I had a chance encounter, on a flight from Lagos to Calabar last Saturday, that really got me thinking about the nature of God and the current state of the church, versus what I consider to be true spirituality.
As usual, I was more concerned about having enough legroom than assessing who my companions were. Legroom assured, I didn’t mind that I was wedged between two passengers and I was more than grateful that the man at the window was half the size of the one by the aisle. I settled in, buckled up and we took off. As the plane climbed the skies, the man with the slight frame turned, smiled and asked me an unusual question – well, unusual compared to the routine pleasantries people exchange in mid-air.
“Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what are you doing to prepare for when Jesus comes?” Perhaps it was the look on my face that caused him to stammer slightly, “A-a-are you a Christian? Ah, yes, well, I mean, Jesus is coming soon and we should all be preparing.”
I paused and weighed him up. He seemed harmless, so I thought that this might be the perfect way to pass the next hour, especially since my iPad was still in my bag overhead. “Well, let’s see,” I said, trying not to sound too casual, while hoping he wouldn’t judge my meagre efforts too harshly. “I’m trying to live my best life, helping and supporting others and trying to follow my purpose. I try not to focus on my mistakes – since I will always make them – and just ask for forgiveness and keep trying to be better than I was the day before.”
As I steeled myself for a stern reproach, he nodded thoughtfully and probed further. “Which church do you attend?” I told him where, while issuing a disclaimer. “I’m not the most regular attendee; in fact, I’m not very ‘churchy’ at all.” This sparked the most interesting debate I’ve had for some time.
We talked about why I didn’t think much of many denominations in Nigeria and elsewhere – the preoccupation with money, the arrogance of many pastors and the lack of true service to the flock. This led to a discussion on tithing and my opposition to the practice when it is forced on church members as a ‘Christian duty’. As I began to warm up, I referred to ‘some pastors’ and he stopped me in my tracks. “I’m a pastor,” he said gently, tugging at his collar for me to get a good look.
I paused and gulped, but it was too late; I had to continue. “Oh good, I would love to know what a pastor thinks of what I’m about to say.” Naturally, he believed in tithing and had the Bible verses to back it up. “There’s only one problem with that,” I said. “All of those laws were for the Jews. Tithing was not part of Jesus’s message or his philosophy. The only reference to tithing that Jesus makes is a disparaging one.”
Like all pastors, he was familiar with Malachi 3: 8-10, which begins with, “Will a man rob God?” and ends with the promise to “open the windows of heaven” with the rewards of tithing. However, like most believers, he had no idea who Malachi was and what all four chapters were about. However, I did. So, I told him that the prophet was sent by God to tell the Jews to return to the ways of Moses: to bring their best animals for sacrifice, follow the strict code for diet and hygiene, and support the Levites (priests) with tithes because they were forbidden to work. And, he cursed them for having married foreign wives and having children who did not speak their native tongue.
Then I asked why I’d never heard any pastor quote the law of tithing, which gives quite specific instructions on who should pay, how it is collected and how it should be spent – on widows, orphans and the poor. For some reason, they don’t seem too keen to repeat the part which says that if you can’t make it to the temple in Jerusalem, you should bring all the food together, with beer and wine, and have a party. And here’s the really bad news – the priests are supposed to get the annual tithe every third year.
My point in all of this was, “Can you be a Christian and select only the Mosaic laws which appear to support your fundraising activities, while conveniently discarding the rest as being part of a redundant ‘old covenant’?” And more importantly, “How does this help anyone to figure out what they should be doing to live their best life?”
The man of the cloth appeared deep in thought, before he said, “I think there’s a reason why we had this conversation today. I’ve learned something by listening to you, instead of preaching to you.” And with that, we rounded out the rest of the flight, agreeing that if pastors, or indeed anyone, are fulfilling their purpose and bringing value to the lives of others, they shouldn’t have to compel anyone to support them financially. People will do it gladly.
As we glided over Calabar, I thought about all the charities, foundations and churches that exist primarily to serve mankind, through poverty, war, famine and flood. Then I remembered all the slick, white-suited pastors I had seen or met, seemingly oblivious to the needs of the poor people they keep urging to give more and more – in offerings, tithes, ‘first fruits’, ‘seed-sowing’ and the purchase of ‘healing’ oils, ‘holy’ water and ‘blessed’ handkerchiefs.
Finally, I thought of the bodyguards, private planes and palatial homes; the rewards of preaching the gospel of a man who walked everywhere, had no permanent home and borrowed a donkey once to make a short journey. I wondered what he would make of it all. If he ever makes it back, perhaps we could discuss it in a cramped economy cabin, somewhere above the clouds.