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.

Tis the season

salvation_army_vintage_poster_art-r5da7afbce3f2431685176beff18e0d73_aisv5_8byvr_540 For more than 150 years, The Salvation Army has been the most consistent, creative, and trustworthy symbol for a warm-hearted faith and a generous helping hand for those in need. During this year’s treacherous hurricane season, it was a frontline responder – serving 1.3 million meals, offering prayers, and providing supplies to traumatized survivors in the Houston area, Florida, as well as those across the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

With a legacy of rushing into where the need is greatest, The Salvation Army has earned a coveted reputation for integrity and compassion without prejudice or discrimination. Having served survivors of every major national disaster since 1900, its industriousness is a powerful testimony for its purpose and passion. Last year, more than 3 million people received holiday assistance, more than 10 million nights of lodging were provided to those in need, and more than 56 million meals were served to those who were hungry. Nearly 30 million Americans receive assistance through it each year. It is simply indispensable.

The Salvation Army was launched in Victorian London by William and Catherine Booth, a powerhouse Christian couple who were overwhelmed and horrified by the conditions of the poorest of the poor – the “submerged tenth” – who had virtually no escape from the clutches of misery and poverty. Booth’s spirited response was, “Go for souls and go for the worst!”

He was passionate about reaching the people the established church had overlooked or ignored. “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight,” Booth proclaimed. “While little children go hungry, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight — while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, where there remains one dark soul without the light of God — I’ll fight! I’ll fight to the very end!”

Today, The Salvation Army – complete with its iconic uniforms and brass bands – operates in 129 nations of the world. Commissioner George Scott Railton and seven “Hallelujah Lassies,” as they were called in those days (Google teenager Eliza Shirley), arrived in New York in 1880. “Salvationists marched up the avenues and down the boulevards – even raiding brothels, saloons, and dance halls – in pursuit of lost souls. Their ‘Cathedral of the Open Air,’ a figurative canopy spread over the city, turned all of New York into sanctified ground,” writes Diane Winston in Red-Hot & Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army (Harvard).

Winston reports that the early Salvationists “sent out ice carts in summer, coal wagons in winter, and salvage crews all year round. They established soup kitchens, rescue homes, employment bureaus, hospitals, shelters, and thrift shops.” Their work was tireless and consequential.

The Salvation Army crowd-gathering techniques were as effective as their innovative social services for the down-and-outers. “In the early days their brass instruments, jingling tambourines, and resonant bass drums clamored over the din of horse-drawn carriages and noisy peddlers,” reports Winston. “Their testimonies, shouted from street corners, captured the curious, while their renditions of popular tunes – ‘Swanee River’ or ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’ rewritten as hymns – roused critics to decry such blasphemous strategems.”

The trailblazing methods – loud music, dancing, posters resembling P. T. Barnum’s advertisements – were not welcomed by respectable religious observers, nor by those outside the fold who were annoyed by their message about a transformed life. The Salvationists were attacked in print and sometimes physically assaulted for their public preaching and worship services. One writer actually had the ugly audacity to group African Americans with “whores” and “bums.” “A more motley, vice-smitten, pestilence-breeding, congregation could seldom be found in a house of worship,” wrote the jaundiced reporter from the New York Herald. “There were Negroes, dancing girls, prostitutes, and station house tramps sandwiched between well-dressed visitors who had sauntered in out of curiosity. The floors were as clean as a deck of a man-of-war, but in a few minutes they were frescoed with tobacco juice, the stench became overpowering, and a yellow-fever pest-house could not have been less attractive.”

Throughout its colorful history, the public mockery and vicious assaults were never able to dim the bright light projected from The Salvation Army. “Whether parading in the streets, singing in the saloons, or appearing on the city’s stages, the Army used the venues and forms of the contemporary culture to promote an alternate, even subversive message,” writes Winston. Booth never wanted to surrender one square inch of life or culture to his spiritual enemy. “Why should the devil have all the dancing?” he asked. “You must sing good tunes … I don’t care much whether you call it secular or sacred. I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes, and, after his subjects themselves, music is about the best commodity he possesses,” he concluded. “It is like taking the enemy’s guns and turning them against him.”

It’s a provocative countercultural message – similar to the Red Kettle in front of a department store at Christmas time. Yes, enjoy Christmas, Booth might say, but please don’t forget the less fortunate. The kettle was first utilized in San Francisco in 1891 when Joseph McFee wanted to raise funds for a free Christmas dinner for the poor. He borrowed a large crab pot and hung it from a tripod on a busy street. With a sign that read, “Fill the Pot for the Poor – Free Dinner on Christmas Day,” he was able to collect enough spare change to feed more than 1,000 hungry men, women, and children.

That’s the creative spirit and spiritual legacy of The Salvation Army. It has earned our support.

Searching for Graceland

1200px-Elvis_Presley_promoting_Jailhouse_RockForty years after his tragic death, Elvis Presley remains the legendary performer that, as Bob Dylan put it, “crash landed from a burning star onto American soil.” Amazingly, he still enjoys unparalleled worldwide popularity. In August, more than 50,000 showed up on the 40th anniversary of his death to remember the rockabilly superstar. Last year, Graceland injected $137 million into a spectacular expansion in Memphis. Elvis may have left the building, but his fans have not.

Presley is one of the most pivotal and enigmatic pop culture figures in American history. As a young man, he was raised in poverty and southern Pentecostalism. He attended a conservative Assemblies of God church, but would often sneak off to listen to the music and preaching at a black church less than a mile away. Although best known for the swivel of his hips, Elvis loved gospel music and dreamed of singing it professionally. His career launched at Sun Records, however, took him on a different trajectory – the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll stardom.

When Elvis rolled into Jacksonville, Florida, on August 10, 1956, Judge Marion Gooding had prepared an arrest warrant for Presley, charging him with impairing the morals of minors in the event that Elvis shook his hips. Young people at the Murray Hill Methodist Church heard Elvis denounced in a sermon titled, “Hotrods, Reefers, and Rock and Roll.” Elsewhere in town, Robert Gray, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, offered up prayers for Presley’s salvation after declaring that the singer had “achieved a new low in spiritual degeneracy.”

The Rev. Gray gained national notoriety after being featured in Life magazine. Elvis later confessed frustration at the preacher’s actions. “I think that hurt me more than anything else at first. This man was supposed to be a religious leader, yet he acted that way without ever knowing who I was or what I was like,” said Presley. “I believe in the Bible. I believe that all good things come from God…I don’t believe I’d sing the way I do if God hadn’t wanted me to. My voice is God’s will, not mine.”

In the midst of remarkable fame and fortune, he struggled to find his way. After the Easter service at First Assembly of God in Memphis in 1958, Elvis told the Rev. James Hamill, “Pastor, I’m the most miserable young man you’ve ever seen. I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do, and I’m not doing the things you taught me to do.”

Elvis told his friend Pat Boone, “I wish I could go to church like you.” After Boone told him he could, Elvis replied, “No, they wouldn’t leave me alone. I would distract the minister.” Acknowledging the potential difficulty, Boone told me many years ago that he assured Elvis that “if they see that you are coming for the same reason that they are, all of that would ease away and you could actually worship freely like everybody else. And it would do you a world of good, Elvis.” According to Boone, Elvis “felt like he couldn’t go anywhere in public. So he was sort of imprisoned. I felt like he lived like Public Enemy #1 instead of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It stunted his social and spiritual growth.”

Like so many other young Americans during the 1960s, Elvis explored exotic Eastern religions and experimented with drugs. He was, by all accounts, an eccentric religious seeker on turbo drive. One man who seemed to tap into that spiritual desire was a 24-year-old hairdresser named Larry Geller who told Elvis that he was most interested in discovering three things: “where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.” This was the key to unlocking Elvis’s attention. “Whoa, whoa, man. Larry, I don’t believe it. I mean, what you’re talking about is what I secretly think about all the time,” said Presley.

Those were the kinds of transcendent questions that haunted Elvis’s soul. He saw through the shallowness of stardom, but was a prisoner to his own success. In turn, Elvis consumed books on Hinduism, Judaism, numerology, Theosophy, positive thinking, the new-age, and meditation. Although he explored and researched many diverse religions and practices, he never abandoned his faith in Christianity. He was a true believer, but he also had the appetite of a spiritually starved sojourner.

“All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God,” Elvis said. “I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”

Throughout Presley’s life, gospel music was the constant element of solace to the man who was burning the candle at both ends. He would spend hours singing gospel with his friends around a piano after his shows. The only Grammy awards he earned were with his gospel records. To many fans, he is as well known for “How Great Thou Art” as he is for “Blue Suede Shoes.”

It was the sequined jumpsuit Vegas years in the 1970s that seemed to drain so much of Elvis’s vibrancy. Presley struggled with womanizing, pill-popping, reclusiveness, and uncontrollable weight gain. He turned to uppers, downers, and painkillers to dull the ache of depression and loneliness. Fame was a wicked mistress and Elvis and his entire entourage knew it. Even then, however, he tried to keep his head above water.

As if to reconnect with his faith, Elvis hired gospel groups such as the Imperials, the Sweet Inspirations, and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps to sing back-up for him while he was in Las Vegas. Surrounded by all of the glittery temptations that Sin City had to offer, Elvis appeared to want to provide a glimpse of the sacred – for his audience or, more importantly, for himself.

It would be a mistake to describe what went on in the Vegas shows as a revival meeting under neon lights. Nevertheless, Presley appeared to be hungering for the security and peace that he found in the faith of his younger years. He was one of the only rock performers who recorded religious music – crossing back and forth over the divide between the secular and the sacred.

Gospel singer J.D. Sumner tells of a woman approaching the stage in Vegas with a crown sitting atop a pillow. “It’s for you,” the woman told Elvis. “You’re the King.” He took her hand, smiled, and told her, “No honey, I’m not the King. Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.”

In December 1976, Elvis requested that the Rev. Rex Humbard (1919-2007), a popular television minister, and his wife Maude Aimee meet with him backstage in Las Vegas in between sets. “Jesus is coming back really soon, isn’t he, Rex?” Elvis said as he began quoting all kinds of Scriptures about the Second Coming. “It really shocked me that Elvis knew all of those Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about the Lord’s return,” Humbard told me in an interview in 2002.

Elvis, Maude Aimee, Rex, and J.D. Sumner were sequestered into a large closet in order to have some privacy and speak about spiritual matters. “I could see he was reaching back to his childhood when he used to play his guitar and go to church and sing church songs,” recalled Humbard. “And I could see he was reaching back to the past – that spirituality, that feeling that he had years and years before that had been planted in his heart.”

Maude Aimee told Elvis about her prayer that he would fully rededicate his life to God. According to Humbard, “Elvis went all to pieces. He started crying. She shook him up by that statement.” As the four of them held hands and prayed, “he rededicated his heart to the Lord,” recalled Humbard. “I asked God to bless him and to send His spirit into his heart and meet his every need.” During the evening’s second show, Elvis dedicated “How Great Thou Art” to the Humbards.

To be clear, Elvis was dealing with a runaway trainload of emotional, physical, and spiritual issues during his time in Vegas. Elvis was not a saint, and no one knew that better than Presley himself. He was an enigma who touched a spiritual and cultural nerve in American culture. There is, of course, no one else on the planet who can attract more than 50,000 fans to his gravesite to recognize the 40th anniversary of his death. At previous memorial events, fans recited the Lord’s Prayer, repeated the 23rd Psalm, and joined together in singing “How Great Thou Art.”

When he died, Elvis had fourteen different drugs active in his system. There are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from his tragic death but they should be absorbed through the prism of sorrow, grace, and gratitude. To millions of fans, his life was a spectacular gift – a concoction of rockabilly, gospel, and soul.

At his funeral, the main address was given by the Rev. C.W. Bradley, minister of the Wooddale Church of Christ in Memphis. He spoke of Elvis’s determination, decency, and his love of family. Bradley also acknowledged that Elvis was a “frail human being” and that “he would be the first to admit his weakness. Perhaps because of his rapid rise to fame and fortune he was thrown into temptations that some never experience. Elvis would not want anyone to think that he had no flaws or faults. But now that he’s gone, I find it more helpful to remember his good qualities, and I hope you do too.” His fans – saints and sinners alike – understood that.

The way in which a person dies is not always the best way to remember the pulse of their life. All of us have seasons of our lives that we would sooner forget. It is a worthwhile endeavor to work on extending mercy to others in the same way that we trust the good Lord will extend it to us. We could all use a little trip to “graceland,” even when we are remembering Elvis.

