Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Am Not Therapist

The first motto we adopted for the New Covenant Church of God was “Reaching Out to Hurting People.” That theme proved highly relevant and numerically successful. In a matter of weeks we grew from four to over forty. Everyone was in a Covenant Life Group where we were seeking to discover and fulfill what it truly meant to be the people of God, to “give tangible expression to being the body of Christ.” We started with two groups and soon added another, each led by me. The groups were effective in building a sense of community and in helping people get in touch with their pain but less effective in helping them find healing for deep, longstanding wounds. As pastor and group elder, I threw myself into the task of helping people find the healing provided for them in the atonement. I became a therapist, counseling with a dozen or more people every week. These were not light problems. They included several women trying to find healing from childhood sexual abuse, a young man struggling to come out of homosexuality, others with sexual identity problems, women suffering spousal abuse, dysfunctional families, people getting divorce due to infidelity, families and individuals deeply wounded by pastors and other Christian leaders, etc.

This was rewarding, exhilarating and exhausting. I loved counseling (and still do). I followed a “Rogerian” approach. Carl Rogers developed this method built on the assumption that the individual has the resources within to resolve their inner struggles; they just need a little help. What a person needs is a friend who can help them hear and clarify their own inner processes. The therapist serves as an active listener who reflects back to the client the client’s own words concerning their problem. The counselor attempts to be value neutral, non-directive, and simply help the individual hear their own thoughts. Make no mistake about it, this is hard work. The counselor must listen intensely, trying to accurately interpret the underlying meaning of what is said without adding to it and simultaneously thinking of creative ways to mirror the thoughts back to the client, “What I hear you saying is….” For most people, all they need is a friend to serve as a sounding board.

However, there are wounds and issues that are just too deep for Rogerian therapy. Rogerian therapy works because of the prevenient grace of God at work in all of creation. This preventative grace of God is in every human being arresting the destructive power of sin and serving to preserve and enhance morality, reason, affection, and the capacity for self-improvement. This grace is designed to bring the individual to faith in Christ and knowledge of God; it is not the grace of redemption, regeneration, sanctification, deliverance, or healing. There are some diseases, including some mental and emotional wounds that require intervention. My assumption had been that the Covenant Life Groups and worship services would provide the ministry context for these deeper hurts to find healing. In the context of a caring community, people would risk sharing their inner pain and once it was surfaced it could be addressed through the council and prayers of the group and/or pastoral counseling. What I discovered was (1) some wounds are accompanied by great shame making it too risky to share them even in a small, caring community, and (2) some wounds have festered to the point they have been woven into the psyche of the individual as a spirit of bitterness that takes comfort and vindication in the wound itself.

During those early years of pastoring New Covenant I learned that Rogerian counseling could actually be a stumbling block for discipleship. I can be a little slow to figure some things out, but in his goodness God occasionally gives me a direct word that changes my belief system. One of those words caused me to radically alter my approach to pastoral ministry. For almost two years I had met weekly with a young man who had been saved out of homosexuality but continued to struggle with issues of identity. I became frustrated as I saw him struggle with ungodly desires and fail to make progress in spiritual growth. I was seeking God on his behalf asking why he couldn’t get victory over the underlying hurt that had deeply scarred his self-image. “Father, why can I not get through to him? Why can I not help him find healing and get grounded in Christ?” To my surprise, I heard a non-audible but specific verbal response, “Because I called you to be his pastor and not his therapist.” In an instant I understood my approach to counseling had defined my relationship with him (as with many in our congregation) in a way that prevented me from guiding him into spiritual maturity. I had let it all be about him when it should have been about Christ and Christ’s claim on his life. My role should have been one of nurturing his relationship with Christ by coaching him in spiritual disciplines and calling on him to give an account of his Christian walk. Suddenly, I understood that his healing was tied to his relationship with Christ and it was dependent upon his response to God’s redemptive grace.

At our next meeting I shared with him my desire to focus on his spiritual growth rather than his hurt with his father and the church. I was convinced his real need was to work on his relationship with God. I reminded him that he had already been to some outstanding therapists who were available to help him continue to work on his childhood issues. I wanted to shift our time together to prayer, Bible study and accountability. I will never forget his response, “If you don’t want to talk about the things I want to talk about, I don’t need to talk with you.” A few weeks later he phoned me and opened with “I know you know where I have been going and what I have been doing, if you were any kind of pastor you would have already turned me out of the church.” He refused to get together and talk. I advised him that according to Church of God polity I could not turn him out of the church. I would take his phone call as permission to explain to the church why he should be disfellowshipped. Without hesitation he responded “you do and I’ll sue you. Everything I have ever told you was in confidence.”

I no longer do therapeutic pastoral counseling and I avoid the word “confidentiality” stressing instead the need to keep our conversations holy. I meet with persons once or twice to hear their story and try to discern their need. In most cases a couple of sessions are sufficient to help them map out a strategy. Sometimes they choose an accountability partner or let their Covenant Life Group join them in their struggles. If we agree they need to see a counselor I help them find one appropriate to their situation and I ask to meet with them periodically to monitor their spiritual development in the process. In those sessions I am careful to not discuss their counseling sessions so as to not interfere with their therapy. I want to focus on their relationship with God as they move toward inner healing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Reception of Salvation

As noted in an earlier post I recently participated in the eighth Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue of the United States. The session met October 1-4, 2009 at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

We produced an Agreed Statement of Convergence on the topic The Reception of Salvation. While the statement is a little awkward in form it represents a strong consensus on the gift of salvation.

By our common faith in Jesus Christ we acknowledge and hold as essential to the gospel these life-giving truths:

In the mercy of God, salvation is offered and received in Jesus Christ. While Evangelicals teach that justification is the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness and Catholics teach that justification entails the infusion of sanctifying grace by which divine righteousness inheres in Christians, both traditions believe that all those who are in Christ are righteous on the basis of Christ’s work for us and that their natures are transformed through the regeneration and sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Thus while our particular doctrinal heritages regarding justification, regeneration, and sanctification differ considerably, the comprehensive picture of these expressions of divine grace, taken collectively, allows us to join together in the following affirmations:

We affirm that due to Adam’s sin, the image of God in human beings has been marred, resulting in estrangement from God.

We affirm that through faith in the saving death and resurrection of Christ, God graciously justifies the ungodly and regenerates them, imparting to them new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

We affirm that this new life includes participation in the divine nature, growing conformity to the image of Christ, love which is the bond of perfection, and
freedom from sin’s enslaving power.

We affirm our hope of Christ’s return in power and glory, the resurrection of the body, and the ultimate glorification of those who are in Christ.

We affirm that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the inheritance of all Christians empowering them to bear witness to Christ in service and mission to the greater glory of God.

We affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Master of the interior life, both bears witness to those who are in Christ that they are children of the Father and graciously guides them in spiritual practices so that they may come to the full measure of the stature of Christ.
These spiritual practices include those enjoined by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6): Prayer—those practices that nurture our communion with God; Fasting—those practices that discipline the self in the following of Christ; and Almsgiving—those practices that direct us in love to our neighbor.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Conversation with Wade H. Horton

Wade Horton was one of those larger-than-life figures in the Church of God. He was prominent in World Missions, served as a State Overseer, and as General Overseer from 1962 to 66 and again from 1974 to76. He actually spent a total of 14 years on the Executive Committee of the Church. When I entered the ministry (1973) he was the champion of holiness, the leading “conservative” in the rising battle over the “practical” teachings of the church. I admired him for the passion and clarity with which he preached. Later, my respect increased when he returned to a local church pastorate after his tenure on the Executive Committee ended in 1976 rather than maneuver into a plush political appointment.

