For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:34)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
When I was a little girl, I went to a Catholic school. An ongoing ministry throughout the school year was collecting our change in little boxes (like the UNICEF boxes used by children at Halloween) to send to the Catholic mission schools in Africa. In order to fill our boxes as full as possible, we would deduct coins from our own allowances and solicit extra change from our parents, grandparents, and neighbors. It excited me to think that children so far away in Africa were learning to read as a result of our small sacrifices and the generosity of our families and friends.
Today I am deeply troubled by the assumptions that were made on our behalf about our relationship to those children in Africa. But I value the other lessons I learned at that tender age: that sharing my wealth with others feels good, that small sacrifices can be strengthening, and that these sacrifices can change lives.
Confessions of an aging boomer
Somehow, as I got older, sharing became a little harder. When I left Catholic school, there was no longer anyone in my life who expected me to share my wealth. During my young adulthood in the late sixties and early seventies, my older relatives expected me to save and to get a good job to pay off my school debts. Conversely, my younger activist friends considered money morally suspect, something with which enlightened people didn’t get too involved. So I compromised. I got a decent teaching job and paid off my debts, but I relieved myself of the craven experience of thinking about money by living from paycheck to paycheck.
By the time I was a young mother and attending Quaker meeting, my life had taken several surprising turns, and my resources were very scarce. Living on a poverty income in order to resist paying war taxes, I didn’t consider myself someone who had much to share with others. I would buy the things my family needed when I had the money, and when I didn’t, we did without. I felt that I was relating to money as it deserved—by not having much of it. Once during a time when my husband was incarcerated indefinitely for an act of civil disobedience, my children and I were the recipients of a much-needed envelope of money from an anonymous donor. I was very grateful but, oddly, never considered regularly setting aside any part of my own meager mite for others. While I responded as I could to special requests or leadings to give to those less fortunate, I did not encourage, in myself or my children, the habit of sharing money.
By the time my family had more resources, I had fully developed the ineffective and decidedly unspiritual habit of being unconscious about money. I purchased and saved without thinking about any long-term plan that would benefit the wider community. I contributed regular but insignificant amounts to my Quaker meeting. I contributed impulsively to non-Quaker groups that were doing justice or peace work that I admired, but not at all to my yearly meeting or to national Quaker organizations. In spite of the fact that I had purchased a home and had a bank account, I had no end-of-life will and, therefore, had arranged no bequests. Charitable giving was not a significant part of my thinking, my budget, or my life.
What I did give was my time and energy, and I was proud of giving “more than money.” I worked as a teacher and social worker, and I poured caring into my work. I gave unstintingly of my time to my Quaker meeting wherever I was needed. I was never a hard-hearted person. When asked to contribute money for a specific purpose, I gave, and sometimes gave more than was easy to give. What I did not do was nurture in myself the spiritual discipline of giving as much as I possibly could before being asked, of practicing the ministry of giving money. As a result, I missed out on the ongoing and powerful spiritual benefits of sharing my treasure.
Following the money
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer; in the Gospel of Thomas, the story is about an investor. In both cases, the person fears a lack of abundance and is intent on storing his treasure. But Jesus exposes the folly of trying to hold on too tightly: that very night, the farmer could (and the investor does) die, and then what good would all his wealth be to him? Rather, Jesus says, create treasure in heaven “where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In my modern paraphrase, it would be: “Follow the money. There will you find your consciousness.”
Our consciousness follows our decisions about money. During my young adulthood, when I did not think about money because I considered money unspiritual and morally suspect, my money didn’t do much good. It mostly leaked away when it could have been used to help others, improve the world, and benefit the Religious Society of Friends. I created an inward consciousness of wastefulness. Now I am better at saving my money, but if I share too little of it, it is useless to our religious society that is trying to deepen its roots and live from its testimonies. Perhaps I believe (like the farmer and the investor) that if I hold on tightly to my store of dollars, I will lack nothing. So my treasure spiritually stagnates in the barns of my savings account, IRA, and 401K. I create an inward consciousness of stagnation based on the fear of not having enough.
In my experience, grace is a flow, a current of living water that flows from a deep spring that never runs dry. It flows strongly wherever love and life abound, from being to being, to and from and within all of creation. The flow of grace carries everything we need to live and love. But when I hoard my treasure by laying an ownership claim to it, when I declare,“This is mine!” without sharing it with the community of beings with whom I share the planet, then the grace that wants to flow through me meets an obstacle. It simply cannot flow through a stopped-up heart. Because grace is persistent, it may find a way in time to trickle through the debris of my heart, eventually creating a channel through which it can flow more freely. But while I am hoarding, my stubborn heart’s consciousness is no longer very responsive to the tenderings of grace. It is as if I built a dam in the middle of the river, and the river can no longer flow freely through the land of my life.
In his Plea for the Poor (1764), John Woolman wrote:
Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable—that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives. (Italics mine.)
I would paraphrase his words in this way: as we permit the flow of grace to transform us, we experience deep empathy for the suffering of people and the planet, and we allow our wealth to enter that living flow for the benefit of all, making this our highest priority.
