Monday, June 21, 2010

I am Thankful for the Church of God

My Grandmother’s testimony was that she was “saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost and a member of the great Church of God.” Her conversion was around 1928 when she was thirty years old or thereabouts. She raised her daughters in the church and her sons at the church, that is, the boys weren’t forced to go inside. They got to get into mischief on the outside.

My mother didn’t give her heart to the Lord until after she got married. Her first salvation experience was when Jimmy was a baby. Without my Dad’s support she found it hard to remain faithful. The second time she got saved was when I was about six months old. That time she was determined and she got plugged into the Springfield Church of God in Jacksonville, Florida where she was nurtured, mentored, and discipled in a caring community. That’s the church where I was baptized at six years of age and later joined the Church of God.

Joining the Church was a major event back then. Whenever the pastor received members into the church he would call them down in front of the congregation. Then he would read the Teachings of the Church of God for all to hear. The list included doctrines such as justification by faith, regeneration, sanctification, and the Baptism in the Holy Ghost. Then there were behavioral prohibitions such as against members wearing jewelry for decoration or ornamentation, against alcohol, and against the use of tobacco. Some of the teachings were quite ambiguous, i.e., New Testament use of meats and drinks. The form of the teachings was short pithy statements using King James words and phrases followed by Scripture references where the bases of the teachings could be found. The ceremony included a covenant to abide by the teachings and support the church.

In short, the Church of God was a holiness church and it had a certain, if not totally clear, set of standards for its members to live by. Everybody knew what the Church of God stood for.  My Dad who had only set foot inside the church a few times in his life knew what it expected of its members. That became crystal clear to me the day my brother joined the church.

I was maybe five or six years old making Jimmy ten or eleven. When we drove up to our house after that morning service, my Dad’s car was there. Mom’s last words to Jimmy before the car came to a stop were, “Jimmy, you’re going to have to tell your Dad you joined the church today.” I could see the anxiety settle on his face. He got out of the car, threw his young shoulders back and strode into the house, down the hall, and into Mom and Dad’s bedroom where Dad was lying, reading the paper. I was right on his heels. I wasn’t certain what was happening but I knew it was big and exciting.

Jimmy walked right up to the foot of the bed and grabbed the foot railing. His courage dipped and his voice wavered just a bit as he blurted out, “Dad, I need to tell you something. I joined the church today.”

Dad’s response burned into my heart and created a sense of sacredness to the event that abides deep within me. “Son, all I’ve got to say is, you joined it, you live it.” “Yes, sir.” It would be a few years before I would take the step of membership, but when I did it was Dad’s words to Jimmy I heard echoing in my ears. When I made that covenant I meant it with all my heart. I joined the Church of God and I vowed to love it, for better or for worse, and for me that was a life-long commitment.

I was still a kid when I made those vows. I surely had no idea what would be involved beyond doing what I had already been doing my whole life. As I grew and became a serious student of the Bible I had to evaluate my youthful pledge in light of expanding knowledge. In my late teens I wrestled with whether the Church of God was where God wanted me. In Alabama there was a lot of eccentricity in the church. I prayed and felt God ask me a question, “who do you trust to walk with you into my Kingdom?” I knew many of the people I worshipped with were not the most mature or intelligent, but I also knew they loved God and me (mostly) and I knew they were on their way to heaven. There was no doubt in my mind who I trusted as traveling companions to help me into the presence of God. Driving in my little red Ford Pinto on a Monday morning in Birmingham, Alabama I renewed my vows before God and made this commitment, “Father I’ll be a faithful member of the Church of God until you make it plain you want me to go somewhere else.”

Be careful what you promise God. There have been a few times I would have otherwise found it easy to graze in greener pastures. After I transferred to Lee College and got caught up in the denominational gossip on the campus, I became disillusioned. I took my complaint to God and He spoke very specifically, “The Church of God isn’t Ray Hughes. It’s Aunt Jennie Williams.” I knew he wasn’t saying anything to me about Ray Hughes the person; He was referring to Ray Hughes the General Overseer and all of the politics that swirled around him. Aunt Jennie was the Godly Sister of the Church who mentored my mother and helped her get grounded in the faith. The Church of God is all those saints who love God with all their heart and have covenanted to be God’s church, not the organizational system with offices at Keith and 25th Streets.

Dr. Mike Chapman, a long-time friend and prominent Church of God pastor, has recently stated that the three distinctives of our church are (1) anointed preaching, (2) dynamic singing, and (3) heartfelt fellowship. (The adjectives are mine.) Those are three things I have cherished about my heritage in the Church. There are others.

I first began attending the General Assembly in the 1970’s. It was a rancorous time of arguments about the behavioral (or “practical”) teachings of the church. After a very heated vote, Dr. Charles W. Conn was granted the opportunity to make a “Privileged Statement” to the body (An inappropriate use of the Parliamentary procedure). He spoke of a conversation with Dr. Walter Hollenweger, the first and foremost scholar on Pentecostalism. Hollenweger had interviewed Conn for his doctoral dissertation. During the interview Conn reversed the roles and asked the European scholar what he considered to be the distinctive trait of the Church of God. Conn stated his surprise at the response, “You are like family; you fight like family and you makeup like family.” The speech was a healing balm; grown men wept and hugged their opponent’s necks. It was a glorious moment in our history and I was there.  We are more than an association of like-minded individuals; we are family!

Our doctrines, our commitments to live by the Scriptures, our passion for the lost and the hurting, and our experiences with the Holy Spirit resonating those of the first century believers, these are part of our DNA. It is the gestalt of it all that defines the Church of God. And at the heart of this living system is a passion to be the Church of God, a faith claim that people can by grace covenant together and give tangible expression to what it means to be the body of Christ. Whatever the Bible says it means to be the church, we can be it, if we desire, and believe, and dedicate ourselves to that end. Without that passion to be together God’s people, we cease to be a movement worthy of the name “Church of God.”  It wasn't aragance or pride that led them to make the claim they were the church of God.  It was not a claim of exclusive ownership of the title (at least not for most).  It was a statement of faithful obedience, of surrender to God's call for a covenant people.

I am thankful for all the saints who gave birth to and nurtured this vision. I pray we find the grace to fan into flame that passion once again.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 21, 2010

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this article. You did an execellent job describing the church.