Seeking Renewal at Aldersgate

When the Apostle Paul met early Christian disciples in the city of Ephesus, his first question to them was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” After some explanation, Paul laid his hands on the new believers and “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19).

In many ways, Aldersgate Renewal Ministries has been asking the same question of fellow United Methodists over the last 40 years and providing a spiritual environment for a similar experience through its popular family conferences on Spirit-filled living (including their youth event called “The Gate”) and local church “Life in the Spirit” seminars, Lay Witness Missions, and “Lord, Teach Us to Pray” weekends. 

In mid-July, Aldersgate celebrated its 40th anniversary by holding its first three-day gathering at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Three weeks later, it held a second celebration during the first week of August on the campus of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Aldersgate has become known for its passionate preaching, colorful banners, energetic worship, and focus on prayer. Times of ministry provided opportunities for clergy and lay ministers to pray for individuals in need of physical, relational, or inner healing. 

“United Methodists need the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and churches now more than ever,” Mark Barrow, executive director of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM), told Good News. “It is only by allowing the Holy Spirit to lead our lives, that we can truly walk, serve, and be the church that bears the name of Jesus Christ.”

The annual Aldersgate gathering attempts to educate the church on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world today, provide an encouraging environment for the use of spiritual gifts outlined in the New Testament, and promote spiritual renewal in the denomination. It seeks to combine Pentecostal power, spiritual gifts, and Wesleyan theology under one roof. It is named for Aldersgate Street in London where Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and experienced his own transformational spiritual renewal. 

“Birthed in 1978 out of the Lay Witness Movement and the Ecumenical Charismatic Movement, Aldersgate has faithfully taught and led the Church into fresh understanding and experiences of the Holy Spirit,” said the Rev. Gary Moore, retired executive director of Aldersgate. “It has ministered new birth, healing and wholeness, and Spirit-filled living to more than 50,000 persons at the national conferences over the past 40 years.”

Despite its faithful track record, Aldersgate is still a new discovery for many United Methodists. “Aldersgate is the best kept secret in Methodism and best thing happening in the denomination,” said Moore, who led the ministry from 1988 to 2008. “People are looking for something that has life and vitality. Aldersgate encourages a genuine encounter with God without going outside the denomination. It pursues the worship experience with the expectation of God’s real presence and anticipation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit with the worship service.” 

The ministry was launched in the historic wake of a massive and multi-denominational conference on charismatic renewal sponsored by mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics held in 1977. The early charismatic movement within the denomination was spearheaded by United Methodist leaders such as the Revs. Ross Whetstone, Robert Tuttle, Robert Stamps, Tommy Tyson, as well as Dr. William Wilson, M.D. Over the years, numerous other theologians, clergy, and laity have been instrumental in the movement. 

“Aldersgate Renewal Ministries occupies a crucial place in The United Methodist Church,” contends Dr. David Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary. “It provides a space for people who are earnestly seeking the power and work of the Holy Spirit to come together and share with one another about the gifts of the Spirit in their lives.”

United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, provides a unique academic and spiritual experience for charismatic students by partnering with Aldersgate in offering a Doctor of Ministry group in supernatural ministry, co-sponsoring an annual Holy Spirit seminar, and hosting the Aldersgate-related Methodist School for Supernatural Ministry. 

“The theology of the Aldersgate Renewal Movement is thoroughly Wesleyan,” Watson said. “There are places in Wesley’s own writings that describe experiences much like the charismatic experiences that take place at Aldersgate gatherings.”

When the charismatic movement launched within the mainline churches, there was a lack of widespread teaching on the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. “There was a concerted effort of the renewal groups in many mainline denominations to help the church utilize the power of the Real Presence of the Holy Spirit to accomplish its ministry,” recalled the Rev. Larry Eddings, retired evangelist of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. 

“From the time of its inception in 1978, the focus of Aldersgate has been to bring a new level of consciousness into the life of the United Methodist Church of the person, power, and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit,” said Eddings, a long time associate with Aldersgate. “As it was later stated, ‘Bringing the Life of the Spirit into the Life of the Church,” it has been an effort to call upon the church to rely upon the supernatural power of God’s Holy Spirit to accomplish the supernatural ministry to which it has been called by Christ. It cannot be accomplished by human effort alone.”

Prayer for the renewal of the denomination and the spiritual life of United Methodists has been a big part of the behind-the-scene effort of Aldersgate. “ARM has a long history of intercessory prayer for the church,” said Margie Burger, the author of Lord, Teach Us to Pray and retired ARM Director of Prayer. “We place a high priority on saturating the ministry and the church in prayer. Our heart is to see individuals and churches renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Fervent prayer for the church remains a priority at this time.”

Aldersgate will meet next July in Springfield, Illinois.

True Identity

“Growing up, we were German,” said Kyle Merker, in a television commercial for Ancestry.com. “We danced in a German dance group. I wore lederhosen,” he says in a voiceover of him dancing the traditional Bavarian Schuhplattler in his festive German regalia. 

“When I first got on Ancestry, I was really surprised that I wasn’t finding all of these Germans in my tree,” he said in the ad – as names of relatives pop up behind him on the screen. “I decided to have my DNA tested … and the big surprise is that we’re not German at all. Fifty-two percent of my DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland,” reported a grinning Kyle, who is then festooned on screen in a Scottish Tartan outfit. 

“So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.” 

Interestingly enough, Merker is not an actor. His was a serious case of mistaken ethnic identity – with no German DNA whatsoever. He had to rethink a lifetime of self-identity and a closet full of lederhosen.

Along similar lines, the late Dutch theologian and author Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996) would testify that no matter how unimpeachable our family tree may be, we are all susceptible to being hoodwinked when it comes to our spiritual self-identity. “Who am I?” is a complex question. Nouwen believed we are tempted to respond in one of three ways:

1. I am what I do (accomplishments or failures within relationships and career).

2. I am what others say about me (good reputation or gossiped about behind the back). 

3. I am what I have (big house or foreclosure notice, picturesque family or estrangement, balanced check book or pile of debt).

For Nouwen, our identity is absolutely not found in any of these indicators. Instead, he argued, you are – most profoundly – the Beloved of God. (For emphasis, he would probably recommend reading that a second time.) Your worth as a man, your value as a woman, and your capacity to be loved by God have nothing to do with what you do, what others say about you, or what possessions you have. Long before you had a career, a reputation, or a mortgage, you were loved by God – from eternity to eternity.

No less than St. Paul made the extravagant proclamation: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

For some of our friends, negative pronouncements said over them – sometimes from childhood – have become a curse that has created a spiritual prison. Past failures can become the very bars of a cell – making freedom an illusion. “When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions,” Nouwen writes in Life of the Beloved. “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core of our existence.”

Nouwen did not write that flippantly. He was a brilliant theologian and scholar (taught at Yale and Harvard) who struggled profoundly with loneliness and depression. “Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God,” Nouwen writes in his spiritual classic Return of the Prodigal Son. “A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often, I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.” 

Sometimes we are like the Scotsman dancing the Schuhplattler – not living in our true identity and dancing to the wrong music in lederhosen. In Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes that we “hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.” Living as the beloved, we no longer have to hustle for worthiness. 

That is completely easier said than done. However, liberation begins when we allow the truth of our spiritual identity to be fully absorbed and take root in our hearts. “You will still have rejection,” Nouwen once said, “and you will still have loss but you will live no longer as a person searching for his or her identity. You will always live as the beloved. You will live your pain, you will live your anguish, you will live your success, you will live your failures as one who knows who you are.” 

Every Sunday, the congregation at Shepherd’s Grove Church in Orange County, California, recites a creed in unison: “I’m not what I do. I’m not what I have. I’m not what people say about me. I am the beloved of God. It’s who I am. No one can take it from me. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to hurry. I can trust my friend Jesus and share his love with the world.”

Bobby Schuller, the pastor of the church, penned it as an intentional self-correcting statement of identity for his own soul. “Saying these words to myself as a daily practice pulled me out of the stressed out patterns of this world, of trying to prove myself, of feeling rejected and not enough, and brought me into the easy rhythms of grace,” Schuller writes in his new book You are Beloved. “I was training my will and character around the love of God in Christ.” 

Schuller wrote half his creed in response to Nouwen’s observations, and the other half because of his interactions with the late Dr. Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at USC and author of The Divine Conspiracy. Willard had a great handle on Christian spiritual formation and was “always encouraging Christians to stop hurrying and stop worrying so much, to live every day with the serenity of the kingdom of the heavens at the forefront of our minds,” writes Schuller.

