Faith. What is it? What does it mean in our lives? How does it change us, motivate us or inspire us? Sadly, many of us may not have an answer for these questions. Faith is something we leave forgotten on a shelf until a time of sorrow, fear or need prompts us to take it down, brush away the dust and say, “What would I do without my faith?”
This year Pope Benedict XVI would like to change that. He has declared a Year of Faith beginning Oct. 11 — the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It is his goal that all of us rediscover the joy of living our faith. Since living requires action, true faith must lead us to action.
In the pope’s apostolic letter, Porta Fidei (“Door of Faith”), which declared this Year of Faith, he quotes St. James, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jas 2:14-17).
Pope Benedict is asking us to take our faith off the shelf and put it into action. We are called to stop saying, “What would I do without my faith?” and start asking ourselves “What am I doing with my faith?” We are challenged to live our faith through our actions. Faith in action is stewardship.
Stewardship is not always a popular word. Many think stewardship is just an appeal for more time, talent or treasure. However, true stewardship is not a fundraising or volunteer recruitment programs. True stewardship is a way of life. It is a spirituality that calls us to deepen our relationship with God, truly live the Gospel, and realign the priorities of our lives. True stewardship is exactly the faith in action that St. James wrote about and the pope invites us to embrace this year.
Perhaps it would be easier to see how we live our faith through stewardship by considering stewardship as a pyramid of 10 blocks. Each block represents one of the key aspects of faithful stewardship.
At the base of the pyramid are the four foundational blocks. These are the tenets that we must have in place in our lives before we can truly be God’s stewards. The next level of the pyramid contains the three action blocks. These are the actions and characteristics that mark a true steward.
On the third level we find the transforming blocks. As we embrace stewardship, we discover that our lives change. We look at things differently and our priorities shift. At the very top of the pyramid is the reward block, the reason why we make stewardship a lifelong expression of our faith and our love for God.
Susan Erschen is the former director of stewardship education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the author of OSV’s “Understanding Stewardship” pamphlet ($14.95 for 50).
People may be generous donors and active volunteers, but unless these four basic beliefs are at the foundation of their giving, they may not actually be living stewardship. Different reasons can motivate giving including peer pressure, a need for recognition or a desire to help a loved one. Stewardship, on the other hand, is motivated by the four foundational concepts of humility, gratitude, time with God and trust in God.
Humility comes from the overwhelming realization that we get credit for NOTHING! Absolutely everything we are, everything we have and everything we accomplish is the direct result of God’s gifts to us. God formed us and placed us into the exact family and circumstances that he wanted us to have. He provided the lifetime of love, care, nutrition and education that formed us into the people we are today. The personality traits that motivate us to work, achieve and accomplish are more gifts from God. Even disappointments and challenges that seem negative are often gifts that make us stronger. Thus, looking back over our lives, we must humbly bow our heads and acknowledge all we have is a gift from God. Our family, our home, our countless possessions, our job, our knowledge, our skills, our unique personality traits all came from God. They belong to God as surely as we belong to God. If we truly see ourselves as children of God, we must realize everything we have belongs to Our Father.
Once we recognize the truth in the first words of Psalm 24, “The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it,” (Ps 24:1
) then our only response can be gratitude — not just passive gratitude but active gratitude! In passive gratitude we may recognize that we are blessed, but we don’t really do anything about it. In active gratitude we do something. Consider the Gospel story of the Cleansing of the Ten Lepers (Lk 17:11-19
). Ten lepers were cured. Surely all 10 were extremely grateful they were free of their disease. Yet, only one was actively grateful. He made an effort to go back to find Jesus and thank him. Stewardship calls us to be the one who comes back to thank God for all the gifts he has given us.
