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

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Pursuit and Possessions

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             Jesus says that what we pursue is what we treasure (Luke 12:33-34). The trouble with pursuing wealth as a source of security, adds author Sondra Ely Wheeler, 1 is that “it usurps God’s role as source and measure and guarantor of life.” By contrast, Wheeler notes, the Book of Luke lays out “a confidence of ultimate blessing so complete as to free people from compulsion about the material needs of their lives.”

This combination of confidence in God and freedom of living empowers us to pursue God’s Reign. It keeps us from chasing all the things that people otherwise see as ultimate measures of life: status, power, invulnerability against others, and business as usual.

Luke gives no single rule when it comes to what Jesus says about living with possessions. “Sell your possessions” is one reply (Luke 12:33-34). Other statements are to be generous to the poor (Luke 21:1-4), choose volunteer poverty (Luke 12:38), and refuse to call anything your own (Acts 4:32). Apparently there’s no one formula for us all; we have to figure out what is most effective, given our unique pursuit of God’s Reign in the lives and circumstances God has entrusted to us.

This can sound like bad news, in that there’s no one formula for us all – we have to figure out for ourselves what is the right relationship for us to have with the things we own. But in another way that’s also Good News: we keep working out how we can receive, give, and use our possessions for God’s purposes, in our lives and for everyone else’s life, as well.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Sondra Ely Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p. 71

The Morning-After Net

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It’s doubly hard when a dream turns to dust, when people who have gone through a dramatic life event (a significant relationship, a turn-around experience) see all the goodness vanish. The dream dies, our new life doesn’t pan out, loved ones drifts away. Unsure of what to do, we ask ourselves, Can I go back to who I was before? Can I at least do something that used to be familiar?

fishing coordinating workI can imagine Peter in that state after his betrayal, after Jesus’ unthinkable death, even after the Resurrection. Peter’s sense of life must have been stripped of all feeling, his mind reeling with What do I do now? It’s no wonder he told his fellow former-fishermen, “I’m going fishing.”

So Peter must have been stunned by that morning-after breakfast on the Galilee lakeshore (John 21:1-14). Actually, it was the overwhelming abundance of fish that tipped him off. The Beloved Disciple (John’s stand-in for you and me) recognized Jesus, not by his appearance but by the effect of his action, when their long-empty net was now teeming with fish, including one of every species known at that time.

As with Peter in that moment, even when the greatest events of our lives turn sour, Jesus comes to be with us and provide abundance we never felt was possible. Peter and the disciples had a delicious, nourishing breakfast that day – and then no doubt, as stewards of God’s abundance, they shared the rest of that amazing bounty with the community around them.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

Simple Rules for Money: John Wesley on Earning, Saving, & Giving

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James A. Harnish, Abingdon Press, 2009Simple Rules for Money cvr

Written for the “Live Simply” (2016) issue of

Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation

published with permission

In Simple Rules for Money, James Harnish offers Methodist founder John Wesley’s guidelines for financial living, still strikingly appropriate for us today. “Wesley’s rules are not about fund-raising for the church,” he states. “They are about practicing the spiritual discipline of generosity so that we become generous people whose lives are shaped in the likeness of an extravagantly generous God.”

In this small book, individuals or study groups can delve into Wesley’s admonition to “gain [or earn] all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” With help from the book’s discussion questions, it prompts readers to realign their daily habits.

Earn all you can, says Harnish, but not by harming your health, hurting your neighbor, or damaging your soul. Work at your livelihood supported by your Christian community and financial counselors, trusting God in the process.

“Save all you can” means not to waste money on things that derail us from our relationship with God. Here the author offers eight real-life steps we can take to counter our instant-gratification, credit card-addicted culture.

“For Christ-followers,” Harnish says, “giving is a defiant act of rebellion against the insatiable power of greed.” Wesley’s phrase “give all you can” is not about giving from our financial leftovers, but “a total reorientation of our financial life around our commitment to Christ.” He then highlights Wesley’s four challenging questions to ask ourselves before we make any expenditure.

