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The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

 

Luke 7:36-52

As a youngster I hated washing or drying the dishes. Because the family kept eating, there was no lasting relief from dish-duty. The task was never done, and the task was onerous. More to the point, I hated dish-duty because of the mood around the kitchen sink: whenever my sisters and I did the dishes, we fought. As often as we fought, I lost, my sisters being then (as now) formidable man-eaters.

Several years later it all turned around for me. I couldn’t wait to do the dishes. You see, I had fallen in love. That first week Maureen and I spent at her parents’ cottage (don’t worry, her mother was there the whole time!); regardless of who prepared the means, Maureen and I did the dishes. It was one more time to be alone together. Mind you, it took a lot longer to do the dishes now, since dish-duty was frequently interrupted by kisses as protracted as they were intense. (We kissed so ardently that our teeth were out of alignment for hours afterwards!) As for fighting over the dishes — never! Now the kitchen sink was the venue of passion. The power of a new affection is amazing, isn’t it!

Last century a profound Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, used to speak of the Christian life as a life motivated and directed by what he called “the expulsive power of a new affection”. Chalmers had noticed one thing above all else in his years of ministry: berating people to do this or that (or stop doing this or that), cajoling people, browbeating them, embarrassing them — it was wholly sub-Christian and hopelessly unproductive. Chalmers had noticed that when people knew themselves cherished by Jesus Christ and flooded with his love, their hearts exploded in love for him. As love for their Lord became the characteristic of their lives, lesser loves, lesser affections, lesser attachments — whatever it was that characterized them previously — these were expelled coincidentally and forgotten forever as they dried up and withered away.

We 20th century people don’t use vocabulary like “the expulsive power of a new affection”. Yet we know that while vocabularies change, the human situation does not. For this reason I have not been surprised at the conclusions of Gerald May, M.D. Gerald May is an American psychiatrist (much-mentioned from this pulpit) who began his medical career with the United States Air Force in Viet Nam. When he returned to the U.S.A. he worked in Washington among men and women who were substance-abusers. By his own admission his work was an abysmal failure. He discovered that his psychiatric sophistication was ineffective, unable to do anything for people who were “hooked”. On the other hand he was startled to see that para-church organizations (like the Twelve-Step Recovery Programs) were far more effective despite their psychiatric crudeness. He came to see first-hand the expulsive power of a new affection.

Dr. May has become a major figure in the field of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy. Spiritual direction assists earnest Christians in discerning God’s way with them and God’s will for them and God’s work within them, at the same time as it identifies and removes impediments to their moving deeper into the fathomless depths of God’s life and love.

Gerald May is convinced that while not very of us are substance-abusers, all of us are addicts. He says we are addicted inasmuch as we are persistently deflected from our true love, our proper love, our love for God. Anything to which we cling or which clings to us, short-circuiting that love with which we are meant to love God, deflecting that love into lesser objects and attachments unworthy of it; to that thing we are addicted, says May. Only grace can break these scarcely-noticed yet spiritually-inhibitive addictions, says May, but grace certainly can.

Many things addict people. Food addicts some, we know, but food-avoidance addicts others. (An obsession with remaining slender is an addiction. An obsession with a beauty-contest body is an addiction.) Social climbing addicts some, acquiring a superior reputation addicts others, having our children mirror us as we wish we could have been addicts others. We are addicted to anything that deflects us from our true love, our real home, our profoundest happiness, God. We are addicted to anything that impedes our moving deeper into him whose depths would render us able to do no more than stammer about him.

We should be blind — and ridiculous — if we pretended that money isn’t a raging addiction. Money, together with the pursuits that money gathers around itself, is a raging addiction. The Hebrew mind has always known this. That’s why Jesus says more about money than about any other single thing. Jesus insists that money is a spiritual threat before which other spiritual threats pale. According to our Lord there is no spiritual threat like money. In the Matthew’s gospel and Mark’s, one verse out of ten discusses money; in Luke’s gospel, one verse out of eight; in James’s tiny epistle, one verse out of five. Since you and I regularly read right past these verses we should listen to Mark Twain. Mark Twain said he was unlike most people in that whereas they were bothered by the bible-passages they couldn’t understand, he was bothered by the passages he could understand — so bothered that he preferred not to read them! No single item is as discussed as often in scripture as money is simply because no single item is as spiritually threatening.