Time with God
A true steward strives to spend time with God not only out of gratitude but also out of love and responsibility. A steward finds time every day to be with God. This time may come early in the morning before others in our house are awake. It may come during our drive to work, at daily Mass or in the evening before we go to bed. It might only be a few minutes of quiet prayer, journaling or spiritual reading. In one way or another stewardship calls us to spend time with God every day. Time with God is more critical than anything else we might do all day. During that time we grow to know and love God better. We praise him and thank him for his many gifts. Most importantly we ask him what he wants us to do with the gifts he has entrusted to us. We may think God wants us to proclaim his goodness from the mountaintops. However, when we go to God in silent prayer we may be surprised to discover God really wants us to kneel quietly at the side of a sick or hurting person. God’s plan for each of us is different. If God is the Master and owner of every gift, then we, as his faithful stewards must go to him to ask what he wants us to do. In the quiet we will hear God’s way.
Trust in God
When we begin to discern how God wants us to use and share our gifts, we may not immediately like what we are hearing. We may think it is impossible for us to do more or give more. I remember 20 years ago when my pastor asked me to chair a stewardship committee the first words out of my mouth were, “We can’t give any more money!” Over the years God has gently shown me how very wrong I was. Still God’s wishes may not always be our wishes and they certainly do not conform to the expectations of our materialistic and very self-indulgent society. Thus, we must trust. We only can trust when we get to know God better. No one can trust a stranger. If God is a stranger to us, we will not be able to move forward in our stewardship and our faith. So we see how all four foundational blocks are linked. We must spend time with God. We spend time with God because we are humbly grateful. And when we spend time with him we slowly have the understanding and trust to move to the next level.
In Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict outlines an impressive list of all that has been accomplished throughout the ages by faith. He tells us that by faith Mary became the Mother of God; the apostles left everything to follow Jesus; the disciples form the first community of believers; the martyrs gave their lives; holy men and women made vows of obedience, poverty and chastity; and centuries of men and women fulfilled the ministries to which they were called. The pope concludes, “Faith without charity bears no fruit.” The action blocks of stewardship are our charity. Through work in the vineyard, love and compassion, and proportionate giving we invest ourselves in carrying on the work of the Church and building up the Kingdom of God.
Work in the vineyard
How frequently and seriously did Jesus call us to live stewardship? Some say more than half Our Lord’s parables have a stewardship theme. The U.S. Catholic bishops in their pastoral letter on stewardship, “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,”
say, “Once one chooses to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, stewardship is not an option.” One way or another, anyone who studies the Gospels quickly sees that Jesus continually calls us to stewardship. This is most clear in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1-16
). In this parable, the Master (who we all know is God) goes out repeatedly into the marketplace recruiting workers for his vineyard. He doesn’t go just once. He goes again and again. When he finds people doing nothing he challenges them, “Why do you stand here idle all day? ... You too go into my vineyard” (Mt 20:6,7). Surely, God never gives up looking for us to work in his vineyard. He entrusted unique gifts and resources to each us so we could make our own special contribution to his work. If we do not do it, some bit of work will never be done. Some heart will never be touched. Some program will never be started. Some needy child of God will never be helped. And then at the end of our lives how will we answer the Master when he asks, “Why did you stand there idle all of your life?”
Love and compassion
No matter whether our stewardship leads us to give time, talent, or treasure, what the steward really gives is love and compassion. This is most clear in Our Lord’s story of the Judgment of the Nations (Mt 25:31-45). When I was a young mother staying at home with four small children, I could take great comfort from this Gospel reading. Every minute of the day it seemed I was feeding a hungry child, clothing a naked one, caring for a sick one, comforting a crying one or giving drink to a thirsty one. And it was easy to see the face of Jesus in the faces of my precious children. I confidently believed I was destined to be one of the “sheep” on Our Lord’s right side. However, when my children grew older and no longer needed my hands-on care, I feared drifting over to the side of the “goats.” Love and compassion for the stranger, for the homeless man, for the prisoner, or for the filthy child playing in Third World dirt are a little harder to cultivate. It can be difficult to see the face of Jesus in those we find to be overbearing, never-grateful or self-entitled. This is where we really need our time with God, asking him for the strength and courage to act or to give when it is most difficult.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament guideline of the 10 percent tithe. Instead, he challenged us to give more, saying, “Much will be required of the person entrusted of much and even more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48
). He asks us to commit everything we have and everything we are to him. Yet, we are people who prefer concrete guidelines. We are like the rich young man in the Gospel (Mt 19:16-24
). We want to know exactly how much God expects from us. Will you be happy, Lord, with 1 percent? (This is what most Catholics give.) How about 5 percent? God, do you really want 10 percent?!!
