My Jouney, So Far

I just happened upon Lon’s blog, and this post pretty much sums up where I’m at, and where I’ve been heading for the last 18-24 months. My walk is not perfect by any means, and I routinely fall on my face. But I do believe that God has led me out of error, much like He has Lon. To my Pentecostal friends & family, please know that I do not re-blog this out of malice or bitterness or rebellion. It is done out of love and humility.

Average Us

A post for my Pentecostal friends and family…

It was 1906

People in Topeka and Los Angeles were looking for… something.

What they found at the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles – tongue-speaking, ecstatic experiences, alleged prophesying and divine healing – gave birth to the modern Pentecostal movement.

Azusa Street, Los Angeles 1907

[The Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, Azusa Street, Los Angeles, circa 1907.]

It was 1979

I was 16, and I was looking for… something.

For the previous two years I had been becoming more and more aware of what some call the “God-shaped hole” in my soul. I had also recently learned what God’s “peg” was: the gospel.

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Makers and Takers

President Reagan  Today in America, we celebrate what would have been the 102nd birthday of our nation’s 40th President, Ronald Reagan.  Well, most of us celebrate it, anyway.  In America, we’re blessed beyond measure because we have the right the choose who and what we celebrate.  Americans who cherish their freedom and personal liberty, as well as the freedom and personal liberty of their neighbors and countrymen, will more than likely take a moment out of their busy schedule today to whisper a silent “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” and then move on to their tasks at hand.  But another segment of the population will scoff at the notion of honoring Ronald Wilson Reagan today, or any day for that matter.  These people, for the most part, cherish their personal freedom and liberty just the same as the first group does.  But as far as others’ liberty and freedom?  That’s a different story.  They’ll be OK with your liberty, as long as your money is going to the causes they support.  They’ll fight for your freedom, as long as you’re saying things that they agree with.  They’ll fight to the death for you, as long as you hold what they deem to be the “correct” opinion.

Today in America, we are a divided nation.  There are Makers, and there are Takers. The Takers are those among us who will not work for themselves.  They blame others for their circumstances, and demand a hand-out.  They did poorly in school because the teacher had it in for them, or they got fired because their boss was a jerk.  Every boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife they’ve ever had was a horrible person who “just didn’t understand me,” and too many times, the children of Takers turn out to be just like the Takers themselves.  Obviously, it’s somebody else’s fault that every class, job, relationship, and child they’ve had in their life turned out to be a failure.  Most times, the Taker fails to realize the one common denominator in all of these failures:  themselves.  The Taker has bought into the lie that they are poor because someone else is rich, and they believe they are owed something.

Then there are Makers.  These are those who “make the world go ’round,” so to speak.  The Makers are those who forge ahead to become better than what they are, regardless of their station in life.  They don’t ask for handouts, because they understand that what belongs to someone else doesn’t belong to them.  The Maker is the wealth producer, and has no problem giving a hand-up when truly needed.  He may own a business that employs a few, a few dozen, or a few thousand of his fellow citizens.  Or, the Maker may be one of those few, or few dozen, or few thousand citizens who simply works his 9-to-5, or 7-to-7, or sunrise-to-sunset shift to make sure that his family is taken care of.  The Maker is the teacher who fulfills her duty and teaches her students the risks and rewards of personal responsibility.  She’s the single mom who works two jobs to show her kids that working for what is yours is far better than demanding what is not.  The Maker is the Little League coach or the piano instructor that emphasizes that you’ll never be the next Derek Jeter or Thelonious Monk unless you personally put in the long hours and hard work in the batting cage or on the ivories.  The Maker has bought into the truth of personal responsibility and stewardship.

Today in America, it’s not always as cut-and-dry as that.  Both Makers and Takers come from all backgrounds, races, and financial standings.  Neither the Maker nor the Taker is bound to one cookie-cutter template.  There are Makers who  resent their responsibility.  They’ve allowed envy and jealousy to get the better of them, and are tired of other Makers having more than they do.  They feel that government should step in and forcibly take some of what others have made, and give it to them.  They feel this would “even the playing field.”  They have become, or are becoming, Takers.  On the other side of this coin, there are Takers who are tired of taking and are trying their hardest to give back and become a Maker.  They’ve been dealt a crummy hand, but instead of continuing to fold, they’re now going all in, in hopes of bettering themselves, their families, and their communities.

Today in America, the Makers celebrate a man who believed in the idea of America.  We celebrate a man who believed in the responsibility of America.  We celebrate a man who believed in the duty of America.  The American Idea is one created by Makers who fought against a tyrannical Taker who wore a crown and sat on a throne across the sea.  The American Responsibility is to take in the tired and poor huddled masses who yearn to breath free, and unleash the liberty for them to chart their own course.  And it is the American Duty, as Benjamin Franklin said, to drive people out of poverty, rather than making it easy to for them to wallow in it: “I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer.  And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

Today in America, we are God-blessed.  Let us not turn that blessing into a curse by allowing jealousy and envy to keep us from realizing our founding principle: Freedom.

How Sweet The Sound

As I talked about in my previous post, I’m beginning the transition back (at least for a while) to the church I was raised in.  It’s been seventeen years since I’ve actually been a member of Faith Baptist Church.  My transition from Baptist to Apostolic took a little over a year to complete.  During that year, I argued with my Apostolic girlfriend (at the time) and her family, my new Apostolic friends, and my Apostolic pastors about things like salvation, outward holiness standards, and other assorted and sundry topics.  Despite seeing several logical and scriptural fallacies with their views, I knew that they held those views deeply, and weren’t trying to “pull the wool over my eyes,” or anything like that.  These were genuine people who loved God and loved their church.  After thirteen months, I was one of them.  Over the course of a year of hearing, for the most part, nothing but Apostolic doctrine twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays, my mind had been changed.  Or at least I’d convinced myself that it had been changed.  I realize now that while I believed the Oneness Pentecostal doctrine with all of my heart, my mind was never really convinced that this new “Old Time Religion” was actually the faith of the early Church.  I still saw the fallacies, inconsistencies, and sometimes the blatant removal of context, but I wanted so desperately to believe the doctrine and for it to be true.

I’m not going to go very deep into the outward holiness standards or doctrine of the UPCI in this post, as I don’t want to come off as bashing them.  As I stated, these folks are good, decent, salt-of-the-earth people who just want to spread their particular take on the Gospel.  But as I said, there were several fallacies that I found in their teaching that I eventually discounted because I gave in to the mindset of  “if the pastor said it, then God said it,” which is a hallmark of the United Pentecostal, and other Apostolic Pentecostal, churches and organizations.  Over the years, I myself continued to hold this view, even when I’d see a contradiction between the Bible and what I heard on Sunday or Wednesday.  I chalked it up to myself being in the wrong, and misunderstanding Scripture.  From April of 1996 until late 2011, I read the Bible and any other religious book through UPCI-colored glasses.  If something in the Word didn’t mesh with a sermon or a book by a UPCI author, I discounted it and moved on, never giving it a serious second thought.  After all, I had been trained to believe that the UPCI had the “full Truth.”

It has only been in the last year or so that I’ve been able to take off my UPCI blinders to see what the Word of God truly says.  And let me tell you, it’s amazing.  I’ve re-discovered the grace of God.  Now mind you, people of the Apostolic faith believe in the grace of God as well, and they believe that it is the only thing that saves one’s soul.  Well, most of them believe that, anyway.  But I digress.  Since the mid-90’s, I’ve held that Acts 2:38 is the New Testament plan of salvation, as I mentioned in my very first post.  But I’ve come to realize that nowhere in that verse, or the verses leading up to or immediately following it, is salvation mentioned, or even alluded to.  I’ve heard it preached, and even said so myself in witnessing, that the Jews asked Peter in the previous verse, “What do we need to do to be saved?”   But that question isn’t asked, and salvation isn’t even what Peter is preaching about.  To the Apostolic, though,  the words “to be saved” seem to be a given after the words “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  This leads to the belief that that baptism (in the Name of Jesus) and speaking in tongues (which is considered the initial evidence of the gift of the Holy Ghost in Pentecostal circles) is a prerequisite for salvation, and I closely held that belief for a decade and a half.  I shared the Gospel of “Grace with strings attached” faithfully, even when confronted with Scripture.  But a reading of the Bible, with my UPCI blinders removed has, as I mentioned, led to a rediscovery of the amazing grace of God.

I understand now that salvation is not based on anything I do, with one small exception: accepting it.  I don’t have to be saved, because it’s my choice to accept or deny Christ.  I am free to be lost should I so choose.  But by choosing to put my trust in Jesus as my God and Savior, I am saved.  I hit on this a bit in a post about John 3:16 a couple of months ago.  This is not a watered-down Gospel as I once (convince myself to have) believed, nor is it “another Gospel than what the apostles preached,” as alluded to in Galatians 1:8.

There is amazing liberty when you realize that Jesus has saved you.  There is amazing humility when you realize that you had nothing to with it, other than accepting the free gift.  And there is amazing responsibility when you realize that we are not just commanded, but enabled to live a holy life, and that the holy life we’re called to live has less to do with how you do your hair, or how long your sleeves are, or whether or not you enjoy a Friday night at the movies, and more to do with seeking Him with all of your heart, soul, mind, body, and strength.   This realization has led me to a greater understanding of God’s amazing grace.

Going Home

Three Sundays ago, on October 21, I made a step forward in my walk with God.  I attended the men’s Sunday School class at Faith Baptist Church, the church that I was raised in and spent the first eighteen years of my life.  My mother and I were founding members of this church, having joined when I was a toddler.  Since my senior year of high school, I’ve only been back to Faith a handful of times, once for a Christmas program that my younger sisters were part of while they were still in school, and a couple of times during my transition from Faith to becoming a member of the Apostolic Christian Church,which is affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, International. Being back at Faith was odd.  It was both new and old; it was both familiar and different.  The only thing I can liken it to is the feeling that reincarnationists  say they have when remembering fragments of a “past life.”  As with any church you haven’t been to for the better part of two decades, there were plenty of new faces.  But there were enough familiar faces to put me at ease, as I’m not that good around people I don’t know.  My former youth leader was in the men’s class that day with me.  He kind of recognized me at first, and then it hit him who I was after he was able to see past my lumberjack-esque beard that is now speckled with a little gray.  We reconnected and recounted the national youth conference he had led us to in Milwaukee in 1992.  It was truly good to catch up with him, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me.

The lesson that day, given by the Pastor Bob, the discipleship pastor, dealt with how to be a godly husband.  Pastor Bob spoke about the “Five Love Languages,” and how to be a better servant-leader in your home.  It was something I needed to hear, and something that has been on my mind and heart ever since.  The associate pastor at my Apostolic church, who happens to be one of my best friends, has also touched on the subject of servant-leadership and the Love Languages in some of our personal conversations in the last year or so.  I find comfort in messages that break through denominational boundaries.  In the United Pentecostal culture, I’ve found that it’s rare that non-UPCI-sanctioned messages and materials are used for either teaching or preaching.  My friend, the associate pastor (and our senior pastor as well, I should add), seems to be the exception to the rule, as he recognizes that the Kingdom of God and those used of God do not reside solely in his denomination.

Since that first Sunday back, I’ve been back to Faith twice, on each of the two following Sundays.  This past Sunday, I even got there for the 8:30AM service before Sunday School.  Even though I was a founding member of Faith, I’m “the new guy” all over again.  It’s awkward, and I’m a little scared.  But all in all, it’s good to be home.

