Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Soul of Money

Every 6 weeks or so, ReIMAGINE has been hosting "conversations" on various provocative topics, where designated people share their stories, then there is facilitated discussion and more sharing from the people who attend the conversation. I shared this story about money a few weeks ago.

My father was a big spender and my mother doesn’t really like to part with money. While my dad’s garage was filled with every power tool imaginable, and loads of fishing equipment surrounding a glittering fishing boat, my mom’s only indulgence was an occasional box of See’s candy. So my parents occasionally argued about money.

But something they did agree upon was that every Saturday night a check sat on the kitchen counter so no one would forget it the next morning on the way to church. It was a 10% tithe. And it’s weekly presence made an indelible impression upon me.

In my teens and twenties, I was like most people, earning money as I was able and stocking my cupboards with Top Ramen. But when I turned 30, something clicked and all of a sudden I felt compelled to learn what stocks and bonds and mutual funds and IRA’s and dividends were. Excited about this new phase of my life finances, I bought a few investment books and got myself educated. And thus I began to allocate money towards something else besides rent, food, and fun money.

Once I got a little more established in my career and had consistent paychecks, and once college loans and my first car were paid for, this was when I got more intentional in regards to my money. I stashed money like a squirrel storing nuts for winter. At first I did this for me. I’d get extra jobs and set aside all those earnings for travel adventures. But eventually I started squirreling away money for other people. Like a college fund for my niece. Or I would make what I considered sacrifices in order to share more of my money with the poor. For example, I’d wash my clothes at the Laundromat and instead of drying my clothes there, I’d hang them all over my apartment and put the $1.50 or so that I had saved into my “help the poor” jar. Or if I had a craving for ice cream or something, I’d pass it up and put the money into my “help the poor” jar, and then every so often I would empty the jar and write a check to the San Francisco Food Bank.

Of course, I’m well aware that this is a luxury- to be able to play games with money. There are billions of people making real sacrifices, like “do I feed my family this week, or buy shoes for my one kid who is in school, and whom I hope will pull our entire family out of poverty someday”? So in a more drastic attempt to better identify with the poor, a few years ago I conducted an experiment. Every year ReIMAGINE hosts a workshop called Experiments in Truth. In this workshop, we try to choose “experiments” in which we abstain from or engage in something for 40 days, just to see the effect it has upon our spiritual lives. The first year I did it, my main experiment was to live on $1.50 a day, because a few billion people in the world live on $1.50 a day, and I wanted to better identify with them.

So for 40 days I lived on $1.50 a day, and it was such a tremendous experience that the next year I lived on $1 a day for 40 days and I blogged about it. And I would say that my most significant learnings from those experiments were around “entitlement”. I better recognize how “entitled” I feel to buy things, or to indulge in luxuries, rationalizing that “I work hard, and “I deserve them”. I even feel entitled to take risks in regards to my jobs and finances because let’s face it—I have a handful of friends I could always stay with, and my family will always be my safety net.

In fact, one thing I really like about my family is that we pass around money like it is a hot potato. Last year—due to the bad economy—I lost a bunch of contracting jobs and made less money than I’ve made in 15 years. Knowing this, my mother, sister, aunt, uncle all sent me either monthly or occasional checks to help me make ends meet. At the same time, my sister is a single mother, a State employee who in the past few years has been put on furlough and thus loses significant income. So family members all sent her money to get by. Sometimes I would be mailing my sister a check while a check from my sister would arrive in the mail and I would think about how ridiculous it was that we were exchanging checks and that we should just call it even, but of course, it was the act of giving that turned out to be so important and we wouldn’t change that for the world.

Last year, with very little money in my bank account, I was trying desperately to figure out a better, more consistent way of earning money that would meet my financial needs as well as my desire to do meaningful work in the world. Talking to a friend about it, I presented my dilemma of whether or not to take a job I didn’t want—just for the money—or to wait it out and see if I could land work that had more meaning for me. She pointed something out that is currently redefining my relationship with money and with God. “It seems that for many years you’ve pretty precariously pieced together jobs and work “ she said, “and God has always provided for you. Relying on God’s provision is your thing.” My heart and spirit rang “ding ding ding!”. Relying on God’s provision is my thing. That statement resonates with me, so I’m going to keep rolling with it.

And since God is game, I’m game too. Like my parents, I've kept up a 10% tithe all my life, but some years ago I decided to up the ante. I’m attempting to increase my tithe by 1% every year, because I think it would be really cool to eventually be giving away 20%, 30%, or even 50% of my income if I live that long. And sometimes I lament that it is taking too long to only increase 1% a year, so I want to ratchet it up to 2%- and that really challenges my faith in God’s provision, because as a contractor, I never know exactly where and when my paychecks are coming.

And honestly, that uncertainty has made me cling a little tighter when I do have money. And depending on which day you catch me, I either say I am being responsible with my money, or I’ll more honestly admit that I am taking my provision into my own hands instead of trusting my Provider. Which one is true? One of them? Neither? Both? To be totally honest, I often wonder what it would be like to give away my entire net worth and start over, as a grand Experiment in Truth. When I’ve brought this up at any church or faith community I’ve been involved with, people squirm like crazy, clear their throat and say “well, God wants us to be responsible with our money and possessions” or “God gives us things and our jobs is to be good stewards of it”—and they could be right. But I suspect that what they also mean is “take your terrifying ideas and get the hell out!” And yes, it is terrifying, but you never know- I might take God up on that crazy idea someday, because hey, God’s provision is my thing!