Sunday, January 1, 2012

Money and Conflict: Spiritual Challenges and Gifts

One of my big pet peeves about churches is that the only time they seem to talk about money is when they want some!  It’s not that I begrudge their need.  Any organization that occupies a building has utility bills, insurance, maintenance.  Anyone who values that organization and its facility should contribute to those payments.

No, what bothers me is something else.   If Churches are supposed to help us wrestle with personal and social demons and sort out ethical dilemmas and inspire us to do good in the world, and if, surely, a central figures in many of these human dramas is the role of money – sometimes as the good guy and sometimes as the bad guy, then money seems a very worthy topic on a Sunday morning - not to ask for it  -but to help the congregants deal with it!  And yet, in the churches I have attended, I don’t believe I have ever heard such a sermon.  Have you? 
Instead, many religions proclaim negative images of money:  Buddha gave up princely wealth,  Gandhi gave up his job as an attorney.  Jesus has mixed messages about money.  So I endeavored to make something up!

I started with some research, as I always do.  I discovered that a number of churches and religious leaders do talk about money, and interestingly some of these are large and growing congregations, like Lakewood and the Unity congregation in Houston.  These are described by some people as “churches of abundance” and “ministries of prosperity.”  I’m sure I’m simplifying their messages, but they seem to be that God wants you to have a life of abundance, which includes financial prosperity.   Norman Vincent Peal wrote: Put God to work for you and maximize your potential in our divinely ordered capitalist system.”

Now I don’t feel particularly comfortable with these points of view, so my thoughts turned to what people actually do with their money.  Money doesn’t appear on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs alongside water, food, shelter, safety, but isn’t it really shorthand for all of them?  Money is a way to measure and secure so much water or so much food or shelter.  This transactional role of money is pretty clear cut. 
But it also occurred to me that if the number one reason cited for divorce is not love or sex but money, it must have other roles or meanings, too.  Earning, accumulating, sharing, spending, and saving money are freighted by symbolic meaning for people, and that meaning may differ for a husband and wife or a father and son or employees in different departments of the same business, or for political figures.

So here is my approach:  It seems to me that money means four different things to people, and each one has a spiritual challenge and a spiritual gift.  These four meanings are safety, power, opportunity, and  affection.  It can hold these meanings for different people, or to the same person in different circumstances. I hope that as I speak, you’ll consider what money means to you, and what challenges you face because of that and what gifts you gain.  Maybe you’ll come up with meanings altogether different than the ones I list.   
Because financial arguments often line up with safety on one side and the other three opposite it, I am going to talk longest about saving money as a safety strategy, and then more briefly about the other three.

SAFETY:  When safety is our financial goal, we are often savers – obviously a word with the same root.  We use phrases like, “Save for a rainy day, you don’t know what might happen, build a nest egg.”   Although other people use such phrases as “things will turn around” or “this is just a short rough patch” to explain their financial strategy, savers probably don’t. 
In the Tate family, who are the ones you guess to be savers?  Those who do value this financial approach will describe themselves as frugal, prudent, foresighted.  Those who don’t value saving as a financial strategy may describe them as pessimistic or penurious or selfish, or use old fashioned words, like mean, or niggardly. 

Saving tends to be a defensive posture, based on an assumption that if something bad happens, you may have only yourself to rely on.  Savers admit incomplete information about the future, and don’t see the world and other people as particularly reliable.  Not all savers are the same though:  There are two types: targeted and untargeted savers.  Targeted ones seem oriented toward self-reliance.  They save because they doubt that Social Security payments, Medicare, or a pension will yield enough to live well to the estimated 92 years of life for women and high 80s for men, or they doubt that their salary or house value will keep rising.  These intentional people organize priorities like, “My wife and I maintain savings worth 6 months of living expenses in case either of us loses a job”  and stock up before hurricane season. 
In what department of a business or a congregation would you expect – and want to find – savers? If you aren’t one, when do you want one’s advice?

