In May, 2003, I bumped into Pastor Harris Lee at the Minneapolis Area Evangelical Lutheran Church Synodical Assembly. During our conversation he began to reflect on his "Theology of Stewardship."
I was intrigued and invited him to lunch so that I could hear him out and share his insights with you. The following are notes from our lunch conversation.
After a few minutes of church chit-chat and while I was still finishing my spinach salad, Harris took the lead and said,
"The first article of the creed is an important theological underpinning for stewardship ministry, but I think the message that, 'God is the owner,' is hard for a lot of people to buy.
"I am thinking about the 44 year old man in the pew who has just come off a sixty-hour week. He'd rather not work so much and so hard, but he has vocational responsibilities to fulfill, mortgage payments to make, kids to educate and cars to pay for. So he is duty bound to keep his job to get the money he needs to fulfill his basic responsibilities as well as to make a contribution to the church.
"And if I stand up there at church as his pastor and announce that 'all he has is a gift from God, that God is the owner of everything, and that all we have is a generous gift from God,' I'm afraid it simply won't ring true. I suspect credibility questions would come to mind.
"If I were him, I'd have genuine doubts about that message. I can hear him saying, 'Pastor, that's just fine. I know that is probably what the Bible says, or or at least implies, but that is not what I experience in my life. If I want a check, I have to work. I have to get going in the morning. I have to face the heavy traffic. I have to put up with stuff of all kinds. And I have to produce, in order to end up with money so, to me it's not in any clear sense a gift.""
Jerry: "Have you ever had any one say that to you directly?"
Harris: "No, not directly, not that I remember. But indirectly I think it is being
said. Frankly, I think the concept that all is gift is widely ignored, and therefore
is functionally rejected.
"So, to me, that while the first article of the creed with an emphasis on 'God as the owner and giver,' is important for some, it's an insufficient basis for effectively encouraging generous giving. For a lot of people it doesn't ring true."
Jerry: "What insights does the second article add to a more sufficient theology of stewardship?"
Harris: "The second article refers to the work of Christ and also reminds me of the teachings of Christ. We know Jesus talked a lot about money, more than any subject other than the Kingdom of God. He pointed out how money tends to become addictive. He warns us about the potential negative effects money has on life. On the other hand, he pointed out how money could be used beneficially to love ones neighbor. For instance, the story of the Good Samaritan who used his money to pay for the keep of a man he found beaten along the road. He promised to come back again and give more money if needed. That's how to be a good neighbor. A good neighbor uses money for the well being of a person in dire need.
"In the teachings of Jesus, money doesn't seem to be something that belongs to God as Psalm 24 may imply--'The earth is the Lord's.' Rather, the emphasis is on the use of the money that is somehow in our hands to manage. When he told about the rich farmer whose 'solution' or response to another bumper crop was to build bigger barns, he emphasized that the man's problem was over how he managed his financial resources, allowing them to be his ultimate security rather than in God.
"In addition to the teachings of Jesus, there is the redeeming work of Jesus, which is related to repentance and new life.
"I see an illustration of that in the life of Zacchaeus. Once he got related properly to Jesus, he made a verbal confession of faith. (I wish more of the conversation had recorded.) He did not say that he had decided to clean up his life, read the Bible and pray more; he talked about how he would manage his money differently. I interpret that as an expression of knowing the redeeming, renewing power of Jesus in his life.
"Zacchaeus didn't seem to think he got this money from God. He knew he got the money from his work as a tax collector. Now he decides he will manage it differently."
Jerry: "What makes this more real than the message that God is the owner?"
Harris: "I'm not sure it's more real, but I think it is more palatable, at least to those who find the ownership issue as a barrier to credibility."
Jerry: "Is your theological struggle with a sole emphasis on God as the owner, based on your observation that this is outside the experiences of most people? "
Harris: "Yes, I believe it is, at least in part. In our world people don't experience getting their money as a gift from God. When they've had to work fifty, sixty or seventy hours the idea of the paycheck as gift doesn't fit with the usual understanding of gift. Since they invested so much time and effort, they
believe they earned the money; it wasn't really a gift. Of course you can say God
God gave the brainpower, the energy, the will. But that's so indirect that it's
hardly recognizable as a gift."
Jerry: "Therefore, from this understanding, a stewardship emphasis that grows out of the second article of the creed is grounded first in the teachings of Jesus who is concerned with how money can become a tyranny and the transforming change that comes in peoples lives who have a relationship with Jesus. People who experience Jesus have a life change. They see the world differently. As a result they begin to manage their money as an expression of love for neighbors and others."
Harris: "Yes! Good summary! But I'd like to add that there are valid motives in addition to love, motives such as gratitude, loyalty, or even a sense of responsibility."
Jerry: "Out of your pastoral experience, do you recall instances where you have seen how changes in people lives brought about by their Christian faith made a difference in their giving responses?"
Harris: "Yes, I have. Many times. And I have experienced that in my own life. The redeeming work of Christ in my life is what has freed and motivated me to be a tither for over forty years."
Jerry: "What insights on stewardship do you gain from the third article?"
Harris: "The Holy Spirit calls, gathers and enlightens the entire Christian Church,
enlightens people as to the use of money and how it relates to our personal faith.
"Lately, I have been thinking about the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Generosity is a gift of the Spirit. That includes more than money, but it does include money. Generosity is an expression of the Spirit at work in our lives. Stingy Christians stifle the Spirit and shackle the mission of the church. It's appropriate to pray for the gift of generosity and be confident that it is God-pleasing and that God wants to give that gift to us as individuals and to whole congregations."
Jerry: "Like the church of Macedonia which generously collects money for the poor in Jerusalem."
Harris: "Yes, and they were poor themselves. So the third article is another theological foundation for the preaching and teaching of stewardship."
Jerry: "As I reflect on your helpful insights, I become conscious how each article brings an additional motivation for giving. As a result, each article enhances the expressions of stewardship found in the other articles. It is hard to grasp the idea that God is the owner if your life hasn't been changed because of the power of Christ in your life."
Harris: "Yes, that's true. And hard for many, I think, even after they've been changed! Remember, the old dies hard!"
Jerry: "Thanks Harris, for opening yet another door in an understanding of stewardship. One which grows out of all three articles of the creed."
Rev. Harris Lee although retired continues to faithfully serve the church, presently as a key stewardship leader for the ELCA, Clergy Coach, and a consultant.