As a child, I observed the shift of summer into fall as a quickening time. Our neighbors worked long, hard hours to harvest their peanut crops. Before the days of electric dryers, wooden staves were pounded into the ground and heavy forks raised to life the legumes up and over each stake, creating properly balanced shocks. At the time of reaping, these strenuous tasks were reversed.
Our little country church filled their autumn harvest altar with the fruits of such labors, including pumpkins and canned goods from summer gardens. “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse,” we would sing, “all your money, talents, time and love.” The song ended with God’s promise of unmeasured blessings to the faithful.
Thus gratitude for all good gifts sent from heaven above was my first stewardship lesson. The knowledge that spiritual gifts were growing within me for God’s Kingdom work developed more slowly. The trust that God would extend blessings to me during times of difficulty and personal sacrifice came even later.
Tests of faith are my hardest challenge for disciplined stewardship. God is not as concerned over how much I tithe, or give away, or do for others, as he is about whether I really, truly, fully trust him day by day to provide for my needs, despite fears and challenges. The relinquishing of my own strategies for survival depends on a radical trust. Such a trust comes at a worldly cost, while always producing spiritual fruit. Accepting that my soul and destiny belonged to God, I began to loosen my grip on whatever I was tightly anchored to for balance, well being, and survival. I didn’t have to understand exactly how God would accomplish His purpose for me and through me. I needed only be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit within, and strive for faithfulness. All God asked then and now, is that I learn to trust and obey.
As I grew in the love of God and scripture, the person of Jesus his teachings, compassion and miracles, his unfathomable sacrifice on the cross and resurrection — all fascinated me. This surely was the Son of God! In surrendering to Christ, faith and understanding matured, as did my musical abilities which made possible church work throughout high school. However, there was still much to learn about managing my income. Imagine my embarrassment when my first bounced check was for an offering! But the desire to be a faithful giver helped my progress. After college, more ministry opportunities opened up, sustaining me through seminary. And performing with wonderful sacred musicians over the past 35 years has brought me great joy and satisfaction.
In 2007, classical pianist Van Cliburn held a contest for adult amateurs. As the winners were announced, he challenged all to: “Go forth, with your God given talents, into the world as missionaries of beauty.” Christian musicians, artists, dancers, sculptures, poets and writers humbly credit the interior work of the Holy Spirit in developing and disciplining these gifts for the service of evangelism, and for God’s glory.
J. S. Bach wrote over 1,000 compositions on which he inscribed “J.J.” at the beginning for Jesu, Juva, or “Jesus, help me,” and S.D.G. at the end, for Soli Deo Gloria, or “Glory to God alone.”
During the early years of our marriage, while raising children, working, and completing our education, my husband Ron and I studied the advice of Christian financial counselor Larry Burkett. He boldly stated that no matter what income Americans made, most chose to spend more than they earned. We learned to budget our money to include tithing, making ends meet, and saving for future needs. We submitted to a frugal lifestyle, charging only what we could pay off each month, unless it was an emergency expense. We learned there were few real emergency expenses. We remembered John Wesley’s wisdom: “Earn, save, invest and give as much as you can.”
Stewardship also extended to mutual responsibilities in the home. Our long-term goals could only be reached if we shared the work load. Sometimes Ron needed more of my help to complete his goals, and sometimes I needed more from him, so as not to worry about the needs of the children and the quality of our home life. This took time and patience to work out and practice, but allowed us to accomplish much. This model of parenting and shared financial goals was thus passed on to our two daughters, now launched into responsible adult lives.
“There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, mind, and the purse,” once wrote Martin Luther. I wonder at times, what does it take these days for Americans to be content? A few years ago a lottery winner purchased a Greek garden sculpture for $250,000. He liked it so much that he bought an identical one. I think about that kind of excess as I clean out closets and drawers. Trips to the Salvation Army leave me feeling light and calm. Surely this is one of our best Quaker quotes: “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Attitudes towards our possessions and purchases are as important to stewardship as how we manage our time and money.
But how do we stay content in the face of great difficulties, sacrifices, or great suffering? This is a different kind of stewardship of the spirit, mind, and emotions. The apostle Paul spent at least four years in prisons for the cause of Christ. Yet his writings witnessed a different kind of joy. In Philippians 4:12, Paul wrote: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
One might assume that few are capable of such profound spirituality, but the lives of countless Christians prove otherwise. Joni Eareckson Tada recently completed her 48th book since becoming a quadriplegic in 1967. The founder of Joni and Friends, a global ministry to the disabled, Joni attests in A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God’s Sovereignty, that:
The essential truths of our Christian faith are Friends’ most treasured inheritance. If all Friends are ministers, have all Friends ministers fully surrendered to the saving grace and love of Jesus Christ? Are we good stewards of our faith?
As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. (1 Peter 4:10)
Under the category, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do this job,” Mother Teresa ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying of Calcutta for more than 20 years before any media attention validated her sacrificial work. In 1970, British agnostic Malcolm Muggeridge shadowed Teresa, then produced the BBC documentary “Something Beautiful for God.” Soon he converted to Christianity. To the question, “How in the world can you do this work?” Teresa responded, “I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No, I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God.”
Atheist Christopher Hitchens, in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice criticized her as a political opportunist who adopted the guise of a saint, in order to raise money and spread an extreme religious ideology. His brilliant mind could not recognize authentic Christian integrity and charity. Christ’s challenge to “pick up your cross and follow me,” still bewilders the worldly as foolishness and folly.
However, we need not go beyond the Society of Friends to encounter heroic ministers of the Gospel. In my own yearly meeting in North Carolina, we struggle over balanced budgets, which also extend health and pension benefits to our pastors. After 30 years of full time ministry service in NCYM, they can expect a monthly pension payment of $450. After their passing, a surviving spouse will receive a portion of that. We strive to increase these amounts through our annual “Share the Blessing” program, but substantial gifts are still urgently needed to even modestly boost pensions.
Why do Friends pastors commit to this work? Because of their call to follow Christ, and to preach the Good News to all they encounter. Are Friends truly aware of their sacrifices, and their family’s? Do our monthly and yearly meetings genuinely strive to meet their financial responsibilities for sustainable budgets? Some pay their fair share of financial support, and some don’t for economic reasons, and some simply won’t, but still desire the benefits of membership. Tensions over our corporate Christian identity and mission exacerbate these problems. Will Friends in the near future continue to boldly proclaim the saving love and grace of Jesus Christ, whatever the cost?
A Recorded Friends minister and Celtic harpist, Linda Selleck is enjoying her 20th year on the ministry team of High Point Friends Meeting.