September 20, 2008

Notes for Jumpstarting a Challenge

Christian stewardship is, at bottom, the conviction that everything we have (our stuff, our time, our money ... even our lives themselves) are all gifts from God and thus belong to God.

Lots of people in our culture talk about "self-made" men and women, by which they mean people who have worked hard and pulled themselves up into success by their own strength and effort. We Christians respect those stories, but we do not choose to think about our lives in that way. If anything, we are God-made people: We are created by God, and whatever success we achieve in this life is ultimately a credit back to that creating God--who loans us the abilities and time, talents and strength to labor and love and live.

When you look upon your life in this way -- given by God, owned by God, blessed by God -- then giving to others in need, giving to the church's common ministry, and giving to efforts God nudges us to give to ... these become easy efforts, glad gestures. We give with a grateful, cheerful heart, because we know God is behind it all anyway.

So our theme for tomorrow - memories - is not really about memories, per se (like going to the beach, or your favorite childhood toys, etc.) but about our memory of God's faithfulness to us in the past. This includes the specific ways God has blessed you in your particular life, but it also includes those larger, all-encompassing blessings that are gifts to all of us even if we cannot yet see them as such. This world to live in; food and air and water; families to raise us; crops to feed us ... each of these, God's global gifts.

And of course, as Christians, the superlative gift that blesses us all (and which we remember each week in our gathering and sending) is the gift of Jesus as Christ. That he is a part of our history, our shared story, is our biggest clue that God loves us, that God wishes us well, and that this same God is willing to do what it takes to set our lives and the world to the right.

This is good news, because at 17 (or consider my Ella, only 4) you may say to yourself ... "I'm not certain I have any specific memories of God's blessings in my particular life." And yet, one could say that our Lord Jesus--his life, his dying, his rising--is a part of your memory, because through baptism and through your faith your are connected to HIS life, HIS story, HIS blessings. That's the mystery and blessing and burden of faith.

So stewardship (our taking care of the gifts of God in our lives) begins not with guilt (I guess I HAVE to give) or obligation (I guess I SHOULD give) but with joy (I know I CAN give ... back to God ... to those in need ... to God's church). If we think of our lives as solely our own, in that self-made sense, we are likely to be stingy and selfish. If we think of our lives as immeasurable gifts from a loving God, then we are likely to be generous with what we have. After all, we know it is a gift to us in the first place.

Consider this metaphor: When I was in high school, I might have been tempted to say to myself: "Geez ... my parents ... nothing but a nuisance and a drag with their rules and regs and expectations. I'm moving out on my own." But had I done that -- moved out on my own -- I would have quickly discovered all of those things they were doing for me that I had not really considered or taken seriously: food, roof over my head, an allowance, a sense of right/wrong, help when I was sick, encouragement when I was down, etc. It would surely not take long for the absence of these generous gifts, and the challenge of producing them by myself, to call me back home.

So upon moving back in, I would therefore be moved to live in a certain new way under their roof. I would be more grateful for all of the sacrifices they make for me, more aware of the costs they incur for me, more loving toward them and more appreciative of the fact that countless bodies around the world do not enjoy even one third of those gifts. In other words, I would seek to be a better steward of their many gifts -- both obvious and subtle -- that they give to me every day.

It is not so different with the Christian life. We are sometimes tempted to "go out on our own." "Who needs faith, what with its high expectations, commandments, and demands." But a little while on our own, absent the faith, hope, and love the undergirds our living, we are likely to come back to God with a fresh sense of gratitude for all that God for us on a daily basis -- if we would but open our eyes to see it.

So when we remember God's faithfulness in the past (as Israel is reminded to do in the Old Testament passage for tomorrow - Deuteronomy 9:7-18), we are again made aware of all that God has done for us, and we are nudged and prodded and called to live differently in the future -- with joyful hearts, with an eye toward those in need, with open hands and not tight fists.

Has there been a time when you took someone or something (or even God) for granted for awhile, only to realize the hard way that your life would be very different, likely a lot less, were it not for that person, that gift, or our God?


What are some of the specific ways you can look back over your life, and your family's life, and see God's gifts and blessings to you? What would your life be like had these gifts (people, things, time, etc.) not been given to you and your family by God? What decisions could you make in the future to make certain God know you are grateful for them?


Who is a Christian you know (in your family, neighborhood, church, etc.) who exudes gratitude? What do you know about their story that points to how God has blessed them? What do you learn from watching how they live their life?

Challenge us along these lines.

September 19, 2008


Come, Spirit tempest. Move across our watery chaos,
bringing winds and water for disturbing your church.
Come ashore with righteous indignation: circulating
over our slumbers, troubling those firmer idolatries.

Come, Spirit tempest. Blow with Word-winds across
our complacent comfort. Shake loose from moorings
the lines of numbing entertainment; pry us free from
worship at the feet of Convenience. Unsettle us again.

Come, Spirit tempest. Scour our crowded lives with a
purifying wind. Prune away the deadwood of empty
words and easy sentiment. Gather up the life-litter we
so heedlessly overlook. Strengthen us for new living.

Come, Spirit tempest. Bring a howling, hallowed word.

Genesis 1:1-2, Acts 2:1-2

September 9, 2008

A New Day

A Psalm for Those Who Struggle

The night has now gone.
Another day has come.