My Joshua Tree

u22-1-1024x643Thirty years ago, I drove 500 miles with college buddies to see U2’s “Joshua Tree” tour stop in Houston. “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me,” Bono had sung on a previous album. Young and idealistic, I believed it then. Strangely, I still believe it today. I’ve never forgotten that night – nor the long drive back to get to class the next day. U2 was recently back in Houston to mark the anniversary of the album that arguably handed them the keys to the kingdom of global rock stardom – #1 album in 23 countries. I’ve written extensively about these Irishmen over the last 20 years, but this full-circle “Joshua Tree” tour still triggered moments of emotional daggers-through-the-heart, tribal fist pumps, and Pentecostal hanky waving – transcendence.

The album concept was titled after a prickly and ungainly desert tree named Joshua by settlers because it resembled the Old Testament prophet’s out-stretched arms toward the heavens and deep roots – strangely symbolic for an Irish band from a country divided with sectarian barbwire and religio-political quagmires. Raised by a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono lived the brutal divide. With the loss of his mother at age 14, he grew up under the weight and anguish of tragedy. Then there was the whirlwind of a charismatic revival among some of the bandmates and the stirring of a struggle between rock ‘n’ roll’s narcissism and an unseen kingdom where the first shall be last and the backstage passes are given to those who honor humility as a prime virtue.

Through all this, Bono remains rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. He talks breezily about the theological superiority of grace over karma to jaundiced rock journalists, launched the humanitarian One Campaign (one.org), and recently wrote the forward to the Bible paraphrase The Message. “My religion could not be fiction but it had to transcend facts,” Bono wrote in a forward to the Psalms in 1999. “It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual.”

U2 has sold more than 170 million albums, collecting 22 Grammys along the way. This world tour features a stunning visual spectacle with a 200 x 45 foot high-def LED screen choreographing imagery with the music. For me, three vitally essential images stood out.

First, a Salvation Army brass band accompanied U2 during the haunting “Red Hill Mining Town.” Never before played live, the song is about the devastation and helplessness of an unemployed miner. “Love, slowly stripped away/ Love, has seen its better day.” The Salvation Army is the most reliable global Christian symbol for faith in action – soup, soap, salvation, and loud music. Under the 150 year old banner of “Blood and Fire,” this ministry – operating in nearly 120 countries – has extended the hand of grace to the down and outers, prostitutes, alcoholics, morphine addicts, unwed mothers, and victims of human trafficking. The original plan was for a brass band to play at every stop on the tour, but the film of them playing in the Santa Clarita Valley of California provides a keen juxtaposition about U2 identifying with the historic message of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth that help is only a drumbeat away (salvationarmyusa.org).

“This was a privilege to be a part of and so much fun to film,” Jacqui Larsson, a member of the ethnically diverse Salvation Army band from Southern California, told me. “It was great to represent The Salvation Army to such a wide audience. We have already heard a few stories of how this video has had a huge impact on people’s lives in a way we had never expected.”

In a long list of poignant moments, the second occurred when we were introduced to Omaima Thaer Hoshan, a 15-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. In the midst of the chaos of her circumstances, she voiced her aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow. A gargantuan banner with her face is passed hand-to-hand throughout the stadium. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there is a hellhole on the other side of the globe. At bare minimum, pray for her safety and be grateful you are not where she is.

Lastly, during a visual montage of notable female politicians and musicians (Sojourner Truth, Patti Smith, Angela Merkel, etc.), one stood out as a sister-in-arms with U2’s sonic art. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), a personal heroine, was the undisputed queen of rock and gospel music, shredding an electric guitar and boldly taking her sanctified skills and songs outside the four walls of the church – taking church to the people. Keep the faith, she would say to U2, and rock on. Bono has called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” an anthem of both doubt and faith. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, it continues to reverberate in the souls of saints and sinners alike. In the midst of uncertainty, it is anchored in redemption: “You broke the bonds / You loosed the chains / You carried the cross / And my shame / And my shame / You know I believe it.”

Bono sometimes mentions music producer Quincy Jones’ observation about waiting for God to walk in the room while making music, letting him fill in the blanks. It’s true. Sometimes. On occasion, divine intervention occurs with albums and concerts. Thirty years ago, I sensed the raucous epiphany during “Joshua Tree.” It was sweet relief, most recently, to experience it all over again.

Unreasonable Faith

catenaDr. Tom Caneta has spent the last nine years sequestered in the Nuba Mountains of the African nation of Sudan. Around the clock, he heals the sick, bandages the broken, and takes cover from bombs dropping overhead. Caneta is the last doctor left in this civil war-torn region marked by starvation, disease, and death. He treats up to 500 patients per day.

In June, Caneta was named winner of the Aurora humanitarian prize – $100,000 to Caneta and $1 million split between three charities of his choosing. Accepting the award, Catena said: “When the bombs are raining down, I think that any job must be better than this – even being an accountant. But when one little kid unexpectedly pulls through – it’s all worth it.”

The war-zone Mother of Mercy hospital is a long way from his previous life. Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Catena played football at Brown University and earned his medical degree from Duke University through a Navy scholarship. Catena visited Kenya while in medical school and returned as a medical missionary following his residency in Indiana.

“My decision to stay here was a simple one,” Catena told Catholic News Service (CNS). “As the only doctor at the only major hospital in the Nuba Mountains, I could not leave in good conscience. Also, as a lay missionary, I felt it was important to show the presence of the church in this time of need – to show that the church does not abandon her people when a crisis arises.”

In 2015, Catena was featured in Nickolas Kristoff’s New York Times column profiling his heroism and reporting that the doctor missed pretzels and ice cream, but mostly his family. The Kristoff column also noted that Catena wears a bracelet that says “John 3:30.” It is his focus each day: “He must become greater; I must become less.”

“I’ve been given benefits from the day I was born,” Catena told Kristoff. “A loving family. A great education. So I see it as an obligation, as a Christian and as a human being, to help.”

In response, Dr. Tom works daily to “pry out shrapnel from women’s flesh and amputate limbs of children, even as he also delivers babies and removes appendixes,” reported Kristoff. “He does all this off the electrical grid, without running water, a telephone or so much as an X-ray machine — while under constant threat of bombing.”

There is a local intensity of the love for Dr. Tom. “People in the Nuba Mountains will never forget his name,” said Lt. Col. Aburass Albino Kuku of the rebel military force. “People are praying that he never dies.”

A Muslim chief named Hussein Nalukuri Cuppi offered highest praise: “He’s Jesus Christ.” Kristoff wrote, “The chief explained that Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see and helped the lame walk — and that is what Dr. Tom does every day.”

“There also are many, many secular aid workers doing heroic work,” Kristoff continues. “But the people I’ve encountered over the years in the most impossible places — like Nuba, where anyone reasonable has fled — are disproportionately unreasonable because of their faith.”

Catena summarized his life’s challenge in a speech addressing the 2015 graduating class at Brown University: “Everyone is in search of happiness. Everybody is in search of fulfillment. I think if you really want fulfillment in this life, what I would suggest to you is go and get rid of everything you have. Sell everything you have. Get rid of all of your baggage and go live a life of full and total service to other people. I think if you do that, you will find that the rewards are incredible. You will find that you have fulfillment more than you could ever have imagined. So I throw that challenge out to you.”

To help Dr. Catena, go to www.amhf.us. 

Summer of Love

Photo by Steve Beard

Photo by Steve Beard

As cultural mavens are more than aware, this is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Summer of Love when the hippie counterculture christened its fashions, ideals, art, and music. The pilgrimage of the Flower Children to Haight-Ashbury was an attempt to create a fleeting utopia, a chance to experiment with drugs, and an opportunity to dabble in “free love” – a co-ed sleepover without the parents.

When asked to reflect back on what he believed in the ’60s, satirist P.J. O’Rourke responded, “Everything. You name it and I believed it. I believed love was all you need… I believed drugs could make you a better person. I believed I could hitchhike to California with thirty-five cents and people would be glad to feed me… I believed the world was about to end. I believed the Age of Aquarius was about to happen… I managed to believe Gandhi and H. Rap Brown at the same time. With the exception of anything my parents said, I believed everything.”

This was also the summer when the Beatles unveiled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With its psychedelic vibe, Indian influences, funky cover art, and wink-and-nod references to drug use, it was a fitting soundtrack for the scene. This was an era of provocative new thinking, troubling for some and liberating for others.

“In some ways the hippie generation appeared to be overturning generations of Christian morality and in other ways they were overturning a soulless secularism and arguing for truth, beauty, and justice,” Steve Turner, acclaimed British poet and author of Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, recently told me. “Unpacking what happened is a difficult task. Anyone who says it was all bad is wrong. Anyone who says it was all good is wrong.”

From my perspective, I’m more than mildly intrigued by the Summer of Love because I’m a Cold War kid – raised as a punk rocker during the Reagan era on The Clash, Blondie, U2, The Ramones, and The Stray Cats. My generation had its own ideals but it was notably not expressed with saffron robes and sitar music. Despite being on a different side of the generational and cultural divide, I will always be a Beatles fan and have a soft spot in my heart for the ’60s. Despite their sometimes justifiable bad rap, the hippies may have ultimately been in search of spiritual transcendence.

“The rock ‘n’ roll bands are the philosopher-poets of the new religion,” wrote Timothy Leary, a 1960s cultural ringleader. “Their beat is the pulse of the future. The message from Liverpool is the Newest Testament, chanted by four Evangelists — saints John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Pure Vedanta, divine revelation, gentle, tender irony at the insanities of war and politics, sorrowful lament for the bourgeois loneliness, delicate hymns of glory to God.”

Of course, Leary was known for his hallucinogenic hyperbole while tripping on LSD. He is also the one who advocated, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Nevertheless, his devotional verbiage was indicative of a Flower Power generation that perceived spiritual vibrancy in rock ’n’ roll, and viewed the church as flaccid and anemic. This was most inelegantly and bluntly stated by John Lennon: “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t now which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

Those ended up being fighting words to the agitated and alarmed faithful. Instead of engaging the prickly comments or turning the other cheek, some American fans doused their Beatles albums in kerosene and scorched them. Others sent death threats in purple crayon while the Ku Klux Klan nailed Beatles albums to burning crosses.

In trying to clarify his position, Lennon said, “Originally I was pointing out the fact with reference to England – that we meant more to kids at that time than Jesus did.” Who could argue with that? In one of his previous books, The Gospel According to the Beatles, Turner underpins Lennon’s point: “Members of this generation could have quoted more Beatles lyrics than they could Hymns Ancient and Modern and would know more about John the Beatle than John the Baptist, more about Paul of Allerton than Paul of Tarsus.”

As the Beatles would soon discover, fame and fortune were often vacuous taskmasters. At a later time in Lennon’s life he addictively found himself watching popular television preachers in search of answers. It was reported that Lennon sent a fascinating letter to the Rev. Oral Roberts in 1972, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the famous lyrics “money can’t buy me love” and sent a donation.

“It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness,” read the letter to Roberts. “I don’t want to keep on with drugs… Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”

In the midst of a thoughtful and lengthy response, Roberts wrote, “What I want to say … is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

Despite the letters exchanged between the rock star and the TV preacher, Lennon’s restless journey eventually led him to embrace philosophies and beliefs that were all over the map.

“You could rattle human authority by growing your hair long, but you couldn’t conquer your inner demons in the same way,” observed Turner. “To ‘change your head,’ as John referred to it in [the song] ‘Revolution,’ required something much more radical.”

Few movements within American Christianity were more radical than the long haired, barefooted hippies getting high on Jesus, revolutionizing church music, tuning into verse-by-verse Bible study, enthusiastically sharing their faith, and being baptized by the thousands in the Pacific Ocean during the Jesus Movement after the Summer of Love.

Looking back 50 years, perhaps that was at least what some of the hippies were trying to discover during that season — something much more radical, a true reality, a change of heart, a touch from God. In hindsight, it’s not such a bad quest.

Cuban Methodism: Spirit-filled and Overflowing

The Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy holds the microphone for trumpet player Jorge Lázaro Corrales Estradas. Photo by Steve Beard.

The Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy holds the microphone for trumpet player Jorge Lázaro Corrales Estradas. Photo by Steve Beard.

Within a Caribbean culture marked by Cold War skullduggery, economic scarcity, and vindictive secularism, the Methodist Church in Cuba stands out as a beacon of spiritual freedom, miraculous signs and wonders, unexpected blessings, and salsa infused worship. Not only has vibrant Christianity survived some of the darkest decades of Cuba’s history, it is a thriving testimony to the profound hope found at the roots of the faith.

