Monthly Archives: December 2013

Did You Know It’s Still Christmas?

This is a repost of a blog I originally published in December 2008.

My Christmas/Epiphany song is available as a free download now through January 2:

My Christmas/Epiphany song is available as a free download now through January 2:

I can hear the groans already. “Still Christmas?? No! Please! I’m sick of Christmas!! Pleeeease let it be over with already!”

But actually it is still Christmas. You’ve heard of the “12 days of Christmas”? It’s more than just a song. On the church calendar Christmas actually does last through January 5. That’s twelve days. Count ’em.

In the old days this season of the church year used to be called “Christmastide.” Now I think they just call it the Season of Christmas.

The way we do Christmas in America contains a lot of irony. Technically, on the church calendar the Christmas season doesn’t start until Dec. 25. In America, though, Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier every year. When I was a kid, people started thinking about and decorating for Christmas after Thanksgiving. This coincided pretty nicely with the church calendar, because the season of Advent, which is sort of the build up to Christmas, a season of preparation and anticipation, begins soon after the Thanksgiving holiday.

But nowadays it’s not uncommon to begin seeing Christmas decorations in stores right after Halloween, if not before. (In a twist which almost seems indicative of two competing spiritual kingdoms, this past fall I heard that Halloween is the second most lucrative holiday of the year, behind Christmas.)

So by mid-November we’re already being treated to Christmas decorations, advertisements for Christmas toys, and even maybe an occasional Christmas carol interspersed in the ever-ubiquitous muzak. After Thanksgiving all the stops are pulled out, bringing the modern American Christmas frenzy into full swing.

It’s no wonder that this past Friday one of my colleagues at work was heard to say “I’m glad Christmas is over with. I’m sick of it.”

I didn’t listen to much Christmas music this year prior to the week of Christmas day. With two elderly relatives dying a couple weeks before and having spent the previous weeks waiting to hear of their fate, there just didn’t seem to be much room or inclination in my heart to think about Christmas this year.

That changed, though, when I attended a wonderful musical rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Clarence Brown Theatre here in Knoxville last Sunday. It made me realize I was becoming Scroooge-ish this year, and the delightful production helped revive the Christmas spirit for me.

So by Monday I was ready to hear some Christmas music. One of the local Christian radio stations devoted the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas to playing Christmas music, so carols weren’t hard to find on the radio.

Due to my work schedule I wasn’t able to be with family on Christmas day this year, but instead knew I wouldn’t see them until this weekend (Dec. 26-28). So this year I was thankful to remember that Christmas lasts beyond the 25th. Therefore as I was driving to work on the morning of Dec. 26, I was ready to hear some more Christmas music.

To my dismay I clicked on the radio to discover that the channel which had been blaring non-stop Christmas music the day before, and for an entire month previously, was now suddenly back to their regular playlist again. Not a Christmas carol to be heard anywhere! All that build-up, and now they were moving on as if nothing important or special had happened at all! Almost as if they, like everyone else, were sick of Christmas, too, and just ready to get back to “normal life.”

Bah humbug.

That’s when it struck me how backwards we have this whole Christmas thing. The four weeks before Christmas Day are supposed to be Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation and preparation (namely to ready our hearts to celebrate Jesus, not to wear ourselves out getting all set for the grand Gift Exchange). That’s supposed to be the build-up to Christmas. Then Christmas Day is supposed to be a day of joy and wonder at “what God hath wrought” in Jesus.

Instead, though, we’ve allowed it to become a time in which everyone works themselves silly buying presents, and wrapping gifts, and decorating trees and houses and yards, and staging parties (with one or more to attend every week, it seems), and…and…I’m out of breath. No wonder everyone’s sick of Christmas by the time Dec. 26 rolls around.

Bah humbug.

But I think that’s where the beauty and the pleasant surprise of Christmastide comes in, the fact that Christmas is a season and not just a day. Now that all the hustle and bustle is over, we can take a breather. Now we can take some time to actually reflect on the meaning of the holiday, because we rarely have time for that before the 25th.

I assume the Christian radio station quit playing Christmas carols on Dec. 26 out of ignorance. Sadly, even many of us in the church have lost touch with the rhythms and cadences of the church calendar. Being somewhat of a liturgical rebel myself I’ll be the first one to say I don’t think we should be legalistically bound to the church calendar. I think it adds freshness to our celebrations when we change things up from time to time and from year to year. This year it really helped me enjoy Christmas by not listening to or singing Christmas carols until a few days before the 25th.

But at the same time, when we’ve so completely lost sight of the fact that it’s still Christmas, then maybe it’s time to be reminded. To that Christian radio station, and to my friend at work, I want to say: “Not so fast. Let’s allow it to be Christmas a little while longer. I’m really just starting to enjoy it now. Let’s allow ourselves time to reflect on what Christmas really means.”

After all, if we can get past all the busyness of Christmas and remember what it’s really about, on some level wouldn’t we like it to be Christmas all year ’round? We only get sick of Christmas if we lose sight of the real point. It’s not about the tree or the presents or the parties or the snow we wish we had or the mistletoe or all the rushing here and there. It’s about love and peace and goodwill and joy. Those are things I’d like to carry with me through the year.

I have a friend who grew up in a denomination that didn’t observe the liturgical calendar. He discovered the church calendar late in life and has found it to be a great source of comfort and structure for his faith. This same friend makes a practice every year of wishing his friends “Merry Christmas” between December 25 and January 5. I think he’s onto something there.

So to all my friends out there I want to wish you a very merry Christmas, as well as a blessed and prosperous new year. And I hope you’ll take a little time between now and the 5th to continue to reflect on the meaning of this blessed season, when we remember that God became one of us in order to reconcile us to himself.

“…In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” – 2 Cor 5:19 (RSV). In recent years that’s become one of my favorite verses. It reminds me that God’s disposition toward us is not to keep track of our sins, but to do away with them, so that we may be reconciled to him.

To commemorate the season of Christmas, I’ve recorded a new song that is fitting for Christmas and also Epiphany (Jan. 6).  It’s a fresh new version of the old beloved Christmas and Epiphany carol “We Three Kings.”  It is now available as a FREE download via through January 6, 2014:

Merry Christmas.


On Phil Robertson, Utah Polygamists, and Robert E. Lee

Or, The Bible Said It Would Be This Way

“And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 24:10-13

Three news items caught my attention yesterday:

1) Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s dismissal by A&E network due to comments he made against homosexuality in an interview with GQ magazine:

2) A federal judge in Utah’s dismissal of a key provision of the state’s anti-polygamy law, citing as a key precedent the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act earlier this year:

3) The US Army War College’s consideration of removing portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson because they “fought against America”:

Each of these stories indicates a major and recent shift in thinking in our culture.  The Phil Robertson case exposes an attempt on the part of a major media company to suppress any and all speech against gays in any form.  The fact that a major cable network felt the need and the freedom to drop Robertson immediately shows how much traction pro-homosexuality forces have gained in the last few years.  We’re seeing more and more cases in which as soon as a public figure (usually a Christian) espouses opposition to the homosexual agenda they are excluded and ostracized.

Consider the example a few months ago in which Tim Tebow felt pressure to cancel a speaking engagement at a Baptist Church in Texas all because the church leadership had spoken out openly against homosexuality.  As a result it had been labelled an “anti- gay church”–never mind whatever good the church might be doing. All they cared about was that the church had taken a stand against homosexuality.  Tebow started getting heat from the media about speaking at an “anti-gay church” and eventually succumbed to the social pressure and cancelled the engagement.

Many Christians feel Tebow shouldn’t have bowed to the pressure, and they may be right.  But the situation, which is one of several we’ve heard about in the news lately, shows how it’s getting to the point in our culture at which anyone who speaks out against homosexuality is black-listed.  Phil Robertson’s situation reveals this even more clearly.

The tide of public opinion is turning quickly on this issue, so much so that it may not be long before companies will refuse to knowingly hire anyone who opposes gay marriage or speaks out in any way against homosexuals.  So much of it is fueled by peer pressure and the fear of being ridiculed or ostracized.  Very few people these days have the stomach or backbone to weather the intimidation tactics used by liberals and homosexual activists and the social backlash that results from them.  And if people start losing their jobs, or having trouble getting jobs, over this sort of thing, then the pressure will take a very tangible financial form as well.

The Utah marriage case also shows how quickly public opinion is changing, and how willing the sheep are to be led astray.  As recently as just a few years ago public perceptions of Mormon polygamists were universally negative.  Now, though, suddenly “plural marriage” and “polyamory” (the love of more than one person at a time) are becoming acceptable possibilities.  The judge in the case cited this year’s Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act as a primary precedent in the case.  The reasoning is that if the law no longer limits marriage to being between a man and a woman, then why should marriage be limited to only two people either?

The irony of this is that one of the key arguments conservatives have been using against gay marriage is that it will open the door to other, worse behaviors like polygamy or pedophilia.  Gay marriage supporters have laughed at this reasoning, claiming it’s preposterous.  Apparently it’s not so preposterous after all.  DOMA was only struck down a few months ago.  Gay marriage hasn’t even been legalized in that many more states.  And yet here already the protections against polygamy are being lifted, and the demise of DOMA was openly cited as the rationale.  I’ll wager that it won’t be long before we’ll start seeing legal challenges to the age of consent as well.

It appears a time is coming in the near future when we’ll be facing an anything-goes morality.  Matthew 24 in the Bible describes what the world will be like in the last days, and in verse 11 it tells us that in those days “lawlessness will be increased.”  Webster’s dictionary defines lawlessness as “not regulated by or based on law; not restrained or controlled by law; unruly; illegal” (  I would add that when the Bible speaks of lawlessness it refers to the breakdown of man-made laws, but even more to the disruption of God’s laws.

This is literally what we’re seeing before our eyes.  In the early ’60s the Supreme Court removed laws that allowed public prayers in our schools.  In 1973 the law protecting unborn children was struck down by the Supreme Court.  Nowadays the trend seems to be on steroids.  In June of this year a law protecting the traditional (and biblical) definition of marriage between a man and a woman was struck down.  Now based on that, a key provision of a law protecting marriage as between only one man and one woman was removed as well.

Before our very eyes we’ve seen the dismantling of all these laws that upheld God’s ways.  In each case the law in question had been the law of the land since the founding of our Republic.  So these changes have signaled a “sea change,” as they say,” in the ways Americans view morality. In each case the Supreme Court has embraced a new way of looking at things that had never been known before.  What will be next??

It has become fashionable these days to denigrate the Bible as just an old-fashioned, out of date book.  But I will tell you this: Many things the Bible predicted are coming true.

