Category Archives: church

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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Dividing Between Soul and Spirit

Book Review: “The Latent Power of the Soul” by Watchman Nee

The Latent Power of the SoulNee, Watchman. The Latent Power of the Soul. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1972. (According to Nee’s preface, the book was originally written in 1933.)

Watchman Nee (Chinese “Ni To-sheng”) was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  After the Communists came to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and spent the last 20 years of his life incarcerated for his faith.  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_nee)

Nee only wrote a few books himself, The Latent Power of the Soul being one of them.  However, notes from many of his lectures were also compiled and translated into English to comprise quite a few more books that have been published in his name.

I’ve read several books by Watchman Nee that were really good.  In particular, The Normal Christian Life, an explication of Romans 5-8, and Sit, Walk, Stand, based on Ephesians, are outstanding.

However, The Latent Power of the Soul is not on par with Nee’s best work.  The reasons are as follows: 1) Nee’s exegesis (that is, his reading and explanation of Scripture) is very weak. 2) His explanation of his argument is unclear. 3) Much of Nee’s case is based on his own subjective experiences rather than on hard biblical evidence, and these experiences aren’t described clearly enough in many cases for the reader to even be sure Nee’s meaning is understood.

Nevertheless, I do see some good in the book, which I will share toward the end of this review.

Spirit, Soul, and Body

The central concept in The Latent Power of the Soul is built on Nee’s earlier book The Spiritual Man, in which he explores the tripartite nature of humanity (i.e., man as spirit, soul, and body). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 4:12 we read “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” (emphasis added).

Based on these verses, in The Spiritual Man Nee argues that the terms “spirit” and “soul” are not interchangeable but instead in the Bible each is used distinctly to refer to a different part of the human make-up.  As Nee explains in The Latent Power of the Soul, “the soul is our personality” (p. 11), while the spirit is “that which makes us conscious of God and relates us to God (p. 13).”  I haven’t read all of The Spiritual Man, but what I have read of it seems accurate from both a biblical and experiential point of view.

Superhuman Power Before the Fall?

However, Nee’s main argument in The Latent Power of the Soul seems less well-founded biblically.  His premise is that human beings as originally created prior to the fall were endued with incredible, even supernatural, power, and this power resided in our souls.

Nee bases this claim on the fact that in Genesis God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. Nee takes God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth quite literally and assumes it was incumbent on Adam and Eve all by themselves to fulfill it. Nee’s assumption is that our first parents, as the only two humans on earth at the time, must have had incredible powers in order to be able to fulfill this command, in light of the sheer size of the earth and the scope of plant and animal life that covered the planet at that time.

In my opinion, however, it’s better to interpret God’s command to Adam and Eve as intended not only for them but also their descendants–i.e., that the command is given to the entire human race.  It’s unnecessary to assume God expected Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth all by themselves.  (The question of whether Adam and Eve were the only humans on earth arises later in the story when their sons Cain and Seth marry, for one must ask, where did their wives come from?? But that is a topic for another blog post.)

To back up his argument, Nee makes this claim: The fact that sweat and toil in labor were effects of the fall and not of the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19) means that prior to the fall Adam must have had limitless physical strength to labor and not grow tired.  However, this is also a misinterpretation, because a careful reading of these verses shows that the increased difficulty in manual labor after the fall is not due to a decrease in Adam’s strength, but to an increase in the difficulty associated with work. In the fall the ground is cursed and produces thorns and thistles (weeds) and so plants which can be eaten now have to be cultivated and the ground worked in order for it to produce food. Man’s labor is likewise cursed with an increase in the obstacles he must overcome in order to achieve his goals.

Because of the fall, humanity has to work a lot harder to produce the same results.  So Nee’s claim that prior to the fall Adam must have had superhuman stamina is unfounded.

Nee also claims that in order to name all the animals (see Genesis 2:19-20), Adam must have had an incredible power of memory and thought in order to accomplish this task.  Here as elsewhere, Nee’s argument is based on conjecture that cannot be supported by the text itself.

