Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Am I becoming a cessationist?

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend. Someone asked me if I had become a cessationist. That's an interesting question... the more I think about it, I guess it depends on how you define "cessationist."

I suppose a "true cessationist" believes that the miraculous gifts which were in operation in the early church are no longer given today. They have ceased. If that is the case, I don't qualify...

Healing is deal-breaker for me on that one. I still believe that God can heal people. I don't believe that He absolutely must heal them if we meticulously follow a faith formula (that's a Word of Faith thing), but I do believe that miraculous healing can still take place. A true cessationist would probably deny that.

But the issue that prompted this conversation was tongues. I was talking to some people who, as far as I know, have never spoken in tongues themselves... but they are open to the possibility of it being "real" because they know & respect a few people who do.

I've been thinking about that. I know & respect some people who have had powerful experiences in Hinduism, the new-age, and even Islam. I've listened to their stories. I don't think they're making it up... they are sincere. But even though I believe that they experienced something, I do not believe that it is what they THINK they experienced. And honestly, I feel the same way now about some of my charismatic and Pentecostal friends who speak in tongues. I believe that they are sincere... but I don't believe that tongues (at least not the way it is practiced in the churches I used to attend) are real.

So does that make me a cessationist, at least on the issue of tongues? Well... not really. I don't believe that the "tongues" I witnessed in my charismatic/Pentecostal churches were even remotely close to the tongues that are described in the Bible... so in that sense, I cannot say that those "tongues" have ceased because I don't think they ever began in the first place.

So what about the genuine article, the way it happened in the book of Acts? Could that still happen today?

I suppose it could.

I also suppose God could part Tampa Bay so I didn't have to wait in traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Seed time?

I've been wondering about this today.

We have one minister who has admitted to "seeding" his meetings -- putting stuff in place naturally so that it would appear supernatural. The idea behind it really just a variation on a 'classic' Word of Faith teaching: if it happens, people will believe it... and if people will believe it, it will happen. So... the rationale for "seeding" the meetings is that when people saw the gems, they'd think God put them there. Their faith would be built up... and then gems would actually appear.

That's the rationale.

In other circles, they call it "priming the pump." It's the same reason why ministers have someone share a testimony or call out a few "lightning rod" people and pray for them in front of the whole congregation... they want to demonstrate that something is happening, because if people will expect something to happen, it is more likely that it will.

But something specific about "seeding" still bothers me...

Consider this: if the idea of "seeding" could enter the mind of a minister who knows that he will be under scrutiny, couldn't it also occur to someone in the congregation? I know that there were faked healings in many of the churches where healing crusades took place. The same thing that motivates a person to fake a healing could motivate a person to fake any of these other things. So... someone brings a handful of little 'gem chips' with them to the service. Maybe they just "seed" them for themselves to find... or maybe they spread it around...

I vaguely remember an episode of The Brady Bunch that does a good job of illustrating this idea. One of the boys--I'm pretty sure it was the youngest one--wanted to "stretch" himself out so he could get taller. He measures his height against a wall and marks it there. Then he goes and literally "hangs out" on the swingset all day. During the course of the day, three well-meaning family members secretly move the mark down by about half an inch each. So at the end of the day, when he measures himself again, it looks like he has grown a staggering 1.5 inches! Then, one by one, the family members admit to what they have done. There's been no growth afterall.

The moral of the story: if you want to measure your growth, don't measure yourself by something that is so easily moved :)

But back to the "seeding" issue.

So... the minister throws out a few "seed" gemstones. Then another person spreads a few around. Then another... Each of these individuals notice that there are stones present in the meeting which they themselves could not have planted... therefore, it's a miracle after all! Their seed multiplied! Not only is the whole thing validated, but they can feel justified in that they obeyed God and He multiplied the seed sown.

If EVERYONE who "seeded" stuff in these meetings came clean--if they were all 100% honest--would we be forced to conclude, as the Brady's did, that nothing had really happened after all?

I don't have anything personally against the Smiths. And if people really want to comb through carpets for crystal chips, that's their business. Personally, I do not believe that we should be looking for this sort of stuff... but is God capable of doing it? Of course He is. I just tend to think that He does things for a reason, and I've yet to hear of any good reason for this. It certainly isn't a good idea to use this as a measure of your spirituality.... that's a mark that is far too easily moved.

Faux Faith

A little more than a week ago, I started hearing rumblings that Glenn Smith from Shem Ministries (aka Gemstones Ministries) had been caught "planting" stones in a recent meeting. I checked their website, only to discover that they had taken it down for "personal and technical reasons." Although there is still no official public statement from the Smiths at the time of this writing (or at least none that I am aware of), other information has been circulating... including an email from one of the pastors who was co-hosting the meetings where the questionable behavior was discovered.

My first response was definitely not shock -- I was around during the gold dust mess back in the 90s... (remember my souvenirs from the fringe?) I wanted to believe it back then--I had friends and leaders telling me all sorts of things about how God had worked in their lives through this and stranger things. But still... it never quite felt right... and even though I defended it at times, I wasn't truly surprised then either when its main proponent was exposed as a fraud. In that case, both the natural origin of the "gold dust" (being planted in her hair before services started) and the actual authenticity of the "gold dust" (which was craft store glitter) was exposed.

This case is a little different. The people who have called Glenn Smith to account over this apparently still believe that the gemstones are actually from God... but also believe that he was "seeding" them into the meetings and leading people to believe that God had put them there, not Glenn. In other words, what is being admitted is not outright fraud... but exaggeration. Some might even call it evangelistic license.

From where I stand today, the whole gold dust / gemstones / "orbs" of light / and anything else even remotely similar just don't appeal to me. I'm not even tempted to wonder if God is really doing that stuff. Even if He is involved... I'm not worried that I'm "missing something" there.

But this does bring up an uncomfortable issue for me: how do I tell the genuine from the false?

Some things are easy to explain naturally -- craftstore glitter, cheap cut stones that jewelers can purchase in bulk, lens flare and dust in a picture... but what about the testimonies of those who claim to have been touched by these things? Can it all be attributed to hypnosis / suggestion / or the placebo effect? I tend to think now that it can...

But then what about the less extreme stuff?

I've seen some very convincing faux finishes--paint jobs that make a cheap material appear to be a higher quality, much more expensive material. It's hard to tell the difference if you're just looking at it. But once you touch it you can feel the difference in the weight and the texture. It might have wood grain... but when you knock on it, it doesn't sound like wood. It might have a marble finish, but when you touch it, it isn't cold like marble.

So what's the test for separating faux faith from the real thing?

To be continued, I'm sure...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

No Laughing Matter

So far on this site, I've dealt with what happened once I was in an unhealthy church, and how I ultimately got out of it... but in the last few days, I've been thinking back to how it all started for me. This link was posted in a forum, and that's what instigated this trip down memory lane:

It's a couple of clips from a meeting with Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, two icons of the Word of Faith movement. That's the sort of thing that we used to consider "a really good meeting."

Of course, the video doesn't really do it justice. It is another thing entirely to be in a meeting where all this is happening. What looks ridiculous on tape can seem very plausible in person. My first taste of anything even remotely charismatic was back in the early 90s -- a "holy laughter" experience at a church not far from my college.

The charismatic stuff was new to me, but laughing was easy. I didn't have to be taught how to laugh. It wasn't something out of the ordinary in and of itself -- like speaking in tongues. Laughter is naturally contagious. It releases tension and makes you more comfortable. It's a generally positive thing.

Did you ever dare a friend to make you smile or laugh, and then try desperately to keep a straight face? It's hard. The harder you try, it seems, the harder you laugh when you finally let go...

In that first meeting, I tried very hard not to laugh... but I couldn't help it. I sat there as long as I could with everyone around me laughing. Many people were rolling on the floor and doing other ridiculous looking things that would have made me laugh even under normal circumstances. I was trying desperately to "stifle" my own laughter, hold it in, but I was doomed to fail!

By the time I finally let go and started laughing, it was truly overwhelming. When one of the leaders asked if they could pray for me, I could hardly even answer because I was laughing uncontrollably and trying to keep from falling out of my folding chair. To say that things were "emotionally charged" would be a tremendous understatement. When that leader laid hands on me, it felt like electricity... and I wound up on the floor. I must have looked nervous, because the leader told me, "It's OK, that's just the Holy Spirit. Soak it in." That leader stayed with me "soaking" me for a while, mostly repeating things like "More" and "Fill." So I learned to equate that sort of experience with "feeling God's presence."

The experience was real... I felt things and did things that were out of the ordinary for me. It actually happened. I did not make it up. I didn't do it because I was flakey or wanted attention. I didn't go to that first meeting with the intention of winding up on the floor. (In fact, I went to the first meeting looking for evidence that it was a cult...)

I've often wondered what really happened to me in that meeting (and subsequent meetings). My initial conclusion was that this HAD to be God. What else could it be?

This is another video, in two parts, that offers a different answer to that question:

Could it be that so much of what I used to attribute to the supernatural power of God was really just the power of suggestion?

To be continued...

Thursday, January 10, 2008


I subscribe to the "Insight for Today" daily emails -- they're excerpts from one of Charles Swindoll's books. These last few weeks they've been talking about lessons from the life of Joseph. One of my New Year's resolutions is to read the NLT cover-to-cover, so I've also recently (re)read Joseph's story in Genesis.

