Friday, August 22, 2014

The Whole Shoot and Kabang

It's a long story.

On the heels of last week's unveiling of this biblical idea of sanctification, I want to tell you a three fold story.

It involves some of my past.
It involves sharing a bit of the differences between denominations.
It also will bring us closer to the scripture before us this morning.

The scripture is where we will start. It's always good to start there.
In my time in a holiness church a scripture like this was before our eyes to help keep us focused.
Being filled with God's Spirit is our theme this month. Sanctification is still on our plates.
Lets take in Paul's words to the Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

New International Version (NIV)
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It's a smaller, lesser known denomination which roots itself in a movement which could be known as the late 1700's version of the non-denominational movement. As this country we call America, with all it's blessed freedoms, began to grow so did the tensions between many of the immigrants that came to here from Europe. What happened in the 15 & 1600's in England and throughout Europe caused a great awakening among people seeking God and faith. It also caused many divisions and lines to be drawn in the sand.

The Church of England sought to be separate from the Church in Rome way back in the 1600's. During this time period, many different groups sprung up all over England, Germany and the European landscape with their own outlook on a certain piece of doctrine. Each group had a different way of explaining what it meant to be Christian or how one became a Christian. Some emphasized grace more. Some emphasized faith more. Some wanted a stronger viewpoint on church government. Some wanted less government and more scripture. All of this came with the people who migrated to the "New World". The freedom this new government in America provided allowed the true colors of those given the freedom to express their views to shine through. Living in this time could not have been easy. A fragile new country making it's start and along with it many new faiths and churches springing up along the hillside. People brought their faith with them from the "old world" and new groups were being formed in this country. Fights would break out over religious practice. Arguments would ensue over how exactly one became a Christian. Mostly the disagreements centered around who had the authority. And, everybody thought they had God on their side.

The turn into the 1800's saw a resurgence in thinking about the bible as the central motivator of thought and practice.
In 1801, the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky planted the seed for a movement in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley to disassociate from denominationalism. Out of that time period came a new church movement that would later be known as the "Christian" church. Instead of calling oneself by their denominational heading, the focus was put back on to what the bible itself taught. Less attention was given to what doctrines and man made creeds taught people to believe. This is the kind of church I grew up in. A church without creeds and doctrines being taught. There were church leaders who wrote 'statements' about things. But, the central idea was that the bible was all we needed. This sounds good on the surface. It sounds as if there shouldn't be any disagreements if we remove the central piece of argumentative nature. Creeds were viewed as man-made and devise. The problem this brings is that people are free to believe whatever they want. There are no guides along the way to help interpret scripture. There are no "speed limit" or "stop" signs to caution one against the possibility of harm to our faith.

People learn differently. Some people don't seem to need those guide markers along the way. If your mind is open to what God wants to teach, more power to you. I have always said that I didn't learn anything back their in my Disciple days. That's really not true. As I went forward into my days ahead there were items of learning that came to the surface on many different occasions. I tend to think it was more about the presentation. There was my moment of baptism that will stick with me forever. Shaking the pastor's hand. Answering the big question. "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God?" I answered "Yes" even though I was unsure of what it all exactly meant. It would be a few years later that my moment would come when the matter would solidify in my heart.

If the 1800's began with the desire to disassociate from the denominational life, it closed with a focus on starting ones own group to surround a certain way of thought or doctrine that the group deemed important to living the Christian life. The "Methodist" church in that day was known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. Many will note the M.E. blocks on the corners of church buildings still to this day. Methodist minded people have always seemed to be on the forefront of social needs and issues. The Methodist Episcopal church of the 1800 found itself fighting issues involving prohibition and slavery. A line of thought arose that a certain emphasis was being lost in this Methodist way of thought. A line of thinking that was central to the teaching of it's founder, one John Wesley of England. "Christian Perfection", focusing on the work of sanctification through the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer was less a central preaching subject. This lack of focus upon this essential work of God caused some to feel that a need to leave and start a new church was imperative.

In the 1894, a Methodist Episcopal minister by the name of Phineas Bresee would leave the appointive ministry of the church in order to serve as pastor to the Peniel Mission, an independent ministry to the homeless of Los Angeles. His intention was not to start a new denomination, but that is what happened. Bresee's focus was upon preaching the work of God in the believer's heart through sanctification. "Holiness Unto The Lord" was the motto and theme song of the movement. Across America several small groups had begun to form with the same emphasis upon holiness. New England. Southern states surrounding the Texas area. Out west in California and up the coast. The mid West and the Georgia-Florida area were places not as ingrained in the idea. Baptist folks occupied the southeastern US and the aforementioned Disciple movement and Presbyterianism had taken the Kentucky-Ohio Valley. Methodism still prevailed heavily across the nation and so, these were the lines drawn during this historical time period. Christian revival flourished heavily under the theme of surrendering one's life to God and allowing the Spirit to fill the soul with gladness.

It was into the late sunset of such a movement that I found myself in late 1992. I still had ties to the Disciples congregation I grew up in, but I was searching for something more. Something of my Disciple upbringing seemed to have helped me to be cautious of what was being presented. I "church shopped" and found many different perspectives. Because we had no doctrinal or credal system in which to follow back in the Disciple organization, I really no idea there were other churches out there and other perspectives in which to engage. My best friend from high school had grown up in the Nazarene church on the other side of town. I followed him out there and soon found myself engulfed in a multi-layered outlook on God and life. Where my Disciple upbringing lacked depth and explanation the Nazarenes made up for in critique and study. The went out of their way to explain what everybody else believed. They also compared it to their own beliefs and made it clear that their teaching was what was right. Everyone else had it wrong. Since I had not had any real training in doctrine or understanding of other facets of Christianity, I ate it up. I soaked up everything I could get my hands and heart on.

The one thing that stuck out to me and that I have hung on to till this day is the teaching of sanctification. It is absolutely essential to understand the work of the Lord in this facet of the Christian life. As was presented last week, so I reiterate today - "This is the will of God, your sanctification..." (1 Thess. 4.3) The idea that God wants to consecrate us and make us of use in his Kingdom is something I had never heard before. I was familiar with the name of Jesus. Earlier, in June of '92, I became acquainted with the premise that God wanted to forgive us. Once a person has been introduced to the notion they are a sinner, it's not a big stretch to grasp the concept that forgiveness is needed. But, this idea of consecration, of purifying the heart and soul, that was completely foreign to me. I had heard a few sermons preached since I had been visiting with the Nazarenes on Sunday morning and evening. I had heard about this need to be filled with the Spirit. I was sensing I needed to do something and that I needed something. It was after having read the story in Acts chapter 4 about the Spirit coming on the disciples John & Peter in the temple that I became convinced that this work of the Spirit was what I needed.

I went to church on a Sunday night in September of '92. I recall the pastor asking if anybody needed prayer or wanted to be prayed over. I stood and approached the altar. On my knees, I revealed what I had read in Acts 4 and what I wanted prayer for; that I wanted to be filled with the Spirit like John & Peter were in the temple. What I said must have gone in one ear and out the other for them. Another lovely trait of our Nazarene friends, at least in that time frame, was that if you were going to the altar for the first time in their church, you must be going for the purpose of salvation. You were asking Jesus into your heart. That had happened several months earlier in June, in my apartment, in front of my sofa. This was completely different. After leaving that service on this Sunday night, I felt full. I felt as if something had happened on that altar. And, just like my baptism experience back in the Disciples congregation at 14, I could not have explained to you what was going on. I did believe. I did ask and receive. I just didn't have the vocabulary or the understanding to explain what had happened. In time the words would come. I would be able to share with more study and learning on what it is God wants to do in the soul and heart of a believer.

Over time, I began to understand what it was that my now distant Nazarene family was promoting. The more I heard sanctification preached and presented I grasped more of this "entire" work they said the Lord wanted to do. I wholeheartedly accepted that teaching. I had no previous exposure to the subject, so I bought was being sold to me. When I went to the altar and prayed I was looking for a working of the Lord that would take care of all of my heart centered issues, all at once, right there in the moment. When I arose from the altar after praying I felt as if it all had been taken care of and I had nothing left that needed to be worked on. Then, Monday or Tuesday would roll in and I would find myself doing or saying something that I should not and I would be back to the old guilty feelings again. This roller coaster ride of emotions went on for months and years. By 1997 I was into my very first church as pastor, my one and only Nazarene congregation. I still did not have a handle on this subject in my heart and soul. I believed God wanted to sanctify us. I just had a bad focus, you might say, on how it happened or worked itself out. I couldn't get this "all at once" notion to work out in my life. I was frustrated with myself and with God. By 1999, I was ready to give up, on the ministry, on this Christian life. I would have been happy to just sit in the back pew, unnoticed and uninvolved.

And then, God moved like only he can do.
It was summer school of 1999. I was in the Nazarene course of study up the road in Mt Vernon @ MVNU. Our summer course was a preaching class taught by Dr Steven Green from Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. He had been invited to teach our class and he did what you might expect. He used sanctification as his launching pad for teaching about how we preach. Since sanctification is 90% of what we Nazarene preachers would preach and teach about, this seemed like an appropriate subject to present. But, what he did turned all of our worlds upside down. The graph you saw last week was all from his class. He laid it out very much like what I did for you all to see. He had us thinking about what makes up our lives and filling in the squares. He had us focused upon inviting Jesus into our lives. Then he began to discuss how exactly Jesus moved all over the graph to become active in every facet of our lives. How exactly does that happen? A female clergy person from West Virginia spoke up down front. "Well, we've always been told that it happens in one felled swoop." Exactly. That is what we had all been told to believe. But, Dr Green showed us what we had missed and where the COTN had missed the boat. What I share from here forward is a mixture of what I learned from Dr Green's class and what I have shared and learned from UM clergy and professors over the last 14 years. My eyes have truly been opened to the vast differences in thought between two denominational ways of thinking.

Up until about 1940, if you asked a Methodist or a Nazarene to explain what sanctification meant, you most likely would get a similar answer or train of thought. It's a process. It's about growing in grace. John Wesley would have explained it that way with an extreme focus on discipline and devout practice to keep one on track following the Lord. Wesley's "Holy Club" was a system of accountability for the ministers serving within Methodism to help us keep our focus on the Lord and his will for our lives. We try to keep that intention alive even today through our ministerial clusters. When the divide happened in the late 1800's and some Methodist Episcopals went their way, a rift began. A difference over the focus on social justice and social issues & the focus on personal and inner holiness is the dividing line. It doesn't seem like a great divide. A minor difference of opinion as to the importance of certain doctrine. By the time we get to the 1940's & 50's though, society is going to begin to make a major shift in social etiquette. In an attempt to be relevant and keep it's youth involved in the life of its congregations, many Methodist churches now become the places of dance halls and rock music. Many in the holiness camps are not enthused by such practices. And, so, another step is taken apart in the divide. In the midst of these social practices a tightening and a  loosening of the reigns happens in explaining Christian doctrine. You might see Methodist people a bit more accepting of certain social practices. Nazarenes and people in holiness circles begin to explain sanctification in more definitive terms, making the process more legal and binding.

Now comes 1968. The Methodist Church of the day has just merged with the Evangelical United Brethren church, or the old E.U.B., as it is affectionately referred to by her former people. Four years later in 1972, we see the first reference made to homosexuality on the floor of a General Conference in this newly formed "UMC". People want to make a statement about the practice of such a lifestyle and have it be acceptable in the Church. On the other side of the fence, Nazarenes, in their similarly named book, The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, has resoluted to living in such a legal manner as to explain exactly how a person should live. No movies. No rock n roll. Nothing that would lead someone to live in a precarious manner and divert off the road of righteousness and holiness. I even heard people speak about the need not to stand in front of one's own picture window at home drinking a can of pop, because someone might drive by and think it was a can of beer and assume you were an alcoholic. The growing divide between these two lines of Wesleyan thinking was increasing.