Likewise, Nee argues that the Garden of Eden must have been very large because it was bounded by four rivers (based on Genesis 2:10-14), and therefore Adam must have had superhuman powers in order to be able to manage the garden.  However, once again we have a faulty interpretation, for the text actually says that “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters,” (emphasis added).  So the four rivers were not part of Eden but flowed from the river that came out of Eden.  Even if Nee’s interpretation were accurate, his argument about the size of the garden is based solely on conjecture, and such arguments are not a good basis on which to found an entire teaching.

Finally, Nee claims that the fact that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) also means they had powers that would seem supernatural to us today.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had greater abilities than we currently know.  Science has shown that we only use about 10 percent of our brain power.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who proposed that prior to the fall we used 100% of our brain capacity and pondered what wonders we’d be capable of if this power were restored.  But the biblical basis on which Nee makes his assertions about Adam’s prowess before the fall seems flawed to me.

Latent Power in the Soul

Nee goes on to say that when Adam and Eve sinned against God their spirits died, causing these incredible powers that resided in their souls to be “frozen” and immobilized due to sin. Nee tries to explain this biblically but in my opinion his argument here is not just bad, it’s unintelligible.

The major premise of Nee’s book, then, which is referenced in the title, is that this vast soul power which was frozen in the human soul lies latent and unused.  The central biblical passage on which he bases this idea is Revelation 18:11-13:

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.” (emphasis added)

From this passage Nee surmises that in the last days Satan’s goal is tap into this latent power in human souls in order to accomplish his diabolical deceptions again humanity and the church.  How he comes to this conclusion from these verses is, quite honestly, beyond me.  It seems like a complete stretch in terms of interpreting the passage, especially in light of its context, which speaks of judgment against Babylon in the last days.

Satan Wants Your Soul Power!

Nee’s main point, then, is that in our souls we humans have enough hidden power to perform supernatural wonders. However, he says, as Christians we are not to make use of this power because it is forbidden, due to the fall.  Instead, Christians are to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our spirit (as opposed to the soul) to do God’s work.

Moreover, Satan is trying to tap into the latent power in the human soul in order to deceive the world in the last days through false signs and wonders he would perform using humanity’s soul power.  For millennia Satan’s attempts to harness this power failed, but in recent centuries he has found success and has been building up steam toward the climax of the last days when the antichrist will unleash the full power hidden in man’s soul and take over the world.

Now, the idea that we should rely on the Holy Spirit’s power instead of the power of our own souls in order to live the Christian life is exactly right.  It’s Nee’s claim that we have supernatural powers bound up in our souls which Satan is trying to release that I see as unfounded from a scriptural standpoint.

Nee makes much of Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnotism in 1778, and claims this was the turning point at which Satan began to have more success in releasing humanity’s latent soul power.  Since that time, claims Nee, man has been learning more and more about parapsychology, through which Satan has been gaining ever greater control over human soul power.  Nee believes that parapsychology and all paranormal activity is a product of man’s latent soul power, and says that this is going to increase in the last days until the antichrist finally emerges and gains control of the world.  It seems to me that Nee’s thesis betrays a 20th century Western preoccupation with paranormal activity.

A More Biblical Approach

Now what strikes me as odd about this is, I think there’s a way in which Nee could’ve easily made a similar argument from a much more biblically sound perspective.

Nee’s position is that Satan needs man’s soul power in order to be able to do anything of a supernatural nature or perform the false miracles with which he will bring the antichrist to power in the last days. Strangely, Nee completely overlooks what the Bible has to say about the occult.  Several passages in the Bible (notably Deuteronomy 18:9-14) make it clear that occult practices like witchcraft, spiritism, necromancy, and the like were forbidden by God, and the implication is that these are activities which convey genuine supernatural power and originate with Satan.  (Paranormal activity like Nee describes would fall under the category of occult power as well, by the way.)

So the Bible would seem to indicate that Satan is capable of supernatural activity without having to use man’s soul power.  Therefore Nee’s claim that Satan needs human soul power to do his dirty work simply doesn’t seem necessary (or biblical).  I’m sure it’s true that when the human soul is separated from God and HIs Spirit, this can become a means through which Satan can work; but it doesn’t follow that this is the only means by which Satan can work.  At any rate, it seems strange to me that Nee ignores such a clear scriptural connection to his topic, and instead comes at it in such a roundabout way.

Soulish or Spiritual?

In the last of the three chapters in the book, Nee focuses on the difference between living the Christian life, or conducting ministry, out of one’s soul power versus doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a helpful distinction.  However, I found the practical examples Nee gives to be singularly unhelpful.  They are very subjective, often based on Nee’s own personal intuitions and perceptions, so that his reasons for believing a certain experience or manifestation was soulish rather than Holy-Spirit-led are hard to see or understand.  And in fact some of his claims seem pretty strange to a modern reader.

For example, Nee says that too much singing in worship services is soulish rather than led by the Holy Spirit; too much reflection on a Bible text will lead to a soulish interpretation rather than a spiritual one; all holy laughter (yes, they knew of it in his day) is soulish; if you desire for God to speak to you through dreams or visions, and especially if you have a lot of dreams or visions, then these are likely from the soul rather than the Holy Spirit; if you experience strong feelings, especially good feelings, in worship or prayer then these are likely from the soul rather than from the Holy Spirit; too much praying in tongues, or an inordinate desire to speak or pray in tongues, is soulish; and that many supernatural healings are wrought through soul power rather than Holy Spirit power.

Fear of Spiritual Deception

After reading Nee’s final chapter I felt like the ultimate effect of it, and indeed of the entire book, might be to instill in the reader a fear of being deceived.  Nee comes across as though he believes most spiritual phenomena and manifestations in church or Christian meetings are soulish and demonic rather than from the Holy Spirit, especially if they are accompanied by very nice feelings.  Nee seems to believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is accompanied by very little feeling at all, almost as if the Holy Spirit works impassively in human beings.  Therefore, a lack of strong feelings is a sign of a work that is authentically of the Holy Spirit, while the presence of strong feelings renders an experience suspect as being possibly soulish and demonic rather of God.

If what Nee says is true, then a lot of what goes on in today’s charismatic church (not to mention the rest of the church) originates in the soul and is of demonic origin, rather than from God!

Throughout The Latent Power of the Soul Nee refers to a book called Soul and Spirit by Jessie Penn-Lewis, an evangelist famous for her role in the Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century.  Penn-Lewis is also known for her controversial book War on the Saints in which she concluded that some of the spiritual manifestations which occurred in the Welsh revival were from Satan rather than God.

Though I haven’t read War on the Saints in its entirety, nor have I read Soul and Spirit, I have studied Penn-Lewis and can sense her influence on Nee in The Latent Power of the Soul.  Penn-Lewis became very suspicious of spiritual manifestations and is accused by some of being too quick to label certain manifestations as being demonic in origin rather than divine.  The Latent Power of the Soul strikes me as having this same tendency.  And since Penn-Lewis’ book is about the only source Nee consistently references in this book besides the Bible, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Soul and Spirit had a lot of influence on The Latent Power of the Soul.

I will be the first to admit that discernment is needed with regard to spiritual experiences and manifestations.  The apostle John warned us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  However, in my opinion Nee’s approach in this book is erroneous in itself.  It seems based more on Penn-Lewis’ book and on certain assumptions of Western society (which is ironic from a Chinese author) than on the Bible.

Reading this book helped me understand something about my own life and background.  My mother was always very afraid of being deceived in the way Nee describes in this book.  In fact, the copy of the book I read belonged to my mom, and contained all her underlining and notes.  From these I could tell that she really agreed with or was greatly influenced by the teachings in this book.  I also know that my mother was highly influenced by Jessie Penn-Lewis’ book War On the Saints which also goes into great detail in describing what the author believed were demonically inspired manifestations in the Welsh revival and warning her readers to be on guard against them.

It seems my mother was highly influenced by these two books, and that her deep fears of being spiritually deceived may have been founded on them.  My mother’s fears in this regard had a very profound (and I would say negative) effect on our relationship and also on my perception of God and His trustworthiness with regard to spiritual phenomena.

