“May Jesus himself and God our father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 (The Message)
One night many years ago, Lisa and I received a phone call from some old friends and former parishioners seeking some feedback on a difficult decision they were suddenly faced with making: their oldest son, who was nine or ten at the time, was an extremely gifted singer and had been offered a position with the prestigious American Boys’ Choir. It was an incredible honor, and an even greater opportunity: truly, this could be the first step of a career as a world-class singer! By the same token, however, it would require that the boy leave home and attend a private school several states away in New Jersey. As you can imagine, his mom and dad were struggling with that part of the decision. Should he really be away from home and family so young, they wondered; what would he miss by not having a “regular” childhood? But by the same token, what possibilities would be lost by not pursuing this incredible opportunity?
To be honest, I’m not sure what Lisa or I would have done in that situation, but in the end, these parents let their son sing with the American Boys’ Choir, and attend school far from home. Later on, they told us that what led them to finally, if reluctantly, give their blessing was that they had always understood that their children were a gift on loan to them from God. “We’ve always known,” they said, “that there would be a time that we would have to give them to the world.”
I’ve always remembered this as reflecting a central spiritual truth for our lives: that everything we have or can ever hope to receive is ultimately a gift from God. Indeed, none of that which holds the greatest value in our lives and living comes to us by accident nor solely by our own effort. Our children, our sense of belonging to a family our community, the work we are strengthened to do and the love we are equipped to share; all of these, to say nothing of the fundamental blessings of life and health and food, are ours only by the grace of God! Consequently, most of what we do in this life, either knowingly or unknowingly serves as our reaction to what God has already initiated; in the end, the sum total of decisions made, priorities set, compromises and sacrifices undertaken all make up our personal response to the “manifold grace of God.”
And if you want another word for that, it’s… stewardship.
In our church, as in many other congregations about now, we’re grappling with matters related to stewardship; including, but not limited to how our collective responses to God’s manifold grace will impact the church budget in the coming year. And, admittedly, it’s a daunting task for all of us; given the rising costs of maintaining a church’s ministries and facilities, the ever capricious nature of the economy and the swiftly changing demographics in the pews, “doing” stewardship seems a much greater challenge than it once was. And yet, at the end of the day (or the end of the campaign, as the case may be…), what becomes clear is that the kind of stewardship that will strengthen our church to thrive, financially and otherwise, will still be the generosity that’s inspired by a graceful, extravagant God and motivated by a thankful heart.
These past couple of weeks have been particularly busy ones at East Congregational UCC, what with the run up to our annual Holiday Fair held last Saturday (one of the premier festivities of this Church Fair Season!). It was another very successful effort on the part of our women’s fellowship (!), and it gave credence to something I’ve always believed about events such as these; that the fundraising aspect of what we’re doing is always welcome and very important, but ultimately, the money we make is gravy; that the true blessings come in all of the great fun, warm fellowship and especially the church’s presence and outreach in the community. And for this reason alone, ask any of our church’s women and I’m sure they will swiftly attest to the fact that putting together a fair each year is hard and exhausting work; but then just as quickly add that it’s always worth it!
Indeed, at this year’s fair there was love and laughter in great abundance, and as this pastor spent the morning floating from station to station trying to help wherever I could, I was struck by how even a little church fellowship hall filled with reasonably priced crafts, candies and baked goods ends up being the very place where God surprises us with unending help and confidence; and how that alone can enliven and invigorate us as a family of faith! And I was not the only one who noticed; in the days that have followed, I’ve heard many in our church talk about what a blessing that day and event was for us; and moreover, wondering aloud where this kind of Holy Spirit and joyous momentum may yet be taking us as a church!
It seems to me that beyond the traditional appeals and pledge card packets that are part and parcel of this annual ritual of church life, this is the most essential stewardship question of all. God has indeed blessed us, and in so many varied ways, as persons and as a congregation; moreover, all around us God is creating momentum for an exciting and purposeful future that’s even now unfolding. But how will we respond to all we’ve been given? The Spirit is alive and moving in and through our lives, calling us and urging us forward in ways we can’t even yet imagine; so how will that Spirit’s leading impact the giving of our time, our talents, and yes, our treasure?
These are important questions for us to consider, and for more than just the support of the church budget in any given year; our answers to such questions show our hearts, perchance to reveal a true and joyful awareness of grace in our lives: how it’s been received; and in how it needs to be shared with the world.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry