A friend of Jesus
(Please listen to Keith’s story by clicking the white play button at the top of this post. You can read the transcript of the story below.)
I tell people my testimony in one, one short sentence is, “I was a Christian for 20 years and then I met Jesus.” I loved Him before, because it was right. Because I wanted Him to bless me, because I wanted to go to heaven. I was the center that story all the way through. But when I fell in love with Jesus, He’s worthy. He’s beautiful. He’s wonderful. I want to go anywhere, I want to do anything, I just want to live my life to put a smile on His face.
In 1985, I was going to seminary. And honestly, I didn’t know that it was seminary until about three days in. I turned to the guy next to me, I said, “This is just like seminary.” He just looked at me and was like, “Boy where you think you are?” I tried to leave. But God wanted me there because we had to write a paper on, Who is the Holy Spirit?. But I had a lot of different denominational backgrounds. Some said, you’re the dispensation of the Holy Spirit passed, the dispensation of miracles had passed. Others said, you have to speak in tongues, so many syllables per second, and so many decibels loud. And I wanted to know. So it was a wonderful paper for me to write. And I came away with with two very clear things for me. One was, Jesus said, “He (speaking of the Holy Spirit) shall glorify Me.” All the arguments for or against–arguing never honors Jesus. We’re just to lift Him up. But I saw where Jesus very clearly said in Acts 1:8, He said, that “you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall…” And He didn’t say anything about whether or not we would exercise different gifts. He said, “You shall be My witnesses, beginning right where you are Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, the uttermost parts of the earth.” And then I read over in Luke 4 where Jesus said, and He opens the scroll in the synagogue, in Nazareth. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He’s annointed me to…” And again, He didn’t say anything about all the things that everyone argued about. “He’s annointing me to preach good news.”
All that really created a crisis in my heart, because I really never had told anybody about Jesus. I’ve gone through an evangelism explosion class, because that was part of the church thing that you did. But the problem with that is, I would memorize what I was supposed to say and if they didn’t say the right thing then then I get lost. And so I’m really shy. I’m a hillbilly boy from Arkansas. And I wanted my wife to be a witness. But to actually tell somebody about Jesus, that was a different story. I remember laying down in my dormitory room, on my face. I’m just crying out, “More Lord, more. God I need more of You.” And I felt like, and please hear me, I’m going to say I feel like God spoke to me and you know, maybe I’m wrong. I maybe have missed God. I really felt like it was like fire in my in my heart, like someone took a firebrand to my heart. So I’m crying out, “More Lord more Lord.” and I felt like God said, “Be quiet and listen to Me. I’m not a stock. I’m not a commodity. You can’t buy or sell or trade Me. I’m not a part, I’m not a parcel. I’m not a portion. I’m all I ever was. I’m all I ever will be. I’m all that I am. And when I came to live with you, all I ever was, all I ever will be, all that I am, everything I am came to live with you. The question is not you getting more of Me. It’s Me getting all of you.” And I just said, “Okay, as much as I know how, Jesus I’ll give You everything.”
I didn’t feel different. I didn’t look different. And I made a commitment; I’m going to go tell somebody about Jesus. Again, I really didn’t know how to do it, or even where to start. I thought, where, where are lost people? I’d always been told to stay away from the bars. And so okay, maybe that’s where God wants me to go as far as the nightclubs. So I got my Ryrie Study Bible. I got my gospel tracks, little coaching tracks, that was the best they had in those days. I showed up at the bar at eight o’clock. And honestly, I thought, “Man, Tulsa is really a Christian town because nobody was in the bar at that time. They started backsliding a little bit by 10 o’clock. And by midnight, they really backslid because the place was full. But at eight o’clock, no one was there. And again, I just never had been to a bar before. And I hadn’t told anybody about Jesus, until two o’clock the bars closed. I still hadn’t told anybody. I never had been awake that late in my life. I looked, I looked higher, drunker than any of the people coming out of those places because the cigarette smoke was burning my eyes. I was up late, my eyes were red and swollen and I looked like a glazed donut.
FInally, three o’clock in the morning, all the cars are gone except two or three and I just prayed. “Jesus if you want me to talk to someone, bring them around the corner in the next five minutes or I’m going home. In Your name I pray. Aaaaammm.” And before I could say, “Amen,” someone came around the corner. Remember, I’m running on adrenaline. It’s late. I’m afraid. I’ve never done this before. I jumped in this guy’s face not regarding his personal space. Holding up my Ryrie Study Bible with my gospel cartoon tracks and my eyes all swollen and red. And it’s pretty bad right now. You know, sir, go ahead. “Jesus died on the cross. His blood was shed, so you can have life. Praise the Lord. Sir, do you want to get saved?” And I can’t repeat to you what he said, but it wasn’t very nice. And then he spat on my shoes.
And I knew I was a failure. I missed God.
So I went and got in my car, put the key in the ignition and it was backed up against the building. As I turned on the car, a big black SUV, big truck, jacked up high wheels, stopped in front of my car, tinted window came down and it was the same guy. [He] rolled down his window. Said, “You really meant what you was talking about back there, didn’t you?” And I’m just…I said, “Yes sir.” And he said, “Could we talk?” And he got down out of his truck and we sat there and we talked until the sun came up. And I’d like to tell you that his life was changed. And I really believe that it was. I can tell you for sure whose life was changed. It was mine. Because in that moment, I saw that those people in those bars, in those nightclubs, those people standing on the street corner with their little signs, or sleeping under the bridges, or those people overseas in their different places of worship, places of war in the jungles, or maybe even a person in the bank, in the high rise in town, or the person on the other side of the fence in my neighborhood. They’re not monsters to be feared and creatures to run from, but they’re kidnapped royalty. They’re created to be sons and daughters of the King of all kings.
So I started going on a regular basis. I started a shuttle service for people too drunk to get home. I think I might have been the original Uber. And it was it was nice for the for the bouncers. I’ve taken away a problem. I started going on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, volunteering to clean the toilets for free. And the owners would ask me, “Why?” and I said, “Well, Jesus washed people’s feet.” So before long, they started trusting me and they had me coming in this places. Before long the let me come table the table and shortly after that they would have me speak sometimes as they would close and say a prayer. And eventually, they even let me speak between band sets sometimes. I started seeing a world that I never had seen. A world of pain and brokenness and confusion and fear. And people trying to reach for something to cover up the pain that was in their life. And so I’d never been around alcoholism, I never had been around drug abuse, abuse, misuse. I never had been around prostitution or gangs or even homelessness. I just, in a season of prayer said, “Jesus to speak to me. I want to reach these people.” And I felt like He said, “Son, I want you to make a 12 foot wooden cross and begin walking through the streets of your city on Good Friday.” And I thought, that is the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. It’s just plain silly. And you know, I, I rebuked the thought, rebuked the devil, and thought that’s the last time I’m eating Fruity Pebbles and pizza. It has to be indigestion. I prayed again, “Lord, I’m listening. Your servant is listening. Speak.” And it was just, if I could describe it. It was like fire. It was like someone took a firebrand to my heart and just branded these words, “I want you to make a twelve foot wooden cross and start walking through the streets of Tulsa.” And again, I’m just thinking, “Man, I need to open the window, get some fresh air. God wouldn’t call me to do this. And a third time, this time I prayed, “Lord, You’ve got somebody carrying a cross.” There was a guy at my local Walmart and he had a like a toga kind of like Jesus would wear and a pretend crown of thorns. He had his van with scriptures painted on the side and he had a bullhorn.
I said “Lord, I don’t want to be like someone else. I want to be just like You.” I felt like Jesus said, “Son, that’s the most religious excuse you could ever give Me. Anyone can die on a cross. Two theives died on either side of Me. But only One could die for the sins of the world and I did it because of love. And I want you to take that cross and identify My message of love on the highways and the road signs of this world where there is no churches. Where there are no meetings. Where there are no conferences. I don’t ever want it to be a symbol of protest. I just want you to lift Me up and I will draw all men to Myself.” I thought, “Well, that sounds like what You’d say God, but could you give me a sign?” And I promise I, I did not tell anybody. No friends, No family. And this is the day that telephones are on the walls. And the telephone rang and I answered. It was a friend, an acquaintance. He said, “Keith, this is the strangest thing. But I feel like you and I are supposed to make a large wooden cross and start carrying it through the streets of Tulsa on Good Friday.” And I prayed, “Lord, that was pretty good, but could You give me one more sign?” I’d like to tell you that my walk has been one of great faith. But truly it’s been one of God’s great mercy, and grace.
I went to class the next day, and the professor, into the preaching class, homiletics class, and the professor who was going alphabetical, and we were in the Ms, like Martin, Miller, Matthews, Miranda. I’m Wheeler, W. But he said, “Keith, I really feel that you’re supposed to speak next week, (which would be the Wednesday, two days before Good Friday) next Wednesday.” He said, “And normally we would select the text. But I feel strongly that you’re supposed to speak from Mark 8:34.” And I looked it up and it said, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” So by the grace of God, I began on Good Friday 1985, this journey that only Jesus could have done this. I’ve now carried the cross more than 25,000 miles in over 200 different nations, on all seven continents, been through more than 40 nations at war, regions of conflict. Jesus, did it all. I say Jesus is worthy of everything.
It’s not been a sacrifice. It has been a privilege. It’s been an invitation. People pay thousands of dollars to sit on the front row of a sporting event or a musical event, center stage. And the King of all kings, the King of the universe has given us an invitation to sit on the front row, center stage and watch what He’s doing; where He loves, touches, and changes people’s lives.
I’m more interested in reaching all of you than I am in reaching all of the world. Because when I have someone whose heart is completely Mine, then I have someone I can reach all the world through.
I began carrying the cross here in Tulsa. And then it was after that, that I would do weekend walks, began walking in nearby towns. I ended up walking all the way over to Oklahoma City. I had no thoughts. I didn’t entertain the idea of ever it being beyond a local thing. And then on one October afternoon, I felt like God said, “Now, son, (I mean, it was just like fire in my heart.) I want you to take the cross to Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, South Africa.” And for two weeks, it was burning in my heart. But in 1985, in South Africa, there was difficulty. There was danger. And I had a good job. I was a student. What about my family? I don’t have enough money to get over there. And how do you get a 12 foot wooden cross on an airplane? Surely, God makes more sense than this. So I’m not going to go. And when I finally said no, after two weeks of almost daily, just as this fire burning in my heart, the fire went out. Two more weeks later passed, the same professor, it was homiletics class, part two, wanted our class to watch Christian TV. You have to understand this in 1985. This is before we all had computers, the internet or YouTube. This was before we had satellite. This was before we had cable. All we had were not even rabbit ears. I had a clothes hanger that we cut and we put tin foil on the end of it. And we had to move it just to get the signal. And I knew that, he told us what channel was and I had never watched Christian television. I knew who the different people were at that time. It was Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell and Jim Baker, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts. But I never had seen it before.
I got the channel and I’m not exaggerating, the first words I ever heard on Christian television…Because I’m supposed to write this paper, on my opinion of what they say and the sermon that they preach. First words, it was a Kenneth Copeland conference in Southern California, Anaheim, California. And he said these words, “who has carried a cross around the world is with us today. Arthur, come on up here and tell us what God is speaking to you.” Now, I didn’t know anybody else carried a cross besides the gentleman at Walmart at that time. And this other man named Arthur Blessitt went up on the platform and he said, “Brother Ken, God has been calling someone to take a cross to Cape Town, Durban, and Pretoria, South Africa.” He said, “I’ve always asked God to call someone first. And if no one goes, I volunteer.” He said, “I’m leaving next week.” And he went in my place. I felt so deflated that, that Jesus had called me to do something and I refused to do it because of really and truly, fear. All all of those excuses were based on fear. And the lesson I learned was one of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned along this journey was, I would rather miss the will of God trying to obey the not do anything at all.
You know, the journey with the cross…I call it a pilgrimage. Because it’s, each day, each step, I’m learning, I’m growing. And it’s a lot. It represents our walk with Jesus. You know, my collarbone is, in the clavicle, is grooved because of the weight of the wood all these year. I’ve got about a, just this huge groove on both sides where, because I switch shoulders, but especially on my left side. It’s about an inch and a half of bone growth. I’ve never broken it, but it’s just deformed because of the cross. And, and I say that that’s what the wood has done to my body; but when we take up the cross, when we walk with Jesus, that’s what He does to our hearts. That’s what He does to our life. He slowly and surely and patiently shapes us and changes and forms us into His image.
You know, there’s so many, so many funny parables about it. I’ll be invited to come speak at a church. And the pastor might say, well meaningly, “Please bring the cross, as long as it’s not inconvenient.” And I chuckle because, what part of a cross is ever been convenient? It’s going to cost me extra to put the cross on the airplane. It’s uncomfortable, it’s extra, it’s heavy, it’s awkward. The Cross was never meant to be easy. The Way of the Cross was never meant to be comfortable or convenient. But it’s constantly shaping us and rearranging us, again, chipping away parts of us that don’t need to be there and refining the image of Jesus in our life. The fact that I missed God, and God had to raise somebody else up, God already knew that I was going to miss that. He doesn’t miss anything, and if we allow Him, He won’t waste anything in our life. He’ll take those pieces, and just like the little boy with the loaves and fish, He takes broken pieces and multiplies it. And He will because He wants to feed the multitudes.
I’ll give you another example.
I was walking through Central America many years ago, from Panama to Mexico. And I remember, asking God, what’s the purpose of all this? What? What’s going on? I felt again that He spoke to my heart; just whispered in my heart, “Son, I’m more interested in reaching all of you than I am of reaching all the world. Because when I have someone whose heart is completely Mine then I have someone I can reach all the world through. And He reminded me of the scripture in 2 Chronicles 16:9 “The eyes of the Lord search to and fro, throughout all the earth, searching for someone who’s heart is completely His that He may strongly support.” And I want to be that man.
On that same journey, when I made it about halfway up into Honduras to Tegucigalpa. Local pastors came together and they wanted to, because of the circumstances, they wanted to have a rally. They saw me with a cross, and they wanted me to speak. So, it was a big meeting out in the middle of the city of Tegucigalpa, and I felt like, it felt like Billy Graham. They had the big platform and thousands of people were there, and they had lights on. I said, you know, “Who’s my interpreter?” They said, “Oh, you don’t need an interpreter. Your Spanish is great. And Spanish is a language of the heart.” So just, just speak it. With an interpreter is going to take away…” I said, “Well, I think I need an interpreter.” They said, “No, no, you. It’s really good.” Okay. And I started preaching in Spanish, and I was doing great. And I got to this one place where I said, “and Jesus will forgive”–I mean, I felt like Billy Graham–“and Jesus will forgive all your sins.” That word in Spanish for sins is ‘pecados’ but the wor in Spanish for fish or dead fish is ‘pescados.’ And I said, “Jesus will forgive all your dead fish.” And the audience was just roaring, laughing. And I thought I’m being persecuted for the gospel. So I said, “No, listen, I really mean it. Jesus will forgive all your Fish.” And they laughed harder. And I turned around and look at the pastors and they’ve all got their heads down, shaking. I said, aww you did need an interpreter. So I’ve made more mistakes along the way. I call them bloopers, blunders, other boo boos that I’ve made, that I could write a book about. But God takes those little broken things that we do, as long as we’re willing to give it to Him, and He multiplies that.
The next place I went was into the former Eastern Bloc countries. And I was in, at that time, it was called Yugoslavia. The part I was in was Zagreb, which is the capital state of Croatia. And we carry the cross–it was still communist–into the central square there in Zagreb called Trg Republike, central square. Crowds gathered so much so it shut down even public transportation, the trans, the buses; no more cars on the streets. My buddy was supposed to be keeping an eye on me and walking with me. He got pushed away by the crowd. My interpreter, named Amir, got pushed away because the crowds wanting to get close to the cross. So I just kept preaching, in English, at this point. And I would invite people, “If you’d like to give your life to Jesus, just kneel with me and I’ll lead you in a prayer.” Of course, I can’t hear them and many of them are kneeling. Shortly after that, I’m arrested and I’m put in jail for three days. When I get out the first one to meet me is my friend Amir, my translator. And he goes, “Keith, you’re never going to believe this.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “You know all those people that were kneeling?” He said, “I went to them, because I know that they don’t speak English.” And I said, “What, what are you trying to say?” He goes, “They don’t speak English, Keith.” I said, “Well, so were they just kneeling because I was kneeling?” He goes, “That’s what I thought.” And he said, “I said to them, how did you understand if you don’t speak English?” (He goes, I knew many of them.) They said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “The guy with the cross.” They said, “Yeah, what are you talking about?” He said, “Well, that guy’s from America.” They go, “Noooo. He’s from here.” And it didn’t matter whether they spoke Croatian, which is called Herzegovina, or whether they spoke Norwegian, whether they spoke Hungarian. Whatever language they spoke, they understood. I don’t know if it’s the gift of tongues, or the gift of the ears, or the gift of understanding. But I believe, had I not been willing to say, “Jesus will forgive all your sins.” or instead, “I forgive all your fish.” He takes those things and it’s a willingness. And then He took that and here I saw this incredible miracle in Croatia, in Yugoslavia, at the time. He doesn’t waste anything.
Here’s a thought. You’ve heard the saying, “just take a leap of faith.” I’m here to say that’s not biblical. Where in the Bible does God say, “take a leap of faith.” He tells us to walk by faith. And how do you walk? One step at a time. And so all God asks for is our next breath, our next heartbeat, our next step. He’s 100% available, 100% of the time. But it’s, how much of us are we willing to give to Him? Not more Lord. He’s saying more of us. It’s who He is making us and He’s making each one of us. He’s transforming each one of us into His image. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be known as Keith Wheeler, the man who’s carried the cross around the world. I want to be known as Keith Wheeler, the friend of Jesus.