Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stewards ‘Fit into’ God’s Order and Purpose

As our grandchildren enter adolescence, Abby and I are reminded of the universal human need to “fit in.”   Rather suddenly, our grandson has become more conscious of his appearance and the need to be current with media and technology.

Wanting to “fit in” and be accepted by our peers is a common and legitimate need that influences human behavior long after adolescence.  Yet, I wonder how much attention we give to how well we “fit in” to God’s economy within the cosmos, His glorious creation.  After all, the Bible teaches in Genesis 1 and 2, and elsewhere, that humans have been created in God’s image and that we have the responsibility to represent Him as servant stewards of His creation.   Therefore, we should each ask, How well have I beenfitting in’ to my role as a steward in God’s great world?

I remember an instance one summer when I had been offended.  I’ve long since forgotten the cause, but my reaction was to take a long walk into field and forest to clear my head.   I walked for awhile and then sat in the shade of a giant oak.  As I pondered my situation I was soon pleasantly distracted by a variety of creatures large and small, each going about their work.   Ants carrying pieces of detritus, mushrooms anchored to the moist humus, birds carrying dead grass to add to a nest, squirrels scampering up and down the branches of the giant oak, and a woodchuck nibbling on a clover plant.   All the while, the giant oak was absorbing sunlight and converting carbon dioxide, water, and other inorganic compounds into carbohydrates, proteins, and other constituents necessary for its life and growth.

While I sat there stewing and “out of sorts,” each creature in the shade of the oak tree was being what it had been created to be, and doing what it had been created to do--to “fit into” the created order.  Oak and clover were capturing energy from our nearest star, the Sun, to grow and reproduce.  Squirrel and woodchuck were eating what was necessary for regular nourishment, and perhaps storing food for a later time.  Birds and ants were using detritus and, in so doing, were “processing” waste material from the land of the living as they found uses for it.  Along with the fungi (mushrooms), this “processing” would lead to decomposition and release of inorganic compounds available to re-enter the food chain through photosynthesis.

Meanwhile, as I sat pondering the complex interactions around this single oak tree, it suddenly occurred to me that I was the only living creature within view that did not “fit in.”  What’s worse, by being “out of sorts” with a loved one, I was not only “out of sync” with God’s world, I was also “out of sync” with the principles of His Word; and, ultimately, “out of fellowship” with God Himself.

Fortunately, I was able to return and resolve the quibble that prompted my hike.  Since then, the experience under the oak has become a metaphor which, with the help of God’s Spirit, I have recalled on many occasions.  The creatures around the oak tree taught me that each one has a purpose to fulfill.   When I am “out of sorts,” I am NOT “fitting in” with either the order of creation or with the purpose and plan God has for me.   My goal must be to “fit in” with God’s plan which, in turn, brings glory to Him.

As we have stated elsewhere in Oikonomia (see links below), our fundamental role and purpose is to be stewards.  According to His plan, God’s stewards serve Him with thankful hearts that are being filled daily with His redeeming love.   Godly stewards love and serve their neighbor as they would want to be served, and they “serve with” (or con-serve) creation in ways that enhance its fruitfulness and its testimony of God’s wisdom and glory.   As we fulfill this purpose, we are fulfilling what is described by the Westminister Short Catechism, as the “chief end” of mankind; namely “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  In short, we are “fitting in” to God’s plan for us on the earth.

Ann Voskamp:  "God gives us gifts to serve the world."
To illustrate further, it is worth noting that WORLD News Group's new documentary series on “Emerging Christian Leaders” begins in September, 2012 with the feature of Ann Voskamp, best-selling author of the book, One Thousand Gifts.  In the trailer for this documentary, now on YouTube, Ann Voskamp, speaks about how God’s creation presents to us the model of servanthood, and invites us to “fit in” to this pattern as stewards of creation.

Out of human desire to “fit in” with our peers, we often expend much time, energy, and resources.  Indeed, sometimes we may still go through the motions of serving God, loving our neighbor, and caring for God’s creation, but fall short of “fitting in.” May God help us to remember the deeper purpose for which He has created in us this need to “fit in;” namely, that we discover that ultimately we do not “fit in” anywhere here on Earth.  As C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory (addition mine),

For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging
[“fitting in”] to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.

“What a disappointment!” we might say.  But let us be reminded that we are called to live by faith as defined in Hebrews 11: 1-2; 13, 16 (emphasis mine):

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.
For by it the men of old gained approval.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises,
but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance,
and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God;
for He has prepared a city for them.