As a pastor, Schuller wants his congregation to be free from the bondage of mistaken identity. The temptation to measure ourselves against our co-workers, neighbors, family, and friends is intense. “As we compare our true, hidden self to others’ public shiny versions of themselves, we run out of energy trying to keep up with one another,” he writes. “We wake up hoping to outpace our peers while regretting the wasted years we could have spent being happy. The net result is everyone is tired because they are hurrying to be loved. Little do they know, they already are.” 

Being able to receive God’s acceptance and love is the grand slam in the ninth inning. After all, we concoct a million excuses why we are not loveable. “God sent his son Jesus to remove not only your sin, but also your feelings of shame and unworthiness,” writes Schuller. “The cross is a reflection of the vastness of God’s love for you. You were worth it. You may not think so, but God does.”

Self-doubt comes with the territory. It rushes in when vulnerability enters the room, when love comes to town. That is where faith in the goodness of God must stand with resolve. We can open our arms for the embrace – or pass on love. The invitation comes from the one who wore the crown of thorns. He heard them yell “Hallelujah” and “Crucify him!” in successive breaths. All the while, he knew his true identity was being the Beloved.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Discovering our true spiritual identity frees us from the condemnation of past failures. We are loved by God. We always have been and we always will be. “In the shakiness of living, remember one simple thing: you are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you do,” writes Schuller. “You are a beloved child of God. No one can take that from you. You didn’t earn it. You’ve never lived a day where that wasn’t true.”

God is the First Love, Nouwen taught. It is the radiance of that love that moves all other loves. When we fully absorb our true identity as the beloved of God it frees us to love other people without expecting them to fill a void that only God can satisfy. “Every other love will be partial,” said Nouwen. And love and wounds are never separated – that is the price of true vulnerability. “We will be healed, but it will be painful. But if we are willing to let the pain not make us bitter – to prune us – to give us a deeper sense of our belovedness, then we can be as free as Jesus and walk through this world and proclaim God’s First Love wherever we go.”

Living Aloha

In a box of 64 crayons, there are 11 shades of blue. When looking out upon the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the beach in Hawaii, it seems like there might be even more. It is one of the many marvels that help explain the magnetism and grandeur of the Islands. 

I’ve been in love with the Aloha State since my first visit 30 years ago. Most recently, I visited over Mother’s Day with my parents and renewed my affinity with Polynesia. 

During this momentous visit, we celebrated my mom’s third victory over cancer – a glorious convergence of medical science and prayer. The previous year, Mother’s Day was spent at my mom’s bedside at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles as she went through a radical surgery. 

This year was different. My Dad and I took her to the gorgeous United Methodist church where my parents renewed their wedding vows for their 50th anniversary a few years ago. It is a congregation of Tongans, locals, and tourists. Every week, the congregation hand-laces fragrant leis to adorn the visitors. On this Sunday, my mom’s lei rested right near the practically invisible 9-inch surgery scar on her neck – like a flower bursting through a crack in the sidewalk. Mothers were called to the front of the sanctuary and rightfully honored. The Tongan choir sang stoutly in their native tongue. 

Interestingly enough, I actually grew up with Tongans at church. Although Tonga is 3,000 miles south of Hawaii – the only Methodist kingdom in the world – there is a large population in Southern California. Part of my dad’s 45-year ministry was helping create a Tongan congregation at our church in Santa Ana. The church service in Hawaii made my soul feel right at home. 

Aside from volcanos, pineapples, and the sunsets, it is the “spirit of aloha” that has the longest-lasting impact on visitors to the Islands. At least that is the hope. Aloha is the most well-known way to say hello and goodbye, but it has multiple meanings and represents deep philosophy, culture, and theology. 

Long before Western explorers arrived, the traditional greeting (called “honi”) between two Hawaiians involves the touching of foreheads and noses and sharing the same breath of air and responding with Aloha. It meant the “exchange of breath,” “face to face breath,” or “the breath of life.” As a meaningful lifestyle, however, aloha is expressed through love, generosity, and cooperation. It is a virtuous and respectful ideal – and especially practical when one faces the unique challenges of living on a remote and isolated island with other people. In other words, aloha is treating someone else as you would want to be treated.

More than 30 years ago, Hawaii enacted the “Aloha Spirit” law which recognizes the cultural standard of kindness and consideration. “This law is virtually impossible to enforce because it is a philosophy that directs a code of conduct and way of life. Nonetheless… all citizens and government officials of Hawaii are obligated to conduct themselves in accordance with this law,” Dana Viola, first deputy attorney general of Hawaii, recently told the BBC.

The late Hawaiian poet and philosopher known as Auntie Pilahi Paki wrote the aloha law and gave spiritual meaning to the word in the form of an acrostic:

A stands for Akahai, meaning kindness (grace), expressed with tenderness.

L is for Lokahi, meaning unity (unbroken), expressed with harmony.

O is for Olu`olu, meaning agreeable (gentle), expressed with pleasantness.

H is for Ha`aha`a, meaning humility (empty), expressed with modesty.

A stands for Ahonui, meaning patient (waiting for the moment)and persevering.

As a word, aloha is so pervasive in Hawaii that it almost loses its deep meaning. For those vacationing for the snorkeling and surf, aloha may simply be what is used as a greeting or farewell. But others who want to take home the true spirit of the islands are invited to find ways to allow kindness and humility, patience and generosity, tenderness and perseverance to be expressed through everyday life back home. 

For the Hawaiian Christian, aloha has deep spiritual roots. 

“We do not understand the meaning of Aloha until we realize its foundation in the power of God at work in the world. One of the first sentences I learned from my mother in my childhood was this from Holy Scripture: ‘Aloha ke Akua’ – in other words, ‘God is Aloha,’” said the Rev. Dr. Abraham Akaka in a historic sermon in 1959 celebrating statehood for Hawaii. 

“Aloha is the power of God seeking to unite what is separated in the world – the power that unites heart with heart, soul with soul, life with life, culture with culture, race with race, nation with nation,” he said. “Aloha is the power that can reunite when a quarrel has brought separation; aloha is the power that reunites a man with himself when he has become separated from the image of God within.”

For 27 years, Akaka (1917-1997) was the kahu, or pastor, of the historic Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu. A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University and Chicago Theological Seminary, he would often play the ukulele in his sermons and preached in both English and Hawaiian. Kawaiahao became known as Hawaii’s Westminster Abbey, having become the official church of the Hawaiian kingdom. Akaka was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was in Washington D.C. during the “I have a dream” speech. Newsweek once described him as having the “charm of a beach boy and the force of Billy Graham.” 

“When a person or a people live in the spirit of Aloha they live in the spirit of God,” said Dr. Akaka. “And among such a people, whose lives so affirm their inner being, we see the working of the Scripture: ‘All things work together for good to them who love God… from the Aloha of God came his Son that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly.’

Akaka continued: “Aloha consists of this new attitude of heart, above negativism, above legalism. It is the unconditional desire to promote the true good of other people in a friendly spirit, out of a sense of kinship. Aloha seeks to do good, with no conditions attached. We do not do good only to those who do good to us. One of the sweetest things about the love of God, about Aloha, is that it welcomes the stranger and seeks his good. A person who has the spirit of Aloha loves even when the love is not returned. And such is the love of God.”

Aloha does not gloss over legitimate differences of opinion. It does not seek to eradicate deeply held beliefs. Instead, it seeks to allow those differences to be treated with respect. Akaka wanted to make it clear that aloha does not allow for exploitation or subservience, but shares the burdens of others and seeks the best for everyone. 

Although he was speaking in 1959, his message rings especially true in our modern age: “Today, one of the deepest needs of mankind is the need to feel a sense of kinship one with another. Truly all mankind belongs together; from the beginning all mankind has been called into being, nourished, watched over by the love of God. … Aloha is the spirit of God at work in you and in me and in the world, uniting what is separated, overcoming darkness and death, bringing new light and life to all who sit in the darkness of fear, guiding the feet of mankind into the way of peace.”

As I worshipped with that small congregation on Mother’s Day, I thought back to a time when going to church with my parents was the last thing I wanted to do. But here, I was at peace. Although it was not my church, it had become my sanctuary. 

Speaking with the Tongan pastor after the service, I shared a bit about my heartfelt connection to that church. Without hesitation, he placed his large hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said: “This is your home. This is your home.”

In that moment, we shared the breath of life. In that moment, it was my aloha. 

Into the arms of eternity

Wherever he landed around the globe, Billy Graham spent his life preaching a simple and sincere message of God’s love for all people, the urgent need for conversion, and the assurance that Jesus Christ walks with believers in the brightest and darkest of times. Throughout his illustrious ministry, Graham preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories via his simulcasts and rallies. His audience exposure leaps exponentially when television, newspaper columns, videos, magazine stories, webcasts, and best-selling books are factored in.

Illustrative of his technological wizardry, Graham once spearheaded an event more than two decades ago that astonishingly utilized 30 satellites broadcasting taped evangelistic messages from Graham in 116 languages to 185 countries. 

The news of his death on February 21 at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99, was observed with both joy and sorrow. The lanky world-renowned evangelist was buried in a rudimentary pine plywood coffin made by men convicted of murder from the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

For Christians, Graham was a role model in holding firm to both evangelism and integrated social action, orthodoxy and generous ecumenism, grace and truth, love and repentance. In addition to preaching his life-transforming message, he was pivotal in helping form numerous evangelical institutions that will be remembered as part of his fruitful legacy. 

“Billy Graham was a man with beautiful integrity, clothed with humility, and combined with a sterling message of the gospel,” Dr. Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, told Good News. Coleman was a close friend and associate of Graham for 60 years, leading the Institute of Evangelism in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and serving as Dean of the Billy Graham International Schools of Evangelism. Coleman was one of a handful of United Methodists who attended Graham’s funeral along with Drs. Eddie Fox, Maxie Dunnam, and Timothy Tennent.

“Wherever we traveled around the world, Billy was a master of making a nobody feel like a somebody,” Coleman recalled. “You always felt lifted up in his presence. Whether you were a street sweeper or a king, Billy saw you as someone deeply loved and treasured by God.”

Although most well known as a Baptist, Graham had a special relationship with Methodists dating back to his early friendship with lay evangelist Harry Denman, a man Graham described as “one of the great mentors for evangelism in my own life and ministry – and for countless others in evangelism as well.” Denman, who died in 1976, was the leader of the Commission on Evangelism of the Methodist Church. In the forward to the book Prophetic Evangelist, Graham wrote: “I never knew a man who encouraged more people in the field of evangelism than Harry Denman.”

Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s position as chairman of the Billy Graham rally in Los Angeles in 1963 caused a controversial stir among fundamentalists and others who did not see a place for mainline denominations in Graham’s evangelistic efforts. In the premier issue of Good News in 1967, Kennedy wrote that he had hoped his position would be an opportunity to bring conservative evangelicals and mainline churches closer together. “We never succeeded at eliminating all our differences,” he wrote, “but we did make progress in talking to one another and trying to listen to each other with some appreciation.”

Over the decades, United Methodists were inspired by Graham’s message, temperament, and integrity. “No voice in the past half-century has been more powerful and faithful in pointing clearly to Jesus Christ than the message of Billy Graham,” Dr. Eddie Fox, former World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, said. “His message always led persons to Jesus Christ.” Fox was a speaker at several of the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism. 

According to United Methodist News Service, the late Bishop Leontine Kelly, who headed the evangelism unit of the denomination’s Board of Discipleship before her election to the episcopacy in 1984, characterized Graham’s preaching as “electric.” “His purposes were clear and his commitment to Jesus Christ was unwavering,” said Kelly, who died in 2012. “We will always be grateful for television, which enabled his communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions.”

Graham had unparalleled reach. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 16 percent of Americans had heard Graham in person, 52 percent had heard him on radio, and 85 percent had seen him on television.

“Only the large expressive hands seem suited to a titan,” biographer William Martin, author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, observed. “But crowning this spindly frame is that most distinctive of heads, with the profile for which God created granite, the perpetual glowing tan, the flowing hair, the towering forehead, the square jaw, the eagle’s brow and eyes, and the warm smile that has melted hearts, tamed opposition, and subdued skeptics on six continents.”

Lived with regrets. With such a high-profile ministry for such a lengthy duration of time, Graham was often under intense scrutiny. Was his version of Christian conversion too simplistic? Was he merely a government mouthpiece when he preached in totalitarian nations? Did he do enough with his platform for the civil rights of African Americans? Was he too comfortable in the White House? Despite the enormous audiences of curious onlookers and spiritual searchers, there were long lists of theological and social critics – both conservative and liberal – who were more than happy to offer a critique of Graham’s ministry. While some of the concerns were superficial, there were others of a more serious nature that had to be addressed. 

In hindsight, Graham registered his regret for not participating in civil rights demonstrations. “I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma, [Alabama in 1965],” Graham confessed to the Associated Press in 2005. “I would like to have done more.” It has been properly noted that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered Graham an ally. “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my work in the Civil Rights Movement would not have been as successful as it has been,” said King. Other African American leaders, however, regret that Graham was not more front-and-center in the struggle. 

“Graham clearly felt an obligation to speak against segregation, but he also believed his first duty was to appeal to as many people as possible. Sometimes he found these two convictions difficult to reconcile,” Martin wrote in A Prophet with Honor.

Close proximity to the corridors of political power – especially the Nixon White House – occasionally blindsided Graham. When asked in 2011 by Christianity Today, a magazine he helped launch, if there was anything he would have done differently, Graham responded: “I would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

Of his regrets, those closest to home were the most sensitive. “Ruth says those of us who were off traveling missed the best part of our lives – enjoying the children as they grew. She is probably right. I was too busy preaching all over the world.” Ruth Bell married Graham in 1945 and the couple had five children. “I came through those years much the poorer psychologically and emotionally,” he reflected. “I missed so much by not being home to see the children grow and develop.”

Graham questioned some of the aspects of his jet-setting ministry. “Sometimes we flitted from one part of the country to another, even from one continent to another, in the course of only a few days,” he recalled. “Were all those engagements necessary? Was I as discerning as I might have been about which ones to take and which to turn down? I doubt it. Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever.”

Although Graham never had regrets about committing his life to preaching a Christian message, he wished he would have spent more time in nurturing his own personal spiritual life. “I would spend more time in prayer, not just for myself but for others,” he said. “I would spend more time studying the Bible and meditating on its truth, not only for sermon preparation but to apply its message to my life. It is far too easy for someone in my position to read the Bible only with an eye on a future sermon, overlooking the message God has for me through its pages.”

“He brought down the storm.” Three years ago, Bob Dylan called Graham the “greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did.” The music icon testified in AARP The Magazine to having attended some Graham rallies in the 1950s and ‘60s and described them in a distinctly Dylanesque way: “This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified – volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution – when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved … If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.”

Although he is most well-known for his relationships with politicians, straight-and-narrow Graham was best of friends with Johnny Cash, the blue-collar troubadour who, when they met in 1969, was making headlines for recording live albums in Folsom State and San Quentin prisons. The Grahams and Cashs grew to be very close. Not only did Johnny and June Cash perform at Graham rallies, but Billy and Ruth joined the Cash family on numerous vacation outings. 

“I’ve always been able to share my secrets and problems with Billy, and I’ve benefited greatly from his support and advice,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “Even during my worst times, when I’ve fallen back into using pills of one sort or another, he’s maintained his friendship with me and given me his ear and advice, always based solidly on the Bible. He’s never pressed me when I’ve been in trouble; he’s waited for me to reveal myself, and then he’s helped me as much as he can.”

Despite what some perceived as a squeaky-clean piety that gravitated to the halls of power, Graham had a deep and abiding love for the outsiders and the spiritual searchers. “It was eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, but I was most definitely not in church,” Graham wrote in his autobiography Just As I Am. “Instead, to the horror of some, I was attending the 1969 Miami Rock Music Festival.” Preaching from the same concert stage as Canned Heat, the Grateful Dead, and Santana, Graham wrote about his delight to speak to “young people who probably would have felt uncomfortable in the average church, and yet whose searching questions about life and sharp protests against society’s values echoed from almost every song.”

Graham actually donned a disguise to get a feel for the festival the night before he would preach. “My heart went out to them,” he wrote. “Though I was thankful for their youthful exuberance, I was burdened by their spiritual searching and emptiness.”

Although Graham was prepared to be “shouted down,” he was “greeted with scattered applause. Most listened politely as I spoke.” He told them that he had been listening carefully to their music: “We reject your materialism, it seemed to proclaim, and we want something of the soul.” Graham proclaimed that “Jesus was a nonconformist” and the he could “fill their souls and give them meaning and purpose in life.” As they waited for the upcoming bands, Graham’s message was, “Tune in to God today, and let Him give you faith. Turn on to His power.”

Graham’s well-known message also did not hinder his ability to reach beyond evangelical boundaries. He longed for improved relationships between Roman Catholics and Protestants and was a trusted friend of Catholic television pioneer Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. “We are brothers,” Pope John Paul II told Graham during a visit to the Vatican. 