In 1984 I moved to Cleveland to serve as Minister of Education at the Westmore Church of God where Brother Horton’s son David was serving as Minister of Music. Shortly thereafter Brother Horton entered full retirement and moved back to Cleveland. A brief time later his other son, Wade, died suddenly. It was during that period of grief I made a couple of pastoral visits to his home and had my only conversations with the giant of our faith.

We were sitting in his living room the day before his son’s funeral when Brother Horton began to speak of his concerns for the Church of God. “They’re going to destroy us. They’re after three things: holiness, the tithe, and our government. They’re after holiness now, watering down the teachings. If they get that they will go after the tithe of tithes next and cripple the church. Then they will go after our centralized government. They won’t stop until they have destroyed the Church.” I didn’t ask who “they” were and he didn’t say. My impression was that he viewed them as misguided rather than malevolent, misguided but destructive none-the-less.

I have thought often about that brief conversation. The General Assembly did re-write the Practical Commitments in a way that maintained their essence but ultimately diminished their influence. Most Church of God members have no idea what we teach about the Christian life. Holiness is no longer central to our shared identity. Last year, the General Assembly set in motion the reduction of local church support for the denomination by one third, forcing major restructuring and redirection in coming years. And, as he predicted, centralized government is now openly being challenged by some.

As Wade Horton sat on his couch grieving the death of his namesake he also grieved the pending death of the church he had loved and served for decades, the church that had been for him the church of God. In his convictions the church of God could not exist without holiness, church order, and shared mission. While I may not agree with him on the particulars, I am convinced Wade H. Horton understood well the patterns and pitfalls set before our movement. His question remains, will the Church of God be the church of God or will we disintegrate into some lose affiliation of congregations void of a passion for world evangelization? To this I add another, has the desire to be the church of God already died and if so have we not already ceased to be the church?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Evangelical/Catholic Dialogue

I was in Minneapolis Thursday through Sunday for the Catholic/Evangelical Dialogues (USA only). I enjoy the fellowship and theological discourse.

This dialogue was interesting and frustrating. The topic was “salvation.” The Evangelical paper was presented by Glen Menzies (Assemblies of God) and the Catholic was presented by Ralph Del Colle. We focused on the central point of division during the reformation, “justification.” The frustrating part is that the evangelical team (there were seven of us) was trying to dialogue out of very diverse traditions while the Catholic team has a well established script of doctrines from which to speak. The 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification issued by Lutherans and the Catholic Church was a starting point but it was the declarations of the Council of Trent that governed the Catholic positions.

The main sticking point is that out of the reformed traditions Evangelicals understand justification as a forensic (legal) act of grace whereby God declares the sinner righteous, i.e., imputes righteousness to the unrighteous. It is a gift from God (grace) and is received by faith alone. Justification is the bases for regeneration and sanctification. For the Catholics justification embraces all of life in Christ and focuses on the transformation of the believer rather than the declaration by God. There is also a sticky point on the concept of “merit,” i.e., in what sense are the saved made worthy of life in the presence of God.

We came up with a brief and I think insightful statement of points of divergence and convergence. I will post it when I get the final copy. However, as a Pentecostal I find the Reformed forensic position somewhat stilted.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on War, Peace and Justice

I have a commitment to work for peace and justice. At the very least I feel I must keep those promises of the Kingdom alive in my conversations. The Practical Commitments of the Church of God instruct us to “speak out on clear-cut moral issues.” They add we have an obligation to correct social injustice and protect the sanctity of life.

Love for others and the recognition of the equal worth of all men in the sight of God (Acts 10:34; 17:26) should compel us to take steps to improve the situation of those who are underprivileged, neglected, hungry, homeless and victimized by prejudice, persecution and oppression (Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 3:17). In all of our dealings, we must be sensitive to human needs (Luke 10:30-37; James 1:17) and guard against racial and economic discrimination. Every person should have freedom to worship and participate in the life of the church regardless of race, color, sex, social class or nationality.

God alone confers life (Genesis 1:1-31); therefore, we are responsible to God to care for our physical life and that of others. If the circumstances require, we must be prepared to risk our life in the service of our neighbor (John 15:13); but the general rule is that we must respect our physical life and employ every worthy means to maintain it.

In the early decades of our existence the Church of God was strongly committed to pacifism; members could not “bear arms.” As a result of World War II we shifted our position to one that endorsed personal conscience as grounds for combative service in the military but with wording that specifically supported those who conscientiously objected to bearing arms. In my childhood there was still a strong element of pacifism in the church. My adolescence was bracketed by the war in Viet Nam.

I was filled with the Spirit seven months before my eighteenth birthday and registration for the military draft. My Dad was saved one month before I had to register. I approached the draft with a dilemma of conscience. I did not believe I could serve as a military combatant, but I was convinced that if I registered as a conscientious objector it would be a stumbling block for my father in his walk with God. After much prayer I opted to just register and trust God. I knew everything would be alright.

Over the years I have often reminded congregations the Church of God teaches “nations can and should resolve their differences without going to war.” My posture has always been to question the justice of any given war. I have openly opposed or questioned all of the wars/military actions of my adult lifetime. During the early days of the war in Iraq I identified myself as a pacifist provided I could qualify the definition as being radically committed to the pursuit of peace. I am a pacifist in the sense that I oppose nations going to war. They “can and should” find another way. War should be the very last resort. Further, I have problems with the “just war” theory because it is too often misappropriated to justify wars that are avoidable.

I believe we should be patriotic. We should love our nation and work for its security and well being. I am convinced the United States of America is the greatest nation in the history of humankind. We have been the most just and merciful of all nations. We have sacrificed more for the good of others than any nation. But I also know we must love Christ and His Kingdom more than our country. I am greatly bothered by an idolatrous nationalism, the rampant confusion of the USA with the Kingdom of God. As great as the USA has been, it is also guilty of great sins against our own citizens and other nations. Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” There can be nothing more American than to question the wisdom of our governmental leaders. To not question our government on something as grave as war is to be less than American and less than Christian.

I am convinced Christians have an obligation to actively promote peace, in personal, societal, national, and international realms; “blessed are the peacemakers.” However, I do not understand radical pacifism to be the only or best approach to peace and justice. I allow there may be times when the exercise of force, even deadly force, may be the appropriate means of promoting peace and justice. Indeed, it may be the only righteous option. I accept, and endorse, the Church of God position on personal conscience dictating the decision to bear arms in times of war. I regret that many of my fellow baby boomers seem to interpret that ruling as a blanket endorsement of combatant service rather than a call for prayerful discernment. If drafted I would have to serve as a non-combatant on grounds of conscience; I could not commit to follow the commands of others to take lives without regard to the justice of the immediate situation. On the other hand, I could use force, even deadly force, to stop an individual from killing or maiming others if the threat was imminent. I recognize there may be logical difficulties in my position.

In theory I can endorse “just war” but only if we understand war can be just only if failure to go to war would be a grave act of injustice. Perhaps stopping the killing fields of Cambodia or the genocide of Rwanda would have qualified. The current situation in Somalia might as well.

These views often place me in the despised middle, too liberal for most conservatives, too conservative for most liberals. Iraq has been especially isolating for me. I opposed the US led invasion of Iraq. I do not fault the Bush Administration for misinformed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and Germans said they were there. I fault them on the justice of invasion in light of the fact there was insufficient evidence of an imminent threat from Iraq or from within on its own people. On the other hand, during the war I have opposed calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops; that would have been unjust in that it would have created a situation for a civil war with large scale bloodbaths. Once we invaded the country and dismantled its government we had a moral obligation to create an environment conducive for internal peace. Anything less would be unjust.

Coincidentally, we are not well served by the language of “war on terrorism.” Terrorism is an abstract concept (yes, with all too real consequences). It cannot be defeated anymore than the war on poverty, noble as it was, could be won. A war with a concept is too open ended and can too easily be used as a pretext for unjust war with actual people. We should think of ourselves as being at war with specific terrorist groups. Such a war is just and can be won. Nations that openly ally themselves with terrorist groups would thus be accountable for the actions of those groups.

In summary, as a child of God it is my responsibility to work for peace and justice. I can never abdicate that duty. This requires that I call into question all uses of force to suppress the freedom of people and measure the use of force on the scales of justice. It does not require that I condemn all uses of force. For me, to participate in war with all of its ramifications would be to abandon my higher calling of working for peace. It would inevitably put me in conflict between obedience to Caesar and obedience to Christ. Thus, even if I felt the war was just I could only serve as a noncombatant.

That’s the way I see it on Monday, September 21, 2009.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tears: A Biography

I don't think I have posted this before. It comes from a time over two decades ago when God was in a breaking and melting mood.


Glistening drops of liquid gold
Announcing stories begging to be told

Cantankerous, salty little drops
Refusing to come, refusing to stop

Each one a prisoner of my heart
Seeking opportunities to start

Wanting to escape from me
Return to their mother the sea

When I was a little child
My heart was tender and mild

Tears were always there
In touch with my every care

I cried when I had a scrape
And when they removed the bandage tape

I cried when I wanted my way
Begging to go or seeking to stay

I cried when I’d said all I could
Longing simply to be understood

I cried when I felt rejected
Hungering to be accepted

Tears were always there
As normal as breathing air

Warm, then cold upon my cheek
Freedom from them I could not seek

All I could do was bury my head
Deep into the spread on my bed

Desperately wanting someone to care
Yet strangely content in my solace there

Ashamed of my childish tears
Overwhelmed by inner fears

Then it happened, how, I can’t explain
I suddenly knew I could refrain

I took control of my inner strife
Discovered a whole new life

When I felt my eyes begin to burn
I held my breath, a simple trick I learned

I assured myself I didn’t have to cry
I could hold it in until I die

Before long it wasn’t even a fight
I had my emotions bottled tight

Latter I discover the trauma of being a “man”
Emotions are essential to being human

I may have locked them in
But what did I really win?

When I stopped my tears and gained control
I closed the windows of my soul

I locked myself inside a cage
Outer peace, inner rage

Only God could set me free
So I gave them all to him, exposed the inner me

Now tears may trickle or come in a flood
They’re a part of me, they’re in my blood

December, 1988

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thoughts on Getting Older

“Boys, if I live to be an old woman, I don’t have long to live.” That’s what my great-grandmother Nettles told my father and his brother Woodrow. At the time they were young boys and she was a widower in her early sixties. I heard my dad tell that vignette several times throughout my life. The first few times Great Granny Nettles was still living. She lived to just a few months short of her one hundredth birthday and although I didn’t see her often I remember her well.

She was a Bible loving, foot-washing, loud-singing, shouting, “Hard-shell” Primitive Baptist, one of the elect in a religious world of double predestination. The grand-daughter of an Indian Chief, Billy Bowlegs, she grew up on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp. I don’t remember her ever talking to me. I have shadows of recollections of her patting me on the head and saying things about me (“he’s a cotton top” kind of things). Mostly, I remember her as the center of the universe whenever she was present. Everyone seemed to hang on her every word and revolve around her every move. Someone said she never worked a day in her life, at least not after her daughters got old enough to take care of her. Whatever the case, they were devoted to her.

Today is my fifty-sixth birthday (her birthday was this week as well – 143rd I think) and I have reflected on how that comment to my dad has affected me over the years. When I was young it was a humorous story about how even adults could miss judge reality; Dad always chuckled when he told it. “My goodness she’s lived a lifetime since she said that,” I would think. For most of my adult life it has served as an illustration of the stages of human development, integrity vs. despair. Today it serves as a very different point of reference. If I live to be an old man, I don’t have many years to live.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not depressed about my age. I am probably more up-beat than I have been in years. I simply have a different perspective on time and age. As I grow older there are fewer uncertainties in my life, making room for more expectations. I think about heaven more than ever. My thoughts of the celestial city are decreasingly material (apartments, streets and gates) and increasingly relational. What a glorious promise that we shall know as we are known.

A few months ago I had an interesting notion. In recent years I have thought more and more about how wonderful it will be to see my loved ones who are already there. One day as I prayed for my children, their husbands and my grandchildren it dawned on me that I will probably have greater joy seeing them in heaven than seeing my loved ones who have gone before me. Perhaps I will have greater joy seeing those I have influenced toward heaven then those who influenced me. For those who helped me I will be thankful and overflowing with joy; heaven will certainly be a reunion with those we love. But life is lived forward; it is by its very nature purposive. We who are in Christ are living toward the glory of God and our contribution to His glory will be our conformity to His image, the lives we have lived, and the persons we have influenced.

A parallel transition in my thinking is that those whom I am influencing toward heaven are before or in front of me. That is, in the continuum of time they are between me and Heaven. I may get there first, but their lives are closer to the return of Christ and the fulness of time. {Then again according to Paul they will not get there before us. The dead in Christ will first rise.) They are not behind me being pulled into eternity. They are before me being nurtured toward God. The significance for me is that my role in life is before me. Regardless of the time allotted to me by God, my life is full if I am journeying with others toward Him. However many years I have before me in this life, may they be measured not in weeks or months or decades, but in the riches I lay up in heaven, riches first planted in the lives of those I am nudging toward God.

In Christ the best is always yet to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009


There a few things on my mind about the healthcare debate. First, I am troubled by the “you lie” incident during the President’s speech on healthcare. I am troubled that our President was intentionally misleading us. The Democrats in Congress had already acted to remove provisions to screen out undocumented immigrants. The President’s words may have been accurate, but they were misleading. I am troubled that an elected member of Congress would demonstrate such lack of control and disrespect for others. [I am myself given to inappropriate audible expressions of “Lord help us” when I am frustrated with events in public worship.] This isn’t England where they have universal healthcare and members of Parliament are expected to shout out objections to speeches: apologies given, apologies accepted, stereotypes reinforced, Democrats gain ground, and the beat goes on.

I am troubled by what appears to be a growing animosity toward undocumented immigrants. I am a conservative because I am convinced sin is a present reality that must be resisted [the problems of society can not be solved by simply throwing money at them; I say “resisted” because I am speaking of social order and not soteriology which calls for a more comprehensive approach to sin] and because I believe we have a responsibility to preserve and pass on the core values of our heritage. Among those values is personal liberty from an intrusive government. I am alarmed at the left’s absence of concern for this fundamental American value. On the other hand, I am more alarmed at the hatred I hear coming from the right. The founders of our great nation built their political philosophy on a declaration that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Recognizing that immigration is a complex issue and that we are a society governed by laws, I must assert there is a higher law than that established by legislative bodies. That law demands that we love aliens, strangers, and even our enemies. The Word of God is clear, we have an obligation to care for the weak, the oppressed, the widowed, and orphans and the “alien that lives among” us. We must separate our attitudes about poor imigration laws and practices from our affections for the immigrant among us. We will be judged by God for how we treat them. How vile is it to segragate children whose only crime is that their parents entered this country without documentation, to cut them off from the fundamentals of education and healthcare? We will reap what we sow.

In my conservative opinion, I do not want a healthcare system where I must present documentation of legal residency before I get treatment. [I am for this reason concerned about a national digitized system of medical records. The system might save money, but if it is under government control we are losing freedom to save money.] I do not want a system that by its very nature segragates people into those with rights for health care and those without those rights, especially children. True conservatives value life and human dignity; they struggle for justice and equality in the eyes of the law. True conservatives do not scapegoat the weakest amongst us for purposes of personal security.

If we do not have a resurgence of compassionate conservativism (the only real conservativism) in the GOP I will have to withdraw from the two-party system.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obama's Speech on Health Care

President Obama’s speech to the joint houses of Congress last evening highlighted his considerable strengths and a couple of his inconsistencies. In it he demonstrated his great skills in oration. He also exposed his pragmatic approach to politics. For what it’s worth, I thought it was an excellent speech and I agreed with most of the points he raised.

I agree “it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t…” I appreciate his even handed assessment of the political wrangling in congress. ”Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise… a blizzard of charges and counter charges…”

His stated goals are laudable: provide security and stability for those who have health insurance, provide insurance for those who don’t, and slow the growth of healthcare costs.

His proposals for laws to protect the insured from unjust practices by the insurance companies are long overdue. I would like to see him add a law to ensure that once someone has insurance they can remain a member of that group for as long as they wish (and pay the premiums), i.e, once they get a policy with a group they can never be expelled from that group even if they loose their job.

However, in addressing those who have insurance it is misleading for him to say, “Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.” The contents of the plan might not require a change but the fruit of the plan might make it inevitable. However healthcare is overhauled it will result in major changes for most Americans. His plan may well create an environment where companies cannot afford to compete with a government sponsored program.

To the degree I understand the concept an “insurance exchange” it sounds great. As a conservative, I would prefer such a program be run as a non-government, non-profit co-op (love those hyphenated words). In fact there could be multiple co-ops, sort of like credit unions. The articles of incorporation for these non-profits could require them to accept any applicant fitting their demographic/geographic designation. The government could provide vouchers for the poor.

And as I wrote last year, I agree with Obama that it is time we move to mandatory health insurance. Persons without insurance create an unnecessary risk to society, warranting this intrusion on our personal freedoms. [If they get sick or have an accident they will be treated and the rest will pay for it.] The only exception I could imagine would be for those who for reasons of religious faith refuse medical care. However, I would prefer the individual states be incentivized to pass such legislation.

My difficulties with the speech are two fold: the fiscal viability of the plan and the occasional combative tone. The nebulous numbers just don’t add up. I don’t believe this plan will only cost a trillion dollars over ten years. I don’t believe the projected savings will be as great as he promises. I don’t believe once programs are put in place Congress will live within the financial restraints the President wants put into place.

Concerning the tone, I am referring both to his presentation and the content. He was at times a little too forceful in his presentation but that may just be me. Certainly his delivery was effective in communicating his passion for this project. In content he stepped over the line on at least one occasion. As I noted last fall in a discussion on negative political advertisements, Obama has mastered the art of making his opponents look guilty while his practices are the same as theirs. I am referring to his denunciation of those prominent politicians [a.k.a. Sarah Palin] who he said have lied in saying his plan would “set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.” I have no need to defend Sara Palin; I find her guilty of fear mongering (not always a bad thing). The language I have heard her use is “creation of death panels” which will determine who gets treatment. The argument is that these panels will determine whether grandma gets treatment to prolong life at the expense of others who might be able to live longer, more productive lives. My point is I have not heard a prominent politician say the plan will create a bureaucracy with power to “kill off senior citizens.” The distinction may seem insignificant but I find it troubling. Obama is calling for civilized discussion that avoids lies and distortions. His reframing of the language of others exaggerates their statements in a pejorative way. In short, he is misrepresenting their misrepresentation of him. At the very least it calls into question his commitment to an open and civil dialogue.

I offer some final observations. The speech skillfully incorporated concepts and proposals from persons across the political spectrum creating an illusion of compromise and cooperation. It is interesting to me that one of the least specific of his proposals was a gratuitous reference to tort reform. As I re-read the paragraph it hit me he made no real commitment for change. I also find his appeal to the character of America revealing; our history is one of fierce commitment to freedom and compassion. This tension thrusts us into a quest for the proper balance for government control and personal freedom. It demands we change by solving our problems or we will “loose something essential about ourselves.” He is a true pragmatist with a nod toward Hegel’s dialectic. The most revealing paragraph of his speech (I think) is here given in entirety.

“You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”

Finally, having listened to and read the speech I am struck with how little I know about the details of the various bills bouncing around Congress. Will the bureaucracies be enlarged? What powers to control our personal medical options will be delegated to boards and commissions? I would that this was simply a debate about whether to provide health insurance to those who can not afford it; I could support that (but then again we already have Medicaid). If it was simply about insurance reform I might could get a better handel on the debate. But this is about all aspects of our healthcare system and no one seems to know everything that is being proposed. How can I endorse this plan when I don't even know what is in it? How can I not be leery of an unknown plan that might drastically change our society in undetemined ways? What I need now is not a speech to convince me to trust the President and Congress to implement the appropriate change for our times; what I need is a good, open, honest description of the changes being proposed. I am not getting it from the left or the right.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In My Youth Guest Speakers at Church

In My Youth Guest Speakers at Church
Were the Most Entertaining

We had frequent “special speakers” at church when I was a child. Most were evangelists who came to preach revivals. Revivals lasted two or more weeks and services were conducted seven days a week. Evangelists came in a variety of types and styles. First, there were fiery preachers who moved around the auditorium telling stories designed to convince us Jonathan Edwards was correct in his portrayal of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They were intense and loud in presentation. Except for occasional pauses to catch their breath, the preacher gathered us into his sermon like passengers on a runaway freight train, everything building speed until we all crashed into the altar.

A second type of evangelist was the “prophecy preacher.” These tended to be mature men who came with huge charts portraying the Daniel’s visions and the great images of the Book of Revelation: the whore of Babylon, the four horsemen, the seven-headed beast, and the Great White Throne Judgment, etc.. They tied together the Old Testament prophesies with those in the New Testament like a seamless garment. To quote Brother James Slay (describing his younger self) these orators could “delve into the indelible, explain the inexplicable, and scrute the inscrutable.” They didn’t have to shout and run around, their images and oratory skill gathered us and transported us into the end of time. I wonder what they could have done with animation and modern projectors; surely it would be more than we could handle.

There were other types. “Lady evangelists” were especially gifted wooing us into the presence of God, like a mother hen gathering her chickens into the comfort of God’s glory. “Prophetic preachers” who came to report on great visions and dreams God had given them. I remember one came in the mid sixties to warn us that God was judging America for our sins and Ted Kennedy would be our next President. He came back after Richard Nixon was elected with another word from God; it seems the Almighty had heard our prayers and repented of His plans. He had given us a God-fearing, Protestant who would lead our nation in a righteous direction. I lost track of him after that.

There were also frequent guest speakers who were there just for the Sunday morning service or possibly morning and evening. Because we were one of the larger churches in the movement, denominational officials sometimes filled the pulpit. Also, when the pastor was away for Camp Meeting, the General Assembly or vacation, he would have local preachers fill in for him. It was these special speakers that I most looked forward to hearing.

James Cross, our State Overseer and later our General Overseer, captivated me with his deep voice and at a critical time in my development enticed me into theological reflection; he made Christianity more than a collection of stories and emotions. Our faith also included sound doctrines about God.

Sister Deana Lee was another favorite. She was frequently called upon to fill the pulpit when the pastor was out of town. Her personal presence was impressive. Often dressed in white, flowing dresses with impeccable posture and mesmerizing intonation, she was a teacher and exhorter. With the benefit of time, it is impossible for me not to see her as having modeled her ministry on Aimee Simple McPherson, and to think to some extent of her as a (less zany) kindred spirit with Kathryn Kuhlman. Mostly, I think of her fondly because she was one of only a few women allowed to break the Bread of Life and in so doing she helped instill in me a belief women should not be restricted in service to God. (Of course my mother was my primary model for the liberation of women.)

Finally, my all-time favorite guest preacher was Brother J. T. (Jake) Roberts. Brother Roberts had been a prominent pastor and State Overseer for the Church of God. In my childhood he was the National Overseer for the “Colored Work” which was headquartered in Jacksonville. This made it convenient for him to visit our services on occasion and thus to fill the pulpit. I believe he had at one time (prior to my birth) served as pastor of the Springfield Church of God.

He was a figure larger than life, cloaked in lore of quixotic behavior made believable by his own accounts and actions. Pentecostalism was rife with stories of the phenomenal, persons with no musical training playing the piano perfectly under the unction of the Spirit or worshippers going to the heaters and withdrawing a handful of flaming coals to hold up before the Lord. The story was told that after the church converted to central heat Brother Roberts would remove a light bulb from its socket and insert his finger as a demonstration of God’s power.

His raspy voice was heavy with a southern drawl and further fashioned by association with the distinct dialect of southern Blacks. His sermons were one-person theater, dramas of Scriptural stories and personal anecdotes woven into a single presentation. He performed the message with his whole being. He did not limit this embodiment to wild gesticulation; He made props out of whatever was at hand. On one occasion as he proclaimed “He will cast your sins as far as the east is from the west” he frisbeed a hymnal over our heads sailing it into the back wall with a thump. On another he reported confronting the Devil “Get thee behind me Satan” slinging a convenient folding chair across the width of the platform.

Jake Roberts was a showman for Jesus. He was entertaining. He was passionate. He was fun. He was serious. He was never boring. His presence was known. The last time I saw him was around 1974; he was standing on the campus of Lee College in front of one of the women’s dorms, leaning on a cane, dressed in brightly colored striped pants, a polka dotted pink and purple shirt, white shoes, and a checkered hat. Nothing matched, but neither could you ignore the elderly gentleman who gave the strange ensemble both flair and dignity.

Deep inside of me is a little Jake Roberts. I had not made the connection until now, but when I talk to my alter ego I call myself Jake. One day I shall dress as I please, say what I want and let my passion for Christ overwhelm my need to represent Him with dignity.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Prayers of My Youth

Prayers of My Youth

In my youth I prayed
“Lord, break me,
Melt me,
Mold me,
And shape me;
Make me into all you want me to be.
I am the least of your kingdom,
But surely you can use me.
Search me and know me.
Cleanse me.
Purify my soul.
Burn out the dross.
Purge me with hyssop.
Somehow make me an instrument
Of Your glory and honor.
Make me fit for your kingdom,
If only worthy of the shadow of Your passing.
Help me serve you.
That’s all I ask.”

Little did I know
The path I would walk;
How excited prayers for perfection
Could morph into pleas for survival.
I had assumed it all quick and simple.
Death, new life, direction and certainty,
Infused in but a moment.
Sincerity in surrender
Was all He would require.
Instead, I found my Father
More patient than I,
More willing to suffer with me
Than I with Him.
I could not know the cost of my quest,
The anvils of my breaking,
The furnaces of my undoing,
The presses of my forming.
Neither could I know
Brokenness would not expose
The purity I had imagined.
In the crevices of my soul
Grew leaven unknown.
Stains thought to be
Under the blood
Surfaced in the light
Of His Word.

How could I know
Melting is slow;
Dross lingers long;
Dreams of valor vanish;
Hope for survival would seem enough.
Bold prayers of surrender
Become petitions for help,
Then desperate screams for a deliverer.
“Jesus of Nazareth,
Thou Son of David,
Have mercy on me.
Help me! Help me!
Help me, if you can.”

I did not know his hammer and His anvil
Would be persons whom I knew,
Disappointments, betrayal;
His smelting pot
The altar of service,
Ministry in His Name.
If I knew then
What I know now,
Would I pray the same?
Would I plead the glory of His Name?
Would I offer
“All that I am,
All that I have,
All I hope to be.
They are Yours Oh Lord.
Not my will
But Thine be done.”

Yes, moving now from the summer
To the autumn of my life,
Considering all that has gone before,
I cannot but pray
“Jesus use me
Oh Lord don’t refuse me.
Whatever it takes
Make me into all
You desire me to be.
Help me serve you.
That’s all that I ask.”

April 3, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Make Your Redemption Complete!

I have lately reflected on the enormity of God's grace and the fullness of time. Redemption will be complete when the redeemed with all of their weaknesses are swallowed up in His strength. The following reflects those thoughts.

Make Your Redemption Complete!

You hold all things together,
You make all things new.
Your redemption is perfect.
Purchased out of death
Unto life, abundant life,
Our destiny is purity and perfection,
Not a static state of flawless existence.
Rather, a dynamic embrace of all we have known
And all we will forever be discovering.

Yet I scarce believe you will transform
My brokenness into wholeness
My pain into pleasure
My sorrow into joy
Betrayal into fidelity
Evil into good.

Can these dry bones live?
Can they behold the beauty
Of Your consuming face?
Can they declare the glory
Of your life-giving Spirit?
Can they pulse with the beat
Of Your pure heart?
Embrace the flow
Of Your boundless love?
Can they be transfigured
Into Your glorious image?
Can they know
As they are known?

Will all things be made new?
Will my memories remain
And yet be transformed?
Can these thoughts enjoy transubstantiation?
Can all that I am, all I have known,
Be engulfed in Your beauty?
What grace must you apply
To the emptiness of my being
That I might fit into the fullness
Of Yours?

Let every thought be imprisoned
To Your Majesty
Every recollection made factual and true
Every pain a song of Your goodness
Every disappointment a hymn of Your faithfulness
Every hint of death a proclamation of Your life
Every betrayal a revelation of Your faithfulness.

Let every fiber of my being
From the time you wove me together
In my mother’s womb
Through every breadth I have drawn
Every joy and every sorrow
Past, Present, and Future
For as long as I am
Proclaim boldly Your greatness
Your faithfulness
Your beauty
Your grace.

At your appearance,
May I sing in harmony with the symphony of Your creation.
Breathed upon by your Holy Spirit,
May I dance that flawless dance
As the redeemed move in the splendor of Your presence.

In that day all that is shall give You glory
The pit will sing of the majesty of Your holy mountain,
Hell itself will proclaim the splendor of Heaven.
Judgment will your grace reveal.
The damned will bear witness to your mercy,
In Your presence, consumed by your absence
Touched by your love without end
Unable to respond.

And so we plea,
Come quickly Lord Jesus
Fill all things with Your presence
Make all things new
Make Your Redemption Complete!

Jackie David Johns
February 19, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obama's Tax Problems

What’s happening? President Obama now has had three top appointees with tax problems, i.e. unpaid taxes. Combined with one person for which he had to wave his own ethics standards concerning lobbyists, this makes four highly questionable appointments. I am disappointed. I expected him to have a couple of bumps in the confirmation road, but I expected a smoother confirmation process.

