but there are other investigations.  However that was not the point of posting the story. You see I figure that if the Church and its leaders did a better job of conducting itself in a Christian manner then there would be a little more love for it and also Jesus. I believe that much of what we call persecution is in large part due to how badly we as Christians have behaved and treated those in our care before the watching world.  I believe that it is better for Christians to police themselves so that their conduct may be seen as something to emulate, in fact I think that is what the early church did. They had no power, no money and no social status but in spite of real persecution that usually ended in death by crucifixion, being crushed to death by heavy stones, being burned at the stake, shot through with arrows, having their heads whacked off, getting flogged to death, drowned until dead and even tickled to death.   While this was taking place they were commended by Roman leaders as model citizens because of their behavior.  They were known by their love, not just for one another but for their non-Christian neighbors, the very ones that persecuted them.

That is not an isolated example, when I was in Iraq I had Moslem Iraqi Army Officers tell me of their respect for Christians because Christians were seen to be more trustworthy and caring than their Moslem brethren, and by the way Iraqi Christians often face persecution and death.  I was told by one officer that the Iraqi Army needed Christian Priests to take care of their soldiers and families, like the Americans have because they did not get this from their Imams.  In spite of persecution which includes the real possibility of being killed by Moslem extremists most Moslems see Christians as good citizens that they can trust their lives, families and property to.  This is not the case in our country despite the fact that there are a lot of really good Christians who still follow the “Big 2.”

But now in this country we seem to be more concerned with our power and social status and despite all the scandals willing to give these folks a pass on their actions and pony up more money to feed their ministries, usually money that comes from some of the poorest people in the country while many live in luxury.  I think that this is something that the Reformers had against the Catholic Church during the Reformation. May be we need a new Reformation to make things right again, after all only 56% of Americans rank the ethics and trust of clergy as very high. Honestly, we should do better than that and if the world exposes our leaders for compromising themselves and the Gospel then more power to them, we should take care of it ourselves ending our support for such “ministers” and “ministries.”

My church was torn apart a few years back by the actions of bishops who had made unwanted sexual advances another that bilked the church nearly bankrupting it through his financial wheeling and dealing and by others that exploited the chaos in a most un-Christian manner.  The Church is slowly recovering and those that were the primary culprits are no longer in the church.  Many were haughty and arrogant and it came back to bite them and it nearly destroyed the church.

So I will continue to joust at windmills knowing that like the legendary Don Quixote that nothing will really change.  The windmills of religious and political machines will continue to turn and more than likely result in people sending me hate mail for saying what I say and unfortunately the vast majority will be my fellow Christians thinking that they are defending the faith.

There have been others like me that have done some good. I do think that Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans Kung rank up there so what can I say? Wait I know…Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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