As I wrote on Friday (December 11) I lost a long time friend, Dr. Hudson Armdering, on December 1. Dr. Armerding was more than a college president who served Wheaton during my years there as an undergraduate and graduate (B.A. 1971, M. A. 1973). He was actually a beloved friend who prayed for me and gave me personal counsel. He also gave our mission monthly donor support from the beginning. His funeral on December 12 was a special time in my life to reflect back over the last forty years since we first met.
My first impression of Hudson Armerding was that of a cool-natured, deeply intellectual man who loved Christ very deeply. Once I got to know Dr. Armerding personally I saw real warmth, even a sense of humor, both of which were widely known to his closer friends. He was serious, very serious. But he was never cocky or self-confident. The 1960s were a tough time to be a college president. Turmoil impacted most campuses and Wheaton was no exception. Hudson Armerding was tested over and over and over. And he led the school through a very difficult time with a clear vision to keep it committed to “Christ and His Kingdom” (the motto).
All of this came out wonderfully in his funeral service. Several who spoke (Dr. Robertson McQuilkin (photo at left) and Dr. Bryan Chapell) were/are college/seminary presidents who knew Armerding as a member of their own board. They told us of how often he would share personal stories from his days as the president at Wheaton in order to encourage them through hard times. This was the Hudson Armerding I knew. He was always sharing with those in leadership to help them because he loved you and wanted you to run the race better and finish strong. He did the same with me, sharing with me when he came to Wheaton for a college-related visit or by writing me personal letters with monthly checks. I treasured those notes.
Another thing that was evident at the Armerding funeral was the power of the covenant when it is lived and honored within a truly godly family. I met and talked to scores of Armerdings at a nice luncheon following the funeral. I met Hudson’s two living sisters. I learned about their father, who was pastor of College Church in Wheaton and a professor at Wheaton. I learned about their German background and the deep piety of this family going back several generations and now extending forward to three more generations. I was reminded again of the promises of the covenant “to us and to our children.” (This type of theology helped moved Hudson Armerding into the same theological position in his later years.) Seeing over fifty Armerdings sitting together in College Church moved me profoundly. And meeting many of them moved me even more. At one point in the service about 15 grandchildren, all teens or older, sang: “It Is Well With My Soul.” (Photo at right.) That was an incredible tribute to the family’s faith. This same song was used at the funeral of both my mom and dad so it brought powerful memories to the surface for me.
Perhaps the most moving thing that I heard was in a comment made by Robertson McQuilkin, the former president of Columbia International University (SC). Dr. McQuilkin spoke of the one word that he would place on Hudson Armerding’s gravestone if he could use only one word. The word was “Integrity.” I thought abut my friend and instantly agreed. I have thought a lot more about this for the last ten days and I agree even more upon more careful reflection. If I put one word on my late father’s gravestone it would be the same word: “Integrity.” In fact, for most of the leaders that I have been mentored by, in what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” I would use this same word. Integrity always marked the Christian men that I knew in this generation. They spoke the truth, always and only. They made it their goal to live whole, sound and complete lives. Webster says integrity is “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty and sincerity.” That is what these men were!
I was mentored by men like my father and Hudson Armerding. I knew some of these great men who served in Word War II and made up this amazing generation. I also know my generation, the so-called “Baby Boomers.” While it is easy to compare, and thus to over-generalize, one cannot help but ask what one word would you put on the gravestone of many leaders in my generation? I thought about that since December 12. I think the word would have to be: “Ambition.” Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that the leaders I have known are ambitious in an entirely bad way. A certain amount of ambition is essential to accomplishing anything at all. Webster says ambition is: “a strong desire to gain a particular objective; the drive to succeed.” That is not all bad. But then Webster adds that ambition is: “the desire to gain fame, power or wealth.”
It is somewhere between the desire “to gain a particular objective,” which can be a good thing, and “the desire for fame, power or wealth” that many leaders in my generation seem to fall. This has been a continual trial in my life. I think I aimed for success in a way that was all too common for my generation. This, combined with my own innate perfectionism, drove me to succeed in a way that made me deeply desire approval and recognition. Only in my late 40s did I begin to see this as I saw it in so many of my peers and asked God to reveal it to me at a deep level. I am a long way from rooting this out of my life but I am aware that it is a huge problem and should be dealt with honesty and spiritually. I still wish, at times, that I was much more important than I am. I think this is more than a simple struggle with personal pride, though it includes that for sure. It is a deeply ingrained drive for success. As I have looked at my generation, over the last forty years, I have seen this everywhere. We have built the mega-churches, the huge media ministries, and the large corporate Christian presence. (Again, remember that I am not saying this is all bad!)
