Stewardship Question: Who Will You Be?

Photo by  Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

There’s a scene at the end of the book of Joshua where the tribes of Israel are gathered together. And it is here that we find what has for many become familiar words, a solemn declaration by the book’s namesake: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). The tribes will later make a similar commitment, declaring: “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God” (24:18b). The people’s commitment is borne from their identity as a people called, rescued, and blessed by God (24:2-13). 

As readers of this text, we too are invited to consider this same question in our day, namely: Who will you be? And when we do, we come to see that this is not merely a question of identity (who we are) but also how that identity takes shape (how we live). In other words, this “who will you be?” is a stewardship question. For Joshua and the nation, their identity as God’s people gives rise to their commitment to faithful living – a pattern repeated throughout the Bible: God’s grace (in action) preceding our commitment.

This idea wasn’t lost on the Reformers. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) famously begins: “That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Recipients of God’s saving work, that’s a nod to identity. But also note how this same section of the catechism will end: “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit… makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him” (emphasis added). Willing and ready to live for Christ – that’s a “how we live” response.

So who will you be? As I write this, we’re at the tail end of summer and beginning a new program season — a season that means a new way of life for so many in both church and community. Children and youth find themselves in a new school year, with new teachers, classes, and challenges. Households experience a new rhythm with the change of schedule and a change of pace. Ever shortening days and cooler weather hint at summer’s retreat and winter’s advance. Amidst this backdrop of change comes an important time for personal pause — a time when we too might consider who we will be in the season ahead as persons called to live in the presence of God (coram deo).

Reflection Questions:

1. What does God’s calling, rescue, and blessing look like in your life?  

2. Responding to God’s grace, what is your own faithful response in this new season (i.e. who will you be)?

Lacking Recognition

Over the weekend I found myself searching the web to see who performs the voice for the popular Sesame Street puppet Elmo. My daughter has taken a real liking to Elmo — requesting to hear songs and view videos featuring this endearing puppet monster. In fact, I imagine that a song featuring Elmo probably tops the list of most played songs on our Alexa device at home. So I was curious as to who was supplying the voice.

After doing a quick search on YouTube, here’s what I discovered:

I know it shouldn’t surprise me to see a grown man doing the voice of Elmo (after all, I have a brother who is good at doing all kinds of funny voices and impressions), but I was surprised. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. At one point in the interview, Kevin Clash (Elmo) explains that after demonstrating Elmo’s voice to one such skeptic, the hearer responded, “Okay, but I can do it better.” We don’t always get the recognition we deserve.

But recognition is not the same as motivation. Sure, our motivation to do something, or even to be a certain way can certainly be influenced by a perceived lack of recognition — recognition alone should not stand as our key motivation for taking action. Instead, motivation is to be found internally, or as is often the case, found outside ourselves — whether that be in the form of a particular goal, person, cause, ideal, etc. (becoming internal when we adopt it as our own).

An early Christian writer talks about external motivation when he writes:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24, NIV).

The writer’s original audience were enslaved people living in Roman occupied areas during the first century AD/CE. Being enslaved suggests to me a life that lacks recognition — robbing the enslaved of basic human dignity. And so I can say unequivocally, slavery is evil and appalling. But to be one whose worth and work are measured by their Creator (to people in all places and at all times) — and that this comes with an inheritance — that indeed is recognition.

Get Wisdom, Get Understanding

Photo By    Ryan McGuire

Photo By Ryan McGuire

On August 5, 882, Louis III, king of West Francia, was in pursuit of a girl who was running to seek refuge in her father’s house. Riding a horse at the time, the elevated height resulted in Louis hitting his head on the lintel of the door, falling to the ground, and dying from a skull fracture. He was about 18-years old at the time of his death. History tells us that Louis’ short reign was marked by military success, but his untimely death tells us this: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).

Stories like this remind you and I that a brief moment of foolishness can ultimately lead to catastrophe. It also reminds us that our ability to perceive is extremely limited — in our finitude we lack the ability to see around the next corner, as it were. It is for this reason that the writer(s) of Proverbs implore the reader with this: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).

But the aim of biblical wisdom is not to serve as some kind of repressive task master, but rather to connect you and I with the way of life. John Piper recognizes this when he observes*:

Biblical wisdom is not a dead-end street leading to a cul-de-sac of misery. It is the path to deep and lasting happiness.