Going Home (Prelude)

Just a quick note today. Nothing deep.  Today, I took a step that was long overdue in my walk with God.  Pray with me as a major transition is possible.  Sorry to be so vague.  More on this “developing story” when it becomes clearer to me.

Freedom

Old Glory stands guard at the United 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when my wife and I visited on July 2, 2012.

As I went to bed last night, I told my wife, “Wow, it’s after midnight.  It’s 9/11.”  This day marks a day of remembrance for me, as well as every other American, as we remember when we came under attack from forces that, to this day, seek to destroy us.   Eleven years ago today, I was at work at an office supply store when I go the news.  As we listened to events unfold on the radio, I thought of my family.  I called my mother, who was at home watching the wall-to-wall news coverage of the two planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center.  As we talked, she broke off in mid-sentence and said, “My God, another one just hit the Pentagon.”  I told her I loved her, and hung up the phone.  I found a small training room in the back of our store, shut the door behind me, and sat down and cried.  I cried for the victims, I cried for my nation, and I cried for my own freedom.  Not knowing if the three attacks (and later, the failed fourth attack that was brought down by heroes in Shanksville, Pennsylvania) were the beginning of some sort of Blitzkrieg or not, I frankly was scared out of my mind.  After composing myself, work continued, but it obviously wasn’t the same.  A contractor that was working in our store that day left shortly after the attacks, because her brother worked in one of the Twin Towers.  She needed to be with family and frankly so did all of us.  After work, I went to my mother’s house and along with her, and my two younger sisters, watched the replays of the attacks and the continuing coverage on television.  Family was the most important thing on that day, in that moment.  I woke up the next morning with the immediate thought of, “Oh, God, let it have been a dream.”  I turned on the news only find an aerial view of a smoldering New York City on the screen, and my heart sank again.  While the thought had crossed my mind the day before, on this day, 9/12, I knew that we were now a nation at war.

In the weeks and months following, measures were taken to find out exactly who did this, to find them, and to either kill them, or bring them to justice.  The Patriot Act was signed, and it was a well-intentioned means of protecting America and Americans against another 9/11.  In times of war, sacrifices are made, and certain liberties are, for lack of a better term, suspended.  Curfews may be enforced, as they were in London in World War II, or tighter security measures may be taken at airports, seaports, train stations, and bus terminals.  Again, these are well-intentioned.  The trouble with these “temporary” breaches in our freedom, is that they oftentimes are anything but temporary.  The Patriot Act was originally supposed to “sunset,” or expire, on December 31, 2005.  However it was extended in 2006 by President Bush, and again in 2010 by President Obama.  The sunset has never really dipped past the horizon.  When our liberties and freedoms are given up for a measure of security, we have neither liberty nor security.  Our government overstepped the Constitutional reigns on its own power, even though they did so for what they truly believed was best for our country.  Governments and other authoritative structures are not keen on giving up power that they have either usurped by force, or been given by a willing populace.  It doesn’t mean that they’re evil; it just means that power is an addictive drug.  Be it government leaders, religious leaders, or the committee chairmanship of a community watch, those in power don’t like giving power back to those who gave it to them.  Like Gollum in the The Lord of the Rings, they can become corrupted and not even realize it.  Not all become corrupted, and in fact, I believe that most do not, but enough do become so intoxicated with their authority, that they end up actually putting in greater danger those that they were given the power to watch over and protect.

In the decade-plus since 9/11/01, we have seen our nation, under two presidents from opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum, overstep its authority in an effort to protect us.  In doing so, we’ve seen government departments like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) come into being.  While the creation of the DHS and TSA seemed like the logical step at the time, when fears and emotions were at unprecedented heights, when we look back at the monstrosities they’ve become, it’s reasonable to say that we were wrong to allow their creation. There’s almost a weekly story of someone being abused, humiliated, or sexually assaulted in public view by TSA agents at airports across the country. Disabled children in wheelchairs are searched head-to-toe, and women have their private areas groped because they’re told they may be a security threat: “It’s just procedure, ma’am.” My pastor was detained several times and searched in the months following 9/11 while men who actually fit the profile of those who perpetrated the attacks walked by without a glance.  Now, is everyone who looks like Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi a terrorist?  No, absolutely not.  Far from it.  But in an effort to not offend anyone, our government has ended up offending everyone.