What are some of the challenges of savers?  One twist may not be savings so much as anti-spending.   You’ve read articles about people who lived like paupers but then die with millions in a shoe box, or people whose home or car is no longer safe because they wouldn’t pay for an obvious repair.  Another negative twist on saving is packrats who save rooms full of “stuff” out of some vague view that “they may use it some day or “it will be worth a lot some day,” although, truth be told, they don’t even know what is in those decades old boxes, much less their possible value.  For some, hallways filled with piles of newspapers and boxes can be an indication of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  For others, it may not be saving as much as “anti-decision making.” My Mom may fall into this category.  So every time I visit, I organize and label her cabinets hoping that will make it easier for her to make decisions about the 33 plastic trays and 57 ceramic pots and the 27 expired cans of whatever.  

Two of the gifts of saving are self denial and living intentionally.  The saver says no to a lot of spontaneous expenditures that might indeed make him happy in the short run, with the belief that the denial is more worthwhile than immediate gain.   Many religions incorporate a spiritual practice of self-denial.  Poverty, chastity, and obedience for the nuns, priests, and monks of various religions are extreme examples.  But there are others practiced by your friends and neighbors, and perhaps by some of you, too.  For example, the 40 days of Lent in Christianity and the fall month of Rammadan in Islam, and the eightfold path of Buddhism encourage the faithful to deny themselves things as basic as food or drink.
The spiritual idea is that this denial sensitizes us and increases our appreciation.  We don’t take the food for granted, we are more empathetic to those who go hungry every day, and we think about our wants vs. our needs. 

Saving by self-denial can contribute to a second gift: intentional living, such as Unitarian Henry David Thoreau epitomized.  He intentionally thought about the life he wanted to live and then determined how much money he needed to live it and how much work he needed to fund it, and how much space he needed in his home.  For example, he asked calculated questions like, how many guests did he really have at any one time, so he built that number of chairs in his little cabin on Walden Pond?  How big a garden did he need to till to feed himself and sell or barter for other goods?  How could he simplify his home in order to spend time doing other things he valued more?  
One advantage he had in developing his ascetic lifestyle was that he never married.  It seems to me that policies of extreme frugality work best only if both adults in a family agree to it and adhere to it, otherwise it can seem liberating to one and a prison to another.

Bryan and I have thought a lot about savings and expenditures as we split our time between a high-rise in Houston and a log cabin in rural Alaska where money is put to such different uses.  Here, we see lots of opportunities for spontaneous expenditures at restaurants, supermarkets, entertainment venues as well as spontaneous get-togethers with people that, if distance were an issue, we probably wouldn’t bother to see.  In Alaska, we live in a very small log cabin:  just 2 rooms and 760 sq. ft, 42 miles from the nearest road.  Since everything has to be brought in by snow machine in the winter or by small airplane, we have been very intentional about our supplies and furnishings and clothing, and, once there, there is no reason for money and no spontaneous expenditures.  We found that this experience really helped clarify the differences between wants and needs, and I imagine that many of you have had this experience when traveling to different parts of the country or world where you found that you didn’t miss something or other at all.  Occasionally doing without can free you from assumptions you may previously have held, and can free up time you spend on other things.
Since where we spend our money says as much about us as where we save, let’s talk about the next three categories of money as opportunity, affection, and power. 

OPPORTUNITY:  When money means opportunity, we believe that by deploying money now, we can ensure something of greater value later.  People who are confident and optimistic about the opportunity, use words like investment, asset, equity, or venture.  Those who are pessimistic about the opportunity use words like gamble, chance, speculation, and my personal favorite, “tax write off”.  
What are the spiritual challenges and gifts of financial opportunism?   Surely one of the gifts is the practice of looking beyond self-imposed limitations to the potential of people and ideas, to the possibility of creation, or abundance.  It involves the element of self-discovery through taking risks – maybe winning or maybe losing, and seeing how we handle either one.   Manifest destiny is part of our national history – go west young man.  Seizing opportunities is an important indicator of adaptability and a different approach to self-reliance than savings.  Life is unpredictable – those of us living through hurricanes and droughts and job changes have to be adaptable. 

