Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Petty Christianity

TITLE: PETTY CHRISTIANITY
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 7 June 2011

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” (Matthew 18:32-33)

MAIN POINT: Pettiness is a behaviour symptomatic of a 'small-heart.' Some people call it a sign of ungrace. Others call it selfishness. I call it a lack of a big-heart.

A few weeks ago, I notice a small interest charge on my card account. That irritates me. The credit card issuer insists it is due to me not paying the due amount in time. I dispute the charge, claiming my good payment record. They say otherwise, claiming their computers are correct. After some tussle back and forth, they finally agree to waive all interest charges on the basis of my track record. A small victory for me.

A) Pettiness: Losing Sight of the Big Picture

Ebenezer Scrooge: Rich but Miserly
As I reflect on my unhappiness over a few couple of cents, I wonder if my anxiety over a few cents is an indicator of small-hearted behaviour. I feel ashamed. The phrase: “Penny wise, pound foolish” seems highly appropriate. Guilty as charged. In winning a 'penny' of waiving a few cents, I lose a 'pound' of human courtesy. Though I maintain a cordial tone throughout, there are times in which I nearly dump a barrage of irritation on someone just doing their job.

Pettiness is basically being too fixated on the little things in life, and missing out the big picture. Pettiness magnify little things out of proportion. It focuses on trivial things. It is narrow-minded, selfish, even downright rude. Most tragically, it lacks the generosity that we so freely receive from God. It lacks grace.

Pettiness is a stumbling block both to others as well as to ourselves. It makes one bitter, not better. Pettiness can appear in many forms.
  • Like honking the driver in front who fails to respond quick enough (within 2 seconds) when the green light comes on;
  • Getting our change that is one penny less, and making a big fuss out of it;
  • Being so calculative that we would rather sacrifice relationships in order to get our own sense of ‘rightness.’
  • Insisting on a 'minimum-payment' mindset;
  • Becoming so ultra-competitive that 99% is not enough.
  • Seeing ourselves more important than others;
  • Living as if the whole world owes us a living.
Losing sight of the big picture is the beginning of small-hearted behaviour. I remember hearing a story of a child coming home:
Daddy, Daddy, I got 95 marks out of 100 for my Math test?
A petty father will say things like, what happened to the other 5 marks? Or questions the child whether the test is really that simple. Pettiness lets the 5% becomes so big that it overwhelms the 95% obtained.


B) Petty Christianity

One can become very calculative, like the parable of the Unmerciful Servant. In that parable, the context is forgiveness on the basis of being forgiven first. Jesus uses this parable to teach the disciples that the essence of forgiveness is to remember always that we are huge beneficiaries of the greatest forgiveness ever given to men. A man owes the king 10000 talents. In modern terms, think of this ‘talent’ in terms of millions of dollars in debt. This man is unable to pay, and so the king orders that he and his entire family be sold to repay the debt. After much plea and promise to repay, the king relents. The debt is canceled and the king lets the debtor free.

If I am that man, I will be jumping up and down for joy. Like a creditor bank who tells me that I do not have to pay back monthly mortgage payments, or a car loan that has been fully redeemed, I will certainly be grateful. Unfortunately, the story does not end in gratitude. It ends in greed and ungracious behaviour. The servant quickly forgets his canceled million dollar debt. He pounces on one of his fellow servants over a small debt of 100 denarii (this amounts to a few dollars). Imagine one who have just received a million-dollar pardon, refusing to forgive another over a few dollars, is that just?

Like a coin, grace has two faces. The first side receives grace and mercy. The second side GIVES grace and mercy. A life of gratitude. A life of generosity. A life of graciousness.

C) Pettiness in Church

Pettiness is widely seen in Churches too. For a community that claims to worship God, sometimes, it appears like the true god tends to be ‘self.’

  • "Why must I serve this week? Didn’t I do it last week?"
  • "I’ve already paid my tithes this month? Why is the Church asking me to give MORE to the mission fund?"
  • "Why does Missionary A need so much money for his work? I hear of Missionary B in another Church that lives on 50% less than what A is getting."

