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My exit out of Living Word Church (a pseudonym), and Charismania in general, for that matter, was prompted by a handful of what Oprah Winfrey would call “Aha!” moments.  One of those moments, ironically, was born out of a friendship, probably the only true friendship I had at Living Word. 

Living Word Church was NOT a place where it was easy to connect with others.  During the years we attended, there were no “Adult Bible Fellowships” (aka “Sunday school classes”).  There were no small-group Bible studies where discussion was encouraged.  They did have a system of church-organized social groups, called “Care Groups” (now changed to “Life Groups”), but the groups rarely met, and when they did, the get-togethers were often painfully awkward meetings of strangers with next to nothing in common.  

Incidentally, something I always found fascinating is how just about every decent conversation among Living Word folks seemed to end up focused on Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) or the story of how one came to be a member of Living Word.  Seriously.  I can remember attending at least three different Living Word get-togethers where there was little but stiff small talk, until someone mentioned something about Pastor Smith.  Suddenly, everyone in the room came alive and began participating in the conversation. 

Much later, I realized that this was exactly the way Pastor Smith liked things to be.  He and his family were the focal point of Living Word Church, and you’d better not forget it.  To ensure that you wouldn’t forget, you could feast your eyes on large portraits of the Smith family plastered prominently in the church lobby.  You could watch people during praise and worship time, prior to the Smiths’ grand entrance on the stage, and feel the level of anticipation for Pastor Smith’s arrival.  If Smith wasn’t going to be there on a particular Sunday, they’d rarely announce that ahead of time, because they knew how few people would actually still show up. 

So in this very Pastor Smith-centric atmosphere, I considered my friendship with two ladies, middle-aged never-married sisters who typically sat in the same area of the sanctuary as we did, a real treasure.  What started because of conversations struck up during long periods of waiting for the church services to begin eventually grew into a deep, heart-to-heart friendship.  

One of the sisters – I’ll call her “Jean” – became an especially close friend.  She and I would always have a wonderful time when we’d talk on the phone or meet for lunch.  Although we shared interests in more mundane things, our conversations also often touched on our deepest spiritual struggles, hopes, and dreams.  Jean and I frequently shared with each other what we were praying about, the things in our lives that we wanted to change, and where we thought God was leading us.  

In retrospect, it seems almost funny that it was one of those conversations that ultimately sent me down the path of questioning just about everything we’d been taught at Living Word.  During the time we were involved with the church, I probably would have said that the one thing that made us less than content with Living Word was the lack of ways to truly fellowship with other believers.  I always felt uncomfortable with the extreme focus on the Smith family and earnestly wished I had more friends like Jean.  

I never would have guessed that Jean would play a role in our leaving. 

Not long after we first became friends, Jean revealed to me something that even at that time struck me as a bit unreal.  In the early days of our involvement at Living Word, I honestly felt like a whole new world had been opened for me.  After a lifetime of a Bible-based faith rooted firmly in reality, where normal human disappointments still might lurk around every corner, I was suddenly introduced to a Christian life that talked about “dreaming big,” about “having favor,” about “taking the limits off.”  After years of knowing that Christians should not love money, should not place too much importance on “things of this world,” and should not put their hopes in earthly riches, we were suddenly thrust into a world where it was OK – indeed, it was merely a sign of God’s blessing – to drive a luxury car and dream for a huge house.  In fact, it was God’s will for us to have those things.  

So when Jean told me that God had given her and her sister an amazing vision and had also told them that it was going to come to pass, I had mixed feelings when she revealed exactly what that dream was.  On the one hand, we were fed a steady diet of, “The sky’s the limit!” from Living Word’s pulpit.  Nothing is impossible with God…it’s God’s will for you to have the desires of your heart…we are more than conquerors through Christ…God wants us to prosper and be in good health… 

Who was I to tell anyone that their dream was too far-fetched for God to turn into reality?  God could do anything! 

And yet…

Well, when it came right down to what the sisters’ dream actually WAS, I ran into huge roadblocks in my thinking. 

They totally and sincerely believed that God had told them they would both soon retire from their secretarial jobs, come into $53 million, and establish a “hospitality house” where they would play hostess to the visiting ministers whom Living Word brought in on occasion to speak to the church.  They already even had selected their exact mansion – in one of the finest communities of luxury homes that this area affords.  Like, they already knew WHICH HOUSE God had shown them that He was going to give them.

They also believed that God had told them that they were going to experience supernatural weight loss – that one day in the near future, Pastor Smith would give an altar call for those who wanted to lose weight, and when they’d go forward for this altar call, a miracle would happen and weight would instantly drop off their bodies, to the point where they’d start losing their clothes as they’d make their way back to their seats. 

In other words, the sisters believed that someday soon, they’d be both wealthy and slim, even though currently their paychecks only afforded them life’s necessities…they had saved NOTHING for retirement, neither of them had health insurance, and they were still living in their mother’s basement…and even though they had absolutely no plans to change their eating and exercise habits. 

I know it might seem silly to those of you who have never been engulfed in the “Charismaniac” mindset, but I did not immediately dismiss the sisters’ beliefs about their future.  I felt conflicted about them, actually.  On the one hand, the part of me that still had my feet planted somewhere near reality would inwardly shake my head and marvel that they could put so much stock in what they thought that “God told them.”  I mean, although Pastor Smith frequently delivered vague but very positive prophecies over lots of folks in Living Word’s audience, he’d never pulled out either sister for a personal “word.”  They didn’t even have one of Pastor Smith’s prophecies to fall back on.  All they had was their confidence in their own prophetic dreams, visions, and ability to “hear God’s voice.” 

I often thought, even as I was growing to love the gals and enjoy our friendship more and more, that they were setting themselves up for a huge disappointment every time they would strain their meager finances to “sow a seed” into Living Word Church or ministries like Benny Hinn’s.  I cringed on their behalf when, right before offering time one Sunday night, Jean whispered to me that although they’d finally saved enough money to buy themselves new mattresses, they felt that God had told them to give the entire amount to the church instead.  Her trembling hand was clutching a white offering envelope, which she proceeded to bring down to the waiting ushers holding the offering buckets at the front of the church.  

Even then – and this was in the midst of my highest love and loyalty for Living Word – I was greatly troubled at the thought of Jean and her sister sleeping on broken-down beds for several more years while the Smiths barely batted an eye at spending $29,000 per year on floral arrangements and “needed” a new $80,000 Mercedes to replace their perfectly respectable 5-year-old model. 

Yet…well, on the other hand, I never could bring myself to completely discount the sisters’ belief in their dream.  After all, who was I to question their faith?  At the time, I myself was “believing God for something” that probably would have seemed quite far-fetched to other people.  

For at least awhile, I made a sort of uneasy peace with the two parts of my thinking.  To be honest, I was motivated by more than a little selfishness.  My reasoning went something like this:  if I did not honor the sisters’ dream – the object of THEIR faith – then why should anybody, God Himself included, honor MY dream and answer MY prayers? 

I never quite lost the sense, though, that there was a missing link in the sisters’ (actually, the whole church’s, mine included) theology.  I realize – again – that this might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t been engulfed in Charismania, but we’d listen to sermon after sermon from Pastor Smith about faith, about believing God for our dreams, about how our “destiny” was always  just about to be fulfilled.  I’d say at least nine Sundays out of ten, the terms “destiny,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “favor” would figure prominently in Pastor Smith’s preaching.  And always, he’d seem to have plenty of Bible verses to back up his assurances to us.  Despite all the years of solid Bible training I’d had and the many college theology courses I’d taken, I could never really pinpoint what – if anything – was wrong with Pastor Smith’s messages.  

The truth was, I actually WANTED Living Word’s teachings – the same teachings that buoyed up my friends’ commitment to their mansion and their future instantaneous weight loss – to be true.  Church had become an extremely positive, uplifting experience for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed hearing, week after week, how God had a great destiny in store for me, and how my dreams would all be fulfilled.  Just like the two sisters, I myself was hoping and praying every day for a specific outcome, and I did not want to lose what I thought were the theological underpinnings for believing that I would eventually get what I wanted. 

Ultimately, though, I finally concluded that since I could never reconcile the God of the Bible with the sisters’ vision, I had to rethink almost everything we’d been taught about God’s “obligation” to answer our prayers and fulfill our dreams.  I had to go back to the Bible alone, and I had to ask the hard questions about whether or not all the “dream talk” was consistent with God’s character and wisdom, as He has revealed those things to us in the Bible. 

When we finally made the painful decision to leave Living Word, it was due in part to the fact that I could never fully and honestly get behind my friends and cheer them on, even though I really wanted to out of my deep affection for them.  I finally acknowledged what I’d always still known deep down:  that the God of the Bible was not likely to give my friends such a dream and “tell them” that they were going to stumble upon $53 million.  I knew that the God of the Bible was not likely to melt pounds off of them during a five-minute altar call.  I knew that the God of the Bible – as He has revealed Himself to us through books like Proverbs – was not likely to promote a lifestyle that never planned for the future, never even tried to save for retirement. 

I recently stumbled upon a book review by Bob DeWaay, in which he discusses this very subject.  While Pastor Smith never cited this particular book (Prayer Quest, by Dee Duke) in any of his sermons, the book is apparently based upon the exact same principles we were taught at Living Word Chuch.  DeWaay articulates far better than I ever could the faulty theology behind Charismania’s extreme focus on “dreams” and “visions.”  I know this blog post is already quite long, but I’d encourage everybody to read the excerpt below.  I’ve put what I considered the key paragraph in bold. 

Bob DeWaay’s Book Review of Dee Duke’s Prayer Quest 

The subtitle to this book is “Breaking through to your God-given dreams and destiny.” Duke speaks of our dreams and God’s dreams throughout his book. In the Bible God gave dreams to certain people. Those dreams, if interpreted by an infallible prophet, revealed God’s will and God plans. In the Bible, the dreams were from God, but they were not God’s dreams. They were the dreams of the people who dreamt them (for example Nebuchadnezzar’s in Daniel 2). Here we have to add a point of clarification: Only the dreams that are interpreted in the Bible by God’s prophets and spokespersons can be considered to authoritatively reveal God’s will. 

The term “dream” in English can mean “hope for an ideal future,” as in, “I have a dream.” This denotes the hope for some better state of affairs that may or may not come into existence. Duke, in his book, is clearly not using the term in the Biblical sense as a dream a person has that has been interpreted by an authoritative prophet. Instead he says, “He calls us now to dream His dreams, to ask Him daily to display His power.  Duke is speaking of a hoped for future when he uses the term “dream”: 

“Welcome to the reality where dreams come true! God has a dream, and it is certain to happen just as He imagines it. He has placed the stamp of His image on our souls, so that we also dream great dreams. As we learn to passionately share and enjoy God’s dreams, we will see Him work in amazing ways . . .” 

This statement involves some serious category problems. Supposedly God’s dream is His imagination about the future. We (all humans evidently because all humans are created in God’s image) can dream like God. Either this is anthropomorphism run amok or some seriously bad theology. God is the one who says this about Himself: “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure‘” (Isaiah 46:9, 10). God does not dream, He decrees. God calls things into being and works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11). He doesn’t imagine a potential future that may or may not happen. 

Concerning us, the only thing we know about what God “dreams” (using Duke’s terminology) is what is revealed in Scripture. Our own dreams about what we would like the future to bring are not going to make God do anything. Duke says, “This book is intended to help you learn to walk so intimately with God that you will see Him fulfill His dreams in and through you.” This brings us back to the typical “prayer secret” genre of Christian writing. Supposedly there is some key to “intimacy with God” that is not based on the once-for-all finished work of Christ, not based on availing ourselves of the means of grace by faith, but based on our own level of personal piety and the use of practices not revealed in the Bible. 

