It was a cold day at the close of February, even as far south as Hinterlands, Texas, and those who gathered there for the Disputing for the DoctrineTM Lectures were grateful for a warm church building.
A few minutes before the first lecture was to begin that Sunday morning, a smiling visitor in a three-piece suit and carrying a clipboard took his place behind the lectern and the crowd quieted out of curiosity.
“Thank you,” he greeted. “I won’t take much of your time; I’m just here to take an informal survey of sorts and a quick show of hands will take care of the answers I need.
“The theme for this year’s lecture is ‘Portraits of Heresy #2,’ which makes me assume that last year’s theme was, of course, #1. I see from the program that it consists of refutations of books, sermons and other works by others within the fellowship.
“First question: Has anyone contacted any of these authors directly to discuss with them any difficulties they may have had with the content of those books before preparing his remarks here? Anyone? Show of hands, please.”
The visitor looked as perturbed as the people in the audience. No hands went up.
“Got it. Second question: How many of you can name all of the false teachings, heresies and apostasies described the New Testament? Hands?”
Again, though there were no hands going up, there was a considerable amount of consternation apparent.
“I’m not going to ask you to list them all; I’m just asking if you know them all,” the visitor smiled sympathetically. Looking about, he saw no response and inscribed another character on his clipboard sheet, muttering: “Complete unfamiliarity with 48.5.6, 54.1.3-10, 61.2.1, 62.4.3, 63.1.7 … and all the rest.”
“What are you talking about?” hollered a fellow sitting near the front, trying to rise to his feet and suddenly finding himself unable to do so.
“Oh. Your legs have fallen asleep.” The visitor appeared to consider it. “Appropriate. – I’m talking about law. You do consider scripture to be law that must in every case be fully known and obeyed, do you not? No, no; I wasn’t asking for a show of hands on that one. – What I’m doing is simply expressing scripture as citations of law; I thought that might be your preference. I’ll convert back, if it will make things clearer. Third question: Everyone’s aware of, uh, Matthew 7:1-2 … ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you …?’ How many of you believe that does not apply to you because you are, in fact, disputing for the doctrine?”
Thunder sounded outside, a little more threateningly than it had before.
A few hands started to go up, but there was some confusion over the phrasing of the question and they quickly went down. A middle-aged fellow jumped to his feet and shouted, “Listen here … Who are you? What gives you the authority to …?” But his question was interrupted when he suddenly gasped, clutched at his chest and sank back into the pew dumbstruck.
The visitor’s smile had faded. “Ouch. Chest pain? Heart, I’ll bet. Perhaps you should take it easy. – I must compliment you on intuiting the subject of the last two questions, by the way, identity and authority – although in reverse order. Fourth question: How many of you believe that everything regarding worship and service to God must be specifically authorized in scripture ….” At this, virtually every hand shot up and even the cautious ones – seeing the majority vote enthusiastically – joined eventually. “… and that anything not specifically authorized in scripture is of sin and leads to God’s judgment and to eternal damnation?” No hands wavered, though, even as the visitor added in a clarifying tone, “Including instruments used in worship, cooperation in giving to aid the poor and widowed and orphaned, purchased places of worship with heating and air conditioning units …?”
Outside, the storm was audibly growing closer, and the snowflakes falling more furiously beyond the stained-glass windows.
Counting with his stylus, the visitor etched what must have been simply a rough estimate of the total attendance on his clipboard sheet. “Thank you; last question. This is a purely hypothetical one, of course: If I just happened to be an angel of the Lord, can anyone here give me even one reason why I should not call down fire from heaven to consume this place and all who are in it?”
That was the last straw; dozens of people launched themselves in the general direction of the lectern at the front. Shouts began: “Now see here!” “You have no right!” “Stop this very…” But at that very moment, a colossal flash of lightning through the windows whitened the image of every soul present and a simultaneous sonic boom of thunder pounded the rafters, the pews, the floor, and the center of each heart there. Though the lights flickered out, they did not stay out – yet they returned much dimmer. There was a sizzling electrical noise nearby that died out a few seconds later, and the hint of a scent of smoke.
As the crowd looked around, they realized that the visitor was gone from the lectern. No one had seen him go during the instant of brilliance and then darkness. He simply was not there.
The host of the Lectures rose to his feet, his knees still a bit wobbly from having just regained prickly wakefulness. He took his place at the lectern and said haltingly, “Well … heh, heh … that was unusual, wasn’t it? Can’t ever remember a Lecture beginning quite like that before; can you?”
There was some nervous laughter. He reached for a song book. “Well, let’s sing a song to begin.”
As the strains of Will the Circle Be Unbroken filled the auditorium, punctuated at the end of nearly every phrase by staccato thunder, the sense of anticipation returned … though this time, with a good measure of apprehension. Eyes occasionally darted up to the ceiling, creaking under the weight of newfallen snow, or toward the windows as thunder sounded. And the warmth in the auditorium slowly seeped away.
Which was no great mystery; the bolt of lightning had fried the HVAC unit out back.