In 1979, the late Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, spent several hours with Graham in the evangelist’s home in North Carolina. “When I arrived at the airport, Mr. Graham himself was waiting for me. I expected to be chauffeured in a Rolls Royce or at least a Mercedes, but we got in his Oldsmobile and he drove it himself,” Ali recalled. “I couldn’t believe he came to the airport driving his own car. When we approached his home I thought he would live on a thousand acre farm and we drove up to his house made of logs. No mansion with crystal chandeliers and gold carpets, it was the kind of house a man of God would live in. I look up to him.” 

Ali told the press, “I’ve always admired Mr. Graham, I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but there is so much truth in the message he gives, Americanism, repentance, things about government and country – and truth. I always said if I was a Christian, I’d want to be a Christian like him.”

Generations later, Graham’s magnetism never weakened. One month after the Irish band U2 played an unforgettably emotional halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2002 memorializing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bono responded to an invitation to visit the Grahams at their home. Inside a collection of the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney given to Ruth and Billy, Bono had written a poem that refers to “the voice of a preacher/loudly soft on my tears” which was the “lyric voice that gave my life/A Rhyme/a meaning that wasn’t there before.” The poem is on display at the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina.

In a touching tribute to Graham three years later, Bono said: “At a time when religion seems so often to get in the way of God’s work with its shopping mall sales pitch and its bumper sticker reductionism, I give thanks just for the sanity of Billy Graham – for that clear empathetic voice of his in that southern accent, part poet, part preacher – a singer of the human spirit, I’d say. Ah, yeah I give thanks for Billy Graham.”

Evangelistic energy. In addition to calling men, women, and children – rich and poor, black and white, powerful and humble – all over the globe to a commitment to Christ, Graham was also reminding the institutional church of the foundational need to share the faith. In 1976, his efforts were recognized by the United Methodist Association of Evangelists as one of the earliest recipients of the Philip Award. Four years later, he preached at the denomination’s Congress on Evangelism on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Many have moved from a belief in man’s personal responsibility before God to an entirely new concept that assumes all men and women are already saved,” said Graham in 1980. “There’s a spreading universalism, which has deadened our urgency that was had by John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, E. Stanley Jones, and others like them.

“This new evangelism leads many to reject the idea of conversion in its historical Biblical meaning and the meaning historically held and preached and taught by the Methodist Church.”

Graham concluded his remarks by quoting Methodist leader John Wesley in 1784: “You have nothing to do but to save souls, therefore spend and be spent in this work.” He continued to quote Wesley, “It is not your business to preach so many times and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance and with all your power to build them up in that holiness, without which they will never see the Lord.”

Graham reminded the participants of their heritage. “Let it be remembered that the Methodist church began in the white peak of conversion and intense evangelistic energy,” he said. “Let it be recalled that the Methodist church is an evangelistic movement.”

Good News connection. More than a decade before his address at the Congress on Evangelism, Graham’s preaching played a key role in the conversion of Good News’ founding editor Charles Keysor. The evangelist’s encouragement was also an important inspiration during the ministry’s formative years. 

“I have always believed that The United Methodist Church offers tremendous potential as a starting place for a great revival of Biblical Christian faith,” Graham wrote in a personal note of encouragement to the staff and board of directors on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of Good News. “Around the world, millions of people do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and I believe that The United Methodist Church, with its great size and its honorable evangelistic tradition, can be mightily used by God for reaching these lost millions,” wrote Graham in 1977.

“I have been acquainted with the Good News movement and some of its leaders since 1967. To me it represents one of the encouraging signs for the church fulfilling its evangelistic mission, under the Bible’s authority and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. At the forefront of the Good News movement has been Good News magazine. For 10 years it has spoken clearly and prophetically for Scriptural Christianity and renewal in the church. It should be read by every United Methodist.”

Everyone associated with Good News in that era – and subsequent generations – found great inspiration in Graham’s words. 

The message and the man. “Billy Graham’s ministry taught me to step out in faith and trust God in all things in my life,” Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, said in a statement after attending Graham’s funeral in North Carolina. 

“After preaching in Red Square in what was then the Soviet Union, Billy Graham stopped at Gordon Conwell, where I was a student. Someone asked Mr. Graham if he had been used as part of Soviet propaganda. He replied that he had preached the same Gospel in Red Square as he did around the world. This taught me not to worry about the discouraging naysayers and critics in my ministry. Even Billy Graham’s funeral continued to teach us about the grace and glory of God.”

There was one testimony of poignant grace at Graham’s funeral that caught the attention of the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, former World Editor of The Upper Room and evangelical United Methodist leader. “The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce,” he recalled. “She spoke about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms.” 

“It was a powerful prodigal daughter story. There was no pretension of perfection,” Dunnam said. “The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one. Again, the emphasis was not on the man but the message.”

When speaking about the end of his own life, Graham used to like to paraphrase the words of one of his heroes, D. L. Moody, an evangelist of a different era: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” 

Graham’s admirers note the change of address with deep respect and love.

Hymn Swinger

The holy-rolling and guitar-swinging hymn singer who arguably gave birth to rock and roll and was buried in an unmarked grave for more than 35 years is finally getting the respect she deserves. For the fans of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the posthumous adulation is bittersweet. 

Ignored and neglected for decades, she was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 14. “She is the founding mother who gave rock’s founding fathers the idea,” the Hall of Fame acknowledged. Sister Rosetta’s obscurity is both regrettable and pitiable. Her music and talents were gender-eclipsing, genre-defying, and ground-breaking. She was a finger-picking, gospel-rocking trailblazer on the guitar long before Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, or Eric Clapton. 

“Sister Rosetta Tharpe holds an important role in the evolution of American music; a great innovator, she not only unapologetically bridged the seemingly enormous chasm between secular and church music, she also helped pioneer the unique sound of rock and roll guitar,” Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, has observed. “Her infectious spirit, impeccable musicality, and sheer joy in her faith are obvious in every recording and are a source of great inspiration.”

Tharpe grew up in a conservative church setting that was simultaneously progressive about women in ministry, loud musical instruments, and an expressive worship style that encouraged hand clapping and dancing. In some quarters, this lively expression was looked down upon and dismissed as undignified holy rollin’, but this was the high-octane incubator for Rosetta that gave her permission and a platform to express her gifts as a young woman. 

Tharpe’s mother was a mandolin player and a traveling evangelist with the Church of God in Christ, the African-American Pentecostal-Holiness denomination founded in 1897. Accompanying her mother, Rosetta began playing “Jesus on the Mainline” on the guitar at age four. After years of playing in revival meetings and church services, Rosetta moved to New York City in 1938 and became the first gospel artist to be signed to Decca Records. She performed with Cab Calloway at Harlem’s segregated Cotton Club and was featured at John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” sold-out event at Carnegie Hall.

“She sang some gospel songs that brought the house down,” Count Baise recalled. “She sang down-home church numbers and had those old cool New Yorkers almost shouting in the aisles. There were lots of people out there who had never heard that kind of singing, but she went over big.” 

Sister Rosetta’s star was on the rise. She was, after all, the first solo gospel artist to play at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. While the white audiences were thrilled to hear African American gospel music for the first time, many of her church supporters were aghast that she was taking what was known as “sanctified” music into nightclubs. Walking the tightrope between the tabernacle and the spotlight – and making a living as a musician – would prove to be both a burden and challenge for her entire life.

Sister Rosetta was famous for her raucous and rollicking music and mega-watt smile. But it was her guitar work that mesmerized audiences – saints, sinners, black, white, men and women. “Rapidly finger-picked notes press up against full-on power chords that linger languidly in the air,” Dr. Gayle Wald writes in her Tharpe biography Shout, Sister, Shout. “She squeezes notes from the high end of the pitch, relishing the gentle fuzz of distortion, then cajoles the instrument, commanding, ‘Let’s do that again.’”

In 1942, Billboard magazine called her music “rock-and-roll spiritual singing” – a decade before the phrase was commonplace. Tharpe attempted to “inhabit an in-between place where the worlds of religious and popular music intersected and overlapped,” Wald writes. “Even when limiting herself to a church repertoire, she stuck out as a loud woman: loud in her playing, loud in her personality. In concert, she combined the spontaneous fervor of religious revivals with the practiced production values of Broadway variety shows.”

The revolutionary nature of what she was doing didn’t  go unnoticed by up-and-coming superstars. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain,” said Bob Dylan. “She was a powerful force of nature.” She influenced Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Karen Carpenter. “Say, man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis once said. “I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s … shakin’ man … She jumps it.” She was also Johnny Cash’s favorite artist.

“Elvis loved Rosetta Tharpe,” proclaimed Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, the back up vocal quartet for Presley. “Not only did he dig her guitar playing but he dug her singing too.” Before backing Elvis, The Jordanaires toured with Tharpe – flipping the cultural picture inside out as a white quartet sang back up for an African American performer.

