“Always protects…” :: Some Thoughts on Richard Roberts

Early this morning, the former president of Oral Roberts University, Richard Roberts, was arrested on a DUI charge.  He was released on an $1,100 bail just a few hours ago.

Richard, who served as president of ORU for 15 years, resigned his post in 2007 amid charges of corruption and misuse of the university’s assets.  It was a dark season for ORU, but by all accounts it seems the university has responded with aplomb, now healthier than ever.

I graduated from ORU back in the spring of 2003.  ORU was a mythical place to me in my childhood.  Growing up in more or less rural Wisconsin from a more or less pentecostal/charismatic church, “Tulsa, Oklahoma” was to me practically what Jerusalem would have been to a Jewish kid born in Babylon during the exile: a place of lore and legend, with people and institutions that represented the best of our self-understanding.  So it was with a fair amount of enthusiasm that I moved to Tulsa to attend ORU in the fall of 1999.

Disappointment almost immediately set in.  And the disappointment was not so much with the school as such (great classes, great professors, great students), but with the leadership.  I had every reason to believe in the Roberts family, Richard and Lindsay in particular.  As time when on, those reasons eroded.  Before long, trust had been replaced with cynicism.  It was the “skeletons in the closet” stories (stories both past and present, all of which abounded) that created a real sense of disconnect between what I saw of the Roberts family and what was pretty clear was going on behind the scenes.  “Duplicity” was not a word I used often, but it certainly described my sense of what was going on.  It was clear to me that the unhealth of the institution and the unhealth of the family that led it were intimately connected.

So when the scandal(s) that ultimately led to Richard’s departure hit back in 2007, I remember actually being happy for the Roberts’ family, and for the institution.  ORU is a great place with a lot of potential.  To see a new wave of clear-minded leadership come in was a really hopeful thing.

But even more than that, I was legitimately happy for Richard and Lindsay, for the burden now lifted off of their shoulders.  “What an opportunity,” I thought “for them to get out of the limelight, lay aside the pressure, and rediscover the simplicity of walking with Jesus, together, among his people, journeying toward health.”

Ministry, after all, can be a pure delight.  It can also be a soul-crushing burden.  More still, it can become a place that aids and abets and exacerbates our brokenness.  And when our health and wholeness (“singleness of heart” is how the prophet Jeremiah might have described it) is not up to the level of (or beyond) the weight we carry, trouble is sure to follow.

So I was happy for Richard and Lindsay back in 2007, and I’m really sad today.  A DUI is not necessarily a sign that a person is finding wholeness.  I’m sure it’s a pretty dark day in the Roberts household.

So, what we do with this?  A few things…

We refuse cynical commentary.  “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Pr 24:17) says the writer of Proverbs.  Richard is perhaps no one’s “enemy” in the sense intended by the sage, but it applies all the same.  It is a sign of our own sickness that we gloat and snark over things like this.  When the scandal of 2007 hit, predictably I suppose but sadly, much of the ORU alumni community went on the offensive with destructive, cynical, sarcastic commentary.  Paul says that love “keeps no record of wrongs.”  It “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Co 13).

Love always protectsIt is a sign of how unlike our Father in heaven we are that we can’t muster up the will to protect and build up the Roberts family (or anyone for that matter) through this.  Rise to the occasion ORU alumni.

– As a corollary, we refuse to be morbidly fascinated with scandal and failure.  I have observed moral failure both up close and from afar, and what is always true, especially in a society that worships its heroes as much as ours does, that when leaders fail, the public becomes morbidly fascinated.  People can’t stop talking about it.  I’m not totally sure why that is.  I know it’s weird.

Perhaps, I might suggest, it is evidence that we don’t have very robust “selves” that we so easily find heroes to worship, which is why we crucify them when they fail – they threaten the fabric of our self-identity, so we need to distance from them.  Maybe, I might suggest, our longing for transcendence falsely expresses itself in our living vicariously through celebrities and leaders that have seemingly broken free of the earth.  If all of this is the case, then we are guilty of breaking several major commandments (“you shall have no other gods before you…” ahem, ahem), and its effects on our sense of self and our health as a people are palpable.

We need to do better.  Observe failure, pray for restoration, and then move on.  Our addiction to celebrity worship is destructive both to ourselves and to those we worship.

