By David Carlson
Many years ago I was first appointed to a position of lay responsibility in the church, at Holy Trinity Lutheran in Utah. It was a small congregation, and they had limited options. No matter. The district we were in scheduled a stewardship workshop at a sister congregation in Ogden, the next town over. Along with our pastor, I attended.
I’ll always remember the testimony provided by one of their members at the workshop. But to fully appreciate the moment, some context would be helpful.
Heretofore I had been something less than a faithful steward. After bowing to my mother’s demand that I complete confirmation, I generally avoided the church for the next twenty years. Only shortly before this stewardship workshop I had been called (driven?) back to the church by God.
To be sure, stewardship is not limited to the church, and if pressed to give defense that I had not been entirely derelict those twenty years, I might have provided my resume. I had served my country in the military, even going to war – over my strong and expressed objection. I had secured a vocation and, in fact, was at that time in graduate school to enhance that vocation. I had been the faithful husband of one wife and had even had our two children baptized – at her insistence.
None of this had I done particularly well, and of course, none of this would have impressed God; nor should it anyone else. I knew then as I do now that anything I had or had done was by God’s grace, and that every inch of the way the “flesh” had resisted.
So there I was. Before returning to my story, let me provide a brief reflection on “stewardship.” I am currently teaching a course in cultural anthropology at Concordia. In that course, which is by definition and necessity embedded in evolutionary logic, I am pressed to describe how Homo sapiens (us) are unique from other species of creation. It’s actually fairly easy. We alone among God’s creation have access to the “word.”
We alone have language – which, it should be noted, is not the same as communication. Other of God’s creatures communicate, but we alone can talk about – and therefore think about – that “which is no longer,” that “which is not yet,” and that “which never will be.” It is this gift which enables us – by His grace – to be God’s children. Or so I tell my students.
Of course, the Bible tells the rest of the story. With this privilege of being on speaking terms with God comes the responsibility of being the stewards of His creation. All of it. To the extent that we listen, we are enabled to be faithful stewards. But you know this – it is Genesis 101.
Back to my story. My pastor and my fellow lay leaders at Holy Trinity were not at that stewardship workshop to receive a refresher course in Genesis 101. We were there to plot strategies to increase revenue – to “raise more money” for our congregation. It was in this context that the brother spoke.
As part of his congregation’s last “stewardship campaign,” our presenter’s pastor had preached a sermon about the blessing of “sacrificial giving.”
It was clear from the brother’s testimony that he was not an experienced speaker and, from the content of his testimony, that he was not a wealthy man. He was what we sociologists would describe as a “working class” guy.
He said that after hearing his pastor’s sermon he had wrestled with his priorities. He and his wife had been saving money for some time to build a patio for their home. At that moment, they had the money. Just about that time he heard of a ministry need – I don’t know what the need was; I don’t even remember if he said. But the needed funds were roughly equivalent to the cost of the patio.
I don’t remember his words, but I clearly remember what he said. For him money – specifically his patio – had forced him to a moment where he had to question his relationship with his Lord. Letting go of the patio brought him peace.
He said that letting go of his plans for his money had, in fact, been a great blessing. Trust me, he was not a salesman; his was a testimony of joy. And his joy that a lasting impression on me.
I know that stewardship is not just about money. I know, for many of us, time and comfort are the plank in our eye. Had I my preference for St. Luke, I would pray that God simply enable us to go.
I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 10:
“Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment, and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day. Travel light.”
But having said this, I share my Utah brother’s recognition that money is also a plank for most of us.
At a recent SLC meeting, Pastor Dan spoke these words (I asked him if he wished to be publicly quoted, to which he said yes): “The mortgage is suffocating our ability to expand our ministries.”
Those of us at the meeting who heard our pastor speak these words were pierced by their potency. I believe we all need to reflect them and consider what God would have us do.