Some years ago a radical thought somehow slipped past all the conventional thought-screening sentries that usually control what enters my mind. Yet no sooner had the radical thought slipped in than my mind-guards seized it, bound it and threw it out.
A few months later the same thought sneaked in again. But not before I had a chance to interrogate it. And I didn't like the thought's answers. Every time I asked a question, it merely replied, "Well, what do you think?"
Despite valiant efforts on my part, the thought returns periodically. It came again as I read about the Chilean miners' rescue. And I've noticed that, without exception, it always returns when I reflect on Matthew 6:1-4.
For a while I considered avoiding Matthew 6:1-4 altogether. But the words of 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) kept ringing in my head: "All Scripture is ... useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (emphasis mine).
So what does Matthew 6:1-4 (NIV) say? In brief: "Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men.... When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets.... Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing...."
"There's nothing radical about that," you say. "It's just a call to avoid pride and display." True. But when the Bible lays down principles of personal behavior, don't they apply to groups also?
Are groups immune to the foibles of individuals? Can a group become proud? Can a group smite itself on its collective breast and say, "Thank God that our group of saints isn't like that group of sinners"? Can a group say, "Our group is better than your group"?
At the time the radical thought first appeared, I just happened to be preparing a presentation for about 150 church communication secretaries. In it I was suggesting ways to wring every bit of publicity out of every "act of righteousness" the Seventh-day Adventist Church does.
Believe it or not, during my nine years as an Adventist magazine editor, I noted that the main thrust of many a news article wasn't about the Adventist event itself so much as about the good publicity the event generated. In other words, the news is that we were in the news!
And the thought suddenly struck me as I was preparing my presentation for church communication secretaries: Should I instead be teaching them how to do good deeds secretly, so that no one will know who it was who did them?
"Don't be stupid," you say. "If we didn't use the media to attract people's attention, we wouldn't see a fraction of the conversions we now have. We wouldn't have nearly as much goodwill. Besides, every other religious group uses media publicity to build name recognition and credibility."
I know. I've used the same words when I've given presentations to church communication secretaries. And I've used those same words when I've argued with the radical thought. But let me suggest an altogether different scenario.
Suppose we as Adventists determine not to let our "acts of righteousness" become public. Suppose that, when the Pathfinders go down to tidy up the lawn of an old couple who've been ill, they don't reveal their identity. When asked who they are, they simply say, "Just a group of young people who care."
Suppose disaster strikes, and the conference van rolls up, loaded with blankets and sandwiches and hot drinks—without the name, address and phone number on the side of the van. When people ask who's providing this wonderful humanitarian service, the Adventist volunteers simply say, "Just a group who care."
Suppose we inundate the community with hundreds of deeds of kindness and helpfulness, both large and small. But whenever onlookers or those who've been helped ask who's doing it, we simply reply, "Just a group who care."
My guess is that before long newspapers and radio and TV stations would have reporters out trying to discover just who this "group who care" really are.
I'm not saying this hypothetical outline would be a good idea. It might be the formula for disaster. Of course, Christianity has never been a typical formula for "success." What Jesus advocated is quite consistently counter-intuitive.I mean, are we really supposed to take seriously all that stuff about the first being last and the last being first?
So, again: Should we as Adventists be doing our good deeds only in secret? I don't know. But it can't hurt to at least ask, as the radical thought always asks me when I'm arguing with it: "Well, what do you think?"
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida. The foregoing is adapted from a chapter in his book One Thing I Know--and Other Stuff I Strongly Suspect.
Photo: Sebastião Salgado, Full view of the Serra Pelada gold mine, Brazil, 1986.