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  • D is for Definition

    Before we get too far in examining what the MELT acronym stands for, perhaps it is a good time to ask what we mean by generosity.

    The dictionary says that generosity is “liberality in giving” and “marked by abundance”.  We say that a large or expensive gift is generous and that its giver is also generous.  We sometimes refer to a person who has a “generous spirit”.  When we are referring to the gift and the giver, I think generosity is a relative term.  It must be weighed in proportion to the giver’s ability to give.

    “Of all the varieties of virtue, liberality is the most beloved.”

    Aristotle

    A number of years ago Kenneth Thomson, then Canada’s richest man, donated $25 million in paintings from his personal collection to the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The morning host on CBC radio was gushing over this very generous gift, until the traffic guy pointed out that $25 million was about 1% of Ken Thomson’s net worth.  It would be the same as one of us making a $1,000 gift.  Don’t get me wrong, a $1,000 gift to a charity is nothing to be sneezed at, but if you or I give $1,000 to our church we’re not going to make the morning news.

    Generosity may also have something to do with the beneficiary of the gift.  Some time ago I came across this analysis:

    • The first level is generosity to oneself.  This is usually the easiest kind of generosity to practise.
    • The second level is generosity to our family members, loved ones and friends.  Most of us can get to level two without difficulty.
    • Level three is generosity to our neighbours, people who aren’t family but who are part of our community.  You will remember that Jesus addressed one of his parables to the question “Who is my neighbour?”
    • The highest level of generosity finds expression in the way we treat strangers.  “Real generosity is doing something nice for someone who will never find out.”  When we have compassion for the suffering of people we will never meet, then and only then can we be our most generous selves.

    I once heard a speaker at a conference say “Generosity is looking in the face of the other and seeing God.”  Generosity is intimately connected with our faith in God, our sense of compassion and our commitment to social justice.

    What does generosity mean to you?

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  • Leadership and Example

    This is where the going gets tough for both me and the reader.  It is the subject on which I tend to be the preachiest, and which makes the audience most uncomfortable, quite possibly as a direct result.

    I spent a dozen years working in the life insurance business before I was employed by the church.  One of the lessons I learned from the sales managers is that “you can never ask someone to do something you haven’t already done yourself.”  The training of new sales recruits always began with an analysis of the trainees’ own life insurance needs.  Then they were expected to purchase the products that would protect their loved ones in the event of disability or premature death.  Only after they had their own insurance program in place could they hope to sell products to others.

    The psychology of this is pretty straightforward.  Most of us harbour a profound fear of being revealed as a fraud.  No matter how talented or successful we may be, no matter how attractive our looks or charming our personality, we fear that others will peel back the surface and discover that we are a phony — that deep down we aren’t really very smart, or very nice, or very good looking.  Assuming that we are almost constantly afraid of being found out, how can we ask others to give generously if we ourselves do not?  If we do ask, our words will sound hollow and lack conviction.

    Over the past three or four decades I have watched our church become almost mute on the topic of giving.  Used to be, every congregation had an active stewardship committee that led a vigorous program every year during stewardship month.  There were every-member visitations,  giving charts on bulletin boards, temple talks and sermons about tithing.  Now these things appear to be studiously avoided.

    What explains this conspiracy of silence?  We could cite many factors, but I’ll raise the leadership issue.

    In many other sectors of the charitable world, board members are chosen for their ability to donate and influence others to do the same.  The mantra is “Give, get or get off.”  It is undoubtedly a disservice to both the organizations and the individuals concerned when only the wealthiest and most prominent citizens are invited to sit on charitable boards.  But there is also some virtue in the practice.  For if the people governing the organization don’t believe in its mission enough to invest their own money, why would anyone else?

    “Example is not the main thing in influencing others.  It’s the only thing.”

    Albert Schweitzer

    In churchland, we choose our leaders without considering their ability — or their willingness — to donate.  The virtue in that practice is that we are inclusive and democratic.  But I wonder if, over the years, our silence about giving hasn’t been caused by our failure to consider a candidate’s generosity before electing him or her to a leadership role.  I have sat in church meeting rooms and watched proposals to engage in more vigorous fund-raising be defeated by boards and committees.  And I cannot help but wonder if some of the people in the room had a vested interest in sabotaging the initiative.  Perhaps it was unconscious, but they might have given in to their fear of being exposed.

    For the uncomfortable truth is, many members of our churches give little or nothing in the way of financial donations (my limited research suggests 30-50% of the households on the membership rolls give negligible amounts).  In most congregations, the secrecy around individual giving records rivals the Da Vinci Code.  Pastors don’t know who gives what; in some cases because their council doesn’t want them to know, in other cases because they prefer it that way.  People are elected to leadership positions on councils, boards and committees — at all levels of the church — without anyone knowing whether they give generously, modestly or minimally.

    At a conference on generous giving last spring, two Anglican priests spoke publicly about discovering that key leaders in their parishes were giving literally nothing, zero dollars, to the church.  In one case it was the financial secretary (no wonder she didn’t want the rector to see the records).  And in the other case it was two of the wardens, who hold key positions of leadership and trust in the Anglican system of congregational governance.  How many cases like this would we discover in our churches if we had the courage to go looking?

    Is it time to start taking generosity into account as we recruit and select people for leadership roles in the church?  Is it wrong to expect that leaders who are already there will set a good example with their own giving?

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  • E is for Example

    How did you learn about giving?

    My earliest memories about giving centre on church and family.  Ten cents went into the Sunday School envelope every week.  Gifts were exchanged on birthdays and at Christmas.  I can remember the pride I felt the first time I selected a birthday present for my mother by myself and used my own money to buy it (and she still has the five-and-dime-store water glass, half a century later).

    My guess is that everyone learns about giving from someone else:  parents or other family members; friends; authority figures; public personalities.  Before we are aware of what’s happening to us lessons are learned, attitudes are formed and habits are in place.

    Ask a few people at your church how they decided on the amount of their offering at church last week.  When I did that I was shocked that many people either didn’t know how much they gave (their spouse took care of it), or were surprised by the question and couldn’t really offer an explanation.  They gave what they had always given and didn’t think much about it.

    This becomes a real conundrum for people coming to church for the first time, or after a very long absence.  Sometimes they will approach the pastor for advice on how much they should give, because they genuinely have no idea how much is appropriate.

    We can provide education on the subject (E is also for Education) by teaching about tithing, sacrifice and proportional giving.  There is no doubt that we need more good teaching of this kind in most churches.  We can also look for people who are already generous givers and hold up their example to others.

    One of the hardest parts of my job is finding people who are willing to talk about their own planned gifts.  There must be some additive in the baptismal water that makes Lutherans modest to a fault.

    The violin is a problem for any Christian because it is a solo instrument, a virtuoso instrument, and we’re not solo people.  We believe in taking a back seat and being helpful.  So Christians think about becoming second violinists.  They’re steady, humble, supportive.

    Garrison Keillor, “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra”

    We have no trouble telling our friends about a great restaurant, a wonderful cruise vacation or a favourite golf course.  But when it comes to giving we blush like a new bride, and mumble something about the Bible saying not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

    But the generous people are out there.  It is our job to find them and convince them to let their light shine so others may see their good works.   Here are a few of my ideas on how we might do that:

    • Find out from your envelope secretary who gives what.  The most generous people may not necessarily give the highest amount of money, but it’s a place to start.
    • Ask a generous person to write an article for your congregational newsletter about how they first learned about giving and who their model was.  If they won’t write it themselves, ask if they’ll agree to be interviewed.
    • Invite a few generous people to give a series of brief temple talks before worship on the subject of what they believe about giving.
    • Invite a generous giver to join a task force, committee or congregational council.  Tell them that you sought them out in the hope that their example could rub off on others.
    • If people won’t agree to do anything public, ask if you can just talk with them about their giving.  Listen and learn from them.  Use what they tell you in your own preaching, teaching or writing, but don’t mention their name or otherwise identify them inadvertently (or you’ll have a bigger problem on your hands).

    Do you have ideas on how generous people can be an example for others?  Please leave a comment.

