The other day a pastor friend asked if I’d like to help her preach on Stewardship Sunday. A kind but dubious invitation which I agreed to with a level of trepidation. That’s because anyone who has been around the church on Stewardship Sunday knows it’s that day on the church calendar when we pastors prostrate ourselves in all sorts of awkward rhetorical ways asking for money, usually to build God’s church.
It was funny timing, given that the next day students in Tom Long’s preaching class (for which I serve as a teaching assistant) were brainstorming all the more oft-than-not negative associations they have when they hear a preacher use the term, “stewardship.”
Come to think of it, though, “stewardship” is actually not at the top of a list of the various vocabulary words we Christians are good at throwing around and which can cause some indigestion. Here are my top five, and maybe you’ll have more to add to the list below:
1. Purity- This is my least favorite word. It’s not that I don’t think God calls us to be “pure” in our motivations towards God and our neighbor and to be brutally honest with ourselves and one another about the things that contaminate our hearts and our relationships with God, one another and the world- on the contrary. But “purity” has tended to seep into our language as more of a code word for the behaviors that we like to check off our list as a way of marking membership in the Christian club. Various sexual abstinence programs and initiatives for teenagers, like the “Purity Covenant,” “Passport2Purity,” or “purity rings” for example, (which serve a purpose and which I’m not necessarily bashing here), tend to throw around this term, often only with a rather narrow, uni-dimensional understanding of what the term means.
Another example would be the prohibitionist tendencies we see in certain denominations. Someone I know, and a very gifted minister I might add, often is quick to remark that when people are breaking open the beer and liquor, he knows it is his cue to leave; in fact, he will often vocalize his association between “unbelief” and a choice to drink more than Fanta at parties. I must confess that this notion of “purity” makes me shudder a bit.
2. Obedience- Usually when I hear this word, it comes more in the context of a rule-oriented, morality-centered relationship to God. But the passage I read this morning from Deuteronomy is a reminder that God’s call to obey is less a long list of chores and more a kind of ringing reminder about how much God loves us and wants us to live and flourish in this world. “Love the Lord your God…obey His voice…that you may dwell in the land,” the Deuteronomist implores (Deut. 30:20). Obedience is meant to be a joyful, relational privilege, not burdensome drudgery.
3. Personal relationship with Jesus Christ- This is one of the evangelical code words I grew up with which I find particularly annoying. Usually I have heard it issued from an evangelistic backdrop, something like, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?,” or “You need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The problem with this phrase is that it often comes undefined and can dredge up various unhelpful associations; and I question to what degree it is actually an honest, realistic description of a relationship with Jesus as my “Lord and Savior.” If a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” simply means that we can go to God without needing some other religious intermediary, fine; if it means that God desires to be in relationship with us and cares about us personally as human beings, fine; but it can also be taken to mean that we evangelicals are just extra chummy with God, or have a special line to God that others don’t have. And frankly, for as many times as I have been sure I’ve heard God speaking “personally” to me, there have been the times when I don’t know what God is saying to me and I can’t hear God’s voice above the din of the other voices. A “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” can quickly devolve into a misleading description about the nature of how God chooses to relate to us mere mortals.
4. Jesus told me; or, The Spirit led me or, I have a word from the Lord for you- Okay, I may be nitpicking here, but let’s be honest: how many times do we use these expressions or heard others use them as a way of justifying our (or their) own hunches or gut impulses? I’ve learned, for example, that when someone comes to me saying, “I have a word from the Lord for you,” I need to duck, and then hold lightly what comes after. In two cases, the “word from the Lord” proved to be just this- a word from the Lord. In two cases. (This may be the subject of another post on my experience of having been on the receiving end of prophesy- and I happen to believe that there are people who have very legitimately been gifted to be God’s prophetic mouthpieces in various ways.)
5. Stewardship- Ugh. It is often a plea for money to fund the salaries of the church’s “professionals,” so they can carry out all of the church’s “programs;” sometimes it becomes an opportunity to rather disingenuously claim the church’s overhead and building campaign costs belong to God’s mission. (This really makes me nauseous.) Almost always it comes with little envelopes and a pledge commitment and a forgettable sermon on the familiar, well-glossed money and giving passages from Scripture.
Got any other slightly nauseating Christian vocabulary terms to riff on? Send them along and I’ll add them to the list; maybe we can even vote on which ones make the cut for top five!