Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet.

I reflected on the injustice that pervades poverty: because I can afford to write a check for hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the month, I can afford rent, but because every cent Ron has goes to pay for tonight’s room, he can’t. Which means he and his brother wind up paying six times more for housing than I do in a month. Admittedly my rent is low at present, but let me put it this way: for the amount Ron and Jim have to fork over to their cheap motel every night of every month, they could rent my friend’s lovely apartment with hundreds to spare, or rent my parents’ whole house, if only they had all that money at once. But they never do. Then, because they have no address, important mail (like Jim’s W-2 form, which could have gotten them a few hundred in tax refunds) returns to sender, never reaching them. I brooded on this example of Terry Pratchett’s Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, which states that the rich are rich because they can afford to buy good-quality products which last longer, saving them money, while the poor are poor because they have to spend money hand over fist on stuff that falls apart. (The Boots Theory somewhat predates the worst absurd spending of the 1%.) And I brooded on the twenty in my wallet.

I decided I’d give Ron the money in a few hours, if he was still out there. Then I could be the rescuing hero at the end of the day… but that seemed awfully selfish. Besides, I was really hoping that he’d find the money somewhere else, and I could keep mine. Somebody else’s problem.

But that twenty was still in my wallet, and I couldn’t bear to think of him standing, hunched, cold, rained on, for hours longer.

I thought, “I could go give it to him right now.”

Then something interesting happened: my training kicked in.

My capitalist training, that is: my middle-class upbringing. “You can’t give him that money,” a voice said in my head. “You need that. It’s yours.”

I need it more than Ron? That’s rich. Giving him the twenty would probably triple the money he had, whereas I’ve got thousands of dollars saved in the bank already. But it’s not a surprising thought, is it? I was taught from birth to save: save up for a coveted Lego set. Save up for a trip to Boston. Save up for gas money, for a car, save up for college, for anything, for later. Who knows if you’ll need it tomorrow? Plan ahead. Save up. Not all people have this training, but I’d expect that ninety-nine out of every hundred Americans, middle-class or otherwise, were taught “Your money is yours, and you get whatever you want to buy with it!” Yours again being the critical word; after hearing that enough, Americans start saying Mine early, and most never stop.

I was also taught that the poor are poor because they aren’t smart with money. They give away every windfall they get, spend it on family and friends, blow it on the trappings of status rather than saving to get ahead, to get the actual status. Never mind that most people are trapped by the Boots Theory, trapped like Ron, their money pouring out to pay the debts incurred by simple poverty faster than any windfall flows in: according to conventional wisdom, it’s their own fault that they are poor. “They don’t save money, so they don’t deserve money. They are fools.” So said my training. If I gave away my twenty dollars, it added, I’d be just as much a fool.

But the twenty was still in my wallet. And Ron was still in the rain.

“You’ll look silly,” my training said, getting more desperate. “Running back out into this weather? You’ll stand out, you’ll look strange. And for what? To give up money that you need? Never mind the thousands in the bank! They got there because you didn’t pull damn fool stunts like this!”

But I couldn’t take it any more. “All right, then,” I thought fiercely, “I’ll go to capitalist hell.”

I pulled on my sweatshirt and ran back down to where Ron stood.

“I couldn’t bear it,” I told him, giving him the twenty. “You standing out here in the rain. And ain’t I a Christian?”

And apparently I am. I’ve never been sure, you see. “Mostly Christian” is how I’ve usually been calling myself, because of my doubts. Doubts about the established churches, doubts about the Bible, doubts about the existence of God.

Plus I’ve always been uneasy about the bargaining model of Christian salvation. Frankly, it reeks of capitalism. The capitalist model says, “Give to get back: invest, then enjoy the profits.” The church model says, “Give in this live to get back in the next: a delayed reward.” Which seems selfish to me. I once gave ten dollars to a man begging for money, his children playing nearby, and he called out to me as I walked away, “Treasure in heaven to you!” Now, I’ll take any blessing, but I didn’t stop and give him money to earn myself treasure after I die; I stopped so that his kids would eat that night. I stopped because I thought it was the right thing to do, and rewards didn’t enter into it. The churches cry, “Save your soul!” and I reply, “But I thought we should think of others first.” Ever since Joe Hill’s “Pie in the Sky,” I’ve been dubious of pastors’ promises for the next world.

But it seems I’m a Christian, because working against my capitalist training were a few bits and snatches of Christ’s words―not from his priests but from the Nazarene himself: “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me.” “Do not worry about tomorrow.”

I think you can be both capitalist and Christian, but I don’t think you can be good at both. Either you’re a good capitalist, investing to your profit, and giving nothing without getting something back… or you’re a good Christian and you give to anyone who asks, to anyone who needs it, expecting nothing back on this side of death. This was what Jesus meant. You can make your wealth serve your faith or you can make your faith serve your wealth, but not both.

(This is also why Jesus taught us to keep our charity so secret that even our left hand doesn’t know what’s going on. I’ve tried to follow that by not keeping track of the money I give away; I honestly have no idea how much I’ve donated or handed out by now, and I don’t want to know. I’m violating Jesus’s command right now, of course; in fact I wrestled with writing this whole essay, as it’s a story about me giving money away. But I felt the story was important for teaching reasons. I hope I’m right.)

Giving Ron the money was my altar call. This was when I came to Jesus. I had a street corner for my altar and rain for my baptism. Some may object to this for procedural reasons; some don’t think I can be Christian until I’ve jumped through the hoops they were trained to jump, and with due cause. But my call to Christ was no different than theirs, for Christ’s the one who called me; the rituals and rites are the broad fringes, not the cloth. For the altar see Exodus 20:24, and for the baptism see Matthew 3:11. If anyone calls me out for my unorthodoxy… well. You came to Jesus and confessed your belief so he will save you? I’m fine with that. But Jesus called me to help other people, right here, right now, no salvation involved. If the Lord gave us different marching orders, who are you and I to judge him?

I don’t give two hoots about salvation. I don’t care about my soul. I have little hope of reaching heaven and little fear of hell. I see heaven and hell right here on earth―hell for the billions and heaven for a few! And I see, in the words that Jesus taught us, the pathway to paradise for all in this life, not the next. I see the kingdom of heaven in every city and in every field, now and forever. That’s the salvation I work for. That’s why I’m a Christian. That’s why I was called.

And if all this makes me a fool, if all this damns me… all right, then. I’ll go to hell.

4 thoughts on “Altar Call

  1. This was a great story, Paul; thanks for sharing. I felt convicted by your call to generosity and your introspection regarding the inward battle between doing what’s right and doing what is socially acceptable according to our capitalist training. Just a couple of things, though: Thwarting your capitalist upbringing does not make you a Christian. Doing good works for others and acting selflessly do not make you a Christian. You do not have to work for salvation; it is granted and done, “It is finished,” as Christ said. The “Good News” of the Gospel is not that Jesus came and set a great example for us to live by. The Good News is that Jesus came and died in atonement for our sins so that we could be reconciled to the God who made us and live the life He meant for us to live: a life filled with selflessness, good works, and deep, abiding joy. A life filled with righteous anger regarding the injustices brought about by human depravity, filled with grief in mourning true losses, filled with joy and wonder in celebrating true moments of peace and joy, a life that reflects the nature and glory of God and His purpose in creating us. A life not untouched by suffering, but unshakable in suffering. Being a Christian has less to do with acting like a Christian is supposed to act and has everything to do with accepting the fact that we are sinful in nature, we deserve death, but God intervened and provided a substitute for us. Being a Christian is about accepting God’s gift of substitutionary atonement with gratitude that is reflected in the way we live our lives; selflessly, by the Spirit, bringing glory to God.