“Young people in Latin America have spent a long time learning a language that is different than the language of God,” said the Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy, illustrating the prevailing way of thinking in Cuba.

“By the age of 18, they have heard more than 80,000 times these five phrases: (1) ‘I don’t know,’ (2) ‘There isn’t any,’ (3) ‘I don’t have any,’ (4) ‘I can’t,’ and (5) ‘It’s not easy.’ Five negative phrases; nothing positive,” said Leon. “This is not the language of the Bible.”

Leon is the 41-year-old lead pastor of the Central Havana Methodist Church in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in the Cuban capital. As a former professional soccer player and past leader of Methodist youth in Cuba, Leon has a spiritual counterattack for each of these phrases.

“First, the Bible never says that we don’t know. We know who we are, we know what we have, and we know the One who is with us. Second, yes there is; in God there is hope. In God there is healing. In God there is blessing,” said Leon, who is also the district superintendent of Havana.

“Third, yes we have. God says he is our shepherd and we will lack nothing. God says that whatever we lack we will receive in riches in his glory,” he continues. “Fourth, yes, we can do it. The apostle Paul says in Philippians that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. Lastly, with Christ it is easy, because Christ helps us. Nothing is impossible with God.”

The falling of the fire

Hope and anticipation are common themes in Leon’s preaching, along with spiritual warfare, victory, overcoming, healing, and blessing. These are also the repeated themes in the Cuban Methodist pulpits and the narrative of testimonies delivered during services. The spiritual dynamic behind the growth of Cuban Methodism is the “movement of the Holy Spirit,” said Pastor Aylen Font Marrero, a 29-year-old staff member of the Methodist Cathedral of Holguín, 450 miles east of Havana.

According to the latest information provided by the Methodist Church of Cuba, there are 410 churches and 927 missions (churches in formation). With approximately 46,500 members, there are about twice that number involved in the ministry of the denomination in different ways.

Although the personalities and styles of each congregation may differ, Font believes that Cuban Methodists are unified in “seeking God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the falling of the fire and anticipating the glory of God to descend.” The primary focus of each congregation is “the love of God for the people of God. This is what we want to really see and experience and see grow,” she said.

The embers of this revival fire have been stoked since the 1970s, reports the Rev. Dr. Rini Hernandez, district superintendent in the Florida Annual Conference. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Methodists all over Cuba were participating in all night prayer vigils, reports Hernandez. The outgrowth of their prayers were miraculous signs and wonders, including speaking in tongues, physical healing, deliverance from spiritual oppression, and being physically overwhelmed by the power and presence of God in their meetings.

“We did not know it was Pentecostal,” Hernandez told Good News. “We were just asking God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.” Along with the outpouring of supernatural occurrences, these Methodists experienced a holy boldness that has characterized their singular focus on sharing their faith. “We lost all fear of repercussions and committed ourselves to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Cuban people, one life at a time,” he recently wrote in an article for the Florida Annual Conference. “The Holy Spirit’s fire spread out to the local churches, youth camps, and almost every event in the life of the church.”

Heart-warming experience

In an interview with Bishop Ricardo Pereira in conjunction with my first visit to Cuba more than 16 years ago, he told of his special experience with the Holy Spirit on October 18, 1984, many years before he became bishop. “At that time I had two young men in my church —14 and 16 years old. They had read about John Wesley and his ‘heart-warming’ experience,” Pereira said.

“That night, at 8 o’clock they knelt down in the church and said to me, ‘Pastor we are not going to get up from here until we have the same experience that John Wesley had.’” Pereira told them that they were confused. “I don’t think it works that way. I have been told that not everyone receives the same experience.” Nevertheless, these boys were going to pursue a blessing from God. Pereira said that he grabbed one of the boys, but he said, “Pastor I will not get up from here.”

Pereira was angry. “I slammed the door and went home and started watching television,” he admits. “But something was stirring in my heart, telling me, ‘Pastor you are not doing right. How can you allow your members to pray by themselves? Why don’t you go and keep watch with them?’”

He walked back to the sanctuary and said to them, “See, you have not received anything.” The boys continued asking God to give them the power to evangelize. At 11 o’clock he told them, “It is very late. Why don’t you begin again tomorrow?”

“No pastor,” they said, “we are not going to get up from here until we receive the touch of the Spirit.” At 12:04, Pereira reports that the boys had an “explosion of light in their faces and great joy in their heart.” After their experience, Pereira said: “I was so afraid that I knelt next to them and said, ‘Okay, I won’t get up until He fills me up, too.’ I wept and asked God to forgive me. And I said, ‘Lord I want you, too. I have been preaching the gospel, doing the best I could, but if this joy is real, if you can give that explosion in the hearts of my two members, you can give it to me, too.’

“At 3:00 a.m. we were all like mad people, speaking in tongues. I woke up my wife so that I could tell her that I too had this joy in my heart.”

Renewed Methodism

Although both share in an experiential and supernaturalist faith, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God believe that speaking in tongues is the “initial evidence” of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That is not a doctrinal distinctive for Methodists. Nevertheless, Methodist services in Cuba are unapologetically charismatic. The framework for theology and ministry within Cuban Methodism was not imported from other denominations, but is an organic expression of their own unique divine encounter.

The Cuban experience mirrors the religious trend of its neighbors. In the latest study of 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico), Pew Research found that two-thirds of Protestants (65 percent) identified as Pentecostal Christians either through denominational affiliation or personal self-identity.

Sociologists pair Pentecostals and charismatics into the category of “renewalists” when studying international religious trends. As the fastest growing spiritual movement, renewalists account for one-fourth of all global Christians with upwards of 500 million adherents. According to the World Christian Database of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Brazil has the highest number of renewalists, followed by the United States, China, Nigeria, India, and the Philippines.

As Professor Philip Jenkins points out in his ground-breaking work, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, believers outside the United States take the Bible very seriously. “For Christians of the Southern Hemisphere, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account of the ancient Levant [sections of the Middle East], but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders. Passages that seem mildly embarrassing for a Western audience read completely differently, and relevantly, in the new churches of Africa or Latin America.”

At the outset of the Cuban revolution, the late Fidel Castro used to define the boundaries of cultural engagement to the intellectuals and artists: “Inside the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” Within revival, the Methodist Church has transfixed and transformed – redeemed, perhaps – that kind of singular focus to a pinpoint: Cuba for Christ.

High voltage worship

Even non-church going observers would recognize something combustible and dynamic taking place in a Cuban worship service. This is not the place to be if one has been lulled into expecting a predictable 55-minute morning service with two Victorian-era hymns, a children’s sermonette, a choral anthem, a homily, and tidy benediction.

“We worship God with so much passion,” said Pastor Adria Nuñez Ortiz, “we give him praise with all we have in our hearts. We have so much love for God because we understand that he has done so much for us. Everything we do for him is nothing in comparison to what he has done for us.” Nuñez is associate pastor of Central Havana Methodist Church and married to Pastor Leon. She is also a songwriter, musician, and leader of their high-energy choir.

The worship time is unmistakably Caribbean. “As in biblical times, Cuban Methodists praise the name of the Lord and dance with all kinds of instruments and shouts of joy,” Bishop Pereira told me not long ago. There is a jacked-up salsa beat with a sliver of hip-hop and drums, congas, guitars, bass, trumpets, and trombones. If you solely associate Cuban music with Buena Vista Social Club, there is a brand new galaxy of sound in the church. The worship is frenetic, physical, ecstatic, electrifying, and emotional.

With a smile, one pastor told me that the “jumping does not draw the Holy Spirit, but jumping is the response when the Holy Spirit falls.”

For Nuñez, the pogoing up and down in worship is a simple expression of joy. “We rejoice every time we think about what God has done for us,” she said. “Specifically in our context of central Havana, many people were drug addicts, idol worshippers, prostitutes and God took them out of that way and saved them. The Bible says that the one who is forgiven much, loves much. And when somebody pays a huge debt for you, then expressions of joy and happiness come out of your heart and that’s what’s happening in Cuba.”

New day in Cuba

Needless to say, many things have changed in Cuba since my first visit in 2000. Netflix is streaming (for those with credit cards); the online home rental business Airbnb is now available to foreigners, the black market emporiums are hiding in plain sight, and the Rolling Stones played last year before 500,000 in Havana in a free concert a few days after President Barack Obama’s controversial visit. With the average Cuban making less than $20 a month, there still isn’t expendable income for luxuries such as high-dollar rock concert tickets.

Cell phones are omnipresent (a vibrant black market), but the internet is spotty and frustratingly slow. Private enterprises are still in infancy stages, as one might expect in one of the last remaining Communist countries. There is, understandably, a strand of “forbidden island” allure for Americans to explore Cuba as more avenues open for tourism. Many visitors simply hit the Ernest Hemingway hot spots, buy cigars, rum, and a Che Guevara t-shirt, cruise around in a 1952 pink Cadillac convertible taxi cab, and then drink mojitos on the pristine beaches.

For Professor David Watson, however, the experience is all about plunging his students into the eye of a revivalistic tornado. “A lot of our seminary students have never experienced what spiritual renewal looks like, and when they come here they get to be a part of a very powerful Spirit-filled revival,” said Watson, the academic dean at United Theological Seminary. Watson has brought students to Cuba from the Dayton, Ohio, seminary for the last three years.

“One of the ideas behind our seminary’s emphasis on church renewal is that all renewal – individual, local church, or church universal – is the work of the Holy Spirit. That is certainly the case in the Cuban Methodist revival,” he observed. “We want our students to be exposed to and learn about what it looks like when God shows up in a powerful way in the life of a congregation or denomination.”

Amanda Moseng is one of those seminary students, soon-to-be a provisional elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Her trip to Cuba was sparked by a divine healing she experienced at a Holy Spirit conference hosted by United Seminary. While in Cuba, Moseng tirelessly prayed for healing and blessing for those who came forward at the end of each of the services. Not raised as a charismatic, the Cuban scenario was new, but she adapted with deftness and enthusiasm.

Moseng’s own healing encounter is the catalyst behind her faith to confidently pray for “healing in people and to open myself to let the Holy Spirit work in whatever way the Holy Spirit wants to manifest,” she said. Prior to her trip to Havana, she had never prayed for healing for someone else. She now has a “boldness of faith that only God grants, that only comes from the Spirit.” Moseng also had the unique opportunity to preach in the Central Havana church on “holy boldness” to an attentive congregation. “I’m just so humbled that God would choose me to do those things, that God would use me for that. I will be eternally grateful for what I’ve experienced here,” she said. “I’ve been transformed in ways I could never have imagined and I will leave here with a sense of boldness and faith that’s greater than I’ve ever had.”

Finding wealth in Cuba

For the last 28 years, the Rev. Jaime Nolla has made a yearly pilgrimage to Cuba. “When you see people who either walk for miles, travel on the back of a platform truck, or travel in an overloaded, very old bus, standing because of the lack of space, to get to a crowded church anticipating to experience the presence of God, your heart is moved in ways you cannot describe with words,” said Nolla, a retired United Methodist pastor and former district superintendent in the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

Nolla was one of the clergypersons standing in the front of the 500 men and women jammed into the sanctuary of the Vedado Methodist Church in downtown Havana waiting to be anointed with oil. The bustling and energetic congregation worships in a striking art deco church with loud praise music spilling out from the open doors and windows near the University of Havana. The expectancy and desire was palpable as those in seemingly never ending lines waited patiently in an attitude of prayer for this blessing.

Nolla’s numerous visits over such a lengthy period of time have afforded him opportunities to see innumerable Methodist congregations across the length of the island (more than 700 miles long).

“Many of these people come dressed with the one or two outfits they own because of the poverty on the island. However, none of the obstacles that would stop people from coming to church in the United States are big enough to stop them from coming to church,” he told Good News. “We are thankful to God for the commitment and dedication second to none that we have seen and experienced.”

“When you live in a place where there is extreme poverty, the response of the people is to find wealth in other ways,” observed the Rev. Rebekah Clapp, one of my travel mates and translators in Havana. “For Cubans, that spiritual wealth has become a response to that.” Clapp earned her M.Div. at United Theological Seminary after living in Nicaragua, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in intercultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

“Because of the reality of spiritual forces that they interact with, Christians respond with language of victory, language of overcoming,” she continued. “They have victory in their lives in Christ over and against spiritual forces, over and against the powers of the idolatrous religions, over and against the work of the devil, and also over and against the socioeconomic and political reality in which they live. They can respond to it by saying, ‘I have life in Christ, I have power in the Holy Spirit, and I have victory.’ That gives them hope, that gives them purpose.”