It is sad when money becomes a divisive factor in Churches. One of the biggest joys I have experienced is the growth of small groups. When people come together, there is fun, conversation, and great fellowship. Adults hang out. Kids have fun. For all the efforts at organizing the event, the food, and the party, there is the hard fact that many of these things are not free. Food needs to be paid. Members need to sacrifice their discretionary time to organize the event. Miscellaneous things need money too. The issue of ‘fairness’ invariably comes up. What is fair to A may not be fair to B. What is equitable to one may not be equitable to another. Some examples:

  • Should a family of 1 contribute the same amount as a family of 5?
  • Should a family who is away on a business trip be exempted from giving to the common fund for that month?
  • I missed out on the past few functions because I have been away. Should I then be exempted from paying?

The list goes on. If one is full of calculative pettiness, nothing is ever fair. Pettiness makes us so calculative that we allow ‘cents of pettiness’ to replace a ‘sense of graciousness.’ Pettiness lets two small coins of MATERIALISM come so close to our eyes that they blind us from the big picture of LOVING RELATIONSHIPS. When the love of MONEY gushes in, the love of PEOPLE oozes out. When graceless behavior takes over, graciousness lets go.

I believe giving must always be voluntary. "Give all you can" is good advice, that comes from the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. It must be given with a cheerful heart. It can be given with an attitude of worshiping God.

D) PETTINESS: Sign of a Shrinking Heart

Wayne Cordeiro relates how easy it is for any successful church to forget their roots. His Church, New Hope Oahu is now a thriving Church in Hawaii. In 2008, their weekly attendance numbers nearly 15000 people. In 1984, the Church started with only 35 people. However, membership growth does not translate to a growth of a big-heart. It is worrying that growing membership can often lead to shrinking hearts. One of the pioneers laments:

We have such talented musicians and such wonderful services at this church. Yet I remember the early days when we had little or nothing. I am sure it’s still there, but it’s hard to see anymore. Where’s the heart gone?” (Wayne Cordeiro, The Irresistible Church, MN: Bethany House, 2011, p47)

Cordeiro goes on to talk about a healthy irresistible church is one that ‘lives heart first.’ He says: “A mind will reach a mind, but only a heart will reach a heart.

He warns us about programs starting to replace community life, and taking a life of its own.
The danger comes when our programs outgrow our hearts. Usually in the beginning of any ministry-oriented initiative, we lead with our passion. We take more risks. We develop things with a sort of raw energy. Yet once a program is implemented, the temptation exists to endlessly produce the same results. The problem is that our hearts start to depend on the programs. We can have programs going, but no heart behind them. ” (p48)
E) Pettiness: Putting Programs Before People

I think part of the reasons for pettiness among Christians is that our hearts have not kept up with the programs. Most critically, our hearts have not kept up with the grace of God. When we remember the things people owe us, we forget the things we owe God. When we are petty over a few cents, we forget how God has forgiven and paid all of our debts. We forget that all that we have belongs to God in the first place. Pettiness comes about because we have misplaced our heart. We let programs assume the responsibility of relationships.

Let me urge you my readers to remember the grace of God. Remember that we are born into this world with nothing, and we shall leave this world with nothing. Remember that whatever God has given us, God has every right to take that away. If we are petty over little things, be warned that if God treats us the same way we treat others, we will be worse off. May we all be grateful servants, who are mindful of the big picture, to grow our heart full of gratitude to God and to one another.
  • Give one another the benefit of the doubt;
  • Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven us;
  • Do not let money come in between relationships;
  • Rather empty our pockets, than to empty our relationships.

Petty Christianity sucks the joy out of being a Christian. We should not shoot our own community on its foot by petty behaviour. Adopt grace. Sandwich each 'right' of ours with TWO 'layers' of responsibility.

How do we get out of petty Christianity? Here are seven pointers:

  1. Be People-Wise, Penny-Foolish
  2. Avoid Calculative-Christianity. Allocate your giving on the HIGHER side, not minimum requirement.
  3. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, especially small matters.
  4. Put People before Programs.
  5. Let graciousness enlarge our hearts.
  6. Each time we name 1 'right' of ours, sandwich it with 2 layers of our 'responsibility.'
  7. Live Heart First

Thought: There are three kinds of givers -- the flint, the sponge and the honeycomb. To get anything out of a flint you must hammer it. And then you get only chips and sparks. To get water out of a sponge you must squeeze it, and the more you use pressure, the more you will get. But the honeycomb just overflows with its own sweetness. Which kind of giver are you? (Source: Unknown)


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