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Archive for the ‘lawsuit’ Category

I decided to take a break today from discussing Todd Bentley and the “Florida Outpouring” so that I could bring you documented proof of the sort of greed for money that we encountered during our time at Living Word Church (a pseudonym).

I’ve described before, in a post entitled Asking For It, just how Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) and his family grubbed for money for themselves. 

Here, for your viewing pleasure (click on the link), is an actual image of the letter we received about ten days ago:

birthday3

Something to note:  Although this letter is ostensibly signed from the church “staff,” the truth of the matter is that Pastor Smith and the rest of the Smith family are in absolute, total control of everything that the church does.  As someone who occasionally used to volunteer in the church office, I know firsthand how NOTHING – not even a postcard advertising Vacation Bible School – was sent out from the church without Pastor Smith’s final approval.  Therefore, to say that this birthday card shower is a “surprise” is an absolute, total lie. 

The only surprise for the Smiths would be if the congregation did NOT celebrate their birthdays! 

My husband and I were joking the other day that they probably plan vacations and major purchases around these “love offerings,” seeing as how a conservative estimate of their “haul” is somewhere in the $10,000 range, quite possibly a whole lot more.

I wonder what the tax laws are when it comes to not-for-profit organizations using their postage meters to solicit personal gifts?  The staff members who wrote, printed, folded, stuffed, and mailed these letters, all while on the church’s time clock – how does that factor into the tax code?  Do the Smiths report this major source of income?

Just wonderin’…

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One of our commenters posted this link to a snippet of a Todd Bentley sermon.  While this clip has been making the rounds for awhile and has been discussed on other sites, I listened to it again today and had some additional thoughts about what he says.

I was going to just put those thoughts in a comment where the link was posted, but as I got to thinking about it, I realized that although these particular remarks of Todd’s have already been analyzed by many folks, I don’t really remember anyone mentioning a couple of the most burning thoughts that I had about them.

For the sake of accuracy, I decided to transcribe, to the best of my ability, every word that Todd says in this two-minute clip.  Here is the transcript:

This thing’s gonna break out, now just wait up here in Shreveport, I’m releasing it back, to where it all started in 1948, I’m releasing it back.  

Now for some of you who are here, it doesn’t really matter to you, all that stuff, all you care about is that God’s moving, and you know what?  That’s all that really matters.  So if you’re not big on prophetic, supernatural, and angels, I’m sorry.  It’s my testimony, but if you want to know why God’s moving, I’m sorry, I have to tell you the whole story.  If you don’t believe the story, well – sorry.  

You know, I told the Lord, “Why can’t I just move in healing and forget talking about all that…other stuff?” 

He said, “Because, Todd, you gotta get the people to believe in the angel.”  

I said, “God, why do I want people to believe in the angel, isn’t it about getting the people to believe in Jesus?”  

He said, “The people already believe in Jesus, but the church doesn’t believe in the supernatural.” 

The church has no problem believing in Jesus.  But what we don’t believe in is the supernatural.  We don’t believe in angels, we don’t believe in the prophetic, we don’t believe in some of what’s going on.  And I’ll tell you what, we need to have an awakening. 

I said, “Well, God, maybe you wanna give this ministry to somebody else because nobody’s gonna receive it in the package that I come in.”  [CHARISMANIA’S EDITORIAL NOTE:  Uh, then why did Todd keep getting all those tattoos over the past couple of years?  Clips of him preaching as recently as three years ago show him to be pretty mainstream-looking, with curly hair and un-inked skin.  So although he did spend some time in jail as a youth for child molestation, it seems like “the package” that Todd comes in today is increasingly and deliberately MORE “edgy” and controversial than it was before his conversion, not less.  I find this rather bizarre, if Todd is truly concerned that the message God wants him to deliver is not going to be well-received because of his looks.]

