America...and Decline?

      The United States of America became a fledgling nation via the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Its citizens, with this new beginning and new nation, desired most of all a constitutional freedom to worship their Creator in the manner they deemed proper without fear of governmental intervention, along with the freedom to govern themselves without intervention from any foreign power. This new nation, devoid of any prior heritage or tradition and created from an amalgamation of immigrants from every section of the globe, created a democratic institution unlike any other on Earth…fiercely independent, strategically located with a wealth of natural resources, and with a government which placed a value on every citizen.
     Through divine intervention or unbridled imperialism, depending upon your point of view, the United States in less than 200 years became the most powerful nation on the planet, spreading its influence and power from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean and from the Rio Grande River to Canada and usurping the global influence of such stalwarts as Britain, Germany, and France, which had been adversaries in world affairs for centuries. At the end of World War II, America stood alone, militarily victorious around the world and the lone possessor of the atomic bomb.
     History is replete with the stories of nations and the triumphant rise and fall of each. Americans, due perhaps to the streak of independence instilled in their psyches, have a tendency to feel that the United States is somehow insulated from this ebb and flow of nations, and due to our establishment in a “New World” complete with new ideas and no preconceived notions of classes of citizens nor limits to our measures of success, the United States will live forever. The last fifty years, however, have begun to reveal cracks in the foundation of the nation founded “under God,” and the expectation of success, bequeathed as a birthright to every American, is eroding at an alarming rate.
     The Korean War of the early 1950s was a sobering wake-up call for a nation which only six years earlier had been unbeatable worldwide. Fighting the Chinese and North Koreans to a standstill along the 38th parallel of South Korea, the U.S. consoled itself that it was still undefeated. The Vietnam War of 1964-1974, however, was a disaster. Unaccustomed to a “limited” war and with political leaders convoluted about the objectives of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, the nation slipped ignominously out of Vietnam as the North Vietnamese army videoed the scenes of U.S. helicopters, packed with refugees, abandoning the country. 50,000 U.S. troops gave the ultimate sacrifice not in the defense of the United States but in the defense of a colossal political blunder on the part of the U.S. government. In addition, the conflict over the Vietnam War had created social trauma in the U.S. as well. Violent student protests and clumsy governmental responses tore at the fabric of American society. Soldiers in the war zone of SE Asia were exposed to exotic drugs which were brought back to the U.S. and spread to the general populace, and today the drug epidemic is destroying our society.
     At the same time, a single book was changing the way parents related to their children. Dr. Benjamin Spock, a noted pediatrician, wrote “Baby and Child Care.” Spock broke with the strict tone and rigorous instruction of previous child care books and encouraged parents to give their children “freedom to grow” with limited parental correction. “Baby and Child Care” outsold every book in America with the exception of the Bible…and did so for ten years. Its influence on child care was incalculable, and we are living with the consequences today. Undisciplined children have become undisciplined parents, creating more undisciplined children. In the United States in 2010, forty percent of all children were born to unwed mothers, and in one ethnic group alone, the number is 75 percent. In addition, only twenty percent of all households in the United States consist of what used to be called the “nuclear” family…a married father and mother with their own children.
     Coupled with the breakdown of society has been the breakdown of government. Democracy traditionally involves a group of legislators duly elected to formulate policy, understanding that with different ideas represented, every decision is a compromise with the objective being the best interests of the citizens. No more. In 2008, Barack Obama and the majority Democrats were elected due to the reaction of voters to the weak economy. Promising change, Obama spent the next fifteen months fighting for a new health care program for the U.S., even though eighty percent of all Americans had said they were happy with their medical care in poll after poll. With a continued weak economy in 2010, the voters rejected Democratic policies and gave the Republicans the majority in the House of Representatives and a much more powerful voice in the Senate. Results: The new Republicans have done nothing about the nagging unemployment and have set their sights on revising Medicare, even though eighty percent (there’s that number again) of all Americans are happy with their Medicare coverage. The United States government can no longer govern, and America as we remember it has disappeared. A recent poll indicated that for the first time in our history, parents are less optimistic about their children’s futures than they were their own.
     Pentecost, or the Pentecostal movement, if you will, has a history paralleling that of the United States. In the mid to late 1800s, massive spiritual revivals swept America, and a great spiritual awakening jolted the traditional, mainstream churches. Within those organizations, individual leaders sought a closer communication with God and began to search the Scriptures to try to gain more knowledge of what God’s plan or objective may have been for the age. The result was that around the turn of the 20th century, the greatest revival of all began with the revelation of the individual’s potential for receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues as described in Act 2:38. A new spiritual experience with life-changing aftereffects, the Holy Ghost transformed men and women and drew believers from every church organization. Within ten years, the Holy Ghost phenomenon had swept the country, and those who had been recipients of this spiritual experience felt an overpowering urge to tell those who had not yet heard. These early Holy Ghost pioneers sacrificed everything to spread the news, depending upon their prayers and faith in God that He would supply their needs to survive. Living simply and modestly, they traveled the country, preaching the gospel and converting new believers. It was a time of powerful ministry and powerful music, with singers and composers creating timeless compositions describing spiritual experiences and God’s love for humanity. They came to be called Pentecostal, or Pentecostalists, because in biblical history the events surrounding Act 2:38 occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost.
     In time, the Pentecostals, still within their own traditional organizations, began to feel resistance from nonbelieving ministers, and as a result, several Pentecostal groups began to splinter off the major denominations. These splinter groups, all of a common experience and mind, eventually united to form the United Pentecostal Church, which became the largest Pentecostal organization in the United States. By the time the UPC was created in 1946, the Pentecostal “experience” was well established. In the 1950s, Life Magazine, the most dominate news magazine of the era, produced a series of articles analyzing the Pentecostals and discussing the phenomenon of “glossolalia,” or “speaking in tongues.” Churches across the country had been established, usually identified with the sign “United Pentecostal Church.” Preachers and pastors preached a message which was common to all churches, and believers lived lives of moderation, adhering to basic standards of dress and behavior. In that age before the internet, the church was the center of activity for believers, providing social interaction as well as spiritual guidance. The twenty five year period after 1946 was the golden age for the United Pentecostal Church. It was a period of amazing growth, unity, and spiritual development. The believer carried the description “Pentecostal” with pride, because to be Pentecostal meant that a person subscribed to a standard of behavior, dress, and spiritual beliefs.
     As the seventies faded into the eighties, however, outside events began to have a dramatic effect on the Pentecostal church. One of the most influential was the introduction of cable television to most markets. It may be difficult to get the connection from Pentecost to cable television, especially in the light that in the early days of Pentecost, television was reviled as the devil’s instrument. Of course, as we grew more sophisticated, the evils of television were minimized, and TV ownership became universally accepted. The major facet of cable television which affected churches, though, was the creation of channels and networks devoted exclusively to “religious” programming. Whereas radio evangelists of yore were restricted primarily to local markets, a preacher or church on cable television could reach nationwide and draw a tremendous audience. The United Pentecostal Church still did not subscribe to broadcasting via television, although most of its preachers and pastors had already given up fighting the TV wave. What its leaders did do, however, was watch the television broadcasts and observe how services were conducted, the styles of music offered, and the message that was preached. Another thing which caught their attention was each of these TV evangelists or churches was independent…none of them claimed any allegiance to any religious organization, and in the era of self importance, that fact appealed to many Pentecostal ministers. The result was a resistance of sorts to the control exercised by the United Pentecostal Church over its churches, especially in the areas of pastoral replacements and church organization. Finally, the UPC created a new form of partnership, an “affiliation,” with many of its churches which meant that the local church accepted the beliefs of the UPC but did not have to be subservient to UPC headquarters. The end result was many churches dropped the nomenclature “United Pentecostal Church” from their signs, choosing to be Pentecostal when it was convenient and not to be if it was an embarrassment. “Embarrassment” because it was not uncommon for the TV preachers to take little gigs at the Pentecostals and their “weird worship” whenever possible. I remember one time watching a TV evangelist who is still on TV today proclaiming that he was proud that his wife cut her hair and wore makeup and earrings because he didn’t want her to look like one of those “far-out, ugly Pentecostals.” And the audience roared with laughter when he said it.
     Pentecostals who should have known better watched these programs with envy, and decided to tailor their services and music to match these mega-churches in the hopes of drawing like numbers of visitors. Since most of the televisions church services were organized functions with choreographed performers, the same became true of many Pentecostal churches, and audience participation was practically eliminated, with the exception that audiences were expected to erupt into joyous spiritual celebration at the drop of a hat or the raising of an “applause” sign. But congregational singing and individual testimonies were discouraged, and prayer and worship were orchestrated down to the second. Church music became uber-contemporary, based on the latest top picks on the gospel hit parade or the latest choir arrangement from a well-known director. The traditional songs of the early to mid 20th century were dismissed as far too staid, rigid, and lacking in rhythm. Fortunately, up to this point, the message of Holy Ghost salvation was still being preached, but the concepts of condemnation and consequence were soft pedaled to avoid causing the listener to feel self-depreciated, and instead the positive aspects of Christian living were emphasized.
     Fast forward to the current day. In the last three months, I have had two separate evangelists tell me without any prompting on my part that in many churches that they visit a person would not realize they were in a Pentecostal church unless someone told them. Ministers, in an attempt to reach an audience, avoid the term “Pentecost” like the plague. Churches are carefully named “The Solid Rock,” or “Helping Hands Outreach,” or “Oasis of Love,” or some other generic equivalent to avoid any indication of the message that is preached inside the four walls. If the biblical plan of salvation does happen to be preached, it’s done so surreptitiously, hopefully at a time when the listener excited enough to yell, “Yes! I want to be baptized!” Services are choreographed and music is arranged to create an artificial excitement with the audiences being limited to controlled responses…preferably enthusiastic yelling. Every service becomes a emotional high, and, with very little spiritual foundation being built for the new convert, it’s no wonder that many enthusiastic converts, upon returning to the daily humdrum of life, feel their spiritual euphoria wane, and they never return to church.
     A few days ago I was in a Pentecostal service which featured a well-known choir director from another state. She had been invited to offer advice to the local choir and assist in preparing some musical arrangements. A live-wire bundle of energy, she proceeded to tell the audience that, in so many words, Black gospel was where it’s at. She proudly announced she had taught the choir how to “dip,” that is, sort of lean down and then sway to the left or right in rhythm to the music (heavy drums, of course.) We were then instructed that we in the audience needed to learn how to “dip,” and then, looking over the crowd and seeing several African-American members, this Caucasian choir director stated, “I see several of my brothers and sisters out there and I KNOW you know how to dip!” I was floored. I also noticed there was not much reaction from her “brothers and sisters” at that time or when we started “dippin’ and swayin.’” The music (?) started and in a short time the choir was in orbit, although I noticed that the audience was exercising remarkable restraint, with the exception of the normal select group who would probably dance and yell at a funeral. I have a confession…for the first time in my entire life I was embarrassed to be in a Pentecostal service. I slipped out a side door and back to the empty fellowship hall and sat down. As I looked out the open windows to the broad field behind the church, I pondered if this is what Pentecost is coming to. The evening service was a repeat of the morning with the exception that we were instructed to “rock left” and “rock right” instead of dip. Thank you, but, no thanks.
     With the exception of the Pentecostal message, Pentecost as we knew it has disappeared. I have heard of alleged Pentecostal churches which now teach that the infilling of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues is optional, or if the tongues speaking is expected, then just a couple of mumbles and that’s sufficient. These disturbing trends and allegations are connected to another bit of data I read recently. The average age of a United Pentecostal Church minister is now approaching 50 years of age and a decreasing number of young men and women are entering the ministry. The prediction was made that in twenty five years the UPC will be faced with the same dilemma that many mainstream churches have today: not enough ministers to fill the pulpits of their churches. Conclusion: The established fifty years old ministers of today will be out of the pulpit in another 25-30 years and the new breed of contemporary ministers with no connections to the early day traditions and heritage of Pentecost will be leading the congregations…and the last domino, that of the preaching the biblical plan of salvation, will fall, and the UPC will enter the mainstream of religion in America. By that time, it is highly likely that the organization will have a new name without the distasteful “Pentecostal” albatross.
