"What the mainline churches really need to do to please God is to humble themselves and pray; to repent of all manner of sinfulness; to turn away from pursuing agendas of social witness; to look to God with a sincere and meek heart, and be transformed by the renewal of the mind. A really God-pleasing church will pray and fast its way to revival. What they reallyneed to do is to read the unvarnished and uninterpreted Word of God in a spirit of submission. If they really want to be free, they must submit to the TRUTH of God. Then, we will be one in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace......"
Anything less is disingenuous, or posturing, or the same-old, same-old that has led to decades of decline. So we're told.
Sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown, harangued on Halloween Eve by Linus, to whom the Great Pumpkin comes only if he is sufficiently sincere.
I wonder what the Lord has to say about this counsel?
"Is such the fast I choose, a day to humble oneself, is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?"
OK, you know where I'm going. Back to the social witness agenda. Fasting wasn't the problem. Sackcloth and ashes were not, in and of themselves, a barrier between God and the people of God. The issue was the insincerity of cultic practice: "in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers; you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist."
If only the prophet had written a self-help chapter on how to be really sincere!
This is what he offered as the Word of the Lord:
Loose the bonds of injustice.
Undo the thongs of the yoke.
Let the oppressed to free.
Break every yoke.
(So far, so good. Even though none of it is self-centered, he could well be talking about personal purity. And nobody is against that. No. Bod. Y.)
But the prophet continues:
Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked, cover them.
Do not hide yourself from your own kin.
Pretty hard to spiritualize that bit. While I'm at it, it's pretty hard for early 21st century denominations, beset by internecine warfare, to miss the implications of
"remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger,
the speaking of evil."
We all have more than enough of that. Choose your issue. Each "side" has a yoke for the other to bear, fingers are pointed every which way, and the social media's cup runneth over with evil-speaking.
The pursuit of sincerity recalls the words of the warden from Cool Hand Luke: "you got to get your mind right." If first his mind was right, Luke would behave.
The prophet of Israel flips the agenda: Do this (serve the poor). Don't do that (waste your energy on fighting each other). Act your way into a new mind.
Social psychologists can argue about whether thought comes before action, or action before thought. Isaiah settled the issue. If you want to please God, just do it: act selflessly.
No matter how sincere we are, we may never see the Great Pumpkin rise in the midnight October sky. Then again, "your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday." Maybe Linus wasn't all that far off.
Rev. Paul G. Janssen is the Pastor and Teacher of Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge, New Jersey, which he has served since 1991.