Pursuit and Possessions

Standard

             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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Cosmic Pentecost

Standard

Today is Pentecost, when we celebrate the living presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. For years, I used to describe Acts 2 as when God sent the Holy Spirit among us. But God is the Holy Spirit as clearly as God is the Creator and the Redeemer. And the Holy Spirit has been active among and around us from the very beginning, including throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and ever since, including now, and on into the future.Hubble 14 CROP pillars of creation

From the very beginning. I was stunned by a recent NOVA television program that showed pictures from the Hubble Telescope as it has traveled far beyond the earth’s atmosphere over these past twenty-five years. “Overcome with awe” is more like it, as I saw the Andromeda Galaxy as it’s never been seen before, as if we could visually count all 100 million of its brilliant pinpoint stars. Way beyond that in scope, the picture of what has been dubbed “the pillars of creation” dwarfs any of the galaxies, with towering clouds of light and stardust so vast that one tiny, dark disk is an entire galaxy caught in that instant being born.

The Hubble Telescope has shown us, for the first time, the age of the universe itself: 13.7 billion years old. Through Hubble, human beings have seen swirling galaxies of incredible shapes, colors and sizes, and have discovered a Black Hole at the center of every one of them, including ours. And Hubble has allowed scientists to discover that the universe is expanding rapidly, thanks to “dark energy,” previously entirely unknown, which is invisible to us and comprises seventy percent of the universe.

I have heard the Holy Spirit described as “God’s active presence and present activity.” Hubble’s photos witness to God’s activity in creation in every moment on such a vast scale that they are bound to overcome us with awe. It is as if Psalm 8 and Romans 8:9-25 come together to tell us the glorious story of God’s love for us all. If such beauty and intricacy exist in the creation that God has made, how can we not be in awe of the Radiant One who creates and sustains it all, and who promises its redemption?

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub