The Joy of My Heart

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Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.                                                     (Psalm 119:105,111)

 

I stand within a tradition that understands God’s Word – God’s Living Word – as active at the intersection of reading the Scriptures and guidance by the Holy Spirit. Just reading the Bible and applying our own human interpretation doesn’t make it God’s Word. That’s often where we go terribly wrong, with horrendous, even global, consequences. But when the Spirit shows up and works within our minds and hearts as we read, it becomes the Living Word of God, meant uniquely for us in each time and place. The Bible itself is not to be worshiped; it’s only a vehicle, when we let God’s presence come through.

When I was in my early teens, a preacher once referred to “the amazing coincidence of the Bible” – how it speaks afresh every time, when we read it while opening ourselves to the work of the Spirit.

I know, easier to say than to recognize in real life! I’ve never forgotten that, however, and it has held true all my life. As one minister colleague said years ago, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me so much – it’s the parts that I do understand!”

For me, reading the Bible isn’t a matter of looking for answers to life’s questions (as if I had the right questions to ask, anyway!) or of pulling out inspiring stories to live by. There’s a lot of blood and guts in the Bible, and loads of times in it when people blurred the focus of what God had in mind. Back then just as now, people struggled mightily to figure out what God was doing in their midst, and to get their lives on the right side of things. The deeper I allow myself to dive into Scripture texts, the more I feel God’s Word is getting through. . . .

I love how the psalmist says God’s Word “is my heritage forever.” It is a present reality, whenever I dare to sit with some Bible passage and ask the Spirit to strengthen me through the Scripture. Such open-to-God moments are not always comfortable, but they are truly “the joy of my heart!”

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Generous Stewards — Collaborative and Collegial

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            Generous stewards often seem to interact and engage in ministry through networks of diverse folks – more like being part of a movement than a single organization. For example:

  • Cooking Up English, in Austin, TX, is a local church ministry that uses cooking to help non-English speakers learn more about the language, while building community between longtime church members and those new to the area.
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in Stony Point, NY, brings together seven communities in different nearby towns that focus on various aspects of peacemaking, from urban gardening and immigrant support to young adult programs and storefront prayer gatherings.
  • Healthy Vines, in Corona, CA, is collaboration between local and public-school gardens, to help children learn about farming and enjoy locally-grown produce.

These ministries are examples of what I see as a third set of core attributes of generous stewards – they are collaborative and collegial.

When we try to live intentionally as stewards – enjoying, sharing and managing what God has entrusted to us – we often develop collegial relationships that cross over old-time boundaries for the sake of a larger purpose. An article about attracting Millennials in ministry (those born roughly between 1980 and 1995) says the bottom line is that they want to be part of a collaborative community that empowers and releases them to create new ways of doing church and connecting to others.1 But Millennials are not the only age group looking for this approach. Many congregations are popping up these days, which Phyllis Tickle refers to loosely as the “Emergent Church.”

Emergent or otherwise, whenever two or more of us gather in Christ’s name, stewards of the Good News and all God has entrusted to us tend to work with one another in a mutual, flexible way that strengthens the whole. May you find yourself in increasingly collaborative and collegial ministry relationships!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Chris Folmsbee and Brad Hanna, “What Millennials Crave and How the Church Can Relate,” Circuit Rider, May/June/July 2015, pp. 24-25.

A Tapestry of Grace

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In a few months I will go to my fiftieth high school reunion. This is a courageous step, since I haven’t attended any of the previous reunion events along the way. But I’ve been curious to see what my classmates have done in their lives ever since graduation. Thankfully the organizers set up a website, so we can fill out profiles and publically respond to one another before the in-person reunion date. The former students now are spread all across the country and even around the world.

Those daily optional online interactions have prompted me to recall long-past memories and friendships, now viewed in a wider context of the decades we’ve lived in between. High school years can be dramatic enough for anyone, and I’m now glimpsing how many people have grown through (or out of) those teenage experiences, into some wonderful vocations of improving people’s lives.

Whether or not I get to see old friends at the reunion, it will be an opportunity to make new ones. As God told Isaiah, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare – before they spring forth, I tell you of them!” Reunions are a small reminder that God offers us learnings not only from the past, but also in every new moment, to form what can become a beautiful tapestry of grace.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Generous Stewards — Curious and Creative

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Who knew that curiosity might have anything to do with stewardship? I hadn’t thought about it that way. But some scientific studies approach curiosity not as a predilection or character trait, but as a behavior. As such, it shows our “stewardship of attention” 1 – how we choose to pay attention to certain people and situations. When we are curious about others and ask open-ended questions, we can learn and grow, and improve others’ lives, as well.

This is Part Two of four blogs about some primary attributes of generous stewards. Yes, they are cooperative and connectional – and they’re also curious and creative.

Two broad-based studies focused on what Millennials (those born roughly between 1980 and 1995) look for. 2 They want interaction with people in relationships that are diverse in theology, race, ethnicity, etc. And they are curious, seeking experiences and unafraid of risk. They hope to leave the world a better place, including social justice issues, environmental ethics, and local and global physical wellness.

But while Millennials stand out for these things, they aren’t the only age group to desire them. Curiosity is “the desire to approach novel and challenging ideas and experiences,” 3 to increase one’s personal knowledge and engagement. And we all want that, to differing degrees. But when people actively reach out to follow their curiosity, they tend to have better relationships – they connect more easily with strangers, they are often better at “reading” other people’s verbal and nonverbal cues, they are usually less aggressive and enjoy socializing more. 4

It’s no wonder that curious folks – generous stewards of attention – tend to be creative, then. Because they’re willing to learn from other people and to cooperate and connect with others, they end up helping to create new ways to relate beyond old roles and expectations, and new models of ministry that involve risk and flexibility.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – For more on “stewarding attention,” see the three-blog series under that title by Jason Misselt at www.luthersem.edu.