This ambition did not make all of us dishonest or evil. It didn’t even mean that we were all insincere. It did make us self-conscious in a very unhealthy way. We talk too much about our presence and our accomplishments and our mission and our plans. This does sometimes drive us to make bargains that will foster the growth of our mission so long as we did not out right compromise ourselves. (Far too many have even done this, as the moral burnout reveals for my generation.) In this sense I think we lacked the integrity of my dad or Hudson Armerding.
One illustration will suffice. When I was developing what is now ACT 3, following my leaving the pastorate in 1992, I was thrust into some rather large public arenas. I had been the frustrated pastor of a rather small church for sixteen years, deeply longing for recognition and approval. I loved this notoriety. I quickly and easily created a following without having to even try to do so. I had a
lot of donors and a lot of n
ew friends. Publishers came to me and I had an almost unlimited opportunity to expand my mission. We opened an office and had seven people working there at one point. But when I felt I should challenge some ideas and decisions among a few of my peers things changed quickly. I became a liability to the cause, to the movement. I knew I should just step aside and not become an obstruction. I had a sense, at the time, that my comments (mostly in private) were not well received. I did not know then that these would cost me in public. I struggled mightily and watched with deep anxiety as our donor base shrunk over the next five years in succession. My invitations to speak decreased. Fewer publishers sought me as a writer. A few people had the grace to speak to me in private but most spoke about me in public without ever speaking to me face-to-face. I wish I had “counted it all joy” but I did not. There were times when I was despondent beyond words. During those years, the late 1990s and into the first part of this decade, I contracted CFS. I still struggle with this dreaded illness every single day. I can recall, as if it was yesterday, asking one Christian leader if he would speak for me in an ACT 3 event. I also asked him if he would answer the question of a particular donor in a way that would protect me as much as possible. He refused my invitation to speak for me publicly and also (from what I now know) spoke with some men in a way that helped to end the support of several of my largest donors. Learning to leave this to God has been a struggle but I think I have let it go. I recently listened to this brother preach and found it deeply enjoyable.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This brother owes me absolutely nothing. He likely did what he believed was completely right. (Only the Day of Christ will reveal all of this so we should all learn to let these things go and wait.) I will also have to answer for my choices and that is more than I need to know for the remainder of my days. What I do sense, however, and sense very strongly, is that it is ambition that would describe us both. I was driven to succeed. I clearly failed. That failure has become my greatest strength, or so I have come to believe. I no longer need to succeed. I am free of that pressure. I need to do what is right. I need to pursue integrity first and last. Above all else that integrity is: “a quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty and sincerity.” I need to be that person in my internal life, as well as in my public life—the exact same person at all time. My yes should always mean yes and my no should always mean no. I need to be honest about what I believe, why I believe it; about what I do and why I do it.
I once thought I would become a politician. In middle school my ambition (there’s that word again) was to become the governor. That is not a bad goal. I later wanted to be a sport’s journalist. Then I knew I was called to become a minister. All the ambition to succeed that I had as a child I carried over into my ministry. You do not check who you are at the door just before you are ordained. In fact, you can “baptize” ambition in kingdom language and become even more deeply ambitious for your own ministry. After all, God called you and he wants you to reach as many people as possible with your message.
I think one of the reasons that God has used Billy Graham in the way that he has lies in this matter of integrity. He has maintained it for his entire life. Dr. Graham could not be at the Armerding funeral (Hudson and Billy were in the same class at Wheaton) but he sent a letter that was read to us. Hudson Armerding and Billy Graham were clearly dear friends. Hudson may have been one of the most important intellectual friends that Billy ever had over all these years of ministry. To me these two Wheaton men represent the greatest quality of the “Greatest Generation”—integrity. I long to know the real integrity they have shown in the years that remain to me.
I made a new (deep) friendship in 2009 with a man that I met many years ago but only this year got to know as a real friend. As we talked I told him, and I reminded him again of this comment recently, that I would surely fail him and sometimes (most likely) disappoint him rather deeply. I then said, “I may hurt you but I will never do it on purpose. I might let you down but I will never do it intentionally or knowingly.” I then said, “If you tell me where I have failed you I promise to make it right no matter what I have to do.” I wish I was much more mature than I am. I wish I had learned some of this much sooner. But I can take care of what is before me today and then face tomorrow. I can make integrity my goal in life and I intend, with God’s help and that of my family and friends, to do so.