Everyone has one of those stories: the kind of strange, true-life events you tell at a party that people find hard to believe. This is mine.
Though I confess some of the specific details over the years have escaped me, I assure you the story itself is real.
Back in the 90’s I worked as a freelance cameraman for a company that videotaped weddings. One weekend my fellow freelancer David and I set out for what we thought would be a typical day of: capture the bride and groom individually getting ready, front and back camera setup for the ceremony, tape the photography session without getting in the still photographers’ way (or on their nerves because you’re taking away from their business), capture the bride and groom entering the reception, first dance, cutting the cake, interviews with sometimes obnoxiously drunk people congratulating the bride and groom, and get the final moments of people pelting them with rice or bird seed and watching them drive off.
In and out…boom…we’re done. I hate to admit it, but what was often a very special day for some was pretty formulaic for us.
But this day was different.
I first noticed something unusual when we arrived at the church. There was a line-up of multiple stretch limos (around four if memory serves me correct) parked along the curb. That can’t be cheap. Between that and the reception later, there was probably more money put into this wedding day than any I’d ever done before or even since.
And for a church that was located in what would be considered a lower income part of town, the celebrants, who belonged to the church, clearly thought this a special enough day to go all out.
After setting up our tripods in the sanctuary, mine at the front with my co-worker’s at the back, I went off to capture the bride and her gaggle of girls getting ready while David went off to tape and mic the groom. I learned later that David was never able to locate the groom.
And then the ceremony began. As the processional music blared out I panned to the right, expecting to catch the groom as he entered from the front along with the minister. The minister entered, but there was no groom to be seen. Huh, I thought. That’s different. Guess my usual formula is not going to work today.
I panned back to see the gorgeous bridesmaids walk down the aisle, escorted arm in arm by their respective groomsmen, eventually taking their place upon the stage. Could one of these gentleman be the groom?
And then the moment. Everyone rose as the beautiful bride in lavish white entered the scene and proceeded down the aisle. To be honest, to this day I cannot remember if she was officially escorted by her father. All I remember is in the end she was left there standing at the front of the aisle…alone.
The music continued for a while but eventually stopped – the bride left standing by herself, embracing her bouquet, fidgeting her knees to keep from losing balance and desperately trying to maintain her excited smile.
Oh no. Where was the groom? Was he just really late? But why would they even start without him? Had he shown up but then gotten cold feet? Was someone talking to him, trying to convince him? Had he bolted?
I’ve seen this kind of thing in movies and TV, usually in romantic comedies…but in real life? Was he off in the back of a bus somewhere with some other girl, uncertain of his future?
5 minutes passed…and then 10. Not a word was spoken – only the occasional cough as everyone patiently waited.
Do I keep rolling on this disaster?
Finally, the silence broke as people began to chat amongst themselves. After 15 minutes, I noticed David at the back of the sanctuary conversing with the still photographer who was clearly agitated.
Afterward, David quietly strolled up the side aisle toward me and whispered, “How’s your faith?”
He and I are both Christians and during our many previous wedding adventures together we’d had many conversations about our faith. But this one was a new one.
He proceeded to explain to me that apparently the “prophetess” of the church had prophesied that the young lady would marry a rich Arab sheikh on that very day at that very hour. Even, though the bride had never met such a man, they had decided to move forward “in faith” that this unseen groom would receive a similar vision and suddenly show up that day – of course, also bringing with him all his wealth and, thus, the multiple stretch limos, etc.
Anger seethed within me that they would do such a thing to a young, innocent woman. Had they not considered the emotional damage this would do to her?
In the service industry you are always supposed to be outwardly respectful of your client, but I must admit I was extremely tested that day.
15 minutes soon turned into 30…30 into 40.
Meanwhile, others on the stage began to sit down as we waited “in faith.” People used their programs as fans as the sanctuary increasingly got warm. The only one left still standing was the bride, awaiting her groom at the front of the aisle…confused, doing her best to hide her embarrassment, and clearly growing more tired.
I made my way to the back and arranged to have a cup of water brought to her along with a chair. She turned back to me with and expression of “thank you.”
Had no one else in this “loving” congregation thought to take care of her in this way? Was their faith agenda more important to them than her?
Eventually, after close to an hour, they encouraged the attendees to go ahead to the reception while the bridal party and family stayed behind and continued to wait in faith. David and I decided to split; I would go ahead to the reception with a camera while he remained at the church.
The still photographer, concerned that this whole thing was a sham, insisted that she get paid then and there. The prophetess then proceeded to pay her as well as the limo drivers and us. Though everyone got paid what was due, this was something else I’d not seen before – where one of the clerics was the chief money handler for such an event. With so much money involved, suddenly everything seemed to make a lot more sense.
As I was packing up to go, one of the groomsmen came up to me. “Seems kind of crazy, huh? You ever seen anything like this before?” he inquired with a smile.
“No,” I replied warily, trying to repress both my anger and my cynicism. Realizing he didn’t know I was a Christian, I could see the Jesus witnessing thing coming from a mile away.
“So do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.
Now for as long as I’ve been a Christian, I confess I’m actually terrible about remembering specific Bible chapter references. But I just happened to read a particular passage the day before and I could hold it in no more. My anger burned and this whole respect the client thing had to go.
“Yes,” I responded. “I believe in Jesus. But I also believe there’s something called a ‘false prophet.’ In Deuteronomy chapter 18 it talks about those who give prophesies that don’t come true. You’ve got yourself a false prophet. And God has a few things to say about what you do with those.”
“So how long do you have to wait before you know it’s not going to happen? A day? A month?” he replied smugly.
I turned back to him and gave him as stern of a look as I could (you know, the kind Yoda gave Luke when he said “You will be…you will be”) and said, “You know…you know.”
He just stared back as I then snatched up my camera and tripod and exited the scene (after all, since I was practically in a movie scene at that point I might as well make it as dramatic as possible, right?).
The reception fit right along with the multiple stretch limos, with lavish table settings and all. At each table I looked down to see there were printed napkins – with the name of the bride and a made up Arabic sounding name for the groom who didn’t exist.
I found out afterwards from David that while I was at the reception, the minister and the prophetess at the church proclaimed the reason the groom wasn’t there was because someone in the sanctuary obviously did not have enough faith. They shouted down the devil and the unknown person(s) for creating such a lack of faith.
Eventually, they gave up their quest and ended the service, announcing that this was just a practice run and they would do the real one later. They actually tried to hire the videography company I worked for again. Fortunately, the owner, after learning what happened, had the integrity to say no.
So why do I tell this story?
To be honest, as strange and fun as it is to tell at a party, I’ve often held back because I consider it a bit of an embarrassment to the Christian faith; and though it’s an extreme example that is definitely not in the norm, I get concerned that it only adds fuel to the fire of those critical of its beliefs.
At the same time, it effectively illustrates the destructiveness of what can happen when deception is used “in the name of Christ.” And, unfortunately, such deception happens too often.
I saw a video a couple days ago about a couple rock-stars-turned-Christians heading out into the concert hall atrium and praying for their fans. At first I thought, “How cool!” until I then saw a certain evangelist with them start to pray for a young gentleman’s back pain. He resorted to an old deceptive (and often disproved) trick where he convinces the gentleman that one leg is shorter than the other and then proceeds to instantly “heal” him.
I kept thinking, “If you’re faith is so real and you believe God can heal (which I believe he can) then why resort to circus tricks?” And what happens when the gentleman gets home and after the excitement starts experiencing back pain again?
Apparently, the evangelist’s desire to see people instantly “saved” caused him to not mind quite literally stretching the truth. I’ve met and talked to one of the two rock stars a couple times to know that his faith is definitely sincere and real, but I’ll tell it straight…the evangelist with them that day in the video is a fake.
Several years ago a politically active Facebook friend who advocates for Christian values posted an article stating, “AP Reports Obama’s Birth Certificate is False.” After investigating further, I commented “FYI, I did not vote for Obama, but the story that the AP is reporting that has been proven false” and then included an appropriate link. His response was something like, “Yes, I am aware of that, but that does not take away from the fact that Obama is ruining our country.”
I asked him if he knew it wasn’t true, then why post it all? Shouldn’t we as Christians who proclaim to follow Jesus, who in turn proclaims to be truth itself (John 14:6), make sure we are always telling the truth?
Shouldn’t we as “followers of the truth” actually even go the extra measure? Or does our political or faith agenda sometimes cause us to deny the very thing we proclaim?
The author of the blog site “Life After Doubt” is a former Christian-turned-atheist. In a recent post she wrote:
“One of the things that really shook my faith as a believer was discovering how often Christians lie to promote spiritual warfare. It’s a common practice in politics, but it seemed to me that god should not require the help of misinformation to preserve his message of truth.”
She went on in the article to discuss the movie God’s Not Dead 2, along with actual court cases involving issues of separation of church, and criticized Christians’ tendency to misrepresent what is really going on in these cases in order to further their agenda and make an enemy out of atheists.
She makes some very valid points. While I would counter that I have seen just as much misrepresentation from the secular or atheist point of view (“Life After Doubt” is fairly balanced but I have read other atheist blogs that equally exaggerate or omit info regarding court cases, etc. to push an agenda, with most likely the truth falling somewhere in between) shouldn’t Christians who promote, as she states, a “message of truth” be better than that?
Honestly speaking, over the years I’ve witnessed just enough lies and misrepresentation from those claiming to be Christian that it would be easy for me to become cynical and walk away if I did not know Christ personally myself. He and I have been through so much together and he’s become too much of a friend for me to just leave. And while there is still so much more for me to learn about him, I at least know enough now to be able to look at situations like above and say, “That ain’t him.”
But misrepresentation can also be subtler than that. Often times in our attempt to make Christ more attractive, or in an attempt to prove a point, through our testimonies, our programs, our outreaches, our debates, and our social media posts and shares we present a different Jesus than the one who actually is.
Jesus talked about “false Christs” (Matt 24:23-25) and Paul warned about those who preach “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:3-4). While they were primarily referring to those who were maliciously trying to mislead, how much do even those with “good-will” intentions end up presenting a distorted Jesus in order to promote their individual goals?
Throughout the years I’ve heard preached many different forms of Jesus: comfortable Jesus, healthy Jesus, get rich Jesus, poverty Jesus, Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, constitution Jesus, progressive Jesus, American Jesus, legal Jesus, tolerant Jesus, angry-judgmental Jesus, free-love Jesus, safe-for-the-whole-family Jesus, blonde-haired-blue-eyed Jesus, black-afro Jesus, everything-is-happy-and-rosy-from-this-point-on Jesus, no-pain Jesus, you-deserve-pain Jesus, you-shouldn’t-get-depressed Jesus, if-you-struggle-with-same-sex-attraction-you-obviously-don’t-know-me Jesus, no divorce Jesus, don’t-judge-me-I-can-do-what-I-want Jesus, misogyny Jesus, women-power Jesus, ritual Jesus, casual Jesus, and the list could go on.
And honestly speaking, I’m sure over the years I’ve been guilty of at least some of these myself.
And yet Jesus’s very character was to refuse to become what everyone wanted him to be. He continually demonstrated it by breaking everyone’s preconceived notions, by not falling into anyone’s traps, and refusing to bow down to anybody’s agenda. And for that we killed him.
Jesus often referred to the church as his bride and himself as the groom. Thus, when we present a fake or distorted Jesus we become as guilty as the prophetess for leading people instead to look for a non-existent groom.
Because of such untruthful actions and teachings, is the bride missing its real groom?
The book of Revelation talks about Jesus the Lamb uniting with his bride.
But does the church even know anymore how to recognize the groom?
If we want to know the real Jesus and we want others to as well, we need to first stop trying to mold him into own agendas, quit listening to what the rest of the world says he is, and take a good honest look at the things he really said and did. He stands on his own for who he is.
Some of the things he said are even hard. In Rethinking God I focus on the significance of what it means when God referred to himself as “I Am.” Jesus also identified himself as the “I Am” (John 8:58). And when we look honestly at that we must reconcile the fact that it means he himself was there to order the flooding of the earth, the plagues upon the Egyptians, and the various other punishments upon whole civilizations. But we also must balance that against the fact it means that God the “I Am” was there forgiving the woman caught in adultery, touching the leper, on his knees washing the disciples’ feet, and willingly being crucified upon a cross. Thus, Jesus and God are often more complex in their “moral” decisions than we want them to be.
Revelation 19:7-8 states:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints
Are we really a bride prepared for her groom? When we participate in falsities, instead of reflecting our groom who is truth itself, are we really clothed in righteous deeds?
And is the relationship with the groom truly real? This goes not just for the church in general but for each of us individually. Are we actually spending one on one time with Jesus? Is he real to you and not just some invisible middle eastern person that somebody told you to expect?
Is it any wonder that so many people are leaving or rejecting the church today when we keep pointing toward false Christ’s through our teachings and our actions, and for many of us the relationship’s barely even real?
You can point to and tell people to expect a made up Jesus all you want, but I guarantee you the fake one will never ever show up.
It’s easy for people to get disillusioned by a “Christ” who is not there and a church that is not good.
But when you point to and trust in the real one, the groom that’s often been missing…ah…now that’s something different.
That’s when you have a real celebration and people begin to discover that that he is far more amazing, far more loving, far more frightening, far more gracious, far more challenging, and far more of an adventure than you could ever have imagined.
True story. I promise.