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.