December 7, 2005

Decreasing the Surplus Congregation

1548 page14 capHE COOL NIGHT AIR WHISTLED through the heavy garments of the two brave men. Their goal was determined, and even the fierce bite of the relentless snow could not deter their intention. As they approached the door, a dim light could be seen through the frosted panes. Knocking and finding the door ajar, the two men entered.

The room was cold. The air foul-smelling. A miserly fragment of coal provided a faint light and no warmth for the occupant, who was too busy to notice the intruders.

?Merry Christmas, sir,? chimed one of the strangers. ?Sir, at this festive season of the year it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.?

1548 page14?Excellent, then I suggest you do so,? came the reply from the sour-faced elderly man.

?You miss our point, sir. The poor suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessities,? the gentle stranger responded.

?Are there no prisons?? came the coarse reply.

With a voice saddened by the tone of the elderly gentleman, the young man?s crackled response could barely be heard: ?Oh indeed there are, sir. That?s something there is no shortage of.?

?And the workshops? Are they still in operation?? the old man questioned with authority.

?They are, sir. I wish I could say they are not,? came the reply from the broken intruder.

?I?m very glad to hear it. For a moment I was afraid that something had occurred that stopped them in their useful purpose.?

The old man?s words sent a chill through both intruders, more intense than the cold wet snow they?d endured that evening. But with strong determination, and sensing the old man?s intolerance to their presence, the second of the solicitors spoke:

?But sir, a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We chose this time, sir, because it is a time when want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices. What can I put you down for, sir??

?Nothing,? the old man replied.

The raised voice of the harsh old man signaled that he had had just about enough of this conversation.

?Ah, you wish to remain anonymous,? came the optimistic reply.

?I wish to be left alone. I do not make myself merry at Christmas, and I cannot afford to make others merry. I have been forced to support the establishments I mentioned through taxation, and God knows they cost more than they are worth. Those who are badly off must go there.?

Both visitors looked at each other in amazement. Mustering up courage, one of the men responded, ?Many would rather die than go there.?

Sensing an opportunity to end the discussion, the acrid old man replied, ?If they would rather die, then let them do it and decrease the surplus population.?

Most are familiar with this scene from Charles Dickens? novel A Christmas Carol (here adapted). Ebenezer Scrooge?s harsh words, ?If they would rather die, then let them do it and decrease the surplus population,? could come only from the unsanctified lips of an unbeliever. Even in the realm of fiction the Christian is repulsed at such a thought. Or are we?

Unfortunately, this same abrasive scene is too often re-created in many Christian churches today, and not only during the Christmas season. The players are different, the words varied, but the end result is the same: ?If they would rather leave, then let them do it and decrease the surplus congregation.?

I Was Shocked, Speechless
One Sabbath as I arrived at church with three young visitors, we were met by a bustling deaconess. Without even a salutation, she grabbed the oldest of our three friends by the tie, raised it over his head, and said, ?Son, you can?t wear a tie like this to church.? She promptly released her grip and stormed off.

1548 page14I was speechless. I glanced at my 10-year-old friend and saw devastation in his eyes. This was his new tie. Sure it was unique, but certainly not offensive. He had saved his allowance and purchased it specifically for church, but instead of receiving words of encouragement, the message he received was: I don?t approve of that tie, young man, so why don?t you just leave and decrease the surplus congregation! He did, and neither he nor his family have ever set foot in a Seventh-day Adventist church again.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated instance. Over the years, as I?ve visited in the homes of precious souls, I have heard numerous accounts of similar scenes played out in churches of all denominations. Is it because of the ?surplus? in our congregations that such blatant misconduct is evident, and even tolerated?

Of course not. Perhaps, then, we have simply forgotten the cost of a soul. Like Dickens? Ebenezer Scrooge, many professed Christians seem to be unconcerned about the well-being of their fellow brothers and sisters. They appear to be intolerant of those who do not measure up to their standards. They seem indifferent to the statement uttered by the apostle Paul, ?Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. . . . Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus? (Phil. 2:3-5). It appears that in the lives of many who profess the name of Jesus, the mind of Scrooge, before his ?conversion,? is prominent--an unconcerned mind, an intolerant mind, a carnal mind.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, professed Christians today need to be visited by a ?Ghost?--the Holy Ghost. Paul says: ?For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance? (1 Thess. 1:5). Perhaps we need this same miraculous power, this dunamis, to help us recall our past, examine our present, and look ahead to our future. Only as we see Jesus? great care, His compassion, and His tolerance in our own lives does it become possible for us to replicate the mind of Christ and treat our brothers and sisters in the same caring, tolerant manner that Jesus has treated us.

Never Forget Where God Found You
As we journey back over our past we recall our mistakes, our intolerance, our impatience. However, we also remember a caring, compassionate God who led us only as quickly (or slowly) as we were able to follow. For many, it took years of tender patience and love from our heavenly Father to bring us to an understanding of His plan in our lives. Should we not offer that same patience and love to others as they also find their way with God? We would do well to remember the words of the great apostle Paul: ?Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers? (Eph. 4:29). If our words and actions do not edify, do not encourage--or if they do not minister grace to those who hear--they?d be better left unsaid.

Those who believe they ?have arrived? in their relationship with the Lord might be reminded of a similar group of individuals who lived during the time of Christ--the Pharisees. Their immediate progenitors were the Hasidim (or ?pious ones?), a society of men zealous for religion. But in their zeal they often transgressed the very law they professed to uphold, and their attitude became external, formal, mechanical. They placed emphasis not upon the righteousness of an action, but upon its formal correctness.

Consequently, their opposition to Christ was inevitable; His manner of life and teaching was essentially a condemnation of theirs.

We face the same problem today, with a tendency to focus on the external, the formal, the mechanical. Believing we?re walking in the very shadow of Jesus, we?re seeing the mote in our brother?s or sister?s eye, while failing to recognize our own desperate condition. We become ?joy-suckers? in our churches, spiritual assassins of God?s children. The condition of some in our churches today clearly reeks of unconcern and blatant intolerance, and the only remedy is self-examination.

Not Bringing Needless Offense
1548 page14After visiting his past and present condition, Ebenezer Scrooge was reluctant to look at his future. Yet his reluctance pales in comparison to the tenacious diffidence offered by many professed Christians to take a scriptural glance at our future. We continue with our scolding, uncaring attitude. Jesus says in Matthew 12:36 that ?every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.? We so often fail to see the numerous examples of thoughtfulness and care for His children that Jesus manifested, and as a consequence fail to seek His grace and righteousness--hence our indifference. We need to remember Jesus? words in Luke 17:2 about those who bring needless offense to others: ?It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin? (NIV).

Dickens? story has a joyous ending. So too can the life of every professed Christian. As we reexamine our past and understand how God has led us, we become ?confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in [us] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ? (Phil. 1:6). And we recognize that this same Jesus is at work in the lives of every professed Christian. We?d then be less inclined to interfere with His good work.

Recognizing our present condition--our need of self-examination--let?s commit ourselves to daily communion with our Savior through prayer and Bible study. Only then will we develop the mind of Christ and look to our future with assurance.

Brendan White is senior pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist church in Lake City, Florida.