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.]