[Please read my disclaimer for the following post.]
Despite our journey through Charismania, we are not cynics. We have not lost our faith in Christ. We believe in the Bible as the Word of God, and we believe that our only hope in life and death is that Jesus saved us from our sins by dying on the cross on our behalf and rising again from the dead.
We also still believe that God does miracles today. After all, if God is God and He created the earth and all that is in it, there’s no reason to suppose that He can’t or won’t heal someone. That simply wouldn’t make any sense.
However…we’ve come a long, long way from our former blind belief in the so-called “signs and wonders” that supposedly took place at Living Word Church (a pseudonym). The other day, I got to thinking about one such “miracle,” a story that was repeated all the time and served as a major source of validation for every other claim to the supernatural which Living Word and Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) made. It was always presented as an undeniable miracle, one that we all had practically seen take place right before our very eyes.
Until recently, I always thought back on this incident as a piece of irrefutable “proof” that Pastor Smith’s ministry was, at least in some ways, authentic, despite all the vague or downright false prophecies that he’d given, and despite how far we knew he deviated from the Bible’s ideas about humility and servanthood. I mean, even in the throes of my love for Living Word, I always knew, deep down, that Pastor Smith was into money, good clothes, and showy possessions far more than he was into loving and serving his congregation. He always surrounded himself with his posse of bodyguards and rarely mingled with the people. On the rare occasions when he did make himself available, you’d think that he was some big-time celebrity, the way folks fawned over him and got all starry-eyed and tongue-tied in his presence.
We knew this was wrong, and a downright weird way for a pastor to behave. We knew that quite often, Pastor Smith glossed over very obvious Scriptural truths and instead focused on the relatively obscure verse in Third John, “Beloved, I wish above all else that you be in health and prosper…” We knew that when Pastor Smith preached, he quite often took verses completely out of context and would even sometimes give them odd interpretations that were contrary to anything we’d ever heard before.
We knew all of this. But because we believed we’d seen and felt the miraculous at Living Word Church, we figured all the errors in biblical interpretation and all the materialistic behaviors and snooty attitudes must somehow not matter much to God.
After all, great things were happening at Living Word. On many Sundays, Pastor Smith would prophesy over people. Then he’d put his hands on them, and they’d “fall out under the power,” swooning backwards onto the floor, where often they’d remain for several minutes, sometimes longer, in some sort of semi-conscious state. During those times, we knew that the Holy Spirit was doing a work in them. Also, people were healed at Living Word. Although it always bothered me that the physical healings during the occasional “Miracle Service” never seemed to involve anything more serious than back pain or headaches, and nobody ever jumped up out of a wheelchair, we still knew that Living Word Church was a “house of habitation,” a place where God’s presence dwelled.
As I said, we were confident of this because of some stories we’d heard repeated again and again. For several years, Living Word Church would hold a series of special meetings each spring, during which several famous big-name preachers visited and spoke. Some of these services were so popular that at one point, it seemed like nothing more than common sense to stand in line for four hours so that we could stake out a good seat.
The high point of this annual week of meetings was the “Prayer Handkerchief and Anointing Oil” service, usually held on the final night. Up to this point, Pastor Smith would very ceremoniously have each visiting minister lay hands on the handkerchiefs and little vials of oil (piled high in stacks and baskets which were rolled out onto the stage on a cart). On the designated night, everybody would file up to the front, each row of people expertly guided by the ushers, and would be handed a prayer cloth and a bottle of oil. Pastor Smith and his wife Mary would stand in the center aisle and would touch each cloth and bottle while raucous “shout music” would play. By the time all 1,500 or so people had made their way up front and then back to their seats, the crowds would be worked up into a feverish frenzy. Often there’d be folks dancing in the aisles, enthusiastically waving their hankies in the air as they spun and jumped around.
I have to confess, I always enjoyed these services. There was such excitement in the air, such expectancy, because of stories that we’d heard of the miracles that had been wrought through the anointing, particularly through the use of the prayer cloths. For instance, somebody had sent one of the handkerchiefs to a relative living on the other side of the country, where that person had placed it on her brother, who was lying in a hospital morgue, dead from a drug overdose. Incredibly, once the hanky had been placed on this man, his heart began beating and he sat up, alive again!
Another of the prayer cloths was sent to a lady who was a nurse. She also happened to live thousands of miles away, in a far-off state. In that case, a newborn baby who had been pronounced dead had come back to life.
But in my opinion, the greatest story of all did not involve anyone rising from the dead. Yes, my personal favorite story wasn’t nearly so dramatic as the rest, but I really liked it because its key players were people who actually attended Living Word Church. Moreover, we’d actually seen the young man – a teenager – sustain the injury from which he was eventually healed.
It happened on a Sunday morning, during the worship service that preceded the start of the week of annual meetings. At Living Word Church, all the front-row seats were reserved for folks whom Pastor Smith called his “key people,” either staff members or trusted longtime members. One family – we’ll call them the Ortegas – was comprised of three teenaged kids, their mom, and their dad, who was on staff as Pastor Smith’s assistant. During that Sunday morning service, one of their sons, who was about 14 years old at the time, suddenly collapsed in a rather dramatic fashion, falling to the floor. He was carried out, and everybody was very concerned.
Later, he was taken to a hospital, where they determined that he’d fainted from unknown causes. He seemed to be perfectly fine, except for the fact that when he’d fallen, he’d somehow hit his jaw against the floor and it had broken.
Since that was a Sunday, an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon was set up for the next day, so that they could evaluate his broken jaw. That night, the young man – being filled with great faith – decided to sleep with his prayer hanky (from the previous year’s special services) wrapped around his jaw.
When morning rolled around, he felt much better. When it came time for his appointment with the surgeon, they took a new set of x-rays. When these came back, the surgeon confessed to being highly puzzled. Apparently, Sunday afternoon’s x-rays clearly showed that the boy had a broken jaw. Monday’s x-rays, on the other hand, showed that while the boy’s jaw had been broken, all that remained was what looked like an old injury, all nicely healed up.
When this story was told to Living Word Church a few days later, the crowd went absolutely wild. People clapped and cheered and shouted. Music played, and people danced enthusiastically for many minutes. I can remember being swept along in the wonder and excitement of it all. There it was – an irrefutable real live miracle, one that we’d literally seen happen.
This story was told and retold, year after year, and always to the same effect. It was very uplifting, very faith-building, especially because Mr. Ortega was still on staff, and his son was still sitting next to him in the front row.
I got to thinking about those prayer handkerchiefs recently, and about the story of the Ortega boy, because quite honestly, it was one of the main things that always kept me believing that Pastor Smith and Living Word Church were the real deal. Even if some of the teachings were a little wacky and unbalanced, with far too much emphasis on material “blessings” for the here and now, where else could we go where the gifts of the Spirit were welcomed and practiced? What other church out there actually had real live healings?
One interesting aspect of those prayer handkerchiefs was how they were labeled. Living Word Church always did things in a money-is-no-object manner, and the prayer cloths were no exception. Although only the quality of an inexpensive cotton bandana, they’d been custom-printed with the Living Word logo (a huge eagle) and the verse from Acts, about how people would bring aprons and handkerchiefs to Paul and then be healed through them.
Nothing wrong with that, really. Except that I always found it interesting, even back when I never entertained even a slightly cynical thought, that the church made sure to put its name on the hankies, in huge print, much larger than the font used for the Bible verse.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder about the whole thing. Several questions come to mind.
First of all, I find it interesting that despite the heavy promotion and distribution of these hankies, there were never any local stories of healings or miracles. To the best of my knowledge, aside from the Ortega boy, nobody from within Living Word Church itself got healed via the prayer cloths. Obviously, had there been even a mildly dramatic miracle, it would have been trumpeted from the pulpit during subsequent prayer cloth services, just as the stories of the dead man and the dead baby had been told again and again. Come to think of it, why did those “raise the dead” stories have such a vague sound to them? If such a thing had actually happened, wouldn’t some newspaper have gotten hold of the story? Why did the two most startling stories have to happen so far away? And not to anyone directly involved at Living Word, but instead, to friends of relatives of people who’d been in the hanky services.
Does anyone else think – as I’ve begun to think – that those stories sound suspiciously like those “urban legend”-type stories? You know, the ones like where this couple picks up an old woman hitchhiking in the rain, and she gets in and talks to them as they drive for several miles. Yet when they ask her if she wants to be dropped off, they get no answer. That’s when they turn around and suddenly discover that she’s no longer in the car! She’d simply vanished. The couple shine a flashlight in the back seat, and upon closer inspection, they see the wet imprint of the old woman’s galoshes.
And those “urban legend” stories are always told in the same way. They always happen to someone that the storyteller sort of knows – usually a friend of a friend.
I wish I could still be a complete and true believer in all the things that went on at Living Word Church, but because of the poison of false (phony) prophecies, I no longer know what to think about much of anything there any more.
If Pastor Smith is not immune to giving a fake or totally inaccurate prophecy once in awhile, what would stop him from cooking up some scheme to promote the prayer hanky giveaway? I mean, in one way, that seems very far-fetched, but on the other hand, didn’t evangelist Peter Popoff get caught using a radio earpiece, through which he was fed specific information about attendees which he then passed off as “words of knowledge”? And when interviewed about this scam sometime later, didn’t Popoff say that he did so because he wanted to encourage people in their faith?
Looking back, it all seems incredibly interesting, how one of the most loyal and worshipful staff members at Living Word – Mr. Ortega, who functioned as Pastor Smith’s indentured servant for years, literally turning himself into a carbon copy of Pastor Smith after awhile – would be the one whose son experienced such a dramatic fall, witnessed by the whole church? Right before that year’s hanky service?
It all fits together remarkably well. I wish I were wrong. Maybe I am. But what is it that they say? Hindsight is 20/20?