Not even sex. Only a fool would deny that sex can be a spiritual threat. But when is the last time we became upset over our children’s access to glossy pictures of a naked Ferrari provocatively posed, or of a dream-home calculated to render someone’s fantasies uncontrollable? We deplore addiction to pornography, pity the person “hooked” by it, and tell him he should leave no stone unturned in getting help before his inner life is messed-up, his outer life a disgrace, and he himself compromised, bent, broken. When faced with addiction to credit cards we — what do we do? Last week a Christian counselor known to me advised a young married man plainly addicted to credit cards to declare personal bankruptcy. That way he won’t have to pay his creditors and in only six months the bank will issue him another credit card!

A man and his ten year old son were out walking on Queen Street when the son walked past a penny on the sidewalk. Immediately the father backed him up (the father himself told me) in order to teach his son the value of money. “Do you know when you can afford to walk past a penny on the sidewalk?”, he lectured officiously, “when you can give a bank clerk 99 cents and the clerk will give you one dollar. Only then.” My heart sank. Is that the attitude to money that a church family learned here, under my leadership? Only grace can break an addiction. Only grace could have found that parent saying to his son, “Do you know when you can afford to walk past a penny on the sidewalk? When there is no one, anywhere, who is hungry; no one who is homeless; no one who is without the light and truth and life of that gospel by which he or she becomes and remains a child of God. That’s when you can afford to walk past a penny!”

Some people will want to say they can’t afford to walk past a penny for another reason. The mortgage is large. I am the last person to pretend that mortgages aren’t onerous. Still, two considerations always have to be kept in mind. One, the size of the mortgage is controlled by the size of the house. How much house do we need? (More about this in a moment.) Two, family incomes in this congregation are generally much higher than in Mississauga at large. Approximately 4% of Mississauga’s families have a total family income (where “total family income” includes any number of wage-earners) under $8500 per year; 9% of Mississauga’s families have a total family income under $16000 per year; 17% under $24000 per year; 27% under $35000. I am not denying for a minute that we certainly have in our congregation families (a family may be a single person) whose income bracket I have just mentioned. Nevertheless, on the whole our congregation is vastly more affluent than this.

And now a word about the size of houses. For the longest time I was puzzled as to why Mississaugans purchase houses of thousands of square feet when the house is occupied by only four or three or even two people, two people both of whom are out of the house all day. Why do people buy much more house than they need? One day an accountant gave me the answer: a big house is the best tax-shelter one can have. Immediately I saw how stupid I have been. I live in a one thousand square foot house that backs onto the world’s largest dog-food factory. As a tax-shelter it’s dismal. Still, when I am tempted to berate myself I allow myself to feel better by remembering that I had always thought a house to be a weather-shelter.

I shall continue to think of a house as weather-shelter. For if I think of it as anything else I know that my heart will shrivel. And there is no shelter against a shrivelled heart, even as there is no shelter before God against our unbelief, our debility and death, our appointment with the judge on the day he has set.

It was different with the Christians in Macedonia. They had heard of the plight of the Christians in Jerusalem. Paul tells us that the Macedonian Christians were poor, dreadfully poor. Yet when they heard of the distress in Jerusalem they didn’t say, “Don’t ask us to help. We are strapped ourselves.” Instead they begged Paul to allow them to contribute. Note: the apostle did not browbeat or cajole them into contributing, expecting no more than the loose change in pocket or purse. They begged him to let them give. With moving simplicity Paul says of the Macedonian Christians, “They gave beyond their means.”

Why did they? Why did they want to give beyond their means? Because they knew that anything they might do to be but the palest reflection of what Jesus Christ had already done for them. What could they ever give, regardless of sacrifice involved, compared to what he had given them? This is the nub of Christian stewardship, isn’t it! People who are overwhelmed at the salvation Jesus Christ has wrought for them and worked in them and witnesses to them; people for whom this is heart-penetrating and horizon-filling — the motivation of such people has nothing to do with tax-shelters and capital gains provisions. If someone had said to the Christians in Macedonia, “What commendable generosity you have displayed!”, the Macedonians would have replied, “Commendable? There is nothing virtuous in unselfconscious gratitude to him who brought us life in the Spirit; furthermore, there is nothing virtuous in getting rid of the most lethal threat to our life in the Spirit. Why do you regard as virtuous what we regard as common sense?”

