Writing a book is like pushing a single boxcar in the middle of the desert. It’s lonely. It’s an insane amount of work. And most of the time you don’t know if you are actually accomplishing anything. You go days and days lost in your own mind and wonder if you’ll ever get out. Voices from the past, relatives, old friends, the barking of dogs long since departed, all echo and threaten to take over your pen. You struggle and strain to listen through the noise just to pull one memory from the whispers. Sometimes those voices comply and are easily brought to focus, like a bright yellow flower in a mountain meadow, but most of the times the voices fade into the echoes of your subconscious and you stare hopelessly at the page as you again succumb to the numbing sound of your own memory.
Sometimes you’ll push the train far down a track. For days and days you’ll push it and when you arrive at the end of that track, you’ll know for certain that this is not the place that you wanted to go. So, you’ll walk to the other side of the train and fight and groan and push it back to the place you started at the week before. Your own drops of sweat will guide you. Somehow, you always know where the splintered old boxcar doesn’t belong, but you can’t quite explain to anyone, especially yourself, where the box car needs to go. But on you push.
Here is a rejected chapter of the book that I’ve been working on. Rejected or not, I hope that you enjoy it!
Excerpt from Flirting With Hell:
“You know,” my wife said, when we were safely in the parking lot, “I think that Sunday might be the saddest day of the week for God,” her voice was flat and full of sadness.
We had just walked out of a giant Church building into the blinding Texas sun. It was an unseasonably hot day in October, though to be fair, it was our first October in Texas. After a particularly hot summer, we were ready for a break from the onslaught of the melting sun, but that wasn’t on the menu. They say, that “everything is bigger in Texas,” maybe that even includes the sun.
My short wife smartly chose her lightweight peach colored blouse and her “nice” pair of blue jeans. She looked much cooler than I did in my black t-shirt shirt and jeans. Our Sunday’s best had become the same as our every day’s best: care-free and sans make-up. No, we didn’t always treat Sunday gatherings with such a cavalier attitude, there was a time when we woke up early so that we could look presentable before going into the house of God, but lately, the work that God was doing in our hearts was challenging us to purify our insides more than our exteriors.
It was our second week of church-hopping and we were fast approaching a stalemate. Sure, there were lots of church buildings to attend, but there wasn’t much Jesus to be found.
We were learning that most of the churches that we went to took a teaspoon of the teachings of Christ, the gospel, and the rest of scripture, mixed them together and then extracted a single drop of that precious life into an eye dropper. They would then drop that single drop into an empty five-gallon bucket. In my mind, the drop is always red. Then, the service crafters would fill the rest of the bucket with clever anecdotes, psychology studies, loud music, flashy slide presentations, beautiful choirs, vocal solos, guitar solos, piano solos, drum solos, flute solos, trumpet solos, even accordion solos, until the entire bucket overflowed. Once they had their Jesus water, they would wait until everyone was gathered for a Sunday service and then they’d splash their concoction all over the waiting congregation.
All I wanted was a single drop of pure Jesus.
We had been praying that God would give us a community of believers where we could serve and invest in the body of Christ. This was a really big deal. I had grown up attending church buildings Sunday after Sunday but I never encountered Jesus. If we were going to attend a building, we wouldn’t settle for anything that merely entertained us and led us far from the person and teachings of our precious Jesus. After praying, we hit up the second best source of all wisdom and knowledge in the known universe: the Google.
My wife, who has a pension, knack, and passion for all things research, went to work. After a few hours, she had compiled a list of four or five churches whose mission statements were theologically sound-ish and contained some variation on “take care of the poor and needy in their distress.” One church, in particular, looked like it had a heart after Christ and a passion for the lost. After reading their mission statement, we looked at the many posted pictures of the congregation helping the poor and serving the needy. Could this be it? After thousands of miles of traveling and hours of prayer, was this it?
