Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Church Journey

This is the second part of a two part blog series covering my church journey from a non-charismatic evangelical Bible church to a charismatic evangelical Vineyard by way of a Messianic Jewish Synagogue. To start at the beginning, click here.

Beth Hallel Days

I mentioned, yesterday, that my children thrived at Beth Hallel. During those stormy days of dysfunctional family life, while my nieces lived with us, Beth Hallel was the one place we all anticipated. If their doors were open, we were there. The people all turned out to be friendly, they just seemed to need the outside world to commit to them before they opened up. There was a day when Jonathan was very sick. Stephanie went to the store for a few things and came back to find Jonathan up and dressed. He announced that he was better and could certainly go to Beth Hallel. His fever, when she checked it, was 103 degrees.

One year after we joined, I began to teach a series on Isaiah. Rather than the five years that I expected, it took only one. I decided to follow Paul's ministry model and paid for all my handouts and course materials out of my own pocket. Many people responded positively to this series and I was very encouraged.

The Jews have a great community life and a full holiday calendar that teaches essential theological truths. Living that cycle of holidays added an unexpected dimension to my understanding of their significance. Each spring I would anticipate Passover (Pesach) and Pentecost (Shavuot). In the fall, I would anticipate Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth). One day, it occurred to me that Jesus' first coming fulfilled the spring holidays and that his next coming would fulfill the fall. You can find complete details in my online paper, "The Lord's Appointed Times"

Two things happened that dramatically changed my status at Beth Hallel. The first thing was the Rabbi asking me to cut the Isaiah series short by two weeks. He was a regular kind of guy and did not plug into the more scholarly aspects of my lessons. He was anxious to have them end. The second thing was his announcement that his wife would teach the next series. I did not really mind the former. As for the latter, I scheduled a meeting with Robert to discuss the scriptural implications of his decision to have his wife teach a mixed group (I realize that many of you would not have a problem with this, but it was a still is a matter of conscience for me: also see Biblical Gynecology). He was cordial, but decided to go ahead with his plan anyway. My wife and I opted to not attend the lessons taught by a woman to a mixed audience. We did, however, show the respect of not discussing the issue with others. We did not wish to be divisive.

Showing an independent spirit to a controlling leader is never good. I never taught publicly at Beth Hallel again. If anyone asked me to do anything publicly, they had one of the rabbi's famous meetings. Afterwards they would express their regrets to me and found someone else more to the rabbi’s liking. I guess there are some who would have become embittered, but I carried on cheerfully, although I would occasionally feel a frustration level rise up.

I may have had no public platform, but I still had influence behind the scenes. In 1991, one of the leaders quietly began a Monday morning Bible study and invited me. At first we shared the teaching, but soon they just asked me to do it. We kind of flew under the rabbi's radar. This study goes on to this day. I may not have had a public platform, but I had the some of the elders and the deacons of Beth Hallel quietly receiving solid instruction from the Bible. Through the years we have studied 1st and 2nd Timothy, Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Hebrews. We spent 5 years on the life of Jesus Christ, sat with Job, and are now swimming in Romans. Even though I no longer attend Beth Hallel, I still have a small influence.

During my time at Beth Hallel, I learned to appreciate the Jewish holidays and the Jewish sense of community. There is no parallel among the Gentile churches. I also attended several yeshivas conducted by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. I was able to listen to David Stern, who translated the Jewish New Testament, Dr. Louis Goldberg of Moody, and others. Those were stimulating times.

Transition

In the spring of 1994, five years after joining Beth Hallel, two events precipitated a change of direction. First, my wife had an intuition that my time of waiting was about to end. The second was that I read Jack Deere's "Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit."

Even when I was in Dallas, I never considered myself a cessationist. The typical arguments about prophecy, healing, etc. only being for the first century always seemed weak. At Beth Hallel, the rabbi often had words of knowledge about people that had uncanny accuracy. All this is to say that the actual theology in Jack Deere's book was not what struck me so hard and caused me, at the end of chapter 2, to rush upstairs to tell my wife that the material in the book would change my life. Coming from Dallas and Scofield Memorial Church and Believers Chapel and Community Bible Chapel etc. I felt like I knew the soul of strong evangelical life. We take life and the Bible seriously. We strive to be strong in Word and Spirit. Our meetings are conducted in decency and order. So how was it that a 3 day seminar taught by John White (White not Wimber in this instance) could reduce our kind of church to a cacophony of tearful repentances, inner healings, and demonic deliverance? If it had happened at Beth Hallel, it would have been no surprise to me. Reading chapter 2 of Jack Deere's book, quite honestly, gave me a vision for it happening at other evangelical churches, and that's when my sense of the Power of God awoke.

At first, my idea was to attend a local Vineyard Church to see what kind of training they had. I quickly discovered that Vineyard Churches were all different. They were not so much connected by common Theology and church practice as they were by a set of values. We visited The Marietta Vineyard that hosted many young Gen-X'ers. They sensed that my family would not fit in well, so they told us about Cobb Vineyard, which we attended the following week. The Sunday service was OK. It was good to hear real teaching again. The worship music was not as good as Beth Hallel.

The following Wednesday, my son and I attended their prayer meeting. We both commented afterwards about feeling a strong sense of God's Spirit while we prayed for others. Everybody seemed to be very open and friendly.

The next Wednesday my wife came to the prayer meeting. Things could not have been more different. A group of them had gone to both the Toronto Vineyard and the Kansas City Vineyard and they were hyped! While one young woman was telling about her time, a small group behind us just began laughing. It was and sounded rude, but nobody seemed to mind. Then the girl fell down laughing with great gusto. A young man began to tell his story and it was a battle between him trying to be heard and her seemingly trying to laugh above him. It was not a pretty evening. If this had been my first meeting, I may never have returned, but I had the warmth of the first and decided it would be good to see which evening was typical.

The next Wednesday, when I parked the car, my wife asked me if I had a dollar. I said, "Yes. Why?" She replied, "Because if it's like what is was last time, you can find me in the Huddle House across the street drinking coffee." I gave her the dollar. For some time after that every time we went into a meeting she would always flash that dollar at me.

Things, for a while, were never quite as dramatic as that second Wednesday night, but I was told that a new wave of "renewal" was flowing through the Vineyard and other churches. They said that it began in Toronto that January (1994). A lot of dialog was flowing among the Vineyard leadership to discern what was going on. Supposedly, nothing was going on at Toronto, Kansas City, and the local Vineyards that had not happened before. During this time, I came face to face with the less well known side effects of the First and Second Great Awakenings: besides a wave of repentance, there were also waves of strange phenomenon. Jonathan Edwards, for example, had written his “Religious Affections,” to help the church understand the why religion was affecting people the way it was.

Joining Cobb Vineyard was the second anomaly of my Christian walk. I did not join because of the renewal. As I told my wife at the time, the renewal train was going somewhere, but I did not know its destination. However, there was wisdom to be gained no matter where it stopped. Either it was going to show a profound move of God, or I would have the means to communicate why it was not. I joined because my inner sense told me it was the right thing to do. It was a call seemingly from the Lord. The only logical objective pieces in this decision were the pastor's character and his vision for what a church should be. Thomas Cooley understood the priesthood of the believer. He believed that each one had a spiritual gift for the good of the body. He was not comfortable with the renewal, but He did not want to quickly interfere with what God might be doing.

My inner sense of calling was very strong. When we joined Beth Hallel, my wife had the same inner calling as I did. We went as a team. Changing to Cobb Vineyard meant that I had to ask her to follow, against her desires, as a Christian wife. She did so as unto the Lord, and although she rightfully spoke her opinions, she never attempted to undermine my decision or sabotage the path. My inner call was so strong, that I would cry to the Lord to unify our hearts on the issue. He did not. It was as if He were asking me to choose between my wife and Himself.

Cobb Vineyard in 1994? Thomas had character and vision, but minimal leadership skills. There was insufficient follow through to bring the vision to pass. The children in the church ran wild – We had some people over to our house and were amazed to see one of the children dancing on our coffee table: the parents never said a thing. All the young people Jonathan's age were from dysfunctional homes and on medication – we were concerned about who he might meet and marry. The associate pastor preached types and shadows and hinted that you could lose your salvation. The renewal phenomena continued on. You can see why my being there would be anomalous. I had a calling and a sense that what was would not always be.

But I learned two important Biblical truths from the renewal. They were things I could not have perceived fully in the stable environment of my evangelical past. They are maxims that I carry to this day, and I think that they are true. The first is that "God will offend the mind to reveal the heart." To put this in Biblical perspective: Think of Ezekiel playing toy soldiers and cooking his food over dung (Eze 4); think of Isaiah and Micah walking about naked for three years (Is. 20:2,3; Mic 1:8); think of Jesus inciting a racial riot in his home town (Luk 4:14 ff.); think of Jesus talking about drinking blood to devout Jews (John 6:53 ff); and David dancing before the Lord in his underwear to the consternation of Michal (2 Sam 6:14­-23). The first maxim told me not judge a situation too quickly.

The second maxim, which actually completes the first, comes from 1Th 5:19-22 which says, "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." You may have noted that I close all my e-mail with "Examine everything. Cling to what is good." It is the verse that charted my course through the renewal times. Some was goofy and bad. Other things were strange but healthy. How easy it would be for us today to despise a true prophet who showed up at church without clothes. I have seen groups of women lying on the ground, holding their bellies, and crying out as if they were giving birth. If the former could be giving a live demonstration of foreign captivity, could not the latter be foreshadowing the birth pangs to come?

And there was good that came from the renewal. My son and I participated in the deliverance of a young man. During the prayer session, he developed a lump in his shoulder that caused him great pain. My son laid his hands on the lump and felt it go away. The young man's torment went away at the same time. That young man now coaches 3 soccer teams with an evangelistic focus. One of them is on its way the Georgia State championships.

I have experienced walking up to people when suddenly a single word would pop into my head. When I then asked if "such and such" meant anything to them, they broke down in tears. I have seen healings of the soul and healings of the body. On the other hand, I have also seen what I consider Satanic or even fleshly distractions. During a serious sermon on concern for the lost, a group broke out in laughter. It totally disrupted the message.

That was Cobb Vineyard in 1994. If you came to Cobb Vineyard today, you would see Thomas, with the same character and vision, leading a church increasingly ruled by its elders. He is teaching through books of the Bible with great skill. The children behave like normal children. The congregation is taught to seek life in the scriptures. The congregation is coming to discover and use their spiritual gifts. There is still much to do, but we have come a long long way. 

We are striving to be a 4W church. We strive to love God by our Worship and the study of his Word. We strive to love others by our spiritual gifts Working to build the body and expecting God to help with His Wonders. The 4 W's then are Worship, Word, Work, and Wonders.

I have had a rich and rewarding time these 16 years since leaving Dallas. I still have and value most highly the evangelical traditions. If I had to pick only one from among Messianic Judaism, Charismatic Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity, I would pick the Evangelical. A disciplined study of the scriptures is the easiest and most reliable path to maturity. But I have been fortunate to become intimate with all three. In my view the evangelical tradition is actually able to accommodate it all. Again, Daniel Wallace's paper speaks Vineyard Values and the scriptures clearly teach the coming salvation of Israel and the Jews. Also, Richard Lovelace's book “Dynamics of Spiritual Life” is interesting reading along these lines.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

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