It may also go a long way in explaining how the Methodist Church has been a sustained oasis in the spiritual desert of Cuba’s soul for the last 50 years.

Witness to Hope: 50 years of Good News Magazine

Graham-KeysorLooking back upon the 1960s, Good News was launched in an era bookended by the smoking barrels of assassin rifles, the fleeting banter of “God is dead” dogma, a Cuban missile crisis, attack dogs lunging at civil rights protesters, flower children, Cassius Clay becoming Muhammed Ali, the Bible read from space, a six day war, and The Who destroying their instruments on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television show.

The decade was anything but uneventful.

President John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was assassinated in 1963 on the same day as the death of Anglican layman C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. Strangely enough, it was also the day of the passing of Aldous Huxley, author of a Brave New World.

In 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two months later Senator Robert Kennedy died in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles after being shot. The homicidal brutality and steely calculation of humanity’s original sin bared it fangs once again. It was a bloody decade – and not just for the famous and prophetic.

There was a reason that Timothy Leary simply said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” With more meaningful contrition, however, the weathered bluesman would simply say, “Lord, have mercy.” The cultural mavens of that decade were trying to juggle the adrenaline of the counterculture, civil rights and race relations, budding feminism and women’s liberation, new immigration standards, the influx of alternative religions, and American young men dying in Vietnam.

The world was a chaotic place at the time. It probably always has been, but it seemed to be especially strung out and anxious. No wonder Andy Warhol turned a familiar and comforting symbol like a Campbell’s tomato soup can into a pop culture icon.

Modern, secular man. Charles Keysor was a journalist who had his life flipped upside down at a Billy Graham crusade. Although he was a church-going Methodist, Keysor was a modern, secular man – self-described as “self-sufficient, agnostic, ambitious, materialistic, and seen in church mostly at his wife’s urging.” Nevertheless, he would lay awake at night wondering if there was more to life than a good paycheck, a nice house in the country, and professional success. “I had heard about Jesus,” Keysor would admit. “But as I reached my mid-30s I could see no connection between His perfect life and my struggles; between His death on the cross and my growing inner confusion.” Where was a man supposed to find hope?

On business trips, he would dip into the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. “Jesus seemed to know me better than I knew myself,” Keysor said. “I desperately wanted a new and better life.” He responded to the invitation at a Graham crusade, “believing that Jesus could work a miracle if I gave myself to him.” Surrender. Forgiveness. Conversion. New life.

Graham represented a different spiritual and cultural strand during the 1960s – one that included preachers on television such Rex Humbard, Kathyrn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, gospel singers such as Jake Hess and the Statesmen Quartet, The Staples Singers, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and ministries such as Teen Challenge, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and InterVarsity.

For Keysor, it was the commitment made at a revival that opened his heart – with all the fear and trepidation of making a counterintuitive career shift – to going to seminary and becoming a clergyman. He graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in 1965, was ordained, and appointed to Grace Methodist Church in Elgin, Illinois – his home church, northwest of Chicago.

While he was working his way through seminary, theologians and philosophers were attempting to find ways to eradicate what they perceived as outmoded and traditionalist concepts of God and cobble together a new secular theology for up-to-date sensibilities. In 1961, Protestant theologian Gabriel Vanhanian made a splash with his provocatively titled The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era. Five years later, William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer published Radical Theology and the Death of God. There were other writers of this era spinning a similar yarn. Like students dissecting a formaldehyde-drenched frog in high school biology class, theologians were pretending to slice open the chest of God to see if the heart was still beating.

As a journalist and seminarian, Keysor had been fully exposed to all the varieties of eclectic, faddish theologies and alternative religions. None of those academic contrivances, however, had changed Keysor’s heart or given him the answers to the questions surrounding his purpose in life. The experience of turning his soul, mind, and career path over to Jesus Christ rang truer to him than did the trendy notions of theologians who had become bored or exasperated with orthodoxy.

In 1966, Keysor was invited by Dr. Jim Wall, editor of the Christian Advocate, to publish an affirmation of the beliefs of Methodist evangelicals. Entitled “Methodism’s Silent Minority,” Keysor made a spirited defense of the elementary Christian basics: the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the return of Christ. Of course, there was nothing revolutionary in what Keysor had affirmed. It was all found in our Articles of Religion. The stir that was created is that Keysor affirmed it sober – without a wink, without his fingers crossed.

The “Silent Minority” article hit the streets only a few months after Time religion editor John Elson wrote a lengthy cover story with the sucker-punch title “Is God Dead?” In addition to the 3,421 letters from Time readers, the title stirred up a tsunami of a national debate about God, faith, and culture.

In response to his own article, Keysor was also flooded with letters and long distance phone calls (a big deal back then) from Methodist preachers. Almost all told him the same thing: “Thanks for speaking up! I didn’t think anybody else believed the way I do.” A few of the writers and callers asked Keysor about starting a magazine to reflect their point of view.

Demonstrate a way. Two years before Keysor’s article, Bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles presented the Episcopal Address at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. “Kennedy is unquestionably among the four or five most dazzling preachers in the U.S. today — an oratorical genius with a commanding baritone, and the pace and timing of a Broadway pro,” wrote Time magazine in a cover story on Methodism’s identity crisis a week after the General Conference.

“This year many of the 858 Methodist delegates arrived at their conference with the deep conviction that their church had reached a turning point in history,” reported Time, “and with a scarcely concealed fear that the vitality that once burned in Methodism was lost when fiery evangelism gave way to today’s organized, institutional church.”

In his address, Kennedy told the delegates that the Christian task is “to pursue our ancient course of attacking our own imperfections, keeping our life open to God, and perfecting our society. We are not trying to sell a system, but to demonstrate a Way which is incomparably better than all others, and shines with the promise of a more abundant life for all men.”

Kennedy was surefooted; appreciated by conservatives and liberals alike. Although not narrowly categorized as an evangelical, he was the high-profile chair of Billy Graham’s three week crusade in Los Angeles in 1963 (final evening attendance of more than 134,000).

At that time, Kennedy was spearheading the fastest-growing area of the Methodist Church. It was a golden era of buying property, building churches, and extending the tent pegs of Wesleyan Christianity on the West Coast.