The challenge inherent in seeing the opportunity of money is to evaluate its potential for risks and rewards.  The element of enlightened self-interest is key.  I’ve read a lot about financial opportunism, over the past several years, and I bet you have too.  The financial scandals are filled with so many cautionary tales they could be written as fairy tales with titles like: “Little Red Riding Hood who Trusted the Email Solicitation from a Nigerian widow that promised her $1 mm,”and   “Goldilocks who Wanted Something For Nothing Right Now, like a house, or a credit card” or “The Rumpilstilskin Financiers Who Charged Excessive Fees for Bags of Manure wrapped in Gold. 

Picture the conversations and arguments between a saver and an opportunist in a family or a church committee or business?  Each can take the criticisms of the other personally:  One says, “You are tight fisted!”  The other says,”You are gambling with the future!”

Yet, if the conversations are conducted differently, with the symbolic value of  money in mind for both parties, the same expenditure may be agreed to, but for different reasons, one for safety and the other for the opportunity of future gain. 
For example, the person who sees financial opportunities can go a long way toward alleviating the inherent cynicism of a saver by presenting the opportunities with some grounded research and analysis.  The optimistic investor may want to buy land he believes will be developed as a strip center and triple in value.  The saver may become willing to buy the same land without that optimism, but as a long term hold that mitigates the risks of other investments.  

 You might have read that college, graduate school and trade school enrollment has shot up during this recession.   Some students may view college or graduate school loans as an investment for a more lucrative future career.  Others may see two years in school funded by low cost student loans as a saving strategy at a time when unemployment is high and salaries are suppressed.  By understanding that money means different things to people in a family, a business, or a church committee, decision makers can agree on a course of action, but perhaps for different reasons, and without rancor.
AFFECTION:  The third meaning of money is affection or inclusion.  This may conjure up images of the rich old man and his mink clad young girlfriend, but I’m willing to bet that most of us have spent money to retain or secure affection or inclusion.  How many of us have yielded to a child’s plea to buy some silly toy because of the hugs and kisses we got?  How many of us have donated to a charity we don’t particularly care about because a friend or boss asked us to?  Many of you attend charity galas at which the honoree is exalted through a series of speeches, an honor he essentially paid for through a large financial commitment beforehand.  Many of us know that associating with certain friends or family members involves picking up the tab or driving them or loaning money or items that never get returned.  If we value the friendship or the relationship, we consider this the cost of that relationship.  If we resent what we perceive to be an imbalance, the friendship suffers. 

How many of you have had pillow talk with your spouse after a night out at which one of you picked up the tab for a bunch of friends and the other spouse didn’t think that was a good idea?  How many of us succumb to spend on gifts during the holiday season or for parties for friends because “they like it” or “they expect it.”  Would those friendships really falter if you spent less? Are there other reasons, unsaid?  When conflicts arise among family or business colleagues because one regards such expenditures as fruitful and the other as fruitless, the difference may be a clue about values worth discussing.  Perhaps such discussions can be an opportunity to list the people we value most, and compare that list to our expenditures.