We should not worry what percent of giving will satisfy a demanding God. Rather, we should determine what percent will make us feel we are doing our very best for our loving and generous God. What percent of giving shows our deep gratitude, trust, love and compassion? What percent of giving is the “more” that Jesus asks of us who have been entrusted with more? When we are tempted to think Jesus is not talking about us — because we can always point to someone who has more than us — we must stop and look around the world at all who have less. Surely, most of us in modern America have been entrusted with more. God calls us to give in proportion to what he has given to us. Is 1 percent of all our blessings really enough to return to the Lord for all he has given to us?
Those who study and embrace stewardship call it transformative. Stewardship will change us. Giving a few dollars in the collection each week, helping with the parish auction or sending a contribution in memory of a friend will not change us. But being stewards must change us or else we are not doing it right. If we truly are deepening our relationship with God and becoming more humble, grateful, trusting, loving, compassionate and generous we must be changing. After all, it is impossible to simultaneously move forward and stay in the same place. As stewardship transforms us two of the most powerful changes are belonging and simplicity.
We all want to belong. We are social creatures. We long to be a part of a group, a family or a team. The wonderful thing about stewardship is that it unites us in the Body of Christ, where we all truly belong. Those who give and those who receive are connected. At times we are givers. At times we are receivers. We give what we can and receive what we need. It becomes a beautiful endless circle of God’s children reaching out to one another. We often experience this belonging most tangibly in our parish community. For active stewards, church is no longer a building full of strangers. Church is where we meet our friends, share our joys and sorrows, give and ask for prayers. We are no longer held captive by isolation. We are truly able to pray together because we have served, worked and shared together.
Today in our over-materialistic world the question is often asked: “Do we own our possessions or do they own us?” We get so caught up in having and caring for so much that we miss out on the most important things in life — especially spending time with God, with family, with friends and with community. Stewardship compels us to simplify our lives. As we are transformed by our active giving, we begin to realize our calendars are overbooked and our lives are too cluttered. We start to let go of things that have no meaning so we have the time and the resources for the love, compassion, charity and sharing that matter most. We slow down. We get off the “fast track.” We stop striving for more of everything and find peace in knowing God has already given us all we need. We learn to both enjoy and share the blessings we already have instead of always thinking about what else we still want.
As we work to incorporate the various blocks of stewardship into our lives, there is one block that requires no work, no thought, no planning. It sits at the top of this imaginary pyramid, yet we surprisingly find it no matter which block we take up. This is the reward block.
Joy is the reward for every step we take along the stewardship journey, for every block we climb upon. We find joy in humbly releasing our sense of control and knowing God has given us every good gift. We find joy in being actively grateful, in spending time with God and in learning to trust him. We find joy in working in God’s vineyard. We find joy in being more loving and compassionate. We even find joy in giving more of our financial resources for we discover giving only hurts when we hold our wealth in a tightly clenched fist. When we open our hand with gratitude, trust, love and compassion we find there is great joy in giving. We find joy in belonging to the family of God and in living a simpler life. Yet, the true joy of stewardship awaits us at the end of our lives.
We all know the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30). One servant is severely rebuked for burying the Master’s money. The two servants who made good use of the talents entrusted to them are warmly invited to, “Come, share your master’s joy” (Mt 25:21
). Surely, this is the ultimate motivation for stewardship — “Come, share your master’s joy.” These are the words that we all hope to hear someday when we arrive at heaven’s door. Pope Benedict wants this Year of Faith to be a time for Christian people everywhere to rediscover the joy of faith. Yet, as Jesus taught us through his parable, eternal joy will not come from simply having faith. Joy comes when we use our faith well, just as God intended when he entrusted it to us.