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  • How To Talk About Mission

    Does my church have a mission or reason for existing?  Can my church articulate that mission in clear, understandable terms?  Does it communicate that mission to internal and external audiences as a reason for supporting the church with time, talent and treasure?  Does it tell prospective donors how their donation will make a difference in someone’s life?  Does it thank donors for their last donation and tell them how it helped to change the world for the better?  Does it tell them what their next donation will help to accomplish?

    These are some of the questions that every congregation needs to confront if it hopes to nurture generosity among its supporters.  For why else would someone choose to donate money?  But knowing what to say isn’t the same as knowing how to say it.

    Because it’s my business, I pay attention to how other organizations ask me for money.  (I confess to being a bit of a push-over when confronted with a well-crafted request for support, but that’s another story.)  The appeals that have the greatest impact on me have the following characteristics.

    They are personal.  The best letters address me as an individual (or us as a couple).  Their tone is direct and friendly without sounding cutesy or overly familiar.  One letter I received recently opened like this:  “Dear Mr. Pym,  Did you know — You are one of our most faithful supporters?  For the past several years you have consistently helped the Salvation Army carry out its mission to serve the poor, and I am so grateful to you.”

    They are confident.  The mission is presented in clear, unapologetic terms.  The message incorporates the idea that what they are doing is worthwhile, and that when I understand it sufficiently, I will value their efforts too.

    Fund-raising is, first and foremost, a form of ministry.  It is a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission.

    Henri Nouwen, The Spirituality of Find-Raising

    The tone is positive.  There is never an undercurrent of organizational crisis, never a hint that the financial situation is desperate.  For who would want to make the last donation received by a charity just before it went out of business?

    The organization is transparent.  The church doesn’t have needs, it meets them.   People don’t give to charities; rather they give through charities to help others.   The organization is not the important thing — the mission is.

    They tell stories of transformation.  They tell me that the organization is transforming lives, making the world better for identifiable individuals.  The best stories are told at the micro level, not the macro.  It all comes down to narratives about people helping people.

    The language is vivid.  The writers avoid euphemisms and generalities.  They write sentences in the active voice, not the passive.  Shorter words and sentences are preferred over longer ones (most good advertising is written in the vocabulary of someone reading at the Grade 7 level or less).  The best mission-based appeals are lively and descriptive, rich in colourful detail.  Written materials incorporate unposed pictures of people, wherever possible.

    There is a call to action.  This is what Nouwen repeatedly refers to as an “invitation”.  Telling a story is not enough by itself.  A good appeal presents a situation and then asks me to do something about it.

    In my opinion, the Salvation Army is one of the best fund-raising practitioners in Canada.  It is worth giving them a donation simply to get on the mailing list for their newsletter.  The name of the newsletter is “Together: giving hope to people in need”.  That by itself tells readers almost everything they need to know about the Sally Ann, what they do and why.  The headlines of the articles are also brilliant — here are some examples from issues I have filed for future reference:

    • “Your kindness gave Thishenu the tools she needed to make a new life”;
    • “Retreat helps restore dignity”;
    • And my personal favourite, “Disadvantaged kids enjoy hockey, thanks to you”.  What red-blooded Canadian could resist an appeal based around that story?

    Does your church incorporate these features in the way it proclaims its mission?  Where is there room for improvement?

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  • M is for Mission

    A planned gift, such as a charitable  bequest contained in a last will and testament, is likely to be the largest single gift most donors will ever make.  It is not surprising, therefore, that charities and researchers have paid particular attention to the question of what motivates people to make a planned gift.

    The research has consistently shown that the number one reason for making a gift, as cited by the donors, is “belief in the mission of the charity”.

    When it comes to deciding what to do with our money, we have several options.  We can spend it, save it, lend it, invest it or give it away.  And if we decide on giving, we can give it to family members, friends or even strangers (what CRA calls “private philanthropy”).  Giving to charity is just one choice among many.  There are 85,000 charities in Canada (not to mention many more non-profit organizations that don’t have charitable registration), plus many more in other countries.

    So it would appear to take some sort of miracle for an individual to choose our congregation as the beneficiary of a gift, among all the choices out there.  Whether we realize it or not, we are in competition for every dollar we receive as a donation.