Along the same lines, when religion steps on your freedoms, it is just as bad as when a government does.  The aforementioned Atta and al-Shehhi subscribed to a strict interpretation of Islam that provides for everything except freedom.  Women are subjugated to a status not much different than cattle, and believers are called upon to kill not just the atheist, the Christian, and the Jew, but the Muslim who is “not Muslim enough.”  Most people seek refuge in their faith.  As a Christian, I believe that the name of the Lord is a strong tower, and that there is safety in that Name for the righteous man.  But even in my own faith, there are those that, although well-meaning, allow power and authority to to cause them to overstep the biblical reigns on that very power and authority.  I’ve seen men of God, with the best of intentions, call for extra-biblical standards of dress, entertainment, and even food and nourishment.  Other Christians who don’t subscribe to the same standards are deemed “not Christian enough,” or even not Christian at all.  We have allowed this to happen because of our love for God and desire to please Him, just as we allowed our government to clinch its fist around us because of our love of country.  The Christian pastor who goes beyond what Scripture says to define salvation is like the politician who goes beyond what the Constitution says to define liberty.

I love my nation.  I bleed red, white, and blue.  I love my church.  I worship the One who bled for me.  But when a government forgets that ever since the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, it is a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, it needs to be reminded at the ballot box, and those that have abused their power need to be replaced by those who honor the freedoms that our Founding Fathers fought for.  When a church forgets that since Calvary, it is a nation of kings of priests, it needs to be reminded at conferences and meetings, and those who have overstepped there biblical authority need to be replaced by those who honor the freedom that our Heavenly Father died for.

So Loved the World

For the past few years, I’ve struggled with John 3:16.  Everybody knows John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  It’s the most famous verse in all the Bible.  It’s a lighthouse, pointing the Way in the darkness of this world, and it’s cherished by Christians of all faiths and denominations.  Well, cherished by Christians of most faiths and denominations.  Since my senior year of high school, I’ve attended a church that is full of wonderful people, and that is led by a wonderful pastor.  I talked a bit about my journey to and in this local assembly in my first post here.  A funny thing happened on that journey, though, and it has bothered me for quite a while now.  John 3:16 is all but absent from my church.  Last Tuesday, during mid-week Bible Study, was the first time in 17 1/2 years that I’ve heard John 3:16 quoted, in its entirety, from our pulpit.  It’s been half-quoted hundreds of times.  “God so loved the world, that He gave” has been a call-to-action when a sacrifice of either money or manpower was needed, and that’s fine.  But that’s not what the verse is talking about.  Now, maybe I missed some quotings over the years.  I’ve spent time as a Sunday School teacher, as well as helping with the Junior and Senior Youth during mid-week services, and there was a time when I left church altogether in the mid-2000’s.  So there have been plenty of services that I have not been a part of, and it’s very likely that John 3:16 was quoted in its entirety, fully in context, and I simply missed it.  But I’d say that since March of 1995, I’ve been present in the sanctuary for a good 80 percent of services, and last week was the first time that I’d heard that precious verse come across our pulpit with my own two ears.