In a belligerently segregated era, she was a striking figure with high heels and ornate sequined dresses accessorized by a Gibson SG guitar strapped over her shoulder. “As a black woman with few outlets for public speaking, Rosetta fashioned a distinct means to speak through her guitar,” Wald writes. “As a woman who could outplay her male counterparts, she managed the ‘threat’ of her virtuosity to men by undercutting it with disarming humor and a dose of feminine decorum.” Thankfully, modern day fans can watch a handful of grainy YouTube videos, including scenes where she was guest host of TV Gospel Time on NBC. 

Tharpe’s recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price in 1944 was the first gospel song to make Billboard’s “race records” Top Ten. A smart case has been made that it might be the first rock and roll record. That’s why her fans find sweet comfort in the Hall of Fame nod. “All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now,” Sister Rosetta told London’s Daily Mirror back in the 1950s. “Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.” 

The historic relationship between the church and rock has fluctuated between resentment to hostility – sometimes justifiably. Rosetta fought hard to stay in the good graces of the church that nurtured her. That didn’t always work out but she would be the first to remind the church that there must be some way for the amped-up joyful noise of ecstatic worship to be shared with those who will never enter a sanctuary. To those who would tell her “come out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17), she might respond, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

During one spat with detractors, she responded: “God has said, ‘If I am for you, I am more than the world against you.’ He has also said, ‘Hold your peace, I will fight your battles,’ and that is what I am going to do and carry on for the Lord.” 

Sister Rosetta suffered a stroke in 1970 and died three years later at the age of 58. Her widespread popularity had waned in comparison to previous decades. Her funeral was far more modest than her larger-than-life personality. Sadly, she was buried in an unmarked grave. As word of this travesty was discovered by fans more than 30 years later, money was raised for a proper tombstone. “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy,” it now properly states. “She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”  

Royal Faith

There is an intriguing scene in Season 2 of the wildly successful historical drama, The Crown, on Netflix. For the uninitiated, the award-winning series revolves around the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the now 91-year-old sovereign of the United Kingdom. 

At the beginning of episode six, Elizabeth (played by Clare Foy) is studiously watching Billy Graham preach on television in 1955 while sitting with her mother in Buckingham Palace. The Queen Mother (played by Victoria Hamilton) finds Graham to be more than an acquired taste for the upper class British religious sensibilities. She appears perturbed that the public is captivated by a man who learned his trade “selling brushes door-to-door in North Carolina” and that British subjects turned “out in droves for an American zealot.”

“He is not a zealot,” Elizabeth responds. 

“He’s shouting, darling,” her mother replies. “Only zealots shout.”

Much to the chagrin of the palace staff, Elizabeth asks that an invitation be extended to Billy Graham for a visit. In The Crown, Graham (played by Paul Sparks) fittingly preaches in Windsor Chapel on what it means to be a Christian: “As I was thinking about what to preach about today, I considered various topics which speak to me personally, but I thought that I would start with a simple question. What is a Christian? The Bible tells us; Colossians 1:27 says that a Christian is a person in whom Christ dwells. It’s Christ in you, the hope of glory. It means that you have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That encounter has taken place. You have received Christ as savior. And that is what a Christian is.”

“I enjoyed that very much,” Elizabeth tells Graham after the service. “You do speak with such wonderful clarity and certainty.” She admits her “great joy” at being “a simple congregant, being taught, being led … to be able to just disappear and be…”

“A simple Christian,” Graham says to assist in finishing her thought. “Yes,” Elizabeth replies, “Above all things, I do think of myself as just a simple Christian.”

Script. Off script. Of course, that dialogue was all from the creative mind of The Crown creator David Morgan. We actually don’t know much about their encounter except from what we learn from Graham. “When we filed into the Royal Chapel, I looked around to see the location of the pulpit. I was stunned to realize that the chapel had no pulpit, just a place to stand. I carried a thick sheaf of handwritten notes on extra paper and was forced to leave them behind when I got up to speak,” the evangelist recalled in the pages of Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador, a memoir of Graham’s photographer Russ Busby. “I had prayed so much about this moment that I knew however simple and full of mistakes my sermon would be, God would overrule and use it – but I’ll tell you, I could really feel my heart beating.”

The earlier mentioned tense exchange between mother and daughter in The Crown may have utilized a tad too much artistic license in the screenwriting technique of having the Queen Mother give voice to the many naysayers within British society who were overtly skeptical of Graham’s message and style. His visit was an overwhelming cultural moment and a headline-grabbing experience. Great tension and passion surrounded his rallies. There were more than 30,000 posters with the face of the evangelist and the simple message: Hear Billy Graham!

“No one in Britain has been more cordial toward us than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” Graham wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am. He is now 99 years old and living in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I believe one reason for the Queen’s spiritual interest was the warm faith of her mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother,” he wrote. (The Queen Mother died in 2002 at 102 years of age.) 

The unscripted reality is that there was an undeniable special connection between Graham and Queen Elizabeth. “I always found her very interested in the Bible and its message,” he wrote. “After preaching at Windsor one Sunday, I was sitting next to the Queen at lunch. I told her I had been undecided until the last minute about my choice of sermon and had almost preached on the healing of the crippled man in John 5. Her eyes sparkled and she bubbled over with enthusiasm, as she could do on occasion. ‘I wish you had!’ she exclaimed. ‘That is my favorite story.’”

While the relationship was warm between certain members of the royal family and Graham, the young fiery evangelist was still acquainting himself with becoming the preeminent international Christian evangelist.

In Prophet Without Honor, Graham biographer William Martin gives a taste of the reception the evangelist received from the British press. The London Evening News, for example, called Graham an “American hot gospel specialist” who took “his listeners strolling down Pavements of Gold, introduces them to the rippling-muscled Christ, who resembles Charles Atlas with a halo, then drops them abruptly into the Lake of Fire for a sample scalding.” Other media outlets dismissed him as “Silly Billy” and peppered him with questions such as, “Who invited you over here, anyway?” “Do you think you can save England?” and “Don’t you think you’re needed more in your country?”

During his first visit to England, Graham learned that his bright ties and socks proved to be a distraction to the understated British society. On his second go-round, he was very concerned about making the right impression by arriving with a new fedora and a conservative dark coat. He also asked his wife, Ruth, to not wear lipstick since some of the church leaders viewed it as worldly. 

“Bill stooped from being a man of God to become a meddlesome husband and ordered my lipstick off,” Ruth wrote in her diary. “There was a lively argument – then I wiped it off. He got so busy getting the bags together I managed to put more on without notice.” She later commented, “It doesn’t seem to me to be a credit to Christ to be drab.”

When the Grahams arrived in Waterloo train station, they were met by a “perfect mob,” recalled Ruth. William Martin quotes an eyewitness who stated that “women screamed and fainted, babies and children were passed over the heads of the crowd, newspaper stands were overturned, and burly railway policemen were swept aside….” Ruth remembers, “The press of the crowd was so terrific that Bill and I were instantly separated. Cheers went up, and the air was filled with ‘God bless you’ and ‘Welcome to England.’”

A Royal Faith

Long before Billy Graham appears in The Crown, the creators had already given slight indications of Queen Elizabeth’s sincere Christian faith. She is shown kneeling next to her bed in prayer and inquiring of her elderly grandmother, Queen Mary, about the divine “calling” of royalty. “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth,” Elizabeth’s grandmother tells her before her consecration. “To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant. Which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.” 

Once again, these are the scripted words of The Crown’s creators. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth has used her Christmas address each year to publicly profess her faith with her own conviction. “Christ not only revealed to us the truth in his teachings,” Elizabeth proclaimed in 1981. “He lived by what he believed and gave us the strength to try to do the same – and, finally, on the cross, he showed the supreme example of physical and moral courage.”

As the Queen of the United Kingdom and the head of the Church of England, Elizabeth has never been timid about admitting her allegiance to Jesus Christ. “To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance,” she said in 2000. “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Although she oversees a nation that is better known for empty cathedrals than religious revival, the Queen remains a beloved world leader who speaks eloquently, humbly, and respectfully from a heart of faith.

“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” she said on Christmas in 2014, “is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role-model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

Rockin’ to the light

It was a surreal scene for a teenage girl to be cruising down the highway in 1956 wedged in the front seat of a Pontiac Star Chief between her father and Elvis Presley. But that was the dizzying case for 18-year-old Wanda Jackson right at the time when rock and roll was percolating and beginning to flip American teen culture upside down. 

As a budding country music starlet from Oklahoma City, Jackson was recruited as the lone female performer to play alongside rock and roll pioneers such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and Elvis. “They were kind of like my brothers,” Jackson told Good News. “I always kind of preferred the company of men, anyway. I had my dad there and it made it possible to work with that many men. I wouldn’t have done it had I been alone. I couldn’t have.”  