    Why would a donor choose our congregation?  Familiarity and social ties certainly play a large part.  But those factors simply get us in the game.  We must provide prospective donors with a good reason to give to us, and that reason, I contend, has much to do with our mission.

    “Be laser-focused in connecting the mission and vision of your organization with God’s grand vision for the world.”

    Rebekah Burch Basinger, “Growing Givers’ Hearts Regardless the Economic Times” (workshop presentation)

    There was a time when people gave primarily out of a sense of institutional loyalty.  That time has ended for all but the oldest members of our congregations.  Younger donors want to know what we’re going to do with their money if they make a donation.  They want to ensure that the money will accomplish some good, that it will transform someone’s life for the better.  This is where mission comes in.

    What is our mission?  In the old days we would say it was “saving souls”, or perhaps “bringing people to Christ”.  Today we’re reluctant to use language that sounds simplistic, or has echoes of past experiences some people would just as soon forget.  But we need to know what we’re about if we want others to join us and support our efforts.

    Other charities seem to have less difficulty articulating their mission and making it memorable.  Most people have no difficulty explaining the raison d’être of the Canadian Cancer Society, Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders.  Then why are they tongue-tied when asked to state the purpose for which their congregation exists?

    In my experience, even some congregations with vital outreach programs don’t do a good job of proclaiming their mission.  In one memorable case, a church leader said, with resignation in his voice, “Our members only care about keeping the doors open.”  On their main bulletin board I found a schedule for the facility, and the calendar showed that there was a different community group using their space every day and night of the week.  Keeping their doors open was merely a means to an end — serving the community — but they had lost sight of that end.  If they couldn’t remember why they existed, why would anyone want to give them money?

    In the next post I’ll offer some thoughts on how to frame and proclaim mission effectively.

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  • Nurturing Generosity

    Can people become more generous?

    All of us know people who seem to be more generous than most.  Were they born that way?  Are they generous today because of the way they were raised?  Can a less generous person become more generous, under the right conditions and given enough time?

    If generosity is measured merely by the amount of money I give away, then surely it is within my control to be more generous.  But we sometimes refer to “generosity of spirit” as the essential character trait that distinguishes those who go through the motions from those who are “naturally” generous.  Can this kind of generosity be inculcated?

    This subject is of more than intellectual interest to me for, I confess, I am not one of those who is blessed with a generous spirit.  By nature I make a very fine steward — someone who gives from a sense of duty — but not without inner struggle.  When confronted with a restaurant cheque, it is easier for me to calculate 15% of the (before-tax) total than to leave a tip that is  impulsively generous.

    Perhaps generosity truly is one of the spiritual gifts that “differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:8).  If we are each blessed with generosity in different measure, can we at least exercise our gift to the fullest extent possible?

    In the next few posts, I will propose four strategic opportunities to nurture generosity.  My ideas assume a congregational context, a particular cultural setting.  Nurturing generosity among a group of people will involve creating or shaping a culture that supports generous behaviour.

    I call them strategic because they are not like a detailed recipe, but rather directions in which leaders can move to effect change.  They are opportunities, because they are based on assets possessed by every congregation.

    These thoughts are organized around the acronym MELT:

    • M is for mission
    • E is for example
    • L is for liturgy
    • T is for thanksgiving

    If it helps you remember the acronym, think of melting hearts that are frozen and need warming up.

    Since there is no real logical or chronological order to the list (and since the names were chosen, in part, for their mnemonic value), I will begin with the question of mission in the next post.

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  • Does It Matter What We Call It?

    Some readers may ask: does it really matter what we call it as long as people give generously?  Anyone who has read the entire series of posts will know that I believe language matters immensely.  While it’s possible to invent new names for new things, the rules of language do not allow us to change the meaning of words willy-nilly.  Words have a history and carry a baggage that includes semantic, cultural and psychological elements.

