What It Is, What It Was, What It Shall Be: The Legacy of E. N. Bell and the Call

ImageIn 1990, I began attending an Assembly of God church in my hometown. I had moved back to Malvern, Arkansas–a place I swore I’d never live again–after a short-lived, disastrous marriage. I had abandoned home, car, job. I had nothing…except three children under the age of three. While I was living temporarily in my parents’ home, an aunt invited me to revival services at Malvern First Assembly. I’ve been there ever since. That church accepted me. They nurtured and discipled me. They reflected Christ’s love to me. And they introduced me to the power that was available through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. My children–two world missionaries and a Marine who serves in the local church–are a product of the love and legacy of that fellowship. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

The love we received and continue to receive in that brick building on an awkward triangle of property on South Main in Malvern is noteworthy. But the legacy of that “small beginnings” assembly is what I’ll be dealing with today. It was in researching the history of Malvern First Assembly of God that I decided to begin this blog. Word and Witness was the title of the magazine a founding father of our fellowship, E. N. Bell, published in Malvern back in the early 1900s. It was in his December 20, 1913 publication that what we know as “the call” for a meeting of Pentecostals to convene in Hot Springs in April of 1914 was issued. That convention was where the Assemblies of God was born. (Eventually, his magazine was merged with another to become the fellowship’s weekly publication, The Pentecostal Evangel.)

We just passed the 100th anniversary of that call to convene, and it didn’t get much press, not even on this blog. Granted, I’m not much of a flag-waver, but I know some things are worth standing up and saluting on a regular basis. The anniversary of “the call” is one of those things. And we have biblical precedent for such memorials: wells dug, altars built, annual feasts celebrated.

Recall how the Jews reacted to Xerxes’ decree that they could stand their ground against the Persians? They partied. Before they’d even fought–much less won–the first battle. And Jewish people still celebrate that event with the Feast of Purim. So should we celebrate our game-changing moments, and the call to convene for the founding of this assembly was a game-changer in the world-wide ministry of the Church.

Thus I dedicate this blog to E.N. Bell and to “the call.”

Eudorus N. Bell and his twin brother were born in 1866 in Florida. When he was only two, his father died. From then on his already-poor family lived in destitution. At an early age, Bell recognized he was destined for ministry. He later enrolled in Stetson Academy in Florida, and the affliction of poverty continued to plague him during his tenure there. In fact, Bell sometimes had nothing more to eat than stale bread dipped in water. He was 30 when he graduated from the Academy and enrolled in Stetson University. There he earned a BA before continuing his education for two more years at Southern Baptist Seminary. Bell went on to receive a Masters in Divinity at the University of Chicago.

Here it is worth noting that many of us would not have tolerated such difficulties–or endured so long–to realize our mission. In this, Bell set an anti-ease/anti-entitlement example for those of us prone to prayers of petulance.

While pursuing his education, Bell pastored Baptist congregations in the South for nearly two decades. Then he heard of the “Pentecostal experience.” He eventually took a leave from his church in Fort Worth and traveled to Chicago to seek this experience. It would be 11 months–another example of his remarkable tenacity–before Bell had what he described as an electrifying encounter with the Holy Spirit. He returned to his Texas congregation and, under the circumstances, felt obliged to offer them his resignation. They declined to accept. A year passed before Bell resigned there and accepted a pastorate in Malvern, Arkansas.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bell eventually issued “the call” in Word and Witness. Several months later, Pentecostals assembled in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to establish the tenets of the new fellowship. And that founding convention elected Bell to serve as the AG’s first chairman, a position now known as General Superintendent.

From its inception, the Assemblies of God has focused on fulfilling the Great Commission directives of evangelism and missions. And from those two goals it would seem we have not faltered. Most of those affiliated with the Assemblies of God live outside the United States. There are thousands of AG missionaries on the field. And every year we train and celebrate those who are sent into “Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts.” It’s impressive. But it isn’t enough.

It never has been. Here’s an excerpt of one of Bell’s exhortations to the Fellowship (The Pentecostal Evangel, November 27, 1920):

“….Brethren, no man can glorify God in this place while laboring in his own wisdom and his own strength. He must be swallowed up in God, lost in His will, and moved on by the anointing of the Holy Ghost….The field has never been more needy. The golden grain, all over this great land of ours and to the ends of the earth, is dead ripe for harvest, and no adequate forces in sight to reap it…. What are we going to do? Well, we are not going to spare ourselves….Let every pastor and evangelist be a man for God and do his best. Get one or two to help you and go in to plant the banner of our King high over every earthly banner…. God has brought you dear brethren to the Kingdom for just such a time as this….Lord, we are ashamed of ourselves. You have done so much for us, and we have done so little for Thee. How long have You been waiting on us, Lord, us men whom You baptized with the Holy Ghost?….”

How long have you been waiting on us, Lord?

I imagine somewhere there’s a stack of dusty crosses with our names on them. How long before we take them up?  It will be a travesty if what began as a call to action becomes a constitution to adopt, if what was founded as a fellowship morphs into a membership, if what started in “you shall receive power” ever settles into “you shall request privileges.”

I am no E.N. Bell, but I’d like to issue a call of my own here on the threshold of the 100th anniversary of our assembly. I’d like to call the betrothed to become the Bride. Leave off the gift registration, cancel the makeover, forget the decorations. Let him in and take the vow: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Hear him: If I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me. Not if I am discussed, debated, washed and wrapped neatly in a dark part of your private “faith.” Not if I’m gilded, stained, or painted on the foyer wall. If I be brutally born. If I be publicly sacrificed. If I wreck your religion and cross the line of your dogmatic decency and pompous propriety–then and only then will the world be drawn unto me.

That’s the Word,  and I’m a witness.

NOTE: If your church still provides copies of The Pentecostal Evangel, pick one up, read it, pass it along. These should NEVER be left in a foyer to be discarded. Unclaimed issues should be offered to local jails, shelters, hospitals. If your church doesn’t provide our publication, well, it should. Ask for it. Support it. Share it.

Sources:

Assemblies of God Enrichment Journal  enrichmentjournal.ag.org

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center  ifphc.org

Miley Cyrus, Joel Osteen, and Jesus

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of either Joel Osteen or Miley Cyrus. I just want you to know that up front. I also want you to know that this blog has taken me a lot longer to write than it probably needed to because I wanted to be careful about what I said and how I said it.

The news may be old, but the nonsense is ongoing.

Let’s start with the Miley Cyrus nonsense. I don’t watch award shows, so, of course, I did not watch the VMAs. I do know that MTV’s latest VMA aggravated some people. (I won’t say shocked; if you’re shocked by something on an MTV awards show, you’re new here–welcome to the planet.) I also know that there were groups like the Parents Television Council who took issue with MTV and Ms. Cyrus for a raunchy performance clearly not suitable for the young teens for whom the show was rated appropriate. I appreciate the PTC’s efforts in holding networks and their stars to agreed-upon rating standards. A good deal of what’s on television today isn’t suitable for a stray dog, much less a developing mind. Since my mind is still developing, I usually avoid anything reminiscent of a strip show.

Yeah, so my reluctant trek into the recent VMA fiasco began when I got wind via social media that there was something post-worthy happening on television. I teach high school English; this could come up in class. Grimly, dutifully, I read commentaries and watched clips. I was prepared for the discussion.

There was no discussion.

When I finally broke down and asked a group of sophomores what they thought about Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, I discovered they thought very little about it. As in, it barely crossed their minds. Other than admitting amusement at some well-publicized audience responses, they were non-plussed by the act’s baseness. None of them claimed to enjoy the act, but none of them seemed horrified at it, either.

When pressed about their take on things, this was the sum of it: Her outfit was tacky. A giant finger? Gross! Those teddy bears were lame. I can’t believe I used to own a Hannah Montana t-shirt. She should stick to country music. She cannot dance.  And her hair…! Nobody mentioned Lady Gaga’s soft porn performance. (Anybody else think the terms soft and porn don’t really belong together?) Nobody mentioned Cyrus’s twerking companion. And where I had been embarrassed at the freakishly pornographic debacle, my students were responding to it like callused critics. Where I had been saddened at this young woman’s tragic metamorphosis from fresh-faced role model to vampy pop star, my Bible-belt-born-and-bred students were poking fun at her attempt to be sexy, not because it was the wrong thing to attempt but because it wasn’t well executed.

This wasn’t a ratings issue. This was a (hardened) heart issue. And from whom were these adolescents taking their cues? Not the media and not their peers, though they certainly contribute to the problem. No, research shows that children learn from and mimic the behavior of the very people they were intended to. Who is it that shapes a child’s character? To whose conversations are children most frequently exposed? From whom do children learn gaudiness, graciousness, humility, haughtiness? The adults in their lives: parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors…

Which brings me to the Joel Osteen nonsense.