With her father as her chaperone and the watchful guardian of her reputation, she was not permitted to ride with the guys, but Elvis was allowed in the front seat of their Pontiac on the way to the next concert stop. 

Jackson, 80, known as the Queen of Rockabilly, still performs live, has released dozens of albums, and has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards. Her many fans include Bob Dylan, Adele, Jack White, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello. Jackson’s new autobiography Every Night Is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (BMG) is a coming-of-age memoir of how a knock-out performer could have a five-decade career in country, rock, and gospel and not lose her soul. 

Without a doubt, Jackson’s relationship with Elvis played a key role in the trajectory of her career. When they first met in 1955 at a radio station on the first stop of a tour, she had never heard of him. Nevertheless, Jackson thought he was handsome and charming. Not long after, they began dating. “He asked me to be his girl, and I had his ring,” she said. She wore it around her neck for about a year before their career paths tamped out their long-distance relationship. The romance did not last, but she still has his ring – and fond memories. 

Originally, Wanda’s father couldn’t comprehend Elvis. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” he told Wanda as they both watched Elvis with a bright yellow coat and slicked-back pompadour getting into the front seat of his bright pink Cadillac. “Elvis might as well have been getting into a rocket ship,” Jackson recalls in her book. “You might should stay away from that one, Wanda,” her dad said. “I think this Elvis character could be a nut.”

Eventually her father grew to admire Presley. It was the young singer from Memphis that convinced Jackson to transition from country music to the newly minted rock and roll sound that was becoming a cultural sensation. “We knew that Elvis had stirred things up and times were changing,” Jackson told me. Presley tried to convince the Jacksons to look to the youth market – the ones buying the records and calling the radio stations. 

Wanda’s father saw the wisdom in the advice. “I think Elvis is right,” he told his daughter. “I think there’s a new trend coming.” Everything was happening so quickly. “We didn’t know how long it would last but Elvis made me promise that I would try it,” she said. Despite her misgivings, she eventually knocked out spitfire hits such as “Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama,” “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad,” and “Let’s Have A Party.”

Jackson was a certifiable shimmering star and glamorous renegade in the male-dominated golden era of rock. She played guitar, got scolded at the Grand Ole Opry for trying to get on stage with exposed shoulders, and provocatively had an African-American piano player at a time when strict segregation was brutally enforced. Her 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction finally celebrated her indisputable musical legacy. 

At the same time, Wanda and her husband, Wendell – an IBM computer programmer who became her manager and publicist (who died last year) – were suffering all the side effects of fame, partying, and life on the road. “After about 10 years it was pretty hard,” Jackson said. “Wendell was very jealous and that caused problems. … There was a lot of drinking – the outcome of that was treacherous. … We loved each other. We didn’t ever think about divorce. Murder, a couple of times,” she joked with laughter. “No, we loved each other, but we were drinking too much. We were gone too much. We were arguing. I couldn’t live that way and neither could he.” 

The success, liquor, and showbiz lights were not enough distractions to heal her spiritual ache. “Sometimes I would lie in bed at night with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was missing,” she wrote. “I felt restless and anxious. … But I still couldn’t shake that dull but persistent sense of emptiness inside.”

In 1971, The Living Bible, paraphrased in common language, was published and she read it out loud to Wendell as they were on the road. “We tried to make sense of it,” she said. “We were really searching.” While they were away, the Jackson’s two children were being cared for by Wanda’s mother. The kids loved the new pastor at their church and hounded their parents to hear him preach.  “Even though we were open to trying to understand the Bible during those long stretches of interstate, we weren’t that anxious to go hang out with a bunch of church people,” Jackson wrote. “That wasn’t really our crowd.” 

Between tours, the pastor informally connected with the Jacksons and ended up being as personable and engaging as their children had reported. What Wanda and Wendell remembered from their time with the minister was his direct message: “Everyone needs Christ, no matter who you are. Sometimes people are afraid to admit they need Christ, and they’re afraid to turn to Him because they feel like they’re not good enough or they’ve done some things that make them feel like God couldn’t possibly love them. But He does.”

They wrestled with the weight of those words while they were back on tour. “We were running,” she recalls. “Running from the reality that our marriage was suffering. Running from the fear that our lives were unraveling. Running from Brother Paul’s words that everyone needs God.” 

When they returned home from the concerts, they fulfilled the promise to their kids that they would attend church. “We got up late – kinda hung over – but we were late getting to church,” she said. While in the service, Wanda sensed a divine voice say, “Walk with me.” She turned to Wendell. “There is something I’ve got to do,” she said. “Let me out of this pew. I’ve got to get right with the Lord.” He joined her. 

“We took hands and walked down the aisle and gave our hearts and lives to Christ,” she recalled, as the congregation sang the old hymn, “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.” “It was just unbelievable. The pressure was lifted off. The guilt, the sin, was lifted off. It was just marvelous. We were two new creations in Christ. Everything changed for the better.”  

The shift of spiritual dynamics also detoured Jackson’s career path. “I started to record gospel. That’s where my heart was,” she told me. “I wanted everyone in the world to know the salvation that I experienced.” That decision was fraught with its own challenges. “I had never had stage fright playing in honky tonks, but the first few times I sang at churches, I was so scared I was throwing up before I went on,” she wrote. “I was used to singing for people who were there for a party. It was nighttime, and there was smoke, and everyone was drinking and acting silly and having fun. Suddenly, there I was in a long dress – not a miniskirt – and no fringe and no go-go boots. And it was daylight and everyone was sober! I didn’t know how the church folks would react to me.”

She was caught in a cultural and spiritual skirmish. The country music disc jockeys wouldn’t play her gospel. “They thought it was too churchy,” she said. “And the church, on the other hand, thought I was still too country. I fell through the cracks.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and she and Wendell shared their gospel message all over the world.

Jackson’s career took on another unexpected twist with the eruption of a rockabilly revival in the 1980s. She discovered that she was still considered a star in Europe and Scandinavia. The fans lined up to hear Jackson playing her classic hits. Meanwhile, The Stray Cats, The Blasters, X, The Cramps, and Rosie Flores were spearheading a rockabilly resurgence in the United States. Her songs had once again found a receptive audience.

“She’s vibrant and edgy without being abrasive, and sweet without being saccharine,” observed musician Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, at her Rock Hall induction. “This is a woman who has rhythm and joy, in equal parts, to the depth of her soul…. She’s not a red-carpet-celebrity-hand-out-rehab-tabloid kind of person. She’s a person of strong religious conviction, deep integrity, a road warrior, and a rock and roll queen.” 

Each generation has turned in one way or another back to Wanda Jackson’s music. Her last two albums were produced by critically-acclaimed recording gurus Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. “I believe God has given me two deep desires, and He’s provided me with the opportunity to fuel them both,” she testifies in her book. “First, I love to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s great to get on the stage, feel those drums pounding behind me, and get the audience on their feet. Second, He gave me the desire – and also the courage – to talk about my faith onstage, whether I’m at a church revival or a punk rock club.” 

She testifies that there is a “holy hush” that falls on the audience when she talks about her faith in God. “Every once in a while, I’ll have a drunk girl sarcastically yell out ‘hallelujah’ or something. Some guys have mouthed off a little bit, but the audience will shush them for me, so I don’t have to say anything,” she wrote. “I think my fans respect me, but I also try to be cool and respect them by not talking too long.” 

After her talk, Jackson launches into Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” “Almost everyone knows the words,” she said. “They start clapping and singing along with me. It’s like a Baptist revival.”

Hank deftly crosses over in honky-tonks and sanctuaries. So does Wanda. 

“I’ve learned what it means to find peace and meaning, sometimes in the face of adversity,” she concludes. “I’ve learned to find my grounding in a good man, a good family, and most importantly, in a good God, who is the source of all light and truth. These are the influences that have allowed me to keep the musical party going for decades.”

Liberty’s Hero

Frederick Douglass grew up under the perverse shackles of slavery on a plantation in Maryland 200 years ago. He never knew the identity of his father, barely saw his mother, and witnessed unspeakable violence and bloodshed before he turned 10 years old. He was proselytized under a warped version of Christianity that had a Bible in one hand and a bullwhip in the other. It was piety unrecognizable to the Prince of Peace.   

As one who escaped the bonds of slavery, Douglass (1818-1895) would become the most eloquent abolitionist orator and the most steadfast defender of liberty, equality, and justice. “Douglass spoke as a man born into bondage in America more than forty years after the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that all men were equal and endowed by God with liberty,” historian D. H. Dilbeck reports in Frederick Douglass: American Prophet, a new spiritual autobiography.   

