As a child he would visit a small Catholic mission of priests where he would receive food and also learned about Jesus. When he came to the U.S. he was welcomed with the basics of life by generous people and today he with his wife and daughter live a happy life. Both he and his wife have honorable work and their daughter is thriving in high school. Though their lifestyle is modest by U.S. standards, they are a very contented family.
When the topic of tithing or charitable giving came up during our time together he reluctantly shared the passion he had for those in need. He said: “I have everything I need and when they want to thank me, I say, ‘Don’t thank me, thank God!'” His honest declaration that it is only through God’s generosity that he has the pleasure to give to others, has stayed with me for weeks. I recalled the passage from Chronicles: “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should have the means to contribute so freely? For everything is from you and we only give you what we have received from you.” (1Chr 29:14)
My friend, though he may not know the word or the definition, is obviously a steward. The first and foremost lesson of stewardship is understanding that everything belongs to God and is on loan to us.
We are only the caretakers of creation, all life, the hours in a day, our unique talents and our material and financial resources. All we are and all we have are blessings from God to be used for his glory.
For those of us on a stewardship journey, I think knowing that nothing really belongs to us is one of the most difficult truths to understand and live out. When we look at our calendars, our talents and our checkbooks, it can be overwhelming to ask ourselves first and foremost: “What is it that God would have me do?”
Returning to God the “first fruits” of our time in prayer, our talents in service and our resources in generous sharing is often countercultural. We have a very strong sense of ownership for everything we have become and have “earned.” Could you imagine responding to others when they congratulate you on a beautiful family, new academic degree, success at work, a great retirement portfolio, etc. by saying “It is all God’s!” It not only requires a change of behavior but a radical conversion of heart.
Considering my friend’s happy life, one could become somewhat jealous at his contentment and life satisfaction. It seems for many us, we become driven by becoming more and acquiring more without taking notice of how blessed we are and who is the source of our blessings. The true steward receives God’s gifts gratefully, nurtures them responsibly, shares them generously and returns them to God in abundance. This formula for living, described in the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ document, “Stewardship: A Disciples Response,” is said to be the “way of life” for every disciple of Jesus who wants to live a life of peace, contentment and ultimately, joy.
I think most of us want our relationship with God and our church to lead to peace, contentment and joy. If remembering the phrase, “Don’t thank me, thank God!” will help to initiate the journey, then I will write it on my hand, frame it and place it above my desk and embroider it on my pillowcase. For eventually, like my friend, I want it to be written on my heart and lived out in my life to honor my God who gives me everything.
Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.