We have to think again of Thomas Chalmers’s, “The expulsive power of a new affection.” We have to search our hearts and ask ourselves, “What new affection: do we have enough love for our Lord to expel anything?” We have to come to terms with what in fact we love above all else (everyone else already knows what we love above all else, regardless of what we say). We need to hear and heed our psychiatrist-friend, Dr. Gerald May: we are addicted to anything that persistently, relentlessly deflects us from our true love, God. And then we have to listen to Gerald May once more: addiction will not yield to psychotherapy or psychopharmacology — addiction yields only to grace.

All of which brings us to a crucial point in today’s sermon. When preachers crank up their annual stewardship sermon, preachers always identify need in terms of the church’s need: the number one need to be laid before the congregation is the church’s need to receive money. But all such preachers are wrong! The primary need is never the church’s need to receive; the primary need is our need to give. If a wealthy benefactor willed this congregation a million dollars you and I should still need to give money. Why? In order to demonstrate that the power of money is a broken power in my life. When Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon”, he plainly means that ultimately we serve either God or mammon. Then which do we serve? How do we know we serve the God we say we serve? How does anyone else know that we have forsworn the service of mammon? Only by demonstrating that the power of money (money is powerful that its power rivals the power of God, says Jesus) is a broken power in our lives.

Money is a power. Money bribes, money talks, money silences, money compromises, money crushes, money votes. Even where money is used for purposes that are entirely legitimate, money still has immense power to preoccupy our minds and pervert our hearts. We give money away as a gesture of defiance; we give money away as a means of thumbing our nose at a tyrant whose tyranny appears noble but is in fact shabby. The first need of the church concerning money is the need of the Christ’s people to give it.

Think of the woman in Luke’s gospel who poured the costly perfume over the feet of Jesus. Did she do it because Jesus needed to have to his feet deodorized? Even if our Lord’s feet smelled like baby powder she needed to give away a year’s wages. Luke tells us that the woman had received from Jesus a great forgiveness and a great deliverance; now her heart swelled with a great love. When onlookers complain about the “waste” of it all Jesus says, “You people of shrivelled hearts; you haven’t known a great forgiveness and a great deliverance. Little wonder that you are possessed of no love.”

When I said a minute ago that the primary need pertaining to money is our need to give it, I did not mean that our need to give it is the only need. Unquestionably the church also needs to receive it.

Much money is required to maintain our worship facility. Is the worship facility worth the money required to maintain it? Worship is the most important thing we do here! The public praise of God is an end in itself. Just because the praise of God is an end in itself needing no justification it is also the heart-beat and life-blood of our congregation. Therefore we who identify ourselves with this congregation shall never withhold whatever funds are needed to facilitate our worship.

What about those who are not identified with this congregation? Should we maintain a worship-facility for them? On Tuesday past we conducted the funeral service for Jim Beatty in the sanctuary. I went out to the sidewalk to accompany the casket to the hearse, then came back into the building, only to be “buttonholed” by several people who wished to talk with me. Fifteen minutes later I was back in the sanctuary. A man was waiting in front of the pulpit to speak with me. He had waited fifteen minutes, not knowing if I were ever coming back. “My name is Ron Asselstine.” I replied, “I recognized you, Mr. Asselstine. You are an NHL linesman.” He told me over and over, so moved was he, what my address at Jim Beatty’s funeral had meant to him and his fellow-officials who were at the service. I recognized them at the back of the church on the south side. Wally Harris, a retired referee, now Superintendent of Officials; Terry Gregson and Dave Newell, referees; Andy van Hellemond, the NHL’s seniormost referee. Whenever I saw NHL referees at the game or on TV they always looked like deities to me: authoritative, commanding, imperious, impervious to the players’ obscenities and the fans’ rage. When I saw them at Tuesday’s funeral, sitting at the back of the church on the south side, they struck me not as deities at all: they were simply finite, frail, fragile men, enormously sobered at the untimely death of their legal protector, aware of their own vulnerability and inevitable death. Asselstine and I talked with each other for a long time. When we had finished he knew that I knew how hockey is played.

