Category Archives: born again

Book Summary – “Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling” by Richard F. Hall

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

This is the third of three book summaries I had to write for a class on Discipleship Counseling I’m taking through my church.  The first summary can be found here, the second right here.  The third book we had to read has the captivating title Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling by Richard F. Hall.  It is somewhat of a brief textbook for the type of biblical counseling in which we’re being trained.

Explained briefly, the term “exchanged life” refers to the idea that when we place our trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, he takes our sin, death, and selfishness and in exchange gives us forgiveness, life, and a loving heart.  Hall says the exchanged life involves exchanging our self-centered approach to living for a new approach in which we live for Christ.

Here is my brief summary of the book.  I’ve included a few explanatory comments in [brackets].

  1. Each person is made up of three parts: the spiritual (i.e., spirit), the psychological (i.e., soul) and the physical (i.e., body).  An unsaved person operates out of the psychological part of themselves. For a Christian, the spiritual aspect is the essence of who they are.
  2.  [This “tri-partite” view of the person is based on the following Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ~ “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.   And Hebrews 4:12 ~ “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”]
  3. The primary cause of problems in people’s lives is living life out of their own resources rather than in dependence on God.  [This way of living is known in the Bible as “living by the flesh.”  The apostle Paul uses the term “flesh” in a unique way, not to refer to our physical bodies but rather to speak of that part of us that is drawn to sin and opposes God. Key passages in which Paul uses the term “flesh” this way are Romans 7:14-8:17 and Galatians 5:16-25.]  Sin and the flesh are the source of people’s problems.  Living out of the flesh is a self-centered approach to life and ultimately detrimental.
  4. There are certain qualification a person needs to meet in order to be an exchanged life counselor.  First and foremost, they must have a personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ.  They also need to be totally surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.  The exchanged life counselor needs a good overall knowledge and understanding of Scripture, as well as training in communication skills.  Finally, he or she should meet the qualifications for Christian leadership outlined in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  5. As with most counseling methods, exchanged life counseling begins with the client’s presenting problem–their stated reason for seeking counseling. The counselor then takes the client’s personal history.  This helps the counselor get to know the client. It also helps both counselor and client identify unhelpful patterns the client follows to deal with life.
  6. After the client’s problem is presented and a personal history is taken, the first step in the actual counseling process is a presentation of the salvation message if necessary, for this is the foundation of the entire method. The second step is to acquaint the client with their former identity “in Adam”–that is, the way they were as a fallen, sinful, and unredeemed person when they were born into this world. The third step is to help the client understand his or her new identity in Christ.  [The assumption is that we are all born “in Adam” but when we accept Christ we are born again, or “born from above” (see John 1:12-13 and John 3:1-21).  From that moment on we are no longer in Adam, but we are now in Christ.]
  7. The counseling method presented in the book has six steps: A) Assess the problem. B) Learn the client’s social history. C) The connection needs to be drawn between the presenting problem and the client’s past living patterns. D) The client is taught about his/her identification with Christ. E) The client is led to appropriate his or her identity in Christ. F) Further areas need to be dealt with that relate to the issue at hand.
  8. Exchanged life counseling techniques include: A) Preparation – through prayer, reviewing previous counseling sessions, and relaxation. B) Attentive communication skills, listening. C) Observation, concreteness, respect, and empathy. D) Confrontation, self-disclosure, and immediacy. E) Genuineness. F) Use of visual aids such as charts or diagrams which illustrate the truths being taught. G) Appropriate use of Scripture. H) Homework tailored to the client’s needs.
  9. The primary goal of exchanged life counseling is that the client come to understand and experience his or her identity in Christ and apply this understanding to life’s problems. Sub-goals to this primary goal include: A) Helping the client grow in Christ-like-ness. B) Helping the client grow to spiritual maturity. C) Seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) start to emerge in the client’s life. D) Helping the client experience freedom in Christ’s life.
  10. Exchanged life counseling is founded on certain theological concepts: A) The Bible as the infallible source of authority. B) The doctrine of man and sin. C) The doctrine of salvation. D) The doctrine of sanctification.

In conclusion, Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling serves as a good summary and explanation of what exchanged life counseling is all about. As such it serves as a good resource to consult over and over again.  My one criticism of the book is that it’s very conceptual and therefore mostly abstract.  The author doesn’t take time to illustrate the concepts.  It would be very helpful if the author would release a later edition in which illustrative material is added to flesh out the concepts.  However, the book does include a number of drawings which could be used in counseling sessions to help explain concepts to the client.  All in all the book is a good beginning resource for exchanged life counseling.

 

Book Summary of “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

Normal Christian Life

Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1978.

I’m taking a training class for lay counselors through my church, and as part of the class we were required to read The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee and then produce a summary of the book.  Its concepts are very dense so the book bears repeated readings.  This was my second time through it and I got a lot more out of it this go-round.

(For those who don’t know, Watchman Nee was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  When the communists took over in China Nee was imprisoned for his faith, where he remained for the next two decades until his death in 1972.)

Here, then, is my summary:

1. The blood of Christ is God’s remedy for man’s sins – plural. – chapter 1

2. The cross of Christ is God’s remedy for man’s sin – singular. Every person is born “in Adam” and as such has sin working within us as a principle that causes us to sin. We are not sinners merely because we sin, but instead we sin because we are born sinners. But when we are baptized into Christ’s death (born again) we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son. The old man died with Christ and the new man rises to new life in Christ. Therefore now those who are in Christ are no longer “sinners” but “saints.” – chapter 2

3. We can know that we have died with Christ and that the sin principle within us has been overcome and rendered powerless through our identification with Christ’s death – chapter 3

4. Therefore likewise we are to “reckon” ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. It is an accomplished fact, which we appropriate by reckoning–that is, making a conscious choice to consider–ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. – chapter 4

5. We are no longer “in Adam” but we have passed from death to life and are now “in Christ.” These are totally different realities, and never the twain shall meet. Baptism is the clear line of demarcation that we are no longer in Adam but instead in Christ. What was true of us “in Adam” is no longer true of us “in Christ.” We are new creatures in Christ. – chapter 5

6. Now that we know we’ve died and risen with Christ and therefore reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, the proper response is for us to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness, for His service. Nee refers to presenting ourselves to God in this way as “consecration.” – chapter 6

7. God’s purpose in all this goes beyond mere redemption. Man’s sin and redemption was actually a detour in God’s eternal plan for man and the world. God’s eternal purpose is to have many sons who are conformed to the image of Christ, and to bring these many sons to glory. – chapter 7

8. We fulfill the righteous requirements of the law not by trying to keep the law, but through walking by the Spirit. Acts 2 shows us that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the people of God as a result of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. Therefore, just as we can know we have died and risen with Christ, we can also know that if we have trusted in Christ then we have received the gift of His Spirit. It is not a matter of feelings but of trust in the finished work of Christ and belief in the promise and Word of God. – chapter 8

9. Not only have we been delivered from sin through the death of Christ, but we have also been delivered from the Law. We are now dead to the Law and alive to God. – chapter 9

10. The Law is not fulfilled in us by trying to keep the law, but by walking in the Spirit. Not only are we in Christ, but Christ is also in us through His Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. Walking in the Spirit does not equate to effort on our part, but simply to recognizing that our flesh has been crucified and allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work in and through us. – chapter 10

11. Another part of Christ’s eternal purpose is that He would have a Body to express his life (p. 210). This purpose of God shows us that redemption was not God’s original intent for man, because sin was not part of God’s original intent for man. Instead, redemption was a restorative measure to bring humanity back in line with God’s original purpose, which was to have a glorious church, a body, through which to express His life. – chapter 11

12. Because Adam chose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil rather than the Tree of Life, man developed an independent self-life which caused the human soul to become more developed than God ever intended. God never meant for man to live independent of Him. Therefore sinful man has the capacity to live life on his own and to depend on the power of the soul rather than on the power of God. Even a Christian has to guard against relying on the over-developed power of his soul to serve God rather than relying on the power of the Spirit. A Christian’s task is to walk by the Spirit, not live and work in the power of his soul. Therefore the believer has to choose to take up his cross daily, which consists of making a conscious decision in every situation to live and move in the power of the Spirit rather than relying on his soul power. Instead he must allow the soul to be crucified by resisting the temptation to rely on his soul and instead relying on the Spirit. – chapters 12 and 13

13. We may be tempted to think that time and energy spent ministering to God is a “waste.” We may think we should not “waste” precious time and energy in “idle” tasks like prayer, worship, and Bible reading. But ministering to God is more important than ministering to people. It is not a waste for us to pour out ourselves at the feet of God. Martha’s busy service is contrasted with Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet. The author invites us to “waste” ourselves in ministry to God. – chapter 14

The Normal Christian Life is not an easy read, but it’s a very worthwhile one. I recommend you take the time to read and digest this significant work from one of the great saints and church leaders of the 20th century.

A Spiritual Journey, Conclusion – Reflections on the Last 14 years

This is the final installment of a 5 part series. Part 1 can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/ .  Parts 2-4 can be found among my recent blog posts.

There’s one thing I haven’t said in these posts that I want to make clear now: I have no complaints about how I was treated by the people in the two churches where I served as a pastor.  Almost without exception everyone was kind, gracious, and patient toward the young, inexperienced pastor I was.  They certainly gave me a lot of grace, and for that I will always be thankful.

I’ve read statistics showing that many former pastors and some currently serving pastors feel poorly treated by the churches they’ve served.  That’s not the case with me.  If anything, the two churches I served treated me better than I deserved.

I just want to make that abundantly clear.  The people in the Presbyterian churches I served, as well as the church I grew up in, were for the most part always kind and loving toward me.  My issue was not with the people, but more with the teachings and practices of the churches and the denomination.  I felt (and still feel) as though the atmosphere in these churches stifles the freedom and expressiveness of the Holy Spirit, and of sound biblical teaching.

I usually don’t tell people I left the ministry.  I believe every Christian is called to ministry in some form or fashion.  Even if someone works a “regular” full-time job, as believers we’re still called to serve as a witness for God in our workplaces, in our families, in our neighborhoods, and to serve those around us.  So instead, I usually say I left “formal ministry” or “paid ministry.”  I think it’s an important distinction.

There were several reasons I stopped being a pastor.  One was because I felt the need to devote more time and energy to my music, which I’ve done since that time.  I’ve served in some capacity as a volunteer worship leader in every church I’ve attended since then.  I’ve even taught guitar lessons at times, though I’m not sure I’m really proficient enough on the guitar to teach anything besides the very beginning basics.  I’ve also recorded some of my original songs (I’ve written or co-written about 80 in all), and have tried to do more to get my songs “out there” for people to hear.  I’m currently playing some of my songs “out” at open mics and songwriter contests in hopes of seeing what I can do with those.  If you’d like to hear some of my original music follow this link to my music page: http://www.reverbnation.com/morgantrotter

Some of the other reasons I left pastoral ministry I’ve already alluded to in previous posts, but one of the chief reasons was something I’ve rarely shared: My motives for becoming a pastor were mixed and complex.  On the one hand I wasn’t interested in any sort of secular work.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in business.  I had considered becoming a counselor but ultimately concluded psychology was such a secular field I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do through it, which was to help people and serve God in my work at the same time.  (That was in the days before Christian psychology became an accepted and popular field.)

By the same token, I wasn’t sure I could cut it in the secular working world.  Almost all the work I’d done up to that point had been church-related.  I’d only worked one secular job before, and that only for a few months.  On top of that I’d been picked on and teased a lot in public school, and had experienced the church as one place in which I felt somewhat more accepted.  I really dreaded experiencing a similar kind of rejection in the secular business world.

So I continued to gravitate towards work in the church. I thought the church would be kinder and more accepting than the business world.  And now having worked a great deal of the last 14 years in the secular marketplace I can say that for the most part I was right.

However, the whole time I was a pastor I was dogged by the awareness I’d avoided secular work out of fear.  So one of several reasons I left formal ministry was because I wanted to finally face that fear.

Still, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  When I made the decision to leave formal ministry, there was no “Plan B.”  My college degree was in Psychology which, along with $1, will buy you a cup of coffee (unless you’re at Starbucks, in which case not even that).  While I do also have a seminary Masters degree, that’s pretty much only valued in the church.  (I’ve since found that a seminary education can actually be a hindrance in getting secular employment, despite the fact that it’s a Masters.)

I won’t bore you with all the details at this point.  After leaving formal ministry, my first couple of jobs were in factories but they each only lasted a couple months because I think it was obvious I was overqualified and not really suited for that type of work.  But I was glad for the experience.

Since that time I’ve mostly worked a series of office jobs, though I did do some warehouse work as well, and one job in construction.  I also taught guitar lessons for a while, too.  The office jobs have been with a phone company, a safety equipment company, and in healthcare.

I have learned a few things along the way.  On the positive side I overcame my fears about working in the secular marketplace.  I’ve done a lot of things I never thought I could do, with no glaring failures.  So I’ve learned I’m capable of a lot more than I ever imagined.

There have been some hard lessons, though, too.  For one thing, I learned it’s harder to change careers than I thought, especially if you don’t have a lot of transferable skills.  The longer you’re in a career the more expertise you have, and I learned there’s really no substitute for that kind of time and experience in a given field.  When you change careers you’re basically starting over again at the entry level, as though you were fresh out of high school or college.  There may be some credit given for life experience, and perhaps that has helped me get the job in a few cases.  But I haven’t seen that life experience matters that much to a lot of employers.  There’s no substitute for longevity in a field.  Ironically, a lot of companies don’t value that kind of longevity anymore, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

One of the most frustrating things has been that since I left formal ministry, I haven’t found my college degree to be of much value.  The sheer fact that I had one might have helped me get a couple of my jobs, but so far I haven’t been able to get a single job that requires a college degree (or pays commensurate with one either).  I’m living proof that a liberal arts degree is of very little value in the business world.

So I wish I could say that the life-changing spiritual experiences I had in the late ’90s solved all my problems, but I really can’t.  I can say this, though: If I hadn’t met Jesus personally in 1998 and been mentored by some Christian men who made a lasting difference in my life, I’m not sure I would be sane or maybe even alive today.  There were some very dark times before my born again experience when I seriously questioned if I was going to lose my sanity.  Getting to know God in a more intimate and personal way through receiving Christ and the Holy Spirit into my heart, and becoming more grounded in the love of God, has made all the difference in my life.

After my born again experience (see Part 1 for more about that; the link for it is at the beginning of this post) I began to be mentored by a non-denominational pastor named David Moore as well as a couple other key men, and this made a huge difference in my life.  David in particular taught me a number of Scripture passages that were largely overlooked in my Presbyterian upbringing and my seminary training.  He encouraged me to steep myself in the books of Ephesians and Colossians, which are all about our identity in Christ, as well as in the gospel of John.

David also called my attention to 2 Peter 1:3-11, really an astounding passage if you consider its true meaning.  Somehow I had never noticed this passage before he pointed it out to me:

3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

These verses say some amazing things: God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness through knowing Christ, and if we trust in His great and precious promises we will actually participate in the divine nature (!) and be enabled to escape the corruption of the world.  Remarkable!!

A few other key passages David called to my attention: Ephesians  2:6-8 ~

6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:1-3 ~

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God

Heb 12:28-29

28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

Those verses all talk about our position in Christ.

There are many other verses I could list which David showed me and helped me better understand.  He also pointed me to a lot of great books that helped ground me in Christ and also bring healing to my emotional wounds.  Some authors I came to appreciate based on his recommendation are John Eldredge, Leanne Payne, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, and Calvin Miller, not to mention a number of lesser known but equally helpful ones.  More than any of that, though, David also invested his time and friendship in my life, and for those gifts I will always be grateful.

I also ought to say something about my involvement in church ever since I left formal ministry.  In the year 2000, after I left the church I had pastored, I never regularly attended another Presbyterian congregation.  Instead I began to attend Hope church, a small non-denominational church pastored by David Moore whom I mentioned above.  In 2004 I finally decided to give up my ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) so I could officially cut ties with that denomination and join Hope church.  Hope taught a mix of evangelical and charismatic beliefs.  The people of the church are just great, and became very dear to me.

I was actively involved there for about 8 years, after which time for a variety of reasons I sensed God releasing me to leave Hope.  Among other things, there were few unmarried people like me there and I had come to miss the fellowship of other singles.  I had previously been involved in the singles ministry of a large Evangelical Free church in town so I decided to visit there again. I wound up attending that E-V-Free church from 2009 until I moved back to Huntsville in 2011, and made many great and supportive friends there as well.

All those years I felt like I had only been flirting with the charismatic movement.  When I moved back to Huntsville I decided it was time for me to “jump in the river” as they say, so I decided to seek out a charismatic church to attend.  Over time God seemed to lead me to the church I currently attend, a small non-denominational charismatic church I’ve gone to for the last two years.  The people there are wonderful and have welcome this old traditionalist with open arms.

I won’t deny that it’s kind of hard in the church as a single person.  I’ve never married–not for lack of desire, but it’s just never seemed to work out for me to do so.  I’m probably too picky, and also I suspect I’m a bit of an acquired taste (lol).

I also won’t deny that since I left the safety and security of the traditional church I’ve had a hard time finding my niche in the church.  I’m too charismatic for the traditional church, and probably a bit too old-fashioned and traditional for the charismatic church as well.  I also find I’m too charismatic for the evangelicals and a little too evangelical for the charismatics.  Please understand, though–I’m not blaming anyone else–the problem is probably with me rather than anyone else.

I now live back in the city I was raised in, and my dad still goes to the Presbyterian church I grew up in, so sometimes I attend with him, especially on holidays and the like.  They still receive me very warmly, like one of their kids has come back home. They’ve been very supportive and appreciative of my music, and have even invited me a couple times to lead worship for their contemporary service.  I’m grateful to still have those ties and relationships after all these years, and after all the water that’s passed under the bridge.

So–I don’t claim to have all the answers or that the experiences I had 15 years ago solved all my problems.  But I can say with confidence that those experiences were a turning point in my life for the better that took me out of the place of trying to live the Christian life by personal effort (which is impossible) and into the place of beginning to allow Christ himself to be my life.  If there’s anything I learned from my time with David Moore and Hope church (and I learned a lot), it’s that being a Christian is not something I do, it has to be something I allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to do in me.  The only hope we have of living as God would have us live is by allowing Him to live through us.  It’s His effort, not mine. My job is simply to cooperate with Him and obey His leading.  A very different approach from trying to perform in my own strength.

There is much more I could share, but I will end it here.  Thank you for taking the time to read this series.

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:

https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/.

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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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: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

Part 2 can be found by going to my last post, or by following this link: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/

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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A Spiritual Journey, Part 2 – A New World Opens Up

This post has been a long time coming. It is the follow-up to a post I wrote in June 2008 called “A Spiritual Journey, Part 1.”  In order to understand this post, you really ought to read that one first, which can be found here:

https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

From 1991 to 2000 I served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Seven years into my ministry I had a significant encounter with God which revolutionized the way I understood the Christian life.

I told that story and the events leading up to it in the post listed above.  If you haven’t read that first part, I recommend you do it so this post will make sense.

Here I’m going to pick up where the previous post left off.  (Some of the names in this post have been changed because I haven’t been able to ask permission from the parties involved to share their part in the story.)

After asking Christ into my heart at the first annual Knoxville area Pastors Prayer Summit on Wednesday, March 11, 1998, the retreat was over on Thursday, and I went back home to the church I was pastoring in Lenoir City, Tennessee.  I had decided to share the testimony of what had happened with my congregation.  I was nervous because my denomination was staid and traditional, and not that keen on conversion stories. Even though my church was pretty friendly and open, they were still fairly traditional, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would be received.

Sunday finally came, and I shared my testimony.  It seemed to be well-received.

Altar calls, or invitations to receive salvation, are not a common practice in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, they are so uncommon that Presbyterian sanctuaries generally don’t even have a place at the front for people to kneel if they were to come forward.  This is partly because Presbyterian churches don’t have altars, but instead communion tables. But that’s a topic for another post.

At any rate, that Sunday at the end of my message I gave an altar call, inviting people to come forward and ask Jesus into their hearts, or rededicate their lives.  To my delight, six people came to the front, including several longtime members of the church.  Since there was no altar rail, I just invited them to stand where they were or kneel there on the floor.  As I recall they all knelt, including one dear matriarch of the church who was in her 70s.

I hadn’t given many altar calls before (only one other one in the entire course of my ministry), so I really didn’t know what to do when the people came forward.  To be honest, since invitations weren’t a common occurrence, I hadn’t really expected a response.  That’s what I get for underestimating God.

So I had the organist play a hymn (it may even have been “Just As I Am,” I can’t remember now. 🙂  ) Then I led everyone in a prayer in which I invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts.

At the end I dismissed the service, and talked with those who had come forward.  I wish I could say I was good about following up with them in the days to come, but honestly, I wasn’t.  I hadn’t been trained in anything like evangelistic follow-up, so I didn’t feel like I really knew what to do or say.  This is one of a number of regrets I have looking back on my years of ministry.

That night I had been invited by one of the pastors at the prayer summit, a man named Doug, to share my testimony at his church, a large evangelical church in Knoxville.  I’m not sure Doug knew exactly what he was getting himself into.  But it wound up being a good and memorable experience.

At that time, Doug’s Church had four identical services every Sunday, two in the morning, and two in the evening.  Doug had invited me to share at the two evening services.

At the first service Doug had me speak at the beginning, right after the singing.  He had prepared a message but after I shared, he said he sensed the Holy Spirit moving and decided to stop the service and issue an invitation.  Doug asked the people to come forward if they needed a touch from God similar to what I had experienced.

There wasn’t a huge rush to the front of the church, but I would say somewhere between one and two dozen people came forward.  One of them caught my eye, though–she happened to be a woman I recognized from my home town!  I didn’t know Terri well, and wasn’t even sure she would know who I was. She was known around my home town as a strong Christian, someone who had been very active in Young Life, a para-church ministry to youth.

Because of what I knew about Terri’s Christian background, I was surprised to see her standing at the front of the church weeping.  And yet because of what had just happened to me that week it made perfect sense.  After the service I went up to her and introduced myself, telling her I remembered her from our home town.  She shared that in recent years she had come to a place in which her faith felt dry and empty, and so when she heard my testimony she could really relate, and so she came forward.  When she did, God really touched her.

I later learned that Terri was the wife of one of the elders in the church. I made plans with Terri to get together with her and her husband soon, which we did not long after that, and shared a wonderful evening comparing notes of what God had done in our lives.

The second service that evening went very much like the first.  I shared, and then Doug led an altar call, in which a dozen or so more people came forward.  I later learned that the lives of several people in the church had been touched by my testimony and the Spirit’s working during the altar calls.  I was surprised, delighted, humbled, and thankful.

Apparently some of the things I shared in my testimony that night were a bit controversial, though, and I understand there was a lot of discussion and some debate about it the following week.  We tend to expect salvation to be a very cut-and-dried event. Most often we hear testimonies in which someone who was deeply involved in sin found God, and their life totally changed. My testimony wasn’t like that.  I had been a good churchgoer all my life, and was even involved in church leadership.  The things of God were my bread and butter.  Meeting God in a new way out of that experience is not as cut-and-dried as the blatant-sinner-finds-Jesus testimony.

Back at the Pastor’s Prayer Summit earlier that week, on the night after I had asked Jesus into my heart, I lay in bed unable to sleep, so excited by what I was experiencing, and also wondering what on earth had happened to me!  As I lay there asking questions, I felt God begin to speak to me.

Two analogies came to me, and I believed they were from God.  The first one was that my experience of God had been like that of a couple who are engaged but have never married.  They’ve come to know each other well but their relationship hasn’t been consummated.  They’ve shared their hearts but they haven’t yet been united in marriage and become one flesh.  They may have spent many hours together, but they haven’t become one.

I felt God was showing me that this is what my relationship with him had been like prior to that night.  I read the Bible and prayed a lot, but God had still seemed distant and remote.  The Bible says a Christian is someone who has been united with Christ through faith.  A Christian is “in Christ,” and Christ is in him.  This union with Christ is similar to a married couple becoming one flesh through the consummation of their marriage.  Ephesians 5 even compares the relationship of a husband and wife to that of Christ and his church.

That night I felt like God was showing me that prior to asking Jesus into my heart I had been acquainted with Christ, but I had not been united with Him.  I even talked to Jesus but was not in Him or He in me until I invited Him in, which I had never really consciously and intentionally done before.

The second analogy that came to me as I lay awake that night was of a business deal that had been negotiated but never closed.  In that scenario, both parties have worked out the deal in every detail, but the contract has never been signed on the dotted line, sealing the arrangement.

In a similar way, in the years prior to asking Jesus into my heart, I had a lot of interactions with God but had never really “closed the deal” with him.  When I asked Christ into my heart, that’s when I finally closed it.

The night I gave my testimony at Doug’s church in Knoxville, I shared these two analogies.  Apparently some people were bothered by the subtleties of it.  Folks were asking “He was ‘engaged to Christ’??–What does that mean??”

The intercessors who had prayed with me to received Christ (who also went to that church) didn’t have a problem with what I was trying to say.  Their take was that anything is possible with God. But my analogies didn’t sit well with others because I guess they weren’t cut-and-dried enough.

So Doug, the pastor of the church, wound up feeling a need to address the issue.  The next Sunday his sermon was entitled “What Happened to Morgan?”  I’ve listened to that message after it was given and it was very well done, though I can’t remember the exact content of it now, since many years have passed.

Well, everything I’ve written about in this post so far covers the events of just four days after the pastors prayer summit–Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening.  Some time during those days I had also called my parents to tell them the news. My mother said this explained something that had happened to her: the same night I’d asked Jesus into my heart, she was awakened in the night and thought she heard God say the words “to the heart” but she had no idea what that was about. After she heard my story she concluded her experience pertained to what had happened to me.

This was typical of my relationship with my mother. She had that sixth sense that moms seem to have about their children, and she was also very sensitive to the things of God, especially anything having to do with me. Rarely did anything important ever happen in my life without my mother having some sort of knowledge or awareness of it even before she was told about it.

After the prayer summit I had wondered how my congregation would receive my story. In the days and weeks that followed I sensed they seemed to approve of what I had shared. As one person commented, “We liked you before, so now if you’ve really met God” (or some words to that effect) “then we like you all the better!” They seemed glad I’d had an experience that legitimized my relationship with God and my ministry.  No one ever questioned my testimony or spoke against it in any way.

The week after the prayer summit I began to wonder how my experience fit with the Bible.  I wanted to know: was it scriptural? I began to think about the Bible passages I knew, and also to search for others.  Over the next week or two, several verses came to my attention that seemed to speak to the experience I’d had.  I’ve already shared some of these in the earlier post, but I think they’re worth repeating in more detail.

My mother pointed this passage out to me: Ephesians 3:14-21

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (emphasis added).

This is the main passage in the Bible that speaks of Christ living in our hearts.  It also makes the connection that the heart is a person’s inner being.  My prayer summit experience was profound for me in terms of teaching me about my own heart and the human heart in general.

Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a very intellectual town (with more Ph.D.s per capita than any other city in the nation, I understand), I tended to look at everything very rationally (maybe this was somehow related to my upbringing, too).  I was quite a literalist in that metaphor and figures of speech didn’t make much of an impression on me.

As a result, sentimental talk about the human heart always left me cold. As far as I was concerned, the heart was a muscle that pumped blood through your bloodstream and that was it. I was cynical about thinking of the heart in symbolic terms.

My prayer summit experienced made me aware of the emotional aspect my heart for the first time in my life. Once I asked Jesus in and had the experienced of him entering my heart, everything changed. I realized all that talk about the emotional side of the human heart wasn’t pure bunk after all.

Often the heart is equated with our emotions, but from a biblical standpoint this isn’t completely accurate. Ephesians 3:16-17 imply that when the Bible talks about the human heart it is referring to our inner being, the innermost part of us that makes us “us.” So the heart isn’t just a sentimental thing, it’s really the central aspect of who we are.

In the years after my prayer summit experience, as I was discipled by a pastor named David Moore, I came to understand that God relates to us mainly through our hearts, more than our minds.  Therefore, what’s most important in terms of our relationship with God is not what we believe about Jesus in our minds, but what we know and believe about him in our hearts.  The mind reflects what’s in the heart, and whatever we don’t truly believe in our hearts our minds will struggle to grasp as well.

But I digress.  My point was: Ephesians 3:17 does speak of Christ living in the hearts of Christians.

I also found a couple of verses which speak of asking Jesus in.  One of these, probably the most famous, is Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

Months later when I studied this verse in order to preach on it, I learned that the door Jesus is actually talking about there is the door of the Laodicean church to which he is speaking in Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus is standing outside the church, as it were, asking to be readmitted. But the promise he gives in verse 20 is still to individuals in that church, for he says “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Jesus is speaking in individual terms there.  So the verse still applies to the idea of individual persons answering Jesus’ summons and letting him into their own lives.

In my studies I also found a verse in the gospel of John which speaks of receiving Christ: John 1:11-13

11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (emphasis added).

This verse tells what must happen in order for someone to become a child of God (that is, to be saved): they must receive Christ, believe in his name, and be “born of God.”

I think we are all familiar with the idea of believing in God or believing in Jesus.  For many people, being a Christian is equated with this simple kind of belief, or with believing certain ideas about Jesus: that he died for our sins and rose again from the dead. We may see it as believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Too often the idea of belief is thought of as mere intellectual assent – if someone believes God exists, believes Jesus lived 2000 years ago, believes he died on the cross and rose again, then that makes them a Christian. These beliefs are good as far as they go.  But the Greek word for “believe” throughout the Gospel of John (such as here and in the famous verse John 3:16) is pisteuo, which is better translated “have faith in” or “trust.”

So the kind of belief John 1:12 and John 3:16 are talking about is more than just intellectual assent.  It’s really faith or trust, which is a more relational idea than mere belief. In order to have faith in someone, you have to know them. You have to know what sort of person they are to know if they’re worthy of your trust. So these verses really imply not just believing in Jesus, but knowing Him, and trusting Him.

John 1:12 also speaks of those who “received” Jesus. Prior to my prayer summit experience I’d never noticed this verse, and had never given much thought to the idea of “receiving” Christ. I’d heard people talk about it (“Have you received Christ?”) but not really considered it.

The context of this verse is the incarnation, God coming to earth in Jesus Christ.  Verse 11 says “He came to his own home” (literally, “his own things”) “and his own people received him not.”  “Receiving” here calls to mind hospitality.  Jesus came to the world he’d made, to his own people, the Jews, and the religious leaders rejected him.  They did not receive him.  Some people did accept Jesus, though–many of them social outcasts such as tax collectors and prostitutes. These folks received him.  They showed him hospitality, inviting him into their homes and lives, spending time with him, accepting him, listening to his message, and obeying his word.

John 1:11-13 implies that those who received Jesus in this way did more than just show him hospitality–they believed in him, not just in his teachings but, it says, in his very name.  In Bible times the name represented the person.  These people trusted Jesus.  They opened their hearts to him.  In doing so they were born of God and so became children of God.  As we would say it today, they were saved.

This gives us a picture of what it means for us to receive Jesus.  It is to open our hearts and lives to him.  To get to know him. To trust him like a trustworthy friend.

John 1:13 says those who received Jesus in this way were “born of God.”  This is reminiscent of a more familiar passage in John 3 that talks about being “born again” (see John 3:1-15).  We’ve all heard the phrase “born again.”  “Born of God” is what it means.  (For more on what it means to be born again, see my post here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/).

In the days after my prayer summit experience I remembered that a couple of years earlier, in 1996 or so, a lady in my church had given me a sermon on tape by John Wood, the pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian, a large church in Knoxville.  The sermon was on John 3 where Jesus talked about being born again.  Pastor Wood gave an excellent explanation of the passage.

