30 June 2016
Several years ago, I attended a community meeting in a neighborhood where there was a significant incidence of drugs, prostitution, and violence, in my church’s shadow. People were afraid to walk down the sidewalks, to allow their children to play in the yard unsupervised, to leave their cars on the curb overnight, or even to walk to the churches in the area. Fear was the order of the day, and the local civic association invited several groups to send representatives to make presentations to address it. One was from a local martial arts school, and his premise was that if everyone learned their techniques - which he was quick to say were primarily “defensive” - then folks could be less fearful of being accosted and/or harmed away from home. One speaker was from a home security company, saying that her company’s product would make neighborhood homes less likely to be broken into - especially with the company’s large, logo-emblazoned sign in their front yard. A third was from a “neighborhood watch” kind of program, which would have folks noting the date, time, make and model of “suspicious” cars in the area, and reporting them to the police if something went wrong. And then there was the representative of the local chapter of the NRA, saying that folks would be less fearful if everyone was carrying a weapon, and knew how to use it in self-defense. “You could walk with your head up, knowing that you could repel an attacker, who tends to prey on the weak and vulnerable,” he said to the three dozen of us in the community center. It’s still a troubled neighborhood, by nearly all reports, even with “Take Back” activities and patrols and watches, and the downward spiral continues, grinding up folks, good and not-so-good, in its gaping maw. People were afraid, and the meeting calmed their fears “not at all.”
I recently received an article about financial matters for churches, and one of the central questions had to do with the same essential matter: What makes us feel safe and secure in our life and ministry? Can we ever have enough? What about all those nagging, fearful, worrisome issues that are always lurking just “around the corner and out of sight?” How do we balance our fears with our hopes, as people of faith? A good many congregations seem to “whistle in the dark,” deliberately naive about the matters of ongoing maintenance, “rainy day” funds, and try to find “security” by asking for either greater income from members or less corporate expenses.
I wonder if any of you have a story about what Bishop Robert Schnase calls “the joy of generous giving”? Have you ever had a moment - or perhaps many moments - when you found a great deal of joy and peace in letting go of the things onto which many/most folks hold very tightly? Maybe it was in a “spring cleaning” of the house, when you let go of the last 20 years of accumulated National Geographic magazines - that you’d not looked at in ten years or more. Maybe it was in the giving of a financial gift to someone you knew who was in crisis, and your gift made a life-changing difference? Or maybe it was in writing a large, very generous check to help feed a malnourished child in Africa or Appalachia, who’s photo you’d seen on TV?
My dad led the junior church of his congregation every Sunday for nearly 10 years, during the adult gathering in the sanctuary. He taught them many of the practices and habits of worship, and always had a tangible “object lesson.” One of the Sundays, he had a small box with a single hole in its side. Inside was an unknown object that he told them might be something good to eat, or a toy with which they could play, or maybe even some money in a pouch! All they had to do was reach in and grab it, and pull it out. One after another, they reached in, grasped the prize, and tried to extract it through the hole that was just the right size to withdraw only an empty hand. They were stuck, and couldn’t get the prize! Then he told them that monkeys were often trapped by South American hunters in much the same way, except it was always a bit of food - a nut or banana or something similar - and while the animal was focused on retrieving it, it would be caught in a net without any harm and taken away. “Sometimes,” Dad said, “the things that we think are most attractive and worth our full attention, really are not.”
We get caught up holding tightly onto things we think are valuable, and they may be our undoing! All the “SHINY” things may not be all that valuable, ultimately. Think, for a moment, about all that the world around us pursues with “great vigor:” home(s), careers, prosperity, health, well-being, prominence, power, and all the trinkets and treasures that can be grasped. Given a just little bit of faith-perspective, let me ask: are they really “golden,” or are they just “stuff”? And in what way(s) does our grasp of them hold us hostage, and prevent us from taking up the “prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus” of which Paul spoke to the ancient church?
Now, please don’t hear me endorsing a Pollyanna approach to life and the stewardship of the material blessings we enjoy. At the same time, however, please DO hear me inviting you to take up the perspective of stewardship of all that you have - food, home, health, tangible items, treasures, everything. It all comes from the same source, ultimately. Now, having spent a page and a half in preparation, let me encourage you to do a couple of things. Prayerfully consider your grasp of “stuff” with which you are blessed. How tightly are you holding onto it? Are you using it in a way that recognizes that you are “blessed to be a blessing” to others? Have you experienced the joyful liberty of having “let go” of something - great or small? Might you “give it a try,” and find that in the mystery of God’s ordering, the more you give, the more you receive?
It’s been my experience that the more I allow to pass through my possession, the more I find I am entrusted to give away. While I’d be reluctant to put it into an algorithm or formula, it’s been my observation that the fewer hidden treasures I grasp “as if my life depended on them,” the more with which I seem to be blessed. You might give it some thought. Consider what makes for your security, and find that, all things considered, your most profound well-being comes from life in the heart of God. It might just be that straightforward.
Grace and peace to you,
Jim Earley, Pastor
P.S. - Let me hear from you via my e-address:email@example.com