I have written Ron Asselstine, with a copy of my book, Seasons of Grace, telling him that if NHL game-officials desire spiritual help at any time they are most welcome to contact me.

Are we willing to underwrite worship-facility (and ministerial services) to those who don’t contribute to the maintenance of either?

And there is the matter of support for kingdom-work entirely beyond the parameters of the congregation. I speak now of outreach. Our outreach budget has taken something of a beating in the last few years. I shouldn’t want to see the outreach budget reduced any more. I am afraid that if it is a congregational sickness will set in, a sickness that is very serious. Self-preoccupation is always a serious matter! The individual who becomes ever more self-preoccupied lives in a smaller and smaller world until he can think only about himself, unresponsive to anything outside himself. At this point he is said to have a personality disorder called narcissism. One of the horrifying aspects of personality disorders like narcissism is that they are incurable! Narcissism, the state of being wholly engrossed with oneself, is bad enough; worse still is a narcissism whose self-preoccupation takes the form of being wholly engrossed with one’s imaginary ailments. Now the narcissistic personality disorder takes the form of hypochondria. The hypochondriac, wholly taken up with her health, will imagine herself physically unwell until she finally is, only then to say, “See, I told you!” Outreach should never be shrunk. In the first place, needs elsewhere in the world are greater than ours. In the second place, I don’t want us to become incurable narcissistic hypochondriacs.

No doubt you are all wondering what I am going to say this morning about the costly building repairs we have undertaken. When I first heard of the sum required I winced. When I learned that the alternative to repairing the building was to have it condemned in only a few years I felt that there were only two issues here: do we repair the building, or do we walk away from it? We could walk away from it. We could rent a school auditorium. We should soon find that the rent for the auditorium was next-to-nothing compared to what we pay to maintain the plant-facility here.

I have spoken with several former United Church ministers who left the denomination in 1988 or 1990, and who took many people with them. At first they were chortling over how inexpensive it is to rent a school auditorium. Within a year they were telling me their congregation simply had to have its own building, and for this reason they had established a building fund.

And the expanded parking lot? Investigations in the United States have discovered that inadequate parking is the single largest disincentive to church-attendance.

Having said this much I must say one thing more. We must never allow our current expenditures to become the be-all and end-all of congregational life. Do you remember those anguished days in 1988 and 1990 when our congregation was upset at developments in the denomination? I said at the time that we could and should deal with the developments tangentially; we should deal with them marginally in the course of our kingdom-work. But the one thing we must never do is allow denominational developments to preoccupy us and deflect us from our kingdom-work.

Unquestionably we have a major financial concern in the wake of our building restoration, the parking lot, and similar matters. We shall deal with it. Yet we must always deal with tangentially, never allowing it to preoccupy us and deflect us from our kingdom-work.

When I was very young, nine or ten years old, a very intoxicated man stopped my father one Sunday evening as we were going into church. The man wanted money. My father carried very little with him. My mother managed the household finances. She paid the bills and gave my dad $5 per week. Out of his $5 he purchased ten streetcar tickets to get work, as well as the large issue of the Sunday New York Times newspaper (especially its book reviews) he feasted on for the rest of the week. When the man approached my dad, my dad reached into his pocket and gave the man the $5. “But he will only spend it on booze!”, my sister said. “Quite likely he will”, my father replied, yet gave the man the $5 anyway.

My father’s father had been in and out of jail many times, drunk and disorderly, in the United States and Canada, year after year, until he came to faith and sobriety through the ministry of the church. My father reminded me and my sister on the spot that someone, many people, in fact, had kept his father alive when his father was unemployable, sick, a nuisance, even a disgrace; had given his father money, most of it be misspent, for years until the day when the gospel quickened faith through the faithfulness of the church and deliverance was enjoyed. And so out came my dad’s only $5 bill on a Sunday night.

I don’t know how my father got to work that week. I don’t know what he read in place of the New York Times. I do know that when he died in 1967 and his secretary cleaned out his desk it was discovered that he had been putting aside one dollar per week to buy my mother a dishwasher.

Had he lived to see the dishwasher the kitchen sink would still have been the venue of passion, albeit passion of many different sorts.

You see, my father had long known the expulsive power of a new affection.

                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd                              

November 1994