Joseph is a charter member of the original "dream team." (Laugh. It's a joke.) His brothers can't stand him, but his father favors him. He gets special treatment and a special coat. He has strange supernatural dreams, and he is mistreated because he shares them. Later, his God-given ability to supernaturally interpret dreams lands him a "dream job" with high visibility. He winds up in the right place at the right time to save an entire nation (and his family) from a famine.

Back in the 90s, Joseph had a surge of popularity in some circles. It was common to hear folks talk about a Joseph vision, a Joseph project, a Joseph anointing... Everyone saw themselves as God's special servant, treated wrongly, but destined to rule. I'll admit, I pictured myself that way too. When I read Bible stories like this, I think I've always had a tendency to cast myself in the role of the hero--it has only been in more recent years that I've begun to recognize myself much more in the villains.

If I had grown up in Joseph's family, I don't think I would have liked him any more than his brothers did. I would have thrown him in to the cistern too! Serves him right... but then as a slave and later as a prisoner, he shows amazing maturity, restraint, and strength of character... qualities that seemed to be lacking when he was telling his family that they'd bow down to him some day.

The subject of the "Insight for Today" email was "Grace to Endure." It talked about how Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's baker and cup bearer... but then the cup bearer forgot about Joseph for two years. And the Bible emphasizes that it was two full years! There is no record of Joseph complaining. I'm not convinced (as Swindoll is) that this silence means Joseph was at perfect peace and never questioned God during his time in prison. But it does seem clear that Joseph handled himself well, even while he was imprisoned.

I've always secretly wanted to be like Joseph when he was the second in command over all of Egypt... but I can't say that I've ever wanted to be like Joseph when he was the wrongly convicted and forgotten prisoner. That wasn't part of the dream... but it was essential to the dream's fulfillment.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Doing "great things" for God

There was another interesting purpose-driven life devotional this morning--"Mundane." It talked about how the shepherds were given tremendous news -- in charismatic/pentecostal speak, a 'fresh divine revelation' -- and they glorified God, but afterwards they went back to their fields.

I always thought that was kinda sad. Why would you go back to your boring, everyday life after such a powerful encounter with God and angels? I guess part of me always assumed that the shepherds were just not too bright. After all, some 30 years later, another group of men would leave everything behind to be with Jesus... and they didn't even have the benefit of the angels and heavenly light.

Why didn't the shepherds abandon their animals and camp out around the manger? Why didn't they form an organized group of followers and transform their world with the "The Stable-Driven Life" message? If this had happened in modern times, the manger would have been turned into a shrine or revival "hot spot" overnight... someone would be out there collecting "holy straw" and including it in a direct mail campaign... by the time the wise men showed up, the stable would have had indoor plumbing and seating for 3000. But I digress!

I always thought that the shepherds had missed the point. They were given this awesome divine opportunity, and they blew it! But Jon Walker (the writer the of the Purpose-Driven devotional) looks at it from a completely different angle. He sees the shepherds as a model for us today. He writes: "Yes, [God] takes us to the mountaintop; he shows us great miracles and wonders, but he doesn’t leave us there because he knows the strength of our faith grows in the day-to-day, mundane work required in the fields and among the flocks we tend."

This morning, I realized that I've had a tendency to misunderstand this verse. I think I imagined the shepherds to be a little too much like me. I imagined them coming to this awesome place, worshiping and glorifying God while they were there, and once they were done with their worship service, they went back to their normal lives. But that's not really what it says: it says that they returned to their flocks glorifying God. They went back to their responsibilities, but they were changed.

Those shepherds were smarter than I am sometimes...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Happy New Year!

I received some very useful feedback on the site over the last couple of weeks, so I spent a some time during my "holiday break" revising and clarifying things there. Writing is so much more difficult than speaking... no one can see your facial expression or body language, so it is very easy to be misunderstood online.

I'm sure I'm not done yet, either! I definitely don't want to leave people with the impression that I hate Pentecostals today, even though there was a time when that certainly would have been true. I just see things differently now, and while that is an amazingly wonderful thing for me, I understand that others will see it as a negative.

Sharing my story online has also helped me when I share it offline. Writing something down (or in my case, typing it up!) forces you to express yourself more clearly. At the end of the LifeStories book (from my home team this past fall) there was a place to write out your testimony. At the time, I thought it was a little corny... but now I see the value.

I'm a member of an organization where I give short presentations from time to time. I've also conducted some training sessions at my office. No matter what the subject, I always like to write it out ahead of time. It's just so much easier to give a clear and concise presentation when you've planned ahead. Why should our testimonies be any different? So if you're up for a challenge... write out your testimony. If you're really up for a challenge, blog your testimony! And feel free to send me a copy, I'll read it!