This observation is borne out of the Jewish Proverbs themselves, which note: “For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life” (Proverbs 9:11) and “The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper” (Proverbs 19:8). And so with this in mind, Scripture identifies at least three sources of wisdom that we are to pursue, including:

1. RECORDED WISDOM

Because our ability to perceive is limited, a map is invaluable. I have a map in my car — but its a map of the state of Washington. It won’t help me navigate the northeast. As such, when it comes to life’s journey it is important that we set out with the right map. And God has given us such a map with the Scriptures.

And it is in this recorded wisdom that we find wisdom and direction for life’s journey. Consider the navigational language of the writer in Proverbs 4:

“I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble. Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life. Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way” (Proverbs 4:11-15).

Using the map means that we do well here to make a regular practice of reflecting on the recorded wisdom in Scripture. But sometimes that’s not enough.

2. REQUESTED WISDOM

There are times in life when we are confronted with decisions and challenges that press the limits of our understanding. In those moment, the wisdom of Scripture may seem darkened to us — our limited perception leaving us unable to make heads or tails of the way before us. It is in those moments that we are to stop and ask for direction. Scripture invites you and I to do the same when it comes to wisdom:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).

The invitation to call on the generous God is an echo of Jesus’ own teaching:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

When we ask God to give us wisdom, we acknowledge not only our own limitations, but also the abundant resources that God dispenses generously — that says something about who God is.

3. REVEALED WISDOM

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

And this revealed one, through who God has spoken, is associated with wisdom: 

“… Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).


”… Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God…” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

What is more, this same Jesus is said to be the bringer of life (John 10:10), and way, truth, and life (John 14:6). The way of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the way of death. As we read in John’s gospel, there was a time when many would-be disciples left Jesus. Turning to his earliest followers, Jesus asks if they too wanted to leave — to which Peter replied: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68). 

The way of Jesus is the way of life.

And so in response to this one who is wisdom and way of life, early Christ followers are encouraged to: “…throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And we run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). That sounds a little bit like this: Get Wisdom.

* www.desiringgod.org/messages/how-to-get-wisdom (accessed 06/23/2019)

A Smurfy New Perspective

Photo by   Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

When I was a child, I spent countless Saturday mornings watching the animated cartoon The Smurfs – and from conversations with many of my peers, I wasn’t alone. I am fairly certain that if I were to watch an episode today it would not elicit the same kind of allegiance it did back then, I can say without apology that as a child I was a fan. However, not everyone shared my same fondness for this harmonious community of diminutive creatures.

In addition to my Smurf viewing, I also participated in a Christian boys group that in practice seemed to be a cross between military, scouting, and life as a cowboy (early 1960’s conceptions of American masculinity?). On one of the meeting nights our program was promptly canceled and all of us children were ushered to a special parent presentation already in progress. The speaker on stage was “exposing” the dark and insidious side of American culture all of us had blindly overlooked, but was apparently eating away our faith like some kind of undetected cancer.

I still remember the speaker mispronouncing the band name Metallica (pronouncing it Met-a-leek-a) as well as struggling with the name of the universe in which the animated series He-man was set (this was a cultural expert?). However, it was his characterizations of the Smurf community that really grabbed my attention, especially when he noted:

  • The Smurfs practice magical arts, and as such, should be avoided by true Christians.

  • The Smurf community was actually a veiled homosexual community, designed to elicit acceptance of homosexual behavior amongst the younger generation.

  • Smurfette (a female smurf originally created by Gargamel, the enemy of the Smurfs) was actually just another male Smurf who was cross dressing as a female.

You can just imagine the horror I felt in hearing that my beloved Smurfs were to be avoided – especially if I were serious about the faith I professed. I was well aware that they practiced magical arts (after all, that’s precisely how Smurfette was created by Gargamel and then later transformed by Papa Smurf), but that practice was commonplace in the universe in which they lived. The presenter talked about human sexuality, but what did I know about any of this? As I sat there, puberty was still far away in the distance. Sure I knew where babies came from: moms (again, I was a kid), but exactly how they got there was another question. The guest speaker had successfully transformed the happiness of my beloved blue community into something to be feared and reviled. In short, my love of the Smurfs was not compatible with authentic love of God – or so it was said.

I wonder how many children experience this same kind of transformation in their own burgeoning faith by equally well-meaning-but-fear-introducing-mentors?

In light of the geo-political climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s, criticisms by this presenter were not even the strongest objections — related to faith or otherwise — that could have been raised against the Smurf community (though it should be noted that at least the second and third objections identified above are simply absurd). A stronger case could be made regarding how the Smurf economy appears to be based completely on communal sharing, and that vocational identifies are singular in nature (i.e. there is never more than one “Handy Smurf”). What happens when a young Smurf desires to set their sites on an identity outside of their natural abilities – wanting to try something different? Does Papa Smurf, who just so happens to be sporting the color red and wearing the beard of a revolutionary figure, simply not allow this? In such a case, one might make the case that the Smurfs are anti-capitalism–and quite possibly anti-individual, which may be troubling for Western viewers (the reader may want to add these to absurd list as well:).

However, I identified this post as a new perspective, and clearly what has been said above has been said before — so not exactly new. Instead, I want to draw the reader’s attention to an issue that has been before us all this time, but we have simply overlooked: the Smurfs are blue. Sure this appears to be a novelty that adds to their unique identity, but perhaps their actual blueness might in fact be the result of micropolyspora faeni (mushroom worker’s lung). Because the Smurfs live in mushrooms, their exposure is significant, and their condition chronic. With their lung function compromised, it is possible that the blue skin we have so come to love is in fact a symptom of something far more dangerous – a lack of healthy oxygenated blood flowing through their tiny smurfy bodies. In addition, the cry “are we there yet” that came quite frequently when the group journeyed together was actually a cry for endurance – their oxygen starved bodies struggling to deal with the mountain before them. In the end, the Smurfs should not be avoided and feared, but rather rescued and healed. I dare say that this is a far different kind of cultural engagement altogether.

All silliness aside — and believe you me, this entry is full of all kinds of silliness — we do well to remember that it is hard enough for young people to navigate the world, let alone to do so with all kinds of inaccuracies being espoused from trusted authority figures. As leaders we need to do our homework, and even more to take a page from the Smurfs themselves — humbling embracing our work and position to cultivate a loving and just community.

Woolly Mammoths and Renewed Vision

A few years back I watched the above TED video about a mammoth undertaking—literally. Researchers are looking to re-introduce the world to a living, breathing, walking woolly mammoth. Presenter Hendrik Poinar shares just how close scientist are (or at least were — back in 2013) to bringing back this prehistoric beast. To me, this all sounds quite exciting.

But as exciting as this Jurassic Park fantasy (or in this case, Pleistocene Park fantasy) might be, Poinar notes that re-introduction of a lost organism requires an intact sample of its DNA (mostly intact, if not fully) — which can be a real challenge when it involves a long extinct species. Why?

First, when it comes to DNA, scientists have learned that preservation depends not so much on the length of time but rather a consistency of temperature. So theoretically, the DNA of an ancient species could be retrieved if it has been stored at a consistent temperature. And of course if a consistent temperature cannot be maintained, then a viable sample would be lost. Unfortunately, as we see with climate change, maintaining a consistent environmental temperature can be quite the challenge.

Second, Poinar notes that DNA can be destroyed as a result of bacterial processes — that includes bacteria that lived in the organism when it was alive. When the animal was alive the bacteria co-existed alongside in a symbiotic relationship. Now that the animal has died, the bacteria destroys its host’s DNA. Over time, the work of this bacteria greatly reduces and even eliminates any viable DNA samples.

Congregations seeking to inhabit new, or even renewed vision, can have the sinking feeling that their efforts are akin to raising a once extinct species back to life.

Depending on how big the vision or the undertaking, mammoth may not be too big a word — particularly for congregations with a storied past. With this in mind, perhaps we might glean a thing or two about congregational visioning from the reintroduction of woolly mammoths — such things as:

1. Consistency. In some ways, the congregation’s vision is its DNA. So having a viable vision is important — and so many groups will spend hours on focus groups and brainstorming sessions to construct the perfect vision. But consistency is also important. For congregations that find themselves floundering when it comes to direction and purpose, consistency helps to bring a viable vision to life. And this requires creating an environment where vision is not only known, but is also consistently finding expression. Failure to attend to the environment can lead to a degradation of the vision itself.

2. Homegrown opposition. Like the work of resident bacteria, some of the biggest challenges to new/renewed vision comes from people within the congregation itself. Those who were once so supportive now turn on the very organization when difficult times arise — when vision casting is the most needed. Because this is so common, it should in someways come to be expected — but yet it still takes us by surprise when we encounter opposition. At the same time, it is important to note that not all opposition is the antithesis of shared vision. Opposition can serve as the crucible for a better way forward together — and a more faithful vision in the end.

… it is important to note that not all opposition is the antithesis of shared vision. Opposition can serve as the crucible for a better way forward together— and a more faithful vision in the end.

Bringing back the woolly mammoth seems to be a popular idea in recent years — with researchers attempting this feat through a number of different techniques (more information available here about the work that is being done). The prospect of seeing mammoths return is really quite exciting. At the same time, to see expressions of robust (mammoth) and renewed vision in local congregations in our own time may be just as exciting.