Duke asks his readers, “Do you feel as though you’ve given up on dreams you had when your faith was new?” The implication is that our “dreams” (i.e., hopes for an ideal or optimal future) somehow authoritatively reveal God’s will and that we must make these come to pass by some process. But our ideas about what we hope life will be like are nothing more than ideas and may have nothing to do with God’s purposes. Our dreams are part of providence, but providence contains good and evil. Duke is treating personal imaginations about the future as if they were infallible guidance to be nurtured and followed. But personal dreams are not God’s moral law. 

Here is a further definition of what Duke means by “dream,” 

“A dream is a desire felt so strongly that we think and meditate on it constantly until we see it in our mind as clearly as if it were reality. A dream believes that what is desired will happen; it is accomplished by anticipation and positive expectation. People who dream tend to be upbeat and enthusiastic.” 

This is a very much the type of mind over matter thinking that has enjoyed popularity in self-help circles. 

He gives people some practical guidance on releasing their “imagination” in prayer: “Envision yourself embarking on a day trip into the presence of God. . . . Envision yourself approaching God in His glory.” 

This is strikingly similar to guided imagery. He gives more examples of how to manage your dream time with God, including making lists of dream notes. This is a journey into the subjective realm under the guise of “prayer.” 

Much bad teaching comes into the church by route of mysticism, subjectivism, and having faulty theological categories. In previous articles I carefully defined categories to help my readers avoid these pitfalls. Risking redundancy, I must again assert that there is God’s revealed will in Scripture as well as God’s providential will (containing good and evil) that is revealed as history unfolds. Though Duke wants us to dream God’s dreams about the future, he admits that these dreams we might have come from various sources. He lists thoughts from God, your own thoughts, thoughts from the world, and thoughts from Satan. His readers are supposed to sort through their dream notes to find ones that they think are from God. But how? God’s future providential will is not revealed and cannot be known until it unfolds in history. Our dreams about the future cannot be determined to be from God by any means available to us because they are not revealed in Scripture. 

Duke reveals his lack of Biblical understanding when he cites the scripture, “My sheep know my voice,” as proof that we can figure out which of our dreams is God’s voice. That passage in John 10 is about those whom the Father has given to the Son and who consequently will respond to the gospel and follow Christ, not about listening to various subjective voices in our heads and trying to figure out which one sounds the most like Christ. 

There is no need to belabor how bad this book is theologically. It starts from a series of faulty premises and bad theology and builds from there a concept of prayer that is not taught in the Bible. The term “dream” as he uses it is basically the idea of one’s imagination. The Bible tells us about those who speak in this manner: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the Lord‘”. (Jeremiah 23:16).

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Every once in awhile, I’ll stumble across something so good that I’ll find myself wishing I would have written it.  I felt that way today, when I found a post entitled, A Challenge to the Sow-a-Seed-For-a-Specific-Need Preachers.  I’d actually recommend the entire website, which is called Theology Today.

In case you’re too lazy to click on over there right this moment, though, here’s the “Challenge” post that I liked so much:

I’m a little bit confused by the “sow a seed for a specific need” teaching that has inundated pulpits and the airwaves worldwide. I understand the principle…but I would love to see it practiced by those who teach it. I want to see THEIR faith in action so I have a little challenge for the prosperity crowd….

Ready?

Give ALL of your money away. Sow that seed into something other then your own ministries….or those of your friend’s mentors, spiritual daddies or mammas and show us that it does indeed work FOR YOU! Airplanes cars yachts and designer clothes….GIVE IT ALL AWAY!

Instead of teaching us to give to you…..so that God will bless us 100 fold…..get the blessing for yourselves! You wouldn’t want to rob God would ya? I didn’t think so so loosen up those purse strings…….offshore bank accounts…..bank vaults or wherever else you’ve stashed your loot and really make a fortune!

If you sow a seed of say….50 million bucks……just think of all the blessings God has in store for you! The days of kissing up to Paul and Jan are over…..no more beg-a-thons…..forget about those endless nights spent shopping on E-bay for those worthless trinkets you give away to those who sow a seed into your ministries…..you will be so blessed you won’t need our seed anymore…..a real life harvest of your own!

Have faith in your seed….in fact have the God kind of faith and just write your need on the seed! Claim that need with your seed and watch the blessings of God rain down from heaven! Just remember that things will be great in ‘08 if you sow that seed today!

Not sure yet? Where is your faith you faithless beings? Don’t you know God wants to bless you….but you have to sow a seed first….and if you sow an uncommon seed….say every penny you have…..then you can expect an uncommon harvest!

So give it all away TODAY! If what you’re teaching REALLY works….then what are you waiting for? Remember that God is a God of patterns precepts and principles and he really wants to bless you….so get blessed today and let us know who you sowed into….how much you sowed and the end result of your sowing…..don’t delay sow today! 

There’s not a whole lot else that I could add to this one – except that I wish Pastor Smith and Paula White and Bishop T.D. Jakes and every single other “Pulpit Pimp” out there would get the message behind these words.  We’re onto your scams.  Especially yours, Ms. White.  How many emails do I get each month that start out with, “I’m praying for your special blessing during this (take your pick) time of the Feast of the Tabernacles/Passover/Jewish New Year/Nordstrom’s Half-Yearly Sale.”  (Well, that last one was just a joke, but I’m sure it’s actually more significant to some of these scam artists – or their wives – as any of the dates on the Jewish calendar.)  Paula White’s emails will always begin with some sweet statement about how she’s praying for our blessing.  But then to SECURE that blessing, we are instructed to sow our best seed into her ministry.

I can’t believe I fell for it for so long.  Can’t believe it.  Can’t, can’t, can’t.  I’m just glad that God woke us up when He did.

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Ever since I put up the Smoke ‘n’ Mirrors post, I’ve been feeling bad.  Publicly suggesting that Pastor Smith (a pseudonym) engineered a fake miracle so that he could kick off Living Word Church’s (another pseudonym) special week of meetings with a bang and drum up more excitement about the annual “Miracle Handkerchief And Anointing Service” was just…well, probably more cynical than any Christian ought to be.

At the very least, I should not have put up the post without trying to investigate whether a particle of my suspicions could be true.

