Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon Earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt. 6: 19-21)
These are precious words to Friends; formative, touchstone words in our Religious Society, and one of the foundations of the Testimony of Simplicity.
Maybe you need to have lived a life of relative affluence to hear this passage the way I always have: that your true treasure is the life of the Spirit, and that money is nearly irrelevant to achieving this. Money is at best a distraction in a life of devotion to God, and potentially a real obstacle.
I have personally labored for years to achieve a kind of detachment from money—an attitude I have imagined to be a hallmark of a “spiritually evolved” person. But I am compelled to admit that it has been an uneven struggle. Money and I have a complicated relationship, a love/hate/ignore relationship that plays out in odd ways. I alternately pay no attention to and obsess over money. I go back and forth from feeling resentful of others’ wealth (and sense of entitlement to it) to feeling guilty about my own. I am alternately self-righteous, materially envious, ludicrously penny-pinching, and wantonly generous. My behavior might all balance out in the long run to some kind of karmic neutrality, but detached it is definitely not!
I find that I am not alone in some of my conflicts. I see many of my attitudes mirrored in other Friends I know. I also keep finding myself—to my great bafflement—in the middle of money management and fundraising efforts among Friends. I, who have not balanced my checkbook in 25 years, am nominated to serve on the finance committee of a large monthly meeting, and to convene the budget committee of Northern Yearly Meeting. I am asked, or feel led, to raise money for various Friendly causes, over and over again. Go figure. At the very least, God has a sense of humor! And I also guess that I’m going to keep on butting up against this money thing and all of the inner contradictions it awakens in me until I get it right.
Recently, a new chapter has opened in my personal money saga:
Soyapango, El Salvador, January 2003. I was sitting in on the annual session of El Salvador Yearly Meeting as NYM’s representative, along with NYM clerk Christopher Sammond. Salvadoran Friends were doing their money thing while we watched, silently. I was astounded. Salvadorans honor and record every contribution, down to $2.50 from somebody or other. They don’t really have a plan or a budget, and there are no apologies for that. They run through an astonishing amount of money in a year. They spend as the opportunity or the need arises, they commit with passionate assurance that “God will provide,” and they make spectacular financial leaps of faith given their limited means. And they leave a trail of wreckage and accomplishments in their wake that would leave most North American Friends I know slack-jawed.
As I sit there, I want to reach for a seatbelt. I want to hang onto my hat. I want to laugh. Even more, I want to cry.
I think back to our most recent budgetary discernment effort at NYM. As clerk of the budget committee, I have tried, in a halting and gingerly fashion, to help us figure out how to deal with the fact that we are quickly spending down a slowly accrued surplus to meet budgetary commitments. (Right now, that strikes me as astounding. A surplus?! Do we so lack vision that we cannot think how to spend our money in the service of God? Is God’s work all done? . . . But I digress.) Meeting contributions are not rising to keep pace with our spending, and at some point we will face a moment of truth.
Our committee’s solution is a shining example of creative conservatism: tighten our belts moderately, provide adequate but minimal support for the workings of NYM, and only fund charitable contributions as the money comes in. We will prorate whatever we have left after meeting basic expenses, so that each “Quaker Concern” line item gets a fair share of whatever resources are available at the end of the year.
This simple mechanism promises magically balanced budgets year after year, with no great need for unpleasant discussions about how much we give—or don’t give. There are a few voices protesting this; several Friends are concerned that we are not showing sufficient generosity or commitment to our national organizations. On the whole, however, the budget committee is praised for its sensible new policy that can accommodate just about any likely pattern of giving without spilling a drop of red ink.
Our process is eminently reasonable, carefully thought out, and done with the help of a laptop that quickly demonstrates the bottom line implications of any decision we make. We try to be guided by the Spirit—we worship in silence, we pray, we discuss carefully, we listen—but it is hard not to feel, as I watch the Salvadorans, that we have perhaps been guided at least as much by culture as by Spirit.
