Category Archives: faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“The Naked Gospel” by Andrew Farley – Summary and Response

Farley, Andrew.  The Naked Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Farley, Andrew. The Naked Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a training class for lay counselors through my church. As part of the class we were required to read three books and submit book reports on each one.  (You can read the first book report here.) The second book we read had the intriguing title The Naked Gospel, by a pastor named Andrew Farley.  It’s a present-day explanation of what is often called “The Exchanged Life” view of the Christian life. I had not heard of Farley before, so I was interested to see what he had to say. Here is my summary and response to the book.

Farley begins by telling his own story, saying he started out his Christian life by, one might say, “busting his tail for Jesus.” He says he burned out trying to do this and eventually realized he simply couldn’t live the Christian life by his own strength. He talks about how he had to unlearn a lot of his misconceptions about Christianity in order to learn what the Bible really teaches.

Farley then explains carefully and systematically how Christians are no longer under the Old Testament law or good works as a means to secure God’s favor. He points out what both the apostles Paul and James taught, that if you try to keep the Law, you’re responsible for keeping the whole thing, and if you fail to keep even one part of it, you’ve broken the Law (see Galatians 3:10 and 5:3 and James 2:10). Since no one can keep the Law perfectly then we are incapable of keeping it at all, which is why God provided salvation by a different means—by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Farley says this is also the means by which we are to live the daily Christian life as well – by grace through faith in Christ.

Farley even extends this to the Ten Commandments. He points out that Paul says “the letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6, meaning the letter of the law) and calls the law a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Farley says this is no less true for the Ten Commandments; even trying to live by the Ten Commandments will bring death to us rather than life, because the Law incites sin (see Paul’s discussion of how the Law evokes sin in Romans 7:5-13 and also Romans 3:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:56). Grace is the only means to be free from sin.

Farley goes on to demonstrate in various ways how the New Covenant (Testament) sets us free from the Law. He gives the example discussed in Hebrews 5-7 that the priesthood of Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek, while the Law prescribes a priesthood descended from Levi and Aaron. Moreover, Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, not Levi, so His priesthood does not conform to the Law.

Farley offers more examples of how the Law has been superseded in the New Testament. He sees both the tithe and the Sabbath as Old Testament concepts no longer in force under the New Covenant. The author shows that the Old Testament Sabbath was a picture or precursor of the true Sabbath rest of God spoken about in Hebrews 3-4, in which we are able to rest from our striving for good works because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

Farley talks about how in the New Covenant, instead of trying to keep the Law, we rely on the Holy Spirit, who produces fruit in us that leads to a way of life that satisfies the requirements of the Old Testament law. He shows that through faith in Christ, believers are made truly and actually righteous before God, not just positionally righteous. He talks about how we were born in Adam, but through salvation we are taken out of Adam and placed in Christ. Farley makes much of our identification with Christ. This is the key by which we actually live the Christian life – by Christ living through us.

Farley spends a good bit of time trying to show that the forgiveness we have through Christ is once-for-all, that when we are saved, all our sins–past, present, and future—are forgiven for all time. Therefore we don’t have to ask for forgiveness every time we sin because we already have forgiveness once and for all. He even goes to pains to show that 1 John 1:9, which says “If we confess our sins God is faithful…to forgive us…” is for unbelievers, not believers.

This was the part of the book I found least convincing. To begin with I question his exegesis of 1 John 1, though he did help me to see certain aspects of it in a different light. But also there are other passages of Scripture which imply that walking in blatant unrepentant sin hinders our relationship with God, or at least our experience of that relationship. (1 Corinthians 5 comes to mind as an example, in which Paul deals with a case of gross sexual immorality in the Corinthian church.) Even for the Christian, ongoing repentance seems vital for walking in an intimate experience of relationship with God.

Farley claims people are suspicious of grace because they fear an emphasis on grace will give people a license to sin. Therefore Farley emphasizes over and over again that grace does not lead us to sin more, but is actually the only true means to overcome sin. We think the Law will deter us from sinning, but actually Scripture says the Law provokes us to sin (see Romans 7:5-13 as mentioned above). It’s grace then, not law, that helps us master sin. This overcoming of sin is entirely dependent on Christ living in us and through us.

There is much more I could say about The Naked Gospel. While there are some parts of it I question, overall I found it to be a very helpful and very Scriptural explanation of the life that is lived by grace through faith in the indwelling Christ.

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

Normal Christian Life

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

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

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

Here, then, is my summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs of the Times – Thoughts on the End Times, Part 4

Part 4 – Will the World End or Be Renewed?

Click on the following links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

end-of-the-worldAnother question that comes up when we consider the end times is: Will the world as we know it end, or will it be renewed?  Those who are my age or older will remember the days of the Cold War, when the fear and realization that the world could end due to nuclear warfare seemed pretty widespread.  Since the fall of the USSR and communism in Eastern Europe, though, fears of nuclear annihilation have mostly subsided, the attempts of North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons not withstanding.

Along with this a new optimism seems to have arisen about the longevity of our world.  Christian books published in recent years teach that the old pessimism about the world ending is misguided and that we can expect our earth to be here for, well…eternity…or at least a very long time.  A few examples are The Sacred Romance and The Journey of Desire (now simply Desire) by John Eldredge and Heaven by Randy Alcorn, all of which teach that God is not going to destroy the world, but instead will renew and restore it.

The question, though, is: What does the Bible say?  None of the books I mentioned really give a biblical rationale for their view, or deal with passages which seem to give a different picture.  This is unfortunate. We can’t just engage in wishful thinking.  We need to investigate God’s Word in order to see what He has to say about this.  In today’s post I will share several passages and then comment on their significance toward the end.

As we’ve said previously, one good place to start is with the words of Jesus himself, who is the very Word of God in flesh.  What did Jesus have to say about this topic?

In Matthew 24:35 Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (see also Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33).  We’ve also already looked at a verse just before that, Matthew 24:29, in which Jesus says that  “Immediately after the distress of those days” (that is, after the great tribulation),

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'”

The next verses, Matthew 24:30-31, tell us that

30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”

So if taken literally verse 29, especially with its language about stars falling from the sky, seems to describe at the very least a cataclysm in the heavens at the time of Jesus’ second coming, which is described in verses 30-31 (for more on these verses, see Parts 1 and 2 of this series, linked above).

Another New Testament passage that seems to speak very clearly on this subject–probably the most clearly of all–is 2 Peter 3:3-13.  I’ve placed the most pertinent verses below in bold type.

3 First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

These verses would seem to settle the issue.  Consider the things they say:

  1. The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly. This is a fire of judgment (verse 7).
  2. The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, so that the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (verse 10).
  3. Everything will be destroyed (verse 11).  The words “destroyed” and “destruction” appear four times in these 11 verses.
  4. The heavens will be destroyed, the elements will melt in the heat, and they will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (verses 12-13)

Now, 2 Peter is one of the more obscure books of the Bible.  I would wager that many people have never read it, or even if they have, it may not be the first Bible book that comes to mind when they think of passages they’ve memorized (though 2 Peter 1:3-9 is an awesome passage about our inheritance in Christ–you should learn it if you haven’t already!).

2 Peter may also seem obscure because it was one of the last books to be accepted into the Bible, and there have always been questions, even in the early church, about whether or not it was really written by the apostle Peter.  However, there’s no conclusive evidence Peter wasn’t the author.  Moreover, since the Holy Spirit led the early church to include 2 Peter in the canon of Scripture, we can rest assured it is no less inspired and authoritative than the rest of the Bible.

Nevertheless, perhaps because of 2 Peter’s obscurity, its testimony has not always been taken into account by those considering this topic.  None of the books I mentioned above by John Eldredge and Randy Alcorn even mention these verses or engage the challenges they raise to these authors’ view that the world will not end.  Yet since these verses are part of Scripture, they need to be considered.

Another passage which seems to speak clearly about the question at hand is Revelation 21:1-4 (again with pertinent parts in bold):

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

The language of a new heaven and a new earth here mirrors one of the statements we read in 2 Peter 3: “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (verse 13).  So we see a common thread between 2 Peter and Revelation.

These are about the only New Testament passages which talk about the world ending.  However, there are some in the Old Testament, too.  Consider these verses:

Isaiah 13:9-13
9 See, the day of the Lord is coming
— a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger —
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.
10 The stars of heaven and their constellations
will not show their light.
The rising sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
the wicked for their sins.
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty
and will humble the pride of the ruthless.
12 I will make man scarcer than pure gold,
more rare than the gold of Ophir.
13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble;
and the earth will shake from its place
at the wrath of the Lord Almighty,
in the day of his burning anger.

Isaiah 24:1-6
24 See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants —  2 it will be the same for priest as for people, for master as for servant, for mistress as for maid, for seller as for buyer, for borrower as for lender, for debtor as for creditor.  3 The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word.

4 The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. 5 The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. 6 Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.

Isaiah 24:18-23
The floodgates of the heavens are opened, the foundations of the earth shake. 19 The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is thoroughly shaken. 20 The earth reels like a drunkard, it sways like a hut in the wind; so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion that it falls — never to rise again.
21 In that day the Lord will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below. 22 They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon; they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days. 23 The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed; for the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously.

Isaiah 65:17-19
17 “Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

Zephaniah 1:14-18
14 “The great day of the Lord is near — near and coming quickly.  Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there. 15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, 16 a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. 17 I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth. 18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.”

Isaiah 34:1-4
34 Come near, you nations, and listen;
pay attention, you peoples!
Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
the world, and all that comes out of it!
2 The Lord is angry with all nations;
his wrath is upon all their armies.
He will totally destroy them,
he will give them over to slaughter.
3 Their slain will be thrown out,
their dead bodies will send up a stench;
the mountains will be soaked with their blood.
4 All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved
and the sky rolled up like a scroll;
all the starry host will fall
like withered leaves from the vine,
like shriveled figs from the fig tree.

Joel 2:1-11
2 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand —   2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.

3 Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them,  a desert waste — nothing escapes them. 4 They have the appearance of horses; they gallop along like cavalry. 5 With a noise like that of chariots they leap over the mountaintops, like a crackling fire consuming stubble, like a mighty army drawn up for battle.
6 At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. 7 They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. 8 They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead. They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks. 9 They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows.

10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?

All these passages from the Old Testament contain imagery that speaks of judgment coming on the earth in the form of signs in the heavens–the sun and moon being darkened, and stars falling or going out (similar to that in Matthew 24:29), as well as destruction coming on the earth similar to what we see in 1 Peter.  In this regard Isaiah 24 is the most striking.  I quoted some of its verses above but the entire chapter is worth reading to get the full impact.

Likewise in Isaiah 65:17-19 we find language about a new heaven and a new earth identical to that which we see in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1.  No doubt Peter, and John (who wrote Revelation), were guided by these words from Isaiah (John of course, was also speaking about a personal revelation he had from Christ himself).

A theme we observe in many of these verses is that of the “day of the Lord,” a day on which God finally comes to judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous (i.e., those who have remained faithful to God).  We see this theme also in 2 Peter 3 and in other passages we’ve already examined like 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.  It is a day of judgment but also a day on which God’s people are vindicated and rescued from evil once and for all.

From these verses and the consistency we see between them, it would appear that Scripture does indeed teach that the world will end one day; that God will finally intervene in history, bring evil to a close, and rescue his righteous ones and carry them to a new place.  The heavens and the earth we know will be destroyed, and a new heaven and a new earth will be created to take their place.  Unlike this fallen world, the new heaven and the new earth will be untainted by sin or evil.  It will be the abode of the righteous and of God himself, as we see in Revelation 21:3-4 ~ “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series we saw that Matthew 24:29-31 speaks of the return of Christ, which occurs after the tribulation:

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”

The signs in the heavens in verse 29 refer, then, to the end of the world.  Judgment comes on the nations of the earth, while the people of God are gathered from the four winds to meet Jesus in the air and be taken to the new earth.  This is the event commonly known as the rapture (for evidence of this claim, see Parts 1-3 of this series).

I’ve made it clear in this series that I hold to a post-tribulation rapture view.  Now, there are many post-tribulationists who believe that following verse 31, after the angels gather God’s people from the ends of the earth to meet Jesus in the air, Jesus brings them right back down again to inaugurate the millennium, his 1000-year reign on the earth, spoken of in Revelation 20.

Now, this could be the case.  However, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that, following signs of destruction in the heavens, Jesus would rescue his people in the rapture, only to turn around again and bring them back to the earth for the millennium.

In Matthew 24:29 the heavens seem to be breaking up (stars falling, the sun and moon no longer giving their light).  A cataclysm is coming on the world.  In verses 30-31 Jesus comes on the clouds of heaven to take his people away.  And that appears to be the end of the story.  The rest of Matthew 24 is explanatory material giving more information and admonitions about certain aspects of what he’s already said, but the narrative of end-time events ends with the rapture in verse 31.  The same is true in the Mark and Luke versions of the passage.

We see this same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, which we’ve already shown to be describing the same events as Matt. 24:30-31 (see Part 2 for more on this):

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (emphasis added).

Just as in Matt. 24:31, this is the end of the story.  And it says “so we will be with the Lord forever,” not “and so we will reign with the Lord for 1000 years.”

I will deal with the millennium in another post.  Suffice to say for the moment that, while I do hold to a post-tribulation rapture position, I don’t believe the rapture will be followed by the millennium.  Instead, as I’ve already said, I believe it will occur as this world is meeting its end and the new heaven and new earth spoken of in Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1 is being created.

Let me add parenthetically: I don’t believe the end of the world will come as the result of something like a nuclear holocaust.  For one thing, a cataclysm like that could possibly destroy the world, or at least render it uninhabitable; but it wouldn’t be able to destroy “the heavens”.  I believe the destruction of the world described in the Bible will come about as a sovereign act of God intervening in history and the affairs of the world, not as the result of anything humanity does.

Now, someone reading this may feel I’ve made an awfully dire prediction for the world.  And you’re right: I have.  I believe it is based on what is taught in the Bible.  A message of judgment it not popular these days.  Everyone wants to hear only comforting messages about God.  People want to hear about God’s love, not his wrath.

God is a loving God, but he is serious about dealing with sin and evil and evildoers.  The Bible is clear that the wrath of God is coming on the world (see John 3:36, Romans 1:18, Romans 2:5-8, Ephesians 5:5-6, Colossians 3:5-6, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9).

However, in his love, God has provided a way of escape from his wrath.  That way of escape comes through giving our lives to Jesus Christ.  Just as Noah built the ark to save his family from the flood, so God has given his Son as a way of escape from the judgment coming on the world.  I implore you to place your faith in Christ so you can know that you will be able to go with him when he returns.

Regarding the passages I’ve cited which speak of the destruction of the heavens and the earth, there are some who interpret them symbolically rather than literally.  I will share that point of view and respond to it in my next post.  In that post I will also share a couple other passages of Scripture which are interpreted to reveal a different outcome for the world when Jesus returns than the one I have professed here.  So I hope you will stay tuned.

Up next: “Part 5 – Will the World End or Be Renewed?–A Different Take”

If you’ve found this post or this series helpful, please share it on your social networks via the Share buttons below.  Thanks!!

Review of “‘The World’s Last Night’ and Other Essays” by C.S. Lewis

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.  It was a library discard.

Lewis, C.S. “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1960.

It’s been a couple weeks since I last posted so I want to get “back on the stick” as we say here in the south.

Recently I decided to begin reading the rest of the unread books in my C.S. Lewis library (which is fairly extensive).  I’ve read all his fiction but not much of his non-fiction.  “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays was the first book I came to on my shelf so I decided to start there.

This particular publication has been out of print for some years.  I stumbled on the hardback copy pictured above at a local used bookstore over twenty years ago, and since then it has sat on my shelf gathering dust.  Until now.

“The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays is a collection of six magazine articles and one address.   All the material is non-fiction save one piece: “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is sort of a brief sequel to Lewis’ popular book The Screwtape Letters.  This is the most accessible and enjoyable piece of them all, and probably the most well-known at the time of publication.  The non-fiction pieces fit mostly in the genre we would call “apologetics,” which is the attempt to answer challenges to Christian faith using rational arguments.

The 1960 publishing date for the book is three years before Lewis died.  So unlike some other collections of his writings, this one was released during his lifetime.

