Here it is Christmas Eve and no doubt I should be writing something about the impending anniversary of the incarnation and what it means to me and to humanity.
I have a friend who is an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country. Good-hearted man. A year or two ago he came to me to ask him what to do about a situation that was almost immediately clear to me as a financial scam. In fact, he lost several thousand dollars to the scam artists and would have lost more had I not intervened and insisted he cut his losses, report the scam to law enforcement authorities and remember the lesson and he costly it was to learn. Well, he did two of the three. The last one he seemed not quite to get.
So the other day my friend called me to ask me my thoughts about a letter he had received from a televangelist. My friend's accent sometimes makes it hard for me to understand him on the phone so I asked him to come by the next day and bring the letter and any other relevant materials with him. I was worried that he was about to fall into another trap that would drain money from his very meager wealth.
He showed up with a three-page computer-generated-but-personalized letter from Peter Popoff (pictured here -- photo borrowed from here), who has his own TV show on the BET network about healing people, a show in which he preaches an especially egregious version of the Prosperity Gospel. The link I gave you on Popoff's name will take you to the Wikipedia entry about him, and it immediately identifies ways in which he was exposed as a fake healer.
The Internet abounds with accounts of Popoff's manipulative and exploitive ways of promising God's riches to people who will send him their own riches. Just Google "Peter Popoff Prosperity Gospel" and see what shows up.
Jerks like Popoff give religion in general and Christianity in particular a bad name, and it is incumbent upon other Christians (I'm one) to declare that his methods and message run counter to the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ, which has to do with love, sacrifice and the in-breaking reign of God, not with tricking God into giving you riches.
It took a bit of conversation for me to convince my friend never to send Popoff another dime (he had previously sent him $20.20 as "seed" money that Popoff promised would gain him entrance into God's blessings).
The letter my friend received thanked him for that donation but said he'd have to do more so he could receive the blessings of God, who wanted my friend to prosper, Popoff claimed.
After I showed my computer-illiterate friend some of the online stories about Popoff, he agreed to stop sending in money. But, he told me, Popoff had promised him two miracles before the end of 2013.
"Well," I said, "you just got one of them: I have stopped you from wasting more money." (The second miracle is up to Popoff.)
My friend is a member of a Kansas City church, and I suggested to him that he use his charitable donations to support his own congregation, where he has a voice and at least some control over how the money is spent.
Religion seems to attract knaves who play on the emotions of vulnerable people. Popoff is one of them. Here's a piece from one of the people who originally exposed his fake-healing ways. I wish my friend had read this before he sent in any money.
The true gospel of Christ is liberating. It has nothing to do with TV preachers who say God wants you to be rich and the way to get rich is to prime the preacher's pump with your money. Not all TV ministry is phony. But ministry done in person in real congregations of people who meet together is almost always ever so much better.
Merry Christmas Eve. And thanks for letting me, well, pop off about this.
* * *
IN MERRY OLD ENGLAND
If the Church of England is looking for someplace to send missionaries to draw people into Christianity, I have a suggestion: England. A new survey shows 38 percent of adults and 49 percent of people 18-29 say they are religiously unaffiliated. And to those folks I say, "Merry Whatever."