a preacher, a prisoner, and the desires of the heart

Prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen.

After last Saturday’s rally (sidenote: go check out my friend Ryan’s take on the rally and see some video), I’ve spent a lot of time this week reading about the West Memphis 3, particularly Damien Echols’s letters.  Damien compares himself to a monk a few times, and in a way I can totally see it– his letters are full of spiritual wisdom and contemplation, and he spends a lot of time in meditation.  Of course, he’s also completely different than a monk, because they freely choose their seclusion from the world, and Damien has been locked away for 17 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.  Still, his writing is beautiful and I encourage you to check out his letters if you’re interested in the case.

Something that completely struck me by surprise were the positive mentions of Joel Osteen.  I spent a summer working in the Family Christian Bookstore, and during that time, I familiarized myself with the works of Joel Osteen because I wanted to know what I was talking about with customers.  My basic impression was that Osteen is in the vein of the “prosperity gospel,” and the general gist is that God wants to give you “the desires of your heart,” usually interpreted to be material goods and wealth and power.  This theology hinges upon Psalm 37:4, which says “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

Osteen, in my mind, is in the same camp as Joyce Meyer, who I read quoted in TIME magazine as saying:

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

Really? I seem to recall something about a rich man and a camel, and the eye of a needle…

From the same TIME piece:

[Osteen] and [his wife] Victoria meet with TIME in their pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases. “Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.

It always seemed to me that folks like Osteen and Meyer get it backwards, saying that what you want, God will give you, if you just have enough faith, no matter what it is that you want.  I fail to see what a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus has to do with being “happy.”  To me, the point of the Psalm is that when you delight yourself in God, you begin to want Godly things as you are transformed into a Godly person, and then God will happily grant your Godly requests.

And yet, here is Damien Echols’s take on Joel Osteen:

I’m a huge fan of a minister named Joel Olsteen. I think he’s a genius–not a genius of the mind, but a genius of the spirit. I listened to a speech he gave about not being critical, about letting God fight your battles instead of striking out at those who try to hurt you. As I listened to it I could feel everything inside me saying he’s right. I’m trying to look at this situation and see it as the Divine sees it instead of the way an angry man sees it. I’m trying really hard to be thankful for what the pain has taught me, instead of being bitter about the pain itself. Sometimes it’s hard, though. Right now I’m working on trust–trust that one day I’ll be thankful even for the vampires in my life. –February 18, 2010

When I got up this morning I wasn’t feeling all that well. It was more emotional than physical, but I felt tired and worn down. Then I turned on the television just in time to catch Joel Osteen’s latest message. I can’t even describe what a huge difference it made in my day. He was talking about what he called the “trial of faith” ~ the time between when you ask for something and when you receive it. It was all about not getting discouraged when it feels like nothing is happening, because the Divine Mind is still at work behind the scenes even if you can’t see it. It felt like he was speaking directly to me, and I was hearing with my heart. I went from a state of feeling beaten down, to a state of joyous excitement. I fully realize that televangelists are a big turn off for many people, but this guy is different. I’m about as far from being a fundamentalist as you can get, yet Osteen has never said anything I’ve been remotely offended by. In fact, I always come away from hearing him with a little more strength than I had before. If you set aside preconceived notions and really listen, you can hear pure magick in his words. Or at least I do. –March 15, 2010

It seems to me that Echols hears Osteen’s message in a completely different way than I read it in his books in the Family Christian Bookstore, and I guess it’s because the desire of his heart is pure, a desire for freedom from the injustice of his imprisonment, rather than the typical American desire for wealth and material things. And you know, I truly believe that God wants to grant Echols the desires of his heart, to give him his freedom.

And I guess this is where I have to admit: my husband was right, and I was wrong.  When we drive past billboards that essentially say “TURN OR BURN!” I tend to go on a rant, wishing those billboards weren’t there, thinking they tend to do more harm than good, and that a relationship with God based on fear of punishment is far less desirable than one based on love and gratitude.  Jon, however, usually tells me that if even one person’s life is changed by that billboard, then it’s worth it.  I guess I have to concede the same point about Osteen.  If, seen through the eyes of someone with a pure, godly desire, his message can be one of hope and freedom to a man like Damien Echols, wrongly in prison, well then, I’m glad he’s out there preaching it.

voices for justice

All I had was a crappy BlackBerry camera, so you'll have to take my word for it that this is Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp.

Last night I went to some of the best church I’ve ever experienced. Except it was in a Music Hall with 2500 other people and led by a handful of famous people.  I was at a rally/rockshow in support of the West Memphis 3.

The West Memphis 3 are Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin, a group of young men arrested and convicted as teenagers for the murder of three children in West Memphis, AR.  Many people, including myself, believe the West Memphis 3 are innocent and wrongly imprisoned.  One of them, Damien Echols, is on death row.  I encourage you to read about their case and decide for yourself. It blows my mind that we can have people on death row on such shaky evidence.  There is no DNA evidence tying any of the Three to the crime scene, although DNA evidence of one of the victims’ stepfather was found at the scene.   Instead, the case relied on what was a most-likely coerced and later recanted confession from one of the Three, Jessie Misskelly, who is mentally handicapped and, though he was a teenager, was questioned without a lawyer or a parent present.  In addition, the way the investigation was handled, the way the story was told to the public and the media, and notes recovered from the jurors all point to the fact that these three men are wrongly imprisoned and have been for 17 years.

In those 17 years, the Three have found support for their cause all over the state and all over the world.  Thanks to a pair of HBO documentaries, they even gained the support of some major celebrities: Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Johnny Depp.  With Damien Echols’ oral arguments before the State Supreme Court coming up on September 30, their local and celebrity supporters decided it was time to hold a rally to both raise money for the WM3 legal defense fund and to get active in contacting state leaders in support of new trials for the WM3.  That led to last night’s Voices for Justice rally.

Of course a rally featuring Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Patti Smith, Ben Harper, Dhanni Harrison, Joseph Arthur, and Bill Carter drew a large crowd– where else are you going to see Eddie Vedder letting Johnny Depp take lead guitar, or both of them playing backup for Patti Smith?  Still, I was really disappointed to see that Bobby Ampezzan’s review in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette focused primarily on suggesting that people packed out Robinson for a rock show, not because they care about a cause.  To that I ask, Bobby, did you SEE how amped people were when Rev. Thompson Murray from Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church gave a stirring min-sermon about the cause of justice as something Jesus would have supported?  The way people cheered during the videos highlighting the miscarriage of justice in this case?  The way people gave money as buckets were passed, offering style, around the music hall to collect money for the WM3 legal defense fund? But what does Bobby know? He describes Natalie Maines as having “a shaved head” (she was sporting a cute, short pixie) and rags on her for “[using] cue cards held aloft in the pit for one of her numbers” despite the fact that she barely talked the entire show because she said she was too emotional about a cause she has long-supported for words.  It really disappointed me to see that write-up, and I felt like it had an agenda to downplay the real experience of the rally.

Like I said before, the entire experience, to me, was most akin to some really good church.  We started with a sermon and a preacher telling the crowd that Jesus is always on the side of justice, quoting Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”  We had some congregational singing, along with Eddie Vedder as he performed Tom Waits’ “It Rains on Me” and with the entire assembled “band” as they performed “People Have the Power.”  We heard the personal testimony of Eddie Vedder, as he described spending a recent evening around a campfire in his back yard with Fistful of Mercy (Ben Harper, Dhanni Harrison, Joseph Arthur), when they stood in a circle saying a kind of prayer that the WM3 could one day join them there, and realized that the answer to their prayer was to get down to Little Rock for the rally.  Isn’t that how prayer so often works? Instead of using it to magically give us things, God uses it to remind us that we need to take action.  That’s how it usually goes for me.

For me, some of the most powerful moments of the evening were while Natalie Maines was singing.  While she has one of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard, I think I was most stuck by her fiery spirit.  I like a woman who refuses to be shut up.  She sang a traditional gospel song called “Death’s Got a Warrant,” previously recorded by another favorite of mine, Patty Griffin.  The song was obviously aimed at the true murderers, and said “you can’t hide, God’s got your number and he knows where you live.  Death’s got a warrant for you.”

To me, the best song of the evening was Maines’ performance of Dan Wilson’s (best known as the lead singer of Semisonic) “Free Life.” The song was very stirring, as it seemed to be about Damien Echols reuniting as a free man with his wife Lorri Davis.  Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:

Let’s take a little trip down where we used to go
It’s way beyond the strip, a place they call your soul
We’ll sit down for a while and let the evening roll

Don’t worry about the time; we’ll find a place to stay
The people round here seem familiar in some way
Look kind of like we did before we got so cold

And in the air the questions hang
Will we get to do something?
Who we gonna end up being?
How we gonna end up feeling?
What you gonna spend your free life on? Free life.

It was a good question for all of us. I hope the people in attendance won’t take for granted that we are blessed to have our freedom. I hope that they are moved to support the cause of justice, because when someone can sit on death row for a crime no one can be certain they committed, we are all a little less free.

And you know what? I have enough faith in people, enough faith in what I experienced with 2500 other people last night, to believe that it wasn’t just about Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp.  It was also about three innocent men in prison.  It was about justice.  And there are many ways to help between now and September 30th.