What are the spiritual challenges and lessons of money as affection?  Our bank statements are a really easy way to quantify the levels of some of our affections. Does one man spend more money on his mistress or a hobby than on his wife and the things she values?  Does a woman spend more money on herself or her friends than on her children?  Do we spend more money on fast food than on charity?  What do your black and white bank statements say about your affections? Do they reveal an uncomfortably clear tendency to “big talk/little do”?  If a lot of the money is listed as ATM withdrawals, maybe money as a spontaneous pleasure is important to you.  I had an experience that took me a while to understand.  When my older son was in Junior HS, he and I were not getting along.  The therapist we visited suggested that I buy him some things.  This really went against my frugality at a time when money was really tight.  The therapist explained that spending some money on the things that my son wanted was a way of validating his desires and showing that I was listening to him.  I think he was saying that the expenditures may have seemed like safety/opportunity issues to me but may have been perceived as affection/power issues by my son. 
POWER: Money as power is the last category, perhaps because it is so obvious.    We are aware of uses of money by politicians or businessmen, but I want us to look at the power of money closer to home.   What power can you or do you exert with your money or lack of it?  Think about your expenditures as votes.  You are voting for this restaurant or business or charity and not voting for others.  As a result of our collective choices, 50% of all new restaurants fail the first year because they don’t earn the votes – the money – from enough customers to stay afloat.  Similarly, one third of all start-up businesses fail within 3 years.  Only 5% of start up businesses attract investment beyond family and friends.  

Think about your financial choices in terms of the power of relative impact.  Sometimes a little money goes a long way, or the timing of an expenditure means a great deal.  A loan may be more valuable before pay day than afterward.  Or a well timed donation to as charity or the purchase of a car or stock may have greater impact made at one time vs. another.  For example, because the Houston Food Bank can buy bulk quantities, your donation of $100 may be worth more to them than your buying $100 worth of food at Kroger for them.  Your congregation has explored micro-loans, I believe, in which the power of a $100 loan can effect more impactful changes for some people in some countries than for others. 

What are the challenges and spiritual gifts of money as power? 

One challenge is certainly that money can be used to control others.  For example, low salaries with high, year- end bonuses tend to secure the services of employees until after that bonus is paid, but perhaps the loyalty is to the money, not to the company or clients. Many a law suit in business or families has resulted from promises or expectations of funds later withheld.  I’ve noticed that a belief in affection can sometimes obscure a relationship based on the power of money.

Another challenge occurs when we perceive a financial hierarchy, such as the haves and have nots that then wield power because they claim to have or because they claim to lack money.  I’ve seen both and I bet you have, too.  The former may utilize the power of their money to induce others, who feel greed or envy or selfishness, to make certain choices.  The latter may utilize the power of not having money to induce others, who feel guilt or pathos, to make certain choices.  Either way, the claims of having and lacking money can be use powerfully to extract more from others.

I am going to combine the spiritual gifts of money as power in this way:  we can  use our monetary expenditures as a measure of our values.  We can shape those expenditures to be more consistent with our values, and by doing so, we may grant ourselves and those around us greater contentment.  Doing so may take time to extricate ourselves from financial choices inconsistent with those values.  It may take time to assess, “why do I spend time and money on this club or that widget” and to figure out alternatives or to decide to do without.  This week NPR had an article on the science of happiness.  Perhaps you heard it.  The gist was that below $75,000 in America, money can really make you happier because that money buys Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  But above $75,000/yr, money has no clear correlation to increased happiness.  Perhaps because of our bifurcated Alaska/Houston life, I hear a lot of lifestyle choice stories, often with a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” plaintiveness about them.  People seem intrigued by some of the choices we’ve made because, I think, they feel that they are stuck in lifestyle choices they can’t get out of.  It’s usually inappropriate for me to ask in these conversations but what I often wonder is this: “What if you started with the question of what you want instead of starting with the bills you have to pay?  What makes you content or energized?  What makes you feel ethically clean?  Might such assessment open up some enriching conversations with your spouse?  Might you save more or spend money on opportunities or affection or power that are more consistent with your core values and priorities? 

Since I’ve never heard a money sermon before, I don’t know how useful this one is for you.  But I hope it encourages you to think about your views and use of money and those of your family and other decision making circles, like co-workers and committees.  I hope that doing so will render you more attentive to underlying values of other people.  Then, I hope that the process will help you live more intentionally.  Whether you save or spend your money, I hope that your intentionality will empower you, will reduce your stress, and will bring you peace. 

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