Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pentecostals in the Park

Sunday evening, my wife and I took our kids out to eat, and after dinner, we went to the Sealy Park.  My kids are old enough to enjoy the playgrounds on their own, so my wife and I decided to walk as the kids played.  We knew we were in for a rather different sort of walk when we pulled up to the park.

Under the pavilion, a group had gathered with musical instruments, microphones, and plenty of chairs.  As we exited our car, we heard them singing praise songs.  Obviously, a local congregation had gathered this evening to worship. 

I observed a few intriguing things as I walked:

1. The congregation was essentially oblivious to everyone else in the park.  They simply did their thing perhaps hoping doing their thing would rub off on the rest of the people in the park that afternoon.

2. The rest of the folks in the park were basically oblivious to the congregation which was worshiping.  Several groups continued to play volleyball.  A father and his sons threw a football.  Numerous kids played in the splash pad--all with no concern for this group gathered to worship.

If evangelism and getting folks to worship with them was a goal, it failed.  My wife and I walked around the park about 10 times or so passing this pavilion each time.  No one asked us to join.  No one invited us to sing and be a part of the gathering.  Apparently, this Pentecostal group and most Lutherans have at least this in common...

Now, at this juncture, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I admired this church for taking its proclamation public.  I admire them stepping outside of their four walls and gathering in the open air where others gathered.  I admire them leaving the safety of their sanctuary to risk ridicule in a culture that has become more than a few voices saying, "You can have faith; just keep it private."  Too often, we kowtow to those voices instead of allowing our deep trust in God filter into our everyday lives.

I needed to put all of that out and admire their courage because as I heard their proclamation--their articulation of "the gospel"--I cringed.

Not that I had any right to cringe.  I mean, two or three years ago, I might well have been saying the same basic things just in a different manner.  But that was before my conversion.  Now, I see things in a totally different light.  I see how I was a modern-day Pharisee, and I heard modern-day Pharisaism plain as a bell.

The preacher lifted his voice in that perfect Pentecostal rhythm, cadence, and accent, and each time I cringed.  Several times, I responded out loud. (My responses will be in italics.)

"Gawd wants to bless yuh, today-ah."

He already has.

"Gawd wants to heal yuh, today-ah."

He already is.

"Gawd wants to bring yuh peace, today-ah."

He already does.

"Yuh just have to follow Him and give your life to Him, today-ah."

He's already claimed it.

"Gawd wants to bless our nation, but we must turn to Him first and repent-ah."

Didn't I just preach about this today?

From yesterday's post:

The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves.  And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action.  What sort of action?  Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power.  The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion. 

How was the proclamation I was hearing in the park different from the proclamation of the Pharisees so long ago?

It wasn't.  And it isn't.

And there's an awful lot of this proclamation going around.

There's an awful lot of folks preaching that we've got to get our collective acts together for unless we do, God will not bless or God will punish.  Many folks say this is the Gospel, but there is one problem.

It's not the Gospel. 

The Gospel is about what God has ALREADY accomplished through Jesus Christ.  The Gospel is about how God has ALREADY blessed us, forgiven us, justified us, and prepared our salvation for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.  There is no "repent and God will bless you."  It's "God has blessed you, no repent." 

Just this past Sunday, I took my adult Sunday School class through this--through the wonder of the Gospel.  A class that usually had lots to say--that raises many comments and questions--sat in almost stunned silence.  I asked why.

"This is deep.  It's tough to get your head around."

I agree.  I told them, "Don't feel bad.  I've been preaching for 14 years.  I have eight years of formal theological training.  Before that, I was born and raised in the church, and I am only now beginning to get it."

It's not surprising the response out of those adults.  It's not surprising the proclamation I heard in the park.  For every philosophy and religion teaches the exact opposite of the Gospel.  We are immersed in a culture and in a world which tells us--do the right thing, and you will be rewarded.  Work hard in school, and you will get good grades.  Do your job correctly, and you will be compensated fairly.  Follow the rules, and you will be treated well.  This is pounded into our being from day one.  Theologically, this train of thought is put forth in this manner, "Do what God says; be obedient to Him, and He will love you; you will attain salvation; you will be blessed; etc."

And the Gospel turns it upside down.  The Gospel says, "You are loved; you are cherished; you are saved by Jesus' actions, now be obedient to God." 

It's radically different, and I couldn't help but wonder--would the proclamation of the Gospel have reached across that park and touched those playing volleyball, throwing the football, and splashing in the water?  Would the proclamation of what God has ALREADY done receive a welcome in their ears and in their hearts?

I don't know.

I just don't know.

But perhaps a lesson can be learned from those Pentecostals in the park.  Perhaps the Gospel needs to find public proclamation.  Only when it is taken outside the four walls of a church will we find out.


John Flanagan said...

I personally like and respect those gutsy Christians who brave the disdain and mockings of the world and are unafraid to share their enthusiasm and witness for The Lord in public settings. God bless each and every one of them, and it is too bad so many other Christians never share their life giving faith in Christ, but keep it so private and hidden that no one suspects they are a follower of Jesus.

Kathy Suarez said...

I agree. Our parish has an evangelism outreach program where we go, in pairs, door-to-door. I did it for about 3 years. Interesting experience.

Unknown said...

AMen to What God has already done for us. A friend once told me "Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary." I wonder if big formal tent revivals are necessary if we just live out the Gospel in our daily lives.. maybe it just ain't my style, kind of showy and Pharisee like you know...

Kevin Haug said...

I'm with you on tent revivals. At one time, they worked because folks had some sort of--what Flannery O'Connor spoke of--"Christ hauntedness." But no longer. A significant number of people no longer have any sort of basic understanding of Christianity and what it is about. They believe and have been taught that Christianity is basically a set of rules for living a moral life. Hence many modern day Pharisees.

However, the Gospel is about what God has already done and accomplished through Jesus. This is not the lead message at tent revivals or in many congregations (I speak as one who for 14 years didn't really proclaim the Gospel but was more inclined to tell people how to live a Christian life--big difference.). Instead, we tend to instruct others in how to live a certain way-generally lumped into two categories: the left which focuses on social justice and the right which focuses on individual morality with a particular bent toward sexuality. Both of these approaches generally fail to incorporate the Gospel.

I say this because the Gospel cannot be lived. What God has done through Jesus Christ cannot be lived out by anyone. It is news. It must be told. If Christianity were about morally living--if the Gospel were about how to live one's life, then "Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary," would hold true. But if the Gospel is about what God has already done, then we must be proclaimers.

Kathy Suarez said...

"Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary" is attributed to St Francis of Assisi. The Gospel is about believing and living out the teachings of Christ. It is about believing (an act in itself) and doing. Christians from the time of St Francis and long before have understood this. It is common sense.

Kevin Haug said...

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news (THE GOSPEL) that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Try as you might, Kathy, your interpretation pales in comparison with what is revealed in Scripture. Paul tells us the Gospel plainly no matter how much you try to muck it up.

Kathy Suarez said...

Kevin, my friend, if I have told you once, I have told you twice (a.k.a. "a million times"): "Use the Gospel to interpret Paul, not the other way around." (Or... just use common sense... or the writings of the Church Fathers, for heaven's sake.)

What does "muck" mean in German?

Kevin Haug said...

(Shakes head in bewilderment at such folly.)

Kathy Suarez said...

James interprets Paul. Both are Scripture. Both are the Gospel.

"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (verse 24)

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[a] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Kathy Suarez said...

Paul interprets Paul. By our actions we can lose our salvation, "the kingdom of God." You cannot emphasize just one aspect of the Faith, i.e. "Faith Alone." You must teach the fullness of the Faith. Lutherans and Catholics agree that we are saved by faith (JDDJ). This is a good start, but we must try to understand that works play a part.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.