Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Money Pit

The subject of money always seems to put a tiny pit in my stomach, and makes my shoulders feel a bit tense. I am not the most organized, detail-oriented person in the world, and things like budgets, and remembering that little bill on the bottom of the stack of mail are not usually the things floating around at the front of my brain. Just the mention of credit cards and auto loans used to be enough to put me into a cold sweat. Lucky for me, I married a man who is fantastic with money-- saving it, watching it, remembering to spend it on things like phone bills, etc-- so now, my cold sweats have been reduced to the aforementioned tiny pit in my stomach.

When you dig a little deeper into that tense subject of money, into the area we call Charity, Giving, or Tithing, I get a little more anxious. You see, we have to raise our entire income on the gifts & donations of other people-- from health care, to travel expenses, conferences to retirement, we have to get out there & find people who believe in what we do enough to buy us lunch (and breakfast, and dinner). And since that hasn't been going very well for the past... oh, seven years, I've developed a funny Love-Hate relationship with Giving.

I was reading lately about the story of the Israelites wandering through the dessert, eating mannah, which magically appeared on the ground every morning. The story goes that God provided the mannah-- just enough for the people to eat-- but didn't allow it to be saved for the next day. He wanted his people to trust him daily for food, rather than gather it, store it, and feel secure, knowing that they had a few days of security in their hands. It was his way of saying, Trust me. I've got this covered. I'm not going to forget your breakfast. Don't get caught up in fear & greed & self-reliance-- I've got you.

I read that there is a crucial distinction between abundance-- a fearful response to scarcity-- and sufficiency-- which evokes an experience of satisfaction and well-being. The Israelites always had a sufficient amount of mannah each day-- none of them ever went hungry or needed more. But they wanted an abundance, to provide the security of knowing that just in case something happened tomorrow, they would have more than enough.

Okay, okay, I'm done with the Bible lesson (everyone make it out alright?). What I am really thinking about are the boxes of baby clothes we've got in the garage. The clothes that were given to us, out of the generosity & abundance of friends & family. I think I have bought two or three shirts, pants or shoes for my lil' guy that didn't come from a consignment store, a bag of hand-me-downs, or a gift. And that guy is better dressed than I could ever hope to be. But I'm afraid that when we adopt our little girl, we may not have enough-- and so I hold on to all those boxes.

And my mind also drifts back to a conversation Chris & I had about our budget a few days ago, as we calculated how much of our income would go to charity. It was an uncomfortable conversation, slicing up the money we have been given, and determining how much we could "afford" to give back. Finally, we put down a number that was technically acceptable, but felt embarrassingly small, saying we would come back to it later.

But reading about the mannah put that weird pit in my stomach again. Fear, anxiety, and that squirmy, uncomfortable feeling called Conscience started creeping up my spine, and I saw that I am going about the whole thing wrong. In the twelve years that I have lived off of other people's generosity and God's provision, I have never once gone hungry, been unable to pay our rent, or lacked for anything I have really needed (although we've had some really close shaves). And yet my abundance has not produced a feel of sufficiency, but a feeling of scarcity, and a desire to hold, hoard, grab, and scrimp. I have a home that was literally given to us, a car that was also given to us, a garage full of baby clothes that were given to us... and in our need for more funding, I am holding a fear-induced death grip on our money and our things. I want and I pray for God to give generously to us, and when he does, I am absolutely filled with anxiety at the thought of giving back.

In the story of the mannah, the magical bread actually turned maggoty when they tried to hold on to it overnight. And I'm afraid the same thing might just happen to me. So (it embarrasses me to admit how hard this is for me), I think I have two steps to take, now. First, I need to clean out our closets, and take a trip to Good Will. Just let go, and trust that we will have enough. Second, I need to spend some time praying about where we are supposed to give our money & how much we should give, and make our budget from there-- not the other way around.

I might even add a third step in there, of (man, I hate this one) praying for opportunities to give generously to others. I was talking on this subject to a group of moms, and one of them mentioned that one day, her mother in law had no couch in her living room. "Someone needed a couch, so I gave her mine" was the simple response to the inquiry. My first thought was, "I love my couch. Please, God, don't ask me to give away my couch."

But I realize that the more we hold onto-- the more we collect and gather into our arms-- the less capable we are to receive something new, something better, even. We limp along in life, working so hard to carry our provisions along with us, when we are being provided for every step of the way. We are afraid to ask for big things, and we are afraid to give big things, because both require us to relinquish self reliance, and to simply trust. And trust is one of those things that is so very simple, and so very difficult as the same time. It invites us to put down our load, and walk freely & lightly... but it's that letting go that can be so very hard.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Living Dreams, and Paying the Rent

Each of us has been given gifts & talents-- unique abilities, personalities & experiences that shape who we are. We have this intrinsic worth and value, and we were born for a higher purpose. We have dreams of living out a life of meaning, making a difference in this world, and becoming the men & women we feel that we are inside. There are times in our lives when we get to use those gifts and feel that "I was made for this."

...And then there's the reality that most days, we just have to pay the rent.

I love my job. I am passionate about what I do, and I honestly can't think of anything else I would rather give my life to. But the past week, I have sat in front of a computer screen, doing mindless data entry, organizing financial contacts, calling strangers on the phone asking for money, and going to bed never having left th
e house, or seeing anyone but my husband (who spent his day doing the same things), my toddler, and my somewhat droopy reflection in the mirror. And there's not much of an end in sight.

We were talking to a friend yesterday who has been in & out of work for almost a year now, and admitted that it is hard to find his identity & worth without a steady income; that he sometimes feels embarrassed at where he is in life. Another friend loves making women feel beautiful, and works at a high-end makeup counter. They both wonder if this is what they were meant for-- and if not, how in the world do they pay the rent and find something out there that brings the fulfillment & passion that we are supposed to have?

I work with college students who are vibrant and full of dreams & hopes. I want so much for them to have a vision for a life that is lived deeply, openly, generously, and that makes an impact for good on the world around them. But I also know that many of them will end up in jobs that are not life-giving, praying prayers that feel flat, spending evenings zoning out in front of the TV and feeling dull & tired.

What do I say to my friends f
rom college-- who had the very same dreams, and are now in their 30's wondering if they somehow failed? Do we still maintain that intrinsic worth & value on those days, months, years when we haven't made a difference, haven't lived our dreams, haven't been the person we were meant to be? Who are we then? And how do we find that person? Can we even afford to look?

So often, we are unable to separate the idea of our value as a human, and the value of the life that we are living. If we don't believe that we are living out a worthwhile existence in the moment, it is easy to believe that we have somehow diminished in worth ourselves. And this idea of The American Dream has caused so many of us to believe that our jobs, vocation, and work-- what we do from 9 to 5-- is meant to supply us with that meaning, value, satisfaction and fulfillment we want out of life.

I know a man who, not very long ago, was an influential speaker, inviting people to follow Jesus in beautiful, risky, creative ways. He suffered a stroke, and is now a crossing guard, barely able to form sentences, let alone use the magnetic, dynamic gifts that are still somewhere inside. Where is his value? Where does he find his worth everyday, if not in the life he is living, the contributions he is making?

If we were to look at other times and other cultures, we would see men who are carpenters because their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were carpenters, not necessarily because they felt some higher calling to carpentry. A man (or woman) worked hard at their job (in theory), and felt pride & satisfaction in knowing that they had done their best. Their fulfillment in life came from relationships, family, community, recreation, spirituality... and their jobs paid the rent.

I'm not saying that this is a better model, but I do wonder sometimes if we put too much our our identity into our jobs-- something unstable & often outside of our control. Is it possible to live a life of fulfillment, meaning & purpose in a mundane Office Space kind of job?

Brother Lawrence was a French monk in the 1600's who was somehow able to use dish washing, cooking & scrubbing as a medium for prayer, worship, and meditation. "We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not usually singing praises while cleaning the kitchen, and especially not while I'm doing tedious admin work (although I do often listen to Queen, and sing along at the top of my lungs). But I do think there is something to this idea of using work as a medium for gratitude and maybe even worship, rather than expecting the work itself to bring me fulfillment, meaning and worth. And as much as I believe in and hope to live out a life that is passionately changing the world around me (and inviting others to do the same), I don't ever want to sell someone on the false dream that our days will all turn out like a scene in an inspirational movie.

I think that somewhere in all of this jumble, the key is to live fully in the little things-- whether it's selling makeup, searching for a job, fixing toilets, or doing data entry-- using it as a medium for thankfulness, prayer, worship. When we do that, our focus is ripped away from ourselves, and we can stop worrying about our own worth & value, and I think that makes all the difference.

Again, I admit that I am not very good at this. In fact, the whole reason I have been thinking through these issues is because I have been feeling a little lost & insecure, as we have left our "real work" with students to focus on fundraising. But I have, in the past, taken baby steps in these simple practices, and am reminded of the need to intentionally make mental lists of the things I am grateful for in the moment, and invite my Creator into my mundane activities. I really to believe that if we live fully in little things, we are living towards something much bigger-- something we may not ever see here, but something of significance, nonetheless.

It is so easy to forget, though-- so easy to believe those voices telling us that we should be more. But maybe what we need, instead, is to do exactly what we are doing, but with greater presence.

[Side Note: Richard Foster's Book, Prayer, has a beautiful chapter on this practice, called Simple Prayer. Very practical, very profound-- and much better explained!]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Let's Hear it for the Boy

Have you ever noticed the way that men are portrayed in the media? Action movies, romantic comedies, cereal commercials... It seems like the entire gender is seen as either 1) a machismo, invincible hero, or 2) a thick-headed, clumsy, forgetful, insensitive Neanderthal who can't tie his shoes without the help of a woman. Why is that? What did you guys ever do to deserve that image?

In honor of Father's Day, I would like to salute all you men out there-- to pat you on the back & say "attah boy". It's a tough world to be a guy. There's a fine line to walk: Should you open the door for a woman and be a gentleman, or will that imply that she's less than your equal? Women do all they can to be noticed, but if you comment on it, you're a drooling dog. And is it really fair that the toilet seat always be left down, in the "girl" position?

Before I go on, let me say that I am a feminist. I believe in the dignity and value of women
. I believe they are created in God's image. I am grateful for the privilege of being a woman, and wouldn't trade it for anything. I am hurt and offended when I see, experience, or hear about women being treated as second class citizens for any reason, and I am grateful for living in a time & a place where I have as many opportunities as I do.

But I would also like to throw out there that it seems like we have de-valued our men-- and I would like to just cheer you on for one day. You guys are awesome. I can't imagine my life without the amazing, strong, responsible, loving & generous men that I have around me. I love our differences, and am so grateful for the ways that the two genders balance each other out.

I know that there are plenty of books out there on how men can embrace their identity, and all of that, and I confess that I've never read them (with the exception of Wild at Heart. Yes, I have actually read that book). I am sure that those guys have a lot more to say on the subject. But for the rest of the female world, like me, who will probably never read them, I just wanted to give a charge to my ladies: Let's honor our guys, respect them, build them up, expect good things from them & allow them to live up to our expectations. Let's speak well of the men in our lives, try to hold our tongues, and not lump them all into one category.

I know, I know: there are so many guys out there who will disappoint, hurt, take advantage... I'm not even going to ad a "but" in there. We will get hurt. We will be disappointed. There are a ton of jerks out there. I admit that I can be one of them. And I'm not going to make any excuses, or try to solve the world's gender problems-- that's far too big a task for one little person, in one little blog. I am simply saying, "Here's to you, guys. I think you're pretty great"

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