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The other night, while watching the premiere of Survivor 2012:  Philippines, I was intrigued to see that Lisa Whelchel, former child star of the 1980s sitcom Facts of Life, is one of the contestants.  I had vague recollections of Whelchel’s post-TV life.  Raised a Christian, she’d ended up becoming a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mom, and author of a couple of books, one of which had gained some notoriety because it was a parenting book that advocated what Whelchel called “creative” discipline ideas that included putting hot sauce on a kid’s tongue as punishment for mouthing off.

Odd to see her on Survivor.  Even odder to learn, after doing some random poking around to see if I could find her old Coffee Talk blog, that she and her husband of 25 years had quietly divorced last December.  Back in my Charismaniac days, I’d read something that Lisa Whelchel had written about how she and her husband had gotten together, and according to what I could recall of her story, God basically told her to marry her husband.

I did a little more digging, and I actually found the article.  Now that I’m in a different place in my Christian faith and no longer put much stock in the idea that we should be focusing so much on “hearing from God” (but instead ought to focus on the written Word He’s already given us), it was especially interesting to trace the Charismaniac elements of her story.  From the Crosswalk site, here’s how Lisa Whelchel described her “arranged marriage” 12 years ago:

I’m so thankful that I waited to follow the Good Shepherd’s voice to find the man I was supposed to marry. I must admit, though, that it didn’t happen quite the way I imagined it would. I mean, come on, what daughter wants her Father to choose a husband for her?

Steve, and I became friends when I was assigned to a prayer group that he, as a pastor, was appointed to oversee. His boss, Pastor Jack Hayford, had organized “affinity” groups in our church to provide a safe place where members who were in the entertainment industry could be open and transparent about their prayer needs. Our group consisted of four married couples, Michael and Stormie Omartian, Gabri Ferrer and Debbie Boone, Dominic Allen and Charlene Tilton, and Bruce Sudano and Donna Summer. Other than Donna’s manager, Susan Munao and the other pastor, Minnie Whaley, who was an elder in every sense of the word, Steve and I were the only single people in the group. Looking back, I can see that it was a set-up right from the start.

Our group met once a month, and every month I had the same prayer request. At twenty-two I was ready to get married and start a family, and I wanted to find God’s choice of a husband for me. Steve and the others were dutiful to pray. I should have known something was up when Steve asked if he could lay hands on me and pray. Just kidding!

But not entirely.

Over the next two years, Steve and I began to spend a lot of time together, and we became good friends. (Interpretation: I was not at all attracted to him.) Every so often, he would take me out for “the talk”—the one where, because of his integrity and desire not to take advantage of his position as a pastor, he would confess that he was feeling more for me than friendship. I would assure him that although I thought he was a really nice guy (girls, you know what I mean), I was not feeling those same stirrings. We would then resolve to continue going out as friends as long as it didn’t get too uncomfortable for either of us.

I had a plumb deal. I had someone to go to dinner and the movies with, and my boyfriend wasn’t jealous. Oops, did I forget to mention that I had a boyfriend? I’d better fill you in. I had been dating a contemporary Christian singer/musician who was on the road a lot. One weekend when he was home, we were out on a date, and I felt I had to tell him about my relationship with Steve, just to keep everything up front and—even though he wasn’t the Jewish guy—kosher. I mentioned that Steve and I had been spending a lot of time together and said that because he was so “safe,” he was the logical person to escort me to functions when my minstrel was out of town. I watched my music man from across the table as he struggled to place the name with a face, “Steve, Steve.… Oh yeah, the church organist! I don’t have to worry about him.”

So now I had all my little ducks in a row. Well, actually, I was not so sure about one little duckie—Steve’s feelings. He was so sweet; I just couldn’t bear the thought of his feelings getting hurt because of unrequited love. This time I initiated “the talk.” As gingerly as possible, I suggested that we not spend as much time together. I encouraged him not to take it personally; after all, I was planning to break up with my boyfriend as well.

I explained that I was going through a personal revival with the Lord. I was even considering joining YWAM (Youth with a Mission) on a mission trip for a year after the last taping of The Facts of Life. I told him that it would be best if I just concentrated on my relationship with God for a while. There. I had said it.

I relaxed back in my chair at the same time Steve leaned forward in his. He looked me straight in the eye and declared, “Lisa, I could be good for you.”

Where did that come from? Talk about out of the blue. Who had sneaked into the restaurant, kidnapped “Mr. Milquetoast,” and replaced him with “Mr. Big”? I was speechless, which is saying a lot. (Actually, it’s not really saying anything, is it? Oh, never mind.) I didn’t know how to reply, especially since there was something incredibly attractive about what Steve had just done. I decided that it was best not to respond at all, so we ordered dessert and pretended that the entire conversation hadn’t happened.

Many weeks passed, Steve and I as friend-ly as ever, while I continued to wholeheartedly pursue my relationship with God. I registered for a seminar at our church conducted by a visiting evangelist. The last session was to be an anointing service. There were hundreds of people in attendance, and she was praying for them one at a time, so the rest of us sat waiting quietly on the Lord in worship.

I had my hands lifted to the Lord as a gesture of praise when I felt the sensation of a gentle weight descend upon me. I recognized this feeling as the presence of the Holy Spirit. And because this kind of thing doesn’t happen every day, or even every year, I knew enough to pay attention. As I waited expectantly, the thought popped into my head, Would you ever consider marrying Steve Cauble? I knew this was God talking because it was the last thing I would have ever thought to think on my own. My knee-jerk response was: No. Are you kidding?

I shrugged the Holy Spirit off my shoulders and got back to the business of worship. But the thought would not go away. So I purposed to ponder it in my heart, but I certainly was never going to tell Steve about it.

The next day Steve was leaving town for a week, so after the seminar I visited Steve at his house. We chatted as he packed; then it was time for me to head home. Just as I turned to leave, he took my hand, led me to sit down on the couch, and looked at me with unusual urgency. “Listen,” he implored. “Before you leave, I have to ask you one question. Would you ever consider marrying me?”

