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Archive for March, 2011

When I left off my bacon was being saved by a Roman Catholic woman…a 17th century Roman Catholic woman no less. What I learned from her plugged a lot of holes in my understanding of putative Charismatic theology…she put some things in order, and made many of the floating pieces of Charismatic thought and practice fit together in a much more sensible way…and just as important that order made the areas where it had gone off the rails exceedingly clear.

I came across the teachings of Madame Jeane Guyon in this wise: While in the Navy at the training command in Rhode Island I visited a little home prayer group/church who had a “book store” shelf for their members. On that shelf I saw a book with an interesting title I had never seen before, “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.” Since I was in the market for something that could relight my spark, I bought it though I never got around to reading it until two or three years later. One day on the waning of a crisis of faith moment I noticed this book I had had for years and had never read, so I figured why not see what it was about.

It is funny the way grace can blindside you….hiding in plain sight for years until the perfect receptive moment….and then just a tiny nudge. The “Depths” destroyed me, shredding my dogmatic sureties like a pressure hose destroys toilet paper. Without belaboring the full content I’ll just mention a few of the the main things I took away from that book, things with me still.

1. The purpose of the Christian life is nothing less than Divine union. We are meant, as St. Peter said, to be partakers of the Divine nature, or as St. Paul said to grow to the fullness of measure of the stature of Christ.

2. That union begins in the cross, and the secret of the cross it this; no man can crucify himself, not even Jesus; another has to it for us. The cross is not given to comfort us, but to kill us. The cross or crosses we receive are gifts from God Who knows what it takes to subdue and destroy our sinful nature so that we may die to ourselves and live unto Christ.

3. All that we are, all that we love, even our most cherished religious experiences must enter into the tomb dead, and only what God resurrects is permitted to exit the tomb. We must die to everything, that Christ might be all in all.

4. The cross and the tomb requires our grateful abandonment to God, to  trust Him to know what it will take pleasant, unpleasant, to make us Christlike. Our trials, our crosses are surgeons tools and we should embrace them with joy.

But all is not so bleak. Our wounds are answered in the wounds Christ bore for us. They are not the simple the marks of Divine retribution for the sins of man, for our sins, but rather they are the very places where our lives might be grafted into and His life may flow through and transform us.

This was precisely contrary to the name it and claim it doctrine of the Charismatic movement which had come to reject all suffering as of the Devil, reasoning from the position that Jesus paid the price of everything so we had only to stand firm in His established victory to gain the victory for ourselves in any area of life.

Madame Guyon thought it presumptuous to tell God what He should and should not do for us, rather we should cast ourselves upon Him and then receive all that comes as the gift of a loving Father Who knows what we need to be make like Jesus. He knows the crosses that work our healing….that work our death to ourselves and our corrupted self-seeking will.

Basically, in this teaching she pointed out where the Charismatic Movement had gone wrong in one major regard. It wanted to live in the power of Pentecost without the inconvenience of the Cross and tomb.

5. Another thing she taught was that it was not always the best thing to study the Bible, though it could be very good to read it prayerfully. That is to say…lots of us have been taught to dig into scripture to ferret out new truths, gather ammo for defeating our theological opponents, fill our heads with tons of biblical tidbits and quotes primarily to impress ourselves or our friends. But in her view, that was not the best way to approach the scriptures.

She suggested our minds were a mess, and as good as study was, and as necessary as it was, our efforts are hamstrung absent a cleansed mind, a mind shaped by it. She said, the scripture should both be prayed, and read without an intellectual agenda. It should be read, if for no other reason than to let its words flow though our minds like cleansing waters.

So I spent several months doing just that…reading the Bible cover to cover, praying it as I read, just letting its words wash though my mind, not in search of any polemical ammunition, not following any rabbit trails of idle curiosity…just simply reading and praying the Scripture.

I stopped making demands of God, though I still had questions. I repented my anger and accepted that dry seasons, and unanswered questions could be gifts too. To the degree I understood what I was reading I determined to embrace my cross come what may, regardless.

That’s the high points of what I learned from this Catholic…this woman who inspired Catholic saints and holy men like Francis LaSalle, and Fenelon. She inspired Protestants like George Foxe, who wrote Foxes’ Book of Martyrs and the started the Quakers, who in turn inspired John Wesley the founder of the Methodists. I was even surprised to learn she had inspired the likes of Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee, and Jesse Penn Lewis (a renown preacher in the Welsh Revival).

I thought if there was hope for the Charismatic movement getting back to what mattered and moving forward it the way that was needed, it would be by embracing the path taught by Madame Jeane Guyon…of course she also taught that Protestants should return to the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church….I wasn’t convinced on that point…but I was convinced that there was great wisdom in places I never expected to find it…places I would never see until I put aside the many faceted mirror of my own “religious” self-preoccupation.

The path of the cross was the path of self denial, self abnegation, of death to the world. It led only to the tomb The power of Pentecost was God’s business, and it could only work with power when it’s possessors were completely dead to themselves and alive to Christ…that is to say…what received genuine power was that which was surrendered to the cross and to the tomb and was in due season raised up again by the power of God.

Pentecost absent the tomb was disordered and open to much immaturity, deception and manipulation.

I had some answers about what had “gone wrong”, now it was time for me see what this new path held for me…a Charismatic committed to receiving all with thanksgiving, even if it meant an end in complete obscurity. God knew what could make me like Jesus. I would not object to any medicine or therapy no matter how painful, or how long that got me there.

As it turns out…that a whole lot easier said than done…”yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow thee,” but I discovered, even when you fail, there are rewards for just trying, and trudging on up that rocky slope towards Golgatha.

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What had to happen next took a few years to accomplish…roughly ten as it turned out. I had to get sick, exhausted, worn-out, burned-out, fed-up, and completely over the Charismatic movement and its theological attractions.

At this juncture one might ask, what was keeping me there…a fair question. Basically, there was nowhere to go. There were some things I think the Charismatics had right or nearly so…that is to say they were asking some important questions, just not doing very well at getting good answers…especially to the problem of  the modern Church and modern Christianity in comparison to what was seen in the New Testament and those early successor generations.

I agreed with Baptists about baptism and how to “get saved”, and about congregational worship. I agreed with the Methodists on the operation of grace and on man’s capacity for free will, and somewhat on the oversight of a bishop, at least in principle. Furthermore, I agreed with the Holiness moment (that in years past had birthed the Pentecostal movement), that Christians are called to live holy lives (even if I disagreed on how that might be worked out in certain cases). And finally, I was in agreement with the Pentecostals that each person needed the experience of their own Pentecost and to receive the Holy Spirit in an intimate way.

The trouble was I was stuck…theologically speaking. While a lot of what Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement taught (even with its numerous shifting winds) looked good on paper and seemed defensible from Scripture…it also seemed very few could get it to “work” constantly in real life…not really beyond a certain capacity for enthusiasm and “praying in tongues…more on those deficiencies later. There was no going back to the Baptists…not honestly, because they generally believed in the doctrine of eternal security, and had no place for tongues or any other inspirational moving of the Spirit in their services….and frankly when Baptists tried to “jazz” their worship up with highly sanitized CCM…it just didn’t work. The difference was palpable…really it was…musically somewhat like Sandi Patty singing the greatest hits of Pink Floyd. It just didn’t work…and it made (and makes) no one happy. Old folks missed their traditional hymns and young people were bored by the bloodless renditions of “their style of music”. So that was not a choice.

The Methodists while occasionally more open to the Charismatic movement, were stodgier than the Baptists…and they had too many vestigial elements of “ritual” for my tastes…that and they baptized by sprinkling and sprinkled babies of all things….heaven forfend.

One top of this was the general Charismatic belief of that time that there were “waves” and “winds” of new “restored” doctrine and practice that would be sent as refreshing from time to time as the great restoration rolled forward.