Now that I’ve read it I can see why this book is no longer in print.  To begin with, the reading level is very high-brow.  The text is replete with cryptic literary allusions and untranslated quotations in Latin, Greek, and other languages-that-are-not-English.  Since our American education is no longer a classical one, these quotes are lost on most of us, including me.  The only thing I had any hope of translating was a word in Greek, and while I was able to transliterate it, I didn’t recognize the word or its meaning, since it was a classical reference and my training is only in koine, the colloquial Greek of the Bible.

However, I was not to be deterred: I expected the internet to be filled with resources that would help me crack the meanings of these quotes, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, to my delight I found a web page devoted exclusively to a book study of “The World’s Last NIght” and Other Essays, which provided not only translations of every foreign-language quote but also helpful historical and literary background to the various articles and allusions.  The page I’m referring to can be found here: http://cslbookclub.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=59&Itemid=81

A second reason I’m not surprised this book is no longer in print, though, is that the subject matter seems pretty dated.  Where the topics themselves aren’t dated, in many cases the treatment of them is.  Or so I thought anyway.  This is not a book that would speak very well to twenty-first century postmodern readers.  While it is aimed at the highly-educated elite, I suspect its arguments would seem outmoded to that very elite today.

Really the book is an odd collection, too.  The intended audience from piece to piece ranges widely.  Chapters 1 and 7 deal with devotional and theological matters that would most likely be of interest to Christians or at least those with a penchant for theology.  Chapters 2 and 3 are addressed more to skeptical scholarly types.  Chapter 4, the only work of fiction, would have a wider appeal because of its entertainment value.  Chapter 5 is a work of social commentary.  Chapter 6 is aimed at those interested in science and science fiction.  So I can easily see how each essay might not be of interest to every reader.  Those most likely to enjoy the book as a whole would be people of wide-ranging interests, and those like me who are interested simply because it was written by C.S. Lewis.

Nevertheless, throughout, the book reveals a man with an intimate relationship with God and a deep understanding of the Christian life, and for that aspect alone it is a worthwhile and encouraging read.

The book’s first essay, entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” initially appeared in a January 1959 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  For the present-day reader this is probably one of the more interesting and appealing chapters.  Most of its explanation is applicable today.  Yet even here the decidedly modern tone of the book (as opposed to postmodern) is evident.

Lewis begins by addressing in rational terms the question “Why can’t we prove prayer works?” which is not exactly the kind of question people are asking today.  Most people today aren’t interested in scientific proof for prayer–they either believe in it or they don’t, based on their experiences, and are not looking to be convinced by rational arguments.  For good or ill, folk today rely more on feelings than on intellectual evidence.  So Lewis’ meticulous arguments, while well-stated, seem a bit quaint.

Granted, there might be a point in someone’s life in which they begin to ask the kinds of questions Lewis deals with here, in which case it would be of great value to them.  But otherwise it may not seem to have much applicability.  That said, the piece is still valuable, for in it Lewis addresses a number of common questions about the nature of prayer and does a good job with it.  Most importantly, he points out that prayer is founded on a personal relationship with God, and it must be understood in that light.

Essay #2, titled “On Obstinacy in Belief,” is a paper Lewis read to the Socratic Club at Oxford University, where he was a professor.  This shows the extent to which Lewis sought to engage secular and unbelieving culture, for this was not a Christian group but an academic one.

In the address Lewis responds to a question he infers from the writings of skeptics: “Why do Christians hold on so obstinately to their beliefs when all evidence seems to point to the contrary?”  At first I felt the question itself wasn’t all that relevant today, but as I read on I finally concluded that Lewis makes some very good points.  In the end I concluded this is actually one of the most relevant essays in the whole volume.

Lewis claims most people, Christian or not, choose their beliefs based on factors that seem like good evidence to them at the time.  Likewise, people choose to become Christians because the evidence seems to point in that direction.  Moreover, the evidence for unbelief is not as immune to subjectivity as some would like to believe.