Wow! This guy doesn’t say much, but when he does…it’s a doozy. I laughed nervously. “Funny you should mention that,” I said. Then I told him what had happened earlier at church, and we agreed that this was probably something we should pray about. Yeah, I know, pretty discerning, huh?

In my opinion, this called for more than praying—this called for fasting! If you know anything at all about me, you know that something has to be mighty serious for me to think about giving up food. But considering the fact that I had suddenly lost my appetite, it wasn’t such a tough decision.

Proverbs 11:14 says that safety comes with a multitude of counselors, and during the following week, I met with every pastor or elder I could schedule an appointment with. They all loved Steve and me and thought this was a fabulous idea. But by the time Steve got back from his trip, I was more confused than ever. How could this be God’s will? I mean, weren’t you supposed to want to kiss the guy you were going to marry? And I really wanted children. How was I going to do that?

We concluded that what we really needed was council from the Big Kahuna himself, Pastor Jack. He would know what we should do. So Steve called him up, and he invited us up to his house after the Sunday evening service.

We arrived just as Pastor Jack and Annas’s favorite television show, “Murder She Wrote,” was beginning. We had to sit there trying to act interested in a show that anyone could figure out within the first five minutes. I wanted to shout, “The butler did it! Now, can’t we get on with something a little less trivial, like the rest of my life?” But I stifled my impatience—thank goodness I’m an actress.

Mercifully the program ended, and it was time to receive from the hand of the master. We gave a full account of all that had transpired over the past few months. We covered the friendship aspect of our relationship; we addressed our age difference (Steve is thirteen years older than me); we talked about what we thought the Lord might be saying; and we reiterated our desire, above all, to do God’s will. The only thing I failed to mention was the tiny detail of the lack of physical attraction on my part.

Pastor Jack paused just long enough to break into a broad smile before he delivered his blessing, “Sounds good to me,” he beamed. “I think you should go for it!” What? That’s it? No alliterated three-point sermon? No big words that I would have to look up when I got home? I was stunned. Before I could react, Anna was offering me a piece of strawberry cheesecake, and we were talking about Jessica Fletcher and that stupid television show again. Help! I’m on a freight train, and I can’t get off.

Little did I know that this “little engine that couldn’t” was about to become a bullet train. Steve left the next day to accompany Pastor Jack to the Foursquare denomination’s district conference. After Pastor Jack was introduced, but before he began to preach, a huge grin burst across his face. Steve was like a son to him and he couldn’t wait any longer to act the proud papa. “Before I begin,” he began, “I have some happy news to announce. Our very own Steve Cauble is engaged to be married to Lisa Whelchel.” Gasps and applause erupted from the crowd.

Let me make sure you have the full picture. Steve knew full well that immediately after the benediction, the Foursquare grapevine would swing into action. It just so happened that Steve’s parents are Foursquare pastors themselves. So he sneaked out of the service and raced to a payphone to call me. I could tell from his voice that something was wrong as he tiptoed on the other line, “Uh…Lisa…you may want to get a hold of your mother before someone else informs her of our impending marriage.”

“Come again,” I said, hoping we just had a really bad connection and I hadn’t actually heard him say that we were engaged and I didn’t even know about it. He tried to explain that there apparently had been a little miscommunication: We obviously hadn’t made it clear to Pastor Jack that we had gone to him for his counsel, not his blessing. “Yowser, Bowser!” he exclaimed.

We hung up and it hit me: I’m engaged to a man who says, “Yowser, Bowser.”

I knew immediately that I would have to leave the church. There was no way I could go through with this. I mean, isn’t there a place in a wedding ceremony where the preacher says, “You may now kiss the bride”? It might be a bit embarrassing if I offered Steve my cheek. No, I would definitely have to leave the church. I realized that I couldn’t continue to attend, knowing that every little old lady I passed in the sanctuary would be whispering, “There goes the Jezebel who broke sweet Steve Cauble’s heart.”

When Steve got back to town, we met for dinner. I anticipated an intense evening of wrestling through our options as we figured out how to clear up this terrible misunderstanding. I was not prepared for how excited Steve was. Did he sincerely believe that just because all of Foursquaredom was thrilled about our engagement that I was too?

Apparently so, because the next thing he said was, “Well, I guess if we are engaged, I ought to buy you a ring.” Why was it so hard for me to say no? Did I really think that I could avoid hurting Steve’s feelings forever by continuing this charade? Sooner or later, I was going to have to do the loving thing and break his heart.

I was able to postpone the inevitable one more time when he said, “My friend Doug bought Christa an engagement ring at the mall. Let’s go look there.” Whew, I was off the hook. The truth is, I’d known for a long time what kind of engagement ring I wanted. I also knew—no offense—that I certainly wasn’t going to find it at the mall. I was sure that it would have to be designed specifically for me. I mean, really now.

As we drove to the mall, I rested secure in my superior taste in jewelry. The man behind the counter asked me if I had anything in particular in mind. “Well, frankly, I do. But I’ve never actually seen the ring; I’ve just imagined it. Perhaps it would help if I drew it.” The gentleman handed me a piece of paper, and I proceeded to draw an emerald-cut diamond in the center surrounded by two triangular, trillion cuts on each side.

The jeweler studied the slip of paper and then reached into the case and pulled out a ring. “You mean this one?” he asked.

There it was—my ring—the one I had never actually seen before. Oh no, I thought. I had drawn it! I couldn’t take it back and say, “Well, no, come to think of it, it was more circular in shape.”

Steve was elated. He whipped out his credit card and bought it on the spot. I’m pretty sure I even heard him say, “Praise the Lord.” But the Lord obviously had nothing to do with this. I mean, God created man and woman; He created the way they created babies. He knows about these things. He surely wasn’t a part of all these “coincidences.”

A few days later I panicked and caught the first flight to Nashville to visit my childhood friend, Michelle. Either she would help me figure out what to do or I could just have my belongings shipped to Tennessee. When I got there I went to the local Christian bookstore and bought every book in the shelf on “how to find the will of God.”

I spent the next three days in bed, alternately pouring over these books and pouring out my heart to God. This had gotten way out of hand and had escalated into a crisis of faith. It was more than an issue of whether Steve was the man I was to marry; this was now about whether God was the God I was to serve.

The way I saw it, either this was all a big joke and God had capriciously manipulated our lives for His own sick entertainment, or this was all my fault for not having the courage to say no or this was God’s plan for my life and I was destined to marry a man for whom I felt very little attraction. To me, all the options were devastating.

Because either my past was all a lie or my future was to be lived as one, I had to find the truth. What did I know for certain? Let’s start at the beginning: Okay, I believe there is a God. I have met Him personally, and He has proven Himself trustworthy in my life many times. I know that I know that He adores me and that He is good through and through. He is stronger than the devil’s schemes, and He is more powerful than circumstances, coincidences, or cowardliness. I could rest in this because I also knew for certain that I had sought His will with a pure heart.

The choice was mine. Was I going to trust God or trust my heart? I knew the decision I had to make, and I felt an unexplainable peace about it. When I boarded a plane home, I was wearing my new engagement ring and carrying the “Now That You Are Engaged” book I had purchased earlier in the week. I figured that since I had decided to marry this man whether the feelings were there or not, I could probably use all the help I could get.

The first suggestion in the book was that I fill out a sheet of paper entitled, “What I love about my fiancé.” I took out a legal pad and began to list all of Steve’s wonderful qualities. There was never a question about how much I admired and respected him, so this was easy. I even recall a time shortly after getting to know Steve when I remarked to a friend, “If the woman who marries Steve Cauble doesn’t realize what a prize she has, I will personally pay her a visit and knock some sense into her.”

Before I realized what was happening to me, somewhere up there around 35,000 feet, I had completed not one, but two legal-size sheets of paper filled with unexaggerated hyperbole extolling the many virtues of Steve Cauble. As I reread my list, something totally unexpected happened.

I fell in love.

When I got off that plane, I ran into my fiancé’s arms and gave him the sloppiest kiss you ever did see!

What do you know that you know that you know about God? Do you believe that He is all-powerful? Do you trust that He is all-good? Is He all-loving and all-holy? These are questions that you need to settle in your heart. There may come a time in your life when the only thing you can count on is the character of God. And that will be enough.

I noticed quite a few Charismaniac oddities in this story.  First of all, there was the Charismaniac-style famous person name-dropping.  Now that I’m away from this kind of thing, it’s interesting to remember how dazzled Charismaniacs seem to be by celebrities.  They will mention them from the pulpit and make special concessions for them.  If you’re a famous entertainer or athlete and you go to a Charismaniac church, it’s a good bet you’ll catch the pastor’s eye and get some special attention.  In this case, poor Lisa Whelchel was basically railroaded into a marriage where she wasn’t attracted to her husband, and it was at least a little bit due to the pressure she felt after Pastor Jack Hayford announced her engagement from the pulpit of a big church convention – when she wasn’t yet actually engaged.  Even if it was all a big misunderstanding and he made the announcement by mistake, why did Hayford think it was OK to name-drop like that?  What did he think he was proving?  What reason did he have for seeming to believe Lisa Whelchel’s engagement was so important that the people at the church convention would care about it…unless Hayford wanted to impress his audience with the fact that he was the pastor of a famous person?

Secondly, it’s just sad to me that a twentysomething-year-old young woman would feel compelled to enter an attractionless marriage (to a 35-year-old pastor) because she believed God was telling her to do so through the little coincidences like how the jeweler happened to have a ring on hand that matched Whelchel’s sketch.  I mean, I know that arranged marriages were the norm for thousands of years, but even a lot of Old Testament stories seem to emphasize romantic attraction.  It seems to me that what Whelchel had been taught about hearing God’s voice – through so many subjective means rather than through simple scriptural common sense – helped lead her down an unnecessarily burdensome path.

And what are we to make of God-as-matchmaker now, now that Whelchel’s marriage has ended?

This sort of thing is precisely why I’m so relieved to be done with Charismania.

So yeah.  It’s been way too long since I continued the story.

I do have a good reason for the delay.  But I’m sort of ashamed of my reason.

After all my excitement over being able to finally get my hands on a copy of the First Lady’s magazine, and after blogging about it in what ended up to be a cliffhanger of sorts, I promptly went and misplaced the magazine.

Yes.  After all that, I lost my semi-purloined copy of the pastor’s wife’s magazine.  Right around the time I was going to blog about its actual contents.

I’m really not that messy of a housekeeper, either.  I think I may have been sitting here with the magazine, which may have gotten mixed up in a pile of newspapers which then went into the recycling bin in too much haste on trash day.  I’m not sure.  But I lost the magazine.  It’s been 8 months, and I don’t think I’m going to find it.  I’m also fairly sure that we’ll never get another chance to obtain a free copy…and I’m certainly not going to pay for a copy…so I guess I’ll have to describe the magazine from memory.

I’ll start by saying that my first impression was overwhelmingly positive, much more positive than I was expecting.  The magazine was a rather hefty glossy book, with a high-quality cover and lots of photos.  The layout was nice.  Naturally, I was disgusted by the cover photo.  I think the “First Lady” – what Living Word Church (a pseudonym, as are all other names on this blog) has taken to calling the pastor’s wife – has some sort of Oprah complex, as she has appeared on all the covers of the magazine since its initial release a few years ago.  This issue was no exception, although Mary Smith was joined by her oh-so-photogenic daughter-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter.  They were all (as usual) exceptionally well-dressed, almost to the point of gaudiness.  The toddler granddaughter was decked out in a fucia and pink tutu.  The ultra-pricey local photographer that Living Word Church always uses for any picture involving the First Family did a great job of getting the catchlights in the eyes, particularly of the granddaughter.

The layout of the magazine was far more professional-looking than I was expecting.  Likewise the editing.  I’m kind of a stickler for that sort of thing, and I was impressed that Mary Smith had found someone who had been able to fix the inevitable grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors that happen when a bunch of under-educated people write articles.

