In some ways, 1995 will always stand out as one of the most incredible years of my life! It’s the year that I encountered God in a way that was more powerful than anything I’ve ever experienced. It left me different; it left me dissatisfied with lesser things; it left me wanting to experience God again. I’d like to share a little about it with you…
I moved to the Memphis, Tennessee area in 1994 to work on my Masters of Divinity degree at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. At that time, the seminary was located in downtown Memphis and was housed in a former Jewish synagogue. Dr. Gray Allison was president at that time.
For the most part, I enjoyed chapel services there. We had our share of boring speakers but many of them showed us some wonderful things from God’s Word. Some of the memories I will always cherish were the times Dr. Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church came to speak in chapel!
In my personal life, I was experiencing the ups and downs of the Christian life. My “walk” with Jesus was chugging along but lacked the power I read about in the New Testament. I spent time in God’s Word and prayed but it typically felt like a one-way relationship. Struggles with sin in my mind and heart reminded me all too well of Romans 7 where Paul lamented his inability to effectively live a Christ-honoring life. I wanted to live in the reality of what Paul described in Romans 8 – the Spirit-filled life.
In the early part of 1995, students at Mid-America were becoming aware that something special was taking place in some of our sister seminaries. I don’t know when I first heard it called the “Brownwood Revival” but that’s the name that stuck. (Click here for an article written by the Baptist Press.)
Bill Elliff had connections with Mid-America and had also recently experienced the power of God in that revival. If I remember correctly, he had visited Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and saw what God was doing there. He was asked to come to Mid-America for chapel services that memorable week.
I cannot remember the exact date. I just remember that it was a Tuesday morning in April 1995 when we made our way to the chapel service. As I walked in, there was a sense that something was different. I don’t remember any of the musicians playing any music in an attempt to try to create an “atmosphere.” But something was different.
As Bill was introduced as that week’s speaker, we were told that he had experienced God in a powerful way recently and he had come to tell us about it. As he approached the pulpit, he did so with a great sense of solemnity. He looked at us and spoke quietly and sometimes, his voice would crack. He wasn’t going to “work us up” into a revival. He was broken by his encounter with God and it had left him keenly aware of his own sinfulness and frailty in God’s sight.
If my memory serves me correctly (it’s been over 17 years ago), that Tuesday in chapel, Bill spoke on God’s holiness. He talked of how Isaiah was captivated by God’s holiness in Isaiah 6 and how the natural human response was to become keenly aware of personal sin (Isaiah 6:5).
But he went on to say that God wanted us to acknowledge our sin on a deep level so we could confess it and receive forgiveness (Isaiah 6:6-7). Later in the week, he pointed out that when our sin is dealt with, we are empowered for service in ways we never thought imaginable (Isaiah 6:8ff).
As Bill preached in his soft, broken tones, students (most of them grown men) began to weep. This wasn’t anything worked up and it certainly wasn’t normal. In fact, I NEVER remember any other time when conviction of sin was so obvious.
All I can say is that God enabled us as a group to become more aware of the sin in our lives than we had ordinarily been able to experience. It’s as if God shined a light into the hidden, sin-filled closets of our minds and hearts and we were made aware of how sinful we really were. Sinful thought patterns, wrong motives and long-forgotten sinful actions were brought to light. The only natural response was to weep over those sins, despise them, confess them to the Lord and forsake them.
In fact, in my personal experience, searching out sin in my heart became a compelling desire. I actually found great delight in searching for and discovering unconfessed sin … because I loved the feeling of cleansing and forgiveness when I got it right with the Lord. Searching out sin was something I craved! I had never experienced this desire and joy to that extent.
I came to realize that in times of revival, the way to pure joy in the Christian life is through the valley of repentance. It is only as we are enabled to see our sins, bemoan and confess them at a very deep level, and then receive forgiveness from Almighty God that we are able to experience the unimaginable joy of the Lord.
When I say, “joy of the Lord,” I’m talking about an emotional response that was typical among most (if not all) of those present. It’s something you can’t adequately define … you can only experience it. What did Moses feel as he saw God’s glory in Exodus 33:18-23? What must Peter, James, and John have felt as they saw Jesus radiating His intoxicating glory in Matthew 17:2? They responded with fear and awe … but you had to be there to really understand.
When God showed up at Mid-America, I can recall so many specific moments that will stay with me until the day I die. But if I was to boil it all down, I would simply say that God showed up and left us with a desire for Him that may have dissipated but has never completely disappeared.
While I’ve fallen far short of God’s glory many times since then, I’ve also been left with a desire to know God more! It’s left me with a disdain for religion as usual. I developed a clearer understanding of how putrefying apathetic Christianity is to Jesus (Revelation 3:16) because I’ve experienced God in a way that has left me wanting more.
Revelation 3:16 (CSB) “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.”
As we see our nation and world morally spiraling out of control, may we cry out with Moses with hearts that long to experience Him.
Exodus 33:18 (CSB) “Then Moses said, ‘Please, let me see your glory.'”
May He do it among us again!