Religions tell the faithful: trust in God before all (including your insurance agent), love your neighbors as yourself, and give unstintingly to those in need. Are these bed-time fairy tales to tell our children or do we truly believe these traditional religious tenets? Despite a study on how ambivalently Americans relate religion and money, here are a few stories from people who are earnestly seeking to live out the fundamental principles of their faiths.
A Steward's Questioning
After seventeen years working in commercial banking, I noticed I felt uncomfortable around people in my Mennonite congregation who had less money. For instance, I was concerned that if fellow church-goers knew I flew to New York for the weekend to see some plays they would be very judgmental.
Then I noticed that others were affected similarly: I saw wealthy church members clustering together; business people (who believed their work was ethically sound) being criticized morally, and so wounded spiritually; people with wealth pulling back from the church and leaving for congregations where they felt less tension. So I began working to promote more open and constructive dialogue in Mennonite churches--to get beyond judging and defensiveness and instead to explore together how each of us, whatever our means, can act more consciously with what we have. As all our resources are but gifts entrusted to us from God, then how can we develop as better stewards?
Personally, I think a lot about finding appropriate balance. Am I saving enough for retirement--and giving enough money today? Am I balancing spending for my own pleasure with helping others? (I match what I spend on myself with charity: if I go on a ski vacation, I give an equal amount away.)
Rather than settling for the norm of tithing, am I helping my church community set active giving guidelines? (For example, the standard for someone like myself who is single and a strong wage-earner might be between 10-40%) Rather than just building up money for its own sake, am I creating assets (such as jobs) that are useful for my wider community? Although I don't think there are any "correct answers" to questions of balance, I believe that we, as individuals and as a church community, can design some overarching principals.
- anonymous author
All One Body
Trying to look at one's wealth through the lens of faith is a challenge. I think faith by necessity is a challenge, leading us to examine things we would rather not examine, to take actions we would rather not take. When I lived and worked with homeless people in the New York Catholic Worker House, I realized daily that they had much more immediate need for the wealth I had inherited than I ever would.
I identified deeply with the Gospel story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-27) whom Jesus told to sell all his riches to the poor in order to then come and follow him. This story became alive for me, challenged me, and I wrestled with it for years. In time, my wife and I came to see clearly through our faith that justice demanded that we divest ourselves. We gave away most of the inherited wealth I had control over (about $2.5 million) to projects working for grassroots economic development and social justice.
Wealthy people are used to being able to create the structures they want around them through monetary control. I have seen wealthy people trying to do the same thing spiritually; create something in which they can feel comfortable, but doing it on their own, in a vacuum.
Initially they may find comfort in isolation, but when crises come, there is no one to turn to for support; no one from whom to receive challenge or constructive criticism that leads to real growth. Being outside of a community of people struggling with faith makes it easier to gloss over questions that might be difficult.
I'm not a particularly driven or disciplined person, and being part of a church, a faith community, a tradition larger than myself, keeps pushing me to look at the world I live in with a little more sense of justice and outrage and compassion, and to take actions I wouldn't naturally be drawn to do.
An important and beautiful image in Roman Catholic Church tradition is the image of the Mystical Body of Christ, a body made up of all people, all equally necessary in order for the body to function. We all need each other and we are all responsible for one another. It has taken me a long time to learn this--it continues to challenge me.
- anonymous author
The Pleasure of Being Guided
As an adult, Judaism has been my guiding touchstone in relation to money. I strive to practice "tzedakah" ("righteousness" or justice) which includes thinking about how to use money. Some guidelines are giving away 10% of my income as well as giving something whenever somebody asks for money. With the help of three very close friends I have given away substantial portions of my inheritance. I view this as part of the process of "tikkun olam" ("the healing of the world") I've focused on projects enabling people to help themselves. Letting go of my ego and trusting others has been a vital part of the process.
Judaism helps me both engage my money in the world and consciously disengage. Every Friday sundown till Saturday sundown I observe Shabbat (the Sabbath). I refrain from using electricity, a car, and, yes, money. Instead I experience the beauty of nature and focus on my community--eating, laughing and talking with friends.
I become an outsider to most of society, walking down the street observing the rat race and addiction to materialism in our world. Shabbat forces me to take a break from the relentless pressure to get more done and to experience great powers that are not related to money and accomplishment.
- anonymous author
A Sharing State of Mind
My family was from the Caribbean Islands. Our concept of charitable giving was not separate from our world view but part and parcel of it: we had seen the needy, and they were us. Saving and giving were inter-linked efforts while growing up; my parents and their cohorts set aside money for relatives to travel, for children to attend special schools and events, and to advance "the race," as it was then known. Wealth, in our view, was a sharing state of mind.
Against this background I embraced the religion of Islam in 1978. A standard Islamic practice is to give Zakat, or "obligatory charity", each year after the fast of Ramadaan. After taking care of your own basic needs, 2.5% of what one has left is required to be paid, usually to a mosque or other organization serving the Muslim community. I always thought 2.5% was embarrassingly small, especially when compared with the tithe of Christianity or Judaism.
But over the years I learned that the Quran's injunction to believers is to give whenever you harvest or earn money-- to relatives, orphans, travelers, the needy, and "those who ask" (in that order). This injunction helps ensure that the less fortunate are taken care of and cultivates giving as an ongoing expression of gratitude to the Creator, rather than a once-a-year religious tax.
Now, in my work as Development and Communications Director of the National Black United Fund, I draw from Islam to stress this point: it is honorable and simple to indulge the inclination to give, yes, every time you get.
