RIPE WITH POSSIBILITIES
The year 2021, the 21st year of the 21st century, dawns on Friday, New Year’s Day. It will be a book of 365 clean pages, upon which nothing has yet been written. We each hold a pen in our hands; what we write—what we live—will define history, personally, individually, and collectively.
Some personalities seem to write on the pages of history with larger script than others. A new American President, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., is set to be inaugurated the 46th President of the United States early in the year. His pen will write large, of course. The outgoing President, Donald John Trump, has a pen in his hands, too; he certainly knows how to work the Twitter keyboard, at least. He appears keen on writing large going forward, as well. Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and fifteen other Commonwealth Realms (including Canada), will mark her 95th birthday in April (as her husband, Prince Philip, is set to turn 100). Netflix will keep viewers unpacking history and thinking about the Royals’ future with its critically acclaimed and immensely successful (if controversial) series, The Crown. Some pens do seem to write large, indeed.
But, practically speaking, and by the sight of heaven, each of us can write large, too. Never underestimate the power and opportunity you have to write on your page, every day of the year.
This can also be said of the Church of God, a vast family that is resident in nations spanning twenty-four time zones, circumnavigating the globe. We, both individually and together, can change, inspire, and redefine storylines. We can actually alter the course of history, with the pens that have been providentially placed within our grasp, no matter what others write.
The year 2020 underscored for me the value and legitimacy of what I call our five non-negotiables: (1) Jesus is the subject—He reigns supreme and is central to everything else, (2) Holiness—and the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem and empower us—is key to our experience in this world and the next, (3) Unity is our unique calling, born to be a catalyst for Christian unity and the healing balm of a divided church, (4) the Great Commandments remain always top of mind, loving God and others completely—these, the New Testament tells us, are the “sum of the Law and the Prophets,” and (5) the supremacy of Scripture; we are a people of the Word who understand the Old and New Testaments to be the ultimate plumb line of our faith and practice. To my knowledge, there is no other body of believers in the world today who hold all five of these truths as core. About these, we are not prone to debate; they are fixed foundation stones that capture who we are and what we believe.
How we live out these truths is, however, an annual challenge. It is so easy to be detoured by lesser things, to become preoccupied with the preservation of other concepts and callings, to be compromised by taking our eyes off the ball. This is why the phrase Jesus is the subject holds the key to all the rest. Our passions, ambitions, analysis, and commitments must always, and above all other considerations, be reflected in Him. As long as life in this world lasts, we will not be able to fully comprehend Him; ours is a journey, year-by-year, by the light of the Spirit and Scripture, of deepening our relationship with Him.
A century ago, as the 21st year of the 20th century took the stage, the Church of God was experiencing profound change. It was re-evaluating some of its originally held ideas about church life and practice. Once despising robed choirs, church organs, and stained glass as the emblems of a hopelessly corrupted sect Babylon of denominationalism, the 1920s would see our congregations embracing these motifs and signatures of Christian community life. Once dismissing all formal pastoral training as the devil’s business propping up sectarian wickedness, the Movement was developing schools, venues, and curriculum for the raising up of shepherds, evangelists, and congregational pastors.
And, once eschewing any involvement in the public square, the Church of God in the 1920s was, with intentionality, encouraging the Movement to vote with specificity, identifying “moral issues” that demanded support of particular candidates. It was in the 1920s that the General Assembly of the Church of God in the United States and Canada first went on the record with what would today be called a political statement. The issue was Prohibition in the United States, a constitutional amendment that outlawed the consumption of alcohol. The Temperance Movement was a movement, too, powerful and political. The Church of God Movement opened its arms wide to this intersection of individual and social holiness. Those seeking public office who sought to repeal Prohibition were rejected by the Assembly, for their “propaganda” and “challenge to the morality and public welfare.” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
At the same time, the Church of God seemed oblivious to other moral outrages of the age, however. Our understanding of “holiness” did not veer into other areas of public controversy. For instance, as the General Assembly rallied around the prohibition of alcohol, it ignored the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan and the racism that was its banner. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Klan and a collection of “Lost Clause” advocates (arguing for the nobility and dignity of the Confederacy) saw the erection of statues in parks, town squares, and on prominent boulevards celebrating the heroism and character of Confederate generals and leaders, who within living memory at the time had sought to overthrow the government of the United States. By the 1920s, Klan marches, in full white-hooded regalia were welcomed to parade between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue, reinforcing its message of white supremacy and its vision of European values. There were 30,000 white-robed marchers and 150,000 spectators lining the streets. No Americans of color were present or cheering. The Church of God was silent. It did not see challenging this moral outrage as a “holiness” issue in the way it did the consumption of alcohol.