As I watch Salvadorans buy and sell land and churches like so many cabbages, pour money into missions in Nicaragua and Cambodia (!), run two K-12 schools, start their own small part-time seminary, and engage in energetic evangelism hither and yon, I am alternately awed, appalled, moved, alarmed, and rather ashamed of us North American Friends.
We have a piece of the truth—don’t get me wrong. There are admirable and productive aspects of our sober financial stewardship. And clearly, Salvadorans crash and burn on occasion, and sometimes leave things worse off than they would have been without their spontaneous—some might say reckless—commitments and casual financial management. Culture plays a role for them, just as it does for us. And the way they do things would personally cause me the mother of all headaches—except when it was causing me to shout, “Hallelujah!”
But I see that they’re onto something.
It seems to me that they try to make financial decisions in the heat of moment—the hotter the better! We, in contrast, consider this dangerous, careless, and apt to get us in over our heads.
Salvadorans deliberately raise the issue of money when the Spirit is palpably among them, when tears are flowing, when passions are high. We devolve a significant amount of financial decision making to a coolheaded committee of experienced bean counters, in part to avoid making decisions “on the floor” of our annual sessions, where—heaven forbid—passions might enter in and lead us astray!
They don’t imagine coolheadedness as divinely inspired. They recognize the presence of passion—heat—as a sign of divine leading. Our rational, cerebral ap-proach assumes that a true divine leading will stand up to an analysis of fiscal implications as demonstrated by a computer spreadsheet. We at NYM put our money on Excel, thank you very much. Such an analysis to them, I think, would signify a lack of faith that God will provide. They seem to trust that it will all work out on the Great Spreadsheet in the Sky.
It seems to me that Salvadorans aim to squeeze the greatest possible financial sacrifice out of their members. They regard committing to something huge as a way to motivate people to rise to the challenge. We see it as a recipe for disaster, a future millstone around our necks. We seem to aim to require as little of ourselves as is decently possible.
They regard giving money as part of the process of sanctification. When was the last time you heard a North American Friend talk about money and sanctification in the same breath?!
Salvadorans ask for money during meetings for worship, during meetings for business, during just about any time they gather in the name of the Lord. Money is an integral part of their worship, of their individual commitment to their faith community, of their personal relationship with God. And they offer up money with joy—an offering to God that is just as genuine and from the heart as their prayers and tears. We northern Friends, in contrast, seem to consider talking about money during worship as unseemly. We surreptitiously drop our folded check in the discreet little box in the meetinghouse when no one is looking, maintaining a careful, antiseptic separation between our money and our souls.
Salvadorans’ financial traffic lights are perpetually green. They zoom through intersections in their rickety vehicles from all directions simultaneously, weaving wildly in and out, avoiding disaster by a hair, and sometimes suffering calamitous collisions. Our financial traffic lights are perpetually yellow. We inch cautiously through our intersections in comfortable, well-maintained cars, rarely suffering collisions—but our traffic is slow and congested, and we don’t rack up nearly the mileage that they do.
Salvadorans deal with both spending and taking in money in the context of collective worship. We deal, at most, with the spending part that way. I suspect that this accounts for our wariness about bringing decisions about contributing to the floor of our sessions. Experience tells us that we might be overcome with passion and commit to something, but that our subsequent giving may not necessarily increase enough to correspond with our commitment. If there is no chance of our being overcome with collective passion when giving money to NYM, it is a little risky to allow ourselves passion when we are spending it!
What would happen if we did as Salvadorans do, and subjected both our giving and our spending to the inspiration of collective worship?
I believe we have the beginnings of an answer to this question. At NYM’s recent session, following my report on our clerk’s and my experience visiting El Salvador Yearly Meeting, one Friend rose and said, “I feel led to pass the hat, right now, for the Friends school in San Ignacio.” She did so, and over the next 24 hours, in a gathering of about 280 Friends, $4,300 was raised. To put this in perspective, the contributions to San Ignacio roughly doubled the average per capita contribution to NYM of those attending NYM’s session.
