Friday, December 16, 2011
From The Driven Quill of an Evangelical Agnostic
What is wrong with us?
Guilt or Gratitude - What is the motivation of the Church?
Her eyes swelled with tears giving us the answer to our question before she could form the words with her mouth. Nancy and I had stopped at Ruby Tuesday’s Restaurant on our way home from Cleveland. Our 21-year-old waitress was eager to engage us in conservation as the restaurant was fairly empty. We told her that the last time we stopped here the service was not very good. She immediately became apologetic. I told her, “We are only saying that to say how good our service has been today.” She remarked that most of the patrons she serves are very good - maybe one out of ten present her with difficulties. Only one table in two years of service had caused her to almost walk out of the restaurant never to return. “They were so mean to me,” she said, “and it was a Sunday morning.” Nancy and I glanced at each other in alarm and I asked, “Was it church-people?” That is when she had to struggle for composure to reply, “Yes, it was.”
We did our best to provide an apology as we told her that we were pastors. As she returned to her station I asked Nancy, “What is wrong with us?” We can only hope that our expression of regret and the generous tithe - oops, I mean tip - that we left helped heal her wound that was obviously still in need of assuagement. A more proper term for tip would be gratuity. It is not hard to see the obvious relationship with this word and an expression of gratitude. Indeed the dictionary says a gratuity is something given without claim or demand. Although we should never think of our gifts to God in the terms of “a tip” their offering hopefully would be with a profound sense of gratitude given without claim or demand. Yet, because of our feelings of guilt we project those expectations back on God - believing that He owes us in return. Guilt anticipates with fear what might or might not happen, gratitude rejoices in hope for that which has and will be done.
“Don't say anything that would hurt [another person]. Instead, speak only what is good so that you can give help wherever it is needed. That way, what you say will help those who hear you.” Eph. 4:29 GOD’S WORD “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Eph. 4:32 NASB The attitude set forth here in Paul’s letter can only be the fruit of gratitude.
Again, I ask the question, “What is wrong with us?” Yes, the church is the source of so much good in this world - just think of the plethora of hospitals, institutions of learning, orphanages, humanitarian organizations that only exist because faithful believers have heeded the call of Christ to make a difference in this world created by and through Him: even because of or for Him (John 1:3). The implications of this possible alternative translation of the Greek preposition dia are tremendous. (Might creation be groaning in agreement with the Psalmist: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Psalm 138:8) As I am writing, I hear these words on the radio: “This is my Father’s world, The battle is not done. Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied And earth and heaven be one.” Yet, we leave such a trail of detritus that this great weight of goodness is often obscured - at least in the heart of a 21-year-old waitress. Have we identified with the Pogo axiom? “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I am convinced that the answer to this dilemma can be summed up in what may be another question: “What motivates us?” What is the motivation of the Church - guilt or gratitude? I am concerned that it is more of the former - we believe that we can coerce gratitude by means of guilt. This results in nothing but glaring hypocrisy - obvious to all but the self-deceived. If we are deceived, we will trade one deception for another. If we are disillusioned, the spell is broken.
“How many sermons on gratitude do we need to hear before we become grateful?” was the post from a young friend on a recent Sunday afternoon. My reply, “Is the hearing of more sermons the answer?” And I went on to say, “Would it not be better to see a sermon than to hear one?” He did respond in the affirmative.
Just a few days ago my friends and I were privileged to be in Sembabule District, Uganda. There we were able to gift twelve village pastors with bicycles which would provide their only means of transportation and to distribute small bags of sugar to every family gathered there. Their gratitude was so obvious that gratitude was caused to rise in our hearts. We were seeing God at work. As I later related this story to a group of men here at home, several of which the Father had used to make financial provision, I was once again overcome by this sense of gratitude: “How can we not worship a God who would allow us to be part of such a deed?” We were filled with the awe of the Divine Majesty in the board room of Joe Holland Chevrolet. Gratitude and worship are fruit of the same root - the Grace of God.
I was sharing with the guys I meet with every Sunday morning at a local Bob Evan’s Restaurant about our Uganda trip and how fast the taxi vans and buses go - and how dangerous they are. I had not realized until this trip that their motivation is competition - if they can get to the waiting passengers ahead of another vehicle then they get their fare.