The General Assembly would not go on the record standing up for equal rights in this country until 1954, in response to the Supreme Court’s mandated integration of public schools, famously launched in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. It was, at this time, that our sense of holiness and unity began to be articulated as one requiring voice and action for civil rights, not only in the public square, but also in defense of the huge swath of the Church of God family that was of African-American descent. Acknowledgment of the rights and equity of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans would follow.
The intersections of racial justice and our call to holiness have continued to both challenge and inspire us since we chose to stand with the forces of change in Little Rock in the mid-50s. The church was divided, in some quarters then, as it is now, on this long march to a more perfect union. The Assembly has repeatedly condemned racism, unequivocally, over the last few decades (and as recently as 2015), reacting to current events, civil unrest, and legislation that has moved through both American and Canadian federal governments. Our bark has frankly been more consequential than our bite, though, as integrating our cherished doctrines of holiness with real life on the streets for whole segments of both our church and our countries has been often problematic.
And what about abortion? And economic disparities? And sexual ethics? And immigration? And pacificism? And…well, the list of subjects mired in argument is long. How much more comfortable it is to pass them by altogether and focus instead on other themes, less likely to stir the pot. After all, unity requires avoiding difficult acknowledgments and conversations, doesn’t it? If only Jesus would come back tomorrow (or today), we wouldn’t have to wrestle with the reality of being in the world, even as we are not of it. But, alas, here we are.
I share all of this to highlight that, as a new year begins, we will write new chapters of gospel ministry. We will face as-yet unknown challenges, and we will continue to navigate the rough water of known ones (like the pandemic, like political tensions, like the human suffering which is not receding but increasing in many places). We will continue to share the hope of abundant life—not just for the world to come but for the here and now. The New Testament world was a mess-up, too, but the gospel brought life everywhere and set people free in a community of faith without precedent or parallel. Jesus’ vivid description of the Day of Judgment in Matthew’s telling made the body of Christ an engine for meeting material needs of the vulnerable as a part of its spiritual quest and proof, even as it proclaimed the gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sin.
Not so long ago, I learned of a meeting of young adults who had all been raised in the Church of God, but who no longer were active in church life of any kind. They were asked by their parents, Why? Why have you not dived into the church you loved growing up? Why have you pursued an independent course, for yourselves and your children? The answer was unequivocal and honest, though hard to hear: “The church does not address any of the problems we consider to be most important; it does not answer any of the questions we believe are of greatest consequence. The church does not positively change the trajectory of our community or bother itself with the suffering, injustice, and brokenness at every turn. That’s why we’re not investing in it.”
Ouch. Of course, an old guy like me might argue that the church, indeed, is making the world better, that our local churches are lighthouses of hope and salvation. But, such arguments will not likely be heard, given the tenor of our time. How did the first-century church—the church we claim we want to be—win the day? In a relatively short span of generations, the early church and gospel prevailed in a pagan world.
The expansion of churches across the ancient world was propelled by the whole gospel, not just parts of it. Each generation of believers held fast to core, non-negotiable truths, and, at the same time, grew in its understanding of the Lord’s calling and promise. Local believers, meeting together, became the central hope of the underclass and the well-to-do who found their riches unfulfilling. Jesus was their subject and they followed Him, in the way He walked and talked. Our reformation, the Church of God, must follow in those footsteps, too. And, I think we are. The rigors of the year 2020 have compelled us to do so with a fresh scrub and thoughtful re-evaluation of who and what we are.
I am actually excited about the year 2021. For all of its towering mountains to climb, it is also ripe with possibilities. I am excited about rolling up my sleeves and getting to new work. I am excited about the prospects for ministry, for a new generation of young adults rising up with clear-eyed ambition, for doing good, for changing the world, for defying the devil himself. I am excited about learning more about this Jesus, to whom I pledged my life when I was in the seventh grade and aged twelve. I am committed to not standing still or being intimidated; I am anxious to think and act boldly, not confined by the herd group-think of a fading evangelicalism, but by the daring wonder of the first-century gospel, which has, to the present day, offered us the best hope and way forward.
Let’s take back some territory in 2021 that hell has stolen. Let’s be bold. Let’s get on with it. Jesus is the subject. The Holy Spirit is in us and before us. Working together with other believers, reaching for the Great Commandments, and clothed with Scripture, well, this Church of God has unimagined capacity. Be encouraged.
Stay tuned. There are some great things in store, which we are excited to share with you in time.
Happy New Year.
I am pleased to remain, your brother in Christ,