She is America’s high priestess.
Standing for the entire show, in a simple pink dress and hair soft around her shoulders, she spoke openly and unashamedly of God.
Why has her show been so successful? she asked. ”Because of my team and Jesus.” She said. “Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” And she described what she thought of as God, “the one and only G-O-D. That’s what I’m talking about. “ And she added, “I know I have never been alone.”
She smiled. “How do I know this?” I have felt the presence of God my whole life.”
It would be hard for even the most hardened atheist to watch Oprah’s final show and not have moments of asking how it could be anything but what she calls a “miracle,” for a poor, black, abandoned, sexually abused, overweight woman to become one of the richest, most powerful and famous people in the world.
It wasn’t just her own conviction about her faith which was so compelling, it was her manner in delivering her testimonial.
Oprah Winfrey has discovered one of the most effective ways of imparting her beliefs to others. Not by telling them what to do, but by getting them to decide what to do for themselves. She is the master of “free will,” an often controversial subject in contemporary religion.
In recent years, religious behavior have changed dramatically. More people have left traditional religions to join congregations which are self validating. Gone were the fire and brimstone, you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. Many religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead on this, realizing people don’t want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered.
Oprah led the way. It may be a reach to say that she has changed the direction of modern religion, but people who have tuned into her show for 25 years have come to realize they are not perfect, that nobody is perfect and that she is not perfect. Oprah did not demand perfection. She helped people understand that they were human and that their humanity was to be celebrated. And she helped show them that the problems we all have can be overcome.
Oprah told her final audience that she had never missed a day in 25 years. The reason, she said, was that “every day that I stood here, I knew that it was exactly what I was supposed to do…This is what I was called to do. We are all called. Everybody has a calling…that is what a calling is. It lights you up and lets you know you are doing what you are supposed to do.”
She went on to say that “You will receive in direct proportion to what you give. You have the power to change somebody’s life….Not everybody gets paid for it, but everybody gets called.”
She has hit on two brilliant concepts: taking responsibility for your own actions “for the energy you bring into this space” (“Don’t wait for somebody else to complete you, fix you, save you”) and self validation. (“There’s a difference between thinking you deserve to be happy and knowing you are worthy to be happy.”) She said that of the 30,000 people she had had on her show, rich, poor, famous, unknown, they all had one thing in common. They all wanted “validation.” She encouraged her audience to help validate others who want and need to be seen, to be heard, to be validated.
This is ministry at its best and something that more religious leaders should pay attention to. She managed to touch something in a lot of people and changed countless lives by giving her audience a spiritual message that they could apply to their own lives. Her message was inclusive and pluralistic rather than exclusive. Everyone belonged. Everyone had value.
Oprah is not perfect, as she is the first to admit. She has been constantly dogged by stories of her imperiousness, her perfectionism, her toughness with subordinates, and ridiculed for seeming to be so self reverential, to the point where she reportedly has occasionally referred to herself as “Oprah.” There are those who have demeaned her show for being silly, tacky, embarrassing, materialistic and star struck.
It’s hard to be that rich, successful, famous and yes, worshipped, and not sometimes battle to refrain from taking yourself so seriously. Nevertheless, her message has been a valuable one to so many of her devoted viewers, one which resonates with the current president she helped get elected: “Yes we can.”
She alluded to the Golden Rule as one of her tenets.
In the end, though, she came back to God. “God is love. God is life,” she said. Life is always whispering at you, she told her audience, clearly meaning God. And if you don’t pay attention to the whispers it gets louder and louder. And she asked the audience what the whispers in their lives were and if they were listening to them.
It was a flawless performance, an inspirational sermon: Direct and engaging. Tears rolled down the faces of her audience and her own voice cracked and she, too, teared up toward the end as she talked about her childhood as a lonely little girl.
“I understand the manifestation of the Grace of God,” she concluded. There is “only divine order here.”
Each morning she said, when she went to work, she would “offer a prayer of gratitude.”
She ended her show saying, “To God be the glory!” putting her hands together in a gesture of prayer, then raising them above her head in a gesture of blessing.
As she exited the stage, misty eyed, the sweet guitar sounds in the background, the words of the song wafted through the air.
“The grace of God is nigh.”
The pope couldn’t have done better.
Sally Quinn | May 26, 2011 8:44 AM