Do We Practice Godless Faith?

I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”

The History of the World is a Long Story of Bad Answers

My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.

My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984

I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.

Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:

I had thought mudding was the easy part.

The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.

What’s So Bad About Works Righteousness?

The week before Christmas I heard the best argument against Christianity I’ve heard in years.

I met with a professional woman who had worked seven years for near minimum wage in the administration of a Christian ministry. When they decided to move their headquarters, they abruptly dismissed her with two weeks’ severance. She felt used and discarded.

And she felt anger: How could they treat her so callously after seven years of sacrifice? She said, “If they believed God would judge them for their callousness, they would have treated me more generously.”

She added: “What’s so bad about works righteousness?”

Conquering Chronic Sins

My twelve-year-old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my bursts of anger detonated at perceived-insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.

I once chased my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.

I hated my uncontrollable anger, so I memorized verses about the angry man:

  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
  • Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
  • But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Whenever I sensed an outburst begin to rise, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.

When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my anger problem. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t lost my temper once since he prayed. I hadn’t even had to fight it.

My explosive temper had been miraculously defused.

Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.

When “Good” Christians Do Bad Things

I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.

when-good-christians

And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.

And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.

This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:

A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.

Living a Staged Life

A year ago, my wife and I decided to sell the farmhouse we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. While we were excited about moving into the next chapter of our life, the grown kids were less enthusiastic: our daughter’s next blog was entitled, Don’t Buy This House.

staged-life-r2

Nevertheless, we followed all the commonsense guidelines for home-sales:

  • We decluttered our closets, removed beds and furniture to make the house more spacious, and rented room at a storage facility.
  • We removed antique wallpaper and painted the walls with neutral colors.
  • And we updated older appliances and countertops, and revitalized the landscaping.

No bites. Not a nibble. Undaunted, we hired a stager who suggested we suck all personal intimacy from our home. Family photos were banished and personal artwork was expelled. Including the life-size, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton in my office (in my office, mind you, not my closet).

Next our stager replaced every stick of sitting furniture with pure white pieces: sofas, easy chairs, and love seats. Which we immediately covered with sheets. Our stager styled it Farmhouse Chic. Our kids dubbed it, Farmhouse Sheet.

After hundreds of hours of expectant preparation for the dozens of hopeful showings: Nothing.

Last week my wife and I realized we spent our last twelve months living in limbo, neither here nor there. We were like swimmers treading water, going nowhere.

We’ve been living a staged life.

Circumstantial Evidence

A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.

circumstantial-evidence

My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:

  • He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
  • His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
  • His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
  • Then his treasurer embezzled funds;
  • Over time, his ministry crashed and burned.

And, of course, he asked God, “Why?”