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.

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.