     I realize that I am presenting a very negative viewpoint to these affairs. At the same time, I am searching desperately for something to offer as a glimmer of hope for the future. Believe it or not, Vice President Joseph Biden made a statement recently that may be applicable concerning these issues. He was asked about his sometimes contentious dealings with Congress during his long career and how he managed to avoid letting every stressful issue become a personal vendetta. Biden stated that when dealing with a political adversary you had to make sure that you questioned the methods but not the motives of your opponent. Biden, who is fairly liberal, said while many of his struggles were with conservatives, he never questioned their loyalty to America, only the methods by which they strove to attain their goals. I am trying to apply that same philosophy to what I see happening in the church, and I am convinced that many of the actions which are done to which I vehemently object are done with the best interests of the church in mind. However, the motives may be honorable, but the results of the methods, I feel, are going to be catastrophic for the church to which I have given my life. Perhaps due to a change in attitude or spiritual awakening, there will be in the future a drifting back to a more balanced form of worship and praise. If, as we believe, the Lord is coming after His church in the near future, this will be a moot discussion anyway. But of this I am absolutely convinced…when I enter those Pearly Gates, I’m not going to be “dippin’” and “rockin.’”

A Day on the Farm

     The morning dawned warm and dry, and by 9:00 a.m. the temperature was already creeping into the upper eighties. Although it was only the first weekend of June, 2011, nature had already proclaimed to Texas that this was going to be a scorcher of a summer. During April and May, the Houston area had received a half inch of rain, only five percent of the normal rainfall for the area, and drought conditions were already becoming prevalent. A couple of weathermen had already only half jokingly stated that what we needed was a good old tropical depression to stir the weather up a little and bring rain. Usually, the news of a new tropical depression was enough to get South Texans to checking their hurricane survival gear, but in early June, it’s not even hurricane season yet…so we sat and baked in the sun.
     This particular Saturday was a special day for a select group of members of Bethel Tabernacle Pentecostal Church of Houston. The Senior Class of Bethel’s Sunday School (and I do mean “senior” i.e...members 55 years or age or older) had been invited to the farm of Max and Jeanette Haney (members of the select group themselves) for an afternoon of fun, fellowship, and, most importantly, eating. Bethel Tabernacle is blessed to have a very vibrant group of seniors. Shirley and I are newcomers to Bethel, having attended now for only a couple of years, but already we feel we have known these people for years, and they have become our dear friends. These are people who have been through the wars, facing health issues, tragedy, death, and every other facet that life can throw at a person, and they have emerged stronger and still possessing a positive outlook on life and its challenges. Their faith in their God is not based on the emotion of the moment or the tempo of a song, but runs deep, and their friendships to one another remain strong. Pardon me if I throw out a little prejudiced opinion here, but if there exists a group which is the cornerstone of the church, this one’s it.
     Anyway, the Haneys had figuratively thrown open the door of their farm to our group, and the plan was for everyone to gather there around 2:00 p.m. Our hosts had graciously offered to prepare a late lunch for us, while various ladies would bring tasty desserts, and Shirley and I would bring the obligatory iced tea, water, and soft drinks. We had planned to use the church bus to carry any car-less people, but everyone seemed to prefer to drive their own wheels, so the bus was unnecessary. We did have three people who needed rides, so we decided Shirley would pick up the hitchhikers (we had no choice…one was my mother-in-law), and I would drive my car. I wanted to leave a little early anyway to try to get to the Haneys early enough to help them do whatever setting up they needed to do for about 32 hungry people.
     Leaving my home about 11:30 with two ice chests full of various chilled liquids, I headed east on FM 1960, then north on Hwy 59 toward the outskirts of Cleveland, Texas. Being an old guy, excuse me…mature guy with visions of a lost youth, I had recently bought a ’97 (obviously NOT new) Ford Mustang GT convertible and was anxious to see how it did on the road. Unfortunately, it was too hot to put the top down, but at least the AC worked well since the temperature had now climbed to the mid 90s. I was happy with the old car but a little disappointed that the tires are not too well balanced above 120 mph. The Haney farm is a few miles southeast of Cleveland in an area that I remembered as a youth as Tarkington Prairie. Years ago, when I worked with my dad and his company, Downing Roofing Company, we did a lot of roofing in the Cleveland area, and as I drove through the old part of Cleveland, I recognized some of the older buildings as places where I had sweated many a drop of sweat. Motoring south on 321, then left on County Road 2274, followed by a brief stint of driving brought me to the Haney farm.
     I had heard the Haneys lived on a farm and actually lived in their barn, so I was touched when these poor people offered to be hosts for our little group. When I was growing up, we had a barn, and I envisioned having lunch in a run-down batt and board barn with metal roof, hay loft, tractor parking area, cow stalls, granary for feed, and the general smell of, well, a farm. As I approached my destination, I began to realize that barns have apparently come a long way since my days of stacking hay bales in our barn back home. What I parked in front of was not a barn from the 1950s.