At eight years old, Douglass was sent to live with a Methodist family in Baltimore. The wife, Sophia, was kind and devout and treated Frederick with the love that children deserve. Bible reading, hymn singing, and prayers were commonplace. One night, he heard Sophia reading the Old Testament story of Job aloud. The desolation of Job’s life was spelled out: death, poverty, and relentless calamity. 

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”

“How could this be?” young Frederick asked himself. Why are the righteous stricken with destruction while the evil count their fortune? Where is God? Was this all part of a divine plan? When he should have been identifying with a Sunday school story such as young David slaying the belligerent bully Goliath, instead he connected with the stark horror story of a man whose entire family is decimated. 

When asked about their captivity, some fellow slaves repeated the slaveholder’s propaganda that God made white people to be masters and black people to be slaves. Others told him that it was God’s predestined plan for the planet. Douglass rejected these false precepts. “It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery,” Douglass concluded. Judging from the biblical messages of the prophets and the King of Kings, it was greed and spiteful hearts of humans that stole liberty and equality from those who were born free.  

Wanting to learn more about Job, Frederick asked Sophia to teach him to read. He soon mastered the alphabet and began to spell. Sophia was overjoyed – until she announced the progress to her husband. Horrified, he demanded that the lessons end immediately. “Learning would spoil the best n***er in the world,” he said, because slaves who knew how to read – especially the Bible – became “disconsolate and unhappy.” One can only imagine the fear that would run through a slaveholder’s blood as those kept in chains read about Moses telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Sophia promptly ended the lessons.

Douglass recalled her transformation as proof that “slavery can change a saint into a sinner, and an angel into a demon.” At the same time that young Fredrick’s heart was searching for a relationship with God, he witnessed firsthand the way that the prevailing slaveholding culture blinded the churchgoers to biblical justice and the gospel of love. 

Hidden away at night, Frederick taught himself to read using old copies of Webster’s spelling book and Methodist hymnals. The saga of Job launched Douglass into mastering the language – the written words that held power to unchain the heart – that could literally help free men, women, and children. “Devout masters did all they could to keep the sacred truth of the Gospel from their slaves,” Dilbert wrote. “Yet the confounding experience of Job, who heard God in the whirlwind, proved far too compelling to a young boy who had wrestled with the problem of evil. Nothing could keep Frederick from the Bible and from learning to read.”

Remarkably, Douglass scoured the streets looking for passages of Scripture to piece together. “I have gathered scattered pages from this holy book, from the filthy street gutters of Baltimore, and washed and dried them, that in the moments of my leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from them,” he wrote.

Douglass would eventually write three best-selling autobiographies. “I was not more than thirteen years old, when I felt the need of God, as a father and protector,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “My religious nature was awakened by the preaching of a white Methodist minister named Hanson. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God … and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God, through Christ.” 

Douglass was also befriended by Charles Johnson, a black lay preacher, who told him to pray. “I was, for weeks, a poor, brokenhearted mourner, traveling through the darkness and misery of doubts and fears. I finally found that change of heart which comes by ‘casting all one’s care’ upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.”

Douglass testifies that seeking after God transformed his life. “After this, I saw the world in a new light. I seemed to live in a new world, surrounded by new objects, and to be animated by new hopes and desires,” he claimed. “I loved all mankind – slaveholders not excepted; though I abhorred slavery more than ever. My great concern was, now, to have the world converted.”

Douglass spent the rest of his life battling for the rights of those left out and forgotten: women, Native Americans, and immigrants. He preached and published with the intensity of an Old Testament prophet and the grace of a nail-scarred savior. He had a lifelong “lover’s quarrel” with the Christian church in America that defended or looked the other way while men, women, and children were sold on auction blocks. The complicit preachers armed with a false gospel “have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system,” Douglass said. 

The message and struggle of Old Testament prophets helped Douglass make sense of the prevailing worldview that devalued and degraded an entire race of people. He “aspired to speak to America as Isaiah and Christ once spoke,” observed Dilbeck, “with words of rebuke and warning, exhortation and encouragement, grace and liberty, hope and truth.” The voice of Christ and the prophets “provided a radical, contrarian vision of righteousness: to care for the marginalized, oppressed, widowed, and orphaned; to heal the brokenhearted; to set free the captives.” 

Douglass’s faith was his anchor of hope throughout his life. Preaching in a Methodist church in Washington D.C. near the end of his life, Douglass confessed that when he faced despair about the future of his race and nation, he reminded himself, “God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”  

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi

The art world is in a high-dollar tizzy after a controversial Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus sold for nearly half a billion dollars. The mid-November auction “saw a tense 20 minute battle between at least six bidders,” reported Newsweek. “Observers in the room whooped, cheered, and applauded when the sale was finally confirmed.” Now registered as the highest priced piece of art in history, the 26-inch high painting portrays Christ in a flowing blue Renaissance-era robe holding a crystal orb in one hand and making the benediction blessing sign with the other.

The painting’s magnetic draw was not surprising. Remarkably, there are less than 20 Leonardo (1452-1519) paintings known to exist – and all others are displayed in museums. He was a trailblazing inventor, mathematician, and artist who is most well-known for his paintings “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.”

The final price tag of $450 million for “Salvator Mundi” – Latin for “Savior of the World” – was jaw dropping, especially considering the opening bid was $75 million. The entire transaction puts this piece of art into a stratosphere without peer. Interestingly, there is a fascinating history that accompanies the artwork, as well as some very big unanswered mysteries.

At different stages over the last 500 years the portrait was owned by King Charles I of England (1600-1649), vanished from public viewing for 150 years before it showed up in 1900, sold for $59 in 1958 (believed to be the work of a Leonardo associate), someone painted over Christ’s face and hair, it was restored and sold for less than $10,000 at a Louisiana estate sale, appraised as a Leonardo original in 2011, sold to a Swiss tycoon for $75 million, and purchased by a Russian oligarch for $127 million. The last owner had it auctioned off at Christie’s.

One of the unanswered questions is who spent $450 million to purchase the painting. The other question – perhaps more important – is whether the painting is actually authentic. Despite the monumental price tag, there are highly-charged debates about whether the portrait was painted by Leonardo or one of his disciples, Bernardino Luini.

It would not be difficult for theologians and Bible teachers to see points of parallel and contrast between the painting in question and the recorded life of Jesus. Both share colorfully circuitous storylines. There is also a striking juxtaposition between the painting’s price tag and Jesus’ sage warning about wealth, camels, and the eye of a needle. Then there are the heavy questions to be addressed about both the true authenticity of “Salvator Mundi,” as well as the divine nature of Jesus. Faith comes to the forefront in both instances.

For Bible readers, the Gospel of St. Mark records an intriguing exchange when Jesus asked a seemingly odd question of his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” (8:27). What would prompt someone to ask such a question – especially to friends and associates? Of course, Christ was clearly something more than a run-of-the-mill wayfaring prophet. Indeed, what we are to make of Jesus has become a pivotal spiritual inquiry for the last 2000 years. The legendary broadcaster Larry King once said that if he could choose one person from history to interview it would be Christ. King said that he would like to ask “if He was indeed virgin-born,” adding, “The answer to that question would define history for me.”

The story of Jesus is a patchwork of the mundane and miraculous. St. Mark launches with Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by a locust-and-honey-eating holy man. From there, Jesus matter-of-factly proclaimed that the “kingdom of God is near,” cast a shrieking demon out of a man at a church service, and healed the sick and possessed. He tried to pray in isolation before sunrise one day but his disciples tracked him down and exasperatedly blurted out, “Everyone is looking for you!” He was clearly a man with a plan – and obviously in demand.

However, he had no world headquarters, no private jet, no mailing list, no Instagram, no cable network TV show. He hiked around the country side with an unlikely gaggle of disciples and preached and drove out howling dark spirits and touched untouchable people. With compassion, we are told, he healed the lepers who were missing ears and fingers and toes.

It was standing room only when he was the guest of honor in a home. In the middle of his talk, a gang of friends ripped open the roof and precariously lowered a paralyzed man into the center of the living room. “Son, your sins are forgiven” were the peculiar and unexpected words the man heard as the atrophied muscles of his legs were revived. Divine forgiveness and an empty stretcher in one fell swoop. Mystery stacked upon mystery.

Thumbing through Mark’s Gospel, there is a story of a shriveled hand that is healed then the salacious allegation that Jesus was himself possessed by Beelzebub. There was the awkward moment when Jesus provocatively asked, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Sure, he was clearly making a point with shock-value, but why provoke the family? Oh yes, and there was a nasty storm incident that left his friends asking, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him.”