By the time I came into the Church of the Nazarene in 1992, I was worshiping with the children and grandchildren of that 70's crowd. I was hearing about this thing called sanctification. The feeling I was getting was that it was on me to make myself holy. I need to live in such a way as to keep myself holy. Some of this was very true and in retrospect I wonder if I was simply hearing things presented to me out of sequence. Holiness does not begin with us. It begins with God. "I am holy, therefore you be holy" Holiness was presented in such a way as to make it feel as if it was my "responsibility" to bring myself to God. As if I should know I was supposed to do this. (Truly, we do have a responsibility to do this. Romans 12.1-2) However, presented out of sequence or in the wrong light a person will not understand that the God of all Peace will sanctify the believer. We heard that verse. Believe me, I lived in Thessalonians as a Nazarene. 1 Thess 4.3 & 5.23 were memorized, scorched into the brain. The legalistic approach to these verses were what kept me in a prison to myself. A guilty conscience can be the most detrimental of all devices against our spiritual growth. Beating ourselves over the head because we cannot live up to some set of measures that we, ourselves, are pushing down our own throats is what keeps a person from being what God wants us to be. Along with all the stipulations and decrees that get made by an organization about how someone should live, said Christian life, can be a weight no person should be made to live.

No movies? I knew plenty of Nazarenes who went to the movies. No rock n roll? Our youth group went to plenty of rock n roll shows. Christian rock was at it's highest point in the 1990's and I was blessed to be alive during it. We can't make up the rules for ourselves and then forces them on everybody else and then alienate ourselves from everybody else in Christendom if they don't explain everything the way we do. After Dr Green's class in 1999, I knew there would be a time come when I would leave the COTN. In 2000, I met a nice United Methodist girl and one thing led to another. From 2000 to 2003 I spent much time in a UM congregation and I came to understand the polity and practice of a United Methodist life. I saw what Dr Green had presented in the class back in 1999. This sanctified life is one that needs time to grow and needs to work itself out. "Work out your salvation, with fear and trembling" Can we possibly work it out all at once? If we can then I would not have the life experiences I have. I would not have all that I now possess in my heart. The memories. The wisdom. The people and the places. Remember the graph from last week. When we say "entire" sanctification, what are we saying? Look at all of that between birth and death. We are saying ALL of it. ALL at once. We have nothing else to work out. As Dr Green would have said back in that 1999 class... "If you have it all worked out already, then you might as well be glorified. Go on to heaven. You have nothing left to work out here." We know that can't be the way.

Are things perfect now just because I'm in the UMC and closer to the origins of Wesleyanism? No. There is no perfect denomination. United Methodism is facing a serious threat of schism at the moment. We are arguing amongst ourselves about the very issues that have driven a wedge between Nazarene and Methodists over the years. There is a real case here that this denomination might split in a couple years. People might go their separate ways over issues they feel very strongly about. I know how it goes. I've been there twice. I left Disciples because I didn't like not having any creeds or doctrine to follow. I needed something to help guide the way. So, I went where I could find those things. I left from the Nazarenes to find a place where the guidance system was not so strict and rigid. The doctrine I appreciated the most I found out to not be so much of a man made doctrine, but an actual, biblical thing that God himself wanted to do. The place where I currently am in my Christian journey has a much more relaxed view on holiness that does seem to beat one over the head. And, yet I know it's not about the denomination I am in. It is about the God whom I serve.

What my experiences have shown me I now bring to a verse like this out of Thessalonians.
May the God, the God of all Peace - it's not about me. It's about God. And, I don't need a bunch of man made doctrines to tell me that or explain that. God is God. The Great I Am. The God who goes before us. May our God sanctify us, "through and through" the scripture says. May he set us apart for His purposes. May he make us holy and purified. May he cleanse us of all sin. And, we pray he is patient and merciful to us as we fight and struggle with whether to let go of what we seem to cling to. He wants to sanctify us through and through. Like a roasting pan at a Saturday Community Dinner, he needs to dunk us into the water over and over again, with the suds and scrubber, and go to town on our souls and hearts. He wants to keep us holy, blameless. No one will be able to point the finger at us. No one will find sin in us for He has taken it away. The Lord Jesus is coming again. We want to be ready. We are waiting.

And, that's the whole shoot and kabang. As far as I can tell.

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