About the last days Matthew 24:10-13 says: “10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (emphasis added).

Verse 10 speaks of a time when “many will fall away.”  This is speaking of falling away from the Christian faith.  Over the last generation we’ve seen countless young people who were raised in the church leave, never to return.  And in the last decade or so many previously professing Christians have lost all interest in church, and others have renounced Christian faith altogether, some turning to New Age and other religions, and others becoming atheists.  Many of today’s militant atheists attended church when they were younger.  With a few exceptions, Christian churches and denominations are reporting membership losses across the board.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing today over these losses.  And we should be saddened and concerned to see so many people abandoning “the faith once delivered to the saints.”  But it should not surprise us.  The Bible said this would happen.  Some churches are bending over backwards and flipping cartwheels trying to get those who have fallen away back in church.  But when the gospel is changed or compromised in order to do so, such efforts are misguided.  According to the Bible, this is to be expected in the years before the Lord returns.

Matthew 24:11 says that in the last days “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.”  To fully understand this trend, you have to take the long view, going back 150 years.  We’ve seen it with the rise in cults and alternative religions during that time, with the advent and growth of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, various cult leaders, and most recently, the New Age movement.

That may seem like a long time to look back to, but if you study history you can see the world has been on this trajectory leading up to the end for a long time.  You had the rise of all these cults in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Then in the early 20th century there was the growth of Zionism, leading to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.  During the same period, you had the growth of Darwinian evolutionary theory which caused many people to lose faith in the teachings of the Bible.

In the early 1900s many of the historic Christian denominations were renouncing the Bible and traditional Christian beliefs in favor of a new modern interpretation that left no room for anything supernatural.  Now in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the evangelical church has succumbed to a very similar spirit in which many evangelicals and conservative churches are also rejecting or redefining basic Christian beliefs just as the traditional churches did almost century ago.

The heresy, the unbelief, the rise of false prophets, and the embrace of false religions has been increasing exponentially over the last 150 years.  And it’s reaching a fever pitch at this point in history.  It is all leading somewhere.  I will probably blog about that in the weeks to come.

Matthew 24:12 speaks of the increase in lawlessness which we’ve already explored.  All these verses, and indeed all of Matthew chapter 24, have been coming true before our very eyes (I will talk more about that in future blog posts), showing that the Bible is a reliable guide to life in our world and what the future holds.  What we are seeing is no surprise to the careful student of the Scriptures.

So you can ignore the Bible if you want to, but it is eerily accurate at describing where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. Those who reject the Bible and its treasures do so at their own peril.

The news story about the US Army War College considering the removal of portraits of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson illustrates another major shift in thinking in our society.  After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson eventually pardoned anyone and everyone who had “committed treason” against the United States by fighting for the Confederacy.  Stonewall Jackson died during the war, but in the years after the war General Lee was widely regarded by southerners and northerners alike.  Both Jackson and Lee are generally acknowledged as brilliant military tacticians and their battles are often studied in advanced military training.  (The info here about Lee and Jackson and in the paragraphs below is based on Wikipedia articles on these two military leaders.)

In the years following the Civil War northern leaders made a conscious effort to re-integrate the nation and mainstream southerners back into national life.  Lee had been a loyal soldier in the U.S. Army and now that the Confederacy was once more part of the United States, his brilliant leadership of the Confederate army was later recognized for what it was.  It was realized that the former Confederacy was now “us” again and had been re-integrated into the union, and so its history was now part of “our” history.

Now some professors at the U.S. Army War College want to undo all that.  They want to ignore the accomplishments of two great American generals and create a revisionist history that once again only sees them as the enemy.  No doubt this is a function of an extreme liberal perspective that can only see the Confederacy through the lens of the bad things it stood for, like slavery, and wants to completely discount everything having to do with it for that one association.

The reason I mention this here is because, just as liberals want to demonize Phil Robertson for expressing views on homosexuality that go against today’s views on Political Correctness, so also these folks at the War College want to re-demonize Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, presumably because of their association with slavery.  In fact, though, neither Jackson or Lee was an advocate of slavery and Lee expressed relief when the slaves were finally emancipated at the end of the war.

What the Phil Robertson and the War College situations have in common is that each represents a rather extreme effort to control thought and perception.  Those who oppose Phil Robertson want to suppress all negative speech against homosexuals.  Those at the War College who seek to have the portraits of the Confederate generals removed desire to control our thinking by scrubbing our history of anything unpleasant or not in keeping with present-day Political Correctness.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changin.”  Rapidly.  And not for the better.  May God help us.

A Spiritual Journey, Part 4 – A Ministry Comes to An End

This post is part of a series in which I’ve shared my spiritual journey.  Part 1 of this series appeared in 2008 and can be found here:

Parts 2 and 3 can be found among my recent posts.

In the previous installment of this story I talked about the final two years of my ministry at a Presbyterian church in East Tennessee, and the reasons I sensed things were winding to a close.  (To read that story, see Parts 1-3 as directed above.)

Everything finally came to a head for me one day in December of 1999 when I got a call from an older lady in the church asking me to perform a baptism for her new grand-baby while the child’s parents would be visiting our church over Christmas break.  The parents–this lady’s son and daughter-in-law–lived in another city and were not involved in a church, so she was asking if we could baptize their new baby at our church.

There were several problems with this. To begin with, baptism is supposed to be an act of the corporate church, and preferably of the actual congregation the person being baptized will attend.  Second, in the case of infant baptism, the parents are supposed to promise to raise their child “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), which presumes being active in a local church.  This child’s parents were not involved in church and lived in another city.  So obviously there was no way our congregation could be personally and regularly involved in the spiritual nurture of this baby.

In my heart of hearts I never believed in infant baptism to begin with.  I had heard all the arguments in favor of it in seminary, but in my opinion they didn’t hold water (no pun intended  😉 ). In truth I had agreed to perform infant baptisms as a pastor because this was the way I was raised, and because I felt I should “bloom where I was planted.” I had accepted this as just part of being Presbyterian, even though in my heart I didn’t believe it was right.  So for nine years I had been performing infant baptisms when required to, all the while secretly experiencing pangs of conscience about it.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked by a grandparent to baptize a grandchild whose parents weren’t active in church.  As in many churches, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) [a.k.a. the “PCUSA”] the adult children of many older members had ceased to be active in any church.  So this kind of request was not uncommon. Sometimes in the past I had allowed social pressure or the fact that the requester was an important member of the church to pressure me into performing such a baptism when really I didn’t feel right about it.  At other times, I had found the gumption to decline for the reasons I mentioned above.  However, I had continued to perform infant baptisms as long as the parents were active in our church or another church.

That day my conscience finally got the best of me, though.  This request from the baby’s grandmother highlighted all the pitfalls I saw with infant baptism.  The straw broke the camel’s back and in that moment I felt I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t go through with it.

Having dealt with these kinds of dilemmas before, I knew that rather than giving an immediate answer it was best to buy myself some time.  So I told the caller I needed time to think and pray about it, and that I would get back to her.  She agreed.

After I got off the phone, and as I was mulling over the situation, it seemed as though the Lord spoke to my heart.  “I’m not the one making you do this.  You don’t have to do this,” He seemed to say.  I guess all those years I’d believed God wanted me to submit to the teachings of my denomination on baptism even though I didn’t believe they were right in God’s eyes.  Really that’s kind of twisted thinking. I didn’t believe in infant baptism because I didn’t think it was biblical. In other words, I believed God didn’t approve of infant baptism; and yet I thought God wanted me to perform infant baptisms anyway out of deference to my denomination.  I had equated God with my denomination, even though on another level I believed Scripture superseded my denomination. That’s convoluted if you think about it.

But here it was: in this moment it seemed God was saying “You don’t have to do this.”  Suddenly a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Some things that had been unclear to me for years suddenly began falling into place.

I knew, though, that this would probably lead to my departure from the PCUSA and from that congregation. For as I understood it, my Presbyterian ordination vows required me to perform infant baptisms.

I quickly found my copy of the Book of Order, the Presbyterian rule book for churches and ministers, and looked up infant baptism. Sure enough it said that parents are to bring their infant children for baptism, and when they do so, the pastor “shall” perform the baptism.  No “weasel word” there.

One of the vows a pastor takes in the PCUSA is to do everything the Book of Order instructs him or her to do [yes, they have female pastors in the PCUSA].  Furthermore, the Book of Order says a pastor who does not fulfill his ordination vows must be disciplined by the church.

So it was clear that as a Presbyterian pastor I was required to perform infant baptisms.  But even if it hadn’t been required, they were so routine as to be expected by church members.  Any pastor who refused to baptize babies wouldn’t last very long in a Presbyterian church.  But suddenly I knew my conscience would no longer allow me to do this anymore.

So here at last was the solution to my dilemma, not only about being pastor of that church, but about being in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  No longer would I have to go against my conscience.  God had released me.  In reality, He had never been the one requiring me to go against it in the first place.  Rather, it had been more a function of my compulsive need to please others–my Presbyterian parents, those I had grown up with, and others in my denomination–as well as of my fear of change.

All these realizations happened within a short period of time–maybe 15 minutes or half an hour.  After that there was no longer a question about what I needed to do.  Resolved and at peace, I picked up the phone and called back the lady who had requested the baptism and told her we would not be doing it.  I shared my reasons with her, and she accepted it, so that was the end of the matter.

(Now that I think back on it, I may have been out of order in making that decision alone, because in the PCUSA the administration of the sacraments comes under the authority of the elder board.  So I probably should have notified them of the request, shared my feelings about it, and let them vote on it.  If they had approved it, then I could’ve chosen to decline to perform the baptism for the sake of conscience, and they could’ve brought another pastor in to do it if they so desired.  But none of this occurred to me or the lady who called at that time, so the matter was settled then and there.)

After all this I began praying about what to do.  The writing seemed to be on the wall, but to actually go through with it and resign–that was another matter entirely.  And yet it seemed inevitable.  I had crossed over into a new place and I knew there was no going back.  Yet a tremendous weight had been lifted off me, and I was finally at peace.

The December meeting of the elder board had already occurred, so I knew the soonest I could bring this up with the elders would be the January meeting which, as I recall, was to be on January 17th–almost an entire month away.  Could I wait that long?  When the time came, would I still feel the same way?

I decided not to discuss my impending decision with anyone in the church, because I knew if I did it would likely get out, and that might cause gossip as well as all kinds of chaos and unwanted consequences.  So I kept my ruminations to myself.

I made it through Christmas and into the new year still pondering everything and with no one in the church any the wiser.  But with each passing day my feeling that it was time for me to leave  grew stronger.

