I have long admired Native Americans for their concept of stewardship and ownership. Those ancient commitments have been on rather dramatic display this past week as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined representatives from 250 recognized tribes on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to witness to the sanctity of the earth, especially as it regards a proposed oil pipeline located a few miles from holy ground.
Yet as a kid growing up in the 1950s, one of the nastiest insults we used with one another was to call someone else an Indian giver. It happened when something was given to someone else and the original giver asked for it back. Indian giver was not first about the denigration of Indigenous people, but about the threat to private ownership: "You gave it to me. It's mine. You can't have it back." Native peoples, it was rightly supposed, didn't really have a concept of private ownership; instead they shared what was thought to be owned in common. Giving and giving back was normal practice.
Not in my neighborhood. And the insults, which were frequent and mean, served to reinforce the concept that I needed to protect and hold on to what was given to me. And to spare myself insults. The idea of sharing was given lip service; but deeper down sharing was regarded with suspicion.
It turns out that the practice of being an Indian giver has more resonance with the Gospel than does private ownership. "All mine are thine, and thine are mine,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel (17:10). But it is still hard to learn, or at least it has been for me. Those early insults still reside in my psyche.
Shortly after I was ordained I was introduced to the concept of Christian stewardship. I was resistant at first, because my first instinct was to hold on to what I had. But the practice of tithing has opened me up to new levels of freedom. It has taught me to hold more lightly to that which has been given to me, and to be more ready – and eager, to give in return.
I am discovering that our diocesan journey of Joining God in Shaping our Future is having a similar impact. For much of my life in the church, I felt that God’s blessing was in large measure, well, confined to the church. And so there was a temptation to keep the gifts we received in the church. Yes, we could share those gifts – and have done so with remarkable generosity (soup kitchens, shelters, education programs, food pantries, services for special needs people, etc.) but the giving was largely about doing for rather than being with.
That is changing. We just concluded three “listening table” conversations, which involved over 200 people from across the diocese. Attendees listened – to God through scripture, to each other through personal stories, and to the Holy Spirit which is generating excitement and commitment. We are planning to hold three more, on November 29, December 1 and December 6, in order to build on the excitement and commitment – and to more intentionally follow the inviting work of the Holy Spirit. Come, see, hear – and join the developing Jesus movement.
There are more and more of us who are paying attention to what God is up to. Not just in the church, but in our neighborhoods as well. More and more people are discovering that God is giving his blessing and belovedness to all of God's people, and that we are called to join God in that work. And as we are being changed it becomes more difficult to distinguish between giver and receiver, because both are in play. Besides, God ultimately owns it all anyway, and God is the ultimate sharer.
I become more committed to Joining God in Shaping our Future, and as I do so I am discovering that Indian giver is not an insult. It is an honor.