Category Archives: testimony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:1-3 ~

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

Heb 12:28-29

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

Those verses all talk about our position in Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a continuation of my previous post, which in itself was a follow-up to a post I had published back in 2008.  Part 1 can be found here: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/a-spiritual-journey-1/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: https://morgantrotter.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/a-spiritual-journey-part-2/