What is most troubling for me is that Obama was apparently aware of these problems (at least for three of the four) before he named the appointees. He oversaw a thorough vetting process and opted to proceed because he believed the individuals were the best persons for the respective offices. This reveals a few things. First, his pragmatic essentialism (see an earlier post) combined with an element of over confidence can lead to unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement to suspend the rules. (“If I think these are the best persons for the job, what’s the problem?”)

Second, our new president has promised to inaugurate a higher standard for government but his actions suggest he does not understand there must be a connection between his words and his appointments. He promised us better than this and he has broken his promise. I truly thought he would be more careful, more principled, concerning these commitments. I realize I am holding him to a high standard, but it is the standard he set for himself.

Finally, I didn’t expect him to waist political currency on so much so early. He embarrassed himself and brought into doubt his decision-making processes. But only his opponents are paying attention at this point. He still has overwhelming good will. In the large scope of things these stumbles are minor and they should have little bearing on his presidency. They are indicators of his leadership style: decisive, determined, task oriented, but with an element of tunnel vision.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Obama’s First Ten Days In The White House

I recently received a call from my friend Phil Hoover who asked why I had not yet commented on the Obama presidency. I said I just had not had the time. He suggested I write shorter pieces. I’m not certain I can, but I’ll try.
In November I made several predictions about an Obama presidency. So far I was fairly on target. The following seem relevant to his efforts so far.

“Prediction #1: The transition will be nearly flawless. The fly in the ointment might be if Obama is perceived as acting as if he is already President especially in international economic affairs. Obama’s appointments will be diverse representatives of the sectors that elected him with more than one moderate Republicans in high positions. He will get off to a good start.”

I hit this nail on the head. His transition was nearly flawless. He took great care not to comment on international relations, frequently commenting on the fact that we only have one President at the time. On the other hand, on the economic crises he worked with Congress as if he was already President. The situation may have dictated his proactive involvement, but let us not ignore the fact he work with Congress on the formation of legislation as though he was already President. And in today’s economy that has everything to do with international relations.

“Prediction #2: Obama will keep many of his promises. With the support of a Democratically controlled congress, he will claim a mandate to push through his agenda. There will be a flurry of passed legislation. At the front will be commitments to energy and the environment. …”

He has hit the ground running with a focus on keeping his promises. He has apponinted several Republicans to high level positions. He has had extensive communicaton with the Republicans in Congress in an apparent effort to be bipartisan but he has reminded them that he won the election. I will not review all of his kept promises but a couple stand out. First, I applaud his quick actions on the environment especially raising the auto gas standards. I also approve of his push to allow states to set their own standards. As a conservative, I favor keeping government as responsive to the people as possible, i.e, a smaller federal government.

Second, while I didn’t include it on my list, elsewhere I predicted he would keep his promise and issue a Presidential order releasing American tax dollars to international groups to promote and pay for abortions in other countries, which he has done. I hold everyone who voted for Obama accountable for the resulting infanticide. Those who voted for him knew he had made this promise; their vote implicitly endorsed this action. I recognize this is a strong statement, but my statement pales in comparison to the impact of this action on the unborn and on their mothers. In many of the countries where these funds will be released it will not be the woman who makes the decision about aborting her unborn child. Time will tell if Obama’s other actions for good (there will be many) might mitigate against the impact of this evil. Perhaps he will be an instrument for life in other areas.

“Prediction #8: President Obama will excel in international relations except Islamic nations, Russia, and Latin America (which will be put off by his protectionism). In short, he will be phenomenal with our Western Allies and most of Africa; he will be less than stellar with our enemies, especially Islamic nations. This will seem strange to many given his unique connection with Islam. I truly hope I am wrong on this. He has the best personal gifts for diplomacy that I have seen in a political leader. (My problem is not his ability, but his direction.)”

It was a bold stroke to grant his first post-inauguration interview with an international, Islamic journalist. This was a significant preemptive diplomatic action. The appointment of Senator Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East was another wise action in his early days in office. On the other hand, his approval of continued military air strikes inside Pakistan (Prediction #10) suggests I might in the end be right on this one. He has not yet been tested with a crisis in the region to which he must respond.

Another promise he has kept is to initiate stricter ethics standards for his administration. It is to be applauded that he has forbidden the revolving door between lobbyist and administrative service. It is baffling that he would immediately nominate someone for high office for whom he must immediately issue a waiver to the standards he had just announced with fanfare. His pragmatic nature shines through.

On a parallel note I was apparently correct with “Prediction #12: The roll of minorities in American politics has been forever changed for the good. The days of the Caucasian, good-old-boys-club-in-power is over. Minorities will rise in leadership in both parties but especially conservatives in the Republican Party. – Perhaps some delusional wishful thinking here. The Parties will become more ideologically defined and stress ethnic coalitions with a greater social purpose.” This week the Republican National Committee elected its first African American as chairman of the committee. Perceived as a moderate, he has a huge job set before him. Let us hope him well.

Well, these are a few of my initial thoughts. Others will follow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inaugural Address, My Assessment

As Barack Obama walked through the hallway toward the platform where he would be administered the oath of office he was noticeably somber. It appeared as though the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and it was. Gone were the gregarious smile of the campaign trail and the twinkling eyes of his victory speech. In their place was a near frown of concern. I knew then his inaugural address was going to stray from his pattern of rousing speeches, but how?

Recognizing I am in the minority and some may take offense, I risk stating that I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I liked the speech. Having now read it a couple of times, I have grown even more impressed. Although considerably longer, the pace and pattern and use of imagery remind me of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which I suspect was his intention given all of the public reference to Lincoln. It was in many ways an inspiring presentation that challenged us as Americans to face our grave problems together with creativity; drawing upon the core values of the founders of our nation we must fulfill their dream.

The speech revealed Obama to be an “essentialist,” to borrow an old term from educational philosophy. Essentialists believe there are essential truths that must be preserved and passed on to the next generation. They also believe those truths should guide the application of science and technology for the betterment of humanity. In recent weeks our new president has been described as a pragmatist by Republicans and Democrats who have met with him during the transition period. Pragmatists reject the concept of eternal truth; for them truth is what works in the moment. He sounded like a pragmatist when he said “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.” However, in this he was not asserting “truth is what works,” but the inverse, what works is true. Truth (and goodness) is not limited to that which works but that which works is true (and good). For him there are enduring values that must guide the work we do.

Obama laid out the values he holds, “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.“ Those values draw upon the Declaration of Independence; they are American to their core. Some of his values are more sophistic in character: “Our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” And some of his values represent a more liberal social agenda. For example, government exists to help “families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

His pragmatic expression of essentialism is best seen when he stated “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.” In a similar passage he asserted “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.“

As another example he stated, “as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

I greatly appreciate this emphasis on the values that have made this nation great. I also affirm his emphasis on remembering those who carried the torch before us. Born in the western expansion of the nineteenth century and renewed in the cold war tensions of the twentieth, some would say essentialism is one of America’s greatest contributions to humanity (others would bypass it for jazz). If not, it is at the least a reflection of “the American way” at its best, ingenuity tied to necessity and a sense of destiny.

My disappointments with the speech were two-fold. First, I was disappointed with the tone. This has as much to do with delivery as with content. I was looking forward to an inspiring message that also motivated toward specific action. I expected a speech in the pattern of FDR, Kennedy, and Regan; one that cast a vision of a transformed/renewed America. Those special inaugural speeches captured the human imagination for a better world, “the best is yet to come.” They also identified the changes that must take place and offered proposals for how they would be achieved. I experienced this speech as a convicting sermon without an altar call or a plan for discipleship, a half-time locker-room speech without the new game plan.

In short, I was hoping for more than I got. Based upon his past keynote speeches he was able to deliver what I expected, a speech that would capture the hopes of all with a vision of what we could become. It appears to me he opted for a more philosophical, subdued and less poetic style. He was more somber than inspiring. Perhaps he was seeking to be more presidential in these uncertain times. Perhaps his lack of specificity was an intentional political move to avoid sparking congressional debate before he was ready to reveal specifics. I fear he missed a critical opportunity to start the train moving. This beautiful oration challenged us to believe change is on the way and that we can and must participate in it, but it fell short of mapping out what the changes will look like and what they will cost us. It lacked the power of persuasive rhetoric to motivate people to seek the change that is needed.

Perhaps the significance of the day, an African American is President of the United States of America, will carry us forward. I just wanted more. I wanted President Obama to be at his rhetorical best. I wanted a speech that a generation would remember and quote. It was an inspiring and insightful challenge; it could have been more and it will be a long time before we have another President who is capable of the rhetorical masterpiece I desired.

However, my greatest problem with the address was that President Obama renewed his call for change in a way that dishonored President Bush. That was safe because the vast majority of Americans disapprove of Bush, but it was inappropriate for this occasion and unnecessary for his purposes. I am specifically referring to the following lines which I and a number of commentators viewed as being aimed at Bush.

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” “But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

I expect a candidate to make those kinds of statements. I expect a president to bend over backwards to avoid dishonoring his/her predecessor no matter how great his/her disdain for the person. (My impression is that Obama does have a strong disdain for Bush.) The problems we face can easily be identified without recriminations toward persons. The irony is that in his assertion that we have opted to move beyond recriminations he was in fact recriminating President Bush. It is not enough to omit direct insults; noble leaders avoid assault by implication. It is not enough to bury specific innuendo in generic characterizations; wise leaders find ways to truly honor their opponents. In this he belittled himself and weakened his presidency. Conservatives, especially those close to Bush, will remember this speech not for its beauty or power of persuasion, but for its assault on their friend. And at some point they will be less inclined to compromise when Obama needs them the most.

In the century before Christ Cicero wrote that "the purpose of education is to produce men who speak well." A century later Quintillian, a contemporary of Paul, offered the corrective "the purpose of education is to produce good men who speak well." There can be no doubt Barack Obamma is a man who speaks well. Prior to this speech I was convinced he is an exceptionally good man. In light of this speech there is a shadow across my estimate of his goodness. I would add a couple of other values to Obama's list of those held by the founders of our nation: honor and respect.

Having said all of this, I remain optimistic our new president will be effective in leading our nation in addressing the urgent issues we face. I also remain thrilled we as a nation have passed this milestone. But, I do encourage his admirers to prepare themselves for the fact that he is human after all. This is the first stumble; it will not be the last. The good news for him and perhaps for all of us is that most of America missed this one; we were caught-up in the promise and possibility of better things to come.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I Love the Church of God

In this post-modern era it is normal to distrust institutions. They are impersonal constructs of a vanishing meta-narrative. By their very nature they reduce us to economic cogs within giant machines of power and control. They cannot be trusted and are at best necessary evils. Or so it seems to the rising generation, the one fearful of the very thing it craves, intimacy. I read this mistrust on my computer screen, in our communities of artificial self-disclosure (like this one). The disenchanted gather on “My-space” or “Facebook” or some other site for online discussion; there I find hunger for truth mingled with predispositions toward doubt (the hermeneutic of suspicion) resulting in abundant criticism of the institutional church. In my circles that means the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee).

Let it be noted that it was my generation that said “trust no one over thirty-five.” We too challenged the establishment, dreamed of the “age of Aquarius,” and sought for truth. (True, we were primitive; our resources were limited to lectures/sermons, books, newspapers, magazines/journals, radio and television and our interaction was restricted to face to face conversations, laborious correspondence, or one-to-one telephone conversations.) Most of us who remained in the church believed it needed reforming but we believed in it as well. With that let me say I love the Church of God. This church loved me, taught me, disciplined me, encouraged me, mentored me, and ordained me to minister. But this list does not explain why I love my church.

For all practical purposes I was born into the Church of God. My mother was raised in the Church of God, but she did not join the Church until six months after I was born, that’s when she got saved and I along with my older brother and sister became active congregants. I grew up in the Church: Sunday school, morning worship, Sunday evening “Evangelistic” service, Wednesday evening Prayer Meeting, and Friday evening Young People’s Endeavor (YPE), not to mention quarterly revivals, and two-week Vacation Bible School (VBS). My Sunday school teachers loved me; they and other adults prayed me through to the blessings of God. I joined the Church when I was six years old. I didn’t fully understand what I had committed myself to, but I knew it was important and it was for life.

The Church was my extended family, but that was not sufficient to keep me within its fold. At seventeen I was filled with the Spirit and began to sincerely seek God’s will for my life. One question I wrestled with was church identification. I wanted to know God’s will about my denominational membership. I did not want to be a member simply because I was born into it and made a childhood commitment. I fasted and prayed about this question. Around my 18th birthday on a Monday morning in the early fall of 1971 I was praying as I drove through Birmingham on my way to my physics class at Samford University. Tears and the rising sun blinded me for an instant and as my vision cleared I resolved, “Father from this moment I will be a faithful member of the Church of God until you direct me otherwise.” Alone in my car I had renewed my covenant of membership and I meant it for life unless God directed otherwise.

My first real test for that covenant came one year later. I had transferred to Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee, headquarters city for the denomination. I was not accustomed to the denominational chatter, who’s being appointed where and why, and I became disillusioned. I truly agonized over the political atmosphere. In a time of prayer God spoke very clearly to me, “The Church of God is not Ray H. Hughes; it is Jenny Williams.” Ray Hughes was the General Overseer at the time and I did not understand this as an indictment against him, but rather a commentary on the nature of the church. Jenny Williams was a departed saint from my childhood. (Interesting, the reference was to someone already in heaven. I don’t recall much theologizing about that.) The church is not defined by its leaders, but by the vision of its members. Godly members are the heart of the church.

I have had ample opportunity for further disillusionment. Prominent leaders have fallen in sin. Others have feuded over the direction of the church, or worse, such as business deals gone bad. I have been mistreated; I have had multiple promises broken, and I have often felt underappreciated. I have been threatened with being disfellowshipped (movies/bowling/high school band) and more than once with having ministerial charges filed (preached at a non-denominational crusade, etc.). But I love the Church of God. Not because it feels good (it often doesn’t), but because I love my Lord and His church.

Yes, I love the Church because of what it has meant to me. And I love the Church because of its fundamental commitment to the Scriptures as the Word of God, its doctrines based on that Word (not that some of our wording could not be tweaked), and its practices of submission to the Spirit. I do not think we are perfect, although I confess a bit of triumphalism in my youth. I work hard to not judgmentally compare us with others. I certainly do not believe we are the only expression of the church. I do believe Brother Spurling was correct; the church exists wherever God’s people covenant to be the church, to walk together in the light of God’s Word as He shines it upon our path. My concern is not to defend some elite status as the church but rather to renew our commitment to fulfill the call to be the church.

