Let's talk about money.
It's not a polite topic of conversation, but money has been on my mind lately. Maybe it is because tax season is gearing up. Maybe it is because workplaces have been adjusting their budgets and setting salaries for the new year. Or maybe it is because Dan and I have been in the process of buying and selling houses, but whatever the reason, I have been keenly aware that my current attitude towards money seems to be bucking everything my divinity school education espoused.
Christian ideas about money are complicated. Even religious ideas that are not Christian--Buddhist or humanist, for instance--struggle with what to do about consumerism and wealth. Money is a necessary but not desirable evil. It is part of living in the world but too easily can make us become of the world. The gap between rich and poor reminds us that the world is not as it should be, and our attachment to goods and spending distracts us from what most matters.
We know all of this. But the problems always come when we begin thinking concretely. How much money is too much? How am I disinterested towards my wealth? Should I invest to take care of myself and my future at the expense of others? Should I delight in turning a profit or feel guilty for taking advantage? Do I try to play fairly within the system or abandon the system altogether?
When I was at Vanderbilt, we answered those questions in extremes. Capitalism would never redeem us, so we needed to find an alternative. We would read writings from our Latin American neighbors and hear Jesus' message differently, understanding that Jesus came to transform not only people's spirits but their physical realities. Our class discussions proved vital and rich (no pun intend) but we never except once ventured into the territory of talking about mortgages and retirement and equal pay.
As the classroom becomes more and more distant, structural change becomes harder and harder to fathom. Sermons will not usually entertain such drastic ideas because the stakes are higher, the implications more real. Disruptions to the goodness and inevitability of money and financial security come to me every so often: in the form of scripture, certainly, and through a few minimalist blogs I follow which challenge the belief that we need more--more stuff, more money, more content to fill our lives.
But I want there to be an "in-between" space that does not seem to receive much attention or vocalization. In the here-and-now, I cannot simply despise money. While I do not want to take on the values of Wall Street or grow my own bank account to the detriment of others (although I would be remiss if I did not note that tragically, with the way we source our goods, that happens sometimes, often without our knowledge and awareness), I must recognize that money is our conduit to much of creation. And creation, according to my view of the world and our Creator, should be savored.
I give thanks for our home, which allows us to gather with ones whom we love and refresh ourselves after long days of work. I give thanks for the food we buy and for which we allocate a large portion of our budget because it fuels us and delights us. I even find it right to give thanks for those things which bear little resemblance to creation in its most natural, unaltered state, like bicycles and computers and flashlights, which come about because of human creativity and ingenuity, which keep us connected and safe and productive and make our lives easier and more full.
There is a huge problem on the macroscopic level with money. But on the microscopic level right now, I need to practice gratitude. I find myself wanting to give more when I think about how much I have been given, to share the joy that a good meal or stylish jacket or affordable home bestowed upon me. Gratitude accomplishes more than guilt or greed can. It does not create excuses or justifications, but it, at its best, allows us to hold stuff loosely and yet with reverence in the hopes that no hand remains empty.