1 Timothy 6:6-15:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
This is the book we are reading in our parish Lenten book study. "Money" is a very difficult subject for me, and I am actually having a bit of a hard time with wanting to participate much in this book study. I have sort of distracted myself in a humorous way by thinking of the Beavis and Butthead "Cornholio" skits, when The Great Cornholio goes, "Are you threatening me?" (Especially considering one of the worst fights my parents ever had about money that I remember growing up. It had to do with my dad's insistence that he have Charmin toilet paper despite the fact we were having a hard winter paying the bills with him laid off from work, and drinking his unemployment check away.)
But I'll be honest, as the discussion has progressed, even the most innocuous questions in the introductory first week have felt threatening. I was a little surprised at that, as I thought my decision for the past two years to tithe, and the peace I have gotten from that, and the growth I have experienced from it, would have leavened those feelings somewhat. I have considered bagging the remaining weeks. I doubt I will, though. I feel a stronger need to stick this out.
You see, one of the things I am learning is that the things that are most uncomfortable for me, must also be uncomfortable for at least some other people in the same way, and what hope is there for any of us if each of us doesn't try to grow in this?
No doubt, I have lived on both sides of the coin with money. In the sense of world poverty, I did not grow up "poor." In the local sense of poverty, we were not destitute. My parents were not poor, in terms of the poverty line, but we were probably barely into the middle class and only a couple of jumps past "the working poor." But my dad was laid off in the winter a lot, and we had to live on my mom's paycheck. My dad spent most of his unemployment money on himself, whether it was booze, drugs, dogs, vehicles, whatever. My grandparents were probably in the lower third of "middle class." They were a little better off than my parents--but not a lot.
My first lessons about money were that there were two worlds in my life with it--my parents' world and my grandparents' world--and they didn't really get along with each other. In my parents' world, money was always something we didn't have. Every payday was a juggle. Also, given the seasonal nature of my dad's work, it seemed they alternated between acting like we were flush and acting like we were destitute.
In my grandparents' world, I came to realize "what looked like a lot, wasn't really a lot." When my grandfather emptied the coin box on a jukebox or pinball machine on his route, it looked like a big pile of money on that table. But after it got rolled up into coin rolls and thrown into a bank bag, and he made a ticket out on it for the merchant, I realized it wasn't a lot, usually. Yet, when I picked up the bank bag, it was heavy...very heavy.
That's one of the first things I learned--that money was "heavy." Dealing with it felt heavy. Discussing it felt heavy. Cogitating on it felt heavy.
My grandparents hoarded and paid cash for things; my parents acted like spendthrifts and borrowed on credit. (If I heard my mom say, "But I deserve nice things," once, I heard it a thousand times. I realized she used buying name brand things sometimes as a substitute for being happy.)
To me, all these mixed messages made money feel "heavy" to me, just like that bank bag full of coins from the jukebox.
The other thing I learned about money, was the power that the lack of it had on women.
My mom wanted to buy a very modest camper trailer, since we went camping a lot. However, she wanted to title it in her own name, not her name and my dad's name. She had very good reasons for this. She didn't want it sold out from under her nose to buy booze or hunting dogs, and she didn't want it given away to pay off a poker debt. In the early 1970's, banks in my small town would not loan money to women in their own name--they needed the husband to co-sign. My mom fought tooth and nail to borrow it in her own name. Finally she had to resort to my grandfather to co-sign it.
The world of my parents' friends illustrated this, too. Women stayed with abusive husbands because they had no means of support once they left them. Women who had money could make decisions on their own--although the value of that wasn't clear, either. When my dad was laid off in the winters, there was no doubt my mom was the "breadwinner," but it was obvious that was a source of resentment for him. It became the thing that ignited more drinking and abuse. Time and time again, she would acquiesce her power over the money to try to please him and all it did was make things worse.
In short, I learned for many reasons not to talk about money. I strongly learned it wasn't anyone's business. I learned that although having it meant independence in one way, having it created resentment even if you did nothing wrong with it. I couldn't seem to balance the world of my parents vs. the world of my grandparents. In the world of my grandparents, although there were fears about money, they were manageable fears. In the world of my parents, it was a dangerous poison that was best kept locked up.
What I have come to realize is that the heaviness of all these mixed messages made me incredibly avoidant about money. I am financially comfortable, but the hoarding mentality of my grandparents came at a price--I am über-conservative about my investments. My investment advisor finds me very difficult to deal with at times. But let's be real. I am only two generations away from the stories of "when the banks closed, and there was a run on them." I am one generation away from observing people acting like fools when they had money, who used money as a salve for their internal soul-sicknesses, and felt humiliated when they did not have it, and bit the hands that fed them. Thinking about money is like a powder keg for me. It represents independence for me, but any suggestion by almost anyone over what I am to do with it, makes me want to erupt. I have been manipulated by other people who knew it would make me erupt, to serve their own ends. I'm embarrassed I let myself be controlled like that, much in the same way my mom was controlled by my dad's anger about her being the breadwinner when he was laid off.
I desire not to care about money. I live below my means because it feels incredibly uncomfortable to put on a show with it. To display it garners attention that others will tell me what to do with it. Deep down inside, I realize my truest happiness is not connected to it. But I feel the paradox of control--me controlling it, or it controlling me--is a spiritual stumbling block at times.