    What you did for Ron was a blessing and an act of kindness. It was what Christians are oftentimes called to do. We don’t do it perfectly, because though we are called to do it, we battle daily against our sinful selves (much the way you retaliated against your inner capitalist gremlin) and sometimes the sin is easier, more convenient, or more self-serving than what Christ calls us to do in His name. But what you did for Ron does not make you a Christian, any more than stretching and chanting make you a Yogi. It’s not a lifestyle, or a philosophy, or a set of standards to which you hold yourself. It’s not about “yourself” at all. It’s about the creator of the universe who loves us so well that he put himself in our place and took the punishment that we deserve. Many churches spin this into a salvation call, a “save yourself” mantra that gets lost in frequent repetition. Truth is…you can’t save yourself. You can do good works until you’re blue in the face and won’t be one step closer to heaven. You will still make a dent in the hell we see on earth, though. I also take issue with what I see in a lot of churches: a disease of “religion” in which people are either haughty, proud, and intolerant of weakness in others despite the fact that they are equally sinful and choose not to see it (the whole plank/speck thing), or in despair because they feel they will never live up to the standards the church requires for salvation. That sucks, and is not what God would have for His people. God calls us to humble acceptance of the fact that we are sinners, and humble gratitude for His atoning work on the cross. Out of that humble acceptance and gratitude He gives us new desires to do the work that reflects His love for us. Being assured of my salvation, I am grateful that this is as close as I will ever get to Hell. That being said, it is the deep desire of my heart that this is as close as anyone will ever get to Hell. And I will do my utmost to make this life on Earth as close to Heaven as those who don’t accept Christ will ever experience. Because I love them with the love Christ gave me.

    I hope that made sense. Like you, I’m beginning to feel the strain that our individualistic culture puts on us; “Save Yourself”, it’s YOUR money, blah blah blah. We’re a community, a family, a group together, and when we act like it, we experience so much more joy and peace. The money that I have was given to me by God, and ultimately it’s His to use to His glory; I’m just called to steward it well and bless others with what I have been given. Jesus in his wisdom said that you can’t serve both God and wealth, which is so true. But you can serve God WITH wealth. There’s nothing wrong with making lots of money as long as you recognize that you’re just stewarding the resources with which God has blessed you and are to do with them whatever He asks. There’s also nothing wrong with being poor as long as you are living righteously in the sight of God and men, not wasting the meager resources with which God has blessed you. There are righteous rich, unrighteous rich, righteous poor, and unrighteous poor, and the line is very fine and easy to cross because it is in the heart. A humble heart filled with gratitude toward God has no room for a selfish, sinful nature, and I pray every day for God to continue that ongoing work in me and everyone on earth. I’ll pray for Ron and his brother, too; that they might know Christ through your generosity and that this is as close as they’ll ever get to Hell. And I truly hope you don’t go to Hell, Paul. It’s really hot, and eternity is a very long time.

    • Misha,

      Thank you for your kind words. I expected I’d stir up talk with this one; in fact, I’m certain you’re the first voice in what will prove quite a chorus as I follow my calling in life. I’m grateful the first voice was such a kind one; I have a feeling many will not be as loving as you have been!

      I’m a teacher, and I teach by taking a bold idea, putting it in front of my students, and asking, “What do *you* say?” And so I lay out the tale of my altar call. You say, “Paul, that’s not the teaching of the Church.” And I reply, “Just so! And is the teaching of the Church good enough?”

      Read the Book of Amos, read Matthew 25:31-46… heck, read Leviticus; they might tell you something. And then look around you and see the pain. But ultimately you must answer for yourself. For my part, I have asked the question, and so what I am called to do — here, at least — is done.

    • Misha,
      I have spent many many years in the church. And I have never felt more alone than when I’ve stood amidst a group of Christians who share such certainty and judgement. I used to care about theology a lot. Then some s*** happened, some people died and now I care a lot less about what people think about Jesus and a lot more about whether they’re following Jesus. Love and grace are all that really matter in the end, for me. And while I have some actual disagreements with your theology’s mechanics of salvation (substitutionary atonement just doesn’t make that much sense to me anymore), I don’t think the mechanics matter that much. And while I have even more serious theological reservations about the Hell you reference, I’m not sure that matters in this discussion. Here’s what I believe now, not know, but believe, because I could be wrong, all of us could be:
      Jesus came not for the righteous but for the sinners. He commanded us to follow him and then hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and other low lifes of ancient Israel. He told us to love one another as we love ourselves. He is the shepherd that leaves his ninety-nine other sheep to go look for the one that is lost. So if you’re right and I have to believe what you believe in order to be with God for eternity, then I don’t want to go. I’ll gladly and voluntarily go to Hell with the sinners, because that’s where following Jesus leads me.

  2. Misha – I really like this essay. When i see someone with their hand out, I go thru similar conniptions. There’s a verse in the Koran (broadening the guidance here, no offence intended to anyone!) which encourages us to give to those who will never be able to pay us back, in confidence that their Creator and ours sees and knows all, and not an atom’s worth of good will be done, save that it is rewarded by the One. Peace to all

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