As new readers consider my new book, Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship, many have noted the diversity of new insights into stewardship. Sure, there’s some old topical favorites, but there’s also particularly innovative perspectives like today’s newsletter piece by Mary Hinkle Shore on the stewardship of life at its end. If stewardship concerns more than money, it most certainly must speak to our physical bodies and church communities. And what more powerful focus can there be than consideration of the ultimate: life…and death?
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Stewardship of Life at its End
Mary Hinkle Shore
I serve a congregation in a town that consistently makes the Forbes list of best places to retire. A cost of living slightly lower than the national average, a college, a summer classical music camp with internationally known performers, and the Blue Ridge mountains are just a few of the things that draw people to Brevard, North Carolina.
Living among so many retirees means that we have lifetimes of experience to draw on in ministry and dozens of volunteers at church with significant amounts of unstructured time. It also means that we are often attending the dying and hosting memorial services. The end of life is an opportunity for Christian congregations to practice stewardship of the gospel and stewardship of the gift that each human life is, all the way to each one’s death.
You have died.
First, to the matter of stewarding the gospel: we steward the good news by giving it away. Death and resurrection are the defining events of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians confess that Christ’s death and resurrection are for us. We say that in holy baptism, we have already died and have been raised up to new life with others in the body of Christ. I attended the funeral of a young woman who had lived with cancer for several years. During that time, she had recovered from multiple brushes with death. At her funeral, the preacher said something like, “Deb saw so many resurrections over the last four years that the next one will not come as a shock to her.”
Stewardship of the gospel means offering its news to one another. On a regular basis, by means of preaching, mutual consolation, calling to mind our baptism and sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we remind one another, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). When the last death comes, then, it is not shockingly different from all the others. It is something God will see us through, as God has seen us through everything else.
Stewardship at the end of life also means not being frightened by or ashamed of the vulnerability that usually characterizes our end. It means not allowing vulnerability -- or pain, or mental incompetence, or physical weakness -- to separate us from one another. Practices like bringing a meal to another’s home or sitting with someone so her caregiver may have an hour to run errands may seem like nothing more than quaint, small town practices of bygone years. In fact, these practices embody Christian community, and they declare that the worth and belovedness of another is not changed by that one’s weakness or nearness to death.
Nothing can separate us.
Paradoxically, Christian stewardship involves both caring for people and letting them go. There comes a time when those near the end of their life do not need another ride to the doctor, or another home-cooked meal. The community acknowledges its own limits and commends its own beloved one to the never-failing love of God. Prayers like those in Protestant orders for the commendation of the dying offer words and actions for the task of stewarding one another’s lives all the way to our deaths. When we practice such stewardship, we bear witness that Jesus Christ has defeated the power of death. We testify that nothing can separate us from the love of one another or the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
*Want to read more? A fuller version of this post appears in the new book, Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship, edited by Adam Copeland. To order visit: Amazon, Westminster John Knox Press, or Barnes & Noble.
Mary Hinkle Shore holds a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian origins from Duke University and has been an ordained Lutheran minister for thirty years.