Note: I've been extremely busy recently, finishing my seminary education and beginning a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Thank you for being patient and I hope this post gets you back in the 'Notes From the Pastor's Office' mood!
I graduated from United Theological Seminary on December 20th, 2013. After 3 and a half years in seminary, immeadiately following 5 years at Ball State, I was ready. One UTS official mentioned to me that it was a commencement ceremony one won't soon forget.
Why won't it be soon forgotten?
Let me explain.
Heidi Baker is a faith healer who has built a powerful ministry in Mozambique. On it's face, you cannot deny the good that has come from their work. They dig wells for drinking water. They care for orphans. They have also been clinically proven to improve the ailments of those suffering from deafness and blindness. Again, it's easy to see they do good in the name of Jesus.
Then, she gave the commencement address for a United Methodist seminary.
Four things stood out most prominently about her presence that day at Ginghamsburg Church. First, she told a story about how she ministered to a group of Muslims who were engaged in the practice of their faith. To be clear, these people were not engaging her. They were engaged in the practice of their own faith. When she engaged with them with her faith, they got violent. In an effort to save his mother, one of Dr. Baker's sons stepped in front of her and took the beating she was about to receive.
It's certainly a powerful story. However, had she let them continue in what they were peacefully doing, there might not have been a story to tell.
Second, Dr. Baker insisted that one doesn't need the doctoral bars to be in ministry. Again, Dr. Baker said she didn't need the doctoral bars to be in ministry. She wasn't the only Dr. Baker at Ginghamsburg that day. Her husband – Rolland – was graduating with his D.Min. At a ceremony meant to signify and celebrate the academic accomplishments of those who have been called to some type of ministry, Dr. Baker poo-pooed the idea.
It's small, but it stood out for me.
Third, Dr. Baker – on three seperate occasions – spoke in tongues.
I have mixed feelings about speaking in tongues. I cannot deny that God might choose to work in this fashion, but I believe it happens authentically much less often than many would believe.
On the day, I was mainly focused on myself and my family – and the fact that there were so many of them there to support me. However, when a commencement speaker begins to speak in tongues, it creates a moment to remember.
The reason I remain skeptical of “tongues” is that I've never heard someone speaking in tongues, and been able to understand them. There was no interpretation for those moments where she engaged this “gift of the Spirit.” Not for her, or others in the auidence who also spoke in tongues.
The other odd thing was that the auidence seemed to be full of people who were fans (I don't know whether to call them fans or followers, 'cause both seem inappropriate) who were there just to hear her. There was also much commotion in the narthex, after the service, where many were trying to get their picture taken with Dr. Baker.
I'm actually not even sure I'm ascribing a value judgement to these events, as much as I am reporting what happened.
Lastly, Dr. Baker shared a story about a baby that was brought back to life. In the interest of full disclosure, I've heard her and others tell stories about how her ministry has brought her into contact with people who have been brought back to life. Additionally, after having lost a son myself, this type of thing always gets my antennae working at full strength.
As she told the story, a child had died and a woman took the child in her arms – where she then sat with that dead child for three days. After sitting vigil with the child, the child was brought back to life. As a story, it was moving. If it is true, it's even more moving – and I cannot deny God can work in this way.
However, with stories like this, you get to thinking.
Those familiar with what happens to the human body, even just shortly after death, understand that stories like this are difficult to wrap one's head around. The human body is a relatively fragile thing, and once life leaves it – for no matter how long – evidence of the decomposition process appear shortly thereafter.
Was the child not completely dead? Was it unusually cold in that part of sub-Saharan Africa?
That's not even the biggest part of my reasoning for bringing up this particular part of Dr. Baker's commencement address.
My wife sat in the hospital with our son for days and days at a time. There was never a mother who loved their child more than my wife. She prayed and prayed…then prayed more. There were people from all over the world praying for our son. A child could not have been more loved and cared for – physically or spiritually – than our son.
The implication that is given when someone shares an incredible story like this is that there just wasn't enough Jesus in our little equation to help our son to defeat death. God must not love us enough. Somehow, we were spiritually deficient enough that God would not grant us the life of our son – no matter how badly we wanted it.
I do not believe this way. The God I've come to know doesn't distribute his love on a “biggest come, biggest served” basis. I believe the challenge of our faith is trying to live and understand life in the midst of the most trying of our experiences.
The problem is that there are plenty of people who do believe this way. They believe this way and are spiritually brutalized by thoughts that they might not have prayed hard enough or God did not love them enough to grant them whatever it is they were desiring. Life. Fame. Wealth. Those who have experienced the other side of this type of faith would call it spiritual abuse, and I would have a hard time disagreeing with them. In my seminary education, a very heavy focus was placed on church renewal and how the church can exist in a world that is largely leaving Christianity behind. This type of faith behavior – for better or worse – was seldom identified as part of the problem.
You can read more about spiritual brutality in my friend's – Joel Watts – book. Available here, by the way.
I waited this long to share my thoughts about this so I might be evenhanded and fair. I know very faithful and well-meaning people who believe this way and my desire is not to upset or offend them.
Additionally, I'm not even really complaining that UTS had her speak. If I would defend Columbia University's right to host the Iranian President, I certainly wouldn't deny UTS's right to host her.
Essentially, I had some thoughts about the proceedings, and I wanted to share them.
For better or worse.