I prayed this prayer with the ardor of genuine repentance. For today, of all days, I knew there was a score to be reckoned. God was speaking to my heart and having known His voice, hearing it often over the short thirty-six years of my life, I knew that this day was a day of choice for me.
For the past three years or more, God has been so unbelievably gracious to my family and I. (And yes, I know I employed double expletives there, by hey, it warrants it!) In every possible fashion. Just as the Israelites were fed manna and 2quail day by day, God has miraculous taken care of us. And let me tell you, the menu has been so much better in terms of variety! With little to no money to speak of, we have had strangers drop off bags of food that we could have never purchased. Neighbors, people we had never spoken to (and I say that with a certain regret), for no apparent reason, have knocked on our door and given us gifts of money. Especially at times when we needed it the most.
Mind you, none of us are wearing designer clothing, but, just as the clothes of the Israelites did not wear out for 3forty years, we have been blessed beyond measure in this area as well. People dropping off bags of new or almost new clothes that just happened to fit one or all of our children. In other words, against all odds, and without really deserving His benevolence, God has been there for us. During three years of financial hardship, God has never let us down.
At the beginning of 2005, as is the general custom at our church, we filled out financial commitment cards. Members of Saint Peter's for several years, Shery and I have never filled out one of these cards, for various reason, Much of that time we were involved in ministry at other churches, but, to be brutally honest, the tithe was an area of obedience that I had never fully given over to the Lord. Swallow hard here and try and suppress the desire to cry "Hypocrite!" This is one of those "Consider thyself" moments. Hello?
When you have thousands in the bank, paying tithe is not that hard. But, when you paying your tithe means that you will not know where your meals are going to come from during the last of the month, obedience takes on a different sense of meaning. For one, it makes your faith operative for the whole of one's family. But, um... I guess that is what it means to be the priest of one's home. Well, that excuse did not work well.
Anyways, upon reentry into ministry, it was not that hard to explain away. I was ministering without pay and so I reasoned that our tithe would be used to pay our expenses. Hey, that is not too bad of an idea! I mean, I am an Ox (notice the pride of capitalized spelling) and there certainly was no need to muzzle me!4 However, all along, I still felt as if I was missing something or feeling as if I was failing to comply to a scriptural demand that I have known and preached for many years.
This morning, while preparing spiritually for communion, my heart began to move within me. Conviction moved heavy upon my heart. For a month, my wife had had the tithe check written out for the month of January and this happened to be the last Sunday in January. Even before the first word was spoken or melody heard during today's service, my mind was trying to reconcile a way in which I could legitimately hold back that tithe. With the Sacrament of Communion before me, as well as the admonitions of the Apostle Paul, while writing to the Corinthian Church about abuses concerning the Lord's Supper, ringing in my ear:
27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks from the cup in an unworthy manner will be held responsible for the Lord's body and blood. 28 A person must examine himself and then eat the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For the one who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11, ISV)
Among the many times I had read this scripture, either while officiating the sacraments or as a participant, I had never really considered myself worthy. Yet, I had never really been overwhelmed by my unworthiness either. Now, please, don't take that statement as being obnoxious. It truly is not meant to be.
This morning, however, was different. It was as if all the goodness of God was coming to bear upon my inability or unwillingness to do what I knew to be right for me and my family. God was standing before me saying it was time to bring this area into obedience, and, the contrast could not have been more timely or vivid. God gave His Son for my sin, as celebrated in the Eucharistic meal. In return, He says, "you follow me and give me what you have in physical terms." The trade is greatly one sided! In the midst of this introspective moment, the following scripture came to mind:
22 And Samuel said, Hath Jehovah as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15, ASV-1901)
When one truly thinks of it, bottom line Christianity is obedience. Before we approach the table of sacrament, make prayers of confession, or participate in any facet of religious fervor, we must (and God certainly sees our hearts) be resolved to live in obedience to His Divine will. Lip service aside, is that not what God has always required? I mean, beyond who we try to be and what we try to accomplish, is it not more about what we do than what we say?
I often wonder, and certainly do lump myself within this group, but, what does God really think of our service and worship? Many times, I approach the altar of prayer or walk along my day with the heaviness of a persuasive burden upon my heart. Yet, I make no real progress or honest attempt to correct whatever it might be that the Lord is saying cause I am along on a journey and if I am not "ready" to tackle that "big" issue, well, surely God understands... I wonder if the Blessed Christ took the same latitude when he cried in agonistic abandon: 5"if there is some other way, Father, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not not my will but thine be done..." (Personal Paraphrase)
Our faith is not some passive part of our lives that dwells in some corner of unimportance that we can take out at will and play with on Sunday or before a Eucharistic celebration. The Prophets spoke well on this subject and this man's heart is humbled as I read:
13 And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh unto me , and with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them ; (Isaiah 29, ASV-1901)
31 And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but do them not; for with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their gain. (Ezekiel 33, ASV-1901) Even Christ echoes the same:
7 Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 8 This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me. 9 But in vain do they worship me,... (Matthew 15, ASV-1901)
Doesn't God know the imaginations of our heart and whether or not we are going follow Him to the cross or no? I mean, are we not, at times, playing Russian Roulette with the God of the universe? I ask these rhetorical questions cause my own heart bows in conviction. You see, Jehovah knew what I was going to do with my tithe situation this morning. The conflict of my heart was no secret to him. Oh, sure, Pastor did not know and the men taking the offering had no idea whether or not I had given to God his part or not, But, God knew... And, I am afraid he knew, probably more than I, what I was going to do this day.
How often do we forget that He that watches over us neither slumber or sleeps. He knew us before we were born and named us in our mother's womb. Not a single hair of our head is lost before his ominous scrutiny.
3 The eyes of Jehovah are in every place, Keeping watch upon the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15, ASV-1901)
I am grateful this morning for his mercy. God's grace was given to me to help me make the right choice. It was not me. Oh, no. There is none good. But, the Christ within, the God who directs my steps and makes level my path is the One who gave this man the dignity, belief in God, and resolve to do right. I take no credit, for as the Prophet of old proclaimed, our righteousness is but filthy rags before an all powerful, sinless pure God.6
Christ, that lonely night some two thousand years ago, shared the new and improved Passover meal with His disciples. He knew their hearts, all of them. He knew Judas was going to betray Him and Peter would deny Him and John would run, and all would forsake him before that very night was through. But, he chose to give Himself to men of untamed passions and imperfect character.
In some sense, is that not what the table is still about today? I wrestled with a tithe issue, but, certainly, I was not alone this day. Are we not grateful for the act, no, the privilege of confession? Where we agree with the God of the universe who says 7there is none that doeth good, no, not one...
I didn't deserve to take that holy bread, wherein dwelt the presence of the broken body of my Savior. Nor was I worthy to dip my fingers into the cup of his blood, shed for me. But, is that not the point of the table? We are all broken men and women, put back together by the sacrifice of the cross and given the solemn privilege of confession. before the Eucharist, who, in the words of the current Pope, is offered upon the altar of the world8, we cry aloud with the Prophet Isaiah, "I am undone..."9
Confession, this day, was what I needed. Sure, I did what the Lord required. we placed our tithe in the offering plate and fulfilled our January obligation. But, without confession, it would have been nothing more than a mere tainted sacrifice, far removed from a heart of obedience. In confession, I found what the Psalmist said to be true: 10"Jehovah is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, And saveth such as are of a contrite spirit." Today, by genuine confession, through the Eucharist Celebration, I feel as if Jehovah came close, nigh to this simple man. Thanks be muse headband to the Lord!
1The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship; Copyright 1989; Confession and Pardon, Number 891
2Psalms 105:40, KJV
3Deuteronomy 29:5, KJV
41 Timothy 5:18, KJV
6Isaiah 64:6, KJV
7Romans 3:12, KJV
8Encyclical Letter Eucharistia Ecclesia - John Paul II- Introduction, Section 9, Paragraph 1
9Isaiah 6:5; KJV
10Psalms 34:18, ASV-1901