We may feel safer and less anxiety-ridden with the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”) but the dog-eared pages of a well-read Bible are not shy about revealing stories that seem more like Stephen King novels than Sunday school flannel board stories. The temptation is to sell a domesticated meek and mild Jesus when the stories tell a wild counter narrative.

The out-of-this-world episodes roll through like an out-of-control locomotive. A naked man who cut himself with sharp rocks and lived in a graveyard got a house call from Jesus. The fur flew. Well, in this case, a livid pig farmer went berserk when Jesus cast the man’s demons into 2000 pigs and they charged down a hill straight into a lake. The graveyard dweller was made whole and found some clothes. The pigs didn’t fare so well. They didn’t swim. The irate townspeople ushered Jesus outside the city limits.

On the following pages, there is a dead daughter brought back to life and a hemorrhaging woman made whole when she touched the hem of his clothing. Five loaves and two fish fed thousands – and there were leftovers. Who can forget the legendary adventure of Jesus walking on water?

Eventually we get back to the big question Jesus asked his friends: “Who do people say that I am?” When you read it from front-to-back, the question doesn’t seem so crazy. Jesus’ disciples replied with the only categories they understood, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” Jesus asked his friends. “Who do you say I am?” The impetuous Apostle Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Adding to the enigma, the Bible says: “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”

While trendy scholars revamp Jesus into a Bible-thumping Che Guevara, time-tested theologians take the abnormalities and fantastical elements of the gospel accounts in stride. They’re not sanguine about the inexplicable, they’re just not revisionistic.

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe,” observed author G.K. Chesterton, English journalist and philosopher. “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.” Like it or not, the gospel scenes were either a cosmic charade or Jesus simply played by his own set of rules.

“Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding,” observes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

Responding to pointed questions regarding who painted “Salvator Mundi,” a spokesperson from Christie’s Auction House remarked: “Leonardo’s paintings are known for their mystery and ambiguity.” The painting will remain a controversy that will never fully be laid to rest except for those who wholeheartedly believe in its authenticity.

In a somewhat similar fashion, questions about Jesus Christ have lingered for more than two millennia. Vibrant orthodoxy has embraced the twin prisms of paradox and mystery to envision the complexities and challenges of faith. Yet in an age of internet-quick skepticism, the bombardment of criticism over even an inkling of faith is merciless. Witness what passes as religious dialogue via social media. It is a series of grunts, groans, over the top mockery, and a supposed mic drop – the one liner intended to end the exchange. Unfortunately, both sides utilize this technique. The Good Shepherd, meanwhile, is left voiceless.

“One man’s mystery is another man’s incoherence,” observes Douthat, “and the paradoxes of Christian doctrine have always been a source of scandal as well as strength – not only among atheists, but also among the many honest believers to whom orthodox Christian doctrine looks like a hopeless muddle or else transparent sophistry.”

St. Paul addressed the struggle of looking at the spiritual life with an authentic vision of faith – it had to be something more than mere intellect or emotion. For believers, he prayed that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope” and “incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18).

Speaking in truly other-worldly terms, no less than Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like an investor searching high and low for fine pearls. “When he found one very precious pearl, he went away and sold all he had and bought it.” For those who believe, this is the journey of faith. To those who seek, Jesus is known as the pearl of great price.

Meanwhile, congratulations are in order for the proud new owner of “Salvator Mundi.” One hopes that the buyer of the painting has stumbled upon the real deal. After 2000 years, Jesus still seems to be a portrait that pops off the canvas.

Wayfinding Home

(c) 2015 Polynesian Voyaging Society. Photo: OIWI TV.

(c) 2015 Polynesian Voyaging Society. Photo: OIWI TV.

For three years, they were ultimately voyaging back home. Along the way, they circumnavigated the globe – without so much as a compass. The crew of the Hokule’a, a 62-foot-long Polynesian sailing canoe, traversed more than 40,000 nautical miles in its epic journey with no engine or modern navigational instruments. Having set sail in 2014, the crew returned to Hawaii in July 2017. Guided only by their assessment of the sun, moon, stars, wind, swells, and sea life patterns, the Polynesian Voyaging Society accomplished a global trek that most people thought was impossible.

In an era enamored by technological pinnacles, chalk this extraordinary triumph up to the ancient South Pacific ways.

In order to grab hold of the wow-factor behind this feat, forget about touristy ocean cruising. On the Hokule’a (ho-koo-lay-ah, “Star of Gladness” in Hawaiian), there was no midnight buffet, ice sculptures, or cocktails on the lido deck. There was no refrigeration, restroom stalls, or internet café on the catamaran-style vessel. The showers were buckets of seawater and the canvas-covered sleeping quarters were 6 foot segments marked out in the hulls where the 12-member crew slept head-to-foot. Spartan conditions. Spectacular adventure.

Participating in month-long shifts, there were more than 250 different volunteer sailors. “They strapped on safety harnesses to change sails and tighten lines; hauled heavy anchors out of the water; loaded bulky supplies; cooked hearty meals for a dozen people using a camping stove,” Marcel Honoré reported in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. 

Once again, the entire trip was conducted without compasses, maps, or GPS. The navigators, reports Richard Shiffman of Scientific American, relied on observing the “position of celestial bodies, the direction of waves and the movement of seabirds to set its course. To accurately maintain their bearing at night, the Hokule’a navigators had to memorize the nightly courses of more than 200 stars, along with their precise rising and setting locations on the horizon.” Shiffman continues: “The crew was also taught to read cloud patterns, sunset colors and the size of halos around stars to learn what such phenomena might portend about approaching weather.”

Nainoa Thompson

Nainoa Thompson

Throughout the journey, the crew visited more than 150 ports in 23 countries and territories. “You have to be on your feet, and to be able to feel one wave when it comes through from one foot to another,” master navigator Nainoa Thompson told NPR. “You only know where you are by memorizing where you come from.” Thompson has dedicated his life to honoring the voyaging tradition of his ancestors. The ancient highly-nuanced navigation skills were taught to Thompson by Mau Pialug, a wayfinder from a tiny island in Micronesia.

The awe-inspiring journey around the globe – launching from Hawaii and cutting a trail through the South Pacific, the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean, before returning home to the Pacific – was fraught with life-threatening risks.

“But what is more dangerous,” Thompson responded in Costal Living. “The hurricanes, the pirates, the mosquitoes, and the rogue waves? Or … to keep the canoe tied to the dock because you’re afraid to go?”

Along these same lines, the greatest spiritual advice I ever received came from my mom, Joann Beard. Most memorably she told me during a time of indecision: “God cannot steer a boat that is tied to a dock.” We were created to explore.

Two decades ago, I heard a sermon from retired Bishop Al Gwinn when he was pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. What I never forgot was his message about one’s place in this enormous and chaotic universe – and how we are never out of God’s sight or reach.

Bishop Gwinn shared about a fishing trip with two friends in the Gulf Stream, 30 or 40 miles off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida. When they left the dock, it was a gorgeous day to land some big fish. Once they got out to where the emerald green water magically turns deep blue, they failed to get a single bite. This went on for several hours. A large canopy of dark clouds formed overhead and stretched above them until not a sliver of sunlight was peaking through. Although they had left knowing that their navigational device was not functioning, they mistakenly thought that there was a compass in one of the boat’s nooks. They never assumed that getting home would be an issue.

It just happened to be one of those days when the fish were not biting, the sun was not shining, and now the three fishermen were simply lost at sea. They zig-zagged within the Gulf Stream in one direction and then in another, all in hopes of spotting land. No luck.

Each man had a different gut-feeling about which direction they should go. “It’s this way,” said one as he pointed in a direction. “No, it’s this way,” said another as he pointed the opposite way. Bishop Gwinn believed they were both wrong. All they knew for sure is that they would soon be stranded in the dark. Dejected and alone, the men knew they would be bobbing up and down in the open ocean throughout the night, hoping and praying that the off-shore squalls would not capsize their boat.

Suddenly, as if out of some kind of Hollywood blockbluster movie, a United States Navy submarine emerged – right next to them! Three Navy officers popped out of the hatch and asked the lost fishermen where they were headed. The submarine had been watching them via radar from below and was perplexed about their directionless movements. When they admitted they had no working navigational device or even a compass, the Navy officers pointed them in the correct direction of land. Instead of being lost at sea in the dark, Bishop Gwinn and his friends were heading home because of the U.S. Navy.

While the Lord may work in mysterious ways, I would much rather sail with Nainoa Thompson’s Polynesian crew than with Bishop Gwinn’s friends. During those hours in the Gulf Stream, I think even Bishop Gwinn would have agreed. The spirit of exploration launches you into the deep. It is the ancient skill of wayfinding, however, that brings you back home.