As the 17th drew near I began to compose my letter of resignation.  I had it complete and ready to present when I learned the Executive Presbyter of our presbytery (a regional governing body in the Presbyterian church) would be attending our session meeting.  I can’t recall now why he wanted to come.  I think it was just because he occasionally met with churches to see how they were doing, and it just so happened that his meeting with our church was to occur at that time.  The timing was purely “coincidental” because no one knew of my intention to resign and so he couldn’t have been coming for that reason.  Nevertheless I saw it as providential, knowing it would probably be good for the Executive Presbyter (EP) to be there when the elders were having to deal with my resignation.

The time for the meeting came, and everyone was in place, including the presbytery exec.  At the place on the docket normally set aside for my monthly report, I read my resignation letter.  I think everyone was in shock, including the Executive Presbyter, as I hadn’t told him this was coming either.  Everyone seemed dumbfounded.

I imagine it came as somewhat of a shock because in the last two or three months I’d been talking about starting a contemporary service on Sunday evenings.  But in elder meetings it had become increasingly clear there wasn’t a lot of genuine support for the idea.  They were OK with me starting a service like that but it didn’t seem as though many of them were interested in supporting it themselves.

In my previous post I talked about how the church organist was very opposed to these changes, and how she had a lot of friends among the elders.  At elder meetings it was pretty clear that none of her friends–which was almost all the elders–were going to openly oppose her.  I began to feel as though the likelihood of the church actively moving in a more contemporary direction was dead in the water.

So this was the background as we had the session meeting that night.   After I read my resignation letter the presbytery exec took the bull by the horns and suggested the session consider allowing me to take a month’s paid sabbatical to pray over my decision and perhaps reconsider.  The EP had me leave the room so the session could vote on it.  When he brought me back in he said they had unanimously approved a month’s paid sabbatical for the month of February so I could take time to consider my decision.  Some session members commented they greatly appreciated my ministry there and hoped I would reconsider.

Needless to say the rest of January was somewhat awkward.  In addition to my regular pastoral duties I used the time to schedule how and where I was going to spend the sabbatical.

When February came I took the month off from the church.  I wound up spending most of the first three weeks at home just in prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual reading that was pertinent to the question at hand.  Toward the end of the month a friend in the church arranged for me to have an overnight stay at a secluded retreat center located at the fork of two nearby rivers.  The same friend also used his connections to arrange for me to spend a week at a condo in Hilton Head, SC.  I did that the last week of the sabbatical.  I had also won a free night’s stay at a hotel in Townsend, TN as well as a free meal at a restaurant there.  So after I returned from Hilton Head I decided to spend the last night of my sabbatical in Townsend.  All in all I had about 8 paid days and nights I was able to stay in places away from the town where I lived in order to get away and prayerfully think.

I have relatives in South Carolina so on the way to and from Hilton Head I took the opportunity to visit with some of them.  That wound up being a very profound week for me.  I was seeking God for guidance, and several noteworthy things happened that week.

During the first weeks of my sabbatical the Lord showed me a verse I had never noticed before.  It was Matthew 15:13: “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'”

On the drive to Hilton Head I stopped in Greenville, SC and spent the night with one of my uncles.  Without telling me what to do, he gave me lots of great advice and loaned me a set of teaching tapes of his pastor’s sermons.

After leaving my uncle’s house for Hilton Head the next day I put one of the tapes in my cassette player and began to listen.  On that very tape the pastor taught from Matthew 15:13: “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'”  As you can imagine, this got my attention.

During my week in Hilton Head I spent a lot of time in prayer, worship, and Bible reading, and took lots of walks on the beach. I also got through part of a book a pastor friend had loaned me.  The book was The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee.  I wasn’t able to finish it during my stay, but I did peek ahead into the remainder of the book.  As I did so, my eyes fell on this verse: Matthew 15:13 “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'” Now, you better believe I was paying attention to that!

In the course of just a week or two I had come across the same passage three times–a passage I had never been aware of before.  It seemed the Lord was trying to tell me something.

What He was saying was not hard to figure out.  God was telling me there were things in my life which He had not “planted,” and He was going to take everything not from Him and “pull it up by the roots” if I would allow Him to.  In particular this seemed to relate to my involvement in the PCUSA as well as my ministry.

On the road to becoming a PCUSA pastor there had been several points along the way at which I had encountered major things I didn’t agree with related to their teachings and practices, infant baptism and women’s ordination being only two examples.  At any of these points I could’ve chosen to follow my conscience and been open with the denomination and my seminary about the issues I had with them.  But out of fear I had kept my mouth shut instead.  I was afraid of the disruptions that would occur in my life if the denomination chose not to ordain me, or if I chose to leave it.

But keeping these matters to myself had caused its own set of difficulties, both for me and for the churches I served. It caused my loyalty to my denomination to be divided and also hindered my ability to serve effectively because in my heart I was not 100% committed to the church, the beliefs I was espousing, or the people I was serving.  In truth I was playing a role–being one person on the inside, and someone else I thought the church wanted me to be on the outside.  You can only live like that for so long.

So there was plenty in my life that needed to be pulled up by the roots.  God was about to take everything back to square one and start again from scratch.

It seemed the message from Matthew 15:13 was confirmation that it was time to end my ministry at the church I was pastoring.  The fact that I saw this passage every time I turned around left little doubt in my mind that this was a message from God and an answer to my prayers.  I felt a real peace and sense of release.

