strange fires


Miracles Today? A Benny Hinn Layover In Cleveland, Tennessee Remembered


Photos and Impressions Of The Curious Incident By Rev. Rafael D. Martinez

In 2007, well known Church of God preacher and former church overseer T.L. Lowery (or TLL as he'll be referred to here) had a special service organized and held at the North Cleveland Church of God, his former pastorate, for the purpose of publicizing the new ministry initiative he is now engaged in fulfilling. As one of the most dynamic Pentecostal preachers of the twentieth century, T.L. is a living legend in Pentecostal circles and his passion for the Gospel of Christ remains undiminished after a lifetime of pioneering evangelistic, pastoral and missions ministry. He is therefore not a stranger to many of the chief luminaries of the Pentecostal as well as Charismatic stellar firmaments. So it came as no real surprise when I discovered that the special speaker at this occasion would be none other than "Pastor" Benny Hinn (BH) himself, the well known charismatic "healing evangelist," controversial expositor of the prosperity gospel, and televangelist extraordinaire. Cleveland has hosted many meetings with these exalted figures, so Hinn's trip to Cleveland wasn't unprecedented. I marked my calendar and took along our digital camera. 

This remembrance of Hinn's trip to Cleveland is based upon the impressions as I penned them the next day in an online bulletin board: let's go back in time a bit ...

I drove by the church on the way home from work, as I live only about four blocks from it and intended to walk to the service that evening. By 4:45 p.m., the main parking lot at the North Cleveland Church of God (NCCOG) was being reserved for some reason and there was already a line of people waiting to enter. Police were everywhere. I'm fairly sure it's possible Benny's security team was hiding in the prayer tower .. but not entirely. A young girl was on her knees next to someone in a wheelchair, arms uplifted and face in agony of prayer in line. People in suits and shorts awaited in line. A carload of people from Monroe County packing Bibles and bottled water were chain smoking furiously as they asked me if the doors had opened up. A number of wheelchairs in the line, as well as others, were there ... along with what I am sure was unshakable hope and faith.

I got to the church around 5:30. I didn't want to fight traffic and the walk to church was great exercise. The giant line that had stretched all the way around the church had pretty much disappeared by then. The traffic was starting to pour in. 

Security was tight. Everywhere you turned, there were uniformed guards and not a few Bradley County sheriffs packing 9mm's. The sanctuary was about 3/4 full when I arrived, with the upper galleries still with openings. A friend met with me and got me a seat to the left of the sanctuary not too far from where the camera boom was. The seat was inexplicably not with him, but in front of him, with some visitors from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Chattanooga. Cool by me, I thought, and introduced myself to these African American brethren. The young black man who ended up next to me kept getting up and walking out and just kept saying "man, where is he .. man where is he." I think he was a new believer, and had the same kind of impatient longing to "see the stuff" as John Wimber once would say about wanting to see miracles and healings in his decidedly cessationist church after his salvation. Fascinating.

They showed a LOT of video about TLL and his foundation during the time between I got there and the service started. It was used to underscore what the evening was supposed to be about, I guess.

Everyone was handed a dossier of documents when they came in explaining what it was about, including pledge envelopes and a full color booklet detailing his vision: the foundation is evidently being set forth as a ministry development center set up to help train and mentor "the next generation of Kingdom leaders." It includes a 850 seat auditorium that will be used for TLL "and Kingdom Generals" to "pass the torch of Pentecost to sons and daughters." The mentoring models of Elisha and Elijah and Paul and Timothy were set forth.

The mission statement reads that "the foundation will sponsor activities promoting the theology of ministry of its namesake," emphasizing that TLL feels that he has a divine calling to perpetuate Christian ministry through a "strong emphasis on the prophetic and apostolic ministry" that will articulate his practice of impartation. Evidently, as if anyone didn't know, TLL's vision and drive is undiminished and he is forging ahead to press ahead with it. The videos showed TLL's life and ministry and where he hopes to go. Very interesting stuff. Obviously the mission of the evening was fund raising.

The meeting opened with 20 minutes of introductions and recognition of almost everyone involved on the many boards of TLL's foundation. My head was already spinning a little after trying to follow them all and I wondered if they'd show that on Daystar Network! Then the need of an elderly sister who had no way home after the meeting was made known and it was requested that anyone who could offer her a ride home to Atlanta could somehow get in touch with them. I sat there and wondered how on earth she got there to begin with, but also was aware these kinds of things take place everywhere such Christian luminaries drop in at. The card with her name was upheld, and for some reason, no one knew what to do with it. They finally put it on the Leslie B3 cabinet behind the pulpit, which you can see in the picture below.

The worship was great, moving and in the traditional spirit of an old time Pentecostal meeting. A mass Westmore Church of God/NCCOG choir helped lead it in wonderful campmeeting style, and I was more deeply blessed during the worship than at any other time that evening. The Pentecostal in me soared on the ministry of song offered that night and for a time, I know I'd sat in and worshipped in a heavenly place. Some great songs were sung which really edified and uplifted me profoundly. Sadly, however, it was all confined within the blocks of time they seemed to allow for it (typical church programming) ... it was, as usual, curtailed to make more time for more video on TL's foundation.

Reverend Lowery came up and spoke and shared his heart and vision, which enlarged upon the video's overall theme. He wanted to provide at his ministry center a venue where young ministers could be trained, and where special speakers and teachers could come in and provide what he thought was relevant, cutting edge teaching to "impart" unto them a level of spiritual formation and discipling that would be patterned after Biblical models of Spirit filled ministry. Frankly, this was the first time I'd ever heard him speak personally, let alone hear about what he hoped would eventually be his legacy. And I don't know enough about TL's theology of ministry to really say much more about it, but I want to believe that a man that has faithfully served the Church of God movement as he has knows what he speaks of personally and that this commends a look into it. But that's really all I can say about it. 

I think TL's heart is in the right place, although I really don't know much more about what he plans to do once he builds his ministry center on Paul Huff Parkway here in town. I will say that the art illustrations depicting what it will look like unnervingly showed it to be not unlike the front of TBN's Santa Ana campus. What was that they say about how we are products of our times?

Then, around 8 pm, Benny Hinn (BH) arrived and you could feel the shift of the atmosphere as people recognized it and the armed guards in the sanctuary, which was already filled to capacity (along with overflow rooms I understand) very quietly doubled on stage. Hinn was introduced by TLL warmly, and the confluence of the "two streams" of Pentecostal and Charismatic ministry was witnessed. Thankfully, Hinn had no thundering rendition of "How Great Thou Art" going as he stepped onto the platform and Steve Brock stood in the background. BH began to speak and while he rambled a bit, overall I felt he made some great observations in his speech, which I just wouldn't characterize as preaching. He spoke on the present day Mideast turmoil with some commentary on his view of what's at the core of the trouble, which was (he felt) the desire of Muslims to save and preserve their honor. He then made some pointed observations on how compromise is spreading in the church in the last days (that the preaching of "The Cross" is missing) and how there are 3 classes of people in the world, the remnant Body of Christ, the carnal church and the godless. His points were doubtlessly not lost upon his audience, whose restorationist leanings certainly accepted his worldview as self evident truth.

Hinn seemed to go out of his way raising the issue of preachers who speak from pulpits and seem non-committal to spiritual absolutes. I was rather surprised at how thoroughly he was disdaining topical preaching organized around principle-based teaching ("10 Steps To Get X" and "5 Steps For"). Frankly, for a moment, I wondered if he had Joel Osteen in mind, for he even cited JO's favorite mantra of neutrality as a sign of a minister who's compromised ("I don't know"). I wonder how JO might have felt sitting in his den watching it on TV or his computer might have felt. He said some really on target and challenging things about self-denial in Christian life and how the church is so lacking in that, weaving these observations into a long discussion on the presence of God in relationship to personal piety, in which he mentioned he wanted to tell us "How To Get Healed," (but seemingly in contradiction to what he'd just said about such teaching). He made many good observations about being transparent, authentic believers exhibiting God's Spirit. You could hear me amening him.

Then BH also sternly told us how God's Spirit is quenched in meetings where there is no absolute obedience to His direction and promptings, often leading people to miss their healings, especially when there is too much grandstanding and milling about by people who aren't paying close enough attention and showing enough respect for the them. My ears pricked up. And the church congregation went absolutely silent as he went on about this point.  I was stricken at how telling a tangent into Hinn's mindset we were witness to. He taught that the key to achieving spiritual breakthroughs like healings was directly dependent upon a total environmental control in the meeting, that the cultivated atmosphere of spiritual expectancy could be too easily shattered by careless people not paying attention to those leading these meetings. This, Hinn avowed, was essential for the healing power of God to move. His strange speech seemed to be an eerie echo of the public posturing once taken by his late mentor evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman when famously pointing to her self-denial for the sake of her feats of healing ministry prowess ("I died!"). 

You could read between the lines that BH felt that in such a presence of God, all sickness and tribulation of God's people must flee, but that the hand of man, however, could cut Him off. This is, I feel, an erroneous assumption borne of a flawed and mystical spirituality that bought into by far too many Christians both and outside the Charismatic and Pentecostal worlds and makes the execution of His sovereign might, mercy and will of Almighty God dependent upon incidental human transactions. Shaking my head sadly as this became clear, I didn't buy it for a minute and wondered at how small Hinn's view of God actually was. Such a view is why the cottage industry of the "anointed" has developed, a culture of people supposedly able to follow this dynamic and with the right praise choruses and attention to their promptings, the desperate hopes of people in search of miracles can be appealed to and, yes, manipulated. 

Assuming the best of this viewpoint, frankly, it should be observed that God is far bigger and His sovereign power far greater than these occurrences that might seem so distracting to Hinn's sensitive psyche. Any preacher ministering with a howling baby in the congregation knows this all too well. The fact that Hinn went in that direction, in light of what he said about "how to" preaching, was rather surreal - yet not unexpected. I've heard this line for years and seen the church suffer for it. His view was and is hardly unique, even if the whole church seemed to act as if this was cutting edge revelation knowledge.  

Without any other flourish, he finally read his text in Matthew 24 about end times, admonished many to not let their love wax cold and segued into his distinctive worship leading in which he mobilizes praise and worship teams. You could see people stirring then - he'd touched on what obviously was a key fixture of Hinn's ministry and what they were there for, TL's fund raising not withstanding. The "presence of God" was supposed now to start moving and BH began to lead the congregation in acapella worship time that was ineffable and hushed. Once again, in a far more tangible and deeper way you could sense the whole atmosphere change. Expectancy that you could already feel was arising in an even greater degree. The black brother sitting next to me, who fitfully sat throughout, could feel it also -- he was about to see "the stuff" and he was gazing raptly up at Hinn.  

I began to pray, knowing what was coming. I knew there was much great need there and despite any misgivings or disagreements I might have with BH, I wanted to see people get ministered to. I wanted the hurting, the weak, the struggling, the wheelchair bound to be healed and I knew God was merciful and able to do anything. So I prayed for "the stuff" to happen, as Hinn's long time partner Steve Brock was deployed to the front. The guards became even more watchful. They knew what "stuff" was coming. With the classic marks of a BH crusade in place, he then began to call out healings, all the while leading people in whispered, ineffable worship as he did so. He called for those who felt healed by God to come forward and many did. A brother in a wildly colored flower shirt drove 6 hours from Alabama and felt God heal him enough to where his body brace could be thrown aside. A weeping lady claimed to have had fibromyalgia, saying that she couldn't stand at all without a walker or help, but there she was standing and declaring she's been healed. I had been fervently praying that all of these things were so and that these were real healings. 

I am ready to believe they are. I mean that. What critic or skeptic would want anyone to suffer? Who could be that unspeakably calloused? I truly hope they remain in wholeness even as you read this. I trust Christ healed them and if He has, it's been in spite of Hinn, not because of him. I did pray as BH did his thing up there and prayed very fervently that people would be healed. Who could do otherwise? I am a Christian and a minister and as a ministering elder in my home church who routinely assists at altar calls all my Christian life in believing with God's people in prayer with them, it was no problem for me to pray in the Spirit that God do mightily there. It's at this juncture that I will stand in agreement with Hinn, but at this point such agreement ended. 

Why? It's primarily because the species of "hope" fostered by people like Hinn and his healing evangelist tribe is hideously flawed, never questioned and constantly reinforced. In the Word of Faith theology he espouses, Hinn's positions on healing are painfully black and white. In his view, this is the "day of miracles" in which great healings are to take place everywhere, in which the Holy Ghost of Acts is supposed to still be the same. And when he relates to his crusade audiences who hang on every word he says, his admonitions are quite pointed: in the "moving" of God's "presence," during the midst of softly sung a capella numbers or pumped up synclavier music held to one or two harmonious chords repeated over and over, Hinn always reiterates that God's mighty right hand of power is moving and encourages all to reach out to take hold of it.

In light of the peculiar view of a God whose hand is stayed by someone moving in an aisle, it would makes sense why multitudes of suffering people come to these meetings only to go home again still suffering.  The question then again pointedly has to be asked (as it is by both irreverent atheists in public and reverent believers in private): in such an atmosphere, why wouldn't a good, all merciful God just sovereignly move and deliver them from a life of pain, privation and physical bondage? Why are the "testimonies" only coming from people up on the platforms who are ambulatory enough to get there? Why are these precious people the ones upon whom the grace of divine healing is not seen? Why would a big God so capriciously withdraw his healing when a little girl has to go to the bathroom?

Aren't the songs right we Pentecostals and Charismatics use in our healing liturgies? We love singing about not leaving the way we came in Jesus name and feeling the presence of the Lord and getting blessings from Him right now and going to the enemy's camp and taking back what he stole from me because this is a new season yada yada yada .. but when the last note of the Hammond B3 went quiet that evening, there were scores of these people still scattered all across NCCOG's sanctuary sitting quietly in their wheelchairs or leaning on their canes, crutches and supports.

Now if Hinn could articulate a line of BIBLICAL teaching which shows how essential the sovereignty of God is regarding any intercession for healing, miracles or any other spiritual gift, and how His sovereign will must be submitted to, I might be ready to believe his ministry as balanced. If Hinn's pastoral admonitions were humbly implored of his audiences to keep in mind that it is His will that moves our mountains, not our seed faith gifts or our hallelujah hoedowns, as he "ministered in healing," then I might believe Hinn's ministrations are based upon solid Biblical faith.

But they are not - because he does not do so. Do you tell your partners God might not heal them, but send those offering in anyway? Do you bite the hand that feeds you?

And, as laudable as his preaching actually was, there was enough of an undercurrent of "divine guarantee" in Hinn's representation of how God does the miraculous in his meetings that had already gone on. There is no room for such a thing as "divine sovereignty" in Hinn's vocabulary when it comes to spiritual gifts or manifestations. He presumes much and tries to convince that an unlimited amount of it is freely available as long as you get with his plan. And that is why Hinn's influence is at once both truly inspiring and magnetic .. and simultaneously imbalanced, dangerous and bordering on the spiritually toxic. Because what truth Hinn does preach is still overshadowed by the errors of his presumption, no matter how nice or sincere he may be or how badly the masses may want it to be so. Miracles today are still on the menu.

So if that is the "hope" people are left to grip their weary hands on once Benny's meetings, product tables and security team move on, how can anyone with a Christian pastoral heart not ache at just what kind of spiritual turmoil, pain, disorientation and confusion these hurting folk have just been plunged into? These people, whose mustard seeds of faith probably towered mightily over those who came wanting God to balance their checkbook, now have to wonder again what did they do wrong, or what next stop on BH's itinerary should they target, in the hope of "getting my blessing right now?" 

Yes, I know all the sincere, shrill and sincerely shrill defenses BH apologists will hatch about why all are not healed and they all ultimately try to engage the barren, jagged and rocky mountain slope this issue sets forth. But if they are honest and consistent, they will recognize this .. and realize they have no answer in the belief that "They Didn't Have Real Faith." That's because the presumptuous belief that God's will is to heal everyone and for all to walk in "divine health" underlies their belief system. It won't allow for any kind of understanding of God's total and absolute sovereignty in how He chooses to show forth His power through the gifts he gives to men, how HIS WILL is to be done.

So, they conclude, those in whom the fires of faith are most likely the most fervent are really walking in some kind of deficiency of knowledge, faith and even righteousness .. which led to their failure to receive from God. Now that is, as Rabbi Harold Kushner said in a no holds and biting commentary, "insufferably cruel" (his entire comment is really, really hard core - click here to watch by Real Video). It may not be ever intended to be that way but that, my brethren, is what pastors and church leaders have to face untold times and again with those whose infirmities remain after a "healing" crusade blows through town. They are faced with this question, whether Hinn is involved or not, or some other occasion in which great passion and energy in believing God for a miracle goes down .. and they remain filled with cancer, wilting under Alzheimer's spell, or in chronic, debilitating, horrid pain.

Maybe I think too much, but I just still wonder why the older man I saw hobbling down the aisle in a body brace to the front was then led to his seat at BH's direction. I guess God had other plans for him.

Church of God pastor Jim Bolin then stepped up for prayer after being slain in the Spirit and then disclosed his wife's physical struggle .. and special prayer was held for them. It was when Hinn, after laying hands on the Bolins and watching Jim cradle his wife, made his own rather saucy remark ("Get up! There's time for that later!") that another epiphany arrived: I guess God's Spirit speaking through God's prophet could grandstand just a bit.

   

The church's aisles, were swelling with dozens of people ready to step forward onto the rostrum, all seeking their miracle today. Hinn commanded them all to sit down. The question marks on faces was quite obvious - but what was more obvious is that the time for a major emphasis of the evening was to come: the Offering.

While there was no altar call given for salvation, there certainly was one of sorts for the offering. The photo here shows the $1000 seed sowers, whose checks, cash or credit card offerings would be personally prayed over by BH for their blessing. In the exhortation, Hinn inexplicably mentioned that he had just signed a 23 million dollar contract to buy and run a private jet to get him around (maybe they flew in on rickety old Hardwick Field, but I doubt it). This he said was part of the great things God intended as part of an end time "Wealth Transfer" to help finance the "harvest," and that we should be ready to prove ourselves by our giving so God could give us the wealth of the world to preach the Gospel. 

His words were something to the effect that today's Christians shouldn't worry about things of this world like houses to live in because none of us are promised tomorrow. So I guess that was what his seed sowers had firmly mind as they gave. I won't go there, thinking about Hinn's own humble multimillion dollar cabin in Southern California ..

However, the whole offering went to fund TLL's foundation. That was pretty cool of him. BH very graciously gave $50,000 to him and had special prayer commending it to God's glory. And the sanctuary prayed, and TLL seemed very humbled and the camera boomed all over ...

 

Then BH swept out immediately after that, followed by his phalanx of young, tall bodyguards with little coiled wires behind their ears. He'd been at the NCCOG exactly 2.5 hours. He had to be in Washington, he'd told us earlier, so he split. So I don't think anyone saw him at Shoney's that night (maybe he indulges in Krystals instead). And the meeting was dismissed not long after that. The crowd dispersed quickly (the black brother and his friends next to me disappeared during the offering), and I watched many of the lame and wheelchair bound quietly and slowly make their way out. One young boy and his family went forward and begged prayer - the child was also wheelchair bound. I came close to pray and agree, but I had to stop and commend them to God and leave when the ardent person leading the prayer kept going on and on in Charismatic singsong: "Lord, help them not to accept this condition .. " 

Watching the crowds lingering after the service made me ask another question as I walked out. I had to capture this shot, so I did. One of the last to leave the giant NCCOG sanctuary was a Latino couple with their child, a toddler whose limp body was plugged into hoses and respirators and beeping, blinking life support packs hanging off his walker. I wondered if they asked why their child was leaving the same way he came? Did his parents' agonize over whether they had a deficient and incomplete faith? What sin might they be asking themselves were they guilty of? What generational curse had to be seed-faith broken? When Hinn told them to believe God for miracles, why didn't God sweep into that place and take that beautiful little boy up in His great nail scarred hands and quicken his tiny body and spare him the uncertain future he faces ahead? I couldn't tear my eyes away and I have not forgotten the poignancy and puzzle of this moment. 

It remained to one precious sister who prayed with this hurting little family, long after Hinn's bodyguards hustled him out and the crowds were gone, to believe God with them. An ache of my heart made my temple pound with sympathy. I finally left the beautiful NCCOG sanctuary into the cool, dark October air. It was a beautiful Cleveland evening and Lee University glittered like the mother ship in "Close Encounters" hanging over the Devil's Tower. I was filled with all of the emotion, wonder, blessing, reverie and questions my posts have tried to convey. I prayed for the people who were there as I went home.

I think now of that unknown 59 year old woman who traveled from Atlanta to Cleveland with no way back to her home in desperate hope to be in that atmosphere where the miraculous would occur.  I never did see anyone stand up there who might have been her. That sounded like a woman of faith to me .. but her card was still left on the B3 organ with her request at the end of the night.

There was much said about Elijah in the last days and the term "apostolic" thrown around a bit. Lots of money traded hands. So where was that God of Elijah?


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