As I listened, it dawned on me that whatever the Bible meant by being born again, I didn’t think it had ever happened to me.  So right there I said to God “I don’t know what it means to be born again, but I want it.

Now, two years later, as I thought back on my recent prayer summit experience, it occurred to me that what had happened to me there was God’s answer to my prayer about being born again back in 1996.

In John 3:5 Jesus said “You must be born again.” It’s not an option.  John 1:11-13 also shows that being born again, or born of God, is required in order to become a child of God (i.e., be saved).

This isn’t often discussed.  Many times there’s talk about someone becoming a “born again Christian.”  But according to the Gospel of John, there is no other kind of Christian.  To be born again is to be saved, and vice versa.  Jesus said, “You must be born again.”

Based on my experiences and my reflections on them, I concluded that being saved (i.e., becoming a Christian) is more than just accepting certain beliefs in our minds.  It’s more than just praying a sinners prayer. Being born again involves a personal encounter with God which causes us to be born anew and have our spirits brought to life. (For more on this go here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/03/62/)

Colossians 1:13-14 says “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Did you catch that?  This verse says that when we’re born into this world, we’re born into the domain of darkness and that we have to be transferred by God out of it.  This is why we must be born again.  The first time we were born we were born into the wrong domain.  In order to be transferred to the kingdom of Christ we have to come under His dominion and submit to him.  We have to be born into his kingdom, born of God.

I will end this post by asking: Have you ever been born of God?  John 1:11-13 tells us how we can be born of God.  🙂

If you feel this post has been a worthwhile read, or if you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please share it with your friends!  You can use the “Share” buttons below, or copy and paste the URL in your address bar onto your friend’s Facebook page or into an email and send it out!

Up next: A Spiritual Journey, Part 3, in which I talk about the conclusion of my ministry as a pastor, as well as events in my life since that time.  Stay tuned.

The New Birth

The following is a sermon I preached at a United Methodist church in East Tennessee on June 1, 2008.

John 3:1-15

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (Revised Standard Version)

For those of us who grew up in the church, this may be a very familiar passage. Because it’s so familiar we can miss aspects of its meaning.  Therefore this morning I want to take a fresh look at this story to see what we might learn from it.

The first person we meet in the story is Nicodemus. What do we know about him?

Verse 1 tells us Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means he was devoutly religious. This same verse also calls him a “ruler of the Jews.  ”In verse 10 Jesus calls Nicodemus “a teacher of Israel. ” This implies that he must have been fairly well-known as a spiritual leader, someone who was respected as a teacher in spiritual matters. So from these few facts we can surmise that Nicodemus was no lightweight; he was known and respected as a spiritual leader.

In light of this, the fact that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night (verse2) is significant. Some of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people were suspicious of Jesus and thought he was leading the people astray. It appears Nicodemus was concerned about what his colleagues would think about him coming to consult this controversial rabbi, and so Nicodemus comes to see him quietly at night.

We can also see, though, that he must have had some level of spiritual awareness, because he tells Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (verse 2). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man who had been sent by God. One of the themes in the gospel of John is that Jesus is the man who came down from heaven, and this verse indicates that Nicodemus was perceptive enough to see this.

Jesus doesn’t mince any words with this man. In fact, he doesn’t even give Nicodemus time to ask a question or tell Jesus why he came. Jesus cuts to the chase; He tells Nicodemus he must be “born anew” (v. 3).

The fact that Jesus says such a thing to this prominent religious leader is significant: Even though Nicodemus is a spiritual leader of his people—even though he’s a teacher, and a man of some understanding—Jesus tells him there’s more. There’s more to being a part of God’s kingdom than Nicodemus has yet discovered.

Nicodemus questioned what Jesus meant about being born anew. It would be worthwhile for us to consider the issue for a moment.

You probably know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and that all our English Bibles are translations of the Greek manuscripts into English. In John 3 verses 3 and 7, where the text speaks of being born anew, the Greek word translated “anew” is anothen.

This word can also be translated “again”. Of course, this is the wording we most often hear with respect to this phrase: “born again”. The idea of being a “born-again Christian” has almost become a cliché. However, we see here that being born again is a biblical idea.

The Greek word “anothen” can also be translated “from above”. So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born anew”, “born again” or “born from above.” Each of these translations tells us something about what Jesus meant.

“Born anew” and “born again” have similar meanings. We can tell Nicodemus understood Jesus’ statement in this way because of his question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus understood Jesus to be saying he needed to be born again.

The translation “born from above” is helpful also, because it helps us know what kind of birth we’re talking about. It’s a birth that’s not merely of this earth, but instead is “from above.” We can interpret this to mean that the new birth is from heaven. We’ll say more about that in a moment.

When we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus “you must be born anew” or “born again,” our response might be a bit like that of Nicodemus: “What do you mean I must be ‘born again?’ How can someone be born once they’ve grown up? Can a person enter a second time into his or her mother’s womb and be born?” Let’s take a few moments to consider in more depth what kind of birth this new birth or second birth is.

Our best indication is found in verse 6, when Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here Jesus contrasts two kinds of birth.

First he refers to our natural birth when he says “That which is born of the flesh is flesh….” Every person is born into this world in the natural manner: Parents conceive, the mother carries the baby to term (hopefully) and eventually the mother gives birth to a healthy baby from her womb. This natural birth that every person goes through to come into this world is what Jesus is referring to when he says “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”

But then Jesus goes on to say that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here he’s talking about the second birth, or the new birth. So from this we know that when Jesus says “you must be born again” he’s talking about a spiritual birth. This fits with the idea of being “born from above,” which we talked about a moment ago. When he speaks of “that which is born of the Spirit” he’s referring there to the Holy Spirit. The new birth is a spiritual birth coming “from above,” when a person is born of the Holy Spirit.

This goes along with what Jesus said in verse 5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Scholars have debated what Jesus means here by being “born of water.” Some say the reference to water refers to the waters of baptism. Others claim Jesus is referring to the natural birth, as we think of when we say that the mother’s “water broke” just before giving birth.

Since Jesus is talking here about what must happen in order for a person enter the kingdom of God, and since he contrasts the natural birth with the spiritual birth in verse 6, I don’t believe being “born of water” here is referring to the natural birth. I think it’s safe to say that the water Jesus mentions in verse 5 is the water of baptism. Jesus is saying that in order for a person to enter the Kingdom of God they must be baptized and spiritually reborn. (Note: We should not take this to mean that baptism is necessary for salvation. But that is a topic for another sermon.)

So to sum up, when Jesus tells Nicodemus “you must be born again” he’s saying to him: In order for someone to enter the kingdom of God a person has to be born in a spiritual sense. They must be born of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about this idea of being born again, let’s look at another passage in the gospel of John, John 1: 9-13.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (RSV)

Here John is talking about Jesus coming into the world. He says that Jesus “was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (verses 10 and 11). But then notice what it says in verses 12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Here we see another reference to the new birth, when John speaks of being “born of God.” John tells us that the way to become children of God is by being born of God.

What the gospel of John is talking about here and in chapter 3 is becoming a Christian. And what we see in both places is that in order to become a Christian a person must be born again.

We have heard talk over the years of “born-again” Christians, but these verses let us know that really there is no other kind. If you want to be a Christian, if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if you want to be a child of God, says the Bible, you must be born again. Notice it says “you must be born again.” Not you “may” or you “might want to be”, but “you must be born again.” And lest we think Jesus was only addressing this thought to Nicodemus, we should take note of the fact that when Jesus says “you must be born anew” in verse 7, the word “you” in the Greek is plural. So it means “you all must be born again.” (You didn’t know Jesus was a southerner, did you?  😉 ) Taking this into account, the full meaning of verse 7 is as follows: “Do not marvel that I said to you, Nicodemus, that you all must be born anew.”

Jesus wasn’t just telling Nicodemus he had to be born again. He was saying that any person who desires to become a Christian needs to be born again.

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

The answer goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed God’s command, and ate of the forbidden fruit, their disobedience caused them to die spiritually. This gave them a sinful nature which also passed to their children and on down through the generations, so that every person who’s ever been born has a sinful nature that separates them from God.

Every person who is born into this world is born spiritually dead. When we come into this world our spirits are dead. That’s why Jesus said we must be born of the Spirit in order to be saved. In order to enter God’s kingdom we have to be born into it via the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revives our spirit and brings it to life, giving us new life, the life of Christ.

Back in the days when kings ruled the earth, the normal way to become a king was that you had to be born the son of the king in order to succeed to the throne. Kingship was normally passed on by blood through birth.

When we become Christians, we become children of God, who is the great king of all the earth. God invites us to become his children. But in order to do this, we have to be born into his kingdom.

So how does this happen? How do we become born again? Let’s look again at John 1: 12-13.“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John says that those who were given power (the Greek word also means “right” or “authority”) to become the children of God were those who “received” him, those who “believed in his name.” This is how we are born of God, by receiving Christ and believing in his name. Let’s look briefly at these two ideas.

First, what does it mean to receive Christ? We must begin by remembering that Jesus is a person. He’s not a concept or an idea or a thought, but a person. Yes, he’s risen from the dead and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. But the Bible teaches that Jesus comes to us spiritually and makes his home with us if we love him. Consider these verses from the 14th chapter of John:

18 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

If a stranger comes to your house, you have a couple of options as to how you will respond to them. You can turn them away, or you can receive them into your home and show them hospitality. If you get to know them well, you may begin to show them love and in a sense receive them in a deeper way, into your heart.

John 1 says that when Jesus came into this world, many didn’t receive him. They rejected him. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, they didn’t believe or accept his teaching, they didn’t receive him in any way.

The chapter goes on to say, though, that there were some who did receive him. These were the ones who “believed in his name.” In Bible times, someone’s name represented everything they were. To believe in Jesus name is, among other things, to believe in everything that he is. These people believed Jesus was who he said he was. They believed and accepted Jesus’ teaching. They received him into their homes and into their lives and showed him hospitality and love.

Unfortunately, the idea of believing in Jesus is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “believe” in the New Testament is the word pisteuo, which really means to “trust” or to “have faith in.”

Too often people think that believing in Jesus is just intellectual assent; that is, merely believing in Jesus as an idea or a concept; believing facts about Jesus—that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross, rose again, saved us from our sins, will get us to heaven when we die, etc. These facts about Jesus Christ are all true, and we do need to believe them.

But when the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, what is meant is trusting in him, having faith in him. Jesus Christ is a living person, more real than you or I. And we can have a relationship with him, just as you would have a relationship with a very special friend; or with a father who loves you and looks after you and watches out for you and has the best advice and wisdom for you. In order to be born again we are called to place our trust in this very special friend, to put our very lives in his hands.

Likewise, receiving Jesus means opening our hearts to him and receiving him, his very life, his very being, into our very selves.  Letting all that He is fill all that we are. THIS is what it means to be born again.

And so the question I have for you this morning is: Have you been born again? Have you received Jesus into your heart and life? Have you believed in his name, not just as an idea, but as the Lord of the universe and your closest friend?? Have you invited to Jesus to come and live inside you, to fill you with Himself?

The Bible says that unless a person is born again, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Simply being born into this earth of natural means is not enough. Every person is born that way. But in order to become a child of God, we have to be born of God, born of the Holy Spirit.

This means God has no grandchildren. Every new person who comes into this world must be born of God themselves. We don’t become Christians automatically, simply because our parents were Christians, or because we grew up in the church. The only way we become Christians is if each one of us personally receives Christ ourselves and puts our trust in him.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people who have gone to church all their lives but have never come to know Jesus Christ personally. They may have been faithful in their church attendance but have never received him. They may even be leaders in their church, just as Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews, and yet they have never placed their faith in him. To every one of us Jesus says “you must be born again.”

I want to tell you a story from my own life. I grew up going to church. My parents were Christians. They had grown up Methodist, and as a child our family attended the Methodist church. For reasons I won’t go into, when I was about 12 our family became Presbyterian (a fact for which I hope you all will forgive us. 😉 ). So my formative teenage years were spent in the Presbyterian Church. I was confirmed in that church and became very active in the youth group. Around the age of thirteen I began to make some conscious decisions to try to live the way I believed God wanted me to live based on the teachings of the Bible.

From then on I was at church almost every time the doors were open. As a teen I tried very hard to live a righteous life. I became a leader and song leader for my youth group, and taught Sunday school on occasion with the younger kids.

In college I continued to serve with youth groups as a leader and during the summers I worked as a camp counselor at our church camp, eventually working my way up to the position of head counselor. I felt like my efforts as a spiritual leader at the camp were well-received, and so I concluded this was perhaps an indication that maybe God was calling me to be a leader in the church. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor, but I felt drawn to some form of church leadership.

So my senior year I decided to go on to seminary. I applied to become a candidate for ministry in my denomination and began applying to seminaries. When I was accepted at Princeton seminary I decided to go there.