And finally…

We refuse to make soul-care subordinate to the other concerns of our lives.  This is perhaps especially important for people in vocational ministry, but it applies to all of us.  The old word for it was “integrity”, which didn’t necessarily refer to “honesty” (though it included it), but to the whole of a person’s constitution.  In architectural terms, if a building has “structural integrity”, we know that it safe to live and work in.  If that integrity is compromised (the foundation cracks, or there’s a termite problem), we know that the building will eventually not support its own weight; say nothing of the weight of others in the building.  It is unsafe.

And so it is with us.  We seek to make sure that our “structural integrity” is sound, and getting sounder.  If and when we fail to pay attention to that integrity, sooner or later our unsoundness will express itself, and chances are, people will be hurt.  This is why intentionality in our own spiritual formation is so critical.

The big trouble with ministry, of course, is that it encourages us to pretend that all is well.  Our ambition for seeing the institutions we lead succeed causes us to subordinate the concerns of our souls to the concerns of our ministries.  That is exactly backwards.  The problem is, oftentimes our gifts and talents (our capacity) outpace our character, which means that we can get away with it.  For awhile.

I remember being on a several week fast back during my college days.  During one of the days of the fast, I expressed in prayer some frustration that it didn’t seem like a lot was happening in my life.  I remember the Lord saying very clearly to me, “Don’t despise the seasons of quietness.  You need to allow my Spirit to do a deeper work of faith in you (during these seasons) so that your character will be able to sustain you in the places your giftedness will take you.”

That has always stayed with me.  I want there to be MUCH MORE to me, my character, who I am, than what anybody sees on Sunday.  But even more than that, I want the capacity of my character to always outpace the capacity of my gifts, otherwise I’ll never be able to hold the opportunities (and challenges!) my gifts bring my way.  Still more, I never want ministry to be something that’s fundamentally separate from who I am.  That is precisely the place that ministry becomes duplicitous.

That is why soul-care, the work of spiritual formation, is so important.  We want “selves” that are “structurally sound”, rooted and planted in Christ Jesus, so that our lives may be a blessing and a strength to the world around us.

My prayer for the Roberts family is that the Spirit would continue to lovingly lead them in the journey towards wholeness… “shalom”… everything in its place, just as God intends.

Make it so Lord God.

25 thoughts on ““Always protects…” :: Some Thoughts on Richard Roberts

  1. Also extremely important here is accountability for soul care. We must have at least one or two people (same sex) who can speak honestly into our life, and that we can share honestly with. This is a hard thing, as our inclination is not to share the bad stuff. If we truly wish to protect ourselves we must do it. If you don’t have it ask God to put someone in your life like that.

  2. Thank you for this responsible treatment of this incident. I resonated with your experience at ORU and share a similar journey. At first my response was, “well, he got what he had comin’!” However, when I saw the mugshot, my heart melted…not necessarily for Richard, but I wondered how I’d want to be treated in the same situation.

    I remembered how people turned their back on my grandfather when he had integrity issues. I remember him spending the rest of his life going from church to church sharing how a preacher guy can go from the TV sets of millions of homes to a prison.

    Thanks again, I was hoping to come across a post like this on the subject.

    • “I wondered how I’d want to be treated in the same situation.” Gosh. No kidding. Your experience with your grandfather is straight to the point.

      I keep thinking… God’s response to the guilty is so telling… the Cain and Abel story… how he at once punishes Cain… and at the same time “marks” him out in protection…

      That is so like God… merciful, even in judgment…

      May we rise to that paradoxical but beautiful blend…

  3. I like following the thread on your facebook too. Your point about “naming” evil is good and I felt that when I looked at his picture. It really does say it all. His eyes, expression, and posture.

    If we get caught up in naming evil and forget that people are human, we are objectifying people and making them into villains. When we do that, we become less than human.

  4. Totally dude. The first step towards mistreating other people is diminishing their humanity. I remember hearing once that part of Hitler’s propaganda was convincing the German people that the Jews were “undermensch” – “under-men” or “sub-men” – which is why it was okay to do what they did to them.

    How we view people and how we treat them go hand in hand.

    • YES! an excellent resource on this is Thomas Cahill’s “Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks still matter.” He talks about the subhuman category quite a bit and I think you’d love it.

  5. Excellent response, Andrew. I heard about it this morning from Alan (my brother-in-law). I was immediately struck with sorrow for the man. There’s no joy is seeing your “enemies” (not that he is that) crumble. The only joy is to see them restored and loving on Jesus again. Who knows, maybe he was at an Orthodox baptism and got totally wasted with the priest and deacon only to be nabbed by the cops on the way home. It could happen.

