Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wendell the Agnostic

*Like they say on the TV, this is a true story.*
*Name and details have been changed to protect the agnostic.*

Wendell grew up in a nominally Christian home. He was baptized as an infant in 1929. His parents took him to church most Sundays. He believed the Bible just as most of his friends did. He believed in a Christian work ethic and was pretty sure there was a passage in the Bible somewhere that said something about God helping those who help themselves. He believed that if he worked hard and did what was right, God would help him and give him what he wanted. With the rest of his Sunday School class, Wendell memorized Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”.

Wendell’s birthday was fast approaching. He had been a well-behaved, respectful young man and so believed that if he prayed really hard, God would make sure he received a Hubley 7” cast iron race car as a gift, which he had wanted for almost an entire year. So, Wendell prayed. He had also memorized 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing”, so he prayed a lot: at school, at home, at the dinner table, while playing, and before going to sleep. Every available moment he had during the month before his birthday, he prayed for that car. He was certain that God would reward his good work and give him what he asked for.

Sadly, his birthday came and there was no Hubley 7” cast iron race car for Wendell. His mother baked a cake and he was given a present, but it was not what he had been asking God for. Instead of the race car, he received four toy soldiers. He hadn’t prayed for or wanted toy soldiers, but that was what God had given him. It wasn’t fair in Wendell’s mind. He had done his part by obeying his parents and teachers. He had even prayed! He had prayed for a whole month! Why hadn’t God answered him? Perhaps, God didn’t answer because He isn’t there. The first seeds of doubt were sown in Wendell’s mind. God didn’t give him what he wanted, so maybe God doesn’t exist.


Wendell continued going to church with his family. He went to Sunday School and learned more about God but was always carrying the nagging uncertainty whether God was real.


In time, Wendell grew up and left home. He married and his wife became pregnant. She went into labor too early in the pregnancy and the baby boy died. Wendell had prayed for that baby too, but God had let him down again. God hadn’t protected Wendell’s family. He had brought the family grief. Wendell’s wife was unable to become pregnant again and died childless, leaving Wendell all alone. Now, Wendell had more doubts about the existence of God. If God did exist, it seemed that He hated Wendell. This was too much to bear for Wendell had always tried to follow God’s will for his life. God had no reason to be so angry with Wendell. The only answer that made sense was that there was no God. Wendell’s parents had been suckers to spend so much time and money in church. There was no God. They were fooling themselves.


Wendell retired and met another retiree in his neighborhood who was a member of the local Lutheran church. They would talk about religion and this Lutheran tried and tried to convince Wendell that God did exist, despite the hardships that Wendell had endured, and that God was merciful and loving. Wendell didn’t buy it but was lonely and liked the company, so he kept up the conversation. Eventually, the Lutheran invited Wendell to attend a church service with him. Wendell declined. Wendell continued to decline for several months. Then, the Lutheran invited Wendell to attend Bible class held after the church service. Wendell accepted. He saw this as an opportunity to save those dopes some time and cash by showing them that God is not real. He hoped to trip up the pastor leading the class and show him for the charlatan he must be.


Wendell’s friend brought him to Bible class every week. Wendell asked questions but none of the church members seemed able to see the inconsistencies and logical fallacies inherent in Christianity. Wendell was undeterred and had nothing better to do, so he kept coming to the class for years. In that time, the church changed. When Wendell had started coming, there had been a “praise service” advertised. Wendell had no interest in seeing popular music, which he didn’t enjoy, modified to Christian lyrics, and he didn’t believe there was any God to praise anyway, and if there were a God, a God who allows such suffering on Earth, why in the world would we want to sing Him love songs?


Eventually, a new pastor came. This pastor was convinced that the Bible could be proven to be true using science. Wendell was curious, and still had nothing better to do, so he kept attending the Bible class, but not the church service, which was now only from the hymnal all the time, though no one could explain to Wendell why that change was made. The pastor made his case for creation using science, but his conclusions could not be proven absolutely, so Wendell continued to doubt and loudly question.


In time, that pastor retired and a new pastor came. This pastor taught the people why they prayed the historic liturgy every Sunday. Wendell didn’t really care. This pastor also related everything to Christ in Bible class. This was mildly annoying to Wendell, but he kept attending and bringing his questions to the pastor and the group of duped church members. They studied parts of the Bible that warned against hardening your heart (Psalm 95). They studied the Gospels and Christ’s atonement for all sins of all people. They learned of the promises of Christ, not to give Christians whatever they want, but to provide for what all need and that bearing the cross in a fallen world is painful and difficult but is always for our good.


The pastor met with Wendell privately and with a trusted group of Wendell’s friends and warned him that he was in danger of eternal punishment in hell and told Wendell that he was praying and would continue to pray for Wendell. Wendell told the pastor that he didn’t believe in hell and that the pastor could keep praying if he wanted to but it made no difference because God probably wasn’t real. Besides, Wendell didn’t believe that he sinned. He had found a nice lady TV preacher, and though she was kind of shrill and obnoxious, he did agree with her that he too was not a sinner.


For the time being, this is the end of Wendell’s story. He continues to come regularly to Bible class, not believing what is taught. He still asks questions to try to trip up the Christians but has never succeeded in turning any away from their confession of faith. Wendell’s Lutheran acquaintances continue to pray for his conversion and probably will until his time on earth is ended, but they are not so na├»ve as to think that perhaps some different method would have a more favorable effect. The method of evangelism is not the issue. Hardness of heart is. We do not overcome another’s hardening of his or her own heart by our cleverness or novelty. Only the Holy Spirit overcomes hardness of heart (“so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11)


The story of this real person and of all those who have hardened their hearts is sad, profoundly sad. How difficult it is to sit next to someone, in a Bible class no less, who has chosen to reject Christ. Yet, this person will continue to be welcome in the congregation and will be taught and remembered in prayer and kindly spoken with by the pastor and the members always in the hope of a blessed eternity with our Savior.

16 comments:

rlschultz said...

There are several important lessons to be learned from this story besides the ending.
First of all, many of the so called "unchurched" or "previously churched" adults are in a situation similar to Wendall's. Naturally, everybody's circumstances are different. It is wrong to assume that today's "seekers" would be turned off by the historic liturgy and sound, doctrinal teaching. That is one of the big mistakes that the church growthers makes.
The part about prayer at the beginning is particularly fascinating. It may be safe to say that agnosticism could be the end result when the doctrine concerning prayer is wrong. A good example of this would be the praying series by Stormie Omartian - The Power of a Praying Wife, The Power of a Praying Husband, The Power of a Praying Dog, etc. Like the lame Purpose Driven Life, the whole concept is supposed to work if you just read the book(s) and follow the script.
This is always what happens when proper doctrine is taught. There is a regression to man's ideas and methods.
We don't know what circumstances will occur in a person's life that will bring them to a point where they will hear the Word and the Holy Spirit works faith or there is a continual hardening of the heart. The Gospel creates its own evangelism opportunities.

rlschultz said...

My apologies for an error in the above post. The line which reads-
"This is always what happens when proper doctrine is taught." should be a negative statement. It should read-
"This is always what happens when proper doctrine is NOT taught".

kerner said...

I get it (I hope). There is no special method for soul winning. People are not saved by their own reason or strength anyway; it is the Holy Spirit that calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies them.

On the other hand, I consider this to be one prong of a paradox (of the kind that we see in other places in Lutheran theology). The other prong is stewardship. Take the parable of the talents. One steward works hard (through SOME method, presumably) and realizes a return of 10 talents. Another does the same, but only realizes 5 talents. The third steward buries his talent in the ground and has only his original talent to show for it. Now, God COULD have multipled the buried talent Himself (and all the others, too), but He didn't. Instead He expects us to use all our resources to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments (personally if this is our call, or by supporting His called ministers). That is, God, in His sovereign wisdom, has decided to act through us, his stewards.

It follows (and the parable makes clear) that we should be good stewards. Stewards are managers. Managers (by definition) make plans, and develop methods to execute those plans.

