Man of God, But Still a Man

Man of God, But Still a Man

LARGER THAN LIFE: Pastor Zachery Tims' mysterious death sent shockwaves through the faith community.

On Friday night in Apopka, Florida, hundreds of people waited in line for more than an hour to pay their final respects to Rev. Zachery Tims. The 42-year-old megachurch pastor, who was found dead in a New York City hotel room on Aug. 12, will be laid to rest on Saturday morning.

Of all the things to be said about Tims — some great and perhaps not so great — one thing will almost certainly be true: he was a man.

Knowing nothing about this man, I heard “Pastor. Dead. Hotel. New York City,” and my imagination conjured the most depraved of possibilities that could validate the combination of those words. The scattered details following reports of his death, including that of a white powdery substance found on his person, only made my internal speculation worse.

Soon after media confirmed the news, Facebook and Twitter exploded with condolences, expressions of shock, and, in some cases, blame directed at Tims for his own death. He wasn’t new to controversy, after all. Long before his move to Florida, he’d battled drug abuse but said on the church website that he was “miraculously saved, instantly delivered … and called into ministry.” In 2008 he admitted to an affair, and he and his wife later divorced.

Drug abuse and marital problems unfortunately fall into the tragic categories of normal life for normal people. It’s only abnormal when it’s public and it involves the pastor.

How could someone bearing that title and the spiritual responsibility of thousands, commissioned by God with the Spirit upon him to preach the gospel, heal the brokenhearted and preach deliverance to the captives be in the bondage of sin himself? The answer is simple: even the man of God is still a man.

We frequently lose that fact in the face of pastors and other church leaders who appear to have arrived at the place people stake their lives on trying to go.

Many are the best dressed, driving the nicest of cars, and living in houses that look like they’re straight from MTV Cribs. And even for leaders with more modest incomes, preaching every Sunday, they appear smart, confident and even fearless. Their holiness is apparent; their anointing is strong, the words they speak prophetic. They stand over hundreds, thousands, and — thanks to online worship — maybe millions of people, continually holding attention and commanding respect. And if you miss that it’s the Spirit of God holding that man or that woman up, you’d think he or she holds power that no ordinary person does.

Throw in a sense of humor, a certain “swag” (like my pastor), and the good looks of Tims (who was often likened to Will Smith), and you’ve got a larger-than-life superstar who’s everything to everybody every hour of the day.

When this is all we choose to see, we inevitably make titans of our teachers and hold them to a supernatural standard. The pastor becomes our idol — no longer a man of God but, instead, a god of man.

And we know there is only one God, who is God all by Himself. All other manmade gods eventually fall — just as all humanity does, just like any man or woman would. Regardless of his or her position in the church, every believer has the challenge of walking through the struggles of this fallen world in pursuit of God’s truth and the life that comes with it.

Victory over the sin struggle sometimes isn’t so easy, particularly for church leaders who, though surrounded, are isolated physically and spiritually. They cover entire  flocks but live uncovered themselves. With little to no support, accountability and the weight of others’ burdens, perhaps anybody would do anything just to endure — even the pastor. Maybe your pastor. Maybe even the late Zachery Tims.

Following the announcement of his death, I read of Tims’ encouraging words, his amazing testimony, and the altruistic work he did as pastor of New Destiny Christian Center. Though I didn’t know him, I’m convinced he probably was a great man, even an anointed man of God — but a man nonetheless.

Zachery Tims Found Dead

Zachery Tims Found Dead

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Pastor Zachery Tims' body was found in a NYC hotel in Times Square.

Investigation into the death of megachurch Pastor Zachery Tims, 42, continues as mass online condolences accompany few details of his Aug. 12 passing in a New York City hotel room. Police reportedly found Tims, pastor of the 8,000-member New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla., near Orlando, unresponsive on the floor of his room in the W Hotel in Times Square early Friday evening. As of Sunday night following his death, reports said police did not suspect foul play. Even as they awaited autopsy results Monday afternoon, police reportedly had no plans for a criminal investigation.

Many had heard of Tims’ death through Facebook and Twitter postings before mainstream media began reporting additional information Monday morning. By noon, tweets expressing grief over Tims’ death flooded Twitter at about 25 tweets per minute, trending in Orlando. Beyond shock, other posts mentioned the impact Tims had even beyond the walls of his church.

“I know the word, but I am still stunned over the death of Pastor Zachary Tims,” tweeted Rev. Charles Jenkins, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill. “He texted me encouragement every Sunday.” Other nationally known church and gospel music personalities posting their sentiments included CeCe Winans, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Fred Hammond and Jonathan Nelson. Commentator Roland Martin informed followers of the latest information, even though little was available beyond initial reports. The latest news reports claim a white powdery substance was found on Tims’ body, leading authorities to suspect that his death was drug related.

Originally from Baltimore, Tims earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Towson State University and another in theology from Maranatha Baptist Bible College, both in Maryland. He founded New Destiny in 1996 with six members. As church membership grew, the congregation continually expanded its facilities to ultimately hold its 8,000 members. He is survived by his ex-wife and four children.

New Laws, Shifting Demographics

New Laws, Shifting Demographics

NEW YORK PRIDE: Marchers in the weekend NYC Gay Pride Parade celebrated New York's legalization of same-sex marriage.

Calls and emails to numerous New York clergy went unanswered over the weekend as Urban Faith sought reaction to the passage of a bill that makes same-sex marriage legal in the state. Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law after it was passed by the Republican-led state senate Friday.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage  (NOM) told the Wall Street Journal the move was a “disaster for the Republican party,” and said NOM will spend $2 million to defeat legislators who voted for it.

Former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree was widely criticized last week for speaking out in opposition to the bill in a video for NOM. Tyree said it is “doing God an injustice by not making his heart known” on the issue, and was especially taken to task for suggesting that if a gay marriage bill passes in New York, it will be “the beginning of our country sliding toward … anarchy.

In some truly disheartening relationship news, a new Pew Research Center study indicates that while only 9 percent of Americans said more interracial relationships are bad for society, 16 percent of white evangelicals did and 13 percent of white mainline Protestants, Christianity Today reported.

“The views of white Christians stand in stark contrast to two other groups: black Protestants and those with no religion. Only 3 percent of either group said interracial marriage was bad for society. Eight-in-ten respondents said the trend ‘doesn’t make much difference.’  Those who are not religious were more optimistic, with 38 percent saying it was good for society,” the article said.

Meanwhile, Terry Shropshire began a Rollingout.com review of Ralph Richard Banks’ new book Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone with this stinging rebuke:

“Malcolm X once warned African Americans that no one can exploit and hate on black people with the dexterity, efficiency and ruthlessness as other blacks. Case in point: a black Stanford law professor is gainfully profiteering off the collective marriage misery of middle-class African American women with a blog-level, contemptible book.”

The book advises black women to find love by marrying white men.

“While some intelligent points were sprinkled into the book at irregular intervals, overall, it answers none of the questions and relies on haphazard, shabby research and unsubstantiated theories wrapped in hollow, sophisticated rhetoric to make you give it a good look,” Shropshire concluded.

In other news, black leaders met last week in Washington to call for an end to the 40 year war on drugs, the Seattle Medium reported.

“This is a crime against humanity. [The] War on drugs is a war on Black and Brown and must be challenged by the highest levels of our government in the war for justice,” keynote speaker Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. told more than 200  people gathered at the Institute of the Black World event, the statistic and solution filled article said.

Among the statistics cited were these: “African-Americans are 62 percent of drug offenders sent to state prisons, yet they represent only 12 percent of the U. S. population” and “black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.”

Among the solutions offered are these: “Ask Congress to create new and fully-funded drug treatment facilities rather than more prisons,” and “Encourage and support religious leaders to assist incarcerated persons and providing community and moral leadership.”

In related news, dark-skinned black women receive considerably harsher sentences than light-skinned black women in the North Carolina prison system, a new study conducted by researchers at Villanova University found.

“Black women who were perceived to have a light skin tone were sentenced to considerably more lenient sentences, roughly 12 percent less time in prison than those with a dark skin tone,” The Grio reported.

“The current study adds to a growing body of colorism research that underscores the complexity of racism in our society,” one of its authors told the outlet.

One can only hope that shifting demographic realities will erase this prejudice.

A preview of the final 2010 census report indicates that minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S. for the first time, but it also reveals that more African-American households are now headed by women — mostly single mothers — than by married couples, the Associated Press reported.

“Demographers say the numbers provide the clearest confirmation yet of a changing social order, one in which racial and ethnic minorities will become the U.S. majority by midcentury,” the article said.

Perhaps when that happens undocumented immigrants like Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas will have an easier path to citizenship. In a first-person essay in the New York Times, Vargas told his story of being sent from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in the United States when he was 12 years old. He described how his grandfather, educators, and employers at The Washington Post and The Huffington Post helped him keep his secret. Media critic Jack Shafer questioned the ethics of Vargas’ actions first on Twitter, then in his column at Slate.

All these stories involve complex spiritual and moral challenges that the church must continue to wrestle with. What is the appropriate Christian response to the legalization of gay marriage, to the 40-year “war on drugs,” to colorism, to African American marriage prospects and disheartening statistics, and to the plight of undocumented immigrants?

Our Call to Public Education

Our Call to Public Education for urban faithHow many eighth-grade Bible studies lead with Lamentations? Or Leviticus? Not many that I’m aware of.

Yet last I checked, Lamentations and Leviticus are part of the biblical canon, along with Romans and Revelation and lots of other heady reading material.

Should it matter to pastors, then, that the average graduate of America’s city schools reads at an eighth-grade level and that many high school graduates don’t even rank that high?

(more…)

Three Days in 1969

Three Days in 1969 for urban faithForty years ago this week, more than 400,000 concertgoers gathered on the muddy grounds of a 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York to celebrate what was billed as “three days of peace and music.” The Woodstock Music & Art Fair transformed the way we think about popular music and youth culture. In fact, it became an emblem of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

The past week has been filled with observances of the music festival’s anniversary, an “acid trip” down memory lane for many baby boomers. And next week the celebration continues with the release of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a cinematic tribute to that legendary gathering.

In a turbulent era that found the nation reeling from its involvement in the Vietnam War — a period that was just a year removed from the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — Woodstock represented the power of unbridled hope, freedom, and youthful exuberance. Of course, it also represented that great American trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” — with newly embraced freedom also came the collateral damage of hedonistic living.

Out of all the acts that performed during Woodstock — artists like Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, and Joan Baez — arguably none has become more identified with the event than Jimi Hendrix, whose two-hour set actually took place on August 18, after the music festival was officially over. Rain and technical snafus had pushed his performance to early that Monday morning. With only an estimated 80,000 people remaining to witness it, Hendrix delivered one of his most stirring performances.

If anyone could make his guitar weep, it was Jimi Hendrix. He made it sing — in ecstasy and sadness. He made sounds that had never been heard before. It’s no wonder that, in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him as number one on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Hendrix, who was a lefty, taught himself to play a Fender Stratocaster upside down, so that his right-handed guitar could be played left-handed. He experimented tirelessly with amplified feedback and unorthodox chord structures, while incorporating blues, jazz, funk, and his own electrified brand of psychedelic rock into a sound that has influenced virtually every rock guitarist since (not to mention urban funk and pop artists such as George Clinton and Prince).

Hendrix achieved worldwide fame following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, he headlined Woodstock, where he played his enduring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Through his blistering, sonic barrage, you could actually hear “the bombs bursting in air” and see “the rockets red glare.” And, with it being the era of Vietnam, he even threw in a few notes of “Taps” to keep things interesting.

Sadly, Hendrix died a little over a year later, in 1970, at age 28 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. He was famously ensnared by the destructive lure of alcohol and drugs, and is counted among a number of tragic and untimely deaths from that late-’60s/early-’70s era. But his impact on music is undeniable.

What’s more, Hendrix’s very presence at Woodstock (along with other artists of color like Baez, Richie Havens, Carlos Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone) put forth a visible declaration of the way that art and pop culture could transcend and overcome even our most entrenched social divisions. Martin Johnson’s retrospective at TheRoot.com offers a great summation of Hendrix’s appearance at Woodstock and the importance of his legacy.

Of the songs he left behind, one of my favorites is “Night Bird Flying” from The Cry of Love (1971). This was the first recording released after his death. The first song on the album is called “Freedom.” It’s a word that can describe different types of liberation. Being set free from vice may not have been the primary meaning, but it’s a desire that he probably felt.

The struggle to be free may be what gives rise to songs like “Night Bird Flying.” It’s an amazing confluence of expression and sound.

She’s just a night bird flyin’ through the night

Fly on

She’s just a night bird making a midnight, midnight flight

Sail on, sail on

For me, in the early ’70s, “Night Bird Flying” became an expression of the spiritual peace that eluded me, despite my efforts to find satisfaction in other things. It gave voice to a feeling of estrangement. I remember being a restless teenager, returning home from a Hawaiian vacation with my family. During the trip, I had a falling out with my younger brother. It grieved me. On the flight back, I sullenly sat apart from the rest of my family members. Few things are as troubling as the feeling that you are at odds with someone, especially a member of your own family.

Alone in my grief, I thought of Hendrix’s song. How I yearned for a better day. Would it ever come?

I remember the telling photograph that was taken on one of the Hawaiian Islands. My whole family was arrayed in Hawaiian shirts while I leaned away from them in my T-shirt that, on the back, displayed images of cannabis and a water pipe. The shirt’s lettering boldly proclaimed: “Smoke It!” In contrast to the scowl on my face, my siblings smiled in a way that showed they still had an innocence that would be lost when they eventually followed me into using drugs.

Though getting high brought me temporary relief, I was a troubled soul. It was no less so as I sat on the plane and felt the loneliness of separation. Listening in my mind to the Hendrix song made me want to soar like some mythical night bird. In the midst of trouble, the psalmist David longed for wings that he might take flight and find relief in some place of refuge. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!” he wrote. “I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8, ESV).

I wonder if Hendrix felt a longing like this. He may not have known what it was, but it could have been what made his guitar an expression of his desire. The sorrow of not finding the true freedom that he sought seemed to seep into his music.

In a Christianity Today article entitled “Learning to Cry for the Culture,” singer and writer John Fischer observes that evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer’s most crucial legacy was tears. He writes, “Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place.” Rather, he advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them. He believed that “instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep over the lost person who created it.” Fischer concludes his article by saying, “The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day should make us cry in ours.”

In A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card reminds us that the Bible is full of lament — people of faith, including Jesus, giving voice to the sorrow and anguish that fills their hearts. It’s a means of staying connected to God when the world is not as it should be. It’s the mourning that Jesus commends.

I have a lot to learn about this, but I desire to be more compassionate. Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw the throng of people that had gathered in a remote area to hear Him. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” In fact, they probably looked a lot like the multitude of hippies gathered at Woodstock. Jesus welcomes them all, and feeds them both physically and spiritually (Mark 6:30-44).

As contemporary followers of Jesus, we also have an opportunity to show compassion to those who are searching, those who are lost.

I feel sad knowing that Hendrix felt conflicted at times as we all do. I don’t imagine that he found the freedom that he yearned for. I wouldn’t pretend to know. But I do know that the longing in his music was so deep that I can hear his discontent over his present circumstances, his reaching out for something more. Thus I lament for Hendrix:

You were among the greatest of your generation.
You achieved heights that few know.

Through your guitar,
you sang and wept,
laughed and mourned,
danced and lamented.

You kissed the sky, but your wings were broken.
You could not reach what you longed for.

As we remember Woodstock this month, I’m also remembering the multitude of young people who gathered at that muddy farm. Many of them, now 40 years older, are probably still yearning for something more. We can celebrate the excitement and history of that phenomenal event that forever changed popular culture. But I also want to say a prayer for those restless souls who are still searching, who are still longing for true peace and love.