I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Probably the late 70s. I’m sitting on a couch somewhere with a few other devotedly non-believing buddies, stoned, eating Cheetos and waffles, watching him on the religious channel, mocking and laughing ourselves silly. He represented, most, if not all of my incredulity and disdain for the entire faith he schlepped nightly around the globe. Millions starving and at that point in my life all I can see is that this guy is on every evening with his absurdly overdone soap opera, appealing for money to beam this contrived, opulent circus to relevant new markets like Ghana and Chad. When my friends and I weren’t mocking, we were livid.
Now, fast forward to 2006. I’m speaking at a Christian college in Missouri and get a call from the Truefaced office back in Phoenix telling me there’s a television show in Branson asking if I’d come on as a guest. They’ll figure out rescheduling my flight and will have someone pick me up as soon as I finish my last student chapel. I ask the name of the show. Lisa, on the other end, said slowly and clearly, “It’s the Jim Bakker show.” I said, “Excuse me, the connection’s a little fuzzy. It sounded like you said, ‘It’s the Jim Bakker show.’” She assured me there was no issue with the connection.
Have you ever had one of those surreal moments, where you find yourself, all within the span of a second, thinking, “What is happening to me, and how did my life get to this moment, and where’s the camera?”
She broke the silence. “John. Focus. They need to know right away. They’re filming at 11.” I wanted to say, “I’m willing to do it, as long as the show doesn’t air anyplace where I know people.” Instead I mumbled out the words, “I guess I can do it.”
I thought the guy was still in prison. They have television shows in prison now?
It is not possible to adequately articulate and explain the absolute delight and beauty of the next few hours. I was whisked into their modest but efficient studio like I was a celebrity on the order of Bono or Charlton Heston! Smiling faces who all knew my name ushered me into makeup. Someone gave me one of Jim’s shirts, which would better match the stage backdrop. Then suddenly I was introduced to a delightful woman with a kind and beautiful smile. The makeup woman said, “This is Lori Bakker, Jim’s wife. It’s her birthday. And you being on the show with them is Jim’s gift to her.”
Again, where am I, and what is happening to my life?
I was informed in the next few minutes that Jim Bakker had served his time in prison. And now he was here in Branson, Missouri, still longing to encourage others with the God he had, in prison, learned to love and be loved by in more intimacy and integrity than he’d ever dreamed. I discovered together they were raising a wonderfully close family of children-all adopted.
Turns out Lori had recently seen our book, laying on a table at her dentist’s office. She asked him about it and the dentist gave her his copy, telling her she must read it, and that he’d order another for himself. She and Jim were going on vacation later that day. They read it to each other over and over for the entire week, blanketing nearly the entire contents in yellow marker. They were reading words they’d never been exposed to their entire lives.
Back to the show.
The next two hours, in front of a live audience, the three of us fell in love with Christ in each other. We laughed and each shook our heads in astonishment at what was taking place.
As soon as it ended, we all hugged and prayed for each other, and then I was whisked to the airport, carrying a bag full of gifts and a freshly burned copy of the show I’d just been on.
Since then Bill, Bruce and I have been back to be with them several times. And they have come to be with us at one of our conferences. I probably have less in common with them in some theological convictions and practical applications than most people I’ve ever known.
But they have become dear friends. And when I return there this week after several years, and as I step onto their long-dreamt new campus, to record some more shows, I will be as comfortable with them in their love and grace, as with many I’ve known for decades.
So it is with this Original Good News. It takes people from all ends of the earth, all possible persuasions, all manner of failures, platforms, nuances, idiosyncrasies and taste and it brings them together on the basis of something all together different. Love. And they bare their throats to the other. And they suddenly can’t easily remember the lesser distinctions by which they had identified themselves and separated themselves from others before they discovered the grace, identity, freedom and safety of Christ in them.
And they say God doesn’t have a sense of humor. I’m pretty convinced one evening in heaven, Jim Bakker and I are going to sit on a couch with some version of Cheetos and laugh hard about how much changed in an instant…