While there is no "right method", I believe that their ARE wrong methods. I am sure that the readers of this blog can tell me in detail what is wrong with all of the following methods:

ABLAZE!
praise band worship
bingo
and perhaps many more

But there are other methods. For example:

maintaining a school or a daycare as a means of getting the unchurched interested in the church.

church festivals

church recreational leagues

The fact is, whatever we do, unless we truly bury the Gospel in the earth, we are going to utilize SOME kind of method. What I have been trying to determine is: What makes a bad method bad, and what makes an acceptable method acceptable?

Another Kerner said...

Alas.....

It is true enough that we may become "Disappointed With God" if we believe that our prayer will give us all we desire in life, especially if we "name it and claim it".

The prosperity gospel television evangelists who preach this relentless and terrible error have an *out* which they may believe leaves them blameless.

They tell the hapless soul that their loved one died and was not "healed", that their prayer went unheeded, because they did not have "enough faith." The failed prayer request has been rejected by God because the one pleading did not have "sufficient" faith.

One wonders how much emotion one has to crank up so that God will know that the prayer is *really* sincere.

It is,in fact,cruel to tell a grieving parent that their son died because maybe he did not pray Psalm 91 "hard enough".

The "Prayer of Jabez" would be another case in point.

As one who walked the road of an agnostic a while and was then brought to faith, may we all take comfort that Wendell's story is not yet over. He is surrounded by those who love him and plead with God for him.

May we take heart and hope in knowing that God always does that which is right.

Anonymous said...

The parable of the talents is about Christ and his stewards (those in the Office of the Holy Ministry) using what he has given them (Christ) to make more little Christs and not bury Him, which has already been done.

What is the greatest, most precious thing God has given to us? It's not our talents! It's Jesus, the gospel, the scriptures, the sacraments... Remember that Jesus is speaking to an OT audience. Five? Every Jew would think of the Pentateuch. The five books of Moses must be used to find Christ ("These are they that testify about me."). These are the five talents. Two talents? Another testament is coming, the New Testament in Jesus' blood and in new writings! If one finds Christ in the books of Moses and in the two testaments they are doubled in value. The one talent that is buried is Christ. Things buried in the Bible are Christ. The wicked leaders of the people killed Jesus and buried him. Therefore they were rejected. When unbelievers go through their intellectual gyrations to reject the gospel I'm enriched by their folly because I'm more confirmed in my faith. In other words, their talent has been given to me.

Today, who are those who are burying Christ? Couldn't we say that those who are promoting every aspect of their church EXCEPT Christ to get new people in the door are doing just that?

If your church wants to educate children, help the poor, or whatever else to aid the community, great! Those things are primarily kingdom of the left and temporal help to those around us.

As humans, we always like to be helpful and busy. We need to remember that our methods, clever and popular as they may be, don't make Christians. Christ makes Christians through Word preached and Sacraments administered.

If you haven't already done so, a good read that helped me is On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Forde. Helps to knock the Protestant out of you.

Old friends of angry lutherans and dead friends of angry lutherans

Another Kerner said...

Anonymous writes that " to educate children, help the poor,or whatever
else to aid the community....those things are primarily the kingdom of the left."

I question that a bit, not based on any "social gospel" or any "liberation theology", but instead based on the Reformation doctrine of Vocation.

Are we not implementing the Lord's directive when we educate Lutheran children and young people in our schools? Is education not a part of the Kingdom of the Right in an intergrated educational program?

I think I understand the doctrine of the two kindoms fairly well.

However,in our vocations do we not wear the mask of God?

Do we not,like Luther's "milkmaid" vs "the monks",in our vocations wear the mask of God as we apply and appropriate the third use of the Law?

"God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does".

Did not Luther say that "the roast goose will not fly into your mouth."?

Does not God use His people in this world to do His work in their vocations?

Not covered with the Blood of the Lamb, all our "righteousnesses are as filthy rags".

But surely our vocation this side of the Jordan has something to do with the Kingdom of the Right, does it not?

rlschultz said...

kerner,

Thank you for this comment:

"maintaining a school or a daycare as a means of getting the unchurched interested in the church."

