Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

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“It’s Worse Than That–He’s Dead, Jim”: Why I Still Believe There’s a Hell (or Why We Need a Savior)

The topic of hell has become increasingly controversial in Christian circles ever since the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in 2011.  Up till then universalism, or the idea that everyone will be saved, was viewed by most evangelicals as the teaching of heretics or liberal Protestants.  That all changed with Love Wins, whose author Bell is, or was, considered an evangelical. Now suddenly here was a supposedly Bible-believing Christian questioning the doctrine of hell and the idea that not everyone will go to heaven.  Some more liberal-leaning evangelicals resonated with Bell’s message and seemed eager to jump on his bandwagon.  Others of a more conservative bent were dismayed to discover a heretic had infiltrated their camp and seemed to be carrying others off with him.

I definitely fall on the conservative side of the issue: I believe Bell is wrong and that the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment for those who reject Christ is biblical and cannot be so easily dismissed.  Moreover, the doctrine of divine wrath and hell for unbelievers has been part of the orthodox Christian church’s teaching from the beginning.  My feeling is that both Scripture and the traditional teaching of the church cannot be so easily dispensed with.

To me it seems Bell’s position is motivated by external pressure from our culture, which is rapidly becoming more hostile to the traditional Christian message.  Bell himself so much as admits his desire to accommodate modern society in a 2012 New Yorker interview in which he talks about wanting to create ‘a different kind of church, “one that can keep pace with the rising ‘waterline of culture.'”‘ (the last part in quotes [“] being a direct quote from Bell). http://www.christianpost.com/news/rob-bell-tells-how-love-wins-led-to-mars-hill-departure-85995/

But we Christians can no more change the substance of our message or of the Bible than a leopard can change its spots.  Who are we to change the Word of God??  If we try to, we’re just creating the message we want to hear, which is then no longer God’s message at all, but just something we made up ourselves.  A message of our own making cannot save us.  Only God’s truth can save us.  The fact that we don’t like a certain idea doesn’t in and of itself make it any less true.  There are such things as objective facts which do not change, whether we like them or not.

Some rather obvious examples: You can dislike the law of gravity all you want, but if you jump off a cliff or tall building you’re likely to die or suffer serious injuries, whether you like it or not.  You can dislike the color blue all you want, but that’s not going to change the pigment of the sky.  You can dislike the fact that overeating causes weight gain, but that won’t change the fact that if you eat too much, you’re going to put on extra pounds (Hey – wait a minute – I’m getting a little too close to home for my own comfort here!!).

Author and Christian apologist Tim Keller points out in his book The Reason For God that for some reason we moderns seem to think spiritual truth isn’t like other kinds of truth.  Our society believes that even though there are absolutes in the natural realm as I illustrated above, when it comes to spiritual matters, we can create our own truth.  But that simply isn’t logical.  It’s more reasonable to believe that the spiritual realm is governed by principles and laws similar to those of the natural realm, especially if both realms were created by the same God.

Scripture certainly teaches that there are absolutes in the spiritual realm.  I don’t think we can simply change the truth every time our culture raises a fit over one of our doctrines.  For most of the last century or more we’ve tried very hard to avoid being ridiculed.  But no matter how much we accommodate, it will never be enough.  There will always be a demand for more, until we’ve relinquished the very essence of our faith for the sake of “relevance.”  If giving up the distinctives of our faith were the key to church growth then the churches which have already made a lot of these accommodations should be bursting at the seams, but they aren’t (take a look at the so-called “mainline denominations” if you don’t believe me).  Just the opposite: generally they are dying, because in the pursuit of pleasing our culture they’ve actually sacrificed the very things that give our faith meaning and life.

This post is not a review of Love Wins, nor do I intend to deal with every objection raised against the biblical idea of hell and eternal punishment for those who reject Christ.  Instead, I just want to address one of the common objections to this idea.

People often object to the doctrine of hell on the grounds that most people are generally good, so they ask why God would send the average person to hell when most people really haven’t done that many bad things? Often Christians will respond to this question by pointing out that we are all sinners and because of that we all deserve hell–that all it takes is one sin to make us worthy of hell.  While this may be true, this explanation by itself winds up making God look like a petty ogre who is sending people to hell over little peccadilloes (minor sins).  It doesn’t seem very loving.