After seminary I was ordained as a pastor and served two churches. My years of ministry were filled with personal struggles of various types. I found that the beliefs I had weren’t sufficient to deal with the struggles I was facing. I felt like something was missing from my life, but I didn’t know what it was.

I had entered the ministry in 1991. In about 1996 or ’97 I heard a sermon on tape by the pastor of a fairly large church in Knoxville on this very same passage from John 3 about being born again. As I listened to the tape, I concluded that whatever this experience was of being born again, I had not had it. I didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, I was pretty sure I had not experienced it. So I began to pray, “Lord, whatever it means to be born again, I don’t think it’s happened to me, but I would like it to happen, so would you bring it about in my life? I want to be born again.”

In 1998 I was invited by some other ministers in the town where I lived to attend a prayer retreat for pastors. There I had a chance to share some of my burdens and struggles with the other pastors, and they prayed for me.

On the third night of the retreat, I learned of some men there who were praying for pastors in a more personal way, and so I sought out these men and asked them to pray with me. As I shared my struggles with them and we prayed, I felt my burdens beginning to lift. I was being released from spiritual bondages and sins I had been carrying around for a long time. It was a wonderful, freeing experience, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room was palpable.

During this prayer time, one of the men turned to me and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?” At this point I had been a pastor for seven years, so the question kind of took me by surprise. I might have been tempted to dismiss it, but because God was working so powerfully in my life, and because I was in such obvious need, I took the question seriously.

I responded that I wasn’t sure I ever had asked Jesus into my heart, but that I had made a decision to serve Him as a young teenager. The man replied gently that this was good, but it wasn’t the same thing. And so he put the question to me again: “Have you ever asked Jesus into your heart?”

I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever asked that exact thing, but I think it’s already taken care of.”

“Well,” he replied, “since you’re not sure, why don’t you take a moment now and ask Jesus into you heart. Then if anyone ever asks you about this again in the future, you’ll know for sure.”

I agreed. I bowed my head, and he encouraged me to say a simple prayer in my own words. So I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you know I love you and I want you to be in my heart. And so I ask you now to come into my heart,” or words to that effect.

At that moment, as I prayed those words, I was aware of a benevolent spiritual presence filling my heart with a peace and a feeling of cleanness and joy and love that I have never known before. Jesus Christ had answered my prayer and come into my heart, just as I asked him to!

Later that night, after the prayer time was over, when I went back to my room in the conference center where the retreat was being held, I was filled with joy and excitement and wonder! As I lay in bed that night I found myself asking, “Lord what has happened to me???” As I lay there, the Lord began speaking to my heart about what had happened in my life. Over the days and weeks that followed, as I studied the Bible to find explanations for what I had experienced, I concluded that I had finally experienced this new birth Jesus talks about in the third chapter of John. I had been born again, born of the Spirit.  That prayer I had prayed a couple years earlier had been answered.

From my own experiences I’ve concluded that being born again involves a personal encounter with God. It isn’t necessarily something that happens just by being in church every Sunday or by doing spiritual activities like prayer and Bible study. I did all those things and more as an active church member, and as a pastor; and yet I never experienced the new birth through those things alone.

You may find it hard to believe that someone who grew up in church, was active in youth group, went to seminary, and became a pastor could do all that and yet never come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. But I’ve become convinced there are lots of people who’ve been in church all their lives but have never been born anew. They are elders, and deacons, and Sunday school teachers, and church board members, even pastors, bishops, and seminary professors. They are good, responsible religious people like Nicodemus, but just like him they need to be born again.

Since you all are Methodists, I’ll close with a story from the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. (You all probably know this story better than I do, and might be able to correct me on any details I get wrong.)

Wesley grew up in the Church of England, and at the age of 22 made a profession of faith. After this Wesley decided to pursue a career as a priest.

Eventually John Wesley became the leader of a group of Oxford university students started by his brother Charles called the Holy Club. These young men were very zealous in their desire to live a holy and spiritual life, and so they adopted a very strict regimen of Bible study, self-denial, and acts of service. This group later became known as “Methodists” because of the method of spiritual discipline they rigorously pursued.

In 1735 Wesley decided to come to America to be a missionary to the Indians. On the trip across the ocean, one day a storm came up and everyone on board thought they were going to die. Wesley himself was very fearful of death at this time in his life.

During the storm the young preacher noticed a group of Moravian Christians from Germany who remained calm and serene. Wesley was impressed by their faith and concluded they had something he didn’t have, something he wanted.

In Wesley’s own estimation, that first trip to America was a failure. The response to his ministry was not as he had hoped, and in 1738 he returned to England. Once back home, Wesley sought out some Moravians like those he had met on his trip to America, and began attending their meetings.

You’ve probably heard the famous story about how one day, while attending one of these meetings held on a street called Aldersgate, as someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” After this spiritual experience, Wesley’s life was profoundly changed. He discovered a new power in his preaching, as people responded like never before. Eventually a revival a broke out that continued for 50 years.

Scholars have been divided over exactly what the experience was that Wesley had at Aldersgate. Some have said it was salvation, some have said it was sanctification; others have concluded it was the filling of the Holy Spirit. But one thing is clear—after this experience, Wesley was never the same. His life was forever changed. He knew the power of God in his life as never before.

Through my own experiences and the testimony of others, I’m convinced that the new birth, being born again, is a personal encounter with God. If you’ve had it you will know, because your life will be changed.

It may happen different ways for different people. But the point is have you had it? Do you know that you know that you’re born again?

When a baby is born, mother and baby go through a very painful and wrenching process of labor. (Since I’m a man, I’ll never know what this is like in a personal way, but the ladies can tell us). The mother never forgets the labor she went through with her children.

I think it’s the same way with spiritual birth. You know when it happens because it is significant and memorable.

If you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve been born again; if you have any uncertainty as to whether you’ve met and gotten to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, I encourage you to seek to know him personally. If you’re unsure, why not ask Him just to be certain. Tell God, “Lord, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this experience of being born again, but I would like to.” If you’re not sure you’ve asked Jesus into your heart, why not pray a simple prayer asking him to come into your heart and live inside you.

For years I thought the Christian life was me trying real hard to live the way I was supposed to live. Today, even ten years after I met Jesus Christ, I am still learning that living the Christian life is not trying our best to live as Jesus wants us to live. Instead, it’s inviting Jesus Christ to come and live inside us, and letting Him live His life through us.

I encourage you to seek to know Jesus Christ personally. Feel free to ask me about this if you want to know more.