The articles were, naturally, all written by the First Lady’s same old posse of favorites, with a couple of new faces thrown in, women who had arrived on the scene since we left Living Word some years back.  There were pieces on all the topics you’d expect to find in a Christian women’s magazine – a light devotional thought (written by Mary Smith, on the topic of how to create a cozy home, where she shared a bizarre and basically unbelievable story about going out to build a snowman with Pastor Smith); an article about home decorating; articles about fitness, food, and fashion; a column written by one of Living Word’s very favorite members, an attorney, in which she talked about some legal advice (my memory fails me on the precise subject); a multi-page fashion layout of mothers and daughters dressed to match; and a poem and an interview with Mary Smith.

As I said, the magazine was surprisingly hefty and seemed – at first perusal, anyway – to have quite a lot of substance.

But after I finished reading it, I realized that all the articles were basically the same.  Interestingly enough, they were all quite similar to Pastor Smith’s sermons, in the way that the authors would begin by stating some Bible verse or larger thought and then just sort of free-associate about the topic, often in a way that didn’t really make a point.

Ultimately, after I put the magazine down, I was left feeling mildly nagged by something I couldn’t quite define.

I know it’s not wrong, exactly, for the First Lady to have a magazine.  And I will hand it to Mary Smith and her minions – considering what they had to work with, in terms of literary expertise and so on, they did a remarkably good job of producing a good mock-up of a real ladies’ magazine.  The production values were high.  There was a surprising amount of content, in terms of words on the page.

But…

What’s interesting is that on Living Word’s website, under the tab for ministries, this magazine is now listed as the women’s ministry.  Yes, in other words, there aren’t any other real outreaches to women.  There isn’t much in the way of classes or ladies’ Bible studies.  Back in the day, when we were loyal and faithful members, the women’s ministry consisted of “Mary Events,” lavishly decorated luncheons or teas where Mary Smith would speak and there’d be a bunch of favors and gaudy centerpieces.  Theoretically, I guess, it was possible to socialize and have some real fellowship with the random women who might end up sitting at your table at one of those events.  But now?  Now, Living Word’s women’s ministry is reduced to a magazine?  A glossy fluff rag?

Does anyone else think this is really weird?  And un-churchlike?

Also, I wonder about the time and the energy that were no doubt poured into this publication.  Is a generic women’s magazine really needed?  It’s not like it’s ever going to get a circulation that goes much higher than 500 subscribers (or purchasers), if nearly every woman attending Living Word buys a copy (at $5 apiece).

(I also noticed, by the way, that at the back there was a large notice for anyone who might wish to advertise in the next issue of the magazine.  Interesting.)

In a way, the magazine might just be a good summation of Living Word Church’s women’s ministry.  So much of what went on was about image.  Mary Smith would only show up at church when she felt in top form, dressed to the nines, and ready to declare in her sugary-sweet voice that, “This is the best church in the world, and you’re about to listen to the best pastor in the world!”  There was very little connection among the members themselves, to one another.  It was all about being part of the Smith family’s audience.

In a way, the magazine is just a more concise and convenient way of distributing the desired glossy image, frozen on the high-quality shiny paper for all to see.

What follows is the second part of a story begun here.

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So there I was – one foot in the side hallway of Living Word Church, the other foot halfway through the open door of the church bookstore.  And right at my shoulder was none other than Lin Jackson, Living Word Church’s facilities manager and someone with whom we’d frequently spoken and worked back when we were part of the ministry.

I knew he’d know who I was.  I knew I was busted.

I turned to face Lin Jackson.  Our eyes met.

And to my great surprise, I could immediately sense that he did not recognize me.  Not at all.

I should take a moment to explain a couple of things so that I don’t sound like my husband and I have an overblown sense of our own importance as I talk about my surprise at Lin Jackson’s obvious failure to recognize me.  First of all, I’ve been told over and over again throughout my life that I am a “striking-looking” person.  I am much taller than the average woman, and when I was younger I did a bit of professional modeling.  I have always stood out in a crowd – literally “head and shoulders above” almost everybody else, much to my chagrin.  For good or for ill, people do not ever seem to forget me.  I could never get away with undercover spy work, or with impersonating anyone else.

But far more than that, another reason I couldn’t believe Lin Jackson didn’t recognize me is because he had worked with both my husband and me on many occasions over the course of several years.  This was a guy with whom we’d both had extensive interactions.  He totally had known us.  Although we’d never socialized with him outside of church, we’d spent many hours together setting up for special events and working on projects together.  Plus, it’s not like the guy didn’t have his wits about him.  Before taking on the job of facilities manager at Living Word, he’d served in a high-level secular position with a great deal of responsibility.  (His prior work history was touted proudly by Pastor Smith from the pulpit on more than one occasion, always with emphasis placed on how Lin Jackson had his priorities in order, to go to work for the church rather than to take a promotion with his previous company and move away from “the anointing.”)

Anyway, Lin Jackson was nobody’s dummy, and to say the least, it was odd that he appeared not to recognize me.  But I still held my breath to see what he’d say.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

And then, before I could reply, he continued, in a tone that was far more warm and friendly than any he’d ever used with me during our interactions as co-laborers for the Lord, “This is our church bookstore.  It’s closed right now, but you are more than welcome to take a look around.”  He reached around me and flicked a panel of light switches.  “Our bookstore is something we offer as a service to the congregation, and it is usually open before and after services on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, and occasionally during our midweek services.”  He was in full salesman mode now.  “Please feel free to look around and then perhaps come back sometime when it is open for business!”

I couldn’t believe my luck.  All I’d wanted was the opportunity to flip through the pastor’s wife’s magazine for a minute or two, and my wish had come true!  I immediately stepped over to the rack and picked up what looked to be the thickest, most recent issue of the First Lady’s magazine.

Lin Jackson was still standing there.  As he saw what I’d grabbed, he suddenly grew even more gracious in tone.  “That is a magazine that is put together by our First Lady, our pastor’s wife.  And you know what?  I just know that she would LOVE for you to have a copy.  I know she would LOVE to bless you.  Please, take a copy with you!”

In my shock over my amazing luck, I think I must have conveyed the perfect response, which would have appeared to be a mixture of excitement and humble surprise.  “Oh…why…are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Lin Jackson replied.  “Please, take a copy with you!”

I clutched my magazine and quickly stepped back out of the bookstore.  Having achieved my ultimate goal, I didn’t want to risk jogging Lin’s memory in any way.  I thanked him with great enthusiasm and left to rejoin my husband, whose eyebrows raised in shock at the realization of what I’d managed to do.

I had a lot of fun telling him about my encounter with Lin Jackson.  He shared my disbelief over the apparent fact that Lin had not recognized me at all.  My husband said something profound about that:  “It’s like once you leave Living Word Church, you cease to exist in these people’s minds.”

But, whatever.  I didn’t really care that Lin Jackson had seemed to be the victim of cultic Jedi mind tricks.  I’d succeeded in my quest.  Now, I’d finally get the opportunity to see the First Lady’s magazine for myself.  After more than two years of wondering about it, I finally had a copy of my own.

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In the next post, I’ll describe for you just what the ladies of Living Word Church have to say that is so important that it deserves its own 80-page full-color glossy magazine.

I haven’t updated this site in a long while, primarily because we’ve put our journey through “Charismania” behind us…for the most part.

Oh sure, from time to time my husband and I will reminisce about our years at Living Word Church (a pseudonym, as are all other names used here, except those of widely-known celebrity preachers).  We will joke about some of the more outrageous stuff we went through.  We will shake our heads and marvel at how we got sucked in.

But soon it will have been four years since we left Living Word, so as you might imagine, we’ve pretty much processed the obvious emotions.  We’ve thought through most of the things that were off-kilter about Living Word Church and the Smith family (Pastor Smith, his wife Mary, and their two young-adult sons) who ran Living Word and controlled it just like it was their family business.

Because I was pretty sure we were “over” everything, I was actually looking forward to a community event that required our attendance, an event that was coincidentally going to be held at Living Word Church.  I was eager to walk through the doors again and see if I’d feel any of the old feelings.  I wondered what memories would be stirred by something as basic as how the place smelled.  (Oddly enough – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – I always  thought that Living Word exuded a really alluring fragrance, almost like the whole place had been soaked in anointing oil.)

I wanted to see if the Smith family’s highly retouched portraits still graced the walls of the church lobby…I was curious if they’d added any new photos of the sons’ wives and the grandchildren who had been born since we left.

And I wondered if I’d somehow be able to flip through a copy of the magazine that Mary Smith had begun to publish a year or so ago.

Yes, you read that right.  Living Word Church’s “first lady” publishes her own women’s magazine.

We may be “over” our Living Word experience, and we may have moved on, but we still like to check the church’s website from time to time, just to see if anything has changed.  It’s been fun to keep tabs on various staffing changes, and to see which guest ministries they’ve continued to invite in to preach.

That’s where I first learned of Mary Smith’s magazine.  When it was first launched, it was heavily promoted on the church’s website.

From the beginning, I marveled at the concept.  A magazine seemed like a really ambitious undertaking, especially considering that Living Word Church really is not that big.  Although they like to call themselves a “megachurch,” attendance seems to hover at around the same level, with probably fewer than 1,000 people showing up on most Sundays.  Shortly after we left Living Word, they’d added an extra service on Sunday mornings while ditching their Sunday evening service.  But that move didn’t last.  After a couple of years, there apparently just wasn’t the demand for two Sunday morning services.  Judging from the videos broadcast online, it didn’t even look like they were filling the 1,500-seat auditorium to capacity (or even close) for ONE service.

So I wondered at the idea of a ladies’ magazine which would have such a small distribution.  From the church’s website, it didn’t look like it was a skinny little pamphlet or brochure.  The magazine instead appeared to be quite a hefty glossy book.  Who does that sort of thing?  Who puts out a semi-quarterly magazine – complete with the First Lady’s photo gracing each cover, like she’s Oprah or something – for an audience of maybe (at best) a thousand readers?

Although the website showed that they were charging $5 per copy, it still seemed like a money-losing endeavor.  Knowing the hugely expensive photographer the First Lady always uses – the one who charges $300 per hour to retouch photos – and knowing that nothing at Living Word is ever done halfway, I could only imagine what a money pit a 50-page (or so) magazine must be. 

Plus, I wondered about its sustainability.  During our years at Living Word Church, Mary Smith had a pattern of starting programs with great fanfare, only to watch them quickly burn out.  Lots of classes and activities would happen once or twice and then would just quietly go away with ZERO explanation (sort of like how there never seemed to be a word mentioned about bringing back the second Sunday morning service).  The First Lady would set the bar so high for herself, with such crazily demanding and exacting standards, such over-the-top expectations, that it was almost a given that nothing she did ever lasted.  Even the constantly touted “Mary Events” – those grossly indulgent special women’s meetings, with their elaborate decorations, expensive door prizes, pricey tickets, and stressed-out decorating committee of women who sniped and snapped at each other, all in the name of ministry – didn’t happen that often, following no set schedule at all.  About the only “Mary Event” that took place with any predictable regularity was the Christmas Tea (with tickets priced at upwards of $20 apiece), and even that has quietly gone by the wayside over the past couple of years.

So how in the world would Mary Smith be able to sustain a women’s magazine, especially one that appeared to be so ambitious?

I was curious, too, about what would be in such a magazine.  With all the publications out there already geared toward women – even Christian women – what would be the point of yet another periodical containing the usual drivel about fashion, cooking, relationships, and decorating?  What could Mary Smith’s Living Word minions find to say that would be so unique and necessary that it would warrant going to so much effort and expense?

Since the first issue of Mary Smith’s magazine made its debut, my husband and I had been joking about how I could get my hands on a copy.  We figured we were too recognizable to just show up at church some Sunday night, stroll into the bookstore, and buy one anonymously.  Besides, we would never go to that much trouble just to satisfy my idle curiosity.  And I certainly wasn’t going to order one through the church website, either.  I wouldn’t want anyone on staff to think I’m still as interested as I am in the goings-on of what had always been (in my experience) such a shallow-minded yet haughty attempt at women’s ministries.  Not to mention, I wouldn’t want to get my name and address back on the church’s main mailing list.

But this community event – now there might be an opportunity to at least surreptitiously flip through a copy before hastily putting it back on the rack (or table, or wherever I might find one left lying about).

As we drove into Living Word Church’s parking lot the other day, I actually found myself feeling a bit jittery and sick.  Truly, the place is that laden with memories for me.  During our years at Living Word, it was quite literally the number one priority of our lives.  Just about any time the church doors were open, we’d be there.  We would schedule vacations around Sundays, so that we could miss as few church services as possible.  Also, because I had gotten my involvement with Living Word all tangled up in my thinking with my Christian faith itself, I frequently confused promoting Living Word with sharing the gospel of Jesus.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m actually ashamed now to look back on all the times when I’d start out trying to “share Christ” but then quickly end up talking about how, “If you REALLY want to experience REAL Christianity, you’ve GOT to go to my church and hear my pastor!”

Ugh.

For at least the first couple of years we were members of Living Word, I sincerely believed that there was something very special about what went on there – that there was something unique and unsurpassable about Living Word and Pastor Smith that could not be duplicated anywhere else.  I believed that Living Word (and Pastor Smith) almost held some sort of magic, where if someone would only walk through the doors of that church, they would be overcome by the power of God and would experience a dramatic change, the same kind of change that I thought I’d experienced.  I was convinced that the man (Pastor Smith) and the place (the church building, particularly the sanctuary) were “conduits of the anointing,” as Pastor Smith himself would often say.  I thought that any problem people faced could be solved miraculously if I could just get them to come to my church and have Pastor Smith lay hands on them.

So the church facility itself has always held a certain level of mystique for me.  And as we drove into the parking lot, I found myself feeling the same giddy anticipation that I used to feel when we arrived at church ready to “partake of the anointing.”

I was surprised by how little things have changed.  The Smith family’s same portrait – taken at least  6 or 7 years ago – still graces the main hallway.  The ladies’ restroom is actually looking a little run-down and shabby, in need of new stall doors and some updated paint (that flowery mural is looking awfully 90s!).  The Smiths used to frequently mention Mary’s hangup about church restrooms, and the priority she placed on making the Living Word ladies’ room a beautiful and luxurious place because her standards were so much higher than those of other churches.  I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the fact that she has her own private restroom in her office has prevented her from noticing how beat-up the Nordstrom-style wooden stall doors are looking, and how the place would no longer strike most women as being particularly nice or special.

I was disappointed to note that Living Word Church no longer smells like it used to.  Maybe they quit using the same fragrant anointing oils, or maybe time has just taken its toll, but it didn’t exude the same aroma at all.

In one way, I was almost glad that I didn’t have to smell that smell that used to hold such meaning for me.  Walking through the doors of Living Word Church was an experience akin to running into an old boyfriend, a boyfriend who had broken my heart with pretenses and false promises and outright lies.

I decided to do a bit of roaming around while we waited for the event to begin.  And that’s when I noticed that the door to the church bookstore was open.  The lights were off – the bookstore was clearly closed – but the door was open.  I walked over and poked my head in the doorway and took a good look around.

My eyes quickly caught sight of the magazine rack full of the five issues of Mary Smith’s magazine.  I could see them against the wall, just a scant 10 or so feet away from the doorway where I was standing.  Oh how I wished I dared walk across the threshold and grab one, just to satisfy my now-raging curiosity!

That’s when I suddenly thought to myself, “Well, it’s now or never.”  My foot, almost of its own accord, took a tentative step toward the magazine rack.

And at that very moment, I suddenly heard a voice over my shoulder.  Startled, I turned to see none other than the church facilities manager, a man I’ll call Lin Jackson.  Lin had known my husband and me for years.  He and I had spoken many times.  We’d worked on various “Mary Events” together.

“May I help you?” Lin Jackson asked.

I was busted.

[to be continued...]

The Gospel of Jesus – the good news of what Jesus has accomplished for us through His death on the cross and His resurrection – is a message that will work, will be true, for all people at all times.  If you put your faith in what Christ did on your behalf, you will be made right with God and saved from God’s wrath for all eternity.  You will find forgiveness for your sins.  You will find peace.  You will find hope.

I think this is the thing about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that eventually led to what I’ve come to think of as my “Charismaniac Fatigue.”  Sure, our former church would mention that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.  But the main emphasis really was not so much on that.  In fact, frequently, Pastor Smith (a pseudonym) would say something like this:  “If you think that Jesus died just to save you for the ‘sweet by and by,’ think again.  He saved you for so much more than that.  He saved you for greatness, for fulfilling a destiny that is beyond anything you could ever ask or think!”

If you hung around Living Word Church (another pseudonym) long enough, you’d come to realize that those kinds of statements – although they don’t sound that terrible on the surface – were actually a sort of code.  It took me awhile to figure this out, but eventually it became clear that when about 95% of Pastor Smith’s audience heard the word “destiny,” their minds were immediately filled with pictures of themselves as rich people. 

Oh sure, “destiny” would frequently be cloaked with talk of “ministry.”  I was sort of shocked one day when I realized that almost every single person I’d ever gotten to know at Living Word had dreams of going into some sort of professional ministry.  They either saw themselves as future pastors, or future prophets, or future professional Christian musicians.  A couple of our friends actually envisioned themselves presiding over a mansion in which they’d play hostesses to all the great anointed speakers who visited Living Word Church.

But the bottom line of all this talk of “destiny,” of “greatness,” was – well – the bottom line.

Money.

To GET to one’s “destiny,” the thinking went, one would need to have the doors and windows of heaven open up and pour out a great blessing that one could not contain.  Such a financial windfall would enable one to quit whatever prosaic day job one held and then focus full-time on one’s “destiny.”

A crucial piece of this puzzle, of course, was faith.  One had to have faith in order for one to get one’s windfall and thus fulfill one’s destiny. 

And one demonstrated one’s faith through – you guessed it – giving money to Living Word Church.

It was expected – this was stated openly in Living Word’s membership classes (at least the class that we attended) – that Living Word members would ALWAYS tithe on their gross income.  In other words, members must give 10% of their pre-tax income to Living Word Church.  Then, of course, there were offerings, over and above that 10%.  Those offerings were where you REALLY demonstrated your faith.

The more generously you gave, the more God would bless you.  (Which always meant the more money you’d eventually receive.)

I do have to say this:  when I look back on our time at Living Word, and think back on how much money we gave, it first of all takes my breath away.  We put a very significant amount in the offering each month.  Our pre-tax tithe check was…well…it was probably more than some people’s rent.

Secondly, though – and this is what I feel like I have to admit – at the time that we were tithing like this, giving such a HUGE amount of money to the church each month, the truth was that it never seemed that burdensome.  Matter of fact, I can hardly remember whether we even missed that tithe money or not.  We always seemed to have enough to pay our bills.  And we enjoyed giving.

BUT…

(Serious “BUT” – )

I kind of think that our situation was not the norm.

I knew a LOT of people at Living Word who were barely hanging on financially.  Some of them struggled in relative secret, putting on a good facade of prosperity for their church appearances.  It was shocking to discover how many of these seemingly well-heeled folks were actually in the midst of dealing with bankruptcies and other financial hardships.

The biggest “but” of all, though, was that despite all the talk of “destiny” and giving to demonstrate one’s faith, and how one’s “breakthrough” (more code for one’s financial windfall) was just around the corner, the truth was that we never saw ANYONE reach the point of quitting their day job and having the leisure to pursue their particular dream of Christian ministry full-time.  (The only Living Word people I ever knew of who had even just appeared to “fulfill their destiny” were those who had been on staff at Living Word but then left to strike out on their own.  But they’d already been in “fulltime ministry.”  They already WERE earning paychecks from their ministerial pursuits.)

To the best of my knowledge, none of the rest of the congregation’s dreams and visions of windfalls and subsequent professional ministries ever worked out very well, despite their faithful and generous giving.

The moment when I finally admitted to myself that this was the truth – that this was the harsh reality of Charismania – was the moment when I started to lose my faith in Word of Faith teachings.  The truth about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is that it wasn’t actually “Gospel” at all.  There wasn’t really any TRUE “good news” in it.  There wasn’t any TRUE “good news” that worked for everybody.  Once Jesus’ work on the cross and His precious name became attached to the pursuit of wealth – even the pursuit of wealth disguised as the pursuit of some sort of “ministry” – the “Prosperity Gospel” became a lie.

I think this fact becomes very obvious when we examine how the “Prosperity Gospel” plays out in other places in the world, places that are not so already-well-off.  Places like Africa.  Click on the link below and check out this video:

The Prosperity Gospel

I’ve been going through the Old Testament for my Bible reading these days.  Last night I was in the book of I Kings, in the passage where King Solomon dedicates the temple of the Lord.

That’s when I came across a couple of verses that seemed especially familiar:

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD.  And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple.

                                                                  — I Kings 8:10-11

I realized that the reason why these verses rang a bell is because I’d heard this passage used many times as scriptural support for the practice of “falling out under the power”  – you know, what happens when a preacher “under the anointing” lays hands on someone?

As I’ve said before, since leaving Charismania, I’ve thought a lot about that whole “falling out under the power” experience.  It’s something I’m not sure I’ll ever fully come to understand.  I know that something was happening to make my knees buckle and force me to the floor when Pastor Smith (not his real name) or one of his visiting ministers placed his hands on my forehead.  I’m still just sort of mystified as to what that something was.

Was it the literal power and presence of God Almighty Himself?

Pastor Smith would have had us believe that that’s precisely what it was – that because Pastor Smith “proclaimed the Word” and had an “anointing,” he had the ability to dispense God to his audience.  He frequently referred to himself as “a conduit” of this power.

And he used I Kings 8:10-11 as scriptural support for this practice.

But here’s the thing that struck me as I read in I Kings last night:  in that passage, it is clear that when the presence of the Lord filled the temple, it was so strong and so powerful the priests themselves were rendered unable to stand.

The priests themselves were unable to maintain control of their actions.

Let’s look a little closer at what this tells us.

Something important to keep in mind is that the priests would have been highly motivated to maintain control of themselves.  No matter what your views on God’s unchangeable nature, it is a biblical fact that He appears to have interacted differently with people in the Old Testament than He interacts with us today.  In the Old Testament, people could be killed on the spot for failing to follow God’s guidelines – even if they did so accidentally.  We don’t see a whole lot of unexplained deaths these days in church.  But in Old Testament times, different guidelines seem to have applied.  In Old Testament times, people related to God through the “old covenant.”

Since that was the case, I’m thinking that the priests doing their duty in I Kings would have been highly motivated to pay attention and be sure they followed every last letter of the law.  I think they would have done all in their human power to remain standing, at full attention.

That tells us that the authentic “presence and power of the Lord” is something so strong, something so unspeakably glorious, that no one, not even the most highly motivated individual, is able to withstand it.

Yet when people “fall out under the power” in today’s Charismaniac circles, lots of people are capable of remaining in full control of themselves and their faculties.

The individual who is purportedly dispensing the “anointing” or “power” remains in full control.

And so do the “catchers,” those big guys who follow the minister and break the falls of the people being prayed for/ministered to.

Last night it struck me that this passage in I Kings absolutely does NOT provide any support for the practice of “falling out under the power” as it is practiced in Charismatic circles today.  If anything, I Kings 8:10-11 would prove the exact opposite – that whatever is causing people to fall down these days when the minister touches them simply CANNOT be the actual “power and presence of God.”

If the GENUINE power and presence of God were “in the house” (as Pastor Smith was fond of declaring), then  all human flesh would bow in response, just as the priests in this passage from I Kings were forced to do.

There would not be anyone left standing.

Not the catchers.  And certainly not the pastor himself.

It suddenly seems terribly obvious that God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, does not manifest himself as some sort of “force” that is dispensed at the will of human beings.  The fact that Pastor Smith chose when, where, and how he’d “lay hands on people” – in other words, when, where, and how the (supposed) power of God would be dispensed – would put God at the control and mercy of Pastor Smith.

The Bible shows us that such a notion is absolutely ludicrous.