That sustained (read distracted) us for a while until the Health and Wealth Gospel showed up with big hair and big wallets and all us simple loving, hippie appreciating, old time Jesus People style charismatics discovered we had become yesterday’s news, living on yesterday’s mana.” Some of us tried “prosperity”…but as a Gospel it wasn’t very filling where it counted…but it did serve to illustrate what I later came to understand as a fundamental flaw in Charismatic…indeed pretty much all congregationalist Protestant theology, namely an innate addiction to invention and reinvention that all but categorically dismissed the experience, thought, and wisdom of earlier generations.  It was like a fascination with the following water that steadily pulled the sand out from under the foundations.

I eventually got tired of waiting for a door to open into ministry. I got tired of putting so much time and emotional energy in a belief system that rarely paid any dividends… not beyond the promise of pie by and by…if not here then there, if not there, then in the air.

Frankly, with so much never seeming to ever work out for me, I got mad at God…I felt betrayed, duped perhaps, or worse, deliberately left in the dark about why my life was not working according to all the many promises that I was promised by so many big name preachers…for whom those same promises did seem to be working. That said, I knew theologically, God couldn’t be wrong, didn’t betray people, etc….but what He wasn’t doing was giving me clear direction about what to do and how to live. It was Catch 22.  Heaven had become brass…and little by little I stopped caring. God knew where I was and where to find me when He was ready to clue me in and help me out…assuming He had any interest in doing so. Maybe it was all one big failed test…maybe. In any event I needed to get on with my life. So I joined the Navy…saw some profound things (like St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria) came home, tried a business venture with family, saw it collapse, and then went back to school.

Without going into details, it is sufficient to say…internally, after this I went through a couple of very dark years…indeed I think I may have even travelled to the precipice of no return…to pull back in one fateful moment….a moment from which all the rest of my life to date, has sprung.

It was book that saved my life..a book I had read many years before, back in the halcyon days of my Charismatic youth. It was a book on the death bed sayings of various men and women, most of the them famous, but not all, but all of them poignant. One in particular had stayed with me.

In the early 1800s there was an iron mill…I want to say in either Sheffield or Birmingham, England. There they rolled out sheets of hot iron and formed them into boilers for steam engines. It so happened one of the big slabs of red hot iron broke free and pinned a man underneath…it was cooking him alive. He screamed for someone to tell him how to get right with God before he died…and he had only minutes…seconds to live, but no one stepped forward. The man, of course, died, and latter a young man in the crowd said he knew what to tell him, how to ask God for mercy and be saved. The young man had been raised by a pious Methodist grandmother who had taught him how to live as a Christian, but he fallen away from his upbringing, and was living a hard life…Indeed so hard that he could not speak of what he knew because, as he put it, “his life had shut his mouth.”

That had always seemed to me such a horrible thing, such a horrible place to be…and then one night in my despondancy towards God I found myself confronted with a young man, a teenager at the time, an active Methodist Christian who needed a sound word of spiritual counsel in his life regarding a great misfortune he had endured at 14, the loss of a parent, for which he blamed himself.

This young man had seen me more or less at my worst…and yet I knew that I held the counsel he needed to hear…things I had learned in my better days…and yet things that I could only share if I revealed myself to be an utter hypocrite. I hesitated, made some sympathetic noises but then remembered that story, and understood I stood at that very moment in a similar place between hope and a soul sinking into despair…and my life was shutting my mouth.

I can only say…in that moment it felt like this was my last chance…at least for a very long while…and maybe forever. So….I swallowed my pride, stepped back from the brink, and told him what I knew. Today, over 30 years since that conversation, that young man grew up and eventually became a Methodist pastor.

My life however took a different turn. Within a few weeks of that intervention I lost my job, had to move, and had to start over with God. But it was not without a little help. Once more I was saved by a book…a book I had bought years before but had never read….ah the ignominy to be pulled from the pig-pit of my prodigality by the hand of a 17th century Catholic mystic.

God was not playing fair…more on that next time.

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Did I mention I was a young and impressionable Charismatic at one time in my life…a true believer on the glory train to the next great thing?

It so happened that I attended a Southern Baptist college where for a couple of years at least I was enrolled in their ministerial program…New Testament, Koine Greek, Bible Lands, etc. I soon learned that a substantial cross section of the ministerial association did not think very much of speaking in tongues, or Spirit Baptism, or lively, very informal worship, or anything else closely associated with the Charismatic movement…in the catalog of undesirables for some of the ministerial association Charismatics ranked right above flaming sexual deviants, and they said so.

Many of them took the cessationist position regarding spiritual gifts, namely that at some point shortly after the end of the apostolic era supernatural gifts faded away, unneeded since the New Testament was complete. Now given that these same cessationists tended to be theologically conservative, and believed the Bible to be the Word of God, not a few of them believing in nothing less than the plenary verbal inspiration of the Scriptures (basically meaning that the Apostles were just God’s dictaphones and their personality and experience really didn’t enter into what they wrote in any important way) it did not seem to me and other Charismatics that their view squared with the Scriptures that declared that He doesn’t change and is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They, of course, were some variety of dispensationalists, believing that a number of the “rules” changed about how God worked with men during each dispensation….hence for them (if they were true to their principles) the Gospels mattered less than the letters of the New Testament since the Gospels belonged to the previous dispensation.

Anyway this group had a lot of influence on campus, and to be honest, since we were convinced we Charismatics were on the bleeding edge of a new move of God whose job it was to complete the restoration that was started in the Protestant Reformation, expanded upon in the early Methodist/holiness movements, energized by the early Pentecostals, and now shared with the world without denominational constraint…through us. They couldn’t see that. We showed them miracles and they poo-pooed them as psychological delusion, trickery, or Satan acting as an “angel of light” to deceive many…or else just plain ignored what was right in front of their faces in favor of other bookcases of dusty arguments…that was the most irritating. Something had to be done about it…they had to be met on their own turf and bested.

That was easy enough to do with Scripture…there was lot to draw upon to oppose the cessationist argument. But that was also the problem. Both of us had our batteries of arguments and counter-arguments, our rebuttals and counter rebuttals. We were on a dialectical merry-go round….and nobody was getting off first.

What was needed was a supplemental argument…one out of history. After all, if miracles ceased, then it should be easy enough to show from ancient records roughly how long it took from the time of the Apostles to early succeeding generations where Apostolic caliber miracles had effectively gone away. If the cessationist interpretation was right, then it should be borne out in history, as should ours if our argument was right.

Little did I know what I was in for when I first began reading the writings the late Apostolic era and early post Apostolic era Christians…the things I learned were things I was not quite prepared to confront. Certainly, I found what I was looking for…plenty of evidence of miracles continuing century after century…not quite as much as in Apostolic times to be sure, but definitely continuous.

The thing is this, I went digging through early Christian writing looking ammunition for my pet arguments…and found more than ammunition…I found a mirror in which I and our times didn’t reflect very well at all.

My first pay-dirt was the Didache, the teachings of the 12 Apostles that dated either from late apostolic times or early post apostolic times. It spoke plainly of how to test and regard itinerant prophets who came through…”see there were still prophets”…but one could also see the beginnings of a more structured Church experience for day to day Christians in the absence of a genuine prophet. Then there were the letters of St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius, St. Ireneus, and St. Clement. Clement was the disciple of St. Peter, Sts. Polycarp and St. Ignatius were disciples of St. John the Theologian. St. Ignatius had the further distinction of being ordained by St. John in A.D. 69 to pastor the Church in Antioch, and further there was a strong tradition that he was the very child Christ had pulled up into His lap in His “Suffer, the Little Children” admonition. St. Irenaeus was a spiritual child of St. Polycarp, and one can see from his writings much of where the Church stood in terms of doctrine and practice in the mid to late 2nd century.

As for Polycarp…wow what can you say about Polycarp. Having read how he became a Martyr for Christ in his mid 80s…his narrative dripped with Biblical caliber miracles. The Romans had to run him through with a sword because the fire they bound him in refused to hurt him.

