I’m having a little trouble coming up with something to talk about today. I’m packing for Guatemala like I’ve never packed before. I’m packing for Cold Weather Guatemala. This is a major change of technique since every year when we go at this time we go to the low-lying area where it's usually about a hundred degrees and my biggest worry is heat stroke. For those trips I wish I could wear shorts but since we are a church trip, more modest attire is always the code. Now that I’m not representing Jesus and can wear whatever I damn well please it turns out we’ll be in the mountains and it will be cold.
This time we’ll be staying in Quetzeltenango, also called Xela. Beaven has been obsessively checking the weather as usual and the predicted highs in that city are in the 60’s with lows at night in the 40’s. And we’ll be staying in an unheated home. It’s been six months since I’ve been even slightly cold but as near as I can remember I should pack sweatshirts, gloves and jeans. And I’m sure when I come home in three weeks I’ll know the Spanish words for all that stuff.
Not much more exciting than packing stories here today so I will talk about money, instead.
September is upon us and that can mean only one thing in the Presbyterian Church: Stewardship sermons. I imagine Baptists and Methodists do this, too. Every year at this time the church gets geared up to receive pledges for the coming year’s budget.
The church has gotten all sensitive about asking people to “pledge” to give a certain amount of money to their church. They worry about offending folks by asking them to be dependable in this support. Instead of calling them “pledges” they call them vague things like “estimates of giving.” I grew up different. You pledged to help out and your word was your bond. "Back in my day", as Grandparent talk goes, people pledged and kept their pledge. I had an uncle who died and left a bunch of serious money to a charitable organization instead of me. In getting his affairs in order I asked the bank’s trust department if they could pay off Uncle Harry’s pledge for the rest of the year. They asked if he had signed his pledge card. I checked with the church and they came up with the card and sure enough he had signed it. To the bank, this became one of his debts that Uncle Harry's will decreed they pay off.
This is the way I’ve always looked at stewardship in the church. It’s just understood that if I can’t make it the church will have to adjust, but I need to make every effort to cough up the cash if I possibly can.
But this will be a hard stewardship season. It’s not just business as usual. In our congregation we have a few people out of work and one family that I know of that had to give up their house. Even as the signs of better days are starting to appear in the news, we’re looking at a budget that is in the red as of July and likely to get worse and we're facing the job of coming up with an estimate of what we think we’ll have for 2010. Not a fun job.
The older members of our congregation still remember about 20 years ago when we hit a snag. That year, Roland Adams got up front and talked about being behind on our bills and then took off his hat and we literally passed the hat to come up with some dough.
The funny thing to me is the way folks remember this story. Some remember it as a negative thing and others as a positive time when we realized that we could cough up extra money fairly easily when we really need to.
Presbyterians usually like to act real refined and pretend like money isn’t important. We prefer to talk about time and talents, instead. As purists, we get into the whole meaning of the word “Stewardship.” And the best explanation of stewardship I’ve ever heard came from John Williams, the current Chaplain at Austin College. He’s famous for his stewardship explanation. He even takes a dry erase marker and draws stick figures in his explanation.
In Scotland years ago, the most valuable asset a family could have was its herd of pigs. John would draw a few little piggies wandering around in the pasture. To protect the pigs from wolves and thieves, the owner would keep them in a pig sty (drawing a circle for the fence around the piggies) and hire a warden to watch over them: the Sty Warden. Supposedly, that’s where the word “steward” came from.
The point would be that stewardship means to protect our assets from danger, whatever they are. The church has come to appreciate that just about anything can be an asset: the Sunday school teachers, the musicians, people who mow the lawn or maintain the building, those who reach out to the needy and who preach the word of God. It's not always about pictures of presidents, but those help.
I heard a sermon on stewardship years ago that was fairly forgettable except for one illustration. The preacher defined one form of stewardship as tipping well in restaurants. I had never thought of tipping as stewardship but I’ve recalled this idea just about every time I’m offered the opportunity to be generous in a tip.
I was reminded of this lesson last week in one of the eulogies for Ted Kennedy. His son said he thought his dad had forgotten some money on the counter as they were leaving a hotel room. Kennedy told his son what back-breaking work it was to make beds all day and how the lady who made their beds was probably supporting a family.
I know a lot of people don't have any money right now. But the ones that do have something beyond rent and food get the great luxury of deciding what to do with their money. And I always sign the pledge card even though they don't have a space for that.
No pithy final paragraph. If I come up with one later, I’ll add it. I have to get back to packing. Next week’s blog should have interesting comments on adapting to primitive living conditions with Beaven. It will be interesting when I tell him he can't use the tap water to brush his teeth.