It began as a typical Sunday-morning service. Really doesn't matter where, but since you're curious, it was in a South Dallas church. There was an opening prayer. A handful of praise songs. A solo. Nothing that presaged much of anything.
By the end of the morning it would sink in that I'd witnessed something exceptionally rare. When I think about it today, I am shocked all the more. It's like the morning of February 1, 2003, when I bolted up in bed after hearing an enormous explosion somewhere above me, so powerful it shook everything in the house for a fraction of a second.
It was gone so quickly I wondered if I'd imagined it. I glanced at the clock: It was exactly 7:59 a.m. Later that day I realized I'd heard the sound of the Space Shuttle Columbia blowing up over North Texas.
This particular morning in church was a blast of truth, a concussion wave that split the air for an instance and was gone.
Then it was back to the humdrum, the hypocrisy, the illusions we inhabit. Truth is not a welcome substance in most churches today.
An evangelist spoke that Sunday, someone I know well. She is legally blind, though not everyone knows that. When people find out, they ask, "Well, what can she see?" and I always say, "More than you think."
Her message was about sin. Not a popular subject, by the way.
"Hell is real," she said, "and somebody's going there." I know her exact words, because I have an audiotape. It's dated January 29, 2006.
She talked about how excited she was when she heard T.D. Jakes preach a message on sin. Maybe now is the time, she said, when we'll take sin seriously. When that happens, we can't help but see miracles bust loose. Every historic move of God one can think of—the Great Awakening, the Welsh Revival, Azusa Street—was preceded by a scorching wave of sin-consciousness within the church.
In contrast today, she said, "The church world is sick."
At this point the evangelist started strolling down the center aisle, looking around her. At this distance she cannot recognize faces, just vaguely human-shaped blobs.
"If this house was full to capacity," she said, "and I asked, 'How many born-again believers in here?' Everybody would stand up."
She paused. The rhythm of her message shifted. "How many born-again believers do we have in here?"
Everyone lifted a hand or signaled their presence somehow. Then she sprung the trap.
"All right. How many fornicators do we have up in the house?"
Silence...but of course. It was a rhetorical question, the kind you don't answer.
"How many liars do we have up in the house?"
"How many adulterers do we have?"
Not a word.
Just then a woman, a visitor, set her Bible down and slowly rose to her feet.
Every set of eyes snapped her way. A sort of rustle went through the house. I know I averted my eyes just as quickly. Embarrassed. Nervous.
The woman was middle-aged—trim and stylish, well-dressed. Someone who had it together, at least from the outside.
The evangelist caught her from the corner of her eye as she walked past. "Bless God," she said, a slim note of surprise in her voice.
So much for rhetorical questions. It was as though there were a muffled explosion in the heavens. Truth was in the house.
"But see," the evangelist said, catching on to it, "the blessed part is, when you can admit to your sin, you're on your way. You're on your way."
She continued. "How many folks do we have in here that are envious?"
This time bodies popped up all over the sanctuary as if there were springs in their knees.
"How many people do we have in here that is jealous?"
A whole row stood up in unison. I got up too.
"See, God is good...and I hope y'all are taking notice. God is good."
This went on, leading up to an old-fashioned altar call, the kind where people repent of their sins, publicly if need be. At a moment like this there is no shame. The only goal is to get right with God.
The woman who was first to stand told the entire congregation that she had been in an adulterous relationship for some time. She was also a faithful churchgoer at another house. Something, she said, had drawn her to this church today.
The family of God embraced her. There was no haughtiness; every one of us knew we were guilty of at least one of the sins the evangelist had mentioned.
I guess we could have just said, "Now, now, we've all done some bad things. Just go along on your way and try to do better next time."
But that spirit of truth was there, sending shock waves through the house. We had but two choices: Repent. Or run.
I thought of when Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery. The religious authorities brought her before him; her adulterous partner was nowhere in sight. "Should we stone her?" they asked.
The question was a trap. Jesus responded by challenging her accusers to deal with their own sin. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone."
Most often today, though, that verse is cited by people who wish to excuse their own sin. They miss exactly half the point Jesus is trying to make.
That's why you don't often hear the rest of the passage quoted. After all the accusers had melted away, Jesus turned to the woman and said, "Go, and sin no more."
These days if you point out a sin--something the Word of God makes clear that Christians have a responsibility to do among those who call themselves believers--you're most likely to get an argument. Or, in the 21st century, a lawsuit.
After that unusual Sunday, in fact, a friend (who wasn't present that day) tried to explain to me why what happened really wasn't a good thing, that these kinds of confessions should never be handled openly.
I disagreed very strongly. This is precisely what's needed, I said.
The Holy Spirit--which is Jesus' very presence on earth--is often characterized in the New Testament as the Spirit of Truth. Truth is intrinsic to Jesus' character. No wonder the Word of God reserves perhaps its harshest condemnations for liars.
I do agree that this truth is some scary stuff. I happened to be studying the book of Acts, which records what happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus' followers, and a lot of people repented. The Spirit of Truth was cut loose.
One day a married man and woman who'd lied right in the face of one of the apostles in church kicked the bucket in sequence. Boom, boom.
Afterward, "great fear seized the whole church." I'll bet it did.
Amidst this backdrop of fear--fear of God, that is, a reverential awe--the greatest profusion of miracles ever recorded in the Church Age took place. Many people joined the number of believers.
Hey, did you learn that trick in your church-growth focus group?
We're not seeing this fear of God today; hence, people have little appetite for truth, especially as it concerns sin. Few, in fact, are committed to the historic Christian faith. Whether one is Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, that faith begins with recognition that our sin has separated us from God. There will be no relationship with God absent a reckoning with sin. It is the inescapable reality that Christianity resolves through the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. You just can't get around this roadblock. That's why the authentic, biblical Christian faith is so offensive to people.
There is nothing foggy about what constitutes sin in Scripture. You have to be a linguistic contortionist to get around the New Testament's extreme admonitions against lying, greed, hatred, jealousy and sexual immorality.
Or simply ignore them. Consider the thought processes of Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye who's featured in a reality series that started this week, One Punk Under God. Jay, who's heavily tattooed and sports a soft but vaguely punk look, leads a small church in Atlanta that he calls Revolution. Intriguing stuff.
In episode two, Jay will make a tough decision that could threaten his church: Should he declare himself a gay-affirming minister? Over fast food outdoors on a bright Atlanta day, he discusses it with Amanda [his wife].
"So speaking out in behalf of the gay community and gay Christians is something I should do?" he asks her.
"Absolutely, without question," she agrees, even as she warns there'll be a backlash.
She's right. A conservative foundation wastes no time pulling thousands in funding.
That's OK. "Salvation is free. It's a gift," Jay tells me in New York months later.
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but I see no fasting, no prayer, no anguished search for the truth of Scripture here. The matter of homosexuality is dividing the church in America at this very moment, yet Jay blithely decides to go with his "passions, his feelings," words he uses to characterize the gay dilemma.
Oh, but he means well, we tell ourselves.
As if it matters in the end. --Julie Lyons
Bible Girl postscript: Sorry, Harvey. I never did get around to posting another comment on last week's column. But we're not through yet, are we?