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Saturday, 15 June 2019

Give and Take - Is Life Unfair?

Sometime back in the 1970's I stood alongside a blond young man at what was then Bracknell Baptist Church. We were looking at what was the Birth Roll, a framed sheet detailing the names of babies born to parents attending this church for the last ten years, maybe twenty or more years, whatever. We got into a conversation which somehow led up to what he said I perceived was an astonishing statement:
God is unfair!

Naively, I gasped as if in horror with what I had just heard. However, as the rest of my life's experiences had taught me, he was proved to be right.

Bracknell Baptist - attended 1975-1989. Now the Kerith.

Often I have wondered whether regular church attendance or becoming an official member was actually psychologically detrimental. This was a train of thinking which had never ceased running but chugs on and on, over the forty-plus years I have been attending church. However, my ongoing attendance to this day remains from my conviction that the "church" is not the odd-looking building which boasted a steeple (Bracknell Baptist never had a steeple, let alone boasting a bell!) Neither a weird and rather unrealistic place where Tory members are on their knees, praying and singing to some invisible "big man" up there in the sky. 

During the years between 1975, when I first joined, and 1989 when I finally left, we had a very pragmatic and rather authoritarian Welsh pastor with a team of deacons under him. Maybe this was a phenomenon I understood. He was rather short in stature which was substituted by a super-extrovert temperament which was the backing to ensure that his strong sermons were listened to, then applied from Monday morning onwards by everyone who was in the auditorium - sometimes known as "mechanical application" of the sermon into the lifestyle of the hearer. I recall during one particular Sunday preach when two youngsters, either late teenage or in their early twenties, sharing a joke or discussing something between themselves. The pastor pointed his finger at them and ordered the pair to listen to what God is saying. Memories of the school classroom.

No one would dare question his mode of preaching. Well, one close friend of mine tried, when he suggested that he should be more theoretical in his sermon content. His blunt response was that he preaches what he wants to preach. In other words, like it or lump it. Not surprising that he left before I did, along with quite a number who also walked out permanently.

However, all the deacons, who eventually metamorphosed into elders, and then into department heads over the last half-century, were convinced that this former pastor, who has since retired and moved away, was a man of God, almost to the point of infallibility. In the early 1980's he broke his church from the Baptist Union of Great Britain to affiliate itself with Coastlands, the forerunner of New Frontiers International, headquartered in Brighton. He also associated himself and his church to Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, to where our leader flew to several times. With a staunch capitalist and a believer in Eternal Security for a pastor, my former church began to grow in numbers, and with the influx of many graduates moving into town, the congregation doubled in size, if not trebled.

But throughout those fifteen years, I began to feel uncomfortable. And that despite being in agreement with most of his beliefs and teaching. Looking back, I know that his preaching style began to be centred on buying land to build a new church, a much bigger one to accommodate a thousand people, perhaps still short of the 7,095-seat capacity of Willow Creek Worship Center, but still in the right direction. Therefore it came as no real surprise that just about every other sermon was about tithing and even double-tithing, the former which I did for a while before feeling drained spiritually, emotionally and financially.

Although a great many churches preach tithing, whether affiliated or independent, and I practised it myself for a considerable time, I always felt ill-at-ease. And that despite one piece of Scripture was always quoted to justify the practice. It's Malachi 3:6-12 where the nation of Israel was accused of robbing God. Depriving the Temple and its staff of resources vital for sacrifices and temporal atonement for sins committed on both individual and national scale is one thing. To give money so that the pastor can fly to and from Chicago and also to fulfil a building project dream is quite another.

Tithing was never made compulsory at Bracknell but it was strongly encouraged by the pastor, yet done in a way in believing that if I don't tithe, then I'll be "robbing God." It was a psycho con-trick, to feel guilty of not fulfilling a duty with a mistaken belief that I was a thief and the worst kind at that! By practising it, I felt that I was no longer living under grace but felt bound up by the Law. Somehow, I felt things just weren't right and therefore I left the church in 1989, to join Ascot Baptist in 1990 after a few months without church altogether.

The real beauty of the church is that it's the Body and Bride of Christ. I suppose that's why I'm always drawn to it. I would say that it's my second home or my spiritual home. And within that context, God loves a cheerful giver. And being a cheerful giver isn't about tithing because I have to, or because the pastor says I should. Rather, to give cheerfully is to give what's in my heart. Here, under grace, I believe that there aren't any "You must..." or "You must not..." If a person wishes to give to the church and he is happy about that, then that is good. Likewise, if another person gives for the purpose of the pastor going away for a holiday abroad, then that too is good. There is nothing wrong with that idea. If there is yet another who wishes to give away all his income to the church or to charity or to both, then that is also good. But he should not have a judgement towards anyone who gives very little or nothing at all, for that form of intimacy is between the person involved and God himself.

It's all about grace, which here in the UK the word itself has become an acronym for Gift Received At Christ's Expense. Indeed, if God was fair, then nobody would go to Heaven! God is holy and we are not. Therefore, in his justice, everyone ever born is destined for Hell, no matter how that person lived in life. Even a good person. That's absolutely fair, isn't it? After all, all one has to do is stumble at just one minor point and he is destined for eternal death, having broken the Law. God cannot stand sin, no matter how little.

Absolutely fair? Really?

Perhaps not. Therefore, in his love, he set out to redeem us. And by sending his beloved Son to die on a Cross to atone for all our sins, the righteousness of the risen Christ is imputed into every believer. God sees every true Christian believer as equally righteous as Jesus Christ himself! This is a free gift, given to everyone who believes. It cannot be earned, nor can it be sustained by the believer himself. Rather, it's God who both saves the sinner and then keeps him, sustaining his faith as a regenerated Christian saint, a son of God, a new creation.

Therefore, if I don't tithe, then I'm not a thief, neither am I robbing God! How can I rob God if He himself has paid the full price for my shortcomings? How can I be called a thief if God has already declared me righteous in Christ? Therefore, if I want to give, that is a privilege God himself will take delight in because it's from my heart and not under compulsion.

And here comes something of a contradiction. Jesus promises joy to all believers, according to John 15:11. But I wish this promise is more realistic in life! I can't say it is, though. Let's see:

After five years of a happy marriage, we lose our daughters to adoption in February 2005, due to both of us having Aspergers.

We suffer years of a terrible loss. Then suddenly, in June 2013 my beloved loses her full mobility and, after staying in a hospital as an inpatient for four months, she can only go outdoors in a wheelchair.

She suffers bouts of the extreme back, leg, stomach or head pain which before necessitated the need to call an ambulance, all this caused by a neurotic disorder. Nowadays her pains are controlled more at home by means of doses of Co-Codamol, Oramorph and other painkillers. She also suffers from other symptoms, including a fit, which needs CPR to revive her.

We have recently discovered that she has breast cancer and a need for treatment with a mastectomy. This has caused her to shed tears in front of me and wondering why God is sending one trial after another in such an endlessly long procession.

It is easy for me to get angry at God! Especially when I mix with young, healthy couples and successful students in our church - happy, contented with their lot, successful at school and heading for university, others having graduated, parents beaming with pride at their offspring's success. Students taking gap-years and enjoying a working holiday halfway around the world. Older couples revelling in their success in holding down executive jobs, having paid off their mortgage, becoming grandparents.

I cry out - Why? Why? Why? Why are others in the same church are so happy and doing so well while we are living in daily suffering? Is there a criterion they have met and we have failed to meet? If so, what is this criterion? Tithing? Well, I tried that and I experienced bondage rather than freedom. Born middle-class? Quite a point, that! But I prefer to rule that one out. But the reality is: Life is grossly unfair.

Unfair this may be, however, our very breath through our nostrils is sustained by God, just as our heartbeat. God can withdraw my life just like that, in an instant. Indeed, I have learned that every single day is a gift from God. Therefore, instead of raging at God for my lot, unfair as it may seem, I bow the knee and thank him for our daily lives and sustenance. As I watch my beloved burst into tears, usually spontaneously. I feel like crying too. All I can do is put my arms around her, draw her close and comfort her. It works. A loving hug can perform miracles!

Hugging - stock photo.

Hugging. Indeed, I was condemned to hell for hugging other people in church! I am branded as wicked and unrepentant, for not conforming to the English model of "manhood." Even one of our Elders stands in supporting this Pharisaic hypocrite, taking his side. This as put an unnecessary extra layer of a burden I don't really need, especially in the struggle to look after and care for my beloved wife.

But despite all that, all I can do is ask the Lord for grace and the ability to strengthen Alex's spirit whenever I need to. I need his grace every day. To strengthen her, to encourage her, to love her so dearly, and to prevent her from thinking that after her mastectomy she will look freakish. I ask God for the ability always to be there for her to support her, and to make and keep a firm promise never to cease loving her, but to stay as one with her as long as God gives me breath.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Frank.

    Too many times we have been encouraged to do things out of a sense of duty instead of from a sense of love. When we are in love with God, it is no more of a burden to witness or give than it is a burden for you to care for Alex. When we are doing it out of sense of guilt however it quickly becomes a burden.