Mine is a church that doesn’t believe that John 3:16 is the biblical plan of salvation.  We look to the book of Acts, specifically chapter 2 and verse 38 as the way to “get saved.”  For years, I preached this.  Not from a pulpit, but to family, friends, and coworkers, not to mention on Internet discussion boards (because that’s where winners go to debate).  People would throw John 3:16 back in my face, and my reply was standard for my denomination: “Yeah, but when Jesus says ‘believeth,’ what does He mean?  Obviously, believing in Jesus means obeying Him and Peter’s words were given under direct anointing from Jesus, so to ‘believe’ means to obey Acts 2:38, and if you don’t obey Acts 2:38, you won’t have everlasting life!”  I would sit in chapel services at college and pick apart sermons, waiting for the chaplain to “mess up” and then I’d vocally call him out on it.  If he said something that was contrary to what I was being taught on Sundays, he and the entire student body would know about it.  Of course, I was met with many dumbfounded looks and I turned off a lot of people because of my attitude and the conclusion I was jumping to.  No matter how much Bible I was given to refute my take on things, and to show that God’s grace is free, and dependent only upon our receipt of if, I dismissed these other arguments as the arguments of people who were “let[ting] go of the commands of God and…holding on to the traditions of men (Mark 7:8 NIV).  I chalked those arguments up as coming from people who sat under an inferior pastor in an inferior church that was part of an inferior denomination.  Now don’t get me wrong, I feel that God has blessed me with the two greatest pastors in the world.  My former Baptist pastor and my current United Pentecostal pastor are two of, if not the most, genuine, caring, Christian men I have ever known.  But I’m learning that, for the most part, everyone has the greatest pastor in the world.  If you don’t feel that way about your pastor, you should probably find a new assembly to be a part of.  But I digress…

My smug holier-than-thou approach to biblical debate and discussion caused me to discount sermons, studies, commentaries, and even portions of Scripture that seemed to debunk my belief that John 3:16 wasn’t the way to get saved.  It was engrained in me that “if the pastor said it, then God said it.”  I mean, why would the pastor say something that wasn’t true?  And why would he do this knowingly?  I have a close friend who claims that all Christians (including Billy Grahm and Max Lucado) who do not subscribe to our denomination’s beliefs are “willing disciples of Satan.”  He believes that since they read the same Bible as we do, they see the same things we do, and obviously are ignoring them on purpose.  He and I have had many heated discussions about this, and even at my most zealous times as an Apostolic, I disagreed with him adamantly on this.  As I touched on in my first post, I believe honest men, through many hours, days and years of fervent prayer and study, can still come to two (or more) totally different conclusions about what the Bible says, about everything from whether or not Melchizedek was a theophany to the issue of salvation.

The point I’m trying to make is that even after years of preaching Acts 2:38, I could never really get around John 3:16.  Acts 2:38 calls for all believers to be baptized (full disclosure: I also believe that we should be baptized).  But John 3:16 says believe and you’re saved.  A “companion verse” of Acts 2:38 is Mark 16:16 – “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”  Mark tells us that we’ll be saved if we believe and are baptized, and that we’ll be damned if we don’t believe.  The second part of the verse doesn’t say if you’re not baptized you’ll be damned, and with good reason.  Baptism does you no good if you don’t believe in the first place.  But again, John tells us that we’ll be saved if we believe.  Some see this as a contradiction, while others say that baptism is part of belief, and that you can’t truly have one without the other.  What I’ve come to believe is that Mark 16:16 is just as anointed as John 3:16 and Acts 2:38.  Those that believe and are baptized will be saved.  Those that believe and ride a bike will be saved.  Those that believe and eat whole grains will be saved.  Everything after belief is secondary.  Many people take the attitude of “I’m saved because I do X, Y, and Z.  This is the attitude that Jesus called the Pharisees out on.  Instead, the mentality should be, “I do X, Y, and Z because I’m saved.”  Throughout history, God kept making things easier for us:  “Sacrifice a bull.  Don’t have a bull?  Sacrifice a dove.  Don’t have a dove?  Sacrifice some wheat.  Don’t have any wheat?  I’ll come die for you and be your sacrifice, once and for all.”  Truly believing in Jesus, trusting Him as your God and Savior, will change you.  It will make you do things that you didn’t used to do, and keep you from doing things that used to be a part of your life, if you let it.  But adding our own rules and regulations to Jesus’ sacrifice lessens that sacrifice, and makes us the ones that let go of the commandments of God in favor of the traditions of men.