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Lighten Up—You’re Only a Steward

Report from the Field

For the last twenty-three years, except for isolated weekends, I’ve been a habitué of children’s Sabbath Schools—and a lot has changed since 1986. The 1989 ValueGenesis study, with its findings that many Seventh-day Adventist young people did not have assurance of salvation or a personal relationship with God that gives them comfort and joy, and statistics showing that many young people raised in the Church don’t embrace that commitment as adults, confronted Children’s Ministries leaders with a very disquieting challenge.

They rose to that challenge with a monumental overhaul of the curriculum: the weekly Bible lessons provided in the publications Little Friend through Insight and the teaching materials provided to leaders and staff in the Sabbath Schools were re-written from scratch beginning in 2000. The rotation of Bible lessons in GraceLink, as the new curriculum is called, are structured to reinforce four essential Adventist themes. No, silly, not the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the Second Coming, and the health message—or even stewardship. They are Grace (“God loves me” is the tag line we use in Kindergarten); Worship (“I love God”), which includes obedience; Community or church (“We love each other”); and Service (which embraces evangelism: “God loves you, too”).

There have been attacks on these lessons, such as this one from Larry Kirkpatrick’s At my local church, GraceLink’s most controversial aspects are the artwork, which some see as “cartoonish,” and the abandonment of chronology (Genesis→Esther→Luke→Acts→Revelation) as an organizing principle. There have been alternative independent offerings, including My Bible First, promoted as a resource for those who want to have family worship with their children. But GraceLink makes a full-bore effort to address an unintended by-product of SDA religious education: the connection it has made, for some children, between our particular religious faith and bad feelings. When these particular children grow up and have a choice, it may be easier to repudiate a religious system that they associate with guilt, fear, and anxiety. Maybe it would be better to have our children associate their church’s message with love? Worth a shot.

Stewardship Anxiety

Reading about stewardship this past week, however, I got the sense that the adult Sabbath School curriculum, in contrast to the children’s, may not have undergone as significant a philosophical overhaul in the last two and one-half decades (or at least not one discernible in this week’s installment). I appreciate the emphasis on balance in Tuesday’s lesson, but to a large extent, reading the lesson reawakened the guilt and anxiety that, for me, accompany the pressure to “get it right” in using my talents, time, body, and material resources. So for this week’s commentary, I’d like to take on the challenge of the author’s first discussion question for Friday: “How are we to understand the whole question of stewardship and accountability to God in the context of salvation by faith alone?… And even if we make mistakes [in our stewardship], why should we not give up in despair?”

First, a little despair: it’s true that humans have not been particularly good stewards. All of us have squandered “our” time, abused “our” bodies, mis-spent “our” money, and neglected or exploited “our” talents. And the sting of stewardship is the implicit threat that, if we lose time, waste money, abuse our bodies, or bury our talents, those things are gone.

It will never be August 1999 again (and I will never catch up on the sleep I missed at the Oshkosh Camporee). Children are young for such a brief time (and you didn’t spend enough time with yours). There’s no “lost and found” department for virginity. And so forth.

Stewardship: the Lighter Side

Let’s take a short walk in the other direction. You are a steward. You are not the owner, not the boss, not the person in charge. No pressure; whatever you screw up, God can rectify.

Yes, illicit sexual activity, substance abuse, poor diet, abortion, and biting one’s nails fit the paradigm of violations of stewardship. Yes, our bodies do not belong to us. God made them and Jesus bought them with the price of his own life. God delegated their care and management, not their ownership, and we have not always done well with the trust he has place in us.

But the gospel is that nothing is lost, or at least not yet, where we are concerned. Yes, God requires a tenth of our increase as our acknowledgment that everything we have is his. He is entitled to demand an accounting, or indeed our entire portfolio, at any moment. (We are, after all, just stewards.) Jesus demanded this of the rich young ruler and of his disciples. But on the other hand, no matter how faithfully we pay our tithe, we can’t bribe him or buy him off. “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool” (Isa. 66:1 NIV). “Every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills….If I were hungry [with the clear implication that he is not], I would not tell thee” (Ps. 50:10, 12). It’s we ourselves, not the money or cattle (or even our ledger recording our stewardship of them), that he is ultimately interested in.

He is God, and we are just stewards. For some of us, what gives the metaphor its edge of anxiety is not the fear that we’ll be fired (indeed, to some of us that might come as a relief), but the sense that we are capable of squandering more than we could ever recover. But it is worth remembering that we are ineffective or unlucky farmers; he is perfectly capable of restoring the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25).

If our bad stewardship ended an inconveniently timed pregnancy, that is cause to repent, but we are Adventists. No Adventist fetuses go to hell; our prophet envisions the happy prospect of angels distributing tiny resurrected babies among joyful mothers.

To Revert Once More to Adventist Religious Education…

Jeremiah 13:20 quotes God asking the priests, “Where the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?” (KJV), stirring up guilt for parents of formerly Adventist adult children. But His rhetorical point (“Where are you?” he asked Adam and Eve in the garden) is not that the livestock has vanished and God cannot locate his lambs. He also says, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek. 34:11–12 NIV). God won’t let the sheep lost by our careless shepherding be lost forever. We are only stewards.

There is a limit to the damage that God lets stewards do. If he doesn’t like our performance, he can fire us. We can lose the selves he has delegated to us—we can lose ourselves—but the good news is that we can’t (permanently) lose much of anything else. (Not that he rests content in losing bad stewards, either.)

Margaret Christian is an associate professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.

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