  6. Andrew,

    I do miss this very deep and introspective thinking quite a bit. There are few people on this earth that really have the fortitude and guts to go to these kinds of levels. As you can imagine, the Tulsa media outlets are awash with bloggers, comments, etc. I would not waste an ounce of my time trying to be reasonable with comments on any of them.

    I am not in vocational ministry and don’t feel and ounce of calling. One of the primary reasons for this is I am WELL AWARE of the responsibility one takes when becoming a public religious figure. Speaking from a pulpit or a TV is a deeply intimate experience for everyone. It pisses off atheists/skeptics and pierces the heart of the faithful. It is a significant responsibility to speak into someone’s deepest spiritually intimate places. The recipient submits, allows, and trusts the person from the pulpit. The recipient makes decisions based on what they hear from the pulpit…life changing massive decisions sometimes.

    I am not confident that many who feel like they need to say something publicly in the name of Christianity really understand what exactly they have gotten themselves into. As I press deeper into both Christ and my own VERY dark places, there is no way I feel qualified whatsoever to stand before men and preach anything. When I watch those who boldly preach from the public “faith” pulpit in a dividing way, I often wonder if they have ANY IDEA how much responsibility and pressure they have taken on. Do they know how many souls trust them? More importantly, are they still tethered to the mission of healing the broken through Jesus OR just concerned about growing all their numbers: wealth, people, programs, ministries…etc. Is it about how clever they are with their words or that people are finding the grace of Jesus Christ and it is transforming their lives. As a skeptic friend of mine put it: “Are you harvesting souls or people gathering?”

    The people are angry and they have every right to be angry. Freaking angry. Richard Roberts chose to live both a controversial public ministry and an extravagant life. He had placed a grave responsibility on himself with the actions he chose both as a pastor and as a standard “dude” who does dumb things. Through the choices he made through his career, he has an implied responsibility to live with both a stepped up integrity and moral responsibility. This is the cost/price/risk you pay when you feel you have to have a public voice. Man up and take the responsibility or get the heck our of dodge.

    I don’t know Richard Roberts, have heard only a few of his teachings, and have no personal connection to his message. With that said, I am not disappointed or hurt or feel betrayed for his actions. My anger arises from his gross misconduct and selfish irresponsibility as a public and controversial figure. His DUI/drinking failure would be nothing…just another dude in the slammer who made some dumb choices. Being that I volunteer at DL Moss, I see guys like him all the time. The problem is that it is “Richard Roberts”…the guy who presided over a campus and ministry for years, with a message of abstinence and purity.

    All those who are throwing scriptures of “do not judge” at those who are angry need to really back off. People are allowed to be angry. Their trust has been betrayed in such an irresponsible manner. The atheists/skeptics/haters are allowed to have their field day. They don’t know Christ and don’t play by our rules. Through Richard’s actions, he has now placed a responsibility on thousands of people (again) to go through a painful process of forgiveness. He asked people to trust him, betrayed their trust, and now has placed the onus on them to forgive.

    Everyone (including me) will find forgiveness and we will move on. I hope Richard goes to a quiet place and really reexamines what his next move in life will be…and I hope he finds peace.

    • Darren. Agreed. We need to “judge” this and other things that RR has done. We do so in the same spirit as an oncologist gives a diagnosis to a patient – we name the evil, but in such a spirit that the patient is finally restored and cleansed.

  7. I also am an ORU alum and waffle between a sense of gladness for my ORU connection and a sense of hiding. Which in turns brings shame for hiding. I should choose rather to embrace a spirit of forgiveness, knowing that the Father forgives me for my sin. Thank you for speaking the truth.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I am an ORU alum, and I am currently a faculty member – 7 years now. While I agree with many of your “So what do we do with this?” points, I am not sure I can sign on to your notion of what it means to “always protect”. As you made reference to, there is a long history here (literally decades!) of a man who has behaved in ways that are not ethical, Biblical or at times even legal. Matthew 7 warns us to watch out for false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing. I think a pretty compelling case can be made that Richard Roberts is such a wolf. His ministry has been characterized by his attempts to get money out of our society’s most vulnerable people, the very ones we are commanded to serve in scripture: the widowed, the sick, the poor. The scandal of 2007 made it abundantly clear that those funds were used for his own selfish purposes.

    I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary today encouraging the ORU community that “love covers a multitude of sins,” that Christians are the only army that shoots their wounded, that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. But I wonder.. at what point do we have a responsibility to say, “This is not a brother who slipped up and made a mistake. This is someone who has systematically and intentionally sinned without ever showing true repentance.” Are we to continue to enable him behind a smoke screen of “forgiveness and mercy” when time & again he has abused the grace that has been extended to him? I Corinthians tells us that love protects, but maybe the people that love compels us to protect are those who have been defrauded by him, those who are weak in the faith who stumble as a result of his actions, and the unbelievers who are forever turned from the Gospel by Richard Roberts’ gross misrepresentation of the message of Christ.

    I don’t know what the answers are. But I do know that 25+ years of offering restoration to Roberts has not solved the problem. Maybe it’s time for us to follow the command in II Timothy 3, “..having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”

    • Hey Angie. Man, do I hear the sentiment behind what you’re saying. As so many others have expressed, the evil needs to be “named” and dealt with adequately. I think probably many from the ORU/Tulsa community have been and are upset that justice hasn’t been done, making the offers of restoration “cheap”, at best. And I agree.

      I think that mercy and truth meet each other. I think that it is possible for us in the same breath to say, “That was evil” and yet stand in a posture that is fundamentally FOR people, hopeful of their restoration.

      Anyone who has been a parent knows this paradoxical blend of demand for justice and compassion for the wrongdoer. That Jesus reveals God to us as “Father” means, among other things, that God is a God whose zeal for justice and compassion for the wrongdoer meet perfectly. In fact, I would argue that part of his “justice” is not just his punishment of the wrongdoer but his attempts to set the wrongdoer right.

      Anyway, I don’t want anyone to hear me advocating a flabby forgiveness. But I also think that it is deeply telling that we have a hard time preventing our (God-given) longing for justice from becoming a blood-thirsty, destructive spirit of vengeance. Vengeance is God’s. But as for us… “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head…” (Rom 13).

      • Hmmm. Hopefully I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying here. I don’t see how my comments were advocating a “blood-thirsty, destructive spirit of vengence.” I know that certainly wasn’t in my heart.

        I agree with your assessment of the importance of balancing mercy and justice in our dealings with people. But the fact remains that we are taught in scripture that someone can go too far – mercy is not extended forever. There comes a point where we are Biblically mandated to cut ties with them (II Timothy 3:1-5, Matthew 18:15-17, I Corinthians 5). That is not a act of vengeance – it is the appropriate Christian response to someone in our faith community who continues in sin. It’s not a popular message, but it is Biblical truth.

  9. I am also an ORU alum and taught in the Language School there for 6 years before leaving the US to “go where His Light was dim and His voice not heard” – have always been disappointed in the leadership since Richard took over. I also rejoiced when the new regime came in and, since my daughter lives in Tulsa and I visit frequently, always get excited over all the new growth and activity. I am sorry for the children who have to bear the brunt for the “sins of the fathers” and pray for restoration, resolution and TRUE repentance from Richard and Lindsay.

  10. One time I had a prayer walking partner for several years. We often had a unity of spirit that was amazing and productive. One time, though, we couldn’t have been further apart, praying for a person who was speaking up in public, trying to allow words to come forth. My prayer buddy was sure our suddenly-vocal-sister was way, way out of line. I was sure she was overcoming a life time of religious tradition and was glad to see her stepping out in faith. I have thought many times about our unusual lack of prayer partner unity… my buddy praying from the perspective that this was wrong, evil, off-the-mark. All I could pray was from a more sympathetic posture. Each trying to persuade the other. I have wondered since that time if we both didn’t manage to capture a bit of the Father’s heart. Did the Father have one chisel poised to correct…and another chisel poised to encourage?

    I too, as an ORU Alumn have marveled over recent events. Strange that we would wish for a tidier God! In looking at the earth as it is today, after really staggering, creative miracles, it appears to bear the record of much upheavel and conflicting forces….but we can’t seem to get enough of the beauty and wildness or post enough pictures of the sunsets that erupt across the sky. Same with the cosmos. I think I have to trust that this God is doing an amazing work with our hearts, Richard’s too….it will probably turn out that the terrain of our hearts is vastly more untamed and has more potential for real glory than all the stars combined.

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