St. Ignatius had profound things to say about the nature of the Church, its governance, and its worship…stuff very different from the congregationalist worship experience, that had I thought about it at the time i would have realized that his time of ministry overlapped the end of St. John’s by about 25 or 30 years…if he had been off base in anything he believed and taught, The Apostle John had nearly 30 years to correct him, and did not…there were also the spiritual sons of the other apostles still living, and they are silent on any error he may have harbored…so the only reasonable conclusion was that what St. Ignatius believed was the faith of the Church as it was known in the late Apostolic and early post apostolic eras. One thing I noted, what he taught regarding the Church bore very limited resemblance what I knew of Church life first as a Baptist, and later as a Methodist and then Charismatic. But I was oblivious and only took out of his letters a general instruction toward’s holiness and and admonition to frequent communion.

That was not the end though…the one early Christian text that really challenged me t a gut level was one written by a guy named Hermas, who some believe was both a Christian prophet and brother of the person who was bishop of Rome circa 150 AD…that would have made him a spiritual son or grandson of St. Clement, the disciple of St. Peter. So with Hermas we were about 1 to 2 generations past the latter Apostolic era. Hermas received a series of angelic visitations which left him some parables…similitudes as they are called. Their main focus is on the duty of the Christian to live an uncompromised and holy life.

The book entitled “The Shepherd of Hermas” was a theological body blow. It crumbled me, drove me to knees in repentance like nothing I had ever read before. Gobsmacked is not big or too weird a word. No old timey hell fire and brimstone preacher could hold a tiny flickering candle to Hermas…I read him in conjunction with the letters of St. Clement and the letters of St. Peter from the New Testament. Without exaggeration I was in what I can only call spiritual shock for at least two or three days.

I learned quickly how my quaint latter day salvic sureties could erode into near despair in the face of genuine holiness. The scriptures say that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom…the Shepherd of Hermas will teach a soul to fear God if that soul is the least little bit open to correction and healing. In short Hermas…scared me…scared me hard…but in a good way. It sobered much of my easy breezy enthusiasms about spiritual things.

No big buddy Jesus in Hermas…just the Mighty, Holy and Immortal God of the universe and the Judge of all mankind, and that God was served by ministering spirits of fire, holy angels who had a task to do in building up the Church until the time of the Lord’s return, and that did not involve indefinitely suffering fools and dilettantes who refused take their own repentance and salvation seriously.

In my search I also learned there were a number of early Christians writings not written by Apostles which were used by local Churches as scripture for almost 500 years after the time of Christ…and one of those writings that was considered Scripture by many Christians for hundreds of years was The Shepherd of Hermas. I most definitely understand why.

I found my miracles…more than enough to make my case twice over…but in the face of what I was discovering, my argument, though I still believed it, seemed less and less important than the question of holiness. Being right argumentatively speaking didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as being right(eous).

Slipping forward in time I came to a book on the history of the Irish people, and this particular book had an extensive section on St. Patrick and his disciples. After reading about him, I had not been so impressed since reading about the martyrdom of St. Polycarp…Here was a saint’s Saint. St. Patrick had his share of miracles as one might expect…but there was something more about him…something that I never encountered in a Christian life outside the pages of the New Testament….namely transfiguration such as that experienced by St. Stephen before his accusers.

St. Patrick knew the hour of death, which came when he was a very old man. Around midnight, knowing his time was upon him, he sent his personal attendant away to fetch something while he went to the chapel to pray. As the cell attendant returned he saw the little chapel ablaze with light that disappeared the moment he entered, and there near the altar was St. Patrick, reposed in Christ. For the next 30 days his body was taken on tour of all the monasteries he had founded so the brothers could pay their respects. According to witnesses of the time, his body, even at the end was not bloated or foul smelling, but he looked like a man asleep.

I marveled at that grace, that power in God’s saints like Patrick knew in their lives. It seemed so much more “potent” if not so common as the power we Charismatics believed we were reclaiming. When I looked at Patrick I saw how far we had yet to go to get back all that was lost. It was invigorating to consider what glories must be to come….little did I know another little knobby sprout of Orthodoxy had just popped up in my life…I had found what I needed to prove, at least to my satisfaction, that Apostolic life had not ceased with the Apostles…had I been wiser I would have kept thinking about what the rest that I had found implied.

But alas, I was not wise; I was 21.

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