A “Night of Hope,” recently offered by Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen at the North Charleston Coliseum, was an evening I will long remember.
It was a remarkably organized evening of the highest production quality. Our parish Deacon Mark Barna, Father James Bozeman from Beaufort and I were treated with the most generous hospitality.
We were invited to meet Joel and Victoria Osteen (and Joel’s mother, Dodie), at a pastor’s reception. Father James had a warm conversation with Joel, who stood to my left, and I enjoyed five minutes of similar conversation with Victoria — speaking about Charleston, and Australia, and teenagers. Dodie was a delightful woman who shared personally with us about her miraculous healing from terminal cancer. (She was given three weeks to live 31 years ago.)
This was quite congruent with one of Osteen’s later-in-the-evening teachings: “Your test will become your testimony.”
At a follow-up dessert and talk on Monday night, one new friend asked me, “Did the evening impress or depress you?”
I answered this way: What I learned at the “Night of Hope” falls into three categories: those teachings that are notably Christian; those that, in my mind, need a little clarification and adjustment; and others that, as I understood them that evening, are not actually a part of our Christian inheritance.
Osteen emphasized many traditional Christian points including, “Our God is the God of those who have blown it.”
The Lord God as Christians have always understood him, is precisely this. Jesus himself said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
One contemporary description is this: The church is not a country club for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.
Osteen also noted, “We believe in a supernatural God.”
God is not limited by the laws of nature. He is the governor of them. God is not limited by the laws of economy; he is the ultimate owner of everything in the world, which he directs according to his divine plan.
However, Osteen also made points that are incongruous with traditional Christianity.
For example, his emphasis seemed to be on material blessings for the here and now. This emphasis he carefully nuanced, but the undercurrent was very strong.
In a sentence, the ancient Christian teaching would be “living life faithfully with the cards you are dealt,” whereas the prevailing message that I heard on Friday was, “If you are faithful, God will deal you a better hand.”
Another example would be that one can “declare” things in the name of Jesus into being. Numerous civic and local church leaders were invited on the stage to “declare” certain things, including that 2013 would be the best year ever, and that all single parents — mothers and fathers — will raise their children in faithful and healthy ways. Perhaps by “I declare” they meant, “I hope” or “we pray,” but declaring it does not make it so.
A third example would be by what authority one preaches.
Many pastors in recent centuries desire to derive their calling directly from God. However, since the beginning of the Christian church, those who preach and teach were sent out by others, to whom they were accountable in a formal way. This accountability remains with us to the present day. Priests are accountable to bishops, and the bishops are accountable to one another.
Osteen scolded his critics (with a smile) that he is accountable only to God. While it is true, according to the Scriptures, that each of us will have to answer to God for every word that we speak, the church on Earth was established with and maintains personal, pastoral and theological accountability here and now.
Osteen also proclaimed a number of concepts that, with some sanding and polishing, would reflect the earliest and longstanding Christian teachings. A prime example is that of physical healing.
According the Holy Bible, Jesus went about “preaching and healing,” and there are numerous examples of such physical healing: eyes of the blind opened, ears of the deaf unstopped and even three examples of the dead raised to life by Jesus. Osteen’s mother Dodie is one living, personal example.
Osteen declared such healing. But he separated suffering from healing not only theologically but also in his presentation. He spoke about healing at the beginning and suffering near the end. If he could have brought the two together, there we would find the traditional Christian teaching: If we are healed in this life, we are healed by the mercy of God in order to repent more and to declare to the world what God has done for us. If we are not healed in this world, we know that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross, and as such, suffers with us.
This sanctifies our suffering. It gives the suffering a holy purpose.
In many ways, I was a fish out of water at the “Night of Hope”: the music, the method and the message were quite removed from those of the 2-millennia-old church.
Still, I am grateful for the kindness show to us by Joel, Victoria and Dodie, not to mention those who work closely with them. I was surely impressed by the crowd who came with eager hearts looking for hope and healing, and I surely hope myself that our city and all of us citizens will find the source of that hope and healing, the Lord, to whom all are invited to draw near.
Father John Parker is pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On Community in Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 881-5010.