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The Day I Almost Caught Him
Running hard after GodPs. 63:8
We think we know where God lives.
We think we know what He likes, and we are sure we know what He dislikes.
We have studied God's Word and His old love letters to the churches so much that some of us claim to know all about God. But now people like you and me around the world are beginning to hear a voice speak to them with persistent but piercing repetition in the stillness of the night:
"I'm not asking you how much you know about Me.
I want to ask you, `Do you really know Me?
Do you really want Me?'"
I thought I did. At one time I thought I had achieved a good measure of success in the ministry. After all, I had preached in some of the largest churches in America. I was involved in international outreach efforts with great men of God. I went to Russia numerous times and helped start many churches there. I've done a lot of things for God ... because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.
But on one autumn Sunday morning, something happened to change all that. It put all my ministerial accomplishments, credentials, and achievements in jeopardy. A long-time friend of mine who pastored a church in Houston, Texas, had asked me to speak at his church. I somehow sensed that destiny was waiting. Prior to his call, a hunger had been birthed in my heart that just wouldn't go away.The gnawing vacuum of emptiness in the midst of my accomplishments just got worse. I was in a frustrating funk, a divine depression of destiny. When he called I just sensed that something awaited us from God. Little did we know that we were approaching a divine appointment.
I am a fourth generation Spirit-filled Christian, three generations deep into ministry, but I must be honest with you: I was sick of church. I was just like most of the people we try to lure into our services every week. They won't come because they are sick of church too. But on the other hand, though most of the people who drive by our churches, live within sight of our steeples, and inhabit our meeting halls may be sick of church as well, they're also hungry for God.
"Somewhat Less Than Advertised"
You can't tell me they're not hungry for God when they wear crystals around their necks, lay down hundreds of dollars a day to listen to gurus, and call psychics to the tune of billions of dollars per year. They're hungry to hear from something that's beyond themselves, something they are not hearing in the Church of today. The bottom line is that people are sick of church because the Church has been somewhat less than what the Book advertised! People want to connect with a higher power! Their hunger drives them to everywhere but the Church. They search in pursuits of the flesh to try to feed the hunger that gnaws at their souls.
Ironically, as a minister I was suffering from the same hunger pangs as the people who had never met Jesus before! I just wasn't content to know about Jesus anymore. You can know all about presidents, royalties, and celebrities; you can know their eating habits, address, and marital status. But knowing about them doesn't imply intimacy. That doesn't mean you know them. In this information age, with tidbits of gossip passed from mouth to mouth, from paper to paper, and from person to person, it's possible to traffic in facts about someone without knowing him personally. Were you to overhear two people conversing about the latest calamity befalling some celebrity, or the latest victory he experienced, you might be led to think that they know that individual, when really all they know is facts about him! For too long the Church has been only conversant in the things of God. We talk techniques, but we don't talk with Him. That's the difference between knowing someone and knowing about him. Presidents, royalties, and celebritiesI may know many facts about them, but I don't really know them. If I ever met them in person, they would have to be introduced to me because mere knowledge about a person is not the same as an intimate friendship.
It's simply not enough to know about God. We have churches filled with people who can win Bible trivia contests but who don't know Him. I am afraid that some of us have been sidetracked or entangled by everything from prosperity to poverty, and we've become such an ingrown society of the self-righteous that our desires and our wants and those of the Holy Spirit are two different matters.
If we're not careful, we can become so interested in developing the "cult of the comfortable" with our comfortable pastor, our comfortable church building, and our comfortable circle of friends, that we forget about the thousands of discontented, wounded, and dying people who pass by our comfortable church every day! I can't help but think that if we fail to even try to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ, then He sure wasted a lot of blood on Calvary. Now that makes me uncomfortable.
There had to be more. I was desperate for a God encounter (of the closest kind).
I returned home after speaking at my friend's church in Texas. The following Wednesday, as I was standing in the kitchen, the pastor called again. He said, "Tommy, we've been friends for years now. And I don't know that I've ever asked anybody to come back for a second Sunday in a row ... but would you come back here next Sunday too?" I agreed. We could tell that God was up to something. Was the pursuer now being pursued? Were we about to be apprehended by that which we ourselves were chasing?
This second Sunday was even more intense. No one wanted to leave the building after the Sunday night service.
"What should we do?" my pastor friend asked.
"We should have a prayer meeting on Monday night," I said, "with no other agenda. Let's gauge the hunger of the people and see what's happening." Four hundred people showed up that Monday for the prayer meeting, and all we did was seek the face of God. Something was definitely going on. A minuscule crack was appearing in the brass heavens over the city of Houston. Collective hunger was crying for a corporate visitation.
I went back home and by Wednesday the pastor was on the phone again, saying, "Tommy, can you come back again for Sunday?" I heard past his words and listened to his heart. He really was not interested in "me" coming back. What he and I both wanted was God. He is a fellow God chaser and we were in hot pursuit. His church had fueled a flaming hunger in me. They too had been preparing for pursuit. There was a sense that we were close to "catching" Him.
