October 25, 2007

Stewardship Fires

The topic at hand was the destructive fires currently raging in Southern California. Someone in the group posed a provocative question: If you had only ten minutes to return to your home before it burned to the ground, what would you take from it?

That question stayed with me all day, and it started me thinking about what would be in my own arms if I emerged from my house after 10 minutes of choosing what was most important to me. I further considered that the contents of my armload of possessions would certainly say a lot about who I am. Take a moment and ask yourself: What would you run in for if you knew everything else was going away? After all, there's nothing like a crisis for making tough but quick stewardship decisions.

The question of how we believers should treat our "stuff" is a tricky one. It seems to me that Christianity has historically had trouble deciding whether or not followers of Jesus should be ascetics. An ascetic is one who deliberately chooses to shun material goods and possessions for the sake of religious devotion. I note that many of us are prone to admire ascetics when we come upon them in history—monks, nuns, certain missionaries, the Amish, etc.—but I suspect few of us would actually be willing to live as one! (Maybe ascetics, like lions, are best viewed from afar.)

But then again, maybe we are not all called to shun possessions. To be sure, Jesus' response to the rich young ruler in Mark 10 rings vociferously in our ears of faith—"Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." But I think this command must be balanced against the psalmists' gratitude for all of God's good gifts, as in Psalm 8 and similar prayers:

You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Generally, the Bible celebrates God's good provision in our lives, even while warning against hoarding, excess, and idolatry. As such, I think we Christians can celebrate with the Psalmist and embrace the good material gifts God entrusts to us without worshipping or hoarding those good gifts in a way that would prompt Jesus' strong Mark 10 command. It is not possessions, per se, but the worship of those possessions, our grasping them too tightly, that makes it hard to follow the Jesus-way. So, yes, run into your home and scoop up those possessions that are most essential to the stewardship of your life, loves, and labors. What you emerge holding may in fact be signs and symbols of God's grace in your life.

Asceticism, if a Christian feels called to it, is a good and right response to the gospel, no doubt. But a lively and generous stewardship and sharing of what we do possess can be just as faithful, for our worship of God in Christ necessarily loosens our tight grip on things as we learn to trust in God and God's gifts for labor, love, and life. Thus Paul can remind us: God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

So when about this time of year we start talking again about stewardship season, we are not simply referring to the money we need to run the church. This is a crucial part of it, to be sure, but only a part. Stewardship is, more basically, that daily act of Christians whereby we consider all the gifts Christ entrusts to us—time, talent, treasure, etc.—and make good decisions on what to keep, what to share, and what to give away. It is, finally, an act of worship as much as it is an act of the wallet.

God forbid any of us ever be faced with the rush of a 10 minute decision because our home is being threatened by the abhorrent elements. Still, the mental exercise of deciding "what we would grab" may be worth it every now and then, if nothing else to remind us of what truly is important in this God-given, God-saved, God-blessed life.