Faith Works 2-6-16
How Not To Kid Yourself
Fifteen years ago, on the first of March, I drove over to Bethany College, in West Virginia just north of Wheeling.
The village was the home base for one of the founders of my religious tradition within Christianity, and where he founded a college that helped to spread his beliefs and priorities. Since Alexander Campbell's death in 1866, they have marked an occasion somewhere in the neighborhood of March 4 as "Founders Day."
I was going as a minister, simply to share a brief address and prayer of dedication at a wreath-laying in "God's Acre," the Campbell family cemetery. Founders Day always has a keynote speaker, usually someone of national or even international prominence, and in 2001 it was the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Halberstam.
Which is how, after a fashion, I got to have lunch with him. After the keynote, and before the trip out to the cemetery, we went into the student union and a lunch was laid out, with my role allowing me a place at the head table.
Halberstam was eloquent, passionate, occasionally infuriated, and matching my own height of nearly six and a half feet, imposing even when seated, with a voice that rumbled down into registers that rattled crockery stored in the cellar. Yet the Bethany students seated at our table were quickly made at ease, mostly, as he found out where they were from, what their studies were, and how they felt about the campus and college life.
Then his deep-set eyes swiveled around to the thirty-something clergyman sitting at his right, and Halberstam said to me "So, what about you?"
And I found myself being interviewed, as it were, by an expert. (A Pulitzer Prize winning expert.) He wanted to know more about my work as a pastor of a congregation, and he was curious about the denomination this college represented, at least historically. "They sent me some stuff in the mail, and I glanced through it, but I'd like to hear it from you."
I did my best to tell our frontier Protestant tale, and he sped me along with well-timed questions, in a hurry to get to the present day: what was the church structure like, how did it work, how was it doing in the purposes it existed for? It was clear he didn't consider himself a religious man, and he admitted at one point he knew less about American church history than probably he should, but his knowledge was fairly extensive for all I could tell.
He also fairly quickly got at my unease at the direction of our denomination, not just in numerical decline, but in our overall function and structures. "Have you read my 'The Best and the Brightest'?" he asked.
I could just barely honestly answer "Um, yes" from a years-before quick read (McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, Acheson, arrogance, hubris, quagmire), to which he said "Good; there's a book a friend of mine, Neil Sheehan wrote a few years ago, 'A Bright Shining Lie," read it? (I shook my head no), and I think you'd find it informative and interesting on this same subject." He asked me about what I was saying at the cemetery; his flight from Pittsburgh meant that he wouldn't join us out there, and I gave him my second copy I had in my folder for the ceremony.
"You've got some challenges ahead, that's for sure," Halberstam said in his conversationally prophetic tone; "the best thing I can tell you is this: don't kid yourself."
He took a drink of water, looked back at me, very seriously, and added "The best way you can tell if you're kidding yourself is if you find yourself kidding other people." He stood up, shook my hand, said "It's been good talking to you" and strode off to find the college president.
I've recently re-read both of those books. I'm starting again this week to teach my church tradition's history and polity to seminarians, and I'm thinking about Halberstam's counsel. "Don't kid yourself….(don't) find yourself kidding other people." I have a truly grand and glorious story to tell about my spiritual forbears, the men and women of the Disciples of Christ, but I also know there's a great deal of kidding ourselves going on out there.
There is a place for hope and possibility, and a time for honesty and candor. I pray that I will find the words for both, and am thankful for having met a man who reminded me how to maintain that balance.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about someone who spoke directly to you at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.