Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hiding Money

This post originally appeared in the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.

Whether I intend it or not, my attitude toward money is teaching my children something about God. Perhaps I should consider what lessons I want it to teach them.

Like most of you, I grew up in a middle-class family that didn’t talk about money. If I ever asked how much my father made, the response was, “That’s private, and it’s rude to talk about it.” Of course, that didn’t stop me from getting into playground arguments over whose parents made more money. Likewise, if I ever asked how much our house cost, my parents would say, “That’s none of your business, and it’s rude to talk about it.” I could tell that we lived in a nice house, but, for some unknown reason, quantifying that niceness was a social taboo. Most of my parent’s finances were hidden from my brothers and me, but occasionally they would share with us that the monthly utility bill was “a whopping $300” and that we all needed to do a better job of turning off the lights. I recall a stretch when my father was in between jobs, forcing us to cut back, but, except for a general admonition about the importance of frugality in lean times, the burden of that curtailment was kept from the children.

There was one financial practice, however, that wasn’t hidden from us. Once a month in church, my father would take out his checkbook, write a check for our family’s monthly pledge, and then fold it and hand it to one of us to put in the alms basin. How exhilarating it was to be invited into this act of private devotion! I remember feeling a sense of pride and a protective instinct that was awakened within me because I had been trusted with this piece of confidential financial information. Uncharacteristically, my father didn’t forbid us from taking a peek at the amount, which, to a boy with no appreciation for finances beyond a $3 weekly allowance, seemed staggering. Enthralled by its relative magnitude, I pinched the piece of paper tightly between my fingers lest anyone else should see what was written on it.

As a clergyperson, I don’t sit with my kids in church. Even if I did, we pay our pledge electronically, so there wouldn’t be anything to show them. How, therefore, might Elizabeth and I teach them the value of giving money away? How will we show them what it means to be rich toward God? Elizabeth could hand each of them a dollar bill to put in the plate, but would that instill within them the spirit of trusting deeply in God’s provision? We aren’t great at remembering to give them an allowance, so asking them to give a tenth of it away isn’t going to work either. We often encourage them to share, to be generous, and to use their time to help others, but emphasizing the “time and talent” approach to stewardship almost always obscures the exclusively treasure-focused moment of bringing our offerings to God when the ushers pass the plate down the pew. What can we do to teach our children what it means to give a significant portion of what God has given us back to God through a sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits offering?

If we want our children to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear” (Matt. 6:25 CEB), we need to start talking about money. Unfortunately, our silence is teaching them the wrong lesson. I like clipping coupons and prefer to keep our thermostat at a modest setting. We rarely eat out, and I enjoy shopping at thrift stores. And I admit that I am likely to wave a midsummer utility bill in the air as I walk around the house, turning off lamps and calling for even less air conditioning. But I don’t do those things because I am worried that we will not have enough. I do them because that’s how I value money as a gift that’s been entrusted to me. That’s how I express my stewardship of God’s blessings. And the practice of financial stewardship—sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving—has given me an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity, of faithfulness instead of fear.

That’s the attitude I want my children to know, which is why Elizabeth and I need to talk with them about our money—specifically how much we are given and how much of it we give away. I want them to know that by global standards we are rich—in the top 0.06% of the world’s population[1]—and I want them to know that we don’t take those blessings for granted. I want them to see that we give 13% of our income back to God and that we do it joyfully because that practice helps us learn to depend even more fully on God. This fall, when it’s time to fill out a pledge card, I hope everyone in my family will be involved so that we might all grow together in our appreciation of God’s blessings and our confidence in his provision.

What about you? What does your attitude toward money say about your relationship with God? How do your spending and saving proclaim your faith that God will always provide? How does the transaction history in your bank account reflect your belief that God is the source of all your blessings? You might be a coupon-clipper, or you might be a spendthrift, but, either way, you can still use your money to build your faith. Whether we like it or not, our attitude toward money says something about our faith in God. Maybe we should all be more intentional about what beliefs it communicates.

[1] To calculate your place in the Global Rich List, check out www.globalrichlist.com.

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