I recently found myself putting out chairs in preparation for an evangelical church service. I was an alien from a universe of material composition with a cosmological history. And I felt rude; I felt like an intruder. I had been invited, but I couldn’t displace the feeling that the polite thing would have been to decline. After putting out some chairs I chose a back corner seat where I could be easily ignored and there marinated in concerns over my rudeness. We had put the chairs out in a school hall replete with the shiny walls of a gymnasium and laminated pieces of coloured paper (one was entitled “physical education and the word of God”).
Before long, a man with a kindly, sensitive voice took up behind the lectern whence he would soon lead us in worship. But before this he tried to justify the act of singing to God by placing it within an ancient tradition. He read aloud the words of Elihu from the book of Job. In particular, he read verse 24 of chapter 36:
“Remember to extol his work, which people have praised in song.”
The worship leader told us that the book of Job was written around 4,000 BCE, which may or may not be true, depending on what you mean and who you ask. In any case, the point is that singing songs to God is a very old practice. And if it ain’t broke…
We then commenced a medley of songs that the congregation knew well. Everyone stood up and happily began singing about how amazing God is, and about Jesus, and about his death.
After the songs, it was time to for some practical notices. The congregation was reminded of two upcoming bible studies: one for the men, a separate one for the women. They were also urged to think about attending this year’s impact bible conference which, in addition to quality bible teaching, will have a children’s program and food trucks. Finally, congregants were prompted to register and pay for the church camp: they needed precise numbers in advance for catering purposes.
Business concluded, a man rose to the lectern to lead us in prayer. In opening his prayer to God, he remarked that the gathered congregants are separate in God’s eyes and are privy to special knowledge of God’s plan for humankind. He then thanked God for bestowing this immense privilege on the congregation. This was in contradistinction, I presume, with the possibility that God might have given this privilege to a different group of people — leaving the present congregation out in the cold.
The prayer leader now turned his attention to the freedom of religion. He thanked God for this freedom to worship which, he said, “comes from you, Lord.” This was a remarkable thing to say. Religious freedom is enforced by the secular laws of the New Zealand government. And yet the congregation seemed well disposed to the idea that secular statehood is, in fact, a gift from God himself.
It was time to pray over more specific concerns. One congregant’s mother was going to be changing her blood pressure medication soon and God was humbly asked to help the doctor choose a drug that would “work well for her.” Somebody else had recently started a trial medication which, amongst other successes, had apparently alleviated an inveterate cough — an outcome for which God was praised.
The preacher that Sunday, Bryan, was a handsome dark-haired man with a deep sonorous voice whose flattened vowels reeked of New Zealand masculinity. Bryan was most definitely the main event. He spoke well and his many-faceted sermon (based on the parable of the rich fool) echoed the age-old Christian call to abandon worldly riches.
I describe it here as ‘his sermon’, but Bryan was quick to remind us that God himself was ministering to us through the holy spirit indwelling within Bryan and within the words of scripture. Thus, Bryan’s message was also God’s message and, he told us, we should respect it accordingly.
The first thing Bryan included in God’s message was a quote from John Rockefeller who, in response to the question “how much money is enough?”, is said to have replied “just a little bit more.” This witty riposte firmly established the foolishness of John Rockefeller, and so Bryan turned instead to the (comparatively wise) words of Jesus. His reading began:
Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them,“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” — Luke 12:13-15
Be on your guard; do not chase after wealth!
This message ought to be well familiar to Evangelicals. The problem, says the preacher, is that if we are putting our time and energy into chasing wealth, then we are not putting our time and energy into worshipping God. This is tantamount to worshipping wealth instead of God, which is idolatry. And idolatry is a sin. In other words: we are made to worship God, not money.
On the subject of worshipping God, Bryan now took a rather dramatic segue. He reminded us that in God’s throne room in heaven there are angels called seraphim that fly around God and sing him songs of praise without ever stopping. It is impractical for humans to sing songs of praise constantly: so we humans will never be quite as awesome as the seraphim! Indeed, in our earthly life, we will always be a little bit evil because our hearts are inherently sinful and will always be leading us astray. The only solution to this frightening affliction, Bryan reminded us, is being saved by Jesus Christ. Curiously however, being saved by Jesus doesn’t necessarily prevent you from committing sins — one has to work on that one’s whole life. Thus, being saved by Jesus seems at best a temporary solution which takes care of things until you die … which is when you stop committing sins for good.
Having reminded us of God’s merciful gift — that of Jesus’s torturous death and resurrection — Bryan then went on to inform us that, without this amazing gift, life is basically meaningless. After all, the scriptures do say:
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. — James 4:14
Your life is no more than the steam the floats from the top of a cup of hot coffee: there is basically no point. Bryan further read to us from the Psalms:
Do not be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendour of their houses increases; for they will take nothing with them when they die… — Psalm 49:16-17
The lesson is clear: there is no point chasing after riches; the only thing we should put our time and effort into is Jesus.
Unfortunately, just because we should do something does not make it easy to do! Bryan understood this. As an example, he turned our attention to yet another wealthy American entrepreneur: Bill Gates. It turns out that, as far as Bryan is aware, Mr. Gates is sadly not a Christian. So why did God bless Bill with all that money? God could have given that money to a nice Christian man who could have used it for doing some good Christian things (as opposed to the evil secular things that Bill does with it). So what was God thinking? The truth is that we don’t know exactly what God is thinking. But Bryan neatly explained the anomalous wealth of Bill Gates by invoking the doctrine of common grace: namely that God will “bless who he will bless” according to “his own purposes.” This means that God will sometimes even bless wretched souls like Bill Gates for reasons that we simply cannot fathom (but which, in Gates’ case, may have something to do with alleviating the pain of the world’s poor and malaria stricken populations).
Bryan understands that it can be difficult not to envy Bill Gates. But it is ultimately much better to just do what Jesus says. After all, everyone who does not follow the Lord’s instructions will perish and suffer. To quote again from Psalm 49, God will “cast them down to ruin” and “destroy all who are unfaithful.”
Looking up from his lectern, Bryan told us, with a tinge of sadness floating on his voice, that “God really doesn’t want anyone to perish.” However, the fact remains, he said, that most people are “unprepared for eternity” … which ranks as a most understated euphemism for despotic, industrial-scale torture.
The utterance of this sad truth cast a quiet, somber feeling over the shiny school gymnasium walls. But Bryan was quick to deflect our attention to more uplifting thoughts. He told us that those who trust in God have a rich inheritance waiting for them in heaven. These riches completely transcend all imaginable earthly riches. And these heavenly riches will exist for all eternity, never fading away.
“May we never rest until they are ours,” he said. “The true Christian is the only person who is truly rich.”
Hearing his sonorous voice ring out with this proclamation, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus: “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”