     The Haneys have seventy acres of beautiful farmland, flatter than a billiard table. Facing the road is a wooden fence painted in a brilliant white. The “barn” qualifies as a barn, I guess because it looks like a barn and because you can drive a tractor through it due to the large power garage doors front and back, and there is a tool and storage area. Painted the traditional red with white trim, this “barn” features all the trappings of a beautiful home right down to the granite kitchen counter tops. It is a lovely residence. I decided it would probably not be necessary for us to take up a collection for the Haneys so they could make it till the next crop comes in. Their farm comes completely furnished with a great garden, a lake with dock and stocked with fish (too hot to fish, though), truck, tractor, genuine country farm animals like cows, horses and chickens, even a neighbor dog…and everything is beautifully detailed and neat.
     I had arrived an hour and a half before the festivities were to begin, but the Haneys were way ahead of me. We would be dining in the open area of the barn, with the large doors fore and aft opened about halfway to allow for a breeze to waft through the area. Although the temperature for the day, we learned later, hit 100 degrees, it was not uncomfortable in the big barn with its tall ceiling. Tables, chairs, utensils, and ice had all been prepared, and about all that had to be done was prepare the main course…which was fried shrimp. The fact that we were having fried shrimp was enough to draw me to the gathering no matter what else took place. Brother Haney, of course, had his own way of frying the shrimp using a propane cooker, and I can tell you this, he cooked a lot of shrimp and what was left after everyone had finished you could have put in a half pint plastic bag. We were all stuffed…but happy.
     Around 2:00 folks began gathering, and the lunch of fried shrimp, baked potatoes, and slaw went over like American flags at a Glenn Beck rally. To say we had desserts does not do that fact justice, neither does saying that we had cakes, pies, and assorted pastries. When it comes to cooking, and especially baking, no other group holds a candle to a bunch of Pentecostal women. One may say without fear of contradiction that we all dined sufficiently.
     I had brought my fishing gear and looked wistfully at the lake behind the barn as I imagined several hungry catfish or bass awaiting my hook, but around the lake (or large pond) were no trees, and it was just too hot to go out and stand in the blazing sun. Maybe next time. There was a large bull out there that I could have probably sat in its shade to fish, but it probably would have moved, anyway.
     By 3:30 or so, most of the food had been consumed, but the conversation was just getting started. I have mentioned before that Shirley and I are relative newcomers to this group, but it was evident that many of these people measured their friendships in decades, not just years. Rehashing events that occurred 50-60 years ago was common, and I could sense the easy, comfortable relationships that these people enjoyed. There was more than one rememberance of the days of youth, and I tried to imagine how each person may have looked when they were young, strong, and powerful. I began to realize that in many ways our minds do not age, only our bodies, and though we may change physically as the years go by, our relationships with our friends can remain constant. Long term, true, loyal friends keep us young.
     When the women began breaking out the games, I knew we were in for a long evening, and sure enough, before long the dominoes and cards were a-flying, and deep, ulterior strategies were being concocted to insure victory in these mighty struggles. When I was a kid, the entire Downing family practically was a master of the domino game of “42,” but I have played only occasionally. I knew I was in over my head when I sat down with Jim and Pam Bailey and Alvie Bounds for a friendly game of “42,” and they started throwing out different strategies, plans, and options. Whenever I laid down a domino and saw Sister Alvie wince, I knew I had played the wrong one. But we had fun. Between gaming, snacking on leftover desserts, and chattering like a bunch of magpies, we managed to fritter the afternoon away until it was past time for us to be heading home. The party was to have ended at 5:00, but nearing six o’clock we were still breezing along. About that time, however, an unseen signal was sent out, and we began to clean and pack up our gear and prepare for departure.
     Shortly, most of the refuse from our visit was stuffed in the trash bin, and the barn had been restored to its pre-invasion condition. Cars began to slip away through the gate, and before long Shirley and I gave our respects to Max and Jeanette Haney and aimed our cars toward home. This day had been a good day, thanks to the generosity of the Haneys and the lovely ladies who spent time baking the wonderful desserts. I’m glad I’m a part of the Seniors of Bethel Tabernacle, Houston, Texas.