Typically we do not let customers past the front counter. We prefer to work off of complete drawings and do most of our business over the phone or by email. However, a few years ago, we got a call from a potential new customer, apparently a building contractor or developer, and he wanted to have a sit-down meeting to discuss this project. So we decided to make an exception.
His name rang a bell. And given his antics to this point, I decided to do a little online search and found out rather quickly that he had been convicted of both forgery and fraud. From what I could gather in the news reports, he had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors, but spent the money elsewhere and never actually finished the projects.
So when this brash middle-aged man showed up at our office, I already had him sized up and advised my employer to collect upfront if he ever did actually order. The meeting wasn’t all that beneficial. I already had the overview of the condo project he was proposing. What I really needed was a completed set of architectural plans. But, for whatever reason, getting critical dimensions was a fiasco. He was the draftsman, using his rudimentary AutoCAD skills, and did not seem to understand why we need to know exactly where the bearing walls were.
But what did come out of the meeting is that he had been incarcerated, something which he played off as being political persecution, and during his time behind bars he found inspiration for a new ministry. They have a website. I won’t name this man or the ministry for multiple reasons. However, this site does have a donate button and also lists a board of directors, with bios, and includes a couple of members who share his surname.
Anyhow, despite his grandiose plans, on paper, we have yet to sell anything to him. He has gotten updates on the quotes about once a year since then and more recently has given plans, similarly half-baked, for another large development project. We’re not holding our breath on any of these grand ideas ever breaking ground.
Still, there is something about this man’s essential character that has intrigued me and it seems to parallel a particular brand of Protestant religion that could be summed up this way:
They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.(1 Timothy 4a-6 NIV)
Forgive Me, I’m Grandiose!
The one thing that jumped out to me about this particular man is that his ministry is focused on forgiveness. In his testimony, there is lots of talk about his personal growth, and the sins of the other incarcerated men he met, but no admission of guilt or expression of repentance. Now, that said, he does seem to be sincere enough, and I don’t want to extrapolate too much from that omission. And yet, that is where the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually begins, with our humility and making restitution if we can.
What it looks like to me is that this is a guy out to impress. A product of health and wealth evangelicalism. I mean, it isn’t just enough for him to keep having Bible studies with those he met. No, he needs to build a ministry empire, a huge complex complete with a basketball court the he drew up, with himself being the center of it all.
This is a good time to look at how the passage quoted above continues:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.(1 Timothy 7-10 NIV)
So many in America seem to be obsessed with size and comfort. Bigger is better. And give me heated seats with leather too! People flock to mega-churches, like Joel Osteen’s, looking for some of that low-commitment high reward religion.
But for every one of the televangelist salesmen who made it, there are a hundred other Evangeli-cons with ‘ministries’ writing books or seeking donations for their vision and never quite getting there.
You would think that the Christian life was more about having a campus and private jet, with flashy seminars, like Bill Gothard in the 1980s, and not about following a guy who gave up the power of God’s throne, who even transferred his ministry to his disciples rather than stick around:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.(John 16:7 NIV)
There is something to be said for starting something and then getting out of the way. Or at least being happy to just do what is within your reach already rather than keep dreaming about bigger. If Jesus was willing to exit stage left and step out of the picture so the disciples would be able to do “greater things” (John 14:12 NIV) who are we to ever cling to our own ‘ministry’ ambitions?
Whether they start out being good or not, many of these parachurch organizations lack appropriate oversight, exacerbate the flaws of the founders, and end up hurting people or embroiled in scandal. Perhaps more should heed the warning of James:“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Perhaps more, taking this to heart, would bridle their tongues rather than appoint themselves as the big cheese out to teach or impose their perspective on the masses?
I know the rush that comes from having an audience. When a couple of my blogs went viral I had thoughts that it may be the launching pad to something even greater. But, fortunately, that blew over and I’m really not in need of that kind of pressure. My goal, right now, is to be the best husband and father I can be and any ministry besides that will need to come from God. As grandiose as I can be, the thought of thousands of people following after my lead is absolutely terrifying, and thus I’m glad to be a bit player—I don’t think I could be saved from myself if I were too popular or powerful.
It seems many, raised under Biblical preaching, fall easy prey to get-rich-quick scams and religious frauds. Instead of heeding St Paul and being content with food and shelter, they chase wealth and notoriety or position for themselves. Despite the rebukes of Matthew 13, they clamor for titles important to their peers, like missionary or pastor, they’re self-important people, creating a new parachurch organization rather than falling under an established body that may require them to be accountable to more than their fawning yes men or adoring fans.
There are many who will have had their reward, their name being known here and not in heaven. Many more are led astray by these ‘spiritual’ guru con-artists who exploit their itching ears and insatiable appetites.
God of the Paradox
Naturally, we’re drawn to the awesome. A spectacular sunset or sunrise, powerful war machines, the massive pyramids or majestic mountains. God too is frequently put in terms of his boundless attributes or those events like destructive floods, miraculous parting of a sea, and even the creation of the universe.
Why would God, obsessed with size and power, be interested in man?
The answer is that God is as much God of the still and small as the feats beyond human comprehension:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”(1 Kings 19:11-13 NIV)
Elijah had just witnessed something incredible prior to this, fire from heaven, and one would think may cement his faith. But he still fled into the wilderness, terrified of a wicked queen and wanting to die.
We may think that God is like us, loving to intimate with shock and awe. And yet God is as present in the still and small as anywhere else.
You can’t have a relationship with a powerful wind, an earthquake or fire.
So maybe rather than the performance with a light show or having a following of thousands, we should seek to be like the One who wants to be personal and intimate with us? Indeed, it is not the charismatic preacher, aloof in those designer jeans, raking in six figures nor those who parachute in for a charity project before returning home to their comforts, who make the most difference. Rather it is those who have integrity, who admit their faults, and who live at the same level as those whom they love.
This is the true Gospel:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!(Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)
This is why wealth and power too easily stand in the way of following Christ. Sure, we can always say that if we had more resources we could do more. But, in reality, being rich in resources often comes at the expense of the mission of introducing others to Jesus. How can we ever claim to represent God who became man when we need a private jet, fancy literature or sponsors back home, to follow Him?
Dare I say that those many who most confidently claim to be the representatives of Jesus are, in truth, the most full of themselves?
Satan was obsessed with glory for himself and Judas loved money at the expense of mercy for others. We should take this into consideration before seeking the spotlight for ourselves. It is better to remain humble.
The way of Christ is suffering for the sake of others—not to build a ministry empire that seems to be suspiciously about us. It is about those visiting those imprisoned for their righteousness—not about demanding others spare us the consequences of our own sins.