When My Eyes See
"Pilgrimages of Reverse Mission" are sacred journeys, conceived in the spirit of Christian pilgrimages throughout history, offering affluent Christians a way to experience hands-on communion with destitute people in Calcutta, Nairobi, Kingston and Port-au-Prince. Pilgrimages are guided by leaders who provide cultural orientation, worship leadership, emotional support, theological reflection and spiritual grounding. (Offered through Journey Into Freedom and the Ministry of Money) Below are reflections from a participant's trip to Haiti and Jamaica.
Come, lift a plastic cup to Marguerite's lips, so ill with AIDS she is too weak to drink without help. When she closes her eyes, move quietly to Caroline, dying of uterine cancer in her metal cot just eight inches away. Gently rub lotion into her dry skin as she suffers quietly in the bare ward. These are two of the seventy women cared for by the Missionaries of Charity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "What the eye does not see cannot move the heart" says the old Haitian proverb.
Come see Miss Harriet, blind from glaucoma, unable to read her Bible. Simple surgery is not available to poor people in Jamaica, for the government must pay sixty percent of its gross national product to the World Bank. In Miss Harriet's clouded eyes I see how third-world elders suffer from such debt while first-world stockholders prosper.
Come and see the sores around the mouths of the children at Primrose Gardens Orphanage in Kingston, caused by enzymes in green mangos. The children shake the unripe fruit down from the tree because they are hungry. Hear terms like "the widening gap between the rich and poor" and see eighteen little children at one table, taking turns sipping porridge from eight plastic cups.
Such sights move the heart. I am moved to lobby my legislators to advocate for forgiveness of Jamaica's debt load. I am inspired to change my own relationship with money, to spend less so I can give more to those who need it most, and at least once a year to go out of the country on a spiritual pilgrimage with other people of faith. Out of my own context, dependent on the hospitality of those who own very little, I become more permeable to God's grace.
- anonymous author
"Spirited Women" is an educational ministry for women of all financial backgrounds who want "to bless and restore creation by practicing money mindfulness, simplicity and generosity."
Loaves and Fishes
My spiritual journey began while growing up during the Depression in an upper class home, and feeling deeply uncomfortable with how my wealth isolated me from the mainstream of life. For decades I pushed aside the tensions I felt between my money and my faith. Then, in my mid-fifties, while at a Quaker center for study and contemplation, I experienced a dramatic spiritual awakening. My issues around money rose to the fore, and I began to work on them in earnest. I felt like I was standing all alone on a trap door which might any moment drop me into the unknown--a recurring, anxiety-filled image that I sketched in my journal.
Slowly, the life-long isolation I felt about money began to dissolve. At workshops for inheritors, I met people who were using their wealth in powerful and positive ways. Traveling to Third World countries, I met people who were rich in faith, love and joy even while struggling under poverty and oppression. My sense of "family" began expanding-- from my blood family, to Quakers and other people on the spiritual path, and eventually to all people, animals, and life on this planet. In time my journal sketch showed me falling through the trap door... not into the unknown, but into "the everlasting tender arms of the Living God."
Throughout this journey, I became increasingly open to the "leadings" of God, the inner nudges that showed me what I was called to do. Trying to discern this call was like walking through a fog in which I could not see very far ahead; only as I completed one task would the next one appear. I became fascinated by this process, and interviewed many others trying to follow inner leadings. Over and over, I heard that after one hear God's call, there's a fleeting time when receiving encouragement, affirmation, and financial support can make all the difference in whether the call is followed. A dream began to grow in me. Could my wealth, which sparked my own difficult journey, provide a vital boost to other people's spiritual paths?
I joined forces with two Quaker friends, also inheritors, and together we started the Lyman Fund. Over the past seven years, we have given more than a hundred grants (between $500 and $3000 each) to Quakers and others seeking to follow their divine leadings. We have been awed by the grantees' work: writing books, massaging torture victims, bridging chasms between people of different cultures, creating songs, teaching disturbed inner city children, sitting with dying patients, and so much more. Throughout the period of each grant, we pray that the grantees and their work may be blessed, and some say this is as powerful for them as the money.
Last year I wrestled with whether to give the Fund a substantial gift of principal. A mentor suggested I visualize myself in a Bible story, and "The Loaves and the Fishes" came to mind. I imagined myself as a little girl whose mother gave her money to buy bread. I bought five loaves at the store, caught two fish in a creek, and on my way home came upon a huge crowd of people at the foot of a mountain. A man with a deep, resonant voice was speaking--Jesus--and I went and sat next to him. When he was done talking, the man said, "Maybe someone here has food." I thought about giving him my bread, but feared my mother's wrath if I came home empty handed.
Then Jesus looked at me, and his bright eyes carried a depth I had not seen before in anyone. "TRUST ME," his eyes said, "this is going to be wonderful." As Jesus broke my bread and fish into tiny chunks, each piece expanded to a whole loaf and a whole fish, which were again broken up, and so on until there was enough for everyone, with plenty to bring home to my mother as well. I came out of this visualization filled with Jesus' invitation to participate in a miracle--and I gave my gift of principal.
It has now been ten years since I started to work on my money issues. I have been led from guilt to gratitude, from helplessness to empowerment, and from isolation to community. I have felt the blessings go on and on, as miraculously as the loaves and fishes.
- Charlotte Lyman Fardelmann
Adapted and excerpted from "Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God" by Charlotte Lyman Fardelmann, a booklet which includes 17 full color journal drawings. Available for $19 postpaid, Little Harbor Road , Portsmouth , NH 03801 . (Note: the Lyman Fund reviews applications only from Quakers or people recommended by former grantees.)
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