Where our consciousness goes, so goes our money. Given that we humans are notoriously shortsighted, it isn’t easy to honestly appraise the state of our consciousness. We should look deeply into our investments, bank accounts, spending, and charitable giving to find out where our money, and, therefore, our heart, resides.
Giving to Quaker organizations
I once believed that Quaker organizations did not need as much money as mainline churches. After all, in our branch of Friends, we don’t hire ministers. Our simple meetinghouses don’t have much use for gold and silver. And since we don’t like to proselytize, we typically don’t support missions abroad. But my thinking on the amount of money needed by Friends organizations has changed since I took on the volunteer role of clerking the Development Committee for Friends General Conference. I now see close-up how much it costs one national Quaker organization to provide services to monthly and yearly meetings, from the bookstore to Quaker Quest to the Couple Enrichment Program. I can only imagine what it costs American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Friends Journal, our yearly and monthly meetings, and countless Friends schools to fulfill their callings to serve Friends and the wider world.
As Friends we have already accomplished so much in living out our testimonies! And yet the world continues to groan under the weight of a faltering economy, challenged schools, persistent war, the needs of the underemployed and unemployed, and countless experiences of social injustice. Many people experience a deep spiritual yearning and sense of disconnectedness in our fast-paced, materialistic society. And yet there is so much more that we could do through our Quaker organizations, if only they had the additional dollars to do it. The Religious Society of Friends has the capacity to effect a kind of change in the world that is not dependent on a compromised political system or on dominative methods of decision-making. We have the capacity, through our organizations, to witness another way of being in the world. I believe that our burdened world is starving for this Quaker witness.
The wisdom of children
Sometimes I have the privilege of teaching First-day school in my meeting with four-to six-year-old Friends. One day early in the program year when we were finished with our lesson, we were playing a simple math game using tiny bunny cookies. They had played this game before and loved it. When they finished each simple calculation, I would allow them to eat the cookies, which they would do with great delight and laughter. The trouble was that on this day there was a larger than normal group, and we had to use a small number of cookies so that they could do the calculations successfully. There were not enough cookies to go around. So I asked the group, “How should we solve this problem?” Immediately, six-year-old Jacob, without pause and without being asked, snapped his cookie in two and gave one half to four-year-old Willow, a visitor. I asked Willow how it felt when Jacob shared his cookie with her. “Like he wants me to be his best friend,” she said shyly. “And, Jacob, how did it feel to you to share your cookie with Willow?” And, rather matter-of-factly, he said, “Like I’m a nice person.”
I think this was Jacob’s way of saying that sharing his cookie with Willow, making this small sacrifice, had helped him connect with God within. He had experienced the flow of grace. And this was Willow’s way of saying that when Jacob shared his cookie with her, she felt loved and part of his community. She also felt the flow of grace. These young children had just experienced many fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, tenderness, and self-control. I want to nurture that in myself, that connection to the flow of Spirit with all her spiritual fruits.
Reshaping a life
I have spoken only from my own perspective in this article, although it is clear that any financial decisions require conversations with one’s partner. My husband and I are not quite on the same page, so we have begun in this way: we are reshaping our budget around a commitment to give away 10 percent of our net income to organizations and individuals that rise up for us in worship. We have made some of those donations repetitive and sustaining. Our intent is to live now on a much smaller income, saving what is left to care for our own needs in later life and to disburse to family and charitable organizations at our deaths. We are in unity that it is important for us to continue to dialogue about the correct use of the money that has come into our care and to follow where Spirit leads. And we are agreed to make this intention public. We want to be held accountable.
This might seem like an odd time to be refocusing on sharing more of our wealth. Like many folks, we have lost a significant chunk of our retirement incomes. We wonder if our health insurance benefits will be terminated or significantly reduced. Our adult children need financial help at times to meet their obligations in this very unsteady economy. And yet, we think this is the best of times to build charitable giving into our lifestyle because there are many, many people who have been more negatively affected than we have been by our society’s economic follies. And there is always the question that arises for us less-experienced swimmers as we consider jumping into the deep end of the pool: if not now, when?
As for me, I want to come to the end of my life knowing deeply what it feels like to be unafraid. I want to know that, should my barns burn to the ground, they won’t take hoarded treasure with them. May I come to the end of my life knowing what it feels like, when faced with someone else’s need, to immediately break my cookie and give half of it away. And, in the meantime, may turning all the treasures I possess into the channel of universal love become the business of my life.
3 thoughts on “The Ministry of Giving Money”
I really appreciate this testimonial of how giving has evolved and matured for Merry. I would appreciate more insight on how to dialogue with one’s partner when each member of the couple is not on the same page. Are there certain ground rules for the conversation? Timeframes to the commitments? My partner and I have very different childhood experiences with money and so learned different approaches. We also have different levels of income, which creates a unique dynamic regarding planning for the future and philanthropy. Finally, we do not worship together being of different faith backgrounds so need creative ideas for making our decisions from a spirit led space.
Jackie, Bethesda Friends Meeting, Maryland
[…] in Friends Journal from one modern-day Quaker that describes common feelings around money (the whole article is well-worth your time): During my young adulthood in the late sixties and early seventies, my […]
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