Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Money

In a time when so many people are losing jobs I don't feel great about talking about my financial woes since I have a terrific job. But the whole point of this blog is to keep a chronicle of how my thought life is developing, and well, finances sometimes impact my thought life.

So my parents have been graciously been paying my student loan for many years, but the recession and other factors have hit them too, and so now they can't afford to keep doing it. Now we have an extra 200 bucks a month in expenses. It's interesting timing. I had just got a raise that just put us in a state of feeling like we would have a little breathing room. I just adjusted our tithe to account for the raise. In fact, I want to talk about tithe for a minute… First off, I don't think the concept of a tithe (that is giving 10% of your gross wages to the church) is an imperative for Christians. The tithe was instituted in ancient Israel as a tax. It covered both religious and civil infrastructure, as the two were never separate back then. We don't live in that kind of society any more. We don't need to support a temple and a priest caste that makes animal sacrifices on our behalf. We are all High Priests now, according to the New Testament. And we all pay a separate tax to our government to take care of government stuff. In the early formation of the Christian church a Jewish contingent continued to meet in the temple at Jerusalem, and I'm sure they paid their tithe. Paul exhorts some of the primarily gentile house-churches to pay preachers, and he did a lot of fund raising for a collection to bring to Jerusalem. But he also set an example to some communities by paying his own way. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a command or even a request to continue the tithe system. It just didn't make since because Christians already had to pay taxes to their pagan government, and the temple was no longer a necessary element in their religious system. So to me, the idea that Christians are supposed to give 10% of our money to our church is as silly as keeping the purity or dietary laws of the ancient Jews. The context is totally different.

That being said, every month I write the biggest non-mortgage check of the month and hand our comfort and pleasure over to my church. Jesus said when you give you should be secretive about it. Otherwise you get you reward on earth instead of in heaven, because to announce your giving means you are just doing it to impress people. Well, I'm bringing this up for nothing remotely like that. I honestly don't give a damn what you think about me or my piety. (As far as I'm concerned I don't have any piety, I only do what I'm compelled to do by God. And a lot of it is selfish crap.) In fact, if most of the people I know knew that I give such a huge chunk of money to my church they would literally think less of me. They would think I'm stupid. So I'm not worried that this blog is losing me some jewels from my crown in heaven. I really don't think anyone reading this blog is thinking, "Oooo, what a spiritually awesome guy!"

When we were looking for a condo and going over our finances with the mortgage broker she kept getting confused about how little we could afford to spend each month. She would look at our income, our expenses, and say she didn't understand where our money goes. Well, the answer is church. 650 bucks a month. That's enough to have gotten a much nicer or closer home. Maybe one with a garage so I don't have to do my art out on a waterlogged back deck. That's enough to not need my brother to live with us to make ends meet. That's enough to make payments on a frikkin Ferrari if I was stupid enough to want one. Or more realistically, enough to not have to scrimp when we go grocery shopping. Take the kids out to the movies. Have a nice date every once in a while. But instead I donate all these potentials in the form of money to my church. I'm part of the blessed 7% of evangelicals who tithe. Hallelujah.

If you could see my face you would know that I'm not a seething volcano of bitterness. I know my seemingly acerbic sarcasm can give that impression. But no; I'm very happy. While money and opportunity costs aren't fun to think about, my joy lies in other areas. Here's a fun example. I take my sons out for a 1 on 1 date every other weekend. We spend about 5 dollars, get a milkshake and cheeseburger or little toy or whatever. But now we are at the point that twenty dollars a month I was spending on these outings are too valuable to do this anymore. So instead of going to a restaurant this weekend, I took Shane to the skate park. We fell down a couple times, I showed him how to go down the steeper slope. I chased him around the playground. It was free and we got healthy exercise instead of consuming fat and sugar. Certainly no loss there.

But as a husband of a woman who is very concerned about our financial security, there is a huge loss to our emotional welfare. Heather, bless her little overclocked heart, is so responsible and mature when it comes to money that it puts me to shame. She has always saved money no matter how little she made. She understands that this is just part of being a responsible adult, something my last wife never grasped. In my previous marriage I was the conservative spender, begging my wife to stop buying crap we couldn't afford, floating checks and eating out, etc. In my current marriage I'm the spendthrift, not thinking twice about minor purchases here or there. Until now. Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. I suppose when one can't pamper themselves or others with material blessings one must think of other ways to bless.