    Carol Johnston is Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.   Several years ago she conducted research into what produces a culture of generosity in a congregation by studying five generous congregations in different parts of the U.S.  One of the things she learned is that many church members, even those who are very affluent, live in fear of not having enough.    In a recent conference presentation she said “Stewards in the Bible are usually slaves, or at best hired hands.  When they don’t measure up, they are punished.  So when Christians are told that their primary identity is that they are “stewards”,  and their anxiety about money is already high, it does not help.  There are many ways in which Christians do properly engage in “stewarding” work, but Christians are not primarily stewards.  We are first and foremost children of God, heirs of the promise, and as such ultimately secure in life and in death.”

    How we say something matters a great deal.  Surely we don’t want to increase people’s anxiety about a subject that is already fraught with negative emotion.  Changing the way we talk about something may produce vastly different results.

    For a dramatic illustration of this point, have a look at this brief (less than 2 minutes) video.

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  • Choosing a Paradigm

    Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, says “As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.”  So the question is put to you:  which way will you choose to view the world — through the familiar lens of stewardship or through a new lens of inheritance?

    I have presented these ideas to several audiences over the past few years.  An objection that has frequently been raised is this:  if people got what they have through inheritance, with no obligation to do what God would have them do with their possessions, doesn’t that give them licence to ignore God and other people and become totally self-serving?

    Or in the words of Joni Mitchell, “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

    It strikes me that, if this idea that might be true really were true, those of us in the business of asking people to give money to the church would have to behave very differently.  Instead of treating each other as servants or slaves labouring under contract to a stern and unforgiving master (see the Parable of the Talents), we would have to treat everyone with the respect due to a child of a generous and loving parent.  Servants can be commanded and their obedience enforced, but free women and men do not respond well to orders and threats.

    Where might we find places to apply this revolutionary transformation in outlook and behaviour?

    My first suggestion would be to develop a habit of thanking people.  In my opinion, the doctrine of stewardship has promoted a twisted culture in our churches where the words “thank you” are far too rarely heard.  I hesitate to make this personal, but in my job people often email me asking for information.  I do my best to respond promptly, but I would estimate that 80% of the time my replies are never acknowledged — that is, if the original question came from someone in the church.  This lack of basic courtesy has driven me crazy for years, but now I have a hypothesis to comfort me.  Failure to thank people stems from a basic slave mentality.  If everyone labours under an obligation to obey, there’s no need for thanks — we’re all just doing our job.  Of course it goes far beyond the way we do or do not answer emails.  Compare how our churches thank members for their weekly offerings to the way other charities treat their donors.  The contrast is stark and appalling.  Giving thanks is one of the fundamental ways we show respect for people.

    Secondly, if we can no longer rely on obedience as the motivation for putting money into the hands of the church, if human beings are children of God with freedom to choose how they will use that which really is theirs, then we in the church are squarely in competition with the rest of the world.  What would motivate me to give my money away as opposed to spending or saving it?  What would prompt me to give it to a charity instead of my children?  And why would I choose a church, over the other 85,000 Canadian charities that want my gift, as the beneficiary of my generosity?

    The answers, it seems clear to me, will rest largely on the question of mission.  Does my church have a mission or reason for existing?  Or is it here because it’s here because it’s here because it’s here?  Can my church articulate that mission in clear, understandable terms?  Does it communicate that mission to internal and external audiences as a reason for supporting the church with time, talent and treasure?  Does it tell me how my donation will make a difference in someone’s life?  Does it tell me that my last donation helped to change the world for the better, even by a little bit?  Does it tell me what my next donation will help to accomplish?

    In this frightening new paradigm, characterized by an an existential state of freedom, we will have to learn to nurture a culture of gratitude, compassion, and generosity in our congregations and among our people.  We will have to appeal to their sense of justice and their zeal for mission instead of fear and guilt.  How we might do that is a topic for another day.

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  • A New Paradigm

    In the New Testament, Romans 8: 14-17 offers the most direct support for the notion that our primary identity and relationship to God is as a child to a parent, not as a steward to a master.

    For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

    As Paul makes clear not only in the passage from Romans, but also in a similar verse in Galatians (4:7), the implication of being a child of God is that we are also heirs.  And both draw a strong contrast between childhood and slavery.  Many writers have pointed out that stewards could technically be in a state of slavery; some have gone on to proclaim quite proudly that as stewards of God we are slaves to the divine will.  Why, if we are children of God by adoption, would we insist on thinking of ourselves as slaves?

    Here is a list of passages from the epistles that make direct reference to our identity as children and heirs of God:

    Rom 4:14 – heirs to the promise

    Gal 3:29 – heirs according to the promise

    Gal 4:1 – child and heir though God

    Eph 3:6 – fellow heirs in the promise

    Tit 3:7 – heirs according to the hope

    Heb 6:17 – heirs of the promise

    Heb 11:17 – heir to the righteousness

    If we are the beloved children and heirs of God, then the blessings we enjoy are received not by way of trust, but through inheritance.  Inheritance is a form of gift that takes place between generations.  As gift, an inheritance comes without obligations of the sort that are implicit in the idea of a trust.  (This is not to deny that wills can put conditions on bequests.  Nor does it deny that some forms of inheritance — the family farm, treasured heirlooms, etc. — can be received with a heavy feeling of responsibility to preserve the inheritance and pass it on to the next generation.  But these are not the same as the terms of a trust.)

    The challenge I offer to all supporters of the traditional stewardship paradigm is this:  if mainstream theology tells us that we are children of a loving, generous God in all other respects, why is it that we are servants of a master when it comes to money and wealth?

    What will we call this paradigm that rests on the idea that we are children and that what we have comes from God in the form of an inheritance?  Heirship contrasts nicely with stewardship, and it might work in print, but when spoken aloud it is too likely to be confused with either the Hindenburg disaster or the Snoopy blimp that patrols the skies at golf tournaments.

    Perhaps it is less important to have a snappy name than to recognize that a new paradigm has profound implications on how we think about money and giving in the church.  And that is the topic to which I will turn next.

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  • Theological Reasons to Abandon Stewardship

    As a way of defining our relationship with God and wealth, stewardship is not the only, or even the best, concept to be found in the Bible.

    The stewardship paradigm is rooted in a few New Testament verses which use the Greek word which we translate as “steward”.  The reference is grounded in the reality of life in that place and time, when wealthy land-owners could employ a chief servant (or slave) to whom was given the authority to manage the master’s estate.  This created the now-familiar relationship between the master and the steward which was described in the first part of this series (“Confronting Stewardship”).

    My Bible software’s search function found 17 instances of the word “steward(s)” in the NRSV translation.  All but three of them are factual in nature (e.g. “go to this steward, to Shebna, who is master of the household . . .”).  The three that use the word in an analogical way appear in:

    1 Corinthians (“. . . servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries . . .”)

    Titus (“For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless . . .”)

    1 Peter (“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God . . .”)

    This doesn’t seem like much of a framework on which to hang an entire theology.

    My friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Allen Jorgenson, who teaches at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary,  has published an excellent study on stewardship entitled Awe and Expectation:  On Being Stewards of the Gospel.  A few years ago, when we team-taught a summer course, he pointed out that a description of a first-century CE Palestinian household was incomplete if it only mentioned the master and the steward.  The missing figure was the child of the master, probably the first-born son, who stood to inherit the estate some day.

    The person called “Master” by the steward is called “Father” by the child and heir, so we would expect a different relationship between steward and master on the one hand, child and father on the other.  And the child’s standing with respect to the estate is very different than the steward’s also.  Where the steward lives in obligation, the child lives in expectation.  The differences are referred to in the Gospel of John (8:35): “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.”  Even allowing for the fact that the evangelist probably intended his meaning to be figurative, we still have to admit that there is a basis in reality — which is why allegories work.

    Ownership of the estate will pass from father to child, at the father’s death, through inheritance.  Then the child becomes the new owner and master, and quite possibly parent to a child of his own.

    So the first question is,  does Scripture give us any reason to believe that, in our relationship with God, we are more like children than stewards?

    With apologies to Douglas John Hall, who called the steward “A biblical symbol come of age” in his book of that title, I believe that “child of God” is at least as promising a symbol in the Biblical record, and much better able to stand up to examination than the steward.

    Does the phrase “our Father” ring a bell?  More on this in the next post.

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