That's an interesting phrase, isn't it? Catching Him. Really, it's an impossible phrase. We can no more catch Him than the east can catch the west; they're too far removed from each other. It's like playing chase with my daughter. Often as she arrives home from a day of school, we play this little game that countless fathers and children play around the world. When she comes and tries to catch me, even with my hulking frame, I really don't have to run. I just artfully dodge this way and then that, and she can't even touch me, because a six-year-old can't catch an adult. But that's not really the purpose of the game, because a few minutes into it, she laughingly says, "Oh daddy," and it's at that moment that she captures my heart, if not my presence or body. And then I turn and she's no longer chasing me, but I'm chasing her, and I catch her and we tumble in the grass with hugs and kisses. The pursuer becomes the pursued. So can we catch Him? Not really, but we can catch His heart. David did. And if we catch His heart, then He turns and chases us. That's the beauty of being a God chaser. You're chasing the impossible, knowing it's possible.
This body of believers in Houston had two scheduled services on Sundays. The first morning service started at 8:30, and the second one followed and began at 11.
When I returned for the third weekend, while in the hotel, I sensed a heavy anointing of some kind, a brooding of the Spirit, and I literally wept and trembled.
You Could Barely Breathe
The following morning, we walked into the building for the 8:30 Sunday service expecting to see the usual early morning first service "sleepy" crowd with their low-key worship. As I walked in to sit down in the front row that morning, the presence of God was already in that place so heavily that the air was "thick." You could barely breathe.
The musicians were clearly struggling to continue their ministry; their tears got in the way. Music became more difficult to play. Finally, the presence of God hovered so strongly that they couldn't sing or play any longer. The worship leader crumpled in sobs behind the keyboard.
If there was one good decision I made in life, it was made that day. I had never been this close to "catching" God, and I was not going to stop. So I spoke to my wife, Jeannie. "You should go continue to lead us to Him." Jeannie has an anointing to lead people into the presence of God as a worshiper and intercessor. She quietly moved to the front and continued to facilitate the worship and ministry to the Lord. It wasn't anything fancy; it was just simple. That was the only appropriate response in that moment.
The atmosphere reminded me of the passage in Isaiah 6, something I'd read about, and even dared dream I might experience myself. In this passage the glory of the Lord filled the temple. I'd never understood what it meant for the glory of the Lord to fill a place. I had sensed God come in places, I had sensed Him come by, but this time in Houston, even after there was all of God that I thought was available in the building, more of His presence literally packed itself into the room. It's like the bridal train of a bride that, after she has personally entered the building, her bridal train continues to enter the building after her. God was there; of that there was no doubt. But more of Him kept coming in the place until, as in Isaiah, it literally filled the building. At times the air was so rarefied that it became almost unbreathable. Oxygen came in short gasps, seemingly. Muffled sobs broke through the room. In the midst of this, the pastor turned to me and asked me a question.
"Tommy, are you ready to take the service?"
"Pastor, I'm just about half-afraid to step up there,
because I sense that God is about to do something."
Tears were streaming down my face when I said that. I wasn't afraid that God was going to strike me down, or that something bad was going to happen. I just didn't want to interfere and grieve the precious presence that was filling up that room! For too long we humans have only allowed the Holy Spirit to take control up to a certain point. Basically, whenever it gets outside of our comfort zone or just a little beyond our control, we pull in the reins (the Bible calls it "quenching the Spirit" in First Thessalonians 5:19). We stop at the tabernacle veil too many times.
"I feel like I should read Second Chronicles 7:14, and I have a word from the Lord," my pastor friend said.
With profuse tears I nodded assent and said, "Go, go."
My friend is not a man given to any kind of outward demonstration; he is essentially a man of "even" emotions. But when he got up to walk to the platform, he appeared visibly shaky. At this point I so sensed something was about to happen, that I walked all the way from the front row to the back of the room to stand by the sound booth. I knew God was going to do something; I just didn't know where. I was on the front row, and it could happen behind me or to the side of me. I was so desperate to catch Him that I got up and publicly walked back to the sound booth as the pastor walked up to the pulpit to speak, so I could see whatever happened. I wasn't even sure that it was going to happen on the platform, but I knew something was going to happen. "God, I want to be able to see whatever it is You are about to do."
My pastor friend stepped up to the clear pulpit in the center of the platform, opened the Bible, and quietly read the gripping passage from Second Chronicles 7:14:
If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
Then he closed his Bible, gripped the edges of the pulpit with trembling hands, and said, "The word of the Lord to us is to stop seeking His benefits and seek Him. We are not to seek His hands any longer, but seek His face."
In that instant, I heard what sounded like a thunderclap echo through the building, and the pastor was literally picked up and thrown backward about ten feet, effectively separating him from the pulpit. When he went backward, the pulpit fell forward. The beautiful flower arrangement positioned in front of it fell to the ground, but by the time the pulpit hit the ground, it was already in two pieces. It had split into two pieces almost as if lightning had hit it! At that instant the tangible terror of the presence of God filled that room.
