Stewardship of Prayer
March 14-15, 2018
Stewardship is often defined stewardship as raising money, getting pledges of tithing from membership which creates a stream of income for the coming year. Recently a friend was facing an upcoming surgery and mentioned needing to make certain church attendance was on the agenda, needing to have God on their side for the operation. Many view their attendance at their house of worship as a stewardship of prayer, a type of “praying it forward” to earn brownie points for those times they mess up or do not live their faith.
Let me explain the term “brownie points” in case you are reading this and are unfamiliar with this popular slang term. Like most slang terminology, there are several opinions about its origin. In the 1960’s a system of brownie points was created in the Girl Guides/Scouts program. In order to earn a badge, Brownie Guides or Scouts had to complete a certain number of tasks concerning the particular badge in question, usually six tasks. As each undertaking was completed, they were said to have earned a “brownie point”. [I was a proud Brownie Scout and yes, I earned all the badges.]
After World War II the practice of issuing stamps based upon the amount of purchase became prevalent in many retail businesses. The stamps would be accumulated and then exchanged for household items that were often a luxury for the average household. The first such stamps were brown in color so the consumer was said to earn Brownie points while supporting the local economy. In New Zealand a utility company still uses what it calls Brownie points in their marketing.
Although the earliest reference of brownie points in print is found in a 1960’s article in California as a man spoke about his wife earning brownie points, a sexist attitude I have to dislike, it is much more likely that the real credit for the term belongs to an American railroad superintendent, George R. Brown. In 1886, Brown developed an innovative system of merits and demerits for railroad employees who worked for the Fall Brook Railway in New York State. His system of rewarding and punishing employees was written about in business publications and it garnered great fame as other railroads began using it. Railroad employees referred to the merits and demerits as “brownie points” and the slang term worked its way into our common vocabulary.
An important thing to remember is that brownie points are imaginary and are not free. One earns them either through effort or by paying a monetary price. Their imaginary existence is the result of action. I am not a deity to which anyone offers prayer so I cannot speak with authority but I am fairly certain that the concept of “praying it forward” is far less effective than the generosity of spirit involved with “paying it forward”, a concept suggested by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book “In the Garden of Delight” in which a person does a good deed for a stranger instead of the original benefactor from which they received something favorable. Paying it forward might be considered giving it back while praying it forward is more of a savings loan program. Paying it forward involves at least two or more people and usually can become a bit contagious with others following the example. Praying it forward is an idea predicated on the belief that one will need extra favor due to a mistake or intentional wrongdoing.
Many donate or tithe based upon the knowledge that they are not perfect and will need forgiveness from their supreme spirit to which they believe they are accountable. This use or practice of giving money as a type of “fine paying” treats forgiveness and being blessed as something that can be bought. Indeed, there are some denominations and religions that still purport this concept. It is, in fact, the reason many suicide bombers detonate their bombs; they believe it is the ultimate payment for the ultimate resting place for their soul.
I will not even get into the theology or lack thereof of such concepts. The fact is that stewardship has really very little to do with money or even earning favor. How often have you visited a busy shopping mall or large office complex and seen someone mopping up a spill or emptying the waste cans? While the majority of such cleaning is done by a custodial staff after hours when the general population is not present, there are those little mishaps that require constant attention. This is the real definition of stewardship, the caretaking of the establishment. Do we stop to thank those stewards, those custodians or do we simply walk around them, maybe acknowledging their presence with a quick nod or the briefest of smiles?
Almost every culture has a flood myth and during Pentecost one year we discussed several of those, the most famous of which is the story from the Abrahamic faiths of Noah and the Ark. What we fail to realize is the stewardship required of Noah and his family in this story. Anyone who has had a household pet or lived on a farm or ranch knows the efforts required by owning animals. Imagine doing that on a boat in the middle of nothing but water. The mucking out of cages and stalls, the sweeping up of shedding hair…you get the picture. All of a sudden the mythology of this story takes on a very different meaning than simply a man saving his family and two of each species so they can repopulate the planet. Providing sustenance, a source of staying alive, a healthy environment…these are the realities of stewardship.
What sustenance do we give our prayers and how do we keep our prayer life alive? While many times there are those on-the spur-of-the-moment prayers, how do we provide for those deeper meditative prayers and do we create a healthy environment for those? Do we make very necessary quiet pockets within our day to engage in a prayerful dialogue, one in which we can listen? Before we start to worry about earning brownie points, we first need to really engage in prayer, real active prayer. Regardless of our spiritual leanings or direction, we can go nowhere until we have stewardship of our praying. A vehicle without petrol or gas will go nowhere and even an electric car needs recharging after its first drive.
Literature is full of examples of the Devil, the ultimate evil spirit, the nemesis for most faithful people. Before you tell me you are too busy to be a good steward of prayer, let me remind you that Milton’s Lucifer and Goethe’s Mephistopheles were considered the most interesting of all the characters in the plays they inhabited. Delightful and witty, their evilness does not appear as repulsive but rather charming and charismatic. Yet, they represent the most evil of all, that which separates us from God – “I am the eternal spirit of negation” Mephistopheles explains to Faust in Goethe’s play.
It is that “I haven’t the time”, the subconscious “NO!” playing in our heads that keeps us from actively taking control of our praying and our prayer life. Anywhere can become a sacred space as we discovered last Advent 2014 with the series that explored all the different sacred spaces on earth. It is up to us to create that sacred space in our own lives, that time no matter how brief and that place no matter where it is that allows us to be faithful stewards of our praying. We have no need to pray it forward. We simply need to pray.