Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Beginning Of My Book

A Strange Example To Follow

         What do you think of when you think of living the Christian life?  What images do you see?  What comes into your mind with the word, ‘Discipleship’?  Do you think of someone in particular?  Of a program you have gone through?  Of a ministry in your church?

I did not become a Christian until I was in college.  As a result of this, I really did not have very many good examples in my life of what it meant to live a Christian life. That is, until I met Mark.

         Mark is probably, to this day almost 28 years later, the finest example of a man living for Jesus that I have ever met.  We first met about six months after I became a follower of Christ.  I was working a split shift in a convenience store and going to college in the middle of the day.  Mark was a young career man who would stop every morning to purchase a cup of decaf coffee and a newspaper.  One morning, he noticed my new Thompson Chain Reference King James Leather Bound Red Letter Bible (I was rather proud of it—and it was my first Bible—I still have it), on the shelf beside the cash register.  “That Bible looks fairly new”, he said.  I replied that it was.  He asked if I was a Christian, and then wanted to hear my testimony.  I shared the miraculous conversion from Atheist to Christian that I had recently experienced.  That conversation began a relationship with what may be the best role model apart from Jesus Christ in the world.

         Mark was committed.  He had memorized six books of the Bible and was working on his seventh.  He attended church faithfully and was involved in leadership as an elder.  He had been on the mission field doing short term work for a few years, and was now a godly Christian husband and father.  He prayed for one hour every day, without exception, period.  He gave 20% of his income every week, and he also gave special gifts as the need became known.  He led evangelistic Bible studies with seekers in his neighborhood, and was a volunteer counselor for the School District.  These were the things Mark did.  He also avoided all of the immoral or borderline moral things.  Mark was sexually pure.  He did not drink alcohol or attend movies.  He did not even drink caffeine, which is the legal drug of our faith.  He and his wife were always dressed in a simple fashion, and although he had a lot of money he was not materialistic or greedy.  He was an active Republican, the chairman of the district, and a staunch protestor of abortion. He was a member of the School Board, and active in local politics. His wife was a full time mom…with four kids and she was pregnant again. 

         Mark is the man that most Christians want to be.  He is the man that we want our children to marry, and our sons to grow up and mimic.  Mark is the goal of our evangelistic and discipleship programs. 

         Mark is a Mormon.

         Mark is a member of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints. 

         The story of Mark’s life has come back to haunt me time and time again.  This is because, in reality, it is the lifestyle that we seek to imitate.  We want our Christian young men and women to become like Mark…only minus the heretical doctrine.  We want them to hold to the truth, and live like Mark.

         As I learned the difference between true Christianity and Mormonism, something still bothered me.  Why was it that Christians write books, hold seminars, and train apologetics against Mormonism…but seek to live like Mormons live? During the following years while I grew in Christ, this came back to me again and again as I met devout members of other faiths.  I was being trained to combat these people as my enemy, as the enemy of God, as victims and soldiers of a spiritual warfare—but at the same time I was being told to live as a follower of Christ just like they lived.  It was like a Jewish man being told to mimic a member of the Gestapo.  If they were so wrong…why was their life so right?  Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Eastern Religions…they were our enemy and our role model.  We should do what they do, maybe not totally but pretty much…only don’t believe what they believe. 

         But I thought belief should dictate behavior…so why was their behavior correct but their belief wrong?

         Turn to the Bible, and we meet the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  For a moment, forget that we have the benefit of seeing into their hearts and minds via the omniscience of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Bible.  Who were these people? 

         They were devout followers of God. They were committed to their religious belief in the God of the Bible.  They fasted. They prayed. They tithed. They served in the community.  They were leaders in morality, religion, civics, and commerce.  They were educated and spiritual.  They were disciplined and holy.  They had a sin list that they avoided like the plague, and a to do list that they checked off constantly.  Remember this conversation?

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. "You know the commandments, `Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.' " And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up." (Mar 10:17-20) 

         Jesus pointed out to the man that God had given us a list in the Old Testament.  This guys response was one that I think many of us think about ourselves, only he had the guts to admit it. I do not think that this man was lying from his perspective.  Did you see that Jesus did not correct Him and point out places where the man had indeed defrauded someone?  Jesus listened to his testimony without challenging it, nor did anyone else that was there.  This man was a wonderful person, an active member of the community, and someone we would like to be like when we grow up.

         Or what about this person? Remember, we are looking at the person that others saw, not the one God revealed to us.

"The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' (Luk 18:11-12) 

         Look at how incredible this man was.  He was not a swindler—he was honest in his dealings with others.  He could be trusted.  His word was his bond, and even if it cost him greatly he would honor it.  He was not only honest, he refused to take advantage of others.  He would be fair, even if the person he was doing business with did not realize it.  He could sell his product for twice as much to an unsuspecting traveler…but he would not because it just wasn’t right. He was morally and sexually pure.  He would not even entertain the thought of adultery or pornography…it made him sick of his stomach.  He not only lived a holy and good life, he avoided being with or around people that did not.  All of his friends, his associates, and his family were good people.  He was so committed to God that two out of seven days he would fast—and it goes without saying pray.  He tithed on the gross of his salary and his benefits.  He was an incredible follower of Christ.  Okay, he wasn’t, but this is my point.  Why is it that we try to be like Him?

         Isn’t it strange that those who want to be followers of Christ seek to follow the example of cult members and people who Jesus Himself used as examples of how not to live?  Somewhere along the way we have changed discipleship into a form of behavior modification.  The extrinsic has replaced the intrinsic transformation, and the assumption is that if the outside looks good, the inside of the cup is clean.

My Unhappy Life As A Joyful Christian

         After I became a Christian, my life totally changed.  It was a radical conversion that brought about a fanatical life. I became a perfect Christian for almost 10 years.  Here is my story.

         I was brought up by an atheist father and an unchurched mother.  My immediate family and closest friends were all extreme partiers, therefore I was exactly what you would think I would have been.  As a matter of fact, one of the first times that I ever went to church, a young man who knew me saw me in the hallway and exclaimed, “What are you doing here?”  His point was that people like me did not belong in church…and he was correct.  I was the type of person that Christians did not like (or love).  I once heard a statement about people like me….”If Christianity were a person, they would not like me.”  This was my life.

         However, I went a few more times at the request of a beautiful young lady that I was interested in dating.  One night, I walked into this Southern Baptist Church during a Thursday night ‘Revival’ meeting.  I entered that church an atheist, and I exited it a Christian.  I met Jesus Christ that night.

         What followed was a time of discipleship by a man who became one of my best friends.  He had written a curriculum that he took me through, named, Basic Training For Spiritual Warfare!.  The title describes the overall idea of the curriculum. We are in a spiritual battle and we must prepare for it.  Discipleship is like boot camp.  We are drilled into new behaviors and forced to make radical changes.  I was taught to read my Bible, pray every day and I will grow, grow, grow (those of you that know the song got that).  Discipleship was overcoming the flesh.  It was defeating the sin nature.  It was conquering sinful desires.  It was reading, studying, memorizing and meditating in the Word.  It was burning my rock albums and listening to hymns.  Discipleship was a battle, and one that was too important to lose.

         I thrived in this environment.  I began to pray, and before long I was praying two hours every day, arising at 4 in the morning to do so.  I studied and memorized long passages of the Bible.  My goal was to memorize the entire New Testament and be able to quote it word perfect.  I was told that we must share our faith, so I made a commitment to share Christ with five people every day.  One night, about 11:50, I realized that I was one short of my quota.  I got out of bed, rushed to the 7-11 and threw a gospel tract at the cashier.  Then went home and went to bed, once more victorious over the flesh.

         I got married to my best friend.  She, too, was a wonderful disciple and had even gone through Basic Training.  Together we pursued God.  I joined the staff of a church that preached against sins of all kinds.  I stopped wearing shorts, kept my hair cut, and only used the King James Version of the Bible.  I remember one sermon against wearing anything but jeans or dresses.  The text proved that after the man possessed with a demon was healed, he was seen to be ‘clothed and in his right mind.’  The point…when you are in your right mind and right with God, you wear plenty of clothes.  This was my life.  Learn and follow the rules.

         My discipleship continued as I completed Masterlife, went through the Navigators discipleship materials, and devoured books of Theology.  All the while, I was seeking to expand my spiritual disciplines and the time I spent doing them.  I was soon called to preach, and after finishing college went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I was a radical, right wing, fundamental Christian.  I was a pre-tribulation, pre-millennial, dispensational, five point Calvinist.  I was known for my confidence and point of view (probably called narrow minded arrogance by others).  One time during a theology class the professor made a continuum of theologians on the board.  He wrote a list of liberal theologians on the left, and about five feet to the right he had a list of conservative ones.  Then, he looked at me and said, “This is where Augustine and Calvin are and here (about 10’ to the right of them) is where Joe is.”  I was the fundamentalist of the fundamentalist.  I quickly learned, debated, argued and taught about everything.  I knew the answers to the Pentecostal/charismatic issues, women in ministry, end time theology, predestination/free will, and every other current trend in church or theology. 

I knew how Christians should dress..modesty meant wearing clothes that caused people to look into your eyes.  I knew which type of music was from heaven and which was from hell.  I was the perfect Christian.  I had become the type of Christian that did not like people like who I had been.  The transition was complete.  I went from not liking Christians, to not liking sinners.

         My wife and I began to have children, and I went into the ministry as a pastor.  I not only had all the do’s in order, I knew what to not do.  We disconnected our television, stopped listening to the radio, did not subscribe to secular magazines or go to the movies.  We began to homeschool our children and sought to recreate ancient Jewish, which we referred to as the ‘Bible Culture’ in our home.  We quit using birth control and my wife did not work outside of the home.  We were the perfect Christian family.  My church was growing, my ministry was thriving, and my children were obedient.

         There was only one problem.  We were great disciples but we had no joy.  This was really driven home to me one day.  I came home and my wife asked if she could talk to me.  She said, “Honey, you are a fantastic preacher and a good pastor.  You are a good leader and you can motivate people to follow you.  You are a great organizer and planner.”  I was enjoying her assessment of the truth, but then she continued.  “However, I was thinking…if someone was asked to describe you, they would list a lot of adjectives about activity and success…but I don’t think they would say ‘Christ-like’.  You are a good pastor, but you aren’t really like Jesus.”

         This cut me to the heart.  God allowed me to listen and process what she said before arguing with her, and to this day I praise Him for doing that.  She was correct.  I was a moral Drill Sergeant and a holy General in a religious army, but I was not like Jesus.

         Now, I did all the to-do’s and avoided all the to-don’ts, but my heart, my character, my demeanor. It wasn’t like Jesus.  I was harsh towards my children.  That is not true.  I was mean to my children.  I was a stern disciplinarian and tolerated no variance from my will.  I did not beat or abuse them, but I was not a close or loving father.  I was the head of my household, period.  I was judgmental of all those Democrats and other ‘non-Christians’.  I was arrogant and felt that anyone who disagreed with any part of my theology or practical lifestyle was beneath me, less mature than me, or probably not even saved.  I was confident that I understood every facet of Christian living, every proper interpretation of the Bible, and every nuance of theology.  I would not say this…but my wife and I both knew that I believed it.  It was seen every time I taught or preached, saw someone inferior to me, passed by a person living on the street or a liberal church, corrected my children, or was cut off in traffic.  In my words I was walking in the truth, even if I were a little polemic.  Polemic was my interpretation of judgmental, arrogant and mean.

