STEWARDSHIP ON A PERSONAL LEVEL
by Ron Nicola
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible …"
These words are, of course, recognized as the opening lines of the Creed, recited by the faithful during celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Since a creed is an expression of one's beliefs, it is assumed that voluntary recitation automatically implies the intention to follow its guidelines. In fact, the Divine Liturgy is full of familiar prayers and petitions which clearly advocate a specific pattern of behavior. Do Orthodox Christians conduct their lives according to the principles expressed in the Divine Liturgy?
Clearly, the answer to this question is no, not entirely. If is for this reason that confession and communion are part of the Divine Liturgy's ritual. People stray in their behavior, but God, in His infinite love for the faithful, affords the opportunity for forgiveness. One of the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion reads:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen.
When this prayer is recited, there must be a sincere intention to act in accordance with its teachings. The fact that well-intentioned people constantly fall short in this effort is proof of man's imperfect nature. It is also a reminder that God created people with a free will. The combination of freedom and imperfection explains the sinful actions of man.
This reality creates many ironies and contradictions in the daily lives of all Orthodox Christians; indeed of all Christians. Belief in God is repeatedly expressed, yet sins are committed against His Word. His teachings are clear, yet people stray. He gave mankind all they possess in this world, yet they deny Him the fruits of their labor. Christians constantly use the free will given them by God to ignore His Word and follow a path which violates Christian beliefs.
An additional irony involves the need to even discuss the concept of Orthodox Christian Stewardship. The Bible and other scriptural writings are full of specific guidelines about stewardship. Nothing could be more clearly stated than the notion that all earthly things derive their origin from God, therefore these gifts must be used to glorify His Name.
When the concept of stewardship is applied to the life of an individual Orthodox Christian, the message is clear … live your life, your whole life, according to His Word. Someone once said, "It doesn't take much of a man to be a Christian, but it takes all there is of him." This can be a frightening notion, since it implies total commitment. The fear of total commitment leads some to a dangerous rationalization about stewardship. Once a person gives a portion of their time, talents, and resources to the Church, the thinking goes, remaining possessions can be used in any fashion.
Rather than this being the case, stewardship should be a reminder of the total commitment Christianity demands. Everything must be done in concert with God's Teachings. Those gifts offered directly to Him simply represent acknowledgment that He has granted each person certain talents, and that these gifts produce benefits when cultivated and nurtured.
The fear and uncertainty of total commitment must be addressed if stewardship is to become a living part of every Christian's life. Chapter Six in the Book of Matthew is an appropriate place to begin this examination. The first eighteen versus speak about various facets of daily life. Charity, prayer, and fasting are the specific topics which are presented, with a certain approach to them advocated. The message is to be humble in these endeavors, making sure not to boast about good deeds. It is satisfaction and reward enough to know that God is pleased by sacrifice and by giving. This attitude can be applied toward many things in life, and it creates within people a spirit which makes good stewardship attainable.
Verses nineteen to twenty-one contain particularly relevant information about stewardship. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Use of the word treasure in this passage can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In the context of stewardship, however, time, talents, and resources are the treasures man possesses. Portions of these gifts should be offered directly to God, while the remainder must be used in a manner consistent with good Christian virtues and living.
Time is a treasure all people possess in exactly equal amounts. It is an element of daily life which causes great concern, yet too little attention is paid to taking actions necessary to ease that concern. A first step is to recognize that time is a part of the stewardship definition. Evaluating how one's time is spent is an indication of the extent to which good stewardship is practiced.
For many people, time is a precious commodity because it is seemingly in such short supply. Time not only goes by quickly, but there is the perceived notion that it controls life itself. The overriding concern about being on time, keeping appointments, and meeting deadlines consumes all available hours. In this setting, it is easy to lose sight of just how time is being spent. It is also common to overlook the fact that time should be spent in ways consistent with Christian beliefs.
Very busy people might benefit from a brief time-out to consider the merits of time management. This is a practice which can become very involved and complex, but in its basic form means simply gaining an awareness of how time in every day life is allocated. Application of elementary time management practices can begin with the conscious listing of how one's time is spent during the course of a typical day or week. Without the help of anyone who might be considered an expert in time management techniques, it will probably be possible to find ways to save many minutes and even hours as a result of this type of analysis.
During this review process, attention should be given to the proper use of time as well as the efficient use of time. Stewardship requires that all time be spent in activities consistent with Christian principles. Time on the job, with the family, in recreation, and pursuing special interests can all reflect belief that time is a gift from God. A Christian wishing to establish some time management practices in his daily routine might wish to begin with an allocation of time given directly to God and to His work. This would not only satisfy the narrow definition of stewardship, it would also serve as a reminder that time is a gift from God.
There are obvious activities like participating in church services and supporting church activities, but this is only the beginning. How about making sure that time is set aside for talking to family members? When was the last time an effort was made to offer an encouraging word to someone at work? What about giving up an hour of television each week to read a good book, write a letter to a friend, or just to sit quietly and think about the way time is being spent? These may seem like trivial suggestions, but in reality they reflect a manifestation of the belief that time is a gift from God. Any person who is courageous enough to accept this belief will be able to identify numerous places in their life where time can be used to glorify God and His Name.
Individuals who wish to practice principles of good stewardship must accept the notion that God has blessed them with certain abilities which they must be willing to share. Our society has falsely fostered the belief that certain talents are more valuable than others. Doctoring, for example, is an esteemed profession in our society, and while it ought to be highly regarded, it should not overshadow the importance of other jobs. The Church, unfortunately, has copied this idea and given parishioners the impression that some occupations have direct relevance to church service, while others simply do not apply. Not only is this not true, it hampers the goal of convincing people to follow practices of good stewardship.
First, every person has talents and abilities which are part of their nature. God intends for each person to recognize their unique role in life, and then to commit themselves to developing these various skills. The act of training, education, practice, and preparation is a gesture of life for God and appreciation for the talents He has bestowed. Anyone who does not recognize their special skills has a responsibility to themselves and to God to conduct whatever self-evaluation is necessary in order to identify those unique gifts. This is an area especially important for young Christian people. During the formative years, their love for God can be shown by a real commitment to education. This process allows them to both discover their areas of aptitude and to develop an educational plan designed to result in achievement of full potential.
Second, every Christian must be willing to practice their talents in ways which glorify God. There are endless opportunities for direct application of individual abilities to church work. There is no person who does not have something unique to offer the church. It is the responsibility of every committed, believing Christian to know what they can contribute. Stewardship requires that individuals offer their services to the church for use in furthering parish goals and programs. Stewardship also requires that talents and abilities be used in all circumstances in ways consistent with Christian teachings. In a pamphlet entitled, "Let Love Guide You in your use of Abilities," (published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese) these words of encouragement are offered in order to convince people that their talents are needed.
So often when we think of the stewardship of talents we think of talented people who have unusual gifts of some kind or another. Now, of course, it is good for people with artistic, musical, or leadership gifts to offer them as part of their service to the Church. But the real stewardship of talents goes deeper. There are no ordinary people. We all have a peculiar talent: it may be of music, or art, or drama, or writing, or even sewing and baking, of sawing wood or laying bricks. Finding opportunities to serve, then, becomes the goal and responsibility of every Orthodox Christian who is committed to the practice of good stewardship.
The point was made earlier that adherence to the principles of good stewardship cannot be minimized through rationalization. When the stewardship of individual Orthodox Christians is defined as the proportional giving of time, talents, and resources, it is not possible to be satisfied with two-out-of-three. Resources, like time and talents, are treasures from God. They are accumulated through the hard work of individuals, but it is by the grace of God that opportunities exist which make it possible to generate wealth and possessions. Resources must be viewed as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They should be used, as are time and talents, to manifest belief in the teaching that gifts from God must be used to glorify His Name.
The essence of this message about use of possessions is found in Proverbs 3:9-10. "Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be busting with wine." The "first fruits" expression is central to the stewardship concept, yet it is often ignored. Possessions, especially money, are treasured by all individuals. After all, they were accumulated by hard work. It is for this reason that use of possessions becomes a test of good stewardship. Basic human nature probably suggests that the first fruits should be kept, insuring against later losses. The giving of these special gifts to God's Glory acknowledges they were earned by means consistent with Christian practices. Furthermore, since they are gifts from God, there should be no fear, leading to the need to protect and hoard possessions.
Stewardship does not require that all resources, or time and talents for that matter, be given to the Church. Rather, it demands proportional giving, plus use of all treasures in a proper manner. How much a person gives becomes an individual decision, another opportunity to exercise free will. Selfishness, however, manifests a lack of commitment to God and His Church. An individual's giving of time, talents, and resources should be marked with a definite sense of sacrifice and self-denial. After all, these were the hallmarks of Jesus Christ's life of this earth. Anything less falls short of being true Orthodox Christian Stewardship.
Learning to make real stewardship a part of one's life requires a definite educational process. Reading an article such as this is some help, but actually translating these suggestions into actions in every day life takes additional measures. A first step is to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, there is room for growth in this area for every Orthodox Christian. Very few among us actually give enough of our time, talents, and resources. All fall short at one time or another of using the treasures we possess in ways which glorify God. Honest self-evaluation, then, becomes an important initial move toward adherence to the principles and practices of good stewardship.
A good deal of tension is often generated within parishes when stewardship is discussed because specific expectations are expressed. Discussions become debates over how much money people should be giving to the church … how much time they should devote to church activities … how the talents of various individuals should be allocated to particular projects. The tension is understandable because people tend to resist and resent being told what specific behavior is expected.
These discussions become necessary, however, when parishes experience a lack of understanding about stewardship among its members. Should the Church simply allow the people, in their ignorance, to develop their own, varying definitions of stewardship? Should the Church challenge this lack of knowledge with requirements which prescribe specific actions?
These questions will be discussed in future articles when the topic of stewardship on the parish level is addressed. The parish's role, however, become much more positive when each parishioner is knowledgeable about stewardship.
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century British political figure, made this statement about freedom. "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without." As each Orthodox Christian becomes more knowledgeable about stewardship, parishes are free to develop more constructive programs, ones based on people responding with true Christian commitment. God gave people free will, but this freedom carries with it a great responsibility. Freedom does not mean behaving any way one pleases, rather it requires responsible action born out of awareness of Church teachings, belief in those principles, and commitment to their implementation.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America