But it also doesn’t really get at the issue.  I believe Scripture reveals three much more significant problems human beings share that makes us all in danger of hell.

Our first problem is sin, but not in the way I described above.  Let me explain what I mean.

Our real problem is much deeper than a few small (or big) sins we’ve committed.  Our problem is that sin itself is a part of our very nature.  The first humans’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden caused something to shift in their very makeup that made them prone to sin from that point on.

Unfortunately, this tendency to sin is hereditary.  Adam and Eve passed it on to their children, which is vividly illustrated in the story of Cain and Abel–Cain murders his brother out of jealousy that Abel’s sacrifice is pleasing to God and Cain’s isn’t.  In a single generation humanity went from mere disobedience to cold-blooded, premeditated murder.  This tendency to sin has been passed down ever since.  Sadly, it’s in our DNA.

So we have a much greater problem than the few or many sins we’ve committed, however large or small they may be–the bigger problem is that we ourselves are sinners.  The Bible teaches that sin lives within us as a principle that is ever at work, continually leading us to sin.  That’s our first big problem as we stand in the presence of a holy God.  The sin that is inherent in our fallen nature will keep us out of heaven.

The second problem that leaves us in danger of hell is even more serious: We are born into the wrong kingdom.  You see, when our first parents obeyed the serpent in the Garden of Eden instead of God, they inadvertently turned the world and the human race over to satan’s control.  This is huge.  This means that ever since then, every person on the face of the earth has been born into satan’s dominion.

This is shown by several Scriptures.  When satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4 and Luke 4), he offered him rulership over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just bow down and worship him.  Contrary to the opinion of some, this was not merely a bluff or idle promise.  Satan said “it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to” (Luke 4:5) and Jesus did not refute his claim.  Likewise, in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11 Jesus refers to satan as “the ruler of this world.”  Likewise, Paul calls the devil “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

When God created the earth, he gave dominion of the entire world over to the human race (Genesis 1: 26-30) and made us its stewards.  When Adam and Eve sinned, they came under the dominion of satan and in the process the world God had placed under their rulership came under satan’s authority, too.

If you doubt what I’m saying, consider this verse: Colossians 1:13-14
“For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Paul is writing to Christians here and saying that we were rescued from the kingdom of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His Son.  This is because we are born under the dominion of darkness, and there we remain unless we are rescued.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What this means is very serious: Because we’re born into the kingdom of darkness, we’re born into this world destined for hell.  At birth we’re already separated from God, and unless Someone intervenes, we will remain in this state after death–which is one of the definitions of hell: separation from God.  So you might say that we are born into a hell on earth that simply continues (and gets much worse) after we die–unless Someone intervenes to rescue us.

A lot of people believe it’s what you do that sends you to hell.  Even some Christian churches teach that if you commit this sin (maybe sex outside of marriage) or that sin (perhaps stealing or murder) , you’re going to hell.  The problem with this is it implies that as long as you avoid the bad sins, you can avoid hell.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The reason people are in danger of hell is because they were born into the wrong kingdom – and that includes every person who ever lived.  You’re born into this world already on the highway to hell, and nothing can get you off that road save Jesus.  But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The third reason we are in danger of hell is because when Adam and Even sinned in the Garden, their spirits died.  They died spiritually.  Because of this all of us, their descendants, come into this world spiritually dead as well.  A dead spirit can’t go to heaven.  A dead spirit can only go to one place, and that is hell.

Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will remember how Doctor McCoy tended to be somewhat melodramatic, saying typical lines like “I’m a doctor not an engineer!” when called upon to pull off some feat far outside his area of expertise.  Another saying that’s often attributed to Bones, though I’m not sure he ever actually said it, is “It’s worse than that: he’s dead, Jim.”  This saying is true for us.  We think people might go to hell because of something bad they’ve done, when the reality is much worse than that: we are in danger of hell because we are spiritually dead apart from the regenerating work of Christ.

To sum up, then, we as human beings are in danger of hell not just because of whatever sins we may commit in this life, but for three even more serious reasons:

1) We don’t just sin, we are sinners.  Sin lives in us and works in us as a principle that causes us to sin.  The sin in us makes us unfit for heaven.

2) We were born into the wrong kingdom. We were born into the kingdom of darkness and as such are hell-bound from day one.  We are born into the kingdom of darkness and simply continue in it after we die.  We are born separated from God and will die still separated from God apart from divine intervention.

3) We are already spiritually dead when we are born, and spiritually dead people are not able to go to heaven or commune with God.

This all illustrates why we are in desperate need of a Savior!  Because we are spiritually dead sinners under the dominion of darkness, we are without hope unless there is someone who can overcome our three problems–someone who can 1) forgive our sins and overcome the principle of sin that is at work in us; 2) rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and bring us into God’s kingdom of light; and 3) revive our dead spirits.

Thankfully, the Bible teaches us that God sent His Son Jesus (indeed, God Himself came to us in the person of Jesus) to do just these things for us.  In his crucifixion Jesus took the penalty for our sins (and our sin) upon Himself.  His pure, sinless blood shed for us brought forgiveness of our sins and restored our relationship with God.

When Jesus took care of our sin problem through his death, he also rescued us from the kingdom of darkness, delivering us from satan’s dominion and back to God.

And lastly, after Jesus had ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand Scripture tells us he poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit on all believers, reviving and restoring our spirits so we can commune with God through His Spirit.  The Holy Spirit, who is Christ Himself, comes to dwell in the very spirit of the those who trust in Christ.

So in Christ God reconciled us to Himself and transferred us from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of His Son, giving us eternal life.  This life, this rescue from punishment and hell, is available to everyone who will receive Jesus and place their trust in Him.  John 1:11-13 says “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right 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.”

This is why John 3: 3 and 7 say “You must be born again” (or the Greek can also be translated “born from above).  The first time we were born, we were born under sin and under the kingdom of darkness.  Therefore we need to be born again–born from above–into God’s kingdom. John 3:16-18 says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”  It says those who don’t believe in Jesus are already condemned because we are born into this world condemned due to our sin and being born into the wrong kingdom.  The only way out is through faith in Jesus.

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior, I hope maybe I’ve helped you see now why it’s so important to do so.  I hope you will consider it and ask Jesus into your life, to save you from sin, hell, and evil.  It’s the only way.  But it is a true way, a good way, a “new and living way” as the author of Hebrews says.  Jesus said “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  Of Jesus, John the disciple said “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Reach out and take this life today.  If you would like to talk with me more about this I will be happy to talk with you.  Just post a comment, or send me a private message.  If you have my number, you are welcome to call me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Birth

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

John 3:1-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? Why do we need to be born again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in Translation: The Spirituality of the TV Show “Lost” and the Christian Faith – Part 4

Part 4 – Guilt and Grace

In my last entry about the Nov. 1 episode I mentioned I had more to say on that topic. For those who are actually following my comments, my apologies for taking so long to post this continuation.The November 1 episode was disturbing in many ways, as I described in the last post. I want to highlight one other aspect I found disappointing as relates to Christian faith.

In this episode we were given a series of flashbacks on the life of Eko, the African drug lord who became a Catholic priest. In these flashbacks Eko’s numerous “sins” were detailed, along with the grief and guilt he had carried around in the years since.

At first it looked as if the treatment of Eko’s sins might be redemptive from a Christian standpoint. His involvement with the drug trade and then his subsequent murder of some of the leaders of the drug smugglers were shown in painful detail, and we were made to know that Eko had suffered a great deal over these acts. It appeared that at last Eko might have a chance to finally find forgiveness and lay the past to rest.

At the end, though, it all took a bizarre turn. Eko tells the apparition (hallucination?) of his dead brother (who was also a priest when he lived) that in fact he (Eko) has not sinned after all, he only did what he needed to do to survive. I found this twist in the story extremely disappointing, though not especially surprising given the history of the show.

Now please understand: I’m not judging Eko–if I may speak about him for a moment as if he were a real person. Of course, Eko’s not real, he’s just a character on a TV show. But he certainly could be real. From news reports we know there are many children in certain African nations who’ve been through exactly what Eko faced as a boy–being forced to kill an innocent bystander in order to satisfy an invading band of marauders and/or to save one or more loved ones. So even though Eko isn’t real, he represents a type of person that actually exists. The life situations he’s experienced are not a great stretch of the imagination.