The Value of This Book

Having described all the problems I see with The Latent Power of the Soul I will go on to say, however, that it’s not all bad. I did benefit from reading it.  Nee’s clear and careful distinction between the human soul and spirit is helpful, as is his delineation between the ways they operate.  Nee also makes a valid point that there is an important difference between what we conjure up by our own power and what is the true work of the Holy Spirit.  He rightly points out that some of what goes on in Christian church services and meetings is more the use of psychological means and human effort rather than relying on the Spirit.

Nee’s words made me ask myself: when I lead worship or speak, how much of what I do is my own efforts, and how much is reliance on the Spirit?  How often to I employ persuasion or manipulation, rather than simply looking to the Spirit to do his work?  It is a sobering question, worth considering.

Nee’s book also made me take a fresh look at some of the ways we do things in church today.  For example, if church leaders work very hard to sport the latest hip fashion, and if our desire in worship is to have the latest cool music in order to attract new people (or retain the ones we have), are we using psychological manipulation?  Is our very approach, and our motive, soulish in origin?

Reading this book also spurred me to begin a study of how the Greek word for soul, psuche, is used in the Bible. Psuche is the word from which we get the English term “psyche,” another word for soul.  In fact, “psyche” is really just a transliteration of psuche.  “Psychology” is the study of the soul.

In my word study I learned something new about the following verse (or was reminded of it, because I think I had heard it before): 1 Cor 2:14 says “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  In the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) the word translated “natural” is psuchikos–literally “soulish” (or, as the English translation of Nee’s book quaintly says, “soulical”).  So a paraphrase of the verse using this idea would be “The person operating only in the realm of the soul does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Here is another place in Scripture where we see the distinction Nee has rightly pointed out between operating from the soul, and operating from the spirit.  It shows the importance of the distinction.

I hope no one reading this will leave with a bad impression of Watchman Nee.  He was a great man, a truly courageous Christian.  No doubt he received a great reward when he met his heavenly Father after leaving this life.  Some of his books are classics.  The Latent Power of the Soul is just not one of his better works.  This reminds us that even the greatest of Christian leaders is still a human being and fallible like the rest of us.  But I’m grateful I took the time to read this book.  It gave me greater insight into one of my spiritual heroes and helped me to see his more human side.

A Conservative Christian Response to the Supreme Court Rulings on Gay Marriage

Well, the US Supreme Court (a.k.a. the SCOTUS) has ruled on the Defense of Marriage Act and on California Proposition 8, and both rulings went in favor of those who support gay marriage.  Among Christians there is no monolithic response.  Some more liberal-leaning Christians are falling in step with the prevailing view in the culture, saying it’s time we “modernize” and allow gays to marry.  Supporters of this view both inside and outside the church treat it as a civil rights issue, claiming it’s discriminatory to prevent homosexuals from having the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals when it comes to marriage.

We need to recognize, though, that there are real problems with this view, especially for Christians who believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God and have committed themselves to following what the Scriptures teach.  We who are Bible-believing Christians trust that in the Bible God has faithfully revealed His will, His desires, and His purposes for the human race.

The first problem with same-sex “marriage,” though, is one that should be recognized by more than just those of us who put our faith in the Bible: Those who advocate gay marriage are asking the rest of us to abandon what has been the traditional view of marriage not just in America, not just in Western society, but in every culture throughout the entire history of the world.  In one fell swoop these folks want to overturn the collective wisdom and practice on marriage that has existed since the beginning of human history.  Until the last couple decades every culture, and even every religion, throughout the world has taken it for granted that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. While it’s true that in ancient times polygamy was practiced, even in those cases, the marriage was still between a man and one or more women.  The marriage of two people of the same sex to one another has never been accepted anywhere in the world until very recent times.  Surely there is a reason, a collective wisdom behind this (about which I will say more below).

What has been implicit throughout human history–that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman–is made explicit in the Bible.  The Old Testament prohibits a man from having sexual relations with another man (see Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).  Likewise, in  the New Testament the apostle Paul tells us that homosexuality is a form of human degradation resulting from man’s rebellion against God, and from idolatry (see Romans 1: 18-32, especially verses 26-27), and that those who practice homosexual behavior will not inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 6:9).

There are those who try to remove the biblical authority of these passages by questioning the translation of certain words, or by pointing out that Jesus himself was silent on the subject of homosexuality, and by accusing Paul of some sort of legalism.  However, their arguments appear to be motivated by a desire to nullify the plain teachings of the Bible because they don’t like what it says.  But the Scriptures are clear on this matter, there is no ambiguity in the plain meaning of the texts, and the Old and New Testaments speak in unison in declaring homosexual behavior to be an aberration that is outside God’s will for humanity, and therefore prohibited by Him.

[Edit June 26, 2015: I will add that while Jesus never said anything explicitly on the topic of homosexuality, he did speak these words about marriage, which seem very applicable to this topic: “Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4)].

To many in our softened post-modern culture, in which absolutes are questioned, this seems unbearably judgmental and cruel, and so we might do well to consider why the Bible has such strong things to say against homosexual behavior.  The reason is fairly simple, and straightforward.  In the book of Genesis, chapter 1, we see that God made human beings to be of two genders, male and female.  In chapter 2 we are told that God instituted marriage between a man and a woman.  Simple biology confirms this.  To be graphic for a moment: A man’s penis was created to fit into a woman’s vagina.  A man was not created with an corresponding receptacle in his body to receive a penis into his body (and from a medical standpoint we know that the way in which gay men try to make this happen creates all kinds of health problems, because it is not natural, and isn’t the way things were made to be).  Likewise, there is no part of a woman that fits adequately into her vagina in the same unique way that a man’s penis does.  So simple biology shows that homosexuality goes against nature, and is not the way we were created to be.

Until recent decades, this was a no-brainer.  Even until the 1980s or so, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychologists viewed homosexuality as a psychological problem and an unnatural state.  However, over the last few decades the cultural revisionists in Hollywood and in our universities have been hard at work putting out as much propaganda as they can to erase that understanding.  And apparently they’ve been pretty successful, considering that now a majority of the American people supposedly believe gay marriage should be allowed.  If you ask me, it’s a result of propaganda and peer pressure, but that’s a topic for another post.

So simple biology tells us that homosexuality goes against nature and against the way God created the human race to operate, which is why He prohibits it in His Word.  But the gay community and those who support the gay lifestyle have done everything they can to try to nullify the argument from nature.  They now claim that biology cannot be taken into consideration in these matters.  This is an example of where the teaching of secular evolution comes into play.  They claim that biology doesn’t figure into it because we just evolved this way.  And in secular evolution there is no morality; the way we are isn’t right or wrong, it just is.  And so they claim that the reason there are gays and lesbians is merely because of evolution.  Therefore, they claim,  our anatomy doesn’t play into the moral discussion.

Now at this point someone may say: But homosexuals claim they’ve been that way as long as they can remember, so they must be born that way.  That’s a debatable point, because it still could be due to environmental factors which take effect in the very early months or years of life.  But even if they are born that way, does that automatically make it right or sanctioned by God?  It’s claimed that alcoholics are born that way, too, but no one is trying to say alcoholism is a healthy or desirable way of life.  Children with birth abnormalities are born that way as well (though some liberals would prefer to just have them aborted), but we don’t celebrate those either.  The mere fact that someone is born a certain way is not an argument that being born that way is good or desirable.

Now, it may sound at this point like I’m just hating on gays.  That’s not the intention.  Let me say upfront that the approach of Westboro Baptist “church” is a horrible distortion of biblical teaching on homosexuality.  God does not hate “fags” (and it’s unloving to use derogatory terms like that to speak of gays).   God loves all people, including homosexuals, and desires all to come to the knowledge of salvation and deliverance through Jesus Christ.  And while homosexuality is a sin, it’s no worse of a sin than adultery, fornication, or any other form of sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.  Heck, it’s no worse of a sin than my own lust or gluttony.

And I am not claiming to be perfect or spotless in the area of sexual morality myself.  I’ve made my share of mistakes.  So any righteousness I have comes not through my own good behavior, which the Bible says is nothing but “filthy rags,” but only through my faith in Jesus Christ.  Thank God, He forgives my sin when I come to Him in confession and repentance.  When we trust in Him, He takes our sin and gives us His righteousness.  And he will do this for anyone who comes to him, about any sin, including that of homosexuality.

But I simply wanted to explain why the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong–because it goes against the way God created men and women.  God intended a man to have sex only with a woman, and then only in the context of the committed lifelong relationship we call marriage–between a man and a woman.

Our culture is in the process of rejecting this view, though.  Many Christians are up in arms, upset that we seem to be losing the “culture war.”  Well, guess what?  This isn’t the first time in history Christians have been in the minority, nor the first time the prevailing culture’s morals have gone against the Bible.  The early church faced a much worse situation in the pagan Roman Empire.  Homosexuality (and sexual immorality in general) was rampant in that culture (though they didn’t have anything like gay marriage), and in the pagan mindset homosexuality was even celebrated as a legitimate form of “affection” and recreation.

This was the case for the first three centuries of the church’s existence.  How did things change in favor of Christianity?  It wasn’t through laws and politics, for Christians had no political power or visible presence.  It happened one heart at a time, as the Christian faith spread like wildfire, first through the lower classes, and eventually even breaking into the upper classes.  If any change is going to happen in our day, it’s going to happen the same way as well–one heart at a time, through love, prayer and conversions–conversions to a new heart and a new way of thinking, God’s way of thinking.

Gay “marriage” is already the law in, what, a dozen states now?  And think how fast that has happened.  In a matter of just a few years.  And with California’s Prop 8 being struck down without a referendum or anything, one has to wonder how much longer the laws protecting traditional marriage in the states which have them are going to be upheld.  We can no longer expect the government to uphold our beliefs or our moral standards.

So then we will have a choice.  Will we capitulate to the popular majority opinion, or will we stand up for what the Bible teaches, even if we have to do so as a dissenting minority?  Are we willing to be counter-cultural and go against the flow?

Pastors will be under more and more pressure to perform same-sex marriages.  As a former pastor myself, I am keenly aware of the situation they’ll face.  If pastors want to be faithful to the God of the Bible, then they will need to take a stand on conscience.  As Bible-following Christians they will have to say: “The state may say it’s OK, but as a Christian, I cannot in good conscience marry two people of the same sex.”  As Christians we will have to say “The state may sanction gay marriage, but based on what the Bible teaches, I do not agree with it and cannot support it.”  And if you find your pastor or church or denomination giving in on this issue, then it may be time to change churches, hard as that may be for some.  We are going to have to make a distinction between what the government allows, and what we as Christians are willing to go along with, just as we have done on the issue of abortion.  Instead of expecting the government to uphold our view, we’re going to have to accept that it no longer does, and live by our consciences, even if they puts us at odds with the prevailing majority.

Well, these are my thoughts on the matter.  I’m sure I haven’t expressed them as well as I could.  And it’s a very controversial issue, so I won’t be surprised if I take some flack for the things I’ve said.  But Jesus took a lot of flack for me, so it’s the least I can do for Him and His church…..  Blessings to all, even those who do not agree with me on this very thorny topic…..

Thoughts on Today’s Praise and Worship Music

Ten to fifteen years ago, the main criticisms of contemporary praise and worship music were that the words didn’t have much substance, they were too sentimental, and they were more about “me” than God.  For the most part this isn’t true of today’s worship songs.  While some choruses like that still exist, many of today’s worship songs have better lyrics that clearly speak about God’s work in Christ through his cross and resurrection.  In my opinion, modern praise and worship has “grown up” a great deal in portraying the basic truths of the Christian faith and a personal relationship with God.

I love contemporary praise music.  I love listening to it, I love singing it and playing it, and I love worshiping to it.  And I’m glad the words have grown more substantial.  Yet I still see a problem with today’s worship songs.