I’d take the post down, in fact, except that I’ve vowed never to do that with anything that appears on this blog.  People link to this site, and I’ve personally always hated it when folks have second thoughts and remove posts.  It can be very confusing…and also seem sort of dishonest.

So I’ve decided I’m not going to remove the article.  Instead, I’m going to put up this disclaimer, sharing my mixed feelings, along with a request.  I know that at least a few former Living Word folks have stumbled onto this site and will easily recognize the cast of characters and remember the incident I described.  (It was, hands down, one of the most oft-repeated miracle stories at Living Word.)  If you’re one of those folks, would you please drop me an email (at charismaniablogATyahooDOTcom)?  Give me your analysis.  Even more helpful would be any sort of verification.  Maybe somebody out there was friendly with the Ortega (yet another pseudonym) son, to whom this healing supposedly happened.  Maybe there’s even someone who knows for certain that he actually went to the emergency room.  Maybe somebody even saw the x-rays.

I would dearly love, once and for all, to get to the bottom of this incident.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to explain, in a bit more detail, why I’ve become riddled with so much doubt about this particular “miracle” – even as I’m agreeing with the Pastor Smith defenders, who would no doubt be horrified that I’d dare insinuate such a thing.

Awhile back, when I was thinking about this “miracle” and how it would (I assumed) always be sort of the “final frontier” in my mind about how much that went on at Living Word was genuine and how much was mostly generated by Pastor Smith, it suddenly occurred to me that, given Living Word’s usual sophistication about showing videos on the big screen, it’s actually rather surprising that they would not have shown some still shots of this young man’s x-rays.  According to the Ortega family’s story, there were two sets of x-rays taken, one set on Sunday afternoon, prior to the wearing of the “anointed” hanky, and one set the following morning.  The first set had clearly shown a broken jaw.  The second set had shown whatever traces that an old broken jaw leaves (I’m not a medical expert).  In other words, the jaw had definitely been broken, but God had miraculously, through the anointed prayer cloth, performed a complete mending of the jaw overnight.

I just wondered, suddenly, why in the world they would not have shown those x-rays.  And called the newspaper, for that matter.  Think of the amazing documentation they should have had, with all those educated professionals who had seen the broken jaw but then had seen the healed jaw.  The media – if not the secular media, then certainly Christian media – would have gone wild.  It would have been excellent publicity for Living Word Church…and I do know that Living Word simply loves publicity.  Pastor Smith was always extremely deliberate and savvy about creating relationships with other, much bigger-name ministers.  He was willing to part with a LOT of the church’s cash to buddy up to Bishop T.D. Jakes, for example, donating $40,000 to Jakes’ well-digging outreach in Africa. 

(Interestingly enough, Pastor Smith’s two young adult sons, Timmy and Tommy, were invited to speak at Jakes’ MegaFest that very same year, just months after the $40,000 donation – roughly 1% of the church’s gross annual income – had been given.  Considering that neither of the Smith boys has exactly made a name for himself, I think it’s remarkable that they were included in such a tiny group of non-African American guys who got to speak at MegaFest.  But that’s another story.  As is how that donation managed to get made without even a peep to the congregation, until it was a done deal.) 

Pastor Smith was also adept at getting himself invited to be a guest on TBN and Daystar.  During these times, he was actually at his best, working the cameras with his unique earnest sincerity, always with many plugs for Living Word Church, and many mentions of its address. 

Even Living Word’s television ministry had little to do with “preaching the Gospel” (despite being touted as exactly that).  Rather, it was more of an infomercial for Living Word Church.  These Living Word broadcasts consisted of a half hour of Pastor Smith going on disconnected rants that had been plucked from different spots in his sermon (which made it impossible to follow his main ideas), interspersed with video of Pastor Smith that had been shot in a local television studio, where he was on some set that resembled a bookcase-lined office.  During these studio portions, Smith came across absolutely as the most gracious, enthusiastic host.  But once again, he did not share the Gospel of Christ.  Rather, he just kept urging folks to visit Living Word Church so that they could “experience this anointing.”  (Not surprisingly, Living Word’s television ministry was not very successful and disappeared without a word after about six months of heavy promotion.)

Also, what other reason would they have had, anyway, for printing up the miracle hankies with Living Word’s name, logo, AND precise location emblazoned in such a huge font, to where there could be no mistaking where the cloth had come from?

Definitely, Pastor Smith – and consequently Living Word Church – knew exactly how to do publicity!

That’s why it does not seem likely that Pastor Smith would have let the “Broken Jaw Miracle” – if it and all its documentation had been genuine – pass without making more effort to get the story picked up by news agencies.  Publicity for the “Broken Jaw Miracle,” after all, would very likely have ushered in the season of overflow that was continually being prophesied about.  People flock to the miraculous, as evidenced by other revivals like Toronto and Brownsville, and now that new one being run by Todd Bentley in Lakeland, Florida.  Theology hardly matters, as long as there are people with stories of gold fillings or healed bodies.  The Ortega family’s story would have drawn people to Living Word Church from all over the country.

Especially considering that Mr. Ortega was on staff as Pastor Smith’s assistant and right-hand man, and had a vested interest in promoting the church, there is simply no way that Living Word would not have capitalized a LOT more on this golden opportunity, considering how much utter verification there should have been…if it had happened as they said, with two sets of x-rays, and two sets of doctors who’d seen both the injury and then the healing less than 24 hours later.

Also, as my husband and I discussed this “miracle” recently, we suddenly had another thought.  Does it strike anybody else as odd that there was absolutely no concern about what had prompted a healthy young teenager to pass out in the first place?  Rather than dashing off to an orthopedic surgeon the next morning, as Pastor Smith had reported them to have done, wouldn’t at least some sort of MRI or other tests have been performed first?

Like I said, I’m no medical professional, but I am a mom, and if my teenaged son had gone through an incident like that, I don’t think I would have blown it off just because his jaw turned out to be OK.

Anyway…as you might be able to tell, I’m terribly conflicted about this seemingly minor thing that happened several years ago.  On the one hand, looking back on all the circumstances, I can’t help but be deeply suspicious about this “miracle.”  On the other hand, I am truly fearful of ascribing this incident to fraud if it actually were the real deal.

