A Spiritual Journey, Part 1 – A Preacher Meets Jesus

Part One – A Preacher Meets Jesus

I had been a pastor for seven years when I asked Jesus Christ into my heart. This is my story.

I am an only child. My parents were always faithful churchgoing people. Our family was Methodist first, and then around 1976, when I was about 12, we started attending a Presbyterian Church. The two denominations were pretty similar in the “feel” of their services, though the Presbyterians tend to be a bit more “heady,” while the Methodists are more oriented toward the heart (you know, that famous story about John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed,” and all). Both denominations fall into the category of “mainline”, meaning the services were staid, quiet, reserved, “reverent”, traditional, and—for a young person—pretty boring. Both denominations lean liberal theologically, so they tended to interpret many parts of the Bible in a less literal fashion. At the Methodist churches we attended in those days, the sermons were heavy on psychology and sentimentality and light on references to the Bible or God, Christ, and spiritual matters.  Or so it seemed to us.  This is what led my parents to look for a different type of church to attend.

There was a Presbyterian Church across the street from where we lived.  I had visited one of their children’s programs several times with a friend and had liked it, and so my parents decided that would be a good church for us to visit.  The preaching there was more substantial than what we’d heard in the Methodist churches, and more biblically focused, but still liberal, heady, and dry for a young person. I don’t think it’s unfair to say I got very little out of the services. I don’t recall ever being aware of the presence of God there. As an older teenager I did learn to appreciate the hymns, and that has stayed with me and deepened over the years. I also remember a sermon or two preached there by the young associate pastor who worked with us kids.  But that was about the extent of what I’m conscious of getting out of those services.

To be fair, the people in that church, including the leaders, genuinely loved me and cared about me. They were (and still are) very kind to me and supportive. They saw my gifts as a young person and invited me to use them at an early age. As a teenager they had me playing my guitar and singing for services on occasion, helping out with the youth group, and even teaching Sunday school every so often. That Presbyterian church was one of the first places where I ever felt like I belonged.

My parents were a significant influence on my approach to spiritual things. During my early childhood, faith did not often appear to be a significant matter in our family. However, in my mid-elementary-school years my folks began to experience some deepening and renewal of their own faith, which culminated just before we moved to the Presbyterian church. From that time on they were (and are) essentially evangelical in their beliefs. So sometimes we almost felt like conservatives battling liberalism and unbelief in our denomination.

Our youth minister, whom I mentioned above, was an evangelical, though, and he had a strong influence on me as well. He reinforced a lot of what my parents taught me.

My perception in those days was that the emphasis was mainly on an intellectual approach to faith as opposed to an intimate relationship with Christ. The focus was on believing the right things and doing your darnedest to put them into practice–pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps, so to speak. There seemed to be a lot of focus on serving Christ but not so much on knowing Christ.  Or at least that’s how I perceived it.  If more was presented, I confess I totally missed it.

In the Presbyterian denomination I grew up in, there was little emphasis on personal salvation. People are not confronted with questions like “Do you know the Lord?” or “Have you given your heart to him?” or “Have you asked Christ into your heart?” or “Are you saved?” There are no altar calls or invitations given in church and few evangelistic sermons. About all that was emphasized was making a “commitment” to Christ, and this mainly in terms of personal effort.

So there was little emphasis on the Person of Christ and coming to understand and know Him as a living Lord today who is active and a personal friend and companion. Little emphasis was placed on receiving the Holy Spirit and living the Christian life by His power. Most of the focus was on Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and trying to imitate Him or to live according to His teachings.

Well, to fast-forward things a bit, this was my background as I entered seminary in the mid-1980s to prepare for full-time ministry. The seminary I attended (Princeton Seminary, a Presbyterian School a few blocks from Princeton University but not affiliated with it) was middle-of-the-road by liberal-Presbyterian standards, but would be liberal from an evangelical or perspective. We spent most of our time debating the truthfulness of Scripture, so it was not a place in which to become grounded in the Bible and spiritual things, certainly not a place in which one was encouraged to know Christ more intimately.

I think I went to seminary to face liberalism head-on. I had been exposed to it all my life and secretly had grave doubts about the evangelical beliefs my parents and youth pastor had tried to instill in me. In seminary I came in order to look liberal beliefs straight in the eye and see for myself what was the truth. At the same time, though, deep down something in me knew the liberal approach was a lie. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t defend biblical beliefs against it, which threatened me.

So in seminary I was on a personal quest. I spent most of my time and energy exploring and defending the authority of the Bible and its teachings in all my classes. In doing so I learned why liberal views don’t hold water and why it’s best after all to believe the Bible; and for the first time in my life I KNEW it, and these were certainly rungs on the ladder God was leading me up to bring me to know Him.

As an interesting side note, in one of my church history classes we were required to read a book by J. Gresham Machen from the 1920s called “Christianity and Liberalism.” This fact was rife with ironies. Machen had been a Bible-believing New Testament professor at Princeton who was forced to resign when the liberals took over the seminary during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy back in the ‘20s. In the book, Machen claimed that liberal Christianity wasn’t really Christianity at all, but instead a completely different religion, a false gospel masquerading as the Christian faith in modern guise. We were assigned this reading as an artifact of history, but for me it was a lifeline. While most of my classmates ridiculed Machen’s ideas, I was soaking them in and agreeing wholeheartedly with every word. This was but one of several discoveries I made at Princeton which served to unhinge the liberal agenda in my own thinking.

So I came out of seminary at least no longer threatened by liberalism, seeing it for the sham that it is, and with a lot more confidence in the truth of the Bible. But in many ways I had not experienced the realities the Bible conveys for myself. What I knew were intellectual ideas, more than relational and experiential realities.

When I finished seminary I wasn’t that keen on becoming a pastor, because I didn’t really feel suited for it, and I had a lot of misgivings about the Presbyterian denomination. I didn’t agree with infant baptism for starters, my classes in Reformed theology notwithstanding. I also disagreed with the fact that they ordained women as pastors, elders, and deacons, and with the feminist agenda that seemed to accompany this practice. This is not even to mention the homosexual activism that was going on in the denomination at the time, and still rages to this day. But my parents had paid all that money for school and I really didn’t know what else to do for a living, so I went ahead and looked for a church position in that denomination.

As a pastor I found that I didn’t know how to rely on God for the things I was doing–in fact, I wasn’t really even inclined to do so. So I felt pretty helpless and at a loss. The unbelief in the mainline church was so daunting, and I didn’t know how to address it in myself, much less in anyone else. I felt like the whole system was arrayed against knowing God, and perhaps it was….

I accepted my first call out of seminary in 1991, where I served as an associate pastor in a fairly large church. During my time there the senior pastor and another pastor on staff got into a big fight. In my youthful zeal and self-righteousness I took sides and got drawn into the conflict, too. It wound up being a very painful and disillusioning experience. Before it was all over, the entire presbytery in our region had been affected by this conflict. It was a huge, sad mess.

After 4 years at that church I left there (of my own accord, but after the major conflict I knew it was time to move on) and became the pastor of a small church in East Tennessee, still licking my wounds over what I had gone through in the previous church (not a good way to start one’s ministry in a new place…). In my new church I was dealing with a lot of pain and guilt from the conflict in the previous church, and felt very alone and unsure in the new situation. As a single pastor it was hard to find friends and hard to find potential women to date (how many young women really want to date a preacher, after all?). I felt abandoned, I guess.

This is when I began to really search for God. I was climbing more rungs up a spiritual ladder toward knowing Christ. One of the very ironic and good things that came out of my experience in seminary is that it actually served to increase my faith in the Bible as God’s Word. All I had been through as a pastor just made it more clear how true the Bible really is. By this time I was searching in earnest. I began to suspect that something significant was missing from my Christian life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I finally concluded that if I wanted to find whatever it was I was searching for, I was going to have to look outside my denomination. This is frowned on in Presbyterian circles because they think they have the smartest way. But I was to the point that I didn’t care anymore what my colleagues would think. I just wanted healing and deliverance, and had become willing to go wherever I needed to go to find it.

So in 1997 I started meeting with some of the other ministers in town for fellowship and prayer. Most of them were Pentecostals and Baptists. My parents had had some good experiences with charismatics in the Methodist church, and I had been close friends with several Spirit-filled kids in college, so I felt comfortable with them, even though my denomination probably would have thought they were flaky.

An Assembly of God pastor friend invited me to a prayer retreat for pastors in early 1998, and I decided that was just what I needed, so I went. I figured being with those folks for an extended period of time would help me find what I was looking for.

The retreat was great, and I had a chance to share my burdens and sins with the other pastors. They encouraged me to meet with a small group of laypeople and pastors who were there praying with those in attendance for healing and restoration.

So on the third and last night of the retreat, a group of five men prayed with me, two pastors and three laymen who were intercessors. The prayer time was actually led by one of the laypeople. I began by confessing to them some sins that were weighing heavily on my heart. Then we began to pray. During the time of prayer I was delivered from some demonic oppression I’d been fighting for several years. At one point the man leading us in prayer identified a demon that afflicting me and asked my permission to cast it out. I said yes, and so he commanded the lying spirit to go in Jesus name. I literally felt something in my chest release its grip on me and depart. Afterwards I felt released from a tightness in my chest that had been with me for several years. I was free!

All together, the confession, the prayers, and the deliverance were all very healing. I could tell God’s Spirit was truly at work.

A real surprise came a little later, though. At one point the man who was leading the prayer time asked me, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” I responded by telling him of my involvement in the church since my early teen years and that I had made some commitments to live for God around age 13.

“That’s good,” the man replied gently, “but it’s not exactly the same thing. Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

The truth was I couldn’t remember ever having prayed such a prayer in earnest. They don’t think like that in the Presbyterian church–asking Jesus into your heart. To be honest, I’d always thought the idea was a tad sentimental and not really necessary. I felt that what you believed about Christ and whether you trusted Him was the main thing. I was convinced that this man’s question to me wasn’t really that important, and that it was already taken care of in my life. So I answered that I couldn’t remember asking Christ into my heart but I thought the issue was already dealt with.

He replied, “Well, since you can’t remember a specific time, why don’t you do it now, just to be sure. Then in the future if anyone ever asks you this question again, you’ll be able to say yes.”

Now you have to understand, under different circumstances I might have tried to offer some “clever” arguments as to why I didn’t think I needed to pray a prayer like that. After all, by that time I’d been a pastor for seven years!

But in that moment it was pretty clear that God was at work, and I had no desire to stifle whatever it was he was doing. In my spirit I suspected the question was on target. So within myself I said, “Lord, if this is what you want me to do, I’m not going to fight it.” I agreed to pray and ask Christ into my heart.

Just the same, I wasn’t really expecting much to happen, because I did assume the matter was already taken care of. I was essentially praying the prayer as a formality. But I was in for a surprise, and a very pleasant one at that.

I bowed my head and prayed a simple prayer in my own words: “Lord Jesus Christ, I do want you to come into my heart, and into my life,” I began. Suddenly I felt a change in my heart, a sense of peace, love, and joy filling me up–a feeling I had never felt before.

As C.S. Lewis said, I was “surprised by joy!” All those years I had sought to serve God, but I had never felt or experienced his love for me until that moment. For the first time I began to understand what it meant to call God my Father.

Afterwards I was in wonder and amazement and floating on cloud nine like I never had in my life, and scratching my head over what had just happened. It was night time, and so after the prayer time I went back to my room at the retreat center where we were staying. As I brushed my teeth, I noticed the chorus to an old hymn was “playing” inside me. This had never happened to me before, for it wasn’t me singing the song, but something inside me was “singing” it. I stopped to listen.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

The amazing thing is, this was not a hymn I knew that well or had ever sung very often (they don’t sing hymns like that much in the Presbyterian church). And yet that night my heart was singing it as though it was an old favorite. Then I remembered the Scripture that says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16-17, NIV). As long as I had been in the church, I had wondered what that verse was talking about, because I had never experienced the Holy Spirit testifying to my spirit that I was a child of God. I suddenly realized that this was exactly what was happening! The last line of that hymn says “You ask me how I know He lives–He lives within my heart.” The Holy Spirit was using my absolute favorite medium of communication—music—to give me a most important and excellent message! Truly God knows our deepest desires and how to speak to them…..

After my experiences at that pastors’ retreat I noticed some subtle but real changes in my life. For the first time I began to feel genuinely loved by God. I noticed that my prayers packed more power and punch. Scripture came alive in a deep and beautiful way. Passages I’d never understood before began to make sense. I was less prone to doubt than I had been before. I was also less prone to anxiety. And, much to my relief, my love life also began to take a turn for the better.

In the weeks that followed the retreat, I tried to better understand exactly what happened. It was certainly more than a mere “rededication” of my life, because after that time I experienced something I’d never known before–the reality of God’s love and presence in my life. Yet I thought I had known the Lord to some degree before those events: I felt that at times He had spoken to me and led me by His Spirit, and I had believed in Christ and sought to follow him.

As I thought and prayed about it, I came up with several ways to talk about this change I experienced:

1) Originally I had believed in the Lord intellectually and felt I had some level of relationship with him, but He always felt pretty distant. It’s almost like before asking Christ into my heart, I had something like an Old Testament relationship with God. I believed in Him and knew a lot of facts about Him. I believed He had given the Bible and that it was His Word. I believed in and knew His laws and tried to live by them. I even believed Jesus was the Son of God and had died for the sins of the world (it was harder to get my mind around the idea that He had died for my sins). I knew the Holy Spirit was given to live in believers and I even believed in the gifts of the Spirit. But the idea that God truly loved and accepted me was a foreign concept. Talk of God as my Father, or of His grace, didn’t mean much to me. I had rarely, if ever, experienced the reality of God’s presence in my life, or His power. Love was not much of a reality in my life. I didn’t feel loved by God, and I didn’t have much love to offer others. I wasn’t capable of giving or receiving love. I related to God from my mind and was hardly even aware of my heart. I didn’t know that we relate to God through our hearts. My heart and mind were split off from each other. I was a man divided from himself, and didn’t even know it.

As I thought about all this an analogy occurred to me from the business world. Before I asked Jesus into my heart, it was as if a business deal had been all set up and fully negotiated, but we had never actually “closed the deal.” It seemed “the deal” was actually “closed” that night when I prayed to receive Christ. I began to conclude that Jesus does not force His way into our lives. He wants to be invited.

2) The difference between the “before” and “after” in my relationship with Christ was sort of like the difference between a couple who are engaged and a couple who are married. Both couples have some kind of relationship with each other, but only the married couple has been united to one another. At some point we need to actively receive Christ in order to be united with him for eternity and sealed with his Spirit. It is not until then that we can truthfully say that we are “in Christ,” and He is in us. Before my experience at the pastor’s prayer retreat I had never understood the Christian life as a spiritual union between Jesus Christ and myself.

3) Before, as I said above, I had more of an Old Testament relationship with God: I knew him, but I feared him. I saw him more as judging than as loving. After my conversion I came to know him in the New Testament sense, as my loving Father. The difference is subtle but important.

4) Perhaps the best explanation–certainly the most biblical one–is to simply say that I was “born again” or “born anew” (John 3: 3), which in the Greek also means “born from above.” Scripture makes it clear that this is a work of the Holy Spirit, not something we human beings can do for ourselves. And it happens when we receive Christ: “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1: 12-13). Before receiving Christ I had trusted him to some extent with my intellect but had never actively received him into my heart and life.

5) One other Scripture I discovered for the first time after my experience was Eph 3:16-17: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (NIV). There it is, right in the Bible, and I never knew it.

6) Before receiving Christ, I struggled with doubts about my salvation. After my experience at the pastors’ prayer retreat I had assurance of salvation, because the Holy Spirit had testified to my spirit that I was a child of God.

On that last night of the pastor’s retreat, as I lay in bed unable to sleep due to the excitement and wonder of all I had experienced, I knew I had a choice before me—whether to keep this change and this new discovery to myself, or to share it with others. Sharing it would be risky. It might raise questions about my legitimacy as a pastor. If I had been mistaken about my relationship with Christ all those years, would people want to follow me anymore? How would my congregation respond? On the other hand, though, it would be a shame to keep such great news to myself. I realized that if I had been mistaken about my relation to God all those years, I was probably not the only person like that. I concluded that there were probably a lot of other people in churches who had never truly encountered Jesus in a personal way.

It really wasn’t that hard of a decision. Good news is hard to contain. I decided to take the risk and be open about my experiences. I’ve always been a pretty open person anyway, so it would have gone against the grain to keep such a wonderful experience all to myself, especially since I had finally found what I’d been searching after for so many years! It occurred to me that perhaps God had even allowed this to happen to me so I could share it with others. So I decided to tell what had happened to me that night.

The pastor’s prayer retreat ended on a Thursday. At the closing session in which we were sharing what God had done in our lives during the retreat, I couldn’t contain myself and burst out with it before my fellow pastors. The room erupted in exclamations of surprise and delight, in “Hallelujahs” and other acts of praise. One of the other pastors there, who led a large Evangelical Free church in Knoxville, asked me to come and share my testimony in the evening services at his church. I agreed, and we made plans for me to be there that Sunday night.

After the retreat it was back to regular church responsibilities, back to “reality,” as they say. I decided to share my experiences with my congregation in the Sunday morning service.

When the day came, I was a bit nervous, because I wasn’t sure what their response would be. After all, this was a Presbyterian church in a liberal denomination, so I just didn’t know quite what to expect….

(To be continued….)

Part 2 of this story can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/

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