Twenty minutes before my wife made her sad statement about God’s heart being broken every Sunday, we drove into a parking lot. The online pictures didn’t tell the whole story. We were greeted by a multi-building complex. A large brick building had a line of cars in front of it. It reminded me of a drive through, except no burgers were being slung or hot coffee passed through windows; there were only kids jumping out of nice cars and sprinting towards the sanctuary doors.
“This looks…” I said, as I pulled our 4Runner into a spot flanked by two cars that were almost 20 years its’ junior, “It looks….”
“Big,” my wife said, as she placed her hand on my knee in a “what did we get ourselves into” gesture of solidarity. We both craned our necks and tried to take in the size of the tan stucco building that stretched before us.
“Big,” I repeated, and I put my hand on hers and rubbed my thumb over the back of her wrist.
Here we go.
Going to a new church is one of the more unnerving things you can do as a member of the human race. Going to a new church when Christ is your only true passion in life has the potential to make the whole experience even more unsettling.
We fished our Bibles from the cluttered back seat and headed across the parking lot. It would be a walk. Before we got to the door we heard the loud pounding of a bass drum and a man exhorting people to repeat what he was yelling. At the door, we were greeted by a man in a handsome suit and a woman in a fine dress who smiled at us and welcomed us.
“So glad to see you, brother!” the big man in a suit said. He shook my hand heartily and then extended his hand towards two wooden doors that were across the foyer. We made our way across the carpeted lobby and stood at the auditorium doors for a moment. Gulp. The door was trembling with the vibration of what I could only assume were two giant columns of speakers splashing music on the congregation.
Behind the wooden doors, a massive stage rose above a swaying congregation. All of the lights in the room were pointed at or coming from the stage so my wife and I couldn’t see any of the people except for their moving hands that were silhouetted against the lights above the stage or the two giant screens on either side of it. The worship team was up to the challenge of filling the stage, they were numerous and excited: I stopped counting after 28 people.
A nice man walked up to us and said something that I couldn’t quite make out. I held out two fingers to him and he got the drift. He led us to two empty seats right in middle of the auditorium. We were in the third row from the front. From this distance I could see the individual strings in the three guitars, I could see the sweat glistening off of the head of the worship leader. He was a heavy-set man with a red handkerchief in one hand and a microphone in the other.
“Say, Jesus!” the man yelled into his microphone.
“JESUS!” everyone yelled. Some cheered.
“Let me hear you say, ‘Hallelujah!’” he yelled, his hands moving from side to side as he danced across the stage.
Some people whistled and others raised hands or fists.
A sinking feeling hit me in the pit of my stomach. I knew this spirit and it wasn’t the Spirit of the Living God.
I prayed hard through the next three songs that by his power the Holy Spirit would cut the power to the building and expose entertainment for what it really was. I was hoping to find worship that extolled the name of God and made much of him. I was longing for hearts desperate for him who penned their longings, weaknesses, and overwhelming thanksgiving to song.
Hold thou my hand, weak as I am and wanting
I dare not take one step without thy aid….
“Praise the LORD, you angels,
You mighty ones who carry out his plans,
Listening for each of his commands….” -Ps. 103:20
Word of God, across the ages comes thy message to our life;
Source of hope forever present in our toil and fears and strife;
Constant witness to God’s mercy, still our grace whatever befall,
Guide unfailing, strength eternal, offered freely to us all.
-Word of God, Across the Ages
What was splashed across us was something a little less desperate for Jesus and a little more hungry for the stirring of the congregation’s emotions.
I looked down at my wife. She had her eyes closed and I could see her lips moving furiously. She was praying. I took her lead. We prayed until the end of the last song.
When the clapping and yelling died down, a graying man in a tasteful gray silk suit walked on the stage with his wife in hand. I was still hopeful. At least this guy didn’t have a neon pink “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt on. Rather, he was old enough to be wearing a full crown of splendor (gray hair), on his head (Prov. 16:31) and he was with his wife. She looked a little older than he was and you couldn’t miss the sparkles that were coming from her large wedding ring.
“Amen,” he said in a friendly rolling southern voice, “We’re gonna go now into a time of worshiping God with our tithes and giving,” he said, “Now, we are a people blessed by God, amen?”
“Amen!” everyone said. Clapping started spontaneously in a few sections of the auditorium.
“Now, how many of ya’ll wanna be blessed, amen?”
“Preach it!” a lady to my right said, and she outstretched her hand.
“Preach what?” I said, under my breath. I was feeling claustrophobic. There was a weird spirit over the auditorium that was picking up right where the spirit of entertainment had left off.
“Now the Bible says,” the man said, picking up a handsome black bible from the podium and raising it over his head, “that we are to test God in this.”
More amens came from all over the auditorium.
“I’m not making this up, now. It says right there in Malachi 3:10 that we are to test God in this. Test God in what? Well, it says right there,” he pointed to one of the big screens that proudly displayed the text:
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so that there will be food enough in my Temple; if you do, I will open up the windows of heaven for you and pour out a blessing so great you won’t have room enough to take it in! ‘Try it! Let me prove it to you!’
“You see, it says that God WILL open heaven’s windows and he WILL pour out a blessing on you,” he put his thick Bible down on the podium and opened it, “Does it say a ‘small’ blessing?” he pulled the microphone down to his side and waited for the right response.
“NO!” everyone said.
“No, it doesn’t. Listen, I want to tell you that according to the Holy Word of God, the inspired Word of God, he will pour out a blessing on you. Brothers and sisters, listen. I don’t want you to miss this, this blessing won’t be a small blessing,” he paused again, looking around the auditorium intently.
“Oh, praise you Jesus!” a lady who was gripping a tissue said, tears were streaming down her face.
“This blessing, look what it says,” he peered into his opened Bible, “‘a blessing SO GREAT,’ I wanna stop you right there. You know that Bible says that no eye has seen and no ear has heard what God has in store for those of us who love him. Can I get an amen?”
He got his “amen.”
“How many of you wanna’ need to buy a new house to keep all your blessings in?”
Cheers and “amens” sounded from across the auditorium.
“How many of you want your neighbors wonderin’ how you got so blessed?”
“Well, look again,” he pointed to his Bible again, “first, we’ve got to bring in the tithes to the house of God,” he paused, “This is the house of God, amen? Brothers and sisters if you want to have blessings this morning, you have to believe it. I sense that there are some here who don’t believe that God wants to bless them this morning. The Bible says that his love never fails,” he shrugged his shoulders, “What are you waiting for? More promises? A greater promise than him whose love never fails?”
I turned to my wife who looked about as comfortable as a cat in a car, “Let’s go,” I whispered in her ear.
We awkwardly got up and whispered our obligatory “excuse mes” to the people we walked past. We steadily walked down the main aisle, half-expecting the pastor to shout after us, “Now see here are two people who don’t want to be blessed!” Thankfully, he didn’t, he said, “Hold up your tithe envelopes if you believe this. God, we declare in faith that as we give this to you that you will bless us with….”
We closed the auditorium doors behind us. My wife grabbed my hand as we walked past the large man who had greeted us 20 minutes before.
“You know,” my wife said, when we were safely in the parking lot, “I think that Sunday might be the saddest day of the week for God,” her voice was flat and full of sadness.
I turned to her, marveling at her wisdom. “You know,” I said, looking into her beautiful brown eyes and shaking my head, “I think you’re right.”
When we got to the car we both sat in silence for a moment. I shook my head slowly, “Well, what should we do? I saw a Baptist church up the street, do you want to try that?”
My wife didn’t move. I could see her small figure in the corner of my eye. I knew she was still recovering from what we had just experienced.
“If you want to,” she said, at length. She placed her hand on my knee again and I took it as her saying “I’m with you. I’m emotionally drained, but I’m with you.”
I turned to her and nodded, “Let’s do this! We can’t give up yet! Maybe Platt is guest speaking at this church.”
“Or, Washer!” she said, smiling.
“Or, Jesus!” we should have said.
“We wish,” I laughed.
