It’s been nearly 20 years now since I left the warm, sunny shores of Florida to attend seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Being an only child, a homebody, and very much a mama’s boy, the reality of being more than a thousand miles away from family to pursue God’s calling was a proposition wrought with almost as much trepidation as faith. One of the things that helped bring a sense of normalcy to my new surroundings was the campus bookstore which, in addition to carrying the thick tomes we needed for our courses, also had a small section of Christian music CD’s (and cassettes—it has been nearly 20 years hasn’t it!). I didn’t buy much, because I couldn’t buy much! (I have oft believed that Jesus prophesied the eternal existence of college students for He said that we would always have the poor among us!) Still, I was able to save enough money to purchase the music of my absolute favorite singers. I remember seeing a new project come out in 1994 by an artist who was particularly beloved by me. He wrote the first song I ever delivered in church as well as many more I’ve done since. He was also beloved by thousands of others, as evidenced by the fact that he sold over 4 million records in the Christian market. I just had to have his new musical offering. “Where I Met Jesus” was a poignant ballad tucked away on this CD between other tunes that would garner heavier radio play and notoriety. It spoke of a Christian woman who had long prayed for her husband to come to a saving knowledge of the Lord and was blessed to finally see him come down to an altar and pray. They served God together faithfully in their church for the remaining years of their marriage which ended by him dying in his sleep in their bedroom. The song was built upon the warm sentiment that she had seen both places where her husband had “met Jesus.”…Fast forward to present day and the artist who composed this song as well as many others that would be more recognizable to the church is divorced. Not only divorced from his wife of 30 years (with whom he had four or five children), but from the Christian faith he once declared he embraced. He now follows what the world would consider “an alternative lifestyle.” The latest song title I heard from him was something along the lines of “You Can’t Tell Me Who To Love!” I have prayed many times for his deliverance and for his family’s comfort and urge you to do the same…I don’t tell this story so that I can pontificate about the gross nature of the sin into which this man has fallen (although all sin is gross, isn’t it?), but rather because the song he authored nearly two decades ago had occasion to come to my mind again recently.
A friend of mine that I worked with at Christ Centered Book and Music for a number of years began pastoring a new church in 2008. They rented out part of a hall on a bi-weekly basis before moving into their new location about 6 months ago. Just so happens that their new facility is the building where I accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. Terry and I had been wanting to visit with my dear friend but they hold services the same times as we do. Last month their choir held a special night of the music of Bill and Gloria Gaither on a Saturday night. Seeing an old friend, hearing Gaither lyrics, a night out with my love and our four year old who enjoys Gaither songs as much as I do; three great reasons to go back to “where I met Jesus.”
We pulled into the parking lot, a driveway that my mom and I first turned into in 1986. Much of what used to be a grassy field where parishioners parked their vehicles had been paved over by the various congregations who had used the facility over the past quarter century. We got out of the car and proceeded toward the main building, passing the handicap spaces on the way in. I remembered that the front handicap spot on the right side of the church used to be faithfully filled by a precious elderly woman with a mentally and physically handicapped son. I’m unsure how old she was, but he was in his forties or fifties at the time. I was just a kid, too young to know or to ask her about her whole life story, but the sight of the two being in church every time the doors were opened and the labor of love of this woman of humble material means was inspiring to me even then. From time to time, the pastor and other leaders of the church would gather around the handicapped son and pray for his healing. One night of prayer for the gentleman stands out to me to this very day. The pastor called for all members of the congregation to come down front and gather round the son’s wheelchair. He then began leading us in what seemed more like a chant than a prayer. We were all told to shout out “gatekeeper, what is your name?!” and several other various formulaic phrases. I was unsure then what response was expected to the questioning, but what I did know was that I felt uncomfortable (which at the time I chalked up to being a mere kid) and that the handicapped man was cringing in fear and torment in a way he had not been prior to the “prayer.” Though I don’t doubt the pastor’s sincerity, the man wasn’t healed that night nor in the remainder of the years that the church was open.
We progressed into the sanctuary and my eyes turned to the beautiful high wooden ceilings I was so familiar with in my youth. We looked for a seat (trying not to take anybody’s spot!). Upon finding a suitable opening, I immediately commented to my wife that the pews were the same as they were 25 years ago. I began reminiscing about people who used to sit in certain places. (It’s funny how vivid the location of where folks sat still stood out in my memory after all this time.) I looked to a pew where those who once led the youth group were a fixture. Unfortunately, they subsequently fell into a cult teaching that Jesus was just a man who himself needed to be born again, a heretical doctrine denying the very essence of the gospel. (Indeed Jesus, though being fully human, is also the sinless, fully divine Son of God who died on the cross to purchase salvation for a sinful humanity who apart from Christ would be utterly hopeless and justly condemned.) My gaze moved toward the platform. It had changed a great deal, having a much more open and contemporary aesthetic than in the days that I used to assist with putting song lyrics on the overhead screen from its upper level. I thought of a lady whose beautiful voice blessed my heart many times who later became more comfortable performing karaoke at the bar than delivering specials in the sanctuary, of two men I used to sing with whose marriages were ravaged by adultery and who subsequently fell out of church, and of another that succumbed to the vicious clutches of alcohol addiction.
I hadn’t expected these sad memories to flood my heart and mind for so much of this night. Finally (and thankfully) my road to melancholy, as often in my life, was interrupted by God’s grace as given through a good Gaither lyric! The choir sang “The Old Rugged Cross Made The Difference.” And you know what, for me it has! I don’t say that with any kind of pride in myself or condescension towards others, for the somber thoughts of those who have not followed the Lord are also sobering thoughts reminding me that I would be going astray myself were it not solely for the grace of God and the power of that cross. The choir then gave their rendition of “The Longer I Serve Him The Sweeter He Grows.” And you know what, for me He has! There’s been a lot more “negative” water under the bridge that I’ve experienced, seen, and heard of since I’ve been a believer than I can possibly relay in this newsletter, but the “positives” far outweigh them. Yes, I’ve heard sermons on healing unbiblically proclaim that the only reasons for sickness are sin and/or lack of faith in a person’s life, I’ve heard prayers that focus more on cursing demons than praising God, I’ve seen people who once seemed committed become like the seed whose life was choked out because of the cares of this world, and the list could go on and on. However, I’ve also heard the gospel of grace clearly proclaimed, I’ve seen people miraculously healed through the power of God, I’ve seen lives changed so dramatically that the only explanation is that Jesus came into a human heart and brought it mercifully from a dead point A to a newness of life point B…and glory to God I’ve been a recipient of all of these blessings and many more that my tongue would never be able to fully tell nor my pen be able to fully write though given all eternity!…At the conclusion of the last great, glorious, Gaither song (I don’t think those words all start with “G” by coincidence!), we walked out of the sanctuary and down to the fellowship hall for some refreshments. I told my wife and our four year old son that this is “where I met Jesus” (for it was there in that fellowship hall at a youth meeting that I asked Christ to forgive my sins and come into my heart)…and joy overwhelmed my soul!