         I followed all the rules, lived according to all the religious rituals of a conservative Southern Baptist and Bible Pastor, and constantly “buffeted my body lest I preach to others and I myself be a castaway.”  But I was not happy.  I once saw a sermon (never listened to it) entitled, “I died to self and it almost killed me”.  The problem was that there was always more to do.  Praying for 14 minutes was good, but I could pray for 30 minutes…that was better.  30 minutes was a good start, but why not pray for an hour, after all I am a serious believer.  Serious believer?  I want to be more than that, so I will pray for two hours.  One day I heard the testimony of a man that prayed for four hours every day.  I was getting up at four o’clock every morning and praying for two hours, but he prayed for four…so I felt inferior.  No matter how many times, or for how long, or how much I did all the disciplines, there was always room for more.  I simply felt like I needed to improve, constantly and in every area.  I was never content.  That was my life.

         Now don’t get me wrong.  I was not lying awake at night with some emptiness in my soul.  The truth is, I did not know that I did not have joy until later in my life when I finally discovered it…at that point I looked back and realized I had been joylessly living the religious life. All during this time, I wasn’t secretly miserable or a manic depressant. When I say I was unhappy, what I mean is that there was an absence of true happiness.  I was living an unhappy life and calling it joyful Christian living.  I was great at pretending that I was joyful by redefining the word.  Joy was not an emotional event.  It simply meant to be content because you knew that God was in control.  However, as I read the Bible and saw the life that it described as normal, I could not deny the reality.  Something was missing, but I did not know what.  I was following all the rules.  I was living like Mark the Mormon, only with the truth behind me.  It was all there: Prayer, Bible, Devotion, Evangelism, Worship, Giving, and Small Group Fellowship.  The only thing missing was joy…and all the other spiritual fruits. 

         This began my spiritual journey towards sincerity and truly seeking God.  It began a transformation in my life that has taken me into an area of joy that is truly running over. 

         At this point, many of my readers may be thinking that this is going to be another church bashing book.  It is not.  Oh, then, it is going to be one of those “I left fundamentalism and became a _______________” book.  Well, it isn’t.  I have been in pastoral ministry for over 20 years, and I believe that it is through the church that God is and will continue to work.  This also is not a Christian bashing book.  I am not going to attack anyone in particular.

         I may polarize myself here, but to be honest most of my basic theology has not changed.  I believe with all my heart and soul that the Bible is the complete, inerrant, infallible, inspired and whatever other ‘in’ word you want to put on it.  It is God’s Word.  It is our guide to life.  No other book is or ever will be like it.  I still have opinions about the charismatic gifts, women in ministry, divine election, and modes of baptism (however they are now my opinions of passages I have interpreted and I do not consider them all God’s truth).  I still interpret the Book of Revelation as a futuristic event and believe that the rapture is imminent. I have quiet times, read and memorize the Bible, pray for prolonged periods of time, and fast on a regular basis. I share my faith and teach others how to do so.  I still homeschool my kids and my wife is a full time mother of our eleven children.  (Yes, I said eleven…remember the stopping birth control decision…still think it was a good one).  I am still a pastor, although now I am a pastor in South America. Rather than bashing the church, I am now a full time missionary whose purpose and vision is to help Bolivian church leaders know God better and love Him more.  I work in, with and through the church.  My passion is to equip pastors so that they can help their church change the world.

         But, while everything seems to be the same…everything is different.  I am now a disciple of Jesus Christ who is nothing like Mark the Mormon.  I am a follower of Jesus, rather than a follower of a program.  It is funny saying this in the opening chapter of a book that could be called a program.  I sincerely hope that this does not happen. 

         I have learned and am learning what it means to love God with all my heart.  That is the purpose of this book, and as strange as it may seem, the discipleship materials that I am using to train pastors across Latin America.  I call it “Discipleship of the Heart”. 


Stumbler said...

That's the kind of stuff you start to read.... and read it until it stops. Frank, honest, thoughtful.... a window into the life of Joe Holman.

Nice one.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Thanks for this. I look forward to the rest of it.

Trish Bednar said...

Good stuff Joe... when we are saved as adults I think it is easier to follow rules than be patient and let God change our hearts. Love you brother!