As I was leaving to return home, I entered I-64 West at the MacCorkle Ave entrance. I would only have to cross the Kanawha River and exit at Dunbar - the very next exit. You have to be careful when entering the interstate here because you do not have much time before you enter into the mainstream of traffic. I gazed intently in my driver’s side mirror and was relieved to see no approaching traffic. However, before I could reach my exit I was overtaken by a passenger van that then passed me, crossed back in front of me and exited at my exit. By the time I came off the ramp it was almost out of sight.
Are you wondering? Yes, it was a church van. I was immediately reminded of the taxi vans of Uganda - in a dangerous hurry to outdo one another. Are we afraid that someone else is going to get more rewards than we are? A church van - I wonder what makes it a “church van?” Just because it has some lettering on the outside identifying it as such - while the inside is filled with and motivated by something different? Do hope you will countenance me a little allegory here.
Guilt seeks its own validation through competition - if it can outdo another then its voracious appetite is sated for a while, until its ravenous hunger is awakened once again. Gratitude esteems the value in one another: “Don't act out of selfish ambition or be conceited. Instead, humbly think of others as being better than yourselves.” Phil. 2:3 We are called not to compete, but to complement.
Do we truly believe the Gospel is a gift of grace or a right we have earned? Are we convinced that our pardon is sealed? The words of this 19th century hymn have been reverberating in my mind lately.
Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.
“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:5-6 NASB Please note the use of the word bestow which means “to present as a gift” and freely at that.
This pardon is the death knell of vain striving for the unattainable - approval before God and man on the basis of our own merits. I am not sure that self-righteousness is the proper word, maybe more like self-rightness. There is nothing righteous about it. No matter what we want to call it, it has been the enemy of the Gospel of the Glory of Christ from the very beginning. Whether we call it Pharisee-ism, Gnosticism or whatever - it is a deception that is as old as the serpent in the Garden: "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Genesis 3:5 NIV
Paul had to deal with it and he called it a bewitching: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” Galatians 3:1 NIV I was speaking on the issue of religious deception a few years ago in Jinja, Uganda when an illustration from one of my favorite avocations came to my mind. I was hunting from a tree-stand when the deer came in behind me. My choice of gun that day was a short-barreled .44 magnum. To turn and shoot I could not extend my arm and the revolver was close to my face when I pulled the trigger. Not only could I hear the muzzle blast - I could actually feel it. As a result I have a ringing in my ear that I can still hear today. That is how it should be in the ear of the Christian with Christ’s own words: “It is finished!” The gospels tell us that He shouted these words with a loud voice and at the same time the prohibitive veil covering the Presence of God was rent in two. This ringing in our ear will overwhelm the subtle whispers of the deception of self-rightness and its attendants of pride and arrogance. It is a degree of deafness, but in this case it is a good thing - deaf to the siren call of vain striving.
Most of these instances I have been relating all occurred within the space of just a few days. After returning home from the interstate incident I went into a storage area of our home and flicked a switch to turn on the light which also turned on a radio plugged into the same circuit. What ushered (maybe a pun is intended) forth was the drone of organ music - the tedium of which was only interrupted by occasional loud coughing. What struck me was the arrogance that some local congregation would believe that we would want to listen to their “live” service while they were collecting the offering.
The fruit of guilt is pride resulting in arrogance. I love the way Pastor John Piper addresses the issue of arrogance: “The gospel gives us a new identity that is so majestic that we would be the most arrogant people in the world–except that we know we don’t deserve it, it cost Christ his life, and it is all a free gift of grace.” (Piper, John, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2011, p. 94)
The name of my blog is “The Driven Quill of an Evangelical Agnostic.” I am persuaded of the reality of The Evangel - the News that is so good it is hard to believe were it not for faith. Yet, I am very agnostic concerning the manner in which we evangelicals proclaim it. My concern is that we really do not believe what we say we believe - and it is painfully obvious to those around us. As we spoke at our Sunday morning gathering of the temptations facing our younger generations, I wondered, “Will there be a church - at least one with a viable witness - in the coming years?” The answer of course is yes, “and upon this stone I shall build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not withstand it." Matthew 16:18 Aramaic Bible in Plain English
Yet, must it take on a different form? Might we say reformed - from guilt to gratitude? A transformation that truly expresses the hope that it contains - that the heart of a petite 21-year-old in Cambridge, Ohio would see it and be healed.
“Our message is not about ourselves. It is about Jesus Christ as the Lord. We are your servants for his sake. We are his servants because the same God who said that light should shine out of darkness has given us light. For that reason we bring to light the knowledge about God's glory which shines from Christ's face.” 2 Corinthians 4:5-6 GOD’S WORD