Tag Archives: Stewardship

A Brush With Grace

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I was almost in tears.

“It’s just a jelly roll” my beloved attempted to console me.
“It’s not about the jelly roll,” I responded.

We sat quiet for a few minutes as we drove over the high point of the bridge crossing the port. The bridge is the best place to get a view of downtown, and at night I find it particularly beautiful with glowing streetlights dotting the panorama, and high-rise buildings with a random pattern of lightened and darkened windows. Although I’ve lived here for over a year already, it is a sight that I still love.

“I’m sure the cheesecake is fine too.”
“No, the cheesecake was messed up and so is this janky jelly roll,” I responded with a mix of anger and fear.

We were on our way to do something that we do not often do: Spend time with some people with whom we are building a friendship. Even though we have been beginning to make friends, we have found it particularly isolating here. I don’t have any co-workers, my beloved works out beyond the suburbs, and we don’t have many people from those usually natural connections with whom to spend time on the weekends.

But this night was different. We were going to spend time with people, and I wasn’t there as a pastor. I was just Matthew, which happens extremely rarely, and I was incredibly excited. We were charged with dessert. Dessert is up my alley. I love baking, and I’m told that I’m not too shabby at it either.

I was convinced that I needed to impress them. I needed to make a good impression, to give the impression that I can do things, and that I’m worth having as a friend because I have things to offer.

A marble cheesecake was the verdict. I worked all day whipping and mixing and measuring, and packing, and browning, and melting, and marbling, and baking, and cooling. After nearly six hours working and waiting it was cool enough, I needed to examine my work to ensure that it was a worthwhile offering. It wasn’t. It did not bake evenly and wide swaths of it were underdone.

Knowing I could not present this, I scrambled for something else that would be tasty, not from a box, and, most importantly, able to be completed in the short time that remained. A jelly roll was it.

I measured and beat, and whipped, and mixed and poured, and baked, and rolled, and unrolled, and slathered, and rolled again.

As I was rolling for the final time, the beautiful golden crust from the top of the sponge cake was coming off, sticking to the parchment that it had been turned out onto. Knowing full well that nothing could save it and I had no other options, I continued rolling and attempted to make the best out of my second failed desert of the day.

As we drove to our destination, I held the jelly roll. I glared at it in disdain. This “Plan B” desert was equally a disaster. My desire to impress was over. I would stand at their door holding this humble jelly roll and I was going over explanations in my mind.

“I made a cheesecake, but it didn’t turn out,” I would say. “Sorry that this didn’t turn out,” I would say. “Bad Day,” I would try to explain.

“I can’t believe this!” I said.
“It’s just fine,” my beloved replied.
“This is a perfect metaphor for my life,” I said, “I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make something, and trying to do it well, but it all just falls apart.”

A tear streamed down the cheek of my beloved as she listened to my newest installment of my verbal self-flagellation.

We rode silently for the rest of the trip across town.

As I rang the door bell, my heart sank as I looked upon my broken offering and disfigured addition to our meal, desperately hoping that it did not reflect poorly upon my prospects for friendship.

As one half of our host couple opened the door, I forced a smile, said hello, and held out my now-hated jelly roll.

Before I could apologize for it, she pulled my beloved and I in for a hug.

“It’s so good to see both of you!” She said.

I tried to coolly apologize for our contribution.

“Don’t worry about it one bit,” she said, “we’re just glad you’re here.”

***

This was a brush with grace, and I think, a brush with the Divine.

Perhaps this is what we are like in front of God. We stand and hold our best efforts and best intentions in the form of a broken and far-from-perfect offering, and God gives us a hug, saying, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Stewardship in the Inner City

At our church, we have a board inside the narthex that has the register of attendance and offerings.  This board has numbers on it: our attendance the previous week and the attendance to the corresponding week last year, it includes our weekly giving goal, and our offering from last week.  This is, of course, not to serve as a comprehensive evaluation of the health of our church, but it is certainly a dynamic of it.  While I think that at times our denomination (the Reformed Church in America) can focus too much on numbers and statistical measures of growth, we cannot deny the importance of attendance and offering numbers as a component to our health.

Some people who visit our church in Milwaukee from elsewhere are sometimes surprised that in our inner-city church in a largely low-income neighborhood, we display these numbers for all to see.  However, I think that highlighting such numbers is important regardless of whether you are in a high-income church or a low-income church.  Giving is not just about the amount, it is a spiritual discipline.

I sometimes hear people talk about how churches are all about money, that they focus too much on money.  Sometimes I hear people refer to the offering as the “admission”, usually tounge-in-cheek, but I think that there is often a hint of seriousness to it.  Unfortunately, I think that there are many instances when these observations and critiques are accurate.

There is a fine line between appearing like we worship money (which it can seem like, everyone stands and we sing the Doxology), and placing such a low importance on giving that it is not even in our worship services (at one church I visited one time, they had “joy boxes” on the back wall, and they encouraged you to put money in there if you would like).  The danger of focusing too much on money is that those of limited means can feel left out or even excluded.

The purpose of the church is not to exclude, but to include; not to cause divisions, but to create unity; not to make a hierarchy between “useful” people and “unuseful people”, but to help everyone to understand that they have a purpose, and to help everyone to participate in the greater mission.  Regardless of how wealthy one is, everyone needs to feel as though they have some ownership in their church, as though they have a stake in their church, as though they can contribute.  This is the real point of an offering.

It is true that a church, as an organization, needs money to function, but the offering is so much more than a fundraiser.  We often talk about the offering as the time in which we “give back to God”, which technically is correct, but it is a bit abstract.  It also carries the undertone that money is the only way that we can do this, and those that cannot offer much money may feel as though they don’t have something to give to God.  This is why it is important to understand the offering as both material and symbolic.  Money is one way that we can, and need to, give of ourselves.  But for those of us of limited means, those of us who cannot offer much other than a few coins, the offering is also symbolic of giving of ourselves to God.

I don’t make judgements or conclusions about our church, our people, or our stewardship solely by the numbers on the board.  I don’t even talk about it that much.  I allow the numbers to just be.  Some weeks we get closer to our giving goal, other weeks we are way under our goal.  It is important for us to be aware of it, but we need not stake our whole existance on it.  We need to encourage giving and stewardship, also being aware that we have many with limited financial resources and fixed incomes, and we invite these folks to give what they are able.

No where in the Bible (that I am aware of, at least), is stewardship limited to wealthy folks.  No where are we told that only a certain portion of the people need to be stewards of what they have.  Stewardship is universal, and even when we may not have much money to offer, we can offer what we are able.  The point is not that we must offer ten percent, or that we must give a certain amount, the point is that we give of ourselves what we are able.  More than anything giving is a spiritual discipline, and this is why we keep having the numbers on the board.