Beware of sharp-toothed sheep

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By Nancy Kennedy

Touted as the youngest ordained minister in history, 4-year-old Marjoe Gortner burst onto the Holy Ghost revival scene in the late 1940s.

His father, a second-generation preacher, trained the boy, who had a talent for sweeping and pointed gestures, to proclaim the name of "Jay-zus" - and bilk money from the faithful who came to hear him preach.

He quit the business for a while as a teenager, re-emerging in the early 1960s to work the faith circuit with a charismatic, rocking stage show. With a head of blond curls that could pass for sheep's wool, he made enough money preaching to work six months and take six months off.

He did that until his conscience bothered him, he said during his final tour in 1971, which he documented in "Marjoe," his film that won the 1972 Oscar for best documentary. In it a crew filmed him as he demonstrated how false preachers dupe people. (You can see parts of it on YouTube.com)

Sometimes in the mornings my husband watches a certain Texas TV preacher who talks about sowing seeds for God. Basically, you send him your $58 or $1,000 "seed," and God is more or less obligated to turn it into a huge windfall profit for you.

I've been around church and Christianity long enough to know theological manure when I smell it, but some people aren't so discerning. This guy stays on the air because well-meaning people believe him and send him their money and put their faith in what he says.

That makes me insanely irritated, but not as irritated as I get about the less obvious ways ministers lead the gullible astray, not to mention the way some ministers abuse their positions to feed their own appetites for power, greed, perversity or authority.

I've been duped and conned myself a few times by men who claim to serve God and others but turn out to serve only themselves. Some are deluded and think that what they're doing is the right thing. That's a bit more palatable than those who know exactly what they're doing and neither care whom they hurt nor desire to stop until or unless they get caught.

Recently, I told the one I call my uncle-dad that I'm thoroughly disgusted with humanity. I told him they're making sheep's clothing awfully authentic for wolves these days. I'm not as concerned about my being duped as I am about others. My antenna for ecclesiastical hooey is getting better, maybe because I'm seeing more of it lately.

I truly want to believe that men (and women) who call themselves "Pastor" do so because they're called by God. I want to believe that they are humble and desire purity and holiness in their lives, and many do. But some seem to like the title better than the job requirements.

My uncle-dad has it right when he gets up to preach a sermon. He prays, "Forgive the one who preaches his sins, for they are many. They call him 'Reverend' and he's not. We would see Jesus and him only."

He told me it's good to be cynical (he prefers to call it "realism") about human sin and the degree to which it has affected even preachers, but that we must also be cynical, or realistic, about the sin in ourselves - we easily dupe ourselves as well.

Jesus, knowing how easily sincere, trusting people fall for wolfish leaders wearing sheepskin suits, said: "Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don't be impressed with charisma; look for character ... A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook" (Matthew 7:15-16, The Message).

Beware of sheep bait, friends. We would do well to be a little bit distrustful of those who say, "Trust me," and reluctant to follow those who say, "Follow me." The only spiritual leader worth even listening to is the one who says, "Don't trust me - trust God alone."

It's the only way you or I can keep from being eaten by wolves.