At the March meeting of the elders I was supposed to report back and give my final answer about my resignation.  So when the time came I told them–through tears–that I was indeed going to resign.  The tears were not so much sadness as they were a certain amount of regret and a release of intense emotion that had been building up for weeks. The elders accepted my resignation (reluctantly I believe) and we agreed together on a plan to end my tenure as their pastor.

They wanted plenty of time to prepare for my departure, so we agreed on April 30 as my last day.  That happened to be a Sunday.  It was some 7 weeks off so it would allow plenty of time for closure, and would allow my last day to be a Sunday.  A farewell dinner was planned after church that day.

After the session meeting I sent a letter to the congregation explaining that I was leaving and why, and detailing the plans surrounding my departure.

As you can imagine, my last few weeks at the church were bittersweet.  In almost every way it felt good to be going, as I had been in turmoil for some months.  But I knew I was going to miss the people, and also that I would miss pastoring in some ways.  It had been my way of life and my identity for nine years (more than that if you count my prior years of training), and I didn’t exactly know what was going to happen next.

You see, I didn’t have a clear plan about what I was going to do once I was no longer a pastor.  I just knew I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore, and felt that God had given his blessing to that.  I felt as though he had released me from that responsibility so I could go back to square one and learn a lot of basic things I needed to learn about life and being a Christian.

On one of my last Sundays at the church, a dear older lady who attended our church from time to time came up to me after the service and said “Morgan, I feel like what you’ve experienced here is that you’re trying to put new wine into old wineskins.  That’s why you’ve had some struggles this last year or two.”  She was referring to a verse of Scripture: Mark 2:22 “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”

This seemed like a word from the Lord because I had been thinking the same thing myself.  In Scripture wine often represents the Holy Spirit, and new wine represents new things the Holy Spirit is doing.  The old wineskins represent the old way of way of doing things or the old paradigm.  New wineskins represent a new paradigm or a new way of doing things  Or the wineskins can represent a church or ministry.

Putting new wine into old wineskins speaks of trying to do something new in an established setting that isn’t open to new ways.  Wineskins in Bible times were made out of leather, which is flexible when new, but becomes stiff through use over time.  The new wine is more potent and so runs the risk of bursting the stiff older leather.  The new wine is more suited to the flexible new leather of the new wineskins.

Churches and ministries can be the same way.  When a ministry first starts there is lots of excitement and flexibility about how to do things because traditions haven’t been established yet.  Over time, though, patterns begin to set in and become entrenched.  Then when someone comes along and tries to introduce a new way of doing things, they meet resistance because “we’ve never done it that way before” (sometimes jokingly called “the seven last words of the church” lol).  Church experts will tell you it’s usually easier to start a new church than it is to change an existing one.

And that is exactly what I’d been trying to do–change a long-established church (the church was over 40 years old at that time).  The dear lady who spoke to me that morning helped me see my experience at the church in light of the bigger picture.  This too seemed a confirmation of the decision I’d made and brought additional peace.

By the time April 30, 2000 arrived, I was content with my decision and ready to leave.  The congregation threw a very nice farewell luncheon for me after church and gave me a nice watch as a parting gift.

When May 1 rolled around I had no idea what kind of work I was going to do.  But I had enough money in savings to last me a few months, so I didn’t panic.  Around that time I also received a check for $400 from the IRS (how often does that happen??).  Turns out I had overpaid them on a previous year’s taxes and they were just getting around to paying me back.  I thought the timing was very interesting. It seemed to be a sign from the Lord that He had my back.

The next post will be the last in this series.  In it I will summarize my life over the last 13 years and share some observations about things I’ve learned.  Stay tuned.

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Thin Within is a Great Approach to Weight Loss

My personal copy of "Thin Within," slightly worn with use

My personal copy of “Thin Within,” slightly worn with use

Here’s a post I wrote today for the blog of the Thin Within weight loss program. I used their materials to great effect some years ago and will be participating in a new online class with them in January.

For more info about Thin Within, go to their website:

A Spiritual Journey, Part 3 – Change Is In The Air

This is a continuation of my previous post, which in itself was a follow-up to a post I had published back in 2008.  Part 1 can be found here:

Part 2 can be found by going to my last post, or by following this link:

After the events of the Pastor’s Prayer Summit in March 1998, which are told in Part 1 of this series (follow the first link above to read that story), I stayed at the Presbyterian church I was pastoring two more years.  But as time passed I began to suspect the writing was on the wall.  I was different now, and over time I began to feel like I didn’t really fit there anymore.  I was changing but my congregation wasn’t.

The changes that took place in me over those two years were not anything new or different or strange.  Rather, I was simply finding the courage to be who I was instead of succumbing to the pressure to be what I sensed others wanted me to be.

At that time most pastors in my denomination wore a black robe as they conducted the Sunday service.   Prior to the ’98 pastors prayer summit, I was no different.  I wore a black robe every Sunday as I led the service.

I’m not really a formal person by nature, though–a fact which was always dismaying to my mother, who was pretty formal.  When I first started in ministry I didn’t mind wearing the robe because I felt it offset my youthfulness somewhat (I was only 27 and pretty young-looking). I felt it gave a sense of authority I didn’t have otherwise–which seemed important since most of the people I was working with were older than me.

However, by this point in my ministry, I was ready to shed some of that formality.  So in the weeks after the Prayer Summit I began to experiment with not wearing the robe on Sundays. Instead I wore a suit and tie–still formal, for sure, but a step down from the robe.

When summer came I tried leaving off the coat and tie altogether and just wearing an open collar button-down shirt and dress slacks.  I was able to get away with that as long as it was summertime, but when the fall came, the church organist (who was one of the matriarchs of the church) came to me and said, “It was okay for you to not wear your coat and tie as long as it was summer.  But now that it’s fall, you need to put them on again. You can’t be that informal all the time.”  (She implied, too, that kids want to be informal, but grownups dress up.  Yikes!)

Some people might say I should’ve ignored her and done what I wanted to do, since she really didn’t have any formal authority to tell me that.  But that isn’t my personality, and certainly wasn’t then. I am a people-pleaser by nature and hate any sort of conflict (though in my old age I’m getting better about speaking my mind and standing my ground).  Besides, she was a member of the church and a key player, one of the leaders.  Among other things, she was chair of the worship committee. I knew if I defied the organist there was likely to be trouble. At best she might make an issue of it before the worship committee and the elders, and at worst I might lose my organist over it. Being in such a small town, I wasn’t sure how many other good organists would be around to take her place, and so I was afraid of losing her (she was good at what she did, and a volunteer).  I was not yet at the level of maturity in which I was willing to take a risk of that magnitude. In that time and place, a Presbyterian church without an organist would scarcely have been Presbyterian!

So I did what she said. I was 33 or 34 and she was well into her 50s.  Besides, I knew she probably spoke for many in the church, maybe the majority.  So I resumed preaching in my coat and tie.  But I never went back to wearing the black robe, except for weddings and maybe funerals.

Preaching in a suit, though, instead of the robe left me open to the charge of being “too Baptist”–a cardinal sin in a southern liberal church.  Baptists are the most populous church in the south, so some southerners intentionally choose a “mainline” or more liberal church in order to avoid joining a Baptist one.  So being “too Baptist” was not viewed as a good thing. Nevertheless I stuck to my guns and wore a suit rather than a robe each Sunday.  (As I write this I am shaking my head over what people can get riled up over.)

At any rate, though, the organist’s displeasure over my open-collared shirt was my first sign that the church might not be as open as I hoped to the ways I was changing.

After the prayer summit my preaching began to change, too. Prior to my born again experience I tended to focus on morality and, honestly, I often preached on the ways I felt people weren’t living up to the Bible. I guess you could say my pre-prayer-summit preaching was probably negative, moralistic, and somewhat legalistic.

Post-prayer-summit I began to preach more on salvation and also on the love of God.  There was still some moralism–I didn’t change totally–but the focus came to be more on Jesus and who He is, His love, and what He’s done for us.

Also my method of preaching changed. In seminary I had been trained to preach from a written manuscript, and often (though not always) this is what I did in the years prior to my born again experience.  After that, though, I began trying to preach more extemporaneously. Instead of writing a manuscript, I would just jot down a few notes and pray that God would give me the words to say.

Looking back I’m not sure my preaching really improved that much. I imagine it seemed more personal and conversational, but I also think the content and organization suffered a bit.  (Actually, in the years since then when I’ve preached I’ve gone back to the method I used before seminary, which is to make detailed notes but still speak off the cuff as much as I can, using the notes to jog my memory when necessary. I find this approach works best for me, since I’m not a talker by nature; but it still allows me to be more conversational.)

Meanwhile, I remained active with the interdenominational pastors prayer group I’d gotten to know at the Prayer Summit. I was going to two different prayer meetings a week, as well as occasional retreats of a day or more in duration.  I also attended conferences with them on occasion.

All these meetings were very expressive in their feel, and quite different from the more staid service I presided over every Sunday.  I had a growing desire for our church to experience the joy, freedom, spontaneity, and openness I saw at the interdenominational prayer meetings.

Whenever I had a Sunday off (which was only a few times a year) I began to make a point of visiting some of the churches pastored by my friends in the interdenominational prayer groups.  I wanted to see what their churches were like.  Of course, a lot of them were doing contemporary worship, and I got to experience some of this firsthand.  This was nothing new to me, as I’d attended Sunday night church at Calvary Assembly of God in Decatur, Alabama for several years, as well as special services at other churches. Not only that, but I had led the singing for youth groups and events for many years. So I was pretty familiar with contemporary worship.

Within the next year I decided to try some contemporary worship at my church.  This was completely new for most of them.  Normally on Sunday mornings we did what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “hymn sandwich”–a hymn at the beginning of the service, a hymn in the middle, and one at the end.  The hymns and all the music were accompanied on a very nice console organ.  Only rarely was the piano ever used, mainly to accompany the choir.

On the other hand, as you probably already know, in contemporary worship it’s not uncommon for worship teams to play 4 or 5 songs straight through before anything else happens in the service. The worship bands play rock instruments (bass, electric guitars, drums) and usually dress informally.  To say the least, all that was going to be a stretch for that little Presbyterian church!

Not being one to stir up conflict, I decided to start small.  As I began to talk about my ideas with the worship committee, what we finally agreed on was that we would not change the worship service itself, but  instead just for the summer months we would add the contemporary worship on as an optional time 15 minutes before the regular service began.  The idea was that those who wanted contemporary worship could come early, and those who didn’t want it wouldn’t have to deal with it during the actual service.