I have a habit of listening to preaching as I get ready for work. On occasion, I’ve listened to Joel Osteen. I’ve never heard him raise his voice or sound combative or emphasize sin. Ever. And while his demeanor is a refreshing break from that of some televangelists, I’ll admit I have criticized his lack of boldness. His messages may not challenge me, but I happen to know his physician-turned-missionary brother’s mother-in-law (four degrees of separation?), so I know a bit about Pastor Osteen’s medical outreaches and applaud his commitment to “the least of these.” In short, while Joel Osteen may not be my cup of tea, I haven’t sighted him dancing around a campfire with the devil.

Apparently, I missed that video. But I heard about it when–yep, you guessed it–a link to an article startlingly titled “Joel Osteen Rebukes Apostles Paul, Peter and John” began popping up in social media. You gotta be kidding me.

I read the article. It was, in fact, a joke. Not a joke as in funny, ha-ha but joke as in poorly written and completely misleading. Here’s the first paragraph of the article as it appears in the original:

According to Joel Osteen – Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston,Texas, these first century apostles are wrong and outdated and he has come out boldly to infer indirectly that Apostles Paul, Peter, and John whom wrote much of the New Testament were wrong and need to be corrected.

I didn’t need to read any further to know this was a waste of time. The minute I saw a dash paired with a comma to set off an appositive, boldly juxtaposed with infer indirectly (which is a contradiction, a redundancy, and a usage error), and all this followed by the use of whom in the subject position, among other grammatical and rhetorical atrocities, I was satisfied Osteen wasn’t an apostate. But I forged on for the sake of truth.

The thing only got worse, but I won’t belabor that. You can read the piece–no, I won’t be linking it–and draw your own conclusions. I will say that several paragraphs in was this admission: “While he [Osteen] did not come right out and say Apostle [sic] Paul, Peter, and John were wrong in so many words, his inference is clear to any who pay attention to what he’s saying.” Um, no, his inference is not clear. What is clear is the intentionally inflammatory implication made by a tacky title.

Still, I had to wonder what drove this guy’s vehement outcry against Osteen, so I kept digging (for “digging” read “Googling”). It turns out the badly-written blog was a response to an interview Osteen did with Larry King about seven or eight years ago, and the blogger was not Osteen’s only resulting critic. One well-known minister was so angered at how Osteen conducted that interview, he actually said he wished he could have “gone through that TV set and punched him out!” This rant, which was aired, went on for several painful minutes, often to the glee of the offended minister’s audience, er, congregation.

Wow. I needed to watch that Larry King interview. So I did. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. And all I could hear was Joel Osteen sounding a lot like Joel Osteen always sounds: some polite responding, some light gospel, some refusal to be drawn in. Nothing new and certainly nothing overtly heretical.

Maybe the smiling pastor didn’t handle King’s questions the way I, the angry ministers, or those sharing negative posts about him would. Maybe some of us would be firmer in our convictions, harder hitting when it came to sin and its eternal consequences. Or maybe we’d fall apart like a one-egg pudding. And maybe it doesn’t matter because we’re never going to be interviewed by Larry King anyway. One thing is certain, if I were important enough to sit in that hot seat, I’d make some people mad, I’d disappoint some people, I’d find my remarks twisted and spun.

Maybe I’d be treated to a blistering blog or an on-air diatribe. Maybe someone would want to punch me out, which is fine, I guess. I can take a hit; I’ve been punched before. As in, before I joined the Body of Christ. Not sure punching each other out is listed in the Great Commission, though. I’d better reread that.

You know, this Cyrus/Osteen/pick-apart/punch-out nonsense is starting to remind me of something.

I remember a story about another woman being thrown at the feet of the WWJD crowd. Her partner(s) in crime had been given a pass, also. But there was this man–this patient, humble man–who refused to take part in the trash talking or stone throwing. He just knelt there in the dust of her desperation and wrote a story about love conquering condemnation. It made an eternal difference to her.

And I remember one night that same man was tried by a court of his most contentious critics. He was hated for being way too nice to sinners (see above), for breaking some really dumb rules, and for ticking important religious people off.  Though found guilty, he remained innocent, he remained patient, he remained humble beneath the cross of his condemnation. Love won. It made an eternal difference to me.

This incredible man said some things I’ll never forget, things about eyeballs and specks and planks, things about being unified, and this thing:  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Yeah, so…

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.