MY WELS congregation already operates an elementary school and pre-kindergarden. Recently, we voted to call a full-time pre-school director. One of our Board of Education members recently said: "Whew! If we just had a full-time day care facility, we would have so many more members".
Here is the logic behind this:
Need for full time child care =
Increasing membership or
Need for full time child care =
Another evangelism opportunity.
How about - "If we don't take advantage of this opportunity that the Lord is placing before us, then surely we don't care about lost souls". Once again, we see the devolution to Amway techniques. When you have "church growth eyes", all that you see are chances to increase your membership.
Taken to its logical conclusion, a congregation can "bite off more than it can chew". "Building for growth" or the Field of Dreams model - "If you build it, they will come" can prove to be financially disastrous if the anticipated growth does not occur.

elephantschild said...

The method of evangelism is not the issue. Hardness of heart is.


Can we get that printed on a tee-shirt?

Angry Lutherans said...

Elephantschild,

THAT is great idea!

AL1

Angry Lutherans said...

Another Kerner,

I see what you're saying and also what Anonymous is saying. I'm not sure they contradict each other. He/She wrote "primarily" kingdom of the left. Education, like most other vocations, is mostly for this life. Although a Lutheran school does (one would hope) integrate a study of God's Word into their entire education, I think it could still be argued that a school's purpose weighs heavily toward preparing children to be responsible adults, with Lutheran schools hopefully training responsible Lutheran adults.

While a Christian physician, teacher, airplane mechanic, or used car salesman is a little Christ to his or her neighbors through his/her vocation, our vocations could still be "primarily" considered for this life. We will not carry our various vocations into eternity with us.

AL1

Angry Lutherans said...

Elephantschild,

Let me try that again: THAT is A great idea!

I think my weekend should start now.

AL1

Sr. Kate said...

Since someone brought the subject up, here's the experience of one Lutheran parish that maintains a preschool "as a means of getting the unchurched interested in the church."

A lot of parents of preschoolers get interested in church membership as a means of getting the member tuition break. Some might even show up for certain events at church like "Preschool Sunday" or the preschool Christmas program. Kids are not enrolled in Sunday School. When the kiddies "graduate" from preschool you never see them or their parents again.

Oh, I almost forgot ... there is no requirement for the director (who has pretty much been given a free rein) or the teachers or helpers to be Lutheran.

This is a true story.

Now, where do I get one of those tee-shirts?

kerner said...

RL Schultz and Anonymous:

Thank you for your comments. When it comes to Lutheran schools, I think you have really good points. As well meaning as we may be about promoting Christian education in Lutheran schools, there is a danger there. Lutherans can get so wrapped up in building a "good" school (in the secular, gets you into college, sense) we run the very real risk of becoming a school with a church attached to it, rather than the other way around.

Yet, I don't think ministering to material needs is completely outside the right hand kingdom of the church. Note a similar controversy in the 6th Chapter of Acts, in which the Apostles (the predecessors of our current pastors) recognised that "it would not be right for [those called to the Holy ministry] to neglect the ministry of the word of God to wait on tables". So the called upon the laity to elect men from among themselves to take care of that responsibility. But further notice that the 12 did not suggest that Christians go outside the Church and into the left hand kingdom to handle these mundane things. Further still (I don't have time to look this up now, so I may have to stand corrected later), does not Sty. Paul list the functions of the various members of the Body and include some fairly mundaane things?

I have to go. More later.

kerner said...

I'm back, and I have lost a little of my train of thought, so I guess I'll conclude that I am not convinced that we are talking about an either/or proposition. Rather, the issue should be priorities. I know that the greater danger these days is to let the preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments get lost in the hustle and bustle of our own efforts to "grow the church", so I don't mean to discourage those of you who want to return the first priority of the Church to its proper place. So this is only a cautionary word: we cannot forget that the lesser gifts of helps and governments have their place in the Church too (1 Cor. 12:28). It is not intrinsicly un-Lutheran to try to use those gifts properly. It would be nice to have some guidelines as to how to go about that.

Angry Lutherans said...

Sr. Kate,

We've had two T-shirt inquiries so far. I'll assume that each inquiry equals 1,000 people who were interested, therefore, there must be over two thousand people interested. If we get interest from over 10,000 we'll look at setting something up at cafepress or somewhere similar.

AL2 :)

elephantschild said...

Hey, I'd settle for a classy 100 pixels badge for my blog in lieu of a tee shirt...