I said, “You gotta give me the most controversial testimony?  You gotta visit me with all this supernatural stuff?”  I mean, hey, maybe if I was a little more clean-shaven and polished, people would believe me more.  Or maybe the world is looking for something new.  How many of you believe we need something new!  [Crowd cheers, as the implication of Todd’s tone is clearly that we need “something new.”]

The most striking thing about Todd’s teachings here is, of course, that he is claiming to say that God spoke to him directly and told him that believing in Jesus is not the point – people already believe in Jesus – but that God wants to move so that the church will come to believe in the supernatural, in angels and in the prophetic.

As many others have already pointed out, it is impossible to imagine, by any stretch of the imagination, that the God of the Bible would ever make such a statement like that.  It is utterly contrary to everything everywhere in Scripture. 

But aside from that obvious point, something else struck me about this little conversation that Todd claims to have had with God.

Todd says that God told him, “The church doesn’t believe in the supernatural.”

According to Todd’s understanding of what God meant, people in the church don’t believe in angels and the prophetic.

Well, I would beg to differ.  I don’t think there’s a shred of a problem with churchfolk NOT believing in angels.

Go to any Christian bookstore and take a look around.  You will see lots of angel memorabilia and paraphernalia.  Matter of fact, don’t even bother to make it a Christian shop.  Go to ANY store that sells knick-knacks, and there’s a very good chance you’ll be able to pick up something made in the likeness of an angel or decorated with angels.

The truth of the matter is that most people believe in angels.  I was reading the other day that something like 80% of Americans polled believe that angels are real, and 40% go so far as to believe that they have their own personal guardian angel who plays a part in their lives.

I don’t think the angelic hosts of heaven are getting ripped off in the faith and attention departments!

The second part of what Todd thinks “God” meant when “He” supposedly said that people don’t believe in the supernatural is that, “We don’t believe in the prophetic.”

This is the piece that really got me to thinking.

I would like to ask Todd a question about this one.  My question is simply, “Todd, WHY DO YOU THINK that the church doesn’t believe in the prophetic?”

Isn’t it because the majority of us – even those of us who would count ourselves as NOT being cessationists, those of us who would categorize ourselves as Charismatics – see so few examples of real, genuine, Biblical-quality prophecy?

I, for one, used to believe wholeheartedly in just about everything that was presented to me as being “Christian prophecy.”  We used to be part of a church where the pastor had the reputation for being “a true prophet.”  I spent much time reading and re-reading transcripts of the personal “words” that had been delivered by our pastor to my husband.  I thoroughly believed that he was speaking on behalf of God.

I also used to be a regular reader of the Elijah List, which is where, incidentally, I first heard of Todd Bentley several years ago.  Although I never did become a subscriber, I would check their website on a regular basis and read through the most recent prophecies.  I never was able to quite get around my gut instinct that some of them sure sounded wacky…while others were so vague that they were more like the horoscopes you read in the newspaper.  But I made a lot of mental effort to set aside the misgivings that the Elijah List provoked in me, and I would listen respectfully when some friends at our church would breathlessly relay the latest “words” from the likes of Kim Clement and Patricia King (who is one of Todd’s main mentors).

But you know what?  It was my regular reading of the ELIJAH LIST, and its prophets’ dismal accuracy record, that finally turned me off on the so-called “prophetic movement.”  THAT is why I personally have a difficult time believing much of what is supposed to be “prophecy” today.

So, Todd…I think you are woefully mistaken in your assessment about people’s belief in angels, and I think you’ve got it totally backward when it comes to a belief in “the prophetic.”  It’s not that the church needs MORE meetings where they are exposed to MORE talk of angels and prophecy.  Nope. 

There’s already enough belief in angels…far more belief in angels, if you ask me, than in the historic crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

And if there’s no belief in prophecies?  Well, give the church what would REALLY fix this problem.  Those of you who are so inaccurate that you make Agnes Nixon from National Enquirer fame look more “anointed” than you – just need to keep your mouths shut.  Quit distributing all your vague stuff that almost always turns out to be either obviously misguided or downright false.

I know that I, for one, would have a much stronger belief in “the prophetic” if I hadn’t seen so much garbage being presented as the “word of the Lord.”

How do you guys live with yourselves, anyway?  Doesn’t this ever keep you up at night, in a cold sweat because of how wrong you’ve been when you were daring to speak in the holy name of the Lord God Almighty?

I’m telling you, it keeps ME awake at night, worrying on your behalf.  May God have mercy.

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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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Having grown up in a pretty conservative, Bible-teaching Evangelical church, one of the values I absorbed was having respect for God’s name.  At the Christian school I attended as a child, it was even frowned upon to use the exclamation of, “Oh my gosh!”  So ingrained in me was this viewpoint that, although I realize that this is a shallow (and, obviously, unreliable) litmus test, if I heard someone say, “Oh God!” in a fashion that was not seriously prayerful, I generally assumed that this person did not share my basic outlook on God’s Word.

So when, several years ago, we made the jump from our more staid Evangelical/Baptist church to an independent Charismatic congregation, one of the tiny little things that bothered me from the get-go was the way our pastor – whom I’ll call “Pastor Smith,” though that is a pseudonym – would often use the expression, “My God!” when he was preaching or ministering.

As far as I could tell, he did not do it in a way that was respectful or prayerful.  Instead, he would inject this exclamation into his sermons or into times of “ministry” (when he was prophesying or praying for people) to give his own words extra emphasis.  The phrase was never addressed to God Himself.

My gut reaction always was that when he’d do this, Pastor Smith was taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Of course, as the years passed, I pretty much forced myself to get used to it.  I told myself that it was cultural.  Certainly, just about every Charismatic/Word of Faith preacher I heard seemed to do the same thing.  During our time at Living Word Church (another pseudonym), we were privy to appearances by folks such as Gary Oliver, Paula White, Jesse DuPlantis, and T.D. Jakes, all of whom frequently interjected “My God!” while preaching, primarily for dramatic effect (I could never see any other reason for it).  When I’d watch other Charismatic luminaries (like Juanita Bynum) on TBN, I’d hear more of the same. 

A part of me – the part that wanted to buy into every last little aspect of my new Word of Faith outlook – figured that I was just being legalistic and stuffy when Pastor Smith’s seemingly irreverent use of “My God!” continued to trouble me.  But I could never fully get over the unsettling jolt that would shoot through my heart when he would do this. 

I’m not someone given to dramatic exaggerations, either – I would literally feel a sickening stab in my gut whenever Pastor Smith would practically interrupt himself to shout, “My God!”  It was even worse when he would use the phrase, “Oh God” in a sort of sarcastic way, like when he was being humorous with his audience and rolling his eyes at them for something or other.  He didn’t do this as often, but whenever he did, I almost couldn’t get past it to hear the rest of his sermon, no matter how hard I tried.

I was thinking about this recently, in part because I stumbled upon a site discussing the much-trumpeted “revival” led by Todd Bentley, which is currently taking place in Lakeland, Florida.  While watching some clips of Mr. Bentley ministering at these meetings, it suddenly occurred to me that here was yet another Charismatic preacher who did the exact same thing – who used God’s name in a way that was more like swearing rather than prayerfully, reverently addressing the Lord.

I don’t really have anything profound to say about this practice, except that I find it interesting that so many of these guys (and gals) openly break one of the Ten Commandments from the pulpit.  Why is this OK?  Why do these folks do this?  Why do the Christians sitting in the pews – many of whom would never themselves use God’s name as an irreverent exclamation – tolerate it?

I’m wondering if perhaps this is one of those obvious signs, something “hidden in plain sight,” that perhaps ought to alert us to when all is not right?  That perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked when these same ministers violate other commandments, dabbling in dishonesty or adultery?

 

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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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