Paying faith forward

David Wilkerson is known most for writing the story, The Cross and the Switchblade. At a meeting I attended recently, a church leader read for our opening devotions the true story about David Wilkerson when he was involved in an outreach ministry in New York in the 1960s:

When a mortgage payment came due on a youth center in Brooklyn, David needed fifteen thousand dollars. The ministry’s bank account only held fourteen. Fourteen dollars, that is.

The “impossible” mortgage payment was due August 28. As the date drew near, Wilkerson expected God to do something huge and wonderful to save the center. But nothing happened.

The deadline arrived, and they still lacked the money. The bankers were ready to foreclose on the Teen Challenge operation. Wilkerson worried that he had run out of miracles.

But he pushed on, nevertheless. He asked his lawyer to seek an extension from the bank. Which was granted; the new date was September 10th. But that date was final. The lawyer asked David about his plan to raise the money. “I’m going to pray about it,” Wilkerson responded.

Then he decided to call together the staff and all the young people in the center – former drug addicts and gang members – and he told them that the center … had been saved.

Cheering rocked the place. “Let’s go to the chapel and thank God!” he urged. They did, praising the Lord for the money. Someone finally asked him where the money had come from.

Wilkerson shook his head. “Oh, it hasn’t come in yet, but by September 10th it will come. I just thought we ought to thank God ahead of time.” (William Petersen, 100 Amazing Answers to Prayer, Baker Publishing 2009, p.181-184).

To make a long story short – the ministry center did receive enough money to cover the mortgage payment by the due date, in dramatic fashion nonetheless.

But what strikes me in this story was not so much that the exact amount needed was actually delivered at the 11th hour, so to speak, as an answer to prayer. Because rarely does effective prayer result in exactly what we wish for. In prayer, we do not manipulate God.

Rather, what stands out for me in that story was that the celebration and commitment to praise God came before the money was fully realized. In other words they didn’t wait until after they raised all the money to praise and thank God: they offered their thanksgiving, truly, in faith, as an act of unconditional love for God. Their relationship with God was not contingent on things going the way they wanted – on answered prayer, as such. Their positive act of giving thanks to God was expressed like “paying it forward”; that is, paying faith forward.

Such examples of believing in the power of prayer can seem otherworldly and irrational to us. And understandably so.

In the world we normally have to earn our way to glory; we have to prove ourselves before the reward comes. And only if others prove themselves worthy in some way will we return the favor. It was only after my neighbor shoveled my half of the driveway early in the winter season before I was moved to do the same for him since. Tit for tat – even in being gracious.

This kind of ‘conditional culture’ – which operates at so many levels of our relational, economic, political, social and even religious lives – is really based on a negative, self regard. Our media’s emphasis on ‘perfection’ – you know, perfect bodies, beautiful-looking people, the most expensive cars, gadgets, and properties splashed continually on our TV screens and magazine covers – results in a lot of personal let down, if not downright self-rejection and hatred: “I’m not good enough”; “I’m ugly”; “I’m an awful person”; “I’m not worth it”; “I don’t matter to anyone.”

Have you ever listened to your own self-talk? When you are by yourself, what do you say (maybe even out loud) under your breath when something doesn’t work, or you’re stumped, or something breaks? Might be a helpful exercise. Because it would reveal a lot about how you relate to yourself. And how you relate to yourself will translate and project into your relationships with others, and God.

Even though in Luke’s Gospel, his version of Jesus’ baptism is very short (compared to Matthew, Mark, and Johns’ versions of the same story) – only 2 verses – Luke does not hold back the words God the Father has for Jesus: “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased” – echoing the words from Isaiah: “You are precious in my sight, and I love you!” Of all the details Luke could have mentioned (in comparison to the other Gospel accounts) about this story, he definitely sounds loudly this theme of God “paying it forward” to Jesus.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God should have waited until after Jesus defeated the devil by dying on the cross and rising from the dead … before praising him.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God should have waited until Jesus actually accomplished that which he had been called, baptized and ordained to do on earth … before offering him his due accolades.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God ought to have waited until Jesus returned to sit at the right hand of God in heavenly glory … before offering him his just deserts. After all, to receive grace and compassion and love and adoration one must first be deserving of it, right?

Not God; God doesn’t wait for anything. God speaks those gracious, affirming, empowering, unconditionally-loving words long before Jesus takes his first step towards Jerusalem and the Cross.

And that’s how God and Jesus are with us. Call it, if you will, shooting first and asking questions later; and God ‘shoots’ with grace not with bullets!

Let me quote John Leith, a Presbyterian professor and theologian, who said that every human life is rooted in the will and intention of God. I quote him: “In baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was, that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name, and a dignity that no one should dare abuse. Human existence has its origin not in the accidents of history and biology, but in the will and the intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth” (“An Awareness of Destiny” in Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian, Louisville KY, Geneva Press, 2001, p.126-127)

The truth is, we need to hear this affirmation from one another. We need to hear it from God. And we need to speak it to ourselves. Long before we prove anything. Long before we have all the money. Long before we earn it. These are life-giving words that each person on earth should hear, unconditionally: “You are my child, whom I love and with you I am well pleased!”

When Jesus hears those words, his life changes forever. He is empowered by those words to go forth and do what he must do and be who he is called to be, for the sake of the world.

Those words will do the same for us, for our children, our neighbors, our spouses, our church members, and even, as Jesus promised, our enemies. You DO matter. You ARE worth it. You ARE beloved and beautiful. You ARE precious, and God loves you. And I pray you know that kind of unconditional love from others in your life as well.

Because the unconditional affirmation and love of God and of one another is the source of our true identity and purpose in life. And these affirmations are the most enduring joys of the abundant life Jesus wants for each one of us.

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