Many of you know this last year I became a science teacher. What many of you may not know is that I teach at a Middle school that is on a university campus. Not only that, but our school is even part of the university system and we are therefore connected to the university itself. That means sometimes we even have to handle things on the main campus. This really wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that it always seems like the business I have to handle is on the fourth floor of the largest building on campus. To top it all off, I usually have a limited amount of time to handle said business so I find myself parking on the side of the building that doesn’t have the elevator and then hustling up three rather large flights of stairs. Take note; I’m a relatively in shape person, but I still feel winded almost every time I run up these stairs. Especially if it is a day like yesterday when I had just done squats at the gym that morning.
But one of the joys of being a science teacher has also been the opportunity to marvel at the complexity of creation once again. The fact that my brain tells my legs to move up and down, then my legs can do that action, then my lungs seek to compensate for their effort by pulling in more air to oxygenate my muscles in my legs, while my heart is picking up its rhythm in order to move that oxygen to those legs faster. It all really is an incredible feat. One might even call it a gift. The writer of the book of James has this to say about gifts, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” – James 1:17 Our brains, our legs, our blood pumping, our lungs…even the breath in our lungs is a gift from God. I wonder if we would all be considered good stewards of those gifts?
A little bit later in that same letter James takes to task one of the gifts that we sometimes abuse; our tongue. Our ability to speak is an incredible gift. In fact, I’m amazed by it all the time. We push air in and out of our throat, it passes through our larynx, over our vocal folds and then somehow resonates enough to form sounds and then words and even sometimes notes of incredible beauty. We essentially take the breath of life, the gift that God has given us and transform it into something entirely new. But James actually has a word of warning for us here, “No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.” – James 3:8-9 You could almost substitute the phrase, “breath use” for tongue in this passage. I realize that might be a little wordy and complex, but how often do we think about the breath we breathe as truly a gift of God i.e. the breath of life? And if it is a gift, are we wasting it? Are we using it for malice, gossip, evil? James himself said we praise God and yet speak ill, put down, judge and even curse those made in his likeness. Maybe some of us need to check our breathing. Maybe some of us should be careful for the day when we are left breathless and the gift and what we have done with it return to the creator. How will you sue your gift of breath today?
I’ve always loved fireworks. From the smallest sparklers and firecrackers to the amazing displays that occur around major holidays, I’ve always found myself mesmerized. I even remember the first time my dad let me save up my money to buy my own fireworks. This would even become an annual event for me until I realized one year how expensive these things were and how I was literally setting my hard earned money on fire. Then there was this one time my family and I were invited to a fourth of July party being thrown by some friends of ours who happened to be wealth management advisors. I’ll never forget the joke I tried to crack by going up to one of them. “It really doesn’t say a whole lot for your stock broker when he is literally setting money on fire”. Without missing a beat, this was the response, “It’s not our money”. It kind of makes you wonder whether or not stock brokers are always the best stewards of your resources.
But all kidding aside, stewardship is one of the most oft talked about themes in scripture and yet we sometimes simply think about it pertaining to our financial resources. But stewardship is better understood as a means of management of any gift that we receive. And so if we want to understand it better, we have to go all the way back to the beginning. In the second chapter of Genesis we read about the first gift that man ever receives over which we become stewards. “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7 The very first gift we are given is breath; the breath of life. The same breath in our lungs that empowers our speech and gives action to our words and sounds is a gift from God.
The problem is that at times we have not been the best stewards of this gift. This same breath that empowers our speech and gives us the ability for action has often been used to push others away or make them feel less like the sons and daughters of God they were meant to be. In his epistle, James puts it this way, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” – James 3:9-10 Our breath is a gift…our first gift and we are required to be good stewards of it. And don’t simply think that this pertains to audible speech only. The very words that we type, the posts that we share, the emails that we send, the texts spouted out are all embodiment of the breath of life that God has given to us. So are you being a good steward today? Are you managing this amazing gift you have been given to glorify God and draw others closer to him or has it become wasted breath? May we not take this gift for granted today and find ourselves being good and faithful servants of the breath of life God has given us.
This last weekend I returned from a mission trip with my students to Guatemala. This was a unique trip as it focused, by design, on experiencing as many different dimensions of missional opportunities as possible with what limited time we had in Guatemala. Little did I know how much this would wreck me; and is still wrecking me. In the short time we were there we participated in relief and mission efforts in a rural community, an inner city ghetto and the infamous Zone 3, the location of the Guatemala City Dump. We saw people who were starving, people who couldn’t rub two Quetzales (1/8 of a US dollar) together and those who rummage through others trash to try to scrape by a living. Those who lived in Paradise would work for sometimes 22 hours a day to earn a little more than a US dollar only to see the crops they spent their day picking (that easily could cure their families malnutrition) shipped overseas.* We saw extreme privilege and extreme poverty shaking hands in a beautiful country and it will not leave me alone.
And so now I come back to the US and I realize how lucky I am to have been born here. But I take a look, an honest look at all that surrounds me and I declare it to be “heh’vel”. If this doesn’t sound familiar let me try it this way, ““Meaningless! Meaningless!”says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!Everything is meaningless.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2. The Hebrew word for meaningless/vanity is actually the word for breath, smoke, fog, air…I look around me and I see air. Really! If at the end of the day all of this stuff I am accumulating isn’t making a difference in the world for those who so desperately need a difference to be made then it is “heh’vel”. And what do I do with that? I honestly don’t know…
So right now, I tell the story, I pray, I seek the face of Heaven to show me how to escape this heh’vel. We are a ridiculously blessed people and we are called to be a blessing. The constant nagging in my head now is of course, how? The verse that continues to haunt me in the midst of all of this goes a bit like this, “f anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” – James 4:17. Now sin, I think fairly enough, is anything that separates us from God. And I know God’s heart is with the oppressed, the outcast, the destitute, the poor. And my heart continues to be broken for what I have seen and experienced. So my prayer is that I would reject apathy, that I would reject heh’vel and that I would find a way in the midst of all of this to live out the Heart of Christ. And I pray this same prayer for you.
* Guatemala’s chief occupation is agriculture of which they export 80% of their total product. 90% of all farm land is owned by about 25 families who enjoy the export spoils. Granted this is derived from a few conversations with some local Guatemalans.