Richard Roberts is a Healing Minister. As he often explains, when God called him into to ministry He called him specifically into the Healing Ministry, focusing on restoring people’s bodies to health. Roberts was surprised by this calling initially. Though his father, Oral Roberts, had established one of the most successful Christian movements worldwide when Richard was a child, he wanted little to do with it. Roberts the Younger wanted to leave home, leave Christian society, leave the world of Roberts the Elder far behind. He had a fine, bold singing voice, and his dream was to be a famous martini lounge singer.
His first year of college, Roberts chose the University of Kansas over the school his father had founded, Oral Roberts University, and quickly made a name for himself singing local gigs. But he returned to Tulsa after one year and enrolled at ORU. Roberts often explains that during his brief foray into “the world,” he heard the voice of God calling him home, spiritually as well as geographically, and telling him to become a full-time televangelist, healing minister, and president of ORU, as his father was before him.
Though healing is a primary focus of his television program, Roberts’s chapel sermons in my year at ORU are focused less on healing and more on joy. For months, in fact, the only topic he seems interested in teaching on is joy. Joy in the Lord. The Joy of the Holy Spirit. Roberts is stuck on this particular spiritual fruit — providentially stuck, as he would have it, through words of knowledge — and he spends sermon after sermon telling us all about it. He says that God keeps bringing him back to it, just will not let him get away from teaching about joy.
It all begins in a sermon Roberts delivers to the student body soon after returning from an extended trip. He explains that the Lord recently changed his life. He had lost his joy some time back, and felt awful without it, and didn’t know what was wrong with him. He wondered if he had displeased God. But during this trip, God explained to Roberts that he had simply lost his joy, and now it was time to get it back, like some kind of misplaced wallet. One night, thanks to a minister who laid hands on Roberts and prayed that he would receive the Spirit of Joy, God returned his joy in dramatic fashion. He says that he laughed for several hours. Not been amused, not felt peaceful, but belly-laughed. Rolled around on the floor in hysterics. Slapped his knees and held his sides in stitches. He spent all night reveling in the joy of the Lord with other believers. They splashed in spiritual streams of joy, and now all of their lives were forever changed. Everything is different, Roberts explains. I’ve got my joy back! The joy of the Lord is my strength! He paces back and forth on the chapel stage in excitement, working himself up. He giggles and tosses his head back and praises God. The joy of the Lord is running through him, and oh it is so great! Thank God! Glory!
Watching Roberts do his thing, the student body reaction is as mixed as a meeting of the Senate. Some are credulous; they stand and shout along with Roberts even as he preaches, raising their hands in the air in thanksgiving that the president of the university finally got his joy back. They are the minority. Another small bunch stays seated but offers the occasional “Amen!” or clap-clap-clap. Still another minority snickers and glances all about, already thinking of jokes that will be told in dorm rooms late that night. But the bulk of us, including me, watch semi-stunned, waiting to see if this thing is real, and just what our University President has in mind. Will he perform a back flip? Will he do cartwheels across the stage? Will he climb the organ pipes, à la Eddie Vedder? Or will he eventually come to a standstill behind the lectern, open his Bible, and explain to us how this joy works and how to get it for ourselves?
My feelings about my charismatic culture have grown more mixed with every passing week. With every ostentatious chapel speaker, every conversation with a charismaniac, I am more dubious about the particular brand of Christian faith I have chosen to embrace, at least in its incarnation on this campus. Yet I am also suspicious of my own questions; I know that I am not too far removed from these extremes. I have committed to believe in strange things, in the Spirit of God moving in odd ways, in ways that seem foolish, almost comical. I have been living at the boundaries of human emotional experience. What Richard Roberts is saying is not categorically different from my notions of the Spirit of God leaving me entirely for one day. I don’t trust what he is teaching, but I cannot let myself embrace that distrust.
Richard shares with us some Bible verses about the joy of the Lord. “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,” says Psalm 30:11, and there are several other verses like it. These are indications, he explains, that God means for us to be deeply joyful about His presence in our lives. Why the long faces? Because we don’t trust God. We are meant to live life to the fullest, he says, and we clearly are not living the full life, so let’s fix that right now. Roberts has already been speaking for an hour, and we are creeping into our lunchtime. Afternoon classes need to begin. Roberts guesses what we are thinking and says the Spirit of God wants to do some work, and lunch and classwork can just wait or be forgotten entirely. God wants us to cancel classes and stay here and pray. He wants to share His joy with us. God is getting ready to do an amazing work in the student body of ORU, and He’s getting ready to do it right now.
President Roberts feels that the Lord wants him to lay hands on every student. As he lays hands on each one of us, God will fill us with His joy. Our hearts will be fundamentally altered for the better as we experience the presence of God in a fresh way. God, Richard says, wants to perform open-heart surgery, to pry open our chests and do some restorative work.
The poetry of his image gets to me. OK. I’ll give it a shot. I’m ready to give him — and Him — a chance at doing some work in me.
Over the next several minutes, gobs of students form queues up and down the chapel aisles. When the aisles fill up, we pour into the hallways. We are a maze of bodies in shirts and ties and dresses and skirts, and Roberts is winding his way through us, slow but sure. I end up in the hallway. Roberts has begun to pray at the beginning of the maze near the front of the chapel, so I can’t see him, but I can hear his muffled prayers working their way toward me.
“Fresh!” he is shouting. That one word, over and over. “Fresh!” Pause. “Fresh!” Pause. “Fresh!” I hear it several times before I realize that he is asking God to give students a fresh dose of joy. Oh, yes, that’s what he must mean. Fresh.
I can imagine, because I have seen ministers move down prayer lines numerous times by now, that Roberts is laying his hands on the top of each student’s head, praying his quick monosyllabic prayer, and moving on to the next student. “Fresh!” Pause. “Fresh!”
The prayers become varied as he moves on. “Fresh, Lord!” Pause. “Fresh, Lord!” Then: “Joy!” Pause. “Joy, Lord!” Pause. “Joy!”
Like most everyone around me, I am trying to concentrate on what is potentially about to happen. Or not. I wonder if I will fall over, under the power of the Spirit of God. I wonder if I will feel a rush of happiness. I wonder how long it will take for Roberts to get through the line — I have been standing here for thirty minutes already and Roberts still has a long way to go. But mostly, I wonder why I would believe that anything at all will happen. How is this biblical? How is it consistent with everything else I believe about the way God works? What would Francis Schaeffer think? Can I just chalk this up to charismatic weirdness and not worry about it? I cannot. I need to try to take this seriously. God works in mysterious ways. I could use a fresh dose of joy, as God only knows. But is it OK for me to believe what my instincts tell me: that Richard Roberts is operating with delusional theology at best? I want to accept the apparent truth that my university president is a freak show, but I am struck by guilt as soon as I think it. No, I need to be open. Even if Roberts is a bit goofy, the Spirit of God can still work through him. Lord, I believe You can do work in me. Lord, I am not too proud to know that I certainly need more of Your Spirit, more of Your grace. Lord, I want to be open to whatever You want to do in me today. Lord, do something in me. Please.
Please. If only to prove to me that this whole thing is not the charade it seems to be. Please, Lord. I so don’t want this to be a lie. Because if this is wrong, maybe the whole thing is wrong. Oh God, I don’t want to know that what I have believed is a lie.
As Roberts enters the hallway and my field of vision, I continue to try to pray silently but can’t take my eyes off his journey through the maze. As he lays hands on people’s heads, many of them fall backward. Sometimes they sink slowly as he passes by. Other times they shoot straight to the ground like they’ve taken a left hook. They are falling over in the Spirit, colloquially known as being “slain.” The colloquialism is more violent than it intends to be. Charismatics who are slain fall over and experience a trance of unconsciousness or enlightened consciousness for several minutes, receiving revelation or emotional healing — or wondering, as I did the one time I was slain, if they have really been slain at all, or have just tried to receive whatever God was doing and then realizing that God had probably not done anything at all. Oops.
I believe that God slays people in the Spirit (it happened to King Saul and Saul/Paul in the Bible, after all) and I have friends who have had important spiritual experiences while being slain, but since my only slaying experience ended in my coming to grips with the fact that I only tried to be slain and did not really experience anything unusual, I am wary of it. I don’t want to trick myself into it again, and I surely don’t want to be tricked into it by a gung ho minister. I pray through all this as Roberts comes closer. If I experience You today, God, I want it to be real. Genuine. I don’t want to make anything up.
All around me, people are experiencing the moment differently. Some are singing, some are whispering to each other, some are waiting silently with hands held out, palms turned upward in a display of willingness to receive whatever God wants to do through the university president. Unlike at Prayer Warriors back home, I am not comfortable in this varied atmosphere. At the charismatic megachurch it never felt unusual that we all were experiencing God in different ways. Our personal idiosyncrasies all somehow fit into a common whole. One of us could be dancing, another kneeling and weeping, another sitting and reading Scripture, and it was all good. It was all essentially the same. I trusted everyone’s actions. Now, my trust is diminished, and I am fighting to get it back. It seems that people here at ORU subtly, without knowing it, believe very different things about God. Some people believe He provides Toyota 4x4s with the exact specifications we claim in prayer, or, rather, doesn’t do anything at all until we work up the faith to make it happen. Others believe that He deals mostly in grandiose stories of love and mercy. These two Gods seem worlds apart.
I feel wrong to doubt what Roberts is doing and what my fellow students are experiencing. I rebuke the doubt. In Jesus’ name. I say it aloud. Get behind me, doubt. I want whatever God has for me, even if my university president is a freak show.
As Roberts comes closer I cannot help but watch him work. He is sweating with the effort — forty-five minutes of moving through a dense prayer maze have exercised him. His jacket is unbuttoned and hangs open as he moves swiftly — “Fresh! Fresh! Joy, Lord!” — from student head to student head. Some receive his grip and stand, praying silently. Many others fall. Several people have volunteered themselves for the effort of catching those who fall, so no one falls hard to the ground as Saul might have. When a female student falls, the volunteers are quick to cover her legs and skirt with a small blanket. (For this I am thankful. Better not to have the temptation.)
As Roberts comes my way, I brace myself. I plant my feet, center my weight, and stiffen my neck. I want to experience the joy of the Lord. I want to be slain in the Spirit by God. But I do not want any of it to be fabricated. I will not be pushed over unless God does the pushing.
Roberts is now four people away — “Joy!”– and I am praying in tongues and (did he push that girl too hard?) trying to concentrate on my desire for God’s will — “Joy, Lord!” — and (will he say “Joy” or “Fresh” for me?) God I’m sorry, I want to concentrate on You and I am not Roberts’s judge I am Your — “Fresh!” — child and I want whatever You have for me even if I don’t understand it — “Fresh!”– and why can’t this be less –“Joy, Lord!” — confusing but Lord I open my heart to You and — “JOY!” Roberts shouts into my face as his massive hands grip my head and push harder even than I expected but I push my head right back toward his grip and before I even have time to consider that here I am getting prayed for by the son of Oral Roberts and instead of loving it and having some amazing experience of God I am resisting pushing myself you will not make me fall if I am slain I will be slain by the Creator of the Universe — before I even have time to consider, Roberts has — “Fresh!”– moved on down the line.
Nothing happens. No joy. No slaying.
I stand and pray in tongues, hands turned upward to receive from God, just in case. I don’t know what to do otherwise. But I try: Thank you, Lord. For what? I guess for being with me, somehow. I trust You, even if I don’t trust this. Help me, God. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is this stuff of You, or just of Oral Roberts University? Why did You want me to come here? I trust You, God. Just show me. Something. You.
I open my eyes, drop my hands, let out the breath I’ve been holding in. I turn my brain off and head outside.
The only thing fresh in me is a wound of confusion.
Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).