Sunday, July 29, 2007

Of Messengers and Mascara


I'm not positive I will post this. But I am going to write it and see... I have two women on my mind this morning.

In a good way, mind you.

One is Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. The other is Barbara Brown Taylor. (Why don't famous women just have two names? Hillary Rodham Clinton...Carol Mosley Brown, etc.)

First Tammy Faye. We are at my son and his wife's house. This morning I mentioned that Tammy Faye had died last week. Michelle (my daughter in law) asked, "Who was she?" I smiled, realizing that the PTL debacle collapsed was when she and Ryan were 5 years old. Tammy Faye (as we older ones know) was the wife of Jim Bakker, the tele-evangelist who had a massive "Christian" network of TV stations and all pervasive program, the PTL Club in the 70's & 80's. (PTL either stood for People that Love, or Praise the Lord). They also built a huge entertainment resort center in North Carolina. It was financed heavily by "partner" investments. After Tammy Faye had her own questionable relationship with a Christian singer who appeared on the show, Jim (who also was accused of homosexual advances on men who appeared on the show) had an affair with a secretary. They began to pay hush money to this woman but then it was discovered by investigative reports from the local newspaper and went public. Jimmy Swaggert (who was actually having his own moral problems at the time) and Jerry Falwell worked together (greed makes strange bed fellows) to grab control of the PTL network of stations. Jim was pressed out of his position (supposedly temporarily) but when the lynchpin of the institution was removed, the whole house of cards collapsed. It was discovered that the Bakkers had been living in a lifestyle (off of donor funds) that was deemed inappropriate for a minister (however much "inappropriate" is). When the empire collapsed Jim was charged with bilking investors, he was convicted and sent to prison. He served his time, was released, wrote the requisite book of repentance ("I Was Wrong") and works in a Christian ministry in the LA area (last I heard). Many have seen the end of the Christian era as coming in 1988 with PTL's fell. I think that is a bit dramatic and overstating the case, but I do think the continual barrage of negative publicity changed something in the national psyche towards Christians, particularly towards evangelicals. It cemented the direction that the nation had been taking...away from Christian values and interests.

But this is about Tammy Faye. While Jim was in prison, she was "comforted" by Roe Messner, one of Jim's best friends and the man who had built many of the buildings in the Bakker empire. Messner was a church building contractor from Wichita, KS. He also had built some commercial buildings in the Wichita area that I have been in while I was ministering just outside of Wichita in the mid 1980s. Roe is a close friend of a friend of mine...in fact my friend and his wife later had dinner with Roe & Tammy Faye at Applebees in Manhattan, KS. Tammy divorced Jim and married Roe. She also became an icon to gays and transvestites because she knew the mocking & rejection that many of them feel and I guess they were attracted to her outlandish makeup and demeanor. She refused to condemn them, but shared God's love with them. There was a movie, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" that documented much of her life before and after the PTL fall a few years back that was quite good. It stressed her outreach to gays. The poster for the movie was simply the imprint of the makeup of Tammy Faye.

In many ways she was a clown. In many ways I think she deserved some of the mockery that was pointed her way. In some ways, I think she was addicted to media and the attention it brought. Perhaps that was a little bit of what was behind her night-before-death interview with Larry King.

Perhaps.

But I have always had a soft spot for Tammy Faye. We sold her album and books at the bookstore that I worked at while I was in seminary. My take was not that she was a horrible women, but she was a simple woman caught up in the charismatic/fundamentalist subculture of the 70s & 80s who truly loved Jesus, and genuinely wanted to represent him well, but she made several (SEVERAL!!) very poor choices. I hate to say that she made them because she was dumb. I am not convinced that she was. Simple, yes. Dumb, no. She was a woman with strong flaws who still represented her Lord. Even in the Larry King interview, the love of her Lord and the love she had for others came through. Even when she was drawn & haggard from the cancer that took her life the next day, there were glimpses of "that smile" and that pitched little girl voice, simply declaring her love for Jesus.

So...this is a blog on preaching. What does this have to do with preaching? In some ways, I realize that Tammy Faye represents us as preachers many times. We are flawed. Some of us are funny and awkward. (Others of us are cool and trendy). But in spite of all of that, Jesus uses us. We sometimes seem to preach more of ourselves and our opinion that the Gospel. But in spite of all of that, Jesus uses us. We may not always be theologically precise or refined (Tammy Faye certainly wasn't). But in spite of all of that, Jesus uses us.

But it doesn't always feel good. At times you wonder if you are making any headway at all. You see the big mega-churches which outwardly appear to be going so smoothly. You pour your life into preaching the gospel & leading people...for what? "Jewels in your heavenly crown" as so many people put it, don't seem to be that attractive. Maybe selling insurance, or real estate, or teaching school would be more fulfilling. It just seems like we are "laboring in vain".

Which brings us to my other woman this morning, Barbara Brown Taylor. I finished her book of sermons, Gospel Medicine today. (She is an Episcopal priest & preaching professor I heard at the FOH. See my previous posts about her). She ends the book with a series of Christmas sermons. And her final sermon is called "Laboring in Vain" and her text is Isaiah 49:6. BBT is describing the servant who thinks he/she has wasted his time in what he has been doing, mostly because of his/her own failings, foibles & weaknesses.

"Expecting to be fired or at least retired and replaced by someone more equal to the task, he [the servant in Isaiah's text] tells God that he has accomplished nothing, is nothing, deserves nothing, but God does not accept his resignation. God—whose ideas of success & failure have never coincided with our own—has a better idea. “I will give you as a light to the nations,” God says, “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

“Now that is divine logic for you. Fail at a large task and you are given a larger one. Produce hardly a spark in your own corner of the world and you are promoted to light the whole planet. It is either a case of divine irony or else God knows something we servants do not known; namely, that our success does not depend on those who are chosen but on the one who chooses them, the Holy One of Israel, in whose hand the sharp sword cannot fail to dazzle, in whose bow the polished arrow cannot fail to find its mark. The only way we can truly fail, apparently, is to remove ourselves from those hands, to let our own poor judgment make us quit our relationships with the Chooser, disqualifying ourselves from God’s service on the grounds that our efforts are not good enough, our skills are not fine enough, our scores are not high enough. Who do we think we are?

“When our own ideas of success go bankrupt, when our own notions of servanthood are exhausted, only then is there room for God to give us a new vision of ourselves….

“It is just an idea, but if there is anything to it then there is no such thing as laboring in vain. How would we know? Can a flame see its own light? Who asked our opinion? Who put us in charge? The Holy One of Israel has chosen us, has called us from our mother’s wombs and names our names, giving us mouths like sharp swords, making us like polished arrows. It is not up to us to decide whether we have succeeded or failed. It is not up to us to decide if we have labored in vain. To spend our strength doing that is to spend it on nothing and vanity, while the call of God hauls so much more strenuously at our hearts, calling us to service, certainly, but calling us first and last to stay as close as we know how to the one who has chosen us, to stay as close to the light as we can, so that our witness is not a matter of performing tasks or playing roles or meeting expectations, but of remaining in white hot relationship with the one who is able to make epiphanies out of all our days.”

God help it be so. In the life of Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner. In the life of Cal Habig. In the life of every preacher who reads this blog. In the life of every preacher who doesn’t.

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