Category Archives: rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Journey, Part 1 – A Preacher Meets Jesus

Part One – A Preacher Meets Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued….)

Part 2 of this story can be found here: