I spent a little over a decade in the anti-Trinitarian ministry called “The Way International” (TWI) after that conversation with my United Methodist pastor. I was one of its most ardent supporters; and I had plans of committing my life to it in an official leadership capacity.
My wife, Christi, and I first meet when she and her parents and brother moved into a two story white house on Elm Street, only a couple of blocks from the East Carolina campus. It was love at first sight, but in this case only for Christi. I was a 20 year old junior in college and she was only 16 and a junior in high school. At the time the idea of dating a high school student just seemed out of the question. The fact that she’s now my wife obviously means something changed.
It was that fall in 1995 when I really began the rapid advancement into the deepest teachings of TWI. Christi’s parents had just completed in-residence training in The Way Corp, at TWI’s campus in Rome City, Indiana, which is a little less than an hour north of Fort Wayne. The Way Corp was TWI’s leadership training program, and Christi’s parents were the new Branch Coordinators in Greenville. They had oversight of their own fellowship, which met in their home on Elm Street as well as some other home fellowships in Eastern North Carolina, each of which had their own leader called a Household Fellowship Coordinator (HFC).
This was a major period of transition in TWI because they were fading out the “Power For Abundant Living” (PFAL) class to replace it with a new series of classes taught by its current president at the time, Rev. L. Craig Martindale. Martindale, formerly a Southern Baptist, was a graduate of the University of Kansas where he also played football, and where he first got involved in TWI in the early 1970’s. The new series of classes was called “The Way of Abundance and Power” (WAP). It was similar to PFAL before it, but definitely much more straightforward and confrontational with regards to TWI’s rejection of the Trinity among other things in the traditional Church.
I took the new foundational class in January of 1996, and a special topics class called “Defeating the Adversary” (TWI’s preferred name for the devil) a couple of months later. After a special weekend session taught by local leadership, which substituted for the PFAL intermediate class that TWI no longer offered and the new intermediate class that hadn’t yet been completed, I traveled with Christi’s brother to Rome City, Indiana to spend two weeks at TWI’s campus there to take the advanced class in the PFAL series, which had been updated to have Martindale rather than Wierwille as the teacher on the video. During that time Martindale visited and in addition to the video sessions we got to hear him teach live. Similar to what I had heard the previous summer, his live teaching included a few profanity laced tirades, much against mainstream Christendom, which he liked to call “ChristenDUMB.”
By August of 1998 I had gone through all of the main TWI classes, some of them multiple times, as well as other special topic classes. I completed the WAP advanced class in August of 1998, which was held over several weekends in the middle of the state beginning in April. Christi and I had started this advanced class as fiancees; we completed it as husband and wife as we were married on May 23rd 1998, a year after I had graduated from college, and a couple of weeks after she had completed her freshman year at ECU.
We almost literally got married in a whirlwind. The day of our wedding a tornado came through the area in a thunderstorm that knocked out the power and almost blew Christi’s grandparents and uncle off the road as they drove from Ohio to eastern North Carolina for the ceremony. There in the candle light and little bit of sunlight coming through the windows of an old historic train depot in Grifton, North Carolina, with a portable radio with weak batteries for music, we said our “I do’s.” This day would in many ways portend many other dark clouds of a different variety in our future.
Among other things, including a quite extensive demonology (TWI preferred to refer to demons as devil spirits though), we had both been steeped in the “law of believing.” This again is the supposed law of the universe that directs the blessings and curses of life. Positive thinking and confession bring blessing, positive results; negative thinking and confession bring cursing, negative results. I would later learn of the virtually identical principle taught in Wiccan and New Age circles called “the law of attraction,” popularized by a book called “The Secret” with the help of Oprah Winfrey. The difference is that TWI centered it’s teaching in theory around the Bible, but the basic principle is more or less the same.
The idea is if you believe correctly by thinking and speaking positively then you will be blessed with success; but, conversely, if you believe wrongly by thinking and speaking negatively then you will be cursed with failure and tragedy. You control your destiny, success or failure, health or sickness, by your attitude, thoughts, and words. In the PFAL class Wierwille used the positive example of someone who prayed for and claimed through positive thinking and confession exactly the kind of apartment she wanted right down to the color of the curtains, and lo and behold that is exactly what she got. Wierwille and TWI taught that you have to be specific and get “clear and concerned” about whatever it is you are “believing for.”
The negative example Wierwille used was a woman who constantly fretted and worried about her son getting killed and when he actually did, Wierwille insisted that it was the mother’s negative thinking that led to the tragedy. The mother’s worry and fear, he insisted, led to her son’s death. Similarly, Wierwille and TWI frequently referred to Job 3:25 as a prooftext that fear brings on calamity. The idea again being it was Job’s fear, which led to tragedy in his life, which, of course, included his children being killed.
The allure of this teaching is the control and power of being able to command one’s own destiny in terms of success or failure. TWI did teach that one can only pray and believe for things according to God’s will, but the way they interpreted the Bible left this pretty open ended. For instance, they interpreted 3 John 2 (KJV), which says “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth,” to be a blanket assurance that God promises prosperity, material and spiritual, and health in this life now. In reality, this verse is more like a standard greeting to a letter that would include general well wishes along the lines of “I wish you the best.”
Likewise TWI interpreted Jesus’ promise of abundant life in John 10:10 along similar lines. The idea is that God wants people to be blessed but he can only bless as people’s positive thoughts and confession dictate. Conversely, negative thinking keeps God from being able to bless someone, and also opens the door for the devil to bring calamity.
The problem with all of this is that it is not the teaching of the Bible itself; rather it is a foreign lens through which the Bible is interpreted, which causes one to filter out or distort the parts of the Bible that don’t fit that worldview. For instance, if you read the entire book of Job you certainly don’t get the impression that Job did in fact do something to deserve the calamity in his life. In Job 2:3 God himself declares, after he once again boasts to Satan of Job’s faithfulness, that Job suffered “without cause.” He had done nothing to deserve what had happened. TWI and others who interpret Job 3:25 to mean that Jobs’s fear caused the calamity in his life end up joining the ranks of Job’s friends who became his accusers, insisting that he must have committed some kid of heinous sin for him to be suffering the way he was. In the end Job’s friends found out how wrong they were. Likewise it is simply wrong to interpret Job 3:25 as Job’s admission that his fear caused his suffering. In reality it is simply a poetic way of saying my worst nightmare, the worst thing I could imagine has happened to me. Throughout the book Job maintains his innocence and integrity; in the end God vindicates him. It helps to read the whole book and not just pull one rather obscure verse out of context.
Nevertheless, the issue in Job, in the Bible in general for that matter, is obedience and disobedience to God, not positive or negative thinking. According to the Bible the general rule is that faithfulness and obedience to God’s commands bring blessing and unfaithfulness and disobedience bring cursing. Just read Deuteronomy 28. But even in this case the story of Job and other passages of Scripture (i.e. Psalm 37) reveal that in this world even this is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes in this world the righteous, the wise like Job, who fear God and shun evil, often suffer as if they were unrighteous (see Ecclesiastes 8:14).
Much more could be said and I’m sure I’ll say more in other posts. Nonetheless, don’t get me wrong, I do think there is value in the principle of positive thinking, it’s just not a hard and fast, be all, end all law of the universe that is guaranteed to place one’s destiny entirely within one’s own control. And it’s certainly not a principle that can guarantee perfect results even if someone perfectly practiced the principle any more than Job’s outstanding and admirable faithfulness, described in the Bible as perfect (KJV) and blameless (ESV), guaranteed that he would never experience calamity.
I know this now, but when I was involved in TWI I was a true believer in the “law of believing” and it made me feel powerful, confident, and eventually pretty arrogant. Long story short, for a while things seemed to be going great. Through my believing I seemed to be accomplishing a lot with great success. But in time it would seem that the wheels were coming off everything as challenges, negatives circumstances, and seemingly unanswered prayers continued to mount.
In theory TWI did qualify their teaching on the law of believing a bit. They did, for instance, teach that in the present world still under the influence of the Adversary (i.e. the devil) and his minions that sometimes the law of believing doesn’t always work like it is supposed to. There is also the problem of general human weakness that keeps people from achieving perfect believing all the time. Nonetheless, the general rule still very much applied and encouraging and building up people to be positive and discouraging negativity was essential. The blessings of God, material and spiritual, and avoiding or overcoming the attacks of the devil depended on it.
So while in theory there should be compassion for TWI believers facing hardship, the reality was quite different practically. Even with insignificant things positive believing was demanded. Once a group of home fellowship coordinators and assistants like me were harshly reprimanded for not believing strong enough when their was technical difficulty with a conference call with the state coordinator. Another time my wife was harshly rebuked for not believing for a closer parking space when we were on the way to a fourth of July event in the Grenville town park by the Tar River. I dished out much of this kind of reproof and “encouragement” myself.
The worst of this kind of rebuke came against Christi after we discovered that our first child, our daughter, Grace, had congenital hip dysplasia, which would require surgery. One of the home fellowship coordinators cornered my wife and insisted that it was her own negative thinking that caused this problem with our daughter. The person also insisted that we should just believe God and not have the surgery. The person meant well according to what she believed, and she probably thought God had given here a special revelation to share with us, but it was a incredibly hurtful experience for Christi, who had a long family history of depression with a strong tendency toward it herself.
Shortly after we discovered Grace’s hip problem, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He had his larynx removed in an eight hour surgery in July followed by radiation treatment; Christi, Grace, and I soon moved back to Pinnacle to be closer to my parents so I could help them. The day we moved in the water source to my parent’s house and the apartment behind the old store that we were moving into dried up. This was only a couple of weeks before Grace’s hip surgery at Baptist hospital in Winston-Salem, and while my father was still recovering from his surgery. Things continued to spiral in an incredibly challenging direction from there. As I said it seemed like everything was going wrong.
Christi descended further and further into a gloomy, deep depression. Undoubtedly blaming herself more and more for the increasingly negative circumstances we were facing. Things seemed to spiral out of control in spite of my positive thinking and the positive spin I tried to put on everything. One co-worker during that time when he heard of all the things that were happening accurately said, without knowing all the details, “man, you must not be living right.”
One thing that did go right during that time was the birth of our son Ian. He was born in Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem on June 20th, 2003. But not much else seemed to go right, especially according to the way I had been taught by TWI. “Were we just big miserable failures as ‘believers’?” We would wonder out loud from time to time. Christi repeatedly broke down, sometimes, to my shame, under my own scolding rebuke, and openly doubted that God could possibly love a loser and a failure like her.
After Ian was born Christi attempted suicide twice, once by swallowing a full bottle of pills, and later by trying to slash her wrists, which I forcibly prevented. The first incident led to hospitalization; the second stayed just between us. The disappointments – not receiving whatever it was we were “believing for” – kept coming. No matter how much I tried to deny it and how many positive confessions I made, during this time I felt a general sense of dread, living life just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I was an assistant home fellowship coordinator in Winston-Salem during this time and eventually I would take on the responsibility of coordinating a home fellowship of my own. I took over this position from a couple who, we would come to find out, had gone through many of the same experiences that Christi and I had gone through. I gladly took on the position, but I often felt like a complete fraud and failure. I didn’t feel like I was even close to being a good example of a positive “believer” because of all the negative results in our lives. Eventually I did step down, but continued to try to ward off the Adversary by faithfully attending TWI meetings.
Challenges continued, but there was another blessing as well. Christi was pregnant again with our third child! At first, because of the already difficult circumstances, I didn’t really see it as a blessing; but it wasn’t long before I came around. We excitedly anticipated the arrival of our third child, not knowing that it would be a blessing beyond anything we could then imagine.
It was a rather difficult pregnancy for Christi as she experienced a lot of nausea and severe heartburn, but all indications were that the baby was fine. We had prayed for the baby to come early, but to no avail. The first two had both been born a couple of weeks before the due date, but not this one.
It was the day after Christmas 2005, Christi’s due date, and I was at Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse where I was a manager. It was one of those nights when Murphy’s law was working just as hard as I was. My phone rang; it was Christi.
“Have you gone into labor?” I immediately asked. She hadn’t, but she was a little concerned. She said she felt like something was wrong; she hadn’t felt the baby move much all day. She wasn’t sure if something was wrong, just concerned. I said it was probably nothing because it was so late in the pregnancy the baby was out of room to move too much. I told her to just call the hospital to see what they thought. They too thought it was probably nothing, but suggested she come in just in case.
As we pulled into the hospital we both felt confident that everything was okay. We were wrong!
After they got Christi hooked up to the monitor they quickly realized that something was indeed terribly wrong. The baby’s heart beat was dangerously erratic. Within a few minutes we were in the middle of a delivery room and Christi was having an emergency C-section. They delivered the baby; it was a girl. Anna Hope was the name we had already picked out if we had a girl. Anna didn’t cry; she didn’t make a sound. They quickly took her over to another area where a team of medical personnel frantically worked with her.
Christi couldn’t see what I saw, but I could tell from the look on the faces of the doctors and nurses that something was terribly wrong. Christi kept crying out, “What’s wrong?” “What’s wrong with my baby?”
After a few minutes I left Christi’s side to see what was going on. There where they were working with her I saw that our newborn baby girl was lifeless and as blue as a smurf. As I turned to make my way back, my mind already thinking about a funeral for a stillborn and wondering whether this would be the deathblow for my extremely emotionally fragile wife, Christi looked to me for answers as she cried out frantically and repeatedly, “What’s wrong with my baby?” I just grabbed her hand with her abdomen still partially open and said in despair, “Honey, let’s just pray.”
At this point I was all out of faith in my own believing. I was all out of answers of my own. I guess I knew I couldn’t count on anything in me. I didn’t “believe for” anything; and I didn’t really ask for a miracle, which is exactly what Anna needed. My heart’s prayer was quite simply,”God, be merciful to me a sinner,” although my mind and my mouth never articulated those words. I cried out to God for mercy as Christi in her heart just cried out for God to help her baby. I just wanted God to help us get through what looked to be a hopeless and heartbreaking situation.
At that moment when we cried out to God for mercy, not a little before and not a little after, but at that moment God almighty showed up in a powerful way. Our baby girl, Anna Hope, was revived to the surprise of everyone, after having been dead, without a heartbeat and without breathing, for at least 10 minutes. The presence of God was palpable. I knew something amazing had just happened.
After letting us get a quick peek at our baby girl who was looking at me with those beautiful dark blue eyes, they frantically rushed her away for treatment for the obvious trauma that her internal organs had been through. The doctor with 30 years of experience who delivered her came to us a little later and said that he wasn’t sure what had happened, but that we shouldn’t expect her to make it. He thought the internal organ damage would be too great, even after the whole body hypothermia treatment. There were signs of organ damage including part of the lining of her intestines coming out with her first stool.
The next day, however, he said it looks like she’s going to make it but we would need to be prepared to have a special needs child. Not long after that social workers came to talk to us about caring for a special needs child. But everyday seemed to bring with it an increasingly improved prognosis.
One night while in the NICU at Forsyth Medical Center a nurse, who knew full-well Anna’s history, who was looking at Anna with me, with tears streaming down her face, simply said, “It’s a miracle!” “It’s a miracle!” Indeed it was! At the end of two weeks the NICU doctor said, to his amazement, “She checks out just like any normal newborn.”
That was almost 10 years ago. It was a miracle indeed. But I knew, even then, it wasn’t because of our great faith; it was because of God’s great mercy. There is so much more that I could say about all of this, but suffice it to say for now that this miracle set us on a course that would change our lives forever. Through this miracle of mercy God saved Anna’s life, and because of that several months later He would save my soul. Stay tuned …