I can still feel the hope that rushed through me that spring morning in 2007. I was invited to speak at one of the biggest public schools in Puerto Rico; to a classroom filled with the most “discipline-challenged” students that could be gathered. The crowd would be composed of pregnant teenagers, young addicts and detention experts, all forced to listen to my sermon for thirty minutes.
“Finally, a chance to see if this message I kept preaching worked outside the church walls!”—at least, that was the mindset that drove me there. Then, in order to achieve my religious expectations, I felt the irrational need to be extra spiritual:
Increase the use of my divine gifts? Check √
Add some extra verses to my Bible reading? Check √
Use Hebrew words in all my prayers? Check √
Extend my worship times? Check √
Do minimal amounts of sin? … Almost checked √
The Friday arrived and I remember walking the hallways on my way to the classroom with prayer-warrior-intercession-of-the-angelic- kind under my breath, and the list of won battles in my pocket. As I stepped past the door, I noticed four teachers who stood quietly in a corner. They gave me a short glance and looked at each other with eyes rolled in skepticism. It took me ten seconds to understand why.
The room was stuffed with eighty, loud and careless souls. There were young couples in full on puppy-love-mode, who manifested their love publicly with extravagant affection. Some students had gold chains around their necks that could have paid my mortgage. Others looked angry with the world, and especially with me. And my holy confidence diminished with every step I took amongst the mass of rowdy high school students. In a moment, all the self-won anointing abandoned me. I forgot my opening jokes and the Bible verses I had planned to preach from. Cold sweat overtook my body and I knew that I looked nervous and lost.
Suddenly, like a warm fire on a cold winter night, a thought flickered in my mind: the image of Carol Arnott as she steps back into her Father’s embrace. In my time of interning for the Arnotts, I heard her explain: “Whenever I feel fearful or insecure in front of people, all I have to do is remember God’s presence. Then, I take a step back into the arms of the Father and receive a hug from the one who is always standing right behind me.”
It had been more than four years since I left Catch The Fire Toronto but in that moment of great distress, while the teachers were trying to get control of the crowd, I remembered Mama Carol. Then, I turned my back to the students, faced the whiteboard in front of the room and closed my eyes. I took a step back with my shaking knees into my Father’s embrace and instantly felt His company. Immediately, I heard a known whisper: “Carlos, they don’t need a prepared sermon, they need a prepared life, and you my son, are prepared.” Without analyzing His words, I believed in my heart, took a deep breath and everything changed.
As the director of the school finished the introduction, I turned to faced the prodigals in front of me and began to share from Luke 15. Suddenly, I remembered the jokes, delivered them famously and the group responded with laughter. Make them smile? Check √
I was then animated and entertaining while sharing the story of the prodigal son. Keep their attention? Check √
I was also vulnerable and open while forgetting my religious efforts. Remember His unconditional love? Double check √√
Here I was in a public school, able to share one of the most powerful illustrations in all of scripture; a son who goes to his father to request the share of his inheritance (as if to wish him dead). The father responds not by putting up a fight, but rather by sharing his life and wealth. The younger son goes away fully loaded, far away from home to foreign lands. He wastes his inheritance in food, gambling, paid sex and other temporary pleasures. As the money runs out, hunger strikes. Now, the boy who lacked nothing becomes a beggar, willing to eat pigs’ leftovers.
From the students’ reaction, I could tell that some had heard the story before, while others had no clue where this was going. Twenty minutes into it, I called out to an uninterested young man in the back, “Can you help me act out the climactic scene of the son’s return?” Everyone started laughing while explaining to me his usual unwillingness. Hence, I pushed a little more and like a miracle to all his friends, he agreed.
“Sure, I’ll help. Sleeping around and wasting money on drinking and gambling… Easy for me to act this guy out,” said the young man confidently. To my joy he got into full character; acted like a drunk, pretended to kiss the girls around him, and walked slowly to the back corner. He was Denzel-Washington-good.
Meanwhile, I read out loud from Luke 15:17-20,
When the son came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So, he got up and went to his father.
I went to the furthest spot of the room and invited my willing actor to repeat the words that the prodigal son said. Silence began to creep in as he cleared his throat and quoted, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” With more than half of the class sitting in between us, I asked him to repeat those words and walk with his head low, towards me. As he did, I took a step back and said, “When the son decided to go back home, this is how the Father reacted.” Then I smiled, opened my arms and started running violently across the room.
As I crashed with the prodigal son in front of me, I began to kiss him on our way to the floor. The room went from extreme laughter to quiet shock when I yelled at the top of my lungs: “This is how the Father reacts to you!”
More than half of them, including the boy who acted as the prodigal son began to cry. I repeated, “Daddy God loves your homecoming!” “Daddy God loves your homecoming!” while I continued to kiss him, hug him and look into as many eyes as I could catch.
After letting go of my crying actor, I started to embrace others and they began to fall to the floor, broken by God’s evident grace. I watched as fellow students reached out to each other and began to ask for forgiveness. Strong men were on their knees repenting and young women lifted their hands in surrender to God.
Meanwhile, my friend Carli, who had been given another group of younger students to share with, walked into the classroom, looked at me in awe and began to worship with his guitar. We led them through prayers of forgiveness and welcoming. As the kids continued to line up for prayer, the skeptics were now teary-eyed believers who hugged and prayed with their most difficult students.
That morning, I stood in the middle of the greatest revival meeting I had ever attended. God manifested His love in this glorious chaos and I witnessed the healing of multiple hearts. Heaven came to earth, sons and daughters met their true Father, grace was evident and touchable, and my life has never been the same.
Standing before this live scene of the gospel I began to understand something that seemed really obvious to Jesus: The world is desperate for a loving father. Jesus knows this loving Father intimately and eternally. And His greatest joy was to share Him with us all.
The message remains the same, no matter where you have been in life, and what you have been involved in, the Father is willing to change it all. This is The Story You Need.
He’s running towards you right now. There’s nothing you can do to stop this glorious crash!
Say “yes” to God The Running Father.
And let the party begin.
“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” ― Brennan Manning,
+ This story is included in my first book: Simply Sonship – Download now for free 🙂