I was satisfied with this as a beginning. My expectation was that those who arrived for church early (which was a sizable portion of the congregation) would be exposed to the contemporary music anyway and might gain a favorable impression of it.

Once this was approved I went to work recruiting the few musicians in the congregation who might be interested in something like this. It wound up just being me on acoustic guitar and a fellow on the piano (I can’t remember now if there was anyone else).

So this is what we did for the summer months that year (I think it was in 1999 but can’t say now for sure).  For each service I would choose about 4 songs and have the words printed on an insert for the bulletin. I chose songs that were popular at the time: “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” and the like.

Attendance was decent – maybe a fourth of the congregation came at 10:45 for the contemporary worship. We had a core of people who preferred that style of music, so they were very happy with it. Quite a few others arrived 5 or 10 minutes early for the main service and were able to hear the new music as well.

There were no complaints about the contemporary portion, but it was just to be a summer thing, so when August ended, the contemporary music ended as well.  Overall it was deemed a “success,” and so I began to think about how we might incorporate contemporary worship into the regular schedule of our congregation.

The worship committee considered a couple of options: an earlier service on Sunday morning and a Sunday evening service.  For reasons I can’t remember now we eventually began to make plans for an evening service.  I think the leaders weren’t crazy about the idea of starting a new early service; our church wasn’t very big to begin with, and I think they were fearful of splitting our already small congregation into two even smaller services.  I guess the thinking was that a Sunday evening service wouldn’t detract from the morning service, and those who wanted to attend both could if they so desired.

By the time we’d begun talking seriously about starting a contemporary service it was late in the fall of 1999.  In spite of the seeming success, for some reason I was uneasy about moving forward with the new service.  I dragged my feet.

Looking back now I think the reason was that it seemed artificial to me.  No one in the church had any thought of doing a contemporary service until I mentioned it.  And even now, I was the only one in the church really pushing for it.  The family of the one man in the church who really loved contemporary worship had, ironically, begun attending another church. In fact, by this time (again ironically) several people in the church who would’ve been the most likely supporters of a contemporary service had begun visiting other churches (more on this below). So I felt like I was trying to force something that really no one else in the church cared about besides me, and my most likely allies in doing it appeared to be leaving.

When I first came there as pastor there were basically two groups in the church: An old core of charter members, mostly elderly, and a group of younger couples brought in by the previous pastor. As you can imagine, generally I felt like I had a lot more in common with the younger group than the older one. The younger folks seemed more vibrant spiritually, more biblically focused, and more open to new ways of doing things.

During my years in Lenoir City I always felt the church’s promise lay with these younger families. Yet now, just as I was beginning to catch a vision for a new direction, some of those very families were beginning to leave. I never found out why. It was always a mystery because these were the people I considered my greatest supporters.  It began to seem like the vision I’d had for the church was not necessarily God’s vision.

During this time (in the late fall of 1999) there was also some contention with the church organist over the new, slightly more casual and contemporary direction I was leading the congregation. I can’t remember all the specifics now, but one Sunday morning after church she basically told me that if I continued in the direction I was going she might leave the church.

By this time I really wasn’t ready to take her on and risk losing her. She had lots of close friends in the church, most of whom were in leadership. Moreover, those who might have supported me against her had begun leaving the church.  My fear was that if she got angry and left, not only would we be without an organist, but her friends, even if they agreed with what I was doing, would not support me if I went against her.

So I feared that a major conflict with the organist would rupture the very core of the church membership, as well as leaving us without an organist.  I figured if that happened a lot of people would leave, or else they would try to get rid of me.  At best we’d be left with me having to lead the music on my guitar, as well as preach, with only a handful of people in attendance. In short, I felt there might not be much church left to pastor if all that happened. I didn’t feel that insisting on doing things my way was worth that level of disruption.

This left me, though, at loose ends. I began to wonder about my future at the church.

Add to this the fact that as long as I had been a pastor, I had struggled with being a pastor. There were lots of reasons. Often I felt ill-equipped for the job. I felt my introverted personality did not fit with the very extroverted nature of being a pastor. Besides all that, pastoring was very lonely for a single person. I’m not saying it would be less lonely if you were married–obviously I wouldn’t know. But it felt odd being single and being a pastor, and the older I got, the more I wondered if being a pastor wasn’t actually keeping me from being able to marry, due to the time commitments and the fact that few women today are eager to marry the pastor of an old-fashioned, traditional church.

Or so was my thinking at the time. Add to that the fact that I had a lot of issues with my denomination, and it’s not hard to see there were many reasons I was struggling with being a pastor.

On top of everything else, I had become increasingly involved in the interdenominational prayer movement that was exploding at that time in Knoxville. My regular involvement with the larger church was exposing me to many practices and experiences I felt went far beyond what my congregation was used to. It was changing me and my perspective.  I was learning and growing.

I tried to share this growth with my church through sermons and one-on-one conversations. But I found it hard to convey it all by myself. I felt I was fighting an uphill battle. I was ready to move forward with what seemed like bigger and better things in God, but my congregation wasn’t going with me. They were content where they were.

If I was a more outgoing person I might have invited some of them to come with me to the prayer meetings. Looking back now I wish I had done that. I guess I feared they’d have no interest in it, or might think it was strange.

At any rate, I felt increasingly out of sync with my church, and didn’t really know what to do about it. Very soon everything would come to a head, though.

I’ll leave that story for the next installment of A Spiritual Journey.  Stay tuned.

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