Saturday, January 29, 2011

So I Was Afraid...

When I read the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30, I know which of the three servants I am; I am the one who buries his talent out of fear.

This is the servant that the master calls wicked, lazy, and worthless. Pretty harsh language. But what did the servant really do wrong? In the parallel Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27, the king explicitly charges his servants to "put his money to work."

But in Matthew's account, the master simply "entrusts" his property to them. He may expect that they return it to him with interest, but he doesn't verbalize this. So the "lazy" servant puts the one talent he has been entrusted with in a safe place; he buries it. Seems like a perfectly natural, responsible thing to do.

If my father entrusted me with $100,000 in this economic climate, I honestly would probably put it in an ING account at (a pitiful) 1% interest, rather than investing it in the stock market. I would be afraid to lose it, to come back with less than I started with. I imagine he would be more pissed if I lost money.

But with the Master, that is not the case. He doesn't respond to the two that gained a 100% return, "You fools! Why would you gamble with my money? What if you lost what I had entrusted you with?" No. Instead he praises them for their ballsy wager and entrusts them with even more.

There is one defining difference between the one servant and the other two, though: the servant entrusted with one talent acted out of fear. "Master," he says, "I knew that you are a hard I was afraid, and hid your talent in the ground."

The words "Be not afraid" appear some 366 times in the bible. Despite this admonition, I still live in fear. I'm afraid of driving in the snow. I'm afraid of parking garages. I'm afraid of screwing up at work. I'm afraid of becoming a widower. I'm fearful of all kinds of shit. I feel like lately I am basically living most of my life in fear, with an aversion to risk, and little trust in God's providence. The older I get, the safer I want to be.

How did I get this way? Does God see this, and as a result, entrusts me with less? I feel like God asks a lot of us, and I'm not giving him a return on his investment in me. I feel like I should be working in a soup kitchen (for lack of anything more creative) or something, volunteering my time at the very least, but my laziness and my unpredictable hours at work prevent me from committing. What am I being charged with? How is God asking me to "put myself out there?" How am I building up the Kingdom on earth?

I can't shake this feeling that I am just not doing what God wants me to be doing, either because I don't know what that is, or because I'm afraid to risk anything for the sake of the Gospel. God spews the lukewarm from his mouth, and I am about as lukewarm as they come right now.

Lord, send your Holy Spirit. Set me on fire.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silly Virgins

I was reading Matthew 25:1-13 (the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) this morning and couldn't help thinking about retirement, again:

"Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, "Most certainly I tell you, I don't know you." Watch therefore, for you don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."

Now I know this parable is more eschatological than financial, but I can't help drawing similarities between the virgins and our economic climate here in the States.

For example, a recent survey released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 54 percent of American workers have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, with half of those people saying they had less than $1,000 saved for retirement. Yet, nearly a third of those who say they have virtually nothing set aside say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident that they will have enough money for a comfortable retirement.

I'm sure the foolish virgins thought they had enough oil. But the fact of the matter is, they didn't. That was the reality of the situation. I'm sure they were thinking in the back of their minds, 'those other virgins will hook us up if we run out,' or 'we'll be fine.' They weren't thinking about the future. The most shocking thing to me, though, is that the wise virgins weren't exactly charitable with their extra oil. They claimed there wasn't enough for the both of them--in the face of dire need, they didn't give.

Now, anything can happen. The wise virgins could have tripped on the way and spilled all their oil reserves. The would still be wise, but also unlucky--the door would have shut on both sets of virgins. Same thing with people's finances. Some people encounter illness, natural disaster, bad stocks, unexpected unemployment, what have you, and lose it all. They may have been saving all their lives and have nothing to show for it through no fault of their own. These people aren't foolish, just unlucky. I'm not talking about these people.

Also, if you're a life-long minimum wage worker, chances are you're not going to be banking six figures for the future. You're barely making ends meet as it is. There are rare exceptions (Oseola McCarty, the Missisissippi washer-woman who donated the $150,000 she had saved washing dirty underpants for 60+ years to the University of Southern Mississippi). But I'm not really talking about these people either.

I'm talking about the truly foolish, the grasshoppers of the world (as in, Aesop's Ant and the Grasshopper) who don't plan for the future but are only concerned about today. The ones who cash out their 401k to buy a boat, wanted a huge house they couldn't afford long-term, or whatever.

Now, the wise virgins brought some extra oil, but its not like they brought barrels full of it. They probably brought enough that they could carry. What if the bridegroom took even longer than both groups anticipated and even their extra oil ran out? Would they be foolish too? Or, again, just unlucky? Retirement is kind of don't know how long you are going to live, so you do your best to balance your present-day needs with your anticipated future needs.

I really don't know where I'm going with all this, and don't want to come across as self-righteous. But if people are going to continue to not save adequately for their future in this country, there's going to be a lot of need in the days to come--a financial famine, so to speak. I think we're all going to feel the consequences of this lack of planning, some more than others. And those who have been diligent and financially wise are going to be faced with a choice--do you give (assuming people ask for help, that is), or do you let the grasshoppers be shut out? Does that make you an uncharitable person, or, like the virgins, simply holding people responsible for their actions, ie, their lack of planning?

As always, I don't know the answer, just asking the questions...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Much Is Enough?

[The man said,] ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."‘ "But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ Lk 12:18-20

I have to admit this parable is disconcerting. Isn't the man's attitude the very attitude we are encouraged to have with regards to retirement in the 21st century? We are told that the wise person plans for retirement by deferring immediate gratification and investing (instead of spending) in order to store up wealth for himself in his "golden years." He 'earns' his retirement and is entitled to enjoy it. As far as the 'whose will they be?' part in the parable, the answer seems obvious: what the man has earned in his lifetime will go to his children as their inheritance.

My dad was smart with his money. He planned early, saved all his life, was frugal, made good investments, stayed at the same job (he was a teacher) for thirty years (maxing out the pay grade and securing a good pension) and retired when he was in his early fifties. He made sacrifices and is now enjoying the payoff and making sure my brothers and I have an inheritance. But is he a fool in God's eyes? Will he lose his soul at the expense of his wealth? I pray not; only God knows.

In grad school I tried to give a presentation on "A Theology of Wealth." I think I was trying to prove that it was a sin to have more than you need. But that is so hard to quantify. Do we really 'need' a house? A car? Shoes? There's no line to draw, and its all subjective. In short, I couldn't answer the question I posed in the presentation, mainly: How Much is Too Much?

I have a dollar. I can give this dollar to the poor or put it in my retirement account. The first option makes me generous; the second option makes me fiscally responsible. Is there a way to be both? The answer my wife and I have come up with is a compromise: tithing.

We give 10% of our net earnings to the poor (5%) and to the church (5%). That's it. No more, no less. If someone comes up to me asking for money on the street and I give them $20, that is simply $20 that is coming out of the 'tithing pot.' The tithing pot is a piece of paper I keep on the fridge totaling up the 10% of our earnings each week. I add, subtract, cross out. It looks like a mess, but it keeps us accountable.

Some days I am tempted to 'adjust' our tithe--maybe take it down a notch or so to 7%, or 5%. I don't think this is necessarily wrong, and we may in fact have to adjust in the future. But again, there you have that difficult business of trying to draw a line in the sand. I could say to my wife, 'We need to put more money away for retirement.' And it seems, these days, that that is a perfectly reasonable and responsible suggestion. But it takes money away from people who might need it more desperately than we do.

I think, in the end, God is more concerned about the state of our souls rather than the state of our finances. Our finances are something we worry about, and in this economic climate, it seems rightfully so that we would worry (then again, Jesus tells us not to worry about those things. Hm...) I think the important thing is to have a generous