But I want to share something that has started to make a difference for me--tithing.
In the late fall and early winter of 2009, I was trying to come out from under some feelings of being resented for what I did or did not do with my money. I was in multiple situations where I had been played up and my ego had been stroked for being a "patron." My motives were good--I felt that my life, as it was, was sufficient in my situation, and since I don't have direct heirs, it felt good to give my abundance away for good causes. Those were entirely new situations in my family. No one in my family ever had enough to even be treated like a patron. I really disliked the stuff that went with "patronage." I hated "donor dinners" where people acted like they were big stuff because they gave away money. I wanted to do good, but I didn't feel good.
I also realized I had to compartmentalize more than I cared to. My relationship with God was evolving into something more open and sharing, but it seemed important not to let any of these people know I gave money in other places. What things some people would find out, they would pressure me to give to their cause, not the other cause. I discovered these people, who I thought were my friends, were not my friends at all. They were parasites, albeit parasites for good causes. In some of the cases, my patronage became an expectation, not a gift. I desired to give in secret, to not call attention to myself. I came to understand the dangers of that. Although giving in secret is a great joy in some ways, too much of it usurps the appropriate power one should exert over his or her money to find balance.
But after a long talk with a priest in my diocese, she suggested something very radical--tithing--and I mean straight up, no frills tithing with no games. She told me the story of how she and her husband came to tithe, and how over time, it led to them embracing the no-frills Biblical notion of tithing--10% of their gross income to the church--no games about "gross vs. net," no games about "other charities vs. church." She talked to me about the freedom it gave her and her husband. She talked about how it would spill over as "abundance" in places I would not imagine.
I drove home thinking she was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the less crazy it felt. I wanted to be free of this mess. I wanted to be free of all the painful feelings and the guilt of buying for myself. I was sick of the heaviness of being a "patron."
It was not an easy decision. It seemed everyone I talked to confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, crazy--all except one friend, who embarrassingly looked at me and said, "I tithe, too. But you can't explain this to people. You have to live it and see for yourself."
So that was how I came to tithe.
I discovered two major things in that year.
The first was, I did not miss the money, and I actually found it relatively easy to cut back or eliminate my other forms of patronage. It made hard feelings, and I did lose some connections. But I was free from being "utzed" about money for the most part. I found that I could let go of the money to do God's work and not need to control it--to trust in a power bigger than me that all would (eventually) be well.
But the other thing, I did not expect.
I discovered that, for the first time, I felt invested in the lives that make up our parish. I became free to love them, and for them to love me back. I have never been good at the "being loved back" thing--I'm still not great at it--but people I had previously distrusted, I learned to simply love and let most of their quirks go. I learned to care about their difficulties and struggles. I learned to pray for them more and control them less. I've learned to accept that others' giving up control of me takes time, and, although there is no doubt I'm an impatient person, I've learned to bear things a little better.
I have to admit, the fact that the Episcopal Church is an ecclesiastical and hierarchical church helped with this. I could not have tithed to a solo operation. I could not have trusted in one person to take care of the money. But it was precisely the slowness of an "institution" that made this feel safer. Paradoxically, the thing I sometimes rail against is what made this easier.
So when it was time for me to turn in my pledge card this year, tithing again was easy.
This year, I am finding this ability to give up a little easier. I'm a little kinder to my investment advisor. I have not stressed as much about money things in the office that I cannot control. I used to count the number of surgical path specimens on slow days and fret that I was going under. Maybe I am. But I can't make people who need biopsies appear out of nowhere, you know?
But here's the amazing thing. It's been a year and a few months, and I have not had one single volcanic eruption about money. Oh, sure, a flame or two here and there, but no big blowouts. Not one.
Not that it hasn't been tested, either. I recently got a note card from my priest, thanking me for a particular special donation. I took a big hard gulp, because the AMOUNT of the donation was printed right on it. Admittedly, my first thought was, "What the hell? It's not the priest's business how much I give! She won't treat people all the same if she knows this!" Two years ago, I would have called the church treasurer and ripped her a new one. I constantly gigged our previous two church treasurers that they were not to discuss my donations with clergy. How stupid was that? All anyone would have had to do was do the math in the balance sheet, if they really wanted to know.
But almost as quickly as it flared, it subsided. I took a deep breath and thought, "Oh, get over yourself. You didn't give it with any expectation of control or influence. You gave it because it was money from a windfall and you took your 10% off the top and gave it. You can't control how other people deal with other people. You can't control how other people respond to a gift. You laid it on the altar. Let the altar take care of itself."
It is incredibly freeing to tithe. I can give with no delusions of control, and I can receive with no expectations. I can let things be as they are and find God's will for me in the center of these old tensions. I can even look forward to attending a book study about one of my most difficult stumbling blocks and feel okay about it for the most part--to come with an attitude of wanting to learn rather than needing to protect or compartmentalize!
As for how anyone reading my story about money and tithing goes with their own internal thoughts about money, I have no advice except this: Try it for a year and see, with the understanding that in the beginning there will be tension to rearrange one's finances to cover it. I can't promise happiness, but I can promise you will learn something important about the soul of money as it relates to one's own soul.