Dead Guys and a Living Church

By LeRoy Lawson

Southern Seen: Meditations on Past and Present
Larry T. McGehee, Edited by B. J. Hutto
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
T. J. Stiles
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal
Charles R. Swindoll
New York: Faith Words, 2010

What so disappoints me about Larry T. McGehee is that he is dead. You read someone’s book, you become enamored of his wit and charm, you look forward to reading more and maybe even meeting him. Then you discover you can’t. As I said, disappointing.

I picked up Southern Seen, a selection of the author’s newspaper columns, earlier this year on the recommendation of a friend. I intended to breeze through it, dipping in here or there as the mood struck me. I couldn’t put it down, though, and in the end I read and relished all 345 essays.

We could have become soul mates. About my age and sharing my vocational schizophrenia, he became a minister, a professor of religion, and an academic administrator (vice president of Wofford College). After only a few selections, I knew I wanted to become better acquainted with this man, but he died two years before we could meet.

What a legacy he has left. Writing with refreshing insight and delightful whimsy, he recreates the South of his childhood and, when his own memory doesn’t stretch far enough, he sprinkles in large helpings of helpful research.

The editor clumps the columns around the skeleton of Psalm 23. “Green Pastures” treats fondly of squirrels and skunks and possums and bird dogs and poison ivy. “Beside Still Waters” recreates the sites and sounds of his upbringing; in this section we learn of BB guns and galoshes and Vicks salve and other unforgettable mementos of childhood. He kept leading me back to my own hometown and treasures like my Red Ryder rifle and Lionel train. You’d expect him to write intelligently about education, which he does in “In Paths of Righteousness,” and religion (“In the House of the Lord”), and so much more.

In subjects ranging from “Peanuts” to “West Point and the Civil War,” just about every page satisfies, like cold ice cream on a hot day. You might have to be of a certain age to savor his musings. I am there.

I’m going to miss this man. And we just met.

Building Bigger Mansions

While in the South last fall, I became acquainted with another dead man, George Vanderbilt. Our family had given us three nights at the Inn on Biltmore Estate as the capstone of our year-long 50th anniversary celebration. We had been to the house that George built more than 40 years earlier and looked forward to seeing the old beauty again. It was Christmas season, so the inn and the house were brilliantly decorated.

When built, the Biltmore was America’s largest private residence. Now open to the public, it has become a much-trafficked tourist destination.

Joy and I have visited great houses in many countries, never coveting (the dusting!) but rather marveling at the architectural geniuses who built them and the enormous egos that lusted after them.

My interest quickly shifted from George to his larger-than-life grandfather, Cornelius (“Commodore”) Vanderbilt, whose money made the Biltmore possible.

T. J. Stiles’s biography traces the career of the man “who grew more imposing with every million.” Scratching his way out of poverty to incalculable wealth, Vanderbilt “freely played the competitor and monopolist, destroyer and creator, speculator and entrepreneur, according to where his interests led him.” He built his first fortune shipping on the water and amassed his second by shipping people and freight on rails.

While raking in his money “he earned his reputation for keeping costs low in part by paying his workers as little as possible.” He cut monthly wages of his firemen and coal passers “from $25 to $20 and $20 to $17, respectively.” Stiles puts this into perspective: “Even at the higher wage, a fireman on the Vanderbilt (the Commodore’s luxury yacht) earned in an entire year only 3 percent of what the Commodore spent on a team of horses.

The following paragraph is about Vanderbilt, but it has a contemporary ring to it, doesn’t it?

Unions could not restrain Vanderbilt from slashing wages and firing strikers; no federal or state laws prohibited his inside trading on Wall Street; few taxes touched his wealth; no regulatory agencies examined his vast affairs or rendered them transparent. It is true that Vanderbilt created tremendous wealth in this environment; it is also true that the limited government . . . lacked the means to check any abuse of his power.

When the “robber baron” died, if his holdings could have been cashed in at full market value, “he would have received about $1 out of every $9 in existence. If demand deposits at banks are included in the calculation, he still would have taken possession of $1 out of every $20.”

He passed the vast bulk of his estate on to his firstborn son, William, and through him to William’s sons, one of whom was George. The grandfather’s greed takes some of the sheen off the grandson’s house. Do you think there might be a higher calling in life than building bigger mansions?

Renewing Christ’s Church

To be honest, I have long had to work at forgiving Chuck Swindoll. We were pastors at the same time in the Great Southwest, he at the Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, and I at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona. We both rode Harley-Davidsons (remember those posters of Swindoll in his leathers on his Harley as “The Sermonator”?). Later, we both became academic presidents, he at Dallas Theological Seminary and I at Hope International University. But he became famous. That’s a major difference between us.

There are others. One is that he has been on the radio as the voice of Insight for Living since the 1970s. I haven’t. We have both written books. He wrote many more than I did. His were best sellers.

See what I mean? It’s hard to forgive a guy like Swindoll.

In spite of that, I have been reading his books for years and have always found him worthwhile. The Church Awakening is not his best, but it still deserves a serious read. It’s one more wake-up call in a Christian book market flooded with such calls to arms. What I like, though, is his prescription. He urges the contemporary church not to get hung up on marketing strategies and glitzy programs and to return instead to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

I couldn’t read without a wave of nostalgia. In 1959 I had the privilege of preaching for a new church in Oregon (for once I was ahead of Swindoll, who founded his in Texas in 1998). For our worship service outline I borrowed from another church, based on Acts 2:42. It’s hard to find a more succinct statement of the church’s priorities: studying and applying Scripture, experiencing genuine fellowship within the body of Christ, worship, and prayer.

When Swindoll detected erosion even in the church he started, he had to admit that every church—including his—is continually threatened by an eating away of its values and mission priorities; that means, then, that all churches must be constantly renewing. The roadmap for that renewal is—you guessed it—Acts 2:42.

The author also offers three never-to-be-forgotten presuppositions for the church’s ongoing fight against erosion:

1. Clear, biblical thinking must override secular planning and a corporate mentality. Think spiritually!

2. Studied, accurate decisions must originate from God’s Word, not human opinions. Stay biblical!

3. Wise, essential changes must occur to counteract any sign of erosion. Be flexible!

Good counsel, delivered in a book that, in addition to other merits, is chock-full of the author’s usual good anecdotes. I have never read a Swindoll book that didn’t add something to my own preaching.

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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