That’s why I say I’m not judging Eko. Nothing in my own experience even comes remotely close to the horrors he’s been through. I can’t say I would handle such things any differently than he does.

But for him to say he hasn’t sinned because he was just doing what he needed to do to survive misses the point. Eko speaks from a thoroughly post-modern viewpoint when he says he hasn’t sinned, and in doing so he makes the same mistake many make today. Many people believe the way to overcome guilt is to redefine sin until one’s actions are no longer understood as wrong. Then they think they’re absolved. Much contemporary psychology seeks to deal with the issue of guilt in just this way.

The problem with this approach, though, is that it doesn’t do anything to actually deal with guilt, which is the result of sin. Really it’s only a form of rationalization, which doesn’t remove guilt at all, it only buries it.

Our bodies have pain receptors whose purpose is to notify us when we’ve injured ourselves. Imagine the damage we could do to our bodies if we didn’t feel physical pain? What if you broke your leg but didn’t feel any different? You might be inclined to go around with a broken leg and never seek medical attention. The pain motivates us to care for our bodies.

Guilt is to our souls what physical pain is to our bodies. Just as pain lets us know we’ve abused our bodies somehow, guilt alerts us that we’ve injured our spirits by acting in a way other than we were intended to. This is the way we were made by our loving creator. He gave us a conscience that serves as an early-warning system notifying us that something is not as it should be in our souls.

We would think it was ludicrous to deal with a broken limb by merely redefining what a healthy one is. “Oh, our legs were meant to be broken, and all that pain is just something we can ignore. Never mind the fact that you’ll have to live with a permanent deformity, and that you’ll never be able to walk again.” No, we wouldn’t settle for this solution for a moment.

Yet somehow we (post-)moderns have fallen prey to notion that in the realm of the spirit, things are not as neatly defined as they are in the physical realm. This is probably because our bodies are tangible and follow obvious and unchanging natural laws, while things in the realm of the soul are not so predictable. Nevertheless, the same God who made our physical bodies also created our spirits and souls, so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that just as our bodies were designed to operate in a certain way, so also are our inner selves.

The Bible is our “user’s manual,” if you will, given by God to show us how we function in the mysterious realm of the soul. And the Bible lets us know there’s only one way to overcome guilt: Admit the sin(s) that caused the guilt, and make a decision to turn away from those behavior(s). One of the letters in the Bible written by the apostle John tells us “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 9, NIV).

To confess sin is simply to admit it–admit we did it (to “come clean” in other words), and admit it was wrong, and to admit these things to God, and if necessary, to any others who were affected by the wrong that was done. My pastor puts it even more simply–he says to confess sin is to “agree with God” about the action.

When we admit our sin to God it’s amazing how freeing it is! It’s like a weight being lifted off your shoulders! After experiencing this freedom, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would avoid admitting their sin to God!

There’s one thing that keeps us from being willing to admit our sins, and that’s pride. We don’t like admitting we were wrong. And we don’t like having to submit to Someone Else’s standard of behavior.

But confession and repentance (turning away from sin) are the only way to really be free of guilt once and for all. To come clean. Just let it out.

Yet even that wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the death of Christ. Jesus died in our place to take upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins, so we wouldn’t have to be condemned. This will be the topic of my next blog entry, so please stay tuned.

I’m disappointed that Lost took the all-too-predictable post-modern approach to dealing with the guilt of sin by trying to redefine it. It’s so unoriginal, and in the end, completely futile. Perhaps even Eko’s bizarre death is a testimony to that fact.

That’s tonight’s blog. Check you next time.

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming….

After seeing this past Wednesday night’s episode of Lost (Nov. 1) I had to interrupt the series I’ve been writing on the spirituality of the show to comment on this episode. All I can say is, Wow. Or maybe it should be, “Huh??!!?!???” I thought it was very strange (weird would be a better word).

This episode was also related to spirituality. And at first I thought things were headed in a positive direction. At the beginning Ben (a.k.a. “Henry Gale”–someone on another blog jokingly referred to him as “Benry”), the leader of “The Others,” marvels that Jack, who is a surgeon, showed up on the island just when Ben needed surgery to remove the tumor on his neck. Ben comments that “if that doesn’t show there’s a God, then I don’t know what does.” (Of course, I’m wondering whether Ben really has cancer or is–once again–only playing with Jack’s mind. Also, a statement like this coming from Ben is replete with ironic undertones in light of Ben’s sinister actions towards Jack and the other castaways captured by The Others. But all that’s a discussion for another blog.)