I know that one miracle should not be used to validate an entire ministry.  But I’m acutely aware of just how many people the “Broken Jaw Miracle” caused to take those prayer cloths very seriously.  I know how many people clapped and cheered and excitedly waved their anointed hanky during the service, and how many people sent those hankies off to sick and broken people in desperate need of a miracle, in large part because of a few exciting stories told and re-told, year after year, about the wonders that had been performed through those prayer cloths.  The main wonder, as I said, was always the Ortega boy’s story, because it was the only thing that had happened locally, to someone who was actually present in the service and could stand up and wave to the audience.

I know how important this story is to those who were true believers in those hankies.  I know, because I was one of those people.

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[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.

Spooky stuff.

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?

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It’s been awhile since we’ve added anything to the site.  That’s because, in most respects, we feel like we’ve moved on from our experience at Living Word Church (a pseudonym).  We’ve now had a year to process what we witnessed and went through, and after awhile, it’s easy to feel like we’ve figured it all out.

But the funny thing is, right when I think I’ll never have another new thing to add to this blog, I’ll get to pondering our time at Living Word, and suddenly, I’ll be hit by a realization.  That happened to me last night.

My husband and I were reminiscing about Pastor Smith’s (another pseudonym) preaching last night.  As I’ve said in another post,

The thing was, when he’d stick to Scriptures, he was a great preacher—insightful, original, wise, and articulate. When he’d veer into a slightly questionable area, such as seeming to use the pulpit to pump up his own importance, it was easy to cut him some slack. He was, after all, a very dynamic individual with great force of personality that was coupled with a sharp, curmudgeonly sense of humor. When he preached, he conveyed a unique earnest sincerity. I still don’t doubt for a moment that he himself believed in everything he preached. I still think he was honestly convinced of the validity of his own prophetic gift, and of how much the people needed his ministry. His earnest sincerity made you WANT to cheer for what he said, made his audience WANT to show their support for him.

When we first started this site, I often remarked about how Pastor Smith’s preaching was usually pretty Biblical.  He always included a lot of Bible verses and really seemed to spend time putting his sermons together.  Even after we first left Living Word, I still believed that if Pastor Smith had just stuck with Scripture and stayed away from talking so much about his prophetic abilities and the “Prosperity Gospel,” his preaching would have continued to be stellar.

But recently, while organizing my closet, I stumbled upon a collection of sermon tapes from 2003.  Figuring that it would be good entertainment to reminisce – and also figuring that maybe I might be reminded of something edifying while I finished my cleaning – I popped one of the tapes in the stereo and gave it a listen.

I have to say, I was surprised to realize something.  And that is, even back a few years ago, before Pastor Smith became fixated on money, his sermons were still not like the sermons we’ve been hearing lately at the more generic Evangelical church we’ve been attending.  Rather than discussing straightforward Biblical principles and acceptable, obvious truths, Pastor Smith’s preaching was, essentially, all about reading a verse and then telling us what he thought it meant.

“So what’s the difference,” you ask.

Well, actually, there’s a pretty big difference.  Especially sometimes.

You see, the kind of preaching that focuses on making a larger point or a life application by building on basic truths clearly spelled out in the Bible is not the same as making a declaration and then pointing out how this declaration could be supported by a verse here or there.  And it’s certainly not the same as reading a single verse and then explaining to your audience how you know, because “God told you,” that this verse is true in a new and different way for the people you’re addressing.

Case in point:  some years back, pretty early in our time at Living Word, actually, Pastor Smith preached an entire series of sermons on God’s favor.  His text? – Psalm 102:13, which says:

Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.

Pastor Smith spent weeks telling us, usually for more than an hour at a stretch, that the time had come for all those connected with Living Word Church to experience God’s favor.  He had a slogan for this sermon series:  “Dream big, and believe God for favor.”  After a couple of weeks, this slogan was professionally printed onto a gigantic banner which stretched all the way across the second-floor railing in the church foyer, so that it was almost the first thing you saw as you made your way toward the sanctuary entrance.

I remember that all of those sermons were incredibly uplifting.  Pastor Smith used every bit of his sincere, enthusiastic, and utterly convincing style to convey to us that the Lord had given him this verse as a “fresh word for the house.”  It was time for all those under the sound of his voice to get ready to dream big and believe God for favor, because God had told him that the “set time” for favor had begun.

In other words, if you were hoping for a certain job promotion, perhaps, or wanting healing, or looking to buy a bigger house, your time had come.  Even if you might not be the most qualified person, you would find yourself receiving more than the typical consideration for that career advancement, because of God’s favor.  Even if the doctor had told you there was nothing more the medical profession could do for you, you did not have to give up on good health, because of God’s favor.  Even if you weren’t sure where the extra money would come from, if you had a dream for a larger house, you could get ready to see it fulfilled, because of God’s favor.

These sermons had a big effect on the congregation’s mood.  People were cheering and applauding.  Pastor Smith’s preaching would be interrupted by frequent standing ovations.  And it wasn’t just an immediate emotional response, either.  I remember talking to friends and listening to them earnestly musing about how God was finally going to bring their favorite dream to pass…because we all were soon going to be hit by an unusual time of God’s favor.

Last night, as I thought back to this sermon series, and also to the tapes I’d just recently listened to again, I was suddenly struck by something.  Why did we believe Pastor Smith when he told us that we were all about to experience God’s favor?

I mean, it certainly wasn’t because he “proved” it to us through Scripture.  Using the Bible alone, just as it’s written, it’s really impossible to “prove” such a thing.  Even though Pastor Smith took Psalm 102:13 as his “proof text,” it really was nothing of the sort…UNLESS YOU TOOK PASTOR SMITH’S WORD FOR IT.  Psalm 102 on its own, after all, was written thousands of years ago and is about Israel.  Although Pastor Smith made a passing reference to how the Christian church has now been “grafted in” and thus has a right to all the promises made to the Jewish people, the fact still remains that nothing about Psalm 102:13 itself states that it held specific truth for those of us in that sanctuary at that moment.  Really, the only reason anybody would ever get that sort of message out of Psalm 102:13 was because Pastor Smith had told them they should.  And they believed Pastor Smith.

Actually, the majority of Pastor Smith’s preaching was just like this.  He did use the Bible a lot, but it was almost always in a way that focused on HIS INTERPRETATION of what a particular passage was saying, rather than what the passage simply SAID.

In other words, almost all of Smith’s sermons hung on Smith’s credibility.

Or as my dad would say, “The whole big picture hung on one rusty nail.”

Honestly, to really get anything at all out of the preaching at Living Word, you first had to buy into the assumption that Pastor Smith somehow heard directly from God.  And then you had to believe in his authority as “God’s mouthpiece” to the congregation.  Otherwise, his sermons would all be little but empty Tony Robbins-style “rah rah” motivational speeches.

How did we all “know,” after all, that the “set time for God’s favor” had come upon us?  Was it because of Psalm 102:13?  No, not really.  Instead, it was because Pastor Smith TOLD US that this was what Psalm 102:13 should mean to us.

“Rusty nail” sermons are really kind of a scary thing, in retrospect.  Especially because of their potential to do serious damage to people who buy into them and then find themselves blaming God when “favor” doesn’t follow.  I wonder how many of Smith’s listeners back then gave offerings they could not afford because they thought that doing so was a sign of faith for the favor that they’d soon experience?  I wonder how many people ended up bitterly disappointed when they were passed over for the job promotion that “God” had promised them?

Yes, “rusty nail” sermons are dangerous, I think.  And unfortunately there’s no such thing as a spiritual tetanus shot.

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One of the great mysteries we still wonder about is just how much Pastor Smith realizes and understands about the stuff that goes on at Living Word Church (once again, our usual disclaimer:  “Pastor Smith” and “Living Word Church” are both pseudonyms, as are all other names used on this site).

Awhile back, we posted an entry about whether or not what we experienced at Living Word was actually the “presence of God.”  Pastor Smith called it the presence of God.  The church members all thought it was the presence of God.  At the time, we ourselves would have said that that certain “rush” – that certain something that made us want to both weep and jump for joy at the same time – was the Holy Spirit.

But when you look at the harsh facts, it’s difficult to know for sure.

On the one hand, this “feeling” – or whatever it was – is marketed by Pastor Smith as the single most important reason why people should leave their “dead churches” and plant themselves at Living Word.  This “feeling” is also carefully orchestrated and cultivated, particularly through the use of music.  People would often refer to it as “The Anointing.”  They believed – and Pastor Smith taught – that “The Anointing” was something he personally dispensed (for lack of a better word).

Yet, on the other hand, how could Pastor Smith knowingly be so manipulative and still come across as so believable and sincere?  How could he stand there week after week, as he’s done for more than twenty years, and not be afraid that God was going to strike him dead with a lightning bolt or something?

After posting “Hooked on a Feeling…”, I really enjoyed the comments that different folks left.  They helped me to come to the following sudden realization:

Sometimes I think that, rather than being so diabolically manipulative that he deliberately manufactures a FALSE something that he then tries to pass off as the “presence of God,” Pastor Smith is actually just as hooked on the sensation (what ever “it” is) as the rest of his audience. He’s probably deliberate in how he wants the service structured, and in the kinds of music he tells his son to choose. But I think he and his family do genuinely believe that whatever it is they “stir up” in people actually IS “the anointing,” or the presence of God. 

Probably the fact that they believe they CAN dispense God’s presence is one of the reasons they’re able to hold themselves above everybody else. I mean, if you think you’ve got God Himself at your disposal, you’re going to feel pretty superior. And you’ll actually begin to believe that you NEED bodyguards and that you DESERVE all the best things.

If the Smiths genuinely believe this – that they somehow “have God on tap” – a lot of the crazy stuff at Living Word would make more sense. Such as the birthday offerings they’d take for themselves. I always wondered how they dared to have the nerve to TELL PEOPLE to give them gifts. Who do they think they are, anyway? But I think I may have inadvertently explained this to myself here. They think they’re the keepers of God’s presence. That’s GOT to be some heady stuff! No wonder they do all the arrogant, insensitive, and prideful things they do. It all suddenly makes sense. 

What do YOU think?

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Here is Part 2 of our analysis of Pastor Smith’s (“Pastor Smith” is a pseudonym for our former pastor) sermon on “The Anointing.”  If you haven’t already done so, please take the time to read either the sermon transcript, or Part 1 of our analysis, or both.  We realize that they’re lengthy.  The sermon transcript alone is over 10,000 words.  Yet there’s just something about reading it straight up, seeing Pastor Smith’s words in black and white, that demonstrates the pitfalls of Charismania far better than we ever could.

So let’s continue with our analysis.

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We left off with Pastor Smith’s admonishing the crowd not to expect a “pie-eating buddy” out of him.  Instead, he tells them, he must keep his distance from his people.  After expounding on this for awhile, he goes on, in paragraph 29, to discuss his next point, which is that everybody needs a moment in time that defines their Christianity.  He says:

(29) Most churches don’t – what I would say on a corporate level – pray for people.  Now I’m talkin’, we pray, but I’m talking about, PRAYING for people.  When Samuel found David, he just didn’t say, “OK, David, you’re the next king of Israel, sha na na, go go go, well, ya ya ya, bye.”  No, he took the vial of oil, he poured it over his head, he probably laid his hands upon him.  Whatever transacted at that moment, it said the Spirit of God came upon David from that moment.  See, every one of you need a divine encounter with the Spirit of God. 

(30) Every one of you need a place, you need some place in your history that you go back to, and you say, “Right then and right there is when I turned into a different kind of person.  Right then and right there is when I became that new creature that Paul wrote about.  Right then and right there is when the burden got removed, the yoke got destroyed, the depression got broken, the cancer got healed, the spirit of suicide lifted off of me, wrath, rebellion, and disobedience broke off of my life.  Right then and right there.  I was at that altar, that man of God, that woman of God, put their hand on me, and the power of God hit me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.