However, knowing that if there was some kind of catastrophe in my life such as job loss, serious illness, death, or even just a car breaking down, our saving would evaporate in the blink of an eye, I'm still feeling irresponsible. And I know Heather is. And we both know one thing that would fix the problem. Instead of investing 650 dollars a month in our church, invest it in our security. Almost every law of nature affirms that to not do so is foolish. But we aren't considering it. Why? Here are the best excuses for forking over 10% of our gross income to a church that I can think of:

  1. It is an exercise of spiritual and emotional discipline.
  2. There are some good uses that some of the money goes to. (I no longer consider paying a staff or supporting a building to be a very good use of God's money.)
  3. It is the hope of our spiritual leader.
  4. It is the tradition I was raised with.
  5. It is an example of generosity to our children. (Though I could think of many more hands-on ways to spend that money charitably with the kids.)

Note two things that I did NOT put on that list were guilt or the expectation of blessings. It's possible I have some sublimated reflex that won't let me consider ceasing the tithe; but I can't unsublimate it. And it's possible I have a hidden expectation that if I scratch God's back, He'll scratch mine. But I sure don't see that attitude in myself. One thing I've noticed over the past several years that I've been faithfully tithing is that whenever we start to get really close to the bottom of our savings account something happens that dumps a couple grand back in. Nothing like a check from an anonymous donor or anything. Just regular stuff like tax returns, insurance settlements, work bonuses and such. I like to attribute that to God, but if you know my theology you know I attribute everything to God and I don't tie 'righteousness' to material prosperity. Sorry Mr. Psalmist and Rev. Tilton, but there are so many blatant exceptions to your rule that it's pretty much moot. But it could be said that as I've been "faithful to God" He has kept us afloat… barely. And as I've said, Heather has a huge influence on our spending habits, keeping us rational, so that really helps keep us afloat in the lean interim periods. So simply living differently is the biggest difference between my former financial woes and my present financial doldrum. I can also blame myself for not prospering since we did decide to basically double our rent by buying a condo last year. But I was just trying to be responsible by investing, and had no other ways to do so. (Plus living in a two bedroom apartment with my wife, brother and two sons was getting harder and harder by the second.)

I guess with the reasons for tithing listed above, they mostly boil down to the idea that I choose to remain in an organization that has different beliefs and expectations about what good members believe and do. I don't want to belong to a group where I don't pull my own weight or become a burden for others. So I do what is expected of a good member. (Not that anyone from my church knows that I tithe, even my pastor says he purposely does not know who does and does not. And I'm 99% sure none of them read this blog.) I do it because of my sense of justice and fairness. The only way I would stop would be if I stopped going to church. Sadly, there aren't any other good options out there that I'm aware of for being a part of a Christian community. So I guess I feel sort of forced into this bloated, earthly-oriented structure of Christianity that wastes most of its time and money on itself. And as a result, most of MY charitable contribution.

Again… I'm not bitter about this. It seems to be a reality of this life that we are involved in organizations that are self-involved, inefficient, and don't behave the way any one member would want them too. I mean look at any government for a perfect example of this. Our schools, prisons, justice system, etc. could all use massive reform, and if one smart guy with a vision had the power to just 'make it work', I'll bet things would improve. (Until the power corrupts him and then it will all go to crap again.) Anyway, my point was that we are all trapped in systems we don't like or think could use improvement. But we accept it and get on with life. (Except for the Unabomber types.)

So I accept that the way 99% of Christians "do church" is not the way I wish church was done. But then, church isn't for me. Church is the way it is because it's what the vast majority of Christians need it to be. They don't have that burning fire of intellectual intrigue into the deeper questions of reality, meaning, and being, driving them to research these matters constantly. Unlike me, most Christians need constant reminders about how their faith is supposed to influence their lives and behavior. Unlike me, their faith will wilt if it isn't continually reinforced by people who believe almost identically. Unlike me they need a figurehead to be an example and inspiration. (I say all these things as though I've ever lived a prolonged period of time without them, which I haven't… so take all this self-analysis with a bag of salt!) Maybe I need these things more than I think. But my point is that while I, personally, don't get a lot of fulfillment from the current church paradigm, there are others who absolutely do need it.


 

So… I grin a bear it. I participate. I contribute. I tithe. I'm a very responsible church member… and an irresponsible member of the larger society as a result. Does that make me a good person? I honestly don't know.

 

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