Summarizing Wesley’s outlook, Simple Rules for Money affirms that generosity is a non-negotiable Christian practice. It requires planning, motivated by our identity as children of God. And it results in joy, as we see our generosity “touch(ing) the life of this world with the love and grace of God.”

What’s in a Box

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Inspiration can come in some surprising forms. An article in the January-February 2016 issue of Smithsonian left a lump in my throat. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen archaeologscrollical finds in seminary, so I was pleased to see pictures of Galilean treasures unearthed in recent years.

One item is particularly intriguing: a quartzite box found in the synagogue in Magdala (also newly discovered). It has some of the earliest-known carvings of the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah and other sacred items from the Temple areas where only priests were allowed. It even has a symbol of the veil separating the priests’ area from the Holy of Holies. So the box represents a three-dimensional model of Herod’s entire Jerusalem Temple.

Here’s what brought the goosebumps: Rina Talgam, the art historian who is studying the box, believes it represents one more sect of Judaism in Jesus’ day, alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees and others. This group believed that God does not live solely in Jerusalem but is accessible to any Jew anywhere. In effect, the box allowed them to bring the entire Temple to their own provincial synagogue for worship. In this way, Talgam says, that Jewish group was a forerunner to the New Testament with its theme of God’s Reign existing not only in heaven but also on earth and in the human heart. As Talgam told the writer of the article, God is not only in heaven, but also within the faith community and within each one of us.

As stewards of the gospel, we know that God has gifted us with so much, from God’s love to our lives and everything in between. But what makes me tremble is this: God even entrusts us with the gift of God’s own Living Presence. If it takes a miniature Temple on a box to remind us, then that’s fine with me. The fact is that “God Is With Us” – Emmanuel.

How can we be stewards of God’s Living Presence by the way we live today?

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

A Generous Eye

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DREAM 2 NIGHTMARE 1Jesus’ parable about the eye as the lamp of the body (Mt. 6:22-24) contrasts a healthy eye with an unhealthy one. The healthy eye illuminates the whole person, he says, whereas (as one commentator puts it) the unhealthy eye creates double vision, making the entire person “full of darkness.”

Double vision – that’s a powerful metaphor. For the churches we belong to and seek to lead, there can be a lot of double vision: confusion about our specific purpose as a congregation or ministry. This is especially true when we have a long history of trying to do everything. The saying fits with Jesus’ next parable, about the inevitable conflict when a slave has two masters at the same time. No matter what our roles in life, we can have only one absolute loyalty.

But I was surprised when I saw William Barclay’s translation of these verses: “So then, if your eye is generous, the whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is grudging, your whole body will be in the dark.”

Now that’s intriguing! It can apply to us personally. Whenever we look upon the world, other people, and ourselves through a generous eye, we can see God’s generous acts, God’s grace, people’s gifts and the giftedness of life. But when we view life grudgingly, we see everything through a jaundiced, jaded perspective.

May you look at life with a generous eye!

Betsy Schwarzentraub

A New Look at Hebrews

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scrollWhat are rituals, anyway? My Quaker husband uses that term for symbolic outward actions in worship. I prefer the United Methodist description of sacraments: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” This is true when we prepare ourselves for worship, anyway: for Holy Communion or baptism, or really any time we gather for worship together. The Quakers call this a “gathered meeting.” But whatever words we use, it is amazing when God is truly present and we’re open to perceiving it!

Enter the Book of Hebrews. I’ve always found it theologically dense, no doubt because it begins with the former Jewish Temple worship of animal sacrifice. That’s anathema to me. But it ends up revealing Jesus Christ as both the greatest High Priest and the ultimate sacrifice, a channel for God’s forgiving human sin and ending the necessity for any further sacrifice for all time.

But here is where today’s surprise reading came in. While I hate anything related to sacrifices, I value highly any outward actions that reflect the “inward and spiritual grace” that God has done and keeps doing on my behalf and on behalf of us all. Using classical Christian terms, these grateful-for-grace actions are the “sanctification” that follows justification – however we live our lives in response to God’s overwhelming love, compassion and forgiveness.

Wait a minute. That’s stewardship, isn’t it?

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub