From the years 1984 to about 1991 or 1992, my family attended a small independent church. It started in the barn of the pastor, Robert. We also met in a library. Then we moved on to a shopping center in Glenpool. The pastor was harsh and controlling, but had an immense knowledge of the bible and a passion for studying and teaching.
Although the church only existed for 7 or 8 years, those were my formative years. I was between the ages of 12 to 19 or 20. My views of God were formed at that church. I was, as we all were, a slave to the ministry. We attended 3 times a week. Period. My dad told me that he missed a service after his brother died, and was confronted about it his attendance. Tithes were dictated at 10%, and offering was 4%. If you didn’t pay tithes, you shouldn’t expect God’s blessings (and you SHOULD expect a confrontation by the pastor)! I remember Robert telling the story of a woman who had been blind, and she paid back-tithes for the whole of her life, and suddenly had sight. I didn’t want to go blind!!!
This was the church where the youth sat on the front row so the pastor could keep his eye on us. We were expected to raise our hands in worship. If not, we could be called out. Once he even handed out tests for the congregants to take to see if they had been listening and remembering his sermons. My dad was an elder in the church, and therefore his responsibility there was huge. He was a buffer for many whom Robert offended. He didn’t always agree with Robert, but he believed in his teachings and his heart.
Robert taught that if you paid your tithes you won’t have money problems. If you are faithful to God, you shouldn’t get sick. You get back what you give. So there was always this idea that one day, the money we gave “to God” would return to us 10 fold. There was this expectation and hope. So, my parents tithed. Even in the worst of financial times, they tithed. After I worked full time, I bought groceries and helped with what I could, so they never missed that beloved tithe check.
The economic times were tough, jobs were few, and the mortgage company was less than gracious when my dad was out of a job for several months. He took a job sacking groceries, after 30 years of management, and had to move back up into a good position again. But they never caught up on the mortgage . My parents lost their house, their car, sold off their possessions. We moved to a ghetto area in Tulsa where we lived in fear from the constant search lights on the apartment complex, and the violence in the neighborhood. But it was cheap. The anxiety and anger in my family was deep. In this hardest time, they still paid that damned tithe check. That was a very dark time for my family.
Naturally, my mother resented it. She knew that the 14% they gave could have been useful in those harshest times. She had waited on God’s return on her faithfulness, and it never came. And I was pissed at God. I told him I hated him. I told him that my father was faithful—more faithful than any other—and he OWED my father dignity and money and hope. How DARE he not fulfill his promise of the tithe.
That anger and disappointment followed me for years. I never stopped loving God, but I resented him. Over time, I rejected church, and began to make my own conclusions. Years later, I sat with my dad, discussing the incident. I finally expressed my anger toward God to my father. My dad listened, and he said, “One thing that we missed, is that the return we get on the investment we make in church and God, is not usually monetary. It’s a spiritual growth. It’s an emotional growth. We were waiting on a financial payoff that we had been promised. But instead, we grew as a family. When we lost everything, I grew the most. I became closer to my kids and my wife. And in the end, I’m a better man for it.” But God should have honored what he knew was being taught, shouldn’t he? Doesn’t he honor the faithfulness of those freaky healing ministers, knowing they misrepresent him at times? People still get healed at those carnival-ish healing displays don’t they? Would it have killed God to honor this teaching in our family, knowing we followed what we were taught—right or wrong? I just couldn’t believe my dad wasn’t as bitter as I.
Over the years, my bitterness has waned. I still get confused over it, and a little riled up. But I know now that tithing isn’t just about cash. It’s not about legalism. It’s not anything I was taught that it was. It is about your heart, and giving to something that you truly believe in. Whether it’s Agora or the Red Cross. It’s about your time. It’s about your resources. It’s about your availability. It’s about a greater good, and not a pastor’s paycheck. I now give, but because I believe in what I give to. I know I get back for what I give. But what I get back is more spiritual than monetary. I’m cool with that because I understand it and don’t carry false expectations. And I give “with a joyful heart” as is noted in the scripture.
I talked to my dad about it tonight, and I asked, “Do you look back and regret attending that church?” Surprisingly, he began to sing, “I don’t regret a mile, that I‘ve walked with the Lord.” I was surprised. He responded, “I did what I thought was right at the time. I do regret seeing others get hurt. I regret not knowing enough to prevent that from happening. But I followed my heart.”
Now, I am not against tithing. Not at all. I just want the truth to be told. I don’t want people to think that just because they tithe, they are immune from bankruptcy, accidents, or other hard times. I don’t want people to expect a monetary payback. I want people to know that it’s a heart matter.
Eventually, Robert started a second church in the Oklahoma City area. Our church never grew, but decreased in size. So, his tithes decreased. He became bitter. He had a rent house or two that he gained income from, but he said it was the church’s responsibility to pay his bills. He took a pizza delivery job and made sure we all knew he had to sacrifice because of us. After trekking back and forth to OKC, and becoming more and more agitated, a matriarch of the church sent him a letter outlining what God had told her to tell him. The letter called out an affair he had been having with a married woman in the OKC church. He was enraged and resigned. The church immediately dissolved, to the relief of those who had stayed to the bitter end.