The issue is that today’s praise music isn’t very singable for the average person, and it doesn’t translate well for the typical worship band in the average church.

Today’s popular praise songs are developed mostly in mega-churches, the largest churches in the land.  Most of these congregations have several thousand people in attendance every Sunday.  As a result, they have almost limitless resources.  They can attract the best musicians, the most talented singers, the most seasoned songwriters.

Today’s worship songs are created for large audiences, making the morning worship time in these churches a lot like a rock concert.  This means today’s worship songs are really written more to be observed and consumed, than to be participated in.  They’re created to be heard more than sung. The primary question behind the songs seems to be: How will this be received by the thousands watching in church Sunday morning?  How’s it going to sound on on someone’s iPod?  How will it come across on youtube?  The first concern doesn’t seem to be “How easy is this going to be to sing?” or “How playable will this be for a worship team?”

The musical keys of today’s worship songs often tend to be in the stratosphere – a high tenor or soprano might be able to hit the notes, but everyone else will have to sing in their lower range, or else the song may not be in some people’s range at all.  And in fact, the latest thing for worship songs is to start them off in the low part of the singer’s range, and then at the climax of the song, the singer takes it up an octave for the sake of emphasis.

An example of this would be in the popular worship song “How He Loves” written by John Mark MacMillan and popularized by David Crowder.  In the second verse the singer suddenly goes up an octave on the words “I don’t have time to maintain these regrets / When I think about the way… / He loves us, oh how He loves us….”  You know what I’m talking about.  How many of you can make that vocal leap?

This is the kind of thing that mostly only trained and gifted singers can pull off.  I like to think I have a pretty decent voice, but my range barely extends beyond an octave.  So in order to pull off that trick, I have to make sure the song is pitched in just the right key, or else it’s out of my range.  Some singers may not be able to do this at all, and the person sitting in the seats may not even want to try.

And we wonder why people aren’t getting into the singing on our songs….

Likewise, the music on worship songs today is getting increasingly complex.  This makes it more interesting and fun to listen to, and probably more fun and challenging for talented musicians to play.  But for the rest of us mere mortals it may be beyond our level of ‘skilz.’

I really love a lot of the music coming out of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri (IHOP-KC or just IHOP for short).  Their songs contain some very cool instrumental riffs and some really interesting rhythm parts.  Which make them awesome to listen to.  But a good bit of it is beyond the skill level of your average worship band.  And IHOP does a lot of those low-to-high vocal gymnastics I talked about earlier, too.  So unless your church has a cadre of unusually talented musicians and singers, good luck replicating their sound on Sunday mornings.  (Although I do have to say the worship band at the little church I attend actually does a pretty amazing job on some of their songs…!)

But I think the important question in all this is: What’s happening to worship?

On the one hand, I think the current situation may be enhancing people’s private worship.  With today’s technology you can have the absolute coolest worship music ever created at your fingertips any time of the day or night.  You can download it onto your iPod, slip in the earbuds, and wander off for an hour of intimate personal worship time with God.  That’s one of the nice benefits of the present scenario.

But what about corporate worship?  What’s happening there?  Personally, I feel corporate worship may be suffering in the current model.  When songs aren’t singable, then people quit singing.  They lose the desire to participate.  They just stand passively or sit with their arms folded in their seats, watching.  They become spectators.

But worship is not a spectator sport.  It’s participatory.  Corporate worship is meant to be corporate – not just a few people singing up on a stage.  It’s said the word “liturgy” (another word for worship) means “the work of the people.”  If those on the stage and close to the front of the auditorium are the only ones really participating, then something is wrong, something is lost.  (I’ll resist the urge to get on my soapbox about my issues with using the word “auditorium” to describe a place of worship, since that might be a topic for another post. Lol.)  In that case, corporate worship is no longer corporate.

The word “corporate” comes from the Latin word “corpus,” meaning “body.”  The church is the body of Christ.  Corporate worship is the work of the whole body of Christ, participating together, not just a few leaders or especially spiritual people.  Not just those on the platform or at the front.  So if some people are not participating, then the body actually suffers from the lack.  Our worship suffers.

But also, are we getting to the point where worship music has to sound cool in order to be appealing to worshipers?  If so, what does that say about us?  Is worship really about us, or about God?  It’s not supposed to be about us.

Worship music has never sounded better.  It’s never been more appealing and listenable.  But if today’s worship songs are only to be heard in a large auditorium or played on our iPods, then I think we’re missing something – something vital.  The word “vital” refers to life – vitality.  What are we losing in this performance model of worship?

Who’s Really On the Front Lines of Ministry?

Many of you may know that in a previous life (lol) I served as a pastor for 9 years.  However, for the last 12 years I’ve worked “regular jobs” just like many of you.

The other day as I was driving home after a hard day at work, a thought struck me in the form of a question: Who’s really on the front lines of spiritual warfare?

Often we think it’s pastors or other church leaders.  They’re the ones who are so visible with respect to spiritual things – they talk about it and demonstrate it through prayers, sermons, and other aspects of spiritual leadership.

But it occurred to me the other day that the people who are really on the front lines of ministry are those who don’t have a “spiritual calling” or work in “full-time ministry” (though IMHO every Christian is called to full-time ministry; but that’s a topic for another blog post, lol).  The people in the spiritual trenches are regular, everyday folk like you and me who work 8 to 5 and face the trials, challenges, and joys of daily life in the so-called “real world” (though the church is part of the real world, too; but that’s also fodder for another post 😉 ).

Those of us who work a regular day job (or night job as the case may be), and are active in the church, may be tempted to think of the challenges of a typical workday as irritants we’d rather avoid.  We might be tempted to wish for some sort of position in ‘full-time ministry’ so we can “really serve God.”  We may struggle not to feel our day job is just a colossal waste of time, while we could be doing something “really worthwhile,” something “really important for God.”
(This can also be true for stay-at-home or work-at-home moms and dads, too.)

But if we find ourselves pining away like this, then we may be missing the point.  We may miss the fact that the problems and difficult people we face in our work are themselves actually opportunities for ministry.  In the marketplace is where we’re most likely to meet lost and hurting souls, and where we’re most likely to encounter the enemy’s schemes to bind and enslave people and to combat the work of God.

In the marketplace we’re on the front lines of the battle for people’s souls, and the battle against God’s work in the world.  Our workplace may be the very place in which we have the opportunity (and challenge) of confronting the very powers and principalities that enslave people and oppose the purposes of God.

So the everyday worker – what we sometimes call “the laity” or “layperson” (though I hate those terms, because I don’t believe God sees a difference between “clergy” and “laity”) – is in the trenches of spiritual warfare.  If we think in terms of a military analogy then pastors and others who work in the church full-time are more like the majors, colonels, and generals who remain behind the front lines, rather than fighting in the trenches.  Pastors and other full-time workers lead, guide, direct, strategize, and equip; but in some ways they aren’t on the front lines in the same way you are if you work in the “secular” marketplace.

Do you see your importance?  So often we think of those in full-time ministry as the ones who are doing the important spiritual work. And what they do is important, I don’t dispute that.  But in the marketplace, where you work and carry out day-to-day business, you have access to people and situations that pastors will usually never see, unless they’re what we call “bi-vocational.”

There are many things I enjoyed about being a pastor, and there are some things about it I miss.  But one aspect of it that I rued was the fact that I couldn’t be on the front lines of daily life and ministry like people can who work in the marketplace.

So the next time you face a really hard day at work, remind yourself that you are on the front lines of the spiritual battle, and that you have opportunities and a sphere of influence that many pastors will never have.  Remind yourself that you may very well be exactly where you’re supposed to be.  Take comfort in the unique role you have the opportunity to play in God’s kingdom.

P.S. Welcome to my new blog.  Here I intend to continue the type of blogging I began on my Blogger blog entitled “Morgan’s Musings” – various reflections on life and faith.  If you’d like to subscribe, look for the “Follow” button to the right.

Note: This blog is still under construction so please bear with me as things about the layout may change (and hopefully improve) in the days to come.