It is hard for me to believe that the timing and the method of asking for money didn’t have some relationship to the outcome. It is also interesting that shortly after the San Ignacio collection was taken, the yearly meeting confronted another special financial request, this time from the Friends School of Minnesota. The budget committee, convened by yours truly, had made a typically sober recommendation that involved tweaking the timing of our gift to leverage more funds for the school, without actually giving any more than usual ourselves. This win/break even approach seemed tailor-made for our circumstances, in which we appeared about to balance our budget on the backs of numerous historical recipients of our largesse. (Read, our prorated contributions to Quaker concerns are expected to go down substantially this year unless people give more than they ever have to NYM.)
Well, I’m here to tell you that Friends would have none of this miserly and very responsible approach. Perhaps pumped up by the exciting discovery that we were collectively able to raise 4,300 spare dollars for the San Ignacio school, our upper midwestern Scandinavian-German Quakers threw caution to the wind and committed a comparable bundle to Friends School of Minnesota.
Salvadoran Friends attending the meeting sat quietly in the back of the room with no idea, I suspect, that they were witnessing something unprecedented—twice in one day!
Now, we’re not exactly out of the woods yet. It remains to be seen whether folks will actually contribute more to NYM. But there was an excitement in the air that was unfamiliar to me at NYM, but that I had experienced once before—in El Salvador. Following the rise of meeting, I was astonished by the number of Friends who approached me and said how moved they were by the collection for San Ignacio School, by the report on our visit to El Salvador, by the gathered worship we achieved when Salvadorans were in our midst, and by the example they set in their financial stewardship.
Clearly, many of us had just experienced something unusual and powerful, but not everyone. There was one Friend who expressed that he was deeply disturbed and put off by the passing of the hat. I am told his feelings were shared by some others, including some who gave money despite, not because of, the passing of the hat. I understand that the soft-pedaling of money issues is an important attraction of Quakerism to many Friends who are put off by the frequent, emotional financial appeals of some other denominations.
But the fact remains, NYM did something quite out of the ordinary for us: we directly linked asking for money to giving money, and we did both on the floor, in cash, in the context of a business meeting that grew out of a deeply gathered meeting for worship. The result is the largest spontaneous donation I am aware of NYM’s ever having made.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, a new consciousness seeped into my soul, a new way of understanding those words so precious to John Woolman: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Might it be that our money is after all one of our treasures? And that the more we dedicate our financial treasure to our faith works, the more our hearts and faith will follow? That our money can even lead the way to a deeper faith? Several people told me that for them the high point of the Session this year was the collection for San Ignacio. This from Quakers who don’t like to talk about money, who as a matter of religious principle do not pass the plate during worship! Who would have thought it?
As I think about this, a new verse for the song “Holy Ground” pops into my mind. It feels subversive—a poke in our collective eye—and also makes me laugh out loud.
This is holy money,
We’re spending our holy money,
God works with our money, and so our money is holy.
It’s no secret that part of the success of fundamentalism in the United States is that it asks more of its adherents, not less. Salvadoran Friends contribute a much higher percentage of their already meager incomes to their meetings than we do, and their faith community, as well as each individual’s own spiritual experience, grows and is enriched in the process. I am deeply curious to see where we at NYM will go next with this issue. No doubt we will process what we did exhaustively; we will second-guess ourselves, analyze, agonize, pray, exhort, listen, disagree, talk a lot about holding the issue and each other in the Light . . . doing what good upper midwestern Scandinavian/German Friends do when confronted with the money thing. And that’s OK.
But as we do it, I have a vision of something else: I see little pieces of our hearts, flying like hundreds of little moths on the wings of prayer and love, fluttering south from NYM and alighting on the walls of a struggling little Friends school in a tiny mountain town called San Ignacio, in a country called The Savior.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.