2 – Cited in Folmsbee and Brad Hanna, “What Millennials Crave and How the Church Can Relate,” Circuit Rider, May/June/July 2015, pp. 24f.

3 & 4 – Jill Suttie, “Why Curious People Have Better Relationships,” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu.

A Thank You Plan

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Saying thank you is often a spontaneous thing. When someone does something for us, especially unasked for or at a cost to themselves, we naturally want to thank them, in words, by doing something for them, or by “paying it forward:” giving in some way to others. Most people don’t give in order to be thanked, but it feels good to know the receiver has noticed them and appreciates what they’ve done.

When we’re together as the Church, it makes a big difference when we plan to say thank you, regularly and in different ways. Cesie Delve Scheurmann, consultant and blogger, 1 offers a potent, three-part plan:

  1. Thank people who give a financial gift for the first time, or who make an unexpected gift at Christmas or at year’s end.
  2. Schedule one day every week, when you’ll write four notes of gratitude. A heartfelt thank you note for someone’s gift of time, talent, and/or treasure will make you feel good, and will please them, too.
  3. Every Sunday, plan to thank your congregation for being generous and for supporting ministries that make a difference. There’s plenty to be thankful for, including for churches that are struggling financially, and Scheurmann gives several examples. Over the course of a year, the message will sink in: “What you give brings joy to and matters in the lives of real people.”

However it’s done, giving thanks becomes a gift in itself. “You will be enriched in every way for your generosity,” Paul tells the Corinthians. Their giving will produce not only thanksgiving from Paul and his ministry partner and “not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (2 Cor. 9:11-12) The “saints” – that’s us, and all who seek to follow Jesus – will thank God for their needs being met, and will give their thanks back, as a gift, to God. So giving thanks keeps multiplying, grace upon grace!

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Cesie Delve Scheuermann, “Set Your Generosity Priorities – Part 1,” 1/11/2017, at http://www.umoi.org/blogdetail/inspiring-generosity-7343136

Assets and Liabilities

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“Generosity is a spiritual disposition, not a quantifiable percentage of income,” said author James Hudnut-Beumler in Generous Saints. Generous people are grateful to God, affirming that “they know their worth comes from God, and not from money – not from money earned, hoarded, spent to purchase things, or used to exercise power.” 1

As I re-read these words, I’m struck by the powerful impact of such knowledge: that our worth has absolutely nothing to do with what we do or don’t have in assets and possessions. I think of the people I’ve known personally who are truly homeless, those who have routinely eked out the rest of the month after the end of the paycheck, and those who have plenty of money to go on trips abroad or buy the latest versions of cars or electronics.

Maybe this is a good time to do the related exercise Hudnut-Beumler proposes: to construct a statement of one’s worth – apart from the things we possess, not according to financial assets and liabilities. Draw a line down the middle of the paper, he says. On one side, list what you have and value: relationships, skills, knowledge, habits, and practices that help define who you are and what you have to offer other people. On the other side, list the debts you owe other people and God, including how you acquired or received the “assets” on the other side of the line. Discuss your statement of worth with someone else who has also completed the exercise. What have you learned?

In this process, did you have any “residuals:” items of value that did not come without incurring a debt in some way to someone else?

I didn’t think so, either.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money (Alban Institute, 1999), pp. 9-13

Generous Stewards — Cooperative and Connectional

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I got to thinking: What are the primary attributes of generous stewards, as they manage, share and use the gifts God has entrusted to them? For me, it comes down to four sets of “C”s.

The first set is “cooperative and connectional.” Generous stewards tend to choose connection over competition with others. An intriguing article in The Guardian 1 noted several studies of this behavior. It says we have strong influences that foster competition. It starts in schools, where the emphasis on exams and attainment can instill the idea that success is about doing better than others. And it’s reinforced in many of our workplaces, where employees compete for performance-related awards.

But research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School shows that “’givers’ – people who help others without seeking anything in return – are more successful in the long term than ‘takers’ – who try to maximize benefits for themselves, rather than others.” And there’s a growing body of evidence (including at the University of Warwick) that when people feel happier and more connected, they are more productive at work.

Ministries that emphasize cooperation naturally lead to a sense of connection. For example:

  • Victory Memorial United Methodist Church in Guymon, OK radiates connection with a strong mission mindset and a huge clothing ministry; financially supports local services for seniors, the hungry, and the homeless; are committed to international mission; and host a four-year-old Hispanic congregation.
  • The Slate Project, a young church in Baltimore, MD, is a joint project of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One denomination donates the space, another gave several years of fund, and two others provide staff. Participants gather both online and in person, pray and read Scripture together, host an open mic night for people to share their stories, and invite artists to work with them for a season.

Cooperation and connection naturally lead to spiritual outreach, which one ministry consultant 2 says has two key elements:

  • Focus on personal faith experience of God, and the transformation God can bring about; and
  • Relationship to our daily lives, including education, health, childcare, legal matters, family relations, and mental health. He concludes, “It’s about real people with real needs, and real spiritual resources.”

As stewards of God’s Good News, and of our relationships with one another, how do we foster cooperation, connection, and spiritual outreach?

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/key-to-happiness-not-competition

2 – Michael Rivas, a consultant for the United Methodist National Plan for Hispanic and Latino Ministries