Lewis says Christians don’t place blind faith in God as is sometimes claimed, and that no one expects people to accept Christian faith without reasonable evidence.  However, once a person becomes a Christian they may be very determined in their beliefs, even when there might appear to be a lot of supposed evidence to the contrary (bad circumstances, etc.).  This obstinacy of Christian belief is because at this point the person has already trusted in God based on the evidence before them.  I agree with Lewis on this point.  I won’t explain any more of what he says but instead encourage you to read the article if you are interested.

I found the third essay, “Lilies That Fester,” to be one of the least interesting pieces in the book.  This was because I wasn’t really taken with the topic.  In it Lewis is reacting to those who make being “cultured” an end in itself and look down their noses at those not sufficiently educated in the latest fads of high society.  Along the way he does make some interesting arguments as to why a Christian theocracy would be an undesirable form of government, how modern education is geared toward fostering certain opinions rather than teaching students to think critically, and why artists serve the public and not vice versa.  But I found the main emphasis of the article a bit tiresome, although I am completely sympathetic with the point he is making.

Chapter 4, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1959, is certainly the highlight of the book.  It’s a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters, probably Lewis’ most famous work.  Of course, Screwtape is a piece of fiction in which the author supposedly stumbles on a correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a tempter-in-training.  Lewis uses the story as a vehicle for exploring the nature of evil and temptation.

Rather than more letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” takes the form of an address given by Screwtape to the Tempters Training College for young Devils.  Here Screwtape waxes more political than religious, and this time Lewis uses the address as a vehicle to examine the pitfalls of democracy (yes, there are some) as well as disturbing trends in education. On both points Lewis is uncannily prescient, predicting pretty much where our society has wound up half a century later.

In the 5th essay, “Good Work and Good Works,” Lewis is disturbingly prophetic again, this time foreseeing the perils of consumerism. Once more he pretty much describes where America in particular has wound up 50+ years later.  Lewis differentiates between gainful employment which serves a useful end and those careers whose sole purpose is the making of money, without providing a worthwhile product or service.  He says this is what happens in a society based on consumerism.  This accounts for “built-in obsolescence” among other problems (and if Lewis already thought it was bad in his day, he would be horrified with the situation now).

Essay #6 carries the intriguing title “Religion and Rocketry.”  This is an interesting piece because it deals more directly with some of the themes that were likely in Lewis’ mind when he wrote his celebrated “space trilogy,” an early and respected work of science fiction.  In this essay he addresses various objections to Christianity supposedly raised by scientific speculation about space travel and life on other planets. Lewis does a good job of revealing the flaws in these criticisms.  However, once again I felt Lewis was answering objections no longer being made today, or at least not being made on the same grounds.

However, his main point is worth considering, which is that space travel and the possibility of life on other planets don’t negate the story of Christ coming on earth.  The words of Christian singer Larry Norman in his song “U.F.O.” from the 1970s capture pretty well the point Lewis makes in the essay:

If there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls….

In the final chapter, from which the book draws its name, Lewis shares some reflections on the second coming of Christ.  Once again he is in apologetics mode, as his stated purpose is “to deal with some of the thoughts that may deter modern men from a firm belief in, or due attention to, the return or Second Coming of the Saviour”–a worthwhile goal for sure.  However, I am uncertain whether the specific objections Lewis attempts to address are necessarily the same ones that would be raised by skeptics today.  Maybe they are, I don’t know, since I’m not a skeptic.

The objections Lewis addresses are two: First, Jesus and his disciples believed his return was imminent, and so the fact that he did not return in the first century calls the belief itself into question.  Lewis does well in answering this objection, and if you’re interested in knowing his argument I encourage you to read the book.

Secondly, Lewis claims that modern people shy away from the idea of Christ’s sudden return because it doesn’t seem to square with evolutionary theory.  I’ve never heard anyone raise that specific criticism.  Rather I perceive modern people have a much bigger hurdle to overcome: a worldview which excludes any heaven or afterlife from which Jesus might come back to begin with.

Well, that is a brief summary of the topics covered in the book.  In places Lewis is nothing less than prophetic regarding the times in which we live, but in other sections the book seems dated by a modernistic perspective that has been replaced today with postmodernism.  Nevertheless, I think spiritual seekers in our day might still find ideas here that will address some of their questions.  And I have no doubt Lewis fans and aficionados will find the book an enjoyable and profitable read.

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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