Cornering Kennedy. Shortly after a speaking engagement in Chicago, Bishop Kennedy got cornered by Keysor. The persistent journalist spelled out the plan for Good News magazine. “That sounds great,” said Kennedy, “Let me know if I can help.” The next day Keysor asked him to write an article for the launch issue about the place of evangelicals in The Methodist Church.

Landing Kennedy in the first issue of Good News in 1967 illustrated Keysor’s tenacity as much as it revealed Kennedy’s authentic inclusivity and respect for evangelicals.

“It must be said that there is no question in my mind as to their [evangelicals] being a legitimate part of the Methodist heritage,” wrote Kennedy. “They are Wesleyan in their basic propositions. Their emphasis on conversion finds an echo on nearly every page of John Wesley’s Journal. The truth seems to me to be that The Methodist Church has been, broadly speaking, evangelical in its understanding and interpretation from the beginning.”

Kennedy had had run-ins with both closed-minded liberals and irascible fundamentalists. Although the power structure of the Methodist Church was unapologetically reflective of the liberalism of the era, Kennedy believed in a beefy pluralism that included orthodox believers, especially the “brethren whose emphasis is on the unchanging and eternal verities of our faith.” At a time when evangelicals felt like unwanted third-cousins, Kennedy’s affirmation went a long way when he wrote that they “are just as legitimately Methodists as are these brethren who look down their noses at them and consider them outmoded.”

Of course, we live in a different era. A lot has changed in 50 years. There may be a temptation to view some of Kennedy’s words as less dramatic than they appeared in that first issue of Good News in 1967. Although Methodism appeared rich and strong, we had deep and painful fissures – not only with race, but also with theology, spirituality, and ideology. Kennedy’s words of inclusion were important.

Along these lines, there were two major events that took place in between Keysor’s “Silent Minority” article and the first issue of Good News that made Kennedy’s olive branch extension all the more significant.

• British believers gathered on October 18, 1966, for the National Assembly of Evangelicals in London to discuss theology, ecumenism, and unity. Before 1000 delegates, the two most well-known evangelical leaders – the Rev. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel and the Rev. Dr. John Stott of All Souls Church – had a major public rift about whether evangelicals should remain or withdraw from the Church of England. Lloyd-Jones argued that evangelicals are “scattered about in the various major denominations … weak and ineffective.” Stott, an Anglican, took umbrage and used his position as the chair of the event to fire back with animated rhetoric at Lloyd-Jones, his ministerial colleague and friend.

• One week later, The World Congress on Evangelism was sponsored in Berlin by Billy Graham and Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today. The conference drew leaders from 60 denominations. “We discovered that we were all needy sinners – all alike before God in both our inadequacy and our unrealized potential,” said the Rev. Mike Walker, a Methodist pastor from Texas and Good News board member, in his report from Berlin in the first issue of Good News.

According to the New York Times reporting, there was discussion among the international delegates to starting a “new denomination or withdrawing from the central bodies of existing ones.” Henry is quoted as saying that evangelicals should “stay where they are and resummon their denominational brethren to the major task of the church, preaching the Gospel.”

This was, quite simply, part of the Good News vision.

God is not dead. For fifty years, Good News has faithfully worked within The United Methodist Church because people like Chuck Keysor believed God could offer renewed spiritual life to men, women, and children. “Orthodox Methodists come in theologically assorted shapes, sizes, and colors,” wrote Keysor in his “Silent Minority” article. “But, unfortunately, the richness and subtlety of orthodox thought are often overlooked and/or misunderstood. There lurks in many a Methodist mind a deep intolerance toward the silent minority who are orthodox. This is something of a paradox, because this unbrotherly spirit abounds at a time when Methodism is talking much about ecumenicity — which means openness toward those whose beliefs and traditions may differ.”

Good News has always believed evangelicals, conservatives, moderates, and traditionalists have an essential role within The United Methodist Church – and we wanted to make it a more faithful denomination by supporting missions and publishing trustworthy confirmation materials and Sunday school curriculum.

More importantly than anything else, we wanted Good News magazine to reflect our witness for the life-changing message of Christ with grace and truth. Jesus is the Good News – we are merely a movement and a magazine.

In the height of the “God is dead” hype, the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland, known as the King of Gospel Music, recorded a two-album set in Cincinnati featuring a pew-jumping rendition of “God Is Not Dead.” In the same year, Tennessee Ernie Ford released his album “God Lives!,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe played her sanctified blues at the Newport Folk Festival, Mahalia Jackson recorded “There is a Balm in Gilead” on an Easter Sunday album, and Elvis released his album “How Great Thou Art.”

“One reason for the persistence of gospel music is the people’s persistent interest in the Gospel,” observed Keysor in his “Silent Minority” article. In other words, listen to the singers and gospel choirs. Let their light shine. Let them play their part.

That is what Good News has wanted to do for the last 50 years – play our part. Keysor called it our “journalistic ‘mission’ to Methodism’s ‘silent minority.’” We remain grateful to God for this opportunity and to the men and women who sacrifice, contribute, and pray for us to press forward in our mission to see a renewed United Methodist Church.

In his Good News article, Bishop Kennedy wrote, “A great deal of this modern spirit is a passing thing, and after we have changed our minds a hundred times in the future, the great and fundamental truths of our religion will shine forth with continuing brilliance. With all the modern talk about Church having to keep up to date, it is great to have clear voices proclaiming that over against all the novelties there is the unchanging truth of what God has done for us through the Incarnation.”

It remains our vision to be a witness to hope for a life-transforming United Methodism and a clear voice that allows the continuing brilliance of our Lord and Savior to shine through the pages of Good News.

With the Mourners, We Mourn

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 11.28.42 AMAs we pulled together this celebratory issue of Good News, we were confronted with the horrific news of the brutal murders of brothers and sisters in the faith.

Twenty-five people died and 49 more were injured when a bomb went off on the chapel on the grounds of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Egyptian Orthodox Church. In your prayers, we invite you to join us in remembering the precious women and children – the targets of this bombing – who were victims of this terrorism.

The description from Reuters is heartbreaking: “The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and sticky patches of blood.”

“As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” said Emad Shoukry, who was inside when the blast took place. “The explosion shook the place … the dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything … I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” St. Paul instructs. Our prayers are with the families of the victims. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.