By God’s grace, as we live by faith while here on Earth, we can share in this hope of “a better country” in which we will perfectly “fit in” because we will be welcomed by the only One that ultimately matters, our Heavenly Father.   C.S. Lewis’s words again best describe our ultimate “fitting in” as we are welcomed by our Father:

The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.  To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

The door on which we
have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

Prayer:   Heavenly Father, thank you for revealing Yourself through creation and through your Word, recorded and preserved for us in the Bible.  Thank you for allowing human creatures the privilege of being called “children of God” through faith in Christ’s completed work on the cross.  Thank you for empowering us through your Spirit and showing us how to love our neighbor; and appointing us stewards, “servant kings,” of your creation.  What a humbling role; yet, how many times I falter out of arrogance and selfishness.  Help me to follow Your example and instruction that I may “fit in” to your purpose and plan to bring glory and praise to You while I live here on Earth; and, to anticipate by faith that time when I will see Your Son as He really is and experience ultimate glory through the sense of your approval, the ultimate “fitting in” as I realize fully what you created me to be.    Amen.

Related Sources:
Lewis, C.S.  “The Weight of Glory.”  Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Disintegration of the United States of America

Many would agree that America has made great strides toward ethnic integration during the past half century.  At the same time, integration of telephone, television, and other digital technology through the world wide web has produced a remarkable expansion in communications.

According to the dictionary, integration is “the process of making whole or entire.”  For an individual or part, integration is “the process of fitting in.” Thus, integration of ethnic minorities involves individuals that ‘fit into’ communities; meanwhile, the community is being “made whole or complete.”  Metaphorically, a cake baked from well stirred ingredients will have the same color and consistency throughout because the individual ingredients have been integrated.  Conversely, an integrated community or nation, would not have pockets of separation (segregation) in which minorities are excluded or at odds with the larger social-political dynamic.  Rather, each individual is given the opportunity to participate in making the community or nation complete.

In his inaugural address, January 20, 2009, Barak Obama emphasized our progress as a nation toward becoming an integrated whole (emphasis mine):

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself…

Inauguration of Barack Obama, January 20, 2009
Three and one-half years after the president’s inauguration, our daily news is filled with indications that we are becoming more divided as a nation.  Instead of integrating and expressing “our common humanity” around commonly held values and mutual respect for ethnic, cultural, and political diversity, we are “disintegrating” into an increasing number of factions.

A dictionary defines disintegration as-- “to break into parts; dismember; dissolve.”  Things that disintegrate do not actually “disappear.”  Rather, they break into parts too tiny for us to see, like table salt crystals that “disappear” when stirred into water.  Each salt crystal, composed of billions of precisely arranged atoms forming a latticework is “disintegrated” or “dissolved” by the water.  The tiny charged atoms escape from the lattice into the water where they begin a constant, chaotic motion.

Contributing to our current “disintegration” in America is the president’s seeming inability to achieve a bi-partisan effort to rejuvenate the economy, address the growing federal deficit, curb spiraling health care costs, and establish a workable immigration policy.  The Obama campaign, perhaps frustrated by these failed efforts, now seems to promote disagreement and division rather than unity of purpose in the midst of economic hardship. 

Let’s look closer at two evidences of “disintegration” in America-- the “contraceptive mandate” within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare); and, the president’s push to increase government revenue through higher taxes on wealthy Americans.  Please note that both of these examples of “disintegration” stem from an absence of “integration” of principles rooted in Judeo-Christian values which historically have been interwoven through the moral and ethical fabric of individuals, families, and communities.

Kirk Cameron, in his film production, Monumental:  In Search of America’s National Treasure,” traces the influence of Judeo-Christian faith on the founding of America.  In the 17th century, the integration of their Christian faith into daily life prompted Puritan separatists to risk great danger to escape to a little-known continent to gain the freedom to worship and practice their faith.  The influence of their covenant, expressed in the Mayflower Compact, on colonial culture over the following century and a half was instrumental in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

With that brief history, let’s return to our two expressions of disintegration in America.  The first relates to the “contraceptive mandate” which would exempt churches but require faith-based institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and abortion-related counseling.  Many people of faith oppose this portion of ObamaCare because they see it as a threat to religious freedom. As a result, the federal government now faces 24 lawsuits.

Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, summarized the moral and legal concerns of church leaders who object to the “…narrow exemption that intrusively and unlawfully carves up the religious community into those that are deemed 'religious enough' for an exemption, and those that are not.”  The idea that Americans can be divided between those who are “religious employees” and those who aren’t suggests a misunderstanding or a denial or even a disdain on the part of the current administration for what it means to “live out ones faith” or to “integrate” ones faith convictions with their personal and professional lifestyle outside of church.

There is a second area in which the “carving knife” is at work on the fabric that has held Americans together.  One can see the gleam of the knife at work when we hear talk of the “unfairness” in the tax code that supposedly favors the wealthy.   We are continually reminded that each American occupies one of three groups-- “the rich,” “the middle class,” and “the poor.”  Here is a now-famous statement by President Obama on the subject of creating and earning wealth:

If you've got a business, you didn't build that.  Somebody else made that happen.
                                – President Barack Obama, July 16, 2012 (Roanoke, VA)

President Obama appears to be suggesting that American entrepreneurs rely so much on the social, economic, and technological infrastructure that they should not mind giving more of their incomes to the government through higher taxes. The president may mean well by saying this, but his statements betray a woeful lack of integration of Judeo-Christian teaching with the entrepreneurial spirit.   Consider how the president’s challenge might sound if it were based on an understanding of biblical truth—here expressed by the Apostle Paul: 

For who regards you as superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as if you had not received it?  
-- I  Corinthians 4:7

Saint Paul’s statement, unlike the president’s, challenges successful entrepreneurs to remember that human capability to earn or create wealth has been permitted by the grace of God, and that he or she is a steward of the power and position God has granted.  Thus, the Scriptural teaching has none of the president’s tone that has led to a divisive and destructive response within our national narrative.  Instead, it credits God, not government as being ultimately responsible for any prosperity we enjoy.

A regular awareness of our dependence upon God should foster a humble stewardship that recognizes that, as we earn or create wealth, we have a responsibility to be generous and to give joyfully to others and to worthy causes.  This obligation is further underscored through another principle of Scripture expressed in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (emphasis mine):
He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor,
performing with his own hands what is good,
so that he will have something to share with one who has need.
                                                                                 – Ephesians 4:28

Here, the Scriptures emphasize not only the value of hard work and earning an income; but also that we use our income as a channel of God’s provision for those in need.  Rather than President Obama’s approach to “social justice” in which the government is the agency of “wealth redistribution,” the Scriptures appeal to the hearts of people who are blessed with talents, time, and treasures to act voluntarily and generosity to share with the needy of for worthy causes.  If God’s people were to (a) recognize Who it is that has given them the abilities to gain wealth, and then (b) become committed to use their talent, time, and treasures to provide loving help (not handouts) to the needy, the resulting acts from thousands of people acting at the local level would transform individuals and our communities in much more effective ways than welfare programs from far-away Washington.

Historically, a vast number of Americans have exercised great generosity, many having done so as a result of the very faith in and gratitude toward God that we have been describing.  May this spirit be encouraged by a correct understanding of the nature of man, the proper role of government, and the responsibility of individuals to work hard and be generous toward God and neighbor.  May we not abuse the stewardship of our freedoms which have allowed us to strive together as Americans against forces that would disintegrate our families, communities, and nation.

 Prayer:   Father in Heaven, thank you for our freedom in Christ, available to whoever believes and accepts the free gift of eternal life, purchased at the priceless cost of Jesus’ shed blood on the cross for us while we were yet sinners; guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and affirmed by His gift of the Holy Spirit.   Thank you for endowing us, as affirmed in the U.S. Constitution, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, You have seen fit to allow …Governments [to be] instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….  How blessed we are that America has been founded on principles from Your Word,  and as a result has achieved what no other nation in history has in the way of religious freedom and the accompanying social and cultural successes.  America has been and still is an “exceptional nation.”   Thank You for our leaders who recognize Your authority, and their individual accountability, first to You and Your Word, and then to their constituency.  Grant wisdom to President Obama and to all elected officials and the justices who serve in the courts at every level.  Give these “civil servants” courage to reject political expediency or personal gain for the sake of what honors You and what is best for the individuals, families, and communities of this great land.  As a result, may we continue to have the freedom to labor, to worship and serve You, and to demonstrate Christ’s love to others both at home and abroad.  Finally, help us to understand the respective roles of government and of each individual citizen and not to confuse the two lest we become more and more a nation of entitlement leading to obsession with “our rights” at the expense of striving as faithful stewards to be fruitful and generous spirits that offer assistance to those who need help to become what God intends them to be.    Amen.