Caught in a Gross Net
by Patricia Backora
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A chill went up Martha’s spine. This was one soloist who could make you cry. “Jesus, I adore you, Lay my life before you, how I love you,” the tiny songstress sang in her sweet, velvety tremolo. The celloists and violinists played with deep solemnity. The harpist’s aria was sweeter than celestial birdsong. Sniffles could be heard everywhere.
Martha floated on the breeze of the song as she stared up at the lights of the arched ceiling, their glow blurred by her tears. Her throat ached from the intensity of heightened emotion. It seemed so heavenly, this piped-in melody which had no visible source. Above the murmured music a plaintive voice appealed for everyone to continue singing in a prayerful attitude, with all eyes closed.
On the sixth repetition of the chorus, the voice of the soloist crescendoed in volume and intensity. By the eighth repetition her voice had softened to a melodious whisper and people sang along with her, transfixed with waving arms and swaying bodies. The stage lights had dimmed by now. The musicians lowered their instruments and bowed their heads. But the music persisted, ethereal and sweet, as if from unseen angel harps. Brother Jordan urged everyone to continue singing very softly and prayerfully, all eyes closed, to keep the atmosphere pure so the moving of the Holy Spirit would not be hindered.
Rick, a very rational guy, wondered how his mighty God could be so timid that a cough or a whisper could scare Him away. Rick wondered whether the early apostles needed bowed heads, closed eyes, repetitious choruses, soft singing, and professional musicians to produce signs and wonders.
The young university student was no overemotional fanatic, but he did love Jesus. Rick had visited several churches in the area. He liked the youth program here, but had a few reservations. There was much talk about maintaining a reverent atmosphere to allow the Holy Spirit to move, but what did the pastor mean by “move”? The Gifts of the Spirit were not encouraged here. If someone were to interrupt the quiet stillness of the sanctuary to prophesy or give a message in tongues, he or she would be silenced by the ushers. Only one or two favorites of the pastor were ever allowed to deliver a word of prophecy, and even they knew that the message they shared had to remain within proper parameters, with no challenge to change anything wrong here.
To what purpose was this worshipful atmosphere sought after, if the Holy Spirit Himself faced such restrictions? What exactly did God get out of the pastel serenity of the sanctuary, the digital sound system, the sweet choral music, uplifted hands, contemporary choruses, and the polished oratory of the preacher?
Brother Jordan knew the hypnotic power of sacred song, and he took full advantage of it. People were lost in praise and worship, their minds totally emptied that they might receive. Time for the preacher to make his pitch.
“Praise the Lord,” Brother Jordan continued in his cultured voice. “Saints, God is building a wonderful work here in this church. I believe He is speaking to many of you to be an essential part of it. You are all members of the Body of Christ, and what He must do He cannot do without you, anymore than your brain can get a job done without the help of your hands. You are standing on holy ground. You are most privileged to be in this holy sanctuary of praise, to hear God’s word to be on the cutting edge of the new thing He is doing in the earth today. How many of you are willing to say, ‘Brother Jordan, you can count me in. Today I’m making a new commitment to Christ. I lay my life before Him. This day marks a new chapter in my Christian life. I make a sacred vow this day to surrender to God ten per cent of my income as a token of my love for Him, as a sign that He has one hundred per cent of me. How many of you will make that vow before Almighty God today?”
Rick snorted and walked out. He had read his Bible enough to know that vows were a dangerous business. Jesus had discouraged the making of vows. The Word must take priority over pulpit personalities. But poor pensioner Martha raised her trembling arms heavenward, to which Brother Jordan whispered, “Bless you, sister.”
After several more had made emotional vows to tithe, and there were no more takers, the preacher’s face brightened. He sent the offering buckets around until they were piled up to the brim. Once the ushers returned, Brother Jordan shouted: “Can you HEAR it, everyone!”
At that, the lights shone upon the faces of the white-robed choir. They burst into “Victory in Jesus”. The happy crowd swayed and clapped. They didn’t really feel all that fleeced at all.
Throughout the following month, the preacher followed the same pattern of chorus repetition and mood manipulation. After the sheaves were safely gathered into the offering buckets, he would invite the tithers to come forward to testify. Today Sister Martha was up on the podium first.
“Praise the Lord, everybody!” she smiled. “Brother Jordan has taught us all something very important. Follow Abraham’s example. When things don’t seem to pan out as you expect them to, always look on the bright side and call things that are not as though they were. That’s seeing through the eyes of faith.”
“Amen,” many murmured approvingly.
“Well, anyway, two weeks ago I got my Social Security check in the mail. I paid my rent and utility bills, bought my food, and paid my cable bill. After all that, I had $20 left as disposable income. So I paid two dollars as my tithe. But right after that, my washing machine broke down and I had to borrow a few dollars from my nephew Rick to get it fixed. Rick just switched to a smaller church which doesn’t teach tithing, and he was able to help me. He told me to just forget about paying him back, because that was his love gift to the Lord. Can you praise the Lord everybody, for such a loving nephew?”
Before Martha could say more, the preacher asked her to sit down, because many others were coming up, and time was limited. “Before we invite others to share their testimony, he said, “I’d like to contribute a few helpful comments on what our sister shared.
“Sister Martha made the same mistake many Christians do when they begin tithing: they give God only what’s left over after fulfilling all other obligations. Notice, she paid all her bills first and bought her food BEFORE meeting God’s need. If her nephew truly loved the Lord, he would have set a finer example of faithfulness by remaining true to this church. After all Jesus has done for you, sister, two dollars is an insult.”
Tears smarted in Martha’s eyes. “Hold it!” she cried, rising to her feet. “You’re singing a sour note now! I’m a widow, pastor, and all I was able to contribute was the widow’s mite. In Malachi it talks about keeping food in God’s House.”
The pastor lifted his eyebrows. “But today God wants money, sister.”
“Where in the Bible does God ask for money as tithes, pastor?” Martha objected. “I looked through my Bible this past week and couldn’t find it.”
“Well, the fact remains you have to be a good steward and support the House of God,” the pastor hedged.
“The Bible says Christians ARE the House of God. Is that not so, pastor?”
“I guess,” he grudgingly admitted.
“Well, I provided food for the House of God by feeding myself,” Martha said. “How well do YOU eat, pastor, and how long do YOU go without paying your creditors?”
“That’s MY affair,” the pastor snapped. “You’re supposed to tithe on the GROSS, not on the net.”
“I beg your pardon,” Martha said. “Whatever we give to God out of love is not gross, and God doesn’t need nets to catch His dinner.”
People laughed. Brother Jordan rolled up his eyes. “Perhaps you don’t quite comprehend the meaning of ‘gross’ and ‘net’. ‘Net’ is what you have left over after tax deductions. ‘Gross’ tithing means before Uncle Sam or the electric company get their cut, God gets His.”
“Why have I been so BLIND about this gross tithing business?” Martha said out of the clear blue. “You don’t look like God to me, just a snake charmer playing music to fill your gross nets with cold cash.”
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