This sounds good, and it does get the crowd cheering, but the most important question we could ask is, “Is this Biblical?”  Does the BIBLE tell us that we NEED a moment or a place of dramatic encounter, dramatic transformation? 

I believe the answer simply has to be “No.”  Search the Scriptures.  Can you find any verse in the Bible to support this notion?  I couldn’t.  And while it is true that key figures in the Bible, such as the Apostle Paul, did have single life-changing experiences, there are also plenty of other important people, such as the Apostle Peter or King David or Timothy, who had faith and a walk with God that progressed in fits and starts.  Timothy, we learn, had been trained since his youth.

Once again, Pastor Smith advocates a type of experiential Christianity that could have the effect of making many folks – particularly those who have been Christians since childhood and have gradually matured in their walk with God over many years – doubt the validity of their faith, if they can’t point to a single defining moment of “going to the altar” and returning to their seats radically changed.  At the same time, this teaching sets people up to value a single dramatic encounter over the less showy (but more Scripturally supported) character traits that demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit

There is NOTHING written in the Bible about “being able to point to a definite time or place.”  But the Bible DOES say that we show that we are Christ’s by demonstrating His love and His humility.  We demonstrate our faith by having the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control) and (according to James 1) extending kindness and generosity to orphans and widows. 

Also note that although God used Samuel to anoint David, it had NOTHING to do with Samuel and EVERYTHING to do with God.  Samuel was just obediently following what God told him to do.

In paragraph 31, Pastor Smith says:

(31) So, why, why do I spend so much time laying hands on people?  I mean, and sometimes, I’m standing there saying, “Why am I doing this?”  Because anointing is being imparted.  Power is imparted.

Here I have to ask, how do we know this?  Is it because some people fall down?  Is it because Smith TELLS us this is so?  If “anointing” is really being imparted, then why do so many of the people who fall down get up and continue to live just like they always did?  Why do so many Living Word folks seem to remain mired in their same unbiblical lifestyles?  If they REALLY had received “the anointing of God” from Smith’s hands, then why are so few people truly permanently changed after they fall down? 

Paragraph 31 continues with,

Why is it important for that touch of God to be upon you?  Because as the power of God comes upon you and the revelation of the authority or the call of God upon your life is upon you, you will also understand that to get you to where God wants you to be, He will release favor on you.

Here I just have to ask, how did we suddenly leap from “anointing” to “favor”?  Where in the Bible does it say that favor goes with anointing?

Paragraph 31 ends with,

But when you are on a mission to possess what God has truly called you to do, I believe there will be that favor of God upon you to get you to where you’re going.

Where?  Where in Scripture do we see this principle?  Yes, God will work out HIS purposes for us.  For HIS glory.  This often will have nothing to do with “favor” as we humans would define it, however.  We are told many times in the New Testament that as followers of Christ, we can EXPECT persecutions.  Not an easy life marked by “favor.”  Since we are not God, we have a limited understanding of how God will work out His purposes.  Sometimes what God chooses to do for us won’t even be remotely close to what we’d choose for ourselves.  Yet we can take comfort in the promise of Romans 8:28, that all things will – in the end – work together for our good, to the glory of God.  And that’s going to include persecutions.  Jesus was persecuted.  All the Apostles were persecuted.  We have NO Scriptural basis to expect anything less for ourselves.

Paragraph 32 continues with the notion that we are anointed to succeed in a particular profession.  Again, it’s difficult to see how this is Scriptural.  Pastor Smith also, once again, segues here into talking about Joseph, although to repeat my earlier point, we don’t read anything in the Bible about the term “anointing” in connection with Joseph’s life.

In paragraphs 33 and 34, Pastor Smith engages in a practice that has had some interesting psychological effects on his congregation:  he calls out certain people by name and uses them as examples in his sermon.

I’ve mentioned before how the seats in the front rows were reserved for certain “special” people.  Some of them were part of the Smiths’ entourage, functioning as bodyguards and door-openers.  Since I’ve already described this practice of special reserved seating, I won’t bother to go into detail again here.  But those front-row folks enjoyed a certain level of status that was only accentuated when Pastor Smith would use them as examples.  It made all the rest of us “no-accounts” aspire to the day when Pastor Smith would know US, would use US as part of his object lessons.

Remember, Pastor Smith has already alluded, just a few moments earlier, to how he keeps himself distant from the congregation, how he doesn’t know what’s going on with most people, and how that’s for THEIR OWN GOOD, so that he can have a clear head to “deliver a word” to them.  Yet these front-row folks are suddenly exceptions to the whole “pastor-as-isolated-celebrity” spiel.  It sends oddly mixed messages, and it functions as a power play.

It also keeps certain influential members – often very financially successful and socially visible people – feeling special, which probably helps to keep them tethered and loyal to Smith’s ministry.  It’s really a very interesting ploy.

In paragraphs 35 through 37, Pastor Smith describes the Holy Spirit as being our “agent.”  He describes the ways that we can expect God to move on our behalf.  Once again, you’d be hard-pressed to back up this concept with anything out of the Bible…unless it happens to be the “Bible” that Joel Osteen (of “Your Best Life Now” fame) has been using lately. 

In paragraphs 38 through 53, Pastor Smith discusses how “the anointing” will create character and will create a hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  This is probably the strongest section of his sermon, providing a reminder that we all need from time to time.  Yet considering Smith’s topic is supposed to be “the anointing,” it would be helpful if Smith had explained how – specifically – this function of “the anointing” differs from the role of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible. 

In fact, if you read that section of Smith’s sermon, it’s impossible to tell how “the anointing” is any different from having the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Bible tells us that it is the Holy Spirit’s role to convict us of sin.  And as we yield to the Holy Spirit’s leading and direction, it is the HOLY SPIRIT that produces within us the character and integrity that Smith speaks of.

I’m not sure why Smith is emphasizing a nebulous concept like “the anointing” when he could just as easily – and with FAR more Scriptural support – be talking about the Holy Spirit.

