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.