A President, a Poet, and Prescriptions for the Church

By LeRoy Lawson

Eisenhower in War and Peace
Jean Edward Smith

New York: Random House, 2012

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey
Richard Blanco

Boston: Beacon Press, 2013

Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And How 4 Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible
Thom and Joani Schultz

Loveland: Group Publishing, 2013

Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore: And How 4 Acts of Love Will Make Your Faith Magnetic
Thom and Joani Schultz

Loveland: Group Publishing, 2014

 

Dwight Eisenhower was America’s president during my teen years. To this Oregon adolescent he loomed larger than life: former supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in World War II and the nation’s popular grandfather in the White House.

11_fmb_books_jn2Students of the 1950s love to disparage those years as an age of innocence (or hypocrisy, depending on the writer’s point of view), or as the passive prelude to the explosive, rebellious 1960s. It was, they insist, an era presided over by a golfing, inarticulate, unengaged old man who let the government drift dangerously as the Russians threatened ever more menacingly.

Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace proves that picture wrong in almost every particular. “I Like Ike” campaign buttons captured the genuine likeability of the man, but his ready smile misled—and fostered his amazing poll numbers for eight years. He was not a great military strategist, that’s true. His genius lay elsewhere, in his extraordinary ability to coax consensus from the oversized egos among the military brass in wartime and later among the politicians who put him into the White House but virtually defied him to govern.

He was no saint. He smoked too much (up to four packs a day before he quit) and swore like a—well, like a soldier. He had a fierce temper, held no use for church membership personally (until convinced it would be politically astute to join the Presbyterian church early in his presidency), kept a mistress while separated from his wife, Mamie, during the long years of war, and could be coldly calculating to advance his career. He could even be petty in some of his personal relations (as with President Truman, who comes across these pages as the more mature man).

And yet. He hated war and kept the nation out of it through both of his terms. After he settled the Korean War, not one American soldier died during his tenure. He often had to oppose his most powerful advisers who really, really wanted to drop newly minted nuclear bombs in the name of national security. He reluctantly but conscientiously sent federal troops to protect African-American
children in the South. The Supreme Court had ordered desegregation, so desegregation it would be. He expanded Social Security to cover millions more beneficiaries than ever before. He balanced the budget.

How refreshing it was to read of the Republican president’s ability to work with the Democrat-ruled Senate and House, a lost art, it seems. He actually enjoyed greater cooperation with the Democrats than with the isolationists and obstructionists in his own party. Without such cooperation, many of his major accomplishments (such as the Interstate Highway System) would have been doomed.

A measure of the man’s moral authority was seen in the shock Americans expressed when we learned that his government (with his approval) lied when the Russians shot down Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane. (Who today would be shocked to learn the government lied?)

Eisenhower in War and Peace reminded me of how America has changed in my lifetime. We are a far, far different country from the one Ike led in war and peace.

“Eisenhower gave the country eight years of peace and prosperity. No other president in the twentieth century can make that claim.” Not bad, don’t you think?

Changed Life

When our current president was inaugurated for his second term, he tapped Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco (For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey) to read an original poem for the occasion.

For All of Us, One Today is an unusual book, offered up in humility and unfeigned pride. President Obama’s people asked Blanco to submit three entries. One would be selected. He did so. All three are in this slim volume; all are personal, almost embarrassingly so, yet at the same time proudly patriotic. Blanco is celebrating America’s diversity and openness. He represents several minorities at once: He’s a Cuban-American. He’s gay. He’s an engineer by profession. He’s an intellectual.

Having labored in the obscurity that hides most poets, Blanco’s appearance in the inauguration program thrust him, an immigrant’s son, into the public eye. It changed his life. Here he returns the favor, expressing his gratitude in little vignettes like this one:

Arm in arm, I escort my mother down the steps to the Capitol platform. Her story began when she was born in a dirt-floor home in rural Cuba. She sold oranges to pay for schoolbooks and had only one pair of shoes, and now she is a guest of honor seated next to her son on stage with the president of the United States, members of the US Congress and Supreme Court, as well as James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyonce.

As I said, with humility and unfeigned pride.

Just Love

At the prompting of a respected friend who laments the decline of American churches and is doing everything he can to stem the tide, I recently read two of Thom and Joani Schultz’s books, their prescriptions for a cure. This creative couple devoted years to working with children and teenagers (eventually founding and directing Group Publishing). In these books they take on decrepit and dying churches with a radical freshness that sometimes left this reviewer gasping for breath—not because they are so wrong but because they are so refreshingly, incautiously right.

The titles exaggerate. Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore and Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore. It’s just not true that nobody wants to attend church and nobody wants to hang out with us Christians. It is true, however, that fewer and fewer people want to do either. So what should we do?

We should learn to love, the authors announce, not exactly originally. Not just “talk about it” love, either, but sacrificing, selfless, thinking-of-them-instead-of-about-us love. Love that isn’t satisfied with churches doing “business as usual,” because that usual business isn’t really loving. It’s self-protective, self-serving, ego-driven, seeker-rejecting routine.

Harsh words, but their hope is to shake us out of our lethargy before it’s too late. As I write this review I am serving as ad interim pastor of a large, successful church. It is apparent, however, that without substantial and sometimes painful adjustments, this church won’t remain either large or successful. The good news is that the leaders are aware and are taking steps to guarantee that love, real love, will permeate the congregation’s culture, even if that means—and it does—that some of our most cherished practices need to be scrapped.

They can pick up some good ideas for reform from Thom and Joani’s books. The Schultzes repeat themselves, but their principles bear repeating. You’ll quickly discover the authors aren’t much interested in rearranging church structures or revising the bylaws. They aren’t even interested in refreshing Sunday morning worship with a bigger band and strobe lights and fog machines.

They are interested in how each of us Christians can express personal love for others in an accepting, loving community that introduces people to Jesus and helps them become better acquainted.

That’s all.

LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.

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