Within this section about character and integrity, I find it fascinating that in paragraph 43, Smith cites Bill Hybels (of Willow Creek fame):

(43) Now listen to me about this.  When Bill Hybels, who pastors one of the largest churches in the United States, at one time Willow Creek was the largest in the United States, thousands of people, and Hybels said this in his book called “Courageous Leadership.”  He brought this subject up, he said, “I used to hire number 1, that my number 1 priority in making a hire was basically, do they have the ability to do the job?  Do they have the education, do they have the experience, do they have the knowledge, do they have the skill set to do this job?”  Now we’re talking about a church that has tens of thousands of people, so when you put somebody in charge of something, they better be able to carry the mail.  And he said, “Do they have the skill set?  And I learned through the journey of pastoring that I could teach a person how to do the job, but I could never teach at a leadership level how to be integrous.”  Said, “My number 1 thing now when I hire is integrity.”  And what you’re seeing here, is in more of a business way of communicating it, he said, “What I’m looking for is an anointed man.”  Because if you’re an anointed man, the anointing will do what a class cannot do.

I really wonder why Smith would quote Bill Hybels as an authority on anything.  Hybels is one of the three original proponents (Robert Schuller and Rick Warren are the other two) of the “user-friendly” church that Smith is always mocking!  Why is Hybels suddenly credible?  Because he has a large church?  Considering how Smith loves to boast about how HE has refused to cave to the “seeker-friendly” movement, it makes no sense that he’s now quoting Hybels as some sort of expert on “anointing.”

Did anyone else notice that once again, after quoting Hybels, Smith then turns around and re-defines the terms?  Hybels says he’ll only hire people of integrity.  Smith announces that this is “just another way of saying he wants ‘anointed’ people.”

Here we get to a perfect illustration of my biggest frustration when Smith – or any other Charismaniac – tosses around the term “anointing.”  And that is this:  why do we need to talk about such a convoluted subject as the “anointing”?  Virtue, character, and integrity are all great to discuss from the pulpit, because there are literally thousands of Scriptures to back you up.  You could spend years preaching about obedience and practical ways to follow what God commands us to do.  Talk about how we can LOVE each other.  Talk about how we can be HONEST in our lives.  Talk about how we can pursue moral purity, humility, self-discipline, generosity, patience, and kindness. 

And also…at the risk of sounding like I’m just a nit-picker…I really wish that someone would tell Pastor Smith that “integrous” is NOT a real word.  Smith finds ways to inject “integrous” into just about every one of his sermons, yet it seems like nobody – not even one of his chosen front-row folks – has ever had the nerve to tell him that while “integrous” may sound all proper and intellectual, it’s not actually in the dictionary.

One more important note on this section about the role of “the anointing” as it relates to integrity would have to do with paragraph 45:

(45) Now when there’s integrity, you will impact everybody around you, because you become a person that people can trust.  But when you get into holiness, it is part of your relationship with God.  The priesthood could not draw nigh to God.  They had a golden plate that was across their chest that said, “Holiness unto the Lord.”  Now we’re in a church situation in our culture that holiness is something people don’t even talk about anymore.  Everything that seemed to represent integrity or righteousness has kinda been thrown under the bus.  But what you’ve got to begin to see is that when you draw nigh unto God, God is expecting you to have a pure heart. 

I was very disturbed by this particular paragraph, as it seems to be saying that somehow, if we have integrity, we then possess something in our own strength that can enable us to approach God.  I believe that, although at first blush this SOUNDS good, it effectively minimizes what Christ has done for us.

The ONLY thing that allows us to approach God is the blood of Jesus.  The Bible says that all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.  We bring nothing to the table apart from the Cross of Christ.  It’s only when we throw ourselves on Christ’s mercy and depend on His grace that we can have a “pure heart.”  It has nothing to do with some mystical impartation of “anointing.”  It has everything to do with Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection.

Within the last several paragraphs of this sermon, we see Smith’s final thrust, which I believe he summarizes best in the paragraphs 54 and 55:

(54) So anointing is more than power.  OK, hear me, I said anointing is more than power.  Anointing – number one, everybody say, “Impartation.”  [Crowd responds, says, “Impartation.”]  Understand anointing has to do with impartation.  This is why you cannot cultivate a more powerful walk in God in a dead church.

(55) Cuz there’s nothing to impart.  What’s Tiger Woods gonna learn from me in golf?  What NOT to do?  [Crowd laughs.]  What could I teach Todd Helton about batting?  What could I teach Michael Jordan about a jump shot?  Nothing!  So why – he wouldn’t hang around me for sports advice.  “No, Michael, do it this way.  Do it like this, Mike.”  Huh, good Lord.  “Now, let me show you how to hit that ball, Tiger.”  Y’all are laughing about that, but do you realize, people, that in their heart they say, “I really wanna be all that God wants me to be,” set in DEAD spiritual environments with PEOPLE that all they’re doing is working through it up here.  I’ll tell you something, if you want an impartation, you better get around somebody that’s HAD an impartation.

Ah, once again we’re back to Smith promoting himself.  The whole point of this sermon is, you need Pastor Smith.  You need him to be cold and distant and uninvolved in your life, except to “speak a word” to you and to “lay hands on” you.  You need him, because he’s anointed, and somehow, this mystical anointing – that you can’t just declare that you have, although SMITH can declare that HE has it – is what makes you pursue holiness and integrity.  You need this anointing, because it is what brings “favor” on you.  If you go to Smith’s church, you will begin to have people magically respond to you, giving you jobs you’re not qualified for, opening doors that you naturally couldn’t open, because Smith’s anointing will transfer itself over to you, and you will have favor.  And favor proves that you’re anointed.

The bottom line is, Smith cheats his people by wasting their time with all this “anointing” mumbo jumbo.  He should just tell them about Jesus, how you can actually pray to Him and ask Him for power, and through the Holy Spirit, He will help you obey what He wants you to obey!  Yet instead, we have to wade through more than an hour of blather and convoluted mysticism, all for the purpose of promoting your need for Smith and for Living Word Church.

It’s really too bad.

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