My book shelf has the standard books that you would hope to find in any priest’s office. There are Bibles and commentaries, collection of ancient sermons, and a number of “unread-but-looks-good-on-the-shelf” theology volumes. Yet tucked in the midst of all these impressive works is a small little book of no more than 50 pages. It is the well-known publication ‘Children’s letters to God.”
I have looked at the book several times, and have found it a source of many sermon illustrations. Some of the letters are inspiring. Some are funny and nonsensical. Some are theologically brilliant within their simplicity. My altogether favorite entry is the one written by a boy named Raphael. His letter reads “Dear God, if you give me a genie lamp like Aladdin, I will give you anything you want, except my money or my chess set.’
The reason that this entry is my favorite is not because it is slightly humorous; nor is it because Raphael has seemed to include Aladdin within the realm of Old Testament saints. No. This letter is my favorite because I have a feeling that such a statement is more common than we sometimes realize. In the culture of instant gratification in which we live, Raphael’s letter to God seems to cut a little too close to home.
The question is easily put: Do we come to God in worshipful offering of ourselves, or merely to receive whatever is the need or want of the moment? It’s a challenging question, and one necessary to engage. As we have grown accustomed to instant responses to e-mails and tweets, it is easy for us to expect God to respond to our prayers the moment we finish our ‘amen.’ In the same manner that pharmaceuticals claim to relieve ache’s pains, symptoms and swellings moments after ingestion, so too we may easily come to expect God to miraculously remove all of our problems and hurts the moment we ask. The cult of instant gratification has no understanding of the likes of perseverance, wrestling, longing, or lamenting. It asserts that anything less that immediate responsiveness from the creator of the universe must mean that God doesn’t love us, or at least has more important things to worry about. A culture of instant gratification equates God’s love and faithfulness with positive responsiveness to all our wishes and whims. Despite the activity of God in the past, the testimony of God’s faithfulness, and the history of our own redemption, these things are just ‘not enough’; We want God to give us what we want when we want it.
What underlies this culture of instant gratification? In ‘Enough is Enough’, Walter Bruggeman suggests that it is ‘an ideology of scarcity.’ Interesting isn’t it, that a culture of instant gratification is grounded in the belief that one can never be fully gratified; A culture which chases the desire to have ‘enough’ is actually based in the recognition that one can never obtain it. After all, Aladdin’s lamp is limited to only 3 wishes, and God simply isn’t in the instant gratification business.
In light of these things, what is left for us to do? We hoard. We find for ourselves treasured possessions which we retain for our own enjoyment and comfort. See, as faithful as Raphael’s letter may seem, it is seeped in the culture of instant gratification with its ideology of scarcity. Raphael wants Aladdin’s lamp, not to cure disease or eliminate poverty, but to receive toys. He wants a heavenly ATM by which he can make withdrawals for all the things that will make his life more enjoyable. And while he says that he will give to God all that God wants, the most prized possessions, the things which truly capture his heart and soul, are locked away.
Of course, we can’t be too hard on the tyke. He’s probably no more than 8 years old. But what about us? I wonder . . . do we withhold our offerings? Do we devoutly announce that we will give to God all that we have, but then whisper that such an offering does not include our piggy-banks and greatest treasures? Do we spend money on countless toys, and manage our time and talents to give us joyful experiences at every turn, but then whine that there simply isn’t ‘enough’ left to give more to God?
Jesus says to the rich fool that, while he is not far from the kingdom of God, he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Of course we explain this away under the rhetoric of hyperbole. We make statements such as ‘surely Jesus couldn’t be talking literally!’ While interpretation is needed, we should not be so quick to dismiss the call and the challenge of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus actually meant what he said. For when money and chest-sets hinder authentic and faithful offering, perhaps we need to be challenged to give those things up.
Raphael’s letter poses and interesting question for us all to consider. Do we come to God as our creator and our Lord, offering the fullness of our lives in worship and adoration? Or, do we come to God simply to receive the things which gratify the wants and whims of this moment? And if our self assessment leads us acknowledge that the answer is the latter, what do we need to give up in order to get back on track?