In the anxious hours of the evening, I bore my soul to you.
I could hide no longer.
Even the darkness could not cover me.
Your word was heavy upon me—a yoke tightened with purpose.
The disparate elements of my soul could no longer cohere.
I felt your judgment upon me, your disappointment with my days.

Still, I opened my life to you, and you did not strike me down.
You heard my cry, witnessed my exposure.
You are—all at once—judge and redeemer.
I named my sin before you, charted the wayward courses of late.
Then I lay down in peace, unburdened.

And now comes a new day.

With the morning is a new beginning, one more Easter for living.
I do not deserve this gift, O Giver of all time and space.
Yet it has arrived, as sure as your history with me.
Help me to make the best of these unfolding hours.
Direct my steps, that each one will show your mercy.
Teach me to walk with a certain humility, grounded in your love.

The night has now gone.
Another day has come.

September 7, 2008

All Wet

“The water used for Baptism should be common to the location, and shall be applied to the person by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. By whatever mode, the water should be applied visibly and generously.” Book of Order W-3.3605

Baptismal waters flowing down from above
Ubiquitous water. All over: a sacred mess
Generous, rich—like the grace it signs
A bath. Not a spot or a dash or a dab
Flowing freely, running liberally
Washing, cleaning, dissolving
From faucet to font to life
Marking and mending
Stained and sealed
Promise claimed

September 6, 2008

The Privilege of Doing More

At 75, my father’s health is failing. It’s no secret. When people ask how he is doing of late, he tells them. It is what it is, and it makes him just a bit more reflective than usual.

I was recently with him for a week, and together we sat down with Richard Magg—director of our denomination’s post-Katrina recovery efforts—to talk about what Presbyterians have been doing in New Orleans this year. As we prepared to say goodbye to Richard, with a pat on the back my father encouraged him to keep up the good work. Then dad added, reflectively, “You know, it’s a real privilege to be able to do the Lord’s work. I only wish I had done more of it.”

From his vantage point, near the end of his life, he wishes he could have done more in ministry. From my vantage point, having watched his life, I know he’s done a lot. In fact, my father is likely one of the best Christian stewards I have known. He has always worked hard to provide for his family, and done well at it; still, he’s never had the sense that he is somehow a “self-made man.” When he tells his life story, it’s clear in his retelling that he knows it by God’s grace that he is who he has become. When he names his involvement in numerous ministries over many decades, you can hear a kind of boyish note of wonder in his recounting—as if to say, “I can’t believe I’ve had the privilege of being a part of something like this.” He’s always been generous with his time, talent, and treasure; quick to respond to a genuine need, great or small.

His life as I’ve watched it puts me in mind of a bit from our Book of Order:

"Those who follow the discipline of Christian stewardship will find themselves called to lives of simplicity, generosity, honesty, hospitality, compassion, receptivity, and concern for the earth and God’s creatures." W-5.5005

Indeed. Stewardship is about the privilege of being able to do more for God, for others. Stewardship is not primarily about fundraising for the church’s budget, even though supporting our common ministry financially is certainly one of our common callings. But long before we speak of your wallet or our church budget, Christian stewardship begins in our hearts. It begins the moment we look back over our lives and recognize that, were it not for God’s astonishing generosity to us, we would not be where we are today. Indeed, would we even be at all?

If one is truly a self-made man; if one can see no trace of grace whatsoever in her story; if the unfathomable generosity of God made known in the Friday-Sunday tale of Jesus does nothing to stir the soul or prick the heart—then I would say there is little to worry about regarding stewardship. You’re off the hook, because you are on your own. Don’t give if you’re not grateful. Otherwise it’s just a religious tax on your stuff, a burden instead of a blessing.

But of course we are not on our own. For baptized folk, the idea of a “self-made man” is oxymoronic. What I have learned by watching my father over the years is that giving follows gratitude. When I gaze upon what God has done—for me, for us, for the world—I am moved to give of myself, precisely because I know that the same Lord who has blessed me thus far will be the same Lord who undergirds the remainder of my living. I can give, precisely because what I have is a gift to me in the first place. Even the ability to labor in order to secure resources is itself an astonishing gift.

Those who come to the end of their lives and have the time to reflect upon that fact can teach us much about the decisions we make along our way. Will we come to our conclusion and regret never giving of ourselves? Will we face the finish line and recognize that we never really got started living in the first place? Will we spend our time and treasure on labors and loves that do not matter all that much from the perspective of Jesus? These are stewardship questions. They begin in our hearts, not our checkbooks or calendars. The first and real pledge we make is our commitment to follow Christ where he leads, through faith, hope, and love. Get that right, and the rest will follow.

Before you write any checks, before you spill any ink in your day planner, before you fill out a single pledge card … prayerfully consider what God has been up to in your life thus far. Consider what you hope to be able to look back on at the close of your days. Giving follows gratitude, and it is the glad privilege of those who have come to know God’s unfathomable blessings.

If ever the call to renewed Christian commitment and the challenge of Christian stewardship feels burdensome to you, remind yourself that it is a blessed burden. Remember the testimony of my father—and those similar examples in your own life. By God’s good grace, his only apparent regret in giving of himself in ministry to others all these years is that he has not been able to do even more.

May it be so for us as well.