I’ve mentioned before how we arrived at our “Charismaniac” church after a lifetime spent in more traditional Bible-based Reformed/Evangelical churches. 

I think a good part of the allure that Living Word Church (a pseudonym) had for us, at least at first, was that it WAS such a departure from what we’d grown up with.  Instead of what had seemed like the resigned, passive, and even sometimes downright negative approach to Christianity that we’d known from our youth, we loved that Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) preached, for example, that we were on the verge of greatness.  Or that we could “possess whatever we confessed.”

We loved the idea of “taking authority,” of faith that could move mountains, of healing for today, of a God whose plans are always to prosper us and keep us in good health.

When we were new to Living Word Church, we pretty much just projected everything we’d ever previously known about Christianity onto the place.  We just sort of assumed that Pastor Smith valued everything that our prior pastors had valued and held to their same standards for pastoral behavior…just with a bit of a “Charismatic kick.”  In other words, in addition to all those behaviors and character traits that the Bible attributes to a great leader – an attitude of servanthood, of kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, humility, patience, and so forth – Pastor Smith just had that added extra “oomph” of possessing the gift of faith. 

In our wide-eyed newly Charismatic naivete, we figured that Pastor Smith was everything the Bible would say a leader should be…AND he had a direct pipeline to God, where God spoke to him directly and prophetically and had given him a special dose of miracle-working faith.

We gave his wife and the rest of the church staff and all the honored longtime members that same benefit of the doubt, too.  We thought it was just sort of a “given” that they all valued Bible knowledge, honesty, integrity, humility, and long-suffering.  After all, the fact that they all dressed fashionably and seemed to exhibit other traits of rich people didn’t automatically mean they wouldn’t exhibit other aspects of what we’d known to be Biblical Christianity.

But after we’d been at Living Word Church for awhile, we began to understand that for Pastor Smith and the rest of his “higher-ups” – which would include all the visiting celebrity pastors – regular rules for traditional Christian behavior did not always apply.

The Smiths cultivated such an air of celebrity around themselves that most of us, if we were honest, would have to confess to feeling a bit star-struck and tongue-tied on those rare occasions when they’d appear in the lobby after church.  They’d never EVER walk around the church facility alone, either.  They would always be accompanied by at least one or two members of their “security detail,” men who wore suits and walkie talkies and stood discreetly, if slightly menacingly, off to the side while we ordinary folks chatted with Pastor or Mary Smith.

People were desperately eager to please the Smiths, too.  At first I thought this was just a by-product of their “anointing.”  Later, though, I was dismayed to discover that Mary Smith in particular was known for her fits of temper if she were to be displeased by the slightest thing.  When her group of ladies would put on one of her “Mary Events” for the women’s ministry, it was always a time of extreme stress and intense pressure to get every miniscule detail exactly right.  I saw firsthand some of the most bizarre freak-outs over stuff as silly as the color and placement of napkins on tables.

After we’d been at Living Word Church for awhile – a year, maybe – and had seen for ourselves how things were, we began to understand that in Charismania, pastors and guest ministers were held to a very different standard of behavior than the simple Baptist preachers of our youth.  By virtue of their gift of faith, their “anointing,” they were special.  They were celebrities.  They did not mingle with the regular people.  They breathed a different kind of air.  They needed body guards.  They wouldn’t DREAM of serving – rather, they were to BE SERVED.  At all times.

Yesterday, a very interesting message from J. Lee Grady arrived in my email.  It was entitled, Reality Check:  The Case For Relational Christianity.  And here is how it begins:

A friend in Alabama recently told me about a preacher who came to his city in unusual style. The man arrived at a church in a limousine and was whisked into a private waiting room behind the stage area. The evangelist gave specific instructions to leave his limousine’s engine running (I guess he wasn’t concerned about rising gas prices) so that the temperature inside his car would remain constant.

This evangelist then preached to a waiting crowd, took up his own offering and retired to the waiting room for some refreshments. Then he left the church with his entourage without even speaking to the host pastor.

This guy’s “faith”—he is touted as a faith preacher—may have been inspiring, but his love was as cold as the air inside his oversized vehicle. His behavior that night represents why so many ministries today are in crisis. We’ve created a monster—a version of Christianity that is slick, marketable and event-driven but lacking in any authentic impact. It is as one-dimensional as a flat-screen TV—and a total turnoff to people who are starving for genuine relationships. 

(You can access the full article by clicking here.) 

As I read what Mr. Grady had to say about what I’d call “Charismatic attitude,” I was instantly transported back to our time at Living Word Church, reliving all those memories of the inappropriate haughtiness of the Smiths and other ministers who had passed through Living Word’s doors.  I found myself – at least at first – nodding in agreement with Mr. Grady’s “Reality Check” article.

But then I began to think of how bizarre it is that he’d even need to write such an article for the audience of his Charisma magazine in the first place.

J. Lee Grady is right in his prescriptions, in his statements about how Charismania does need a “reality check.”  But I don’t think he’s dug deeply enough.

I think there’s something inherent in Charismania itself – in the whole Charismatic movement – that has caused the crazy and totally unbiblical notion that pastors are celebrities.

I think the whole concept of “anointing” – that pastors are a cut above the “ordinary” folks because they enjoy some sort of special direct pipeline to God Himself – is what causes them to believe that they are celebrities, that they are in need of bodyguards, that they can walk around and display bad tempers and haughty attitudes…and that they need to keep themselves separate from the “ordinary” people in their audiences.  Because of their faulty theology, they really think that they have been given some special access to the Almighty God, a different and more immediate access than what all the rest of us “ordinary” Christians have.  They really believe that they somehow have God “on tap,” where they can decide when and where to dispense the “anointing” through the laying on of hands.

Is it any wonder, then, that these pastors and evangelists and ministers begin to believe in their own “giftedness,” in their own “specialness,” in their own press, so to speak?

Until the Charismatic movement deals with this unscriptural notion of “anointing,” the bad attitudes and non-relational Christianity Mr. Grady speaks of will just continue.  What he says is good.  But it only deals with the symptoms of the problem, and not the cause.

Until they dig up the roots, there’s little point in dealing with the fruits.

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