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?”
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.]