Then later in the episode we’re taken once again back into the past of Eko, the African drug lord turned Catholic priest. At first I thought the story was going to move in a redemptive direction here. We’re shown more of Eko’s past sins (and the characters actually use that word to describe them), as well as the remorse he felt many years. Clearly he’s been wrestling with these demons for a long time. Perhaps he’s finally going to be able to lay them to rest and find peace?

But then toward the end it all takes a very dark turn. (If you haven’t seen the episode yet and you don’t want the ending ruined, you might want to stop reading here until you’ve had a chance to watch it….) Eko finally claims he hasn’t sinned at all, he’s just done what he needed to do to survive; so he claims he has nothing to repent of.

Next thing we know, Eko is confronted again by the strange black fog-entity that has appeared in a few earlier episodes. The last time it confronted Eko he was able to send it on its way through something resembling spiritual warfare. When the entity appears again this time, Eko tries to rebuke it again as he did before. For a moment I was wondering if this might provide a good example or symbol of spiritual warfare.

But once again, the expected (or hoped for?) outcome was not to be. The black fog-entity grows very large and then takes a shape resembling a huge black hand, picks Eko up, and begins to smash him violently against the ground, until he’s finally near death.

So what are we to make of this bizarre twist? Is this supposed to be some kind of judgment on Eko for his refusal to repent? I’m inclined to doubt it, since the show doesn’t normally move in the direction of traditional Christian interpretations on spiritual matters.

A friend tells me some Lost enthusiasts speculate that the black fog-entity is actually a man-made creation using nano-technology, and is perhaps being manipulated by whoever is still on the island related to the Dharma initiative. Could be, I suppose….

Then there’s John Locke’s statement at the close of the episode. Eko whispers something just before he dies, and John leans down to hear it. Another character asks him what Eko said, and John replies, “He said that we’re next.” This would seem to imply that whatever the fog-entity is, it’s an evil force on the island that’s out to harm (kill?) the people there. This would put the entity in the “monster” category….

I must say, though, that whether the show’s writers mean it or not, to me the black entity seems like a representation of the demonic, specifically in terms of how the devil would like to be viewed–powerful, life-threatening, unstoppable, and arousing fear. Is the message of Lost that evil is stronger than good and will prevail in the end, despite all the efforts of human beings to bring about good?

It’s too soon to tell. But I will say I’m starting to wonder. Every time it looks like something good is about to happen on the show, there’s a sudden twist and evil happens instead. Think about how many key characters have been suddenly and cruelly murdered so far. Is this what we have to look forward to? Is this the answer the writers have to the mysteries of the show–that slowly all the characters are going kill each other off one by one? Is this what we have to look forward to? As I said, it’s too soon to tell. But I’m starting to wonder. (From what little I’ve read on the internet, apparently others are wondering, too….)

I read part of an interesting blog about this episode by a couple of writers for the Washington Post, which you can access at this URL (you can copy and paste it into your web browser, just be sure to remove the hard return before the word “lost_” so it all goes onto one line):

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/celebritology/2006/11/
lost_episode_5_dueling_analyse.html#more

The views expressed there are not necessarily my own. But it provides some helpful background in terms of better understanding the Nov. 1 episode for people like me who’ve missed some episodes along the way.

One interesting thing they point out is that one of the co-creators of Lost has ties to Tom Cruise, and that the teachings of Scientology may influence the spiritual themes presented in the show. If this is true, it might explain some of the things I’ve been pondering in my other blog entries….

Well, I have a little more to say about this episode, but it’s past my bed time, so I’m going to sign off for now. If you saw the episode in question feel free to post a comment so we can get your take on this bizarre plot twist on Lost.

P.S. – My work schedule has changed, so I may have less time to work on these posts, meaning they may become more infrequent. Please keep checking back, though, because I will continue posting. Also, I’m hoping to add a link on here soon where anyone interested can subscribe to my blog and receive notice when I make a new entry.

Blessings! ~ Morgan