In short, I love the Church of God because I have covenanted with the General Assembly to be the Church. Covenants are sacred commitments to which God serves as partner and guarantor. We are the church, not exclusively, nor perfectly, but we are the church. My commitments to Christ require that I be faithful to Him by being faithful to His Word and to His church. It is for the church he gave Himself; it is the church He purchased with His blood. I must love it as He loves it. The expectation I find in the Scriptures is not to love the idea of the church, or the promise of the church, or the future actualization of the church. The expectation is to love the church. I must love the “one, holy, catholic church.” I must love it as a present reality. The only way for me to do this is to focus on a tangible expression of the Church. In order to fulfill the Biblical teachings on fellowship and submission (see the “one another” passages) I must identify a group of believers with whom to be accountable. That could be United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal Holiness, or some other. For me it had to be a church committed to be the church, committed to live by the Scriptures, and committed to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (as revealed in the Bible). Thus the Church of God is for me the best expression of the church.

I will fulfill my place in the Body of Christ through the Church of God. This does not exempt me from seeking unity with all followers of Christ and all expressions of the church. I have served as pastor of an Assembly of God and a Baptist church; I was on staff at a Disciples of Christ; I was a visiting professor at a Southern Baptist seminary; I have served (am serving) on a variety of ecumenical ministry boards; and I have participated in a variety of ecumenical dialogues. In all of these endeavors I have remained a faithful member of the Church of God.

Denominational and generational lines should serve to clarify our gifts and callings and to edify the whole. In order for this to happen the boundaries between us must have points of interface, openings for communion. I believe we (my generation of the Church of God) have much to teach and give the Body of Christ and much to learn. Lines of demarcation should not be allowed to divide us. They must become instruments of mutual edification that serve to enrich our fellowship. Doctrinal differences should inform and challenge us while love overcomes pride so that we might be united. I do not have to prove others wrong in order to know that I am right. I do not have to negate someone else’s knowledge of truth to defend my own. Knowledge is power, but it should not be used as a weapon. Rather, let it fulfill its nature and serve as a light.

I choose to love the Church of God because I love Christ and His Kingdom. I hunger to fulfill His will and I can only do that in relation to others in His Body. In this movement/denomination I have found (had thrust upon me) relationships that matter. Though sometimes confused and misunderstood, I have known and been known. I have learned that spiritual intimacy comes with the price of pain and disappointment. It is worth the price. I hold on to this conviction, Christ is the head of His church. Even in the face of institutional blight, He is sovereign and He rules with mercy and righteousness over those who love him. God is at work in, with, through, by, and in spite of the structures of the Church of God. How can I not love it?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice

We have all met a few ministers who are less than stellar in their character. I have personally been lied to and lied about by fellow ministers. I have grieved as some have treated individuals and congregations with contempt, using them as stepping stones for personal advancement. Too many charlatans have risen in our ranks. Their carnality casts a shadow over the entire church. But let us not forget those thousands who quietly serve in the beauty of holiness as beacons of righteousness.

I have been privileged to know some exceptional servants of God, who accepted the call to preach, publish and defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Among them I would name Garland Mills and Larry Higginbotham under both of whom I was blessed to serve as Minister of Education. I would also name Eddie Williams and O’neal McCullough whom I have drawn strength from their example and marveled at the respect they garnered. These men are/were not perfect, but they certainly set a good standard to live toward.

The vast majority of the Church of God ministers I have known fall with me somewhere between the goal posts. We are confident in our call to preach the Gospel but uncertain about ourselves, our abilities. Why did God call us? At its best this reflects humility; at its worst it reflects self disdain. Everyone deals with this tension between call and confidence differently. Some attempt to cover-up their insecurities with an air of competence that comes across as arrogance. Others mask themselves in false humility. Most bounce around between the two extremes. Few are confident enough in their own personhood to truly be themselves with others. Transparency is a worthy concept as long as we’re looking into someone else’s glass house.

Ministers are caught in the dilemma of the already/not yet. We have tasted of the kingdom of heaven but we still eat the realities of this life. We proclaim a truth greater than ourselves but we then have to live with ourselves. What we know struggles with what we are, creating uncertainty in what we do. I am not here talking about sin or immorality; although that may indeed be the consequence of the struggle. I am instead referring to the more subtle questions of how pleasing am I to God?

I am convinced the central issue of life is, how faithful am I to the heavenly vision revealed in Christ? This makes the central question for all believers, what is the will of God? What does God desire for me to be, know, and do? The best of us struggle with this question. All of us will answer for how diligently we struggled.

Ivo Cantrel was the kind of man others wanted to emulate, at least those who desire to live a Godly life. I met him in September of 1980 shortly after moving to Louisville, Kentucky to pursue my doctorate. Larry Higginbotham was gracious and offered me a part-time position at the Dixie Valley Church of God. Brother Cantrel , who was retired at the time, had been helping Larry with some pastoral visitation. It didn’t take long to recognize Ivo as a choice servant of God. His life was marked by the fruit of the Spirit.

Not long after our arrival his health began to deteriorate rapidly; it was cancer. I went to visit him in the hospital a few days before his death. His wife and daughter, Reba, were standing guard. It seems some of our fellow ministers had been by trying to pray the prayer of faith which resulted in upsetting Brother Cantrel ; my impression was that he had already accepted it was his time to go. The vigilant women hesitantly gave me the go-ahead to spend a few minutes with him as they stood in the back of the room.

It was clear he was distressed but lucid. He seemed politely happy for my visit. After a couple of minutes of small talk I felt impressed to ask a question, “Brother Ivo, what do you spend your time thinking about while they’re holding you prisoner in here?”

“The Scriptures.”

Trying to guess his response before I even uttered my follow-up, “And what text is on your mind the most?” Anticipating Psalm 23 or John 3:16 or a reference to heaven, I wasn’t prepared for his answer.

“Luke 6:26 -- Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.”

Mild panic hit me. Where do I go with this? Lord, help me? “That’s an interesting verse, why do you think it’s on your mind?”

“Because I am that man. Everybody speaks well of me. But I’m not certain what God is going to say.”

“Why? Is there something you need to talk about?”

“Everybody respects me but I feel like a failure. I worked for the railroad for thirty years* and I planted nine* churches in that time. God blessed every church we started. Every time we got a new church up and going good I had to decide whether to quit my job and go full-time or turn it over to someone else. I had a wife and kids to support and it was always such a hard decision. I fear God is going to hold it against me for not having the faith to go into full-time ministry.”

How does one respond to that? I knew I didn’t have the wisdom and so I prayed a quick S.O.S. and felt the touch of God. “Brother Cantrel, tell me something, when you made those decisions, did you pray about what to do? Did you desire to do God’s will?”

“Oh, yes! I’ve always wanted His will in my life.”

“Then that’s your answer. God is at work in us to ‘will and to do His good pleasure.’ It’s not important that we go into full-time ministry. What’s important is that we seek to do His will each step of the journey. He didn’t say enter in thou good and successful servant. He said enter in thou good and faithful servant. That’s why everyone speaks well of you, they admire your faithfulness.”

I have seldom felt more fulfilled than that moment when the peace of God settled on his face. Brother Cantrel had struggled with the central question of life, am I willing to pursue the will of God and be faithful to what He shows me? His humility gave him a good dose of uncertainty but that was overcome by his testimony. I am confident he heard our Lord say, “Ivo Cantrel, enter in thou good and faithful servant.”

To the extent I know my heart, my desire is to be found faithful.

[*Note: My recollections of this conversation are pretty certain, but I do not vouch for these numbers. They are in the ball park.]