People Began to Weep and Wail
I quickly stepped to the microphone from the back of the room and said, "In case you aren't aware of it, God has just moved into this place. The pastor is fine. [It was two and a half hours before he could even get up, thoughand even then the ushers had to carry him. Only his hand trembled slightly to give proof of life.] He's going to be fine."
While all of this happened, the ushers quickly ran to the front to check on the pastor and to pick up the two pieces of the split pulpit. No one really paid much attention to the split pulpit; we were too occupied with the torn heavenlies. The presence of God had hit that place like some kind of bomb. People began to weep and to wail. I said, "If you're not where you need to be, this is a good time to get right with God." I've never seen such an altar call. It was pure pandemonium. People shoved one another out of the way. They wouldn't wait for the aisles to clear; they climbed over pews, businessmen tore their ties off, and they were literally stacked on top of one another, in the most horribly harmonious sound of repentance you ever heard. Just the thought of it still sends chills down my back. When I gave the altar call then for the 8:30 a.m. service, I had no idea that it would be but the first of seven altar calls that day.
When it was time for the 11:00 service to begin, nobody had left the building. The people were still on their faces and, even though there was hardly any music being played at this point, worship was rampant and uninhibited. Grown men were ballet dancing; little children were weeping in repentance. People were on their faces, on their feet, on their knees, but mostly in His presence. There was so much of the presence and the power of God there that people began to feel an urgent need to be baptized. I watched people walk through the doors of repentance, and one after another experienced the glory and the presence of God as He came near. Then they wanted baptized, and I was in a quandary about what to do. The pastor was still unavailable on the floor. Prominent people walked up to me and stated, "I've got to be baptized. Somebody tell me what to do." They joined with the parade of the unsaved, who were now saved, provoked purely by encountering the presence of God. There was no sermon and no real songjust His Spirit that day.
Two and a half hours had passed, and since the pastor had only managed to wiggle one finger at that point to call the elders to him, the ushers had carried him to his office. Meanwhile, all these people were asking me (or anyone else they could find) if they could be baptized. As a visiting minister at the church, I didn't want to assume the authority to tell anyone to baptize these folks, so I sent people back to the pastor's office to see if he would authorize the water baptisms.
I gave one altar call after another, and hundreds of people were coming forward. As more and more people came to me asking about water baptism, I noticed that no one I had sent to the pastor's office had returned. Finally I sent a senior assistant pastor back there and told him, "Please find out what Pastor wants to do about the water baptismsnobody has come back to tell me yet." The man stuck his head in the pastor's office, and to his shock he saw the pastor still lying before the Lord, and everyone I had sent there was sprawled on the floor too, just weeping and repenting before God. He hurried back to tell me what he had seen and added, "I'll go ask him, but if I go in that office I may not be back either."
We Baptized People for Hours
I shrugged my shoulders and agreed with the associate pastor, "I guess it's all right to baptize them." So we began to baptize people as a physical sign of their repentance before the Lord, and we ended up baptizing people for hours. More and more people kept pouting in, and since the people from the early service were still there, there were cars parked everywhere outside the church building. A big open-air ball field next to the building was filled with cars parked every which way.
As people drove onto the parking lot, they sensed the presence of God so strongly that some began to weep uncontrollably. They just found themselves driving up onto the parking lot or into the grass not knowing what was going on. Some started to get out of their cars and barely managed to stagger across the parking lot. Some came inside the building only to fall to the floor just inside the doors. The hard-pressed ushers had to literally pull the helpless people away from the doors and stack them up along the walls of the hallways to clear the entrance. Others managed to make it part way down the hallways, and some made it to the foyer before they fell on their faces in repentance.
Some actually made it inside the auditorium, but most of them didn't bother to find seats. They just made for the altar. No matter what they did or how far they made it, it wasn't long before they began to weep and repent. As I said, there wasn't any preaching. There wasn't even any music part of the time. Primarily one thing happened that day: The presence of God showed up. When that happens, the first thing you do is the same thing Isaiah did when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. He cried out from the depths of his soul:
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6:5).
You see, the instant Isaiah the prophet, the chosen servant of God, saw the King of glory, what he used to think was clean and holy now looked like filthy rags. He was thinking, I thought I knew God, but I didn't know this much of God! That Sunday we seemed to come so close; we almost caught Him. Now I know it's possible.
They Came Right Back for More
People just kept filling the auditorium again and again, beginning with that strange service that started at 8:30 that morning. I finally went to eat at around 4:00 that afternoon, and then came right back to the church building. Many never left. The continuous "Sunday morning service" lasted until 1:00 Monday morning. We didn't have to announce our plans for Monday evening. Everybody already knew. Frankly, there would have been a meeting whether we announced it or not. The people simply went home to get some sleep or do the things they had to do, and they came right back for morenot for more of men and their programs, but for God and His presence.
Night after night, the pastor and I would come in and say, "What are we going to do?"
Most of the time our answer to one another was just as predictable: "What do you want to do?"
What we meant was, "I don't know what to do. What does He want to do?"
Excerpted from THE GOD CHASERS by Tommy Tenney. Copyright © 1998 by Destiny Image Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.