Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I continued to read the gospel accounts in the modern English paperback Bible I'd been given. In my search of the gospel accounts I had found many things, such as walking on water and miraculously feeding five-thousand people, that I rejected outright and some other things, like the parables, that I didn't understand too well, but I was still in search of a good, glaring contradiction I could use. besides keeping my eye peeled for contradictions, the other thing I kept in mind, as I read about Jesus and his teaching, was my friend's challenge that, if Jesus was not all he claimed too be, then he must, logically speaking, be a liar or a lunatic. I was withholding judgment on that score until I'd finished reading the four gospels.
I was now taking the Jesus girl to church every Sunday evening and I was beginning to fall in love with her as well. Although an unabashed atheist and revolutionary, I would sit there with her and her friends during the service, enjoying the music, observing the people and trying to take in the content of the sermon. Being in this particular church--All Saints Episcopal--seemed a strange thing to me on several levels. One was that this was the very church I'd come to with my family when I was a little boy wearing a starched white shirt and a little bow tie. Essentially, nothing about the building had changed in the least since back then. It looked exactly the same. I found myself staring up at those same great big heavy wood beams in the ceiling--just as I'd done as a boy (only now, instead of that starched shirt and plaid bow tie, I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and had long hair and a beard). But if the building was still the same, the service could not have been more different. Instead of an organ and choir, there was a Christian rock band. Instead of a man with a collar intoning and droning on about Gawd, there was a one of the Jesus People--Lonnie Frisbee--in a muslin smock, with shoulder-length hair, beard and sandals passionately preaching like some modern-day John the Baptist. The sermons seemed completely extemporaneous and not done from notes.
Each week the routine was basically the same: the band would do a set of Jesus music for about a half hour, then someone would get up with a guitar and lead everyone in praise choruses interspersed with old hymns, such as, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus. After the music and singing, the hippy-preacher would tell an Old or New Testament story and then he'd explain what this meant to us as individuals living here and now. He might tell the story of David and Goliath and then, coming out from behind the lectern, and with the Bible either still in his hand or tucked under one arm, he would make the transition by saying, "Some of you are just like that little shepherd boy, David--you're facing Goliath-sized problems in your life right now--problems which seem to big for you to handle alone. You may be strung out on drugs or totally bummed out about your messed up family or maybe you're so lonely you just want to curl up and die because you have this giant-size hole inside you and your heart is empty or it's hard as stone--well only God can give you the boldness, the courage and the hope, like David, to come up against your Goliath. Only God's spirit can enable you, by his spirit, to stand up to your giant and put and end to him like David did. And God knows how to take care of giants 'cause he took care of the biggest giants of all--sin and death--that means he took on the sin of the whole world, including yours. He did it by sending his only son, Jesus, to die there on that cross two-thousand years ago. He loved you that much, that he bled and suffered in your place and he died so you could be set free and conquer your giants, and he didn't just die, but he rose up from the grave--he did it to prove he'd conquered death and really was the the son of God, the Messiah, the savior of the world, and you can know him tonight, you can come to him and he will forgive all your sins and cleanse you from the inside out and make you a whole new person--no matter what you've done and no matter how many sins you've committed or how bad they are--he died to pay the penalty for each and every one--and not only that, but he promised to remove them as far as the east is from the west, that's infinitely far, and that means they're totally gone forever--completely forgiven--and forgotten. When you accept his gift of salvation he'll create a new heart in you--he can do it, he has the power to do it--through his spirit--if you'll just come to him tonight, because the Bible says today is the day of salvation, and now is the time to be born again--so just come to him, admit you are a sinner, and ask him to come into your heart and life and forgive all your sins. He wants to set you free from the power of sin and change your life, to make you a new person. Don't put it off. If you are ready to do that tonight--to come to Jesus and be forgiven and start a new life--I just want to pray for you that God would really do a great work in your life and meet you right where you are. You don't have to get yourself all cleaned up first, he loves you just as you are and you can come to him just like you are--with all your sins and junk and he'll do all the changing--he'll do it by sending his spirit to live inside you, so if you want to have a brand new start and if you really want to know the love of God and know you are going to heaven and you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then I invite you to show that by raising your hand and I'm going to pray for you right now that God would do a mighty work in your life--by his Holy Spirit--that he would transform you and give you a whole new life--and if that's what you want tonight, if you are hungry for God and spiritually thirsty, then just raise your hand and I'll pray for you. Jesus said, 'If you confess me before men I will confess you before my father in Heaven, but if you deny me before men I will deny you before my father.' The Bible says, 'the angles rejoice over just one sinner that comes to repentance', so raise your hand if you want to be born again and begin following Jesus tonight. I see your hand brother, I see that hand too... and you, sister, I see your hand also."
Each Sunday evening there would be similar program of music and preaching, followed by the inevitable Billy-Graham-style alter call. Each week ten to fifteen or more people would raise their hands to "receive Christ." The preacher would then ask them to come forward and stand at the front of the church to declare their commitment to Jesus. Then he would lead the group in saying, out loud, the "Sinner's Prayer." He would then give them a Bible and say, "Welcome into the family of God." He'd tell them that now, as new believers, they should pray, read their Bible, fellowship with other believers, and tell their family, friends and others about Jesus.
Every week more and more young people would flock to the church to hear the music and the preaching. Each week a number of them would walk forward to pray the sinner's prayer. For my part, I just took it all in and tried to figure out what--if anything--really happened to those who went forward and why all these young people were always hugging each other and saying things like, "Praise the Lord" to one another. I did have to admit that there was an undeniable and palpable atmosphere of joy and exuberance among them. They also seemed to share a deep bond and sense of strong camaraderie with one another. For someone like me, who was somewhat of a loner, it was both a little weird and a bit attractive at the same time. The Jesus girl--and my own questions about Jesus--would keep me returning to this strange scene week after week. I had however no way of foreseeing the strange and unusual events which awaited and would confront me in the months ahead.