I backed the 4Runner out of the spot and while I did, I noticed a few minivans pulling into a church across the street. Yes, across the street. The little white building wasn’t on our list, but it was significantly smaller than the one we had just left and it did say “Baptist” on it, so, we were hopeful that Jesus wouldn’t be mistaken for Santa Claus in that church. In the true American spirit of “Why walk, when you can drive?” we started the car and drove across the street.
This Baptist church was much older than the behemoth that rested on the adjacent lot. The brick walls had faded and were more burnt red than fire engine red. A white steeple rose from the center of the building lest one would accidentally mistake it for a big house. Actually, it wasn’t just the building that was older than the first church, when we had parked and walked in the doors, we noticed that everyone who attended the church was much older as well.
A sweet old lady in a tasteful red dress greeted us. Her shaking bony hands separated two cardstock bulletins with some difficulty. I knew that the bulletins were cardstock because my wife squeezed my hand and whispered, “Cardstock!” to me as we found our seats.
The sanctuary was shaped like an octagon, with the choir at the far end and the band arranged on the carpeted stage in front of them. It didn’t have fully elevated stadium seating, the building was too old for that modern trend, but the seats did wrap around half of the stage. One might have easily called it a baby stadium. The stage was much smaller and only 14 people including the choir were waiting to lead worship. We had pews this time, with velvet felt covered cushions: old school. I half expected to see Johnathan Edwards with his white wig and matching collar step up to the podium, save for perhaps the incongruity of the waiting worship team. Still, though, maybe here we would find a congregation desperate for that same single drop of Jesus.
Instead, we got a welcome video complete with a driving bass beat and a young stylish looking 20 something-year-old telling us that she was so glad that we were here. The screen was about half the size of the ones in the church across the road, but I couldn’t help but feeling like everyone was reading from the same church growing playbook.
I looked at my wife, trying to figure out why 40 people in a tiny church needed a video of announcements and not just someone looking them in the eye and smiling.
My wife pulled my arm so I would lower my head, “She’s clasping her hands in front of her!” she whispered. From her time before we were married, she had been heavily involved at a mega church. She had picked up lots of little tips and tricks that got people to come to church. One time, before she had to give an announcement during the youth service, she was instructed to clasp her hands in front of her while she talked. This was because, according to some scientific study from the university of “It Must Be True,” people who talk with their hands too much are distracting.
As the nice lady on the announcement video finished thanking us all for coming, I started writing a sarcastic church growing pamphlet in my head:
How to Get People to Come to Your Church
You’ve got to have a giant projection screen. People like screens. They have televisions at home and little screens in their pockets. If you don’t have a screen how can you possibly captivate any audience? Do you really think that depending on the Holy Spirit is a viable option in this day and age? This is the 21st century and you can’t expect anyone to want to go to a place without a comforting screen. Have more of a budget? Nothing wows like a full UHD display like they have at football stadiums.
Remember that your welcome video must not show or contain anyone who looks hungry, disheveled, poor, or dirty. It doesn’t matter that Jesus fit all of those descriptions or that by conditioning your congregation to listen to only fit, young, well-dressed people that you are conditioning them to be unable to recognize Jesus. Your main goal is to put meat in the seats and you can worry about truth later (see section 2 about presenting the good parts of the gospel). Etc.
Okay, it hardly seems fair to post something half done. It feels like I just gave you a doughy, half-baked bread roll or something, but there it is. My amazing wife and I, are working on getting this thing published. Apparently, that’s what you do when you finish writing something. Who knew?
If you’d like to help fund our publishing efforts, there is a link here: https://www.gofundme.com/flirtingwithhell
We would be honored to have your support!
I know that the world is dark, dear reader, and that it’s been one of those months for a lot of people, but I hope that you, will continue to lean on Christ! Please don’t listen to the worry-wagon that the world has happily jumped aboard. Remember that the peace of Christ is given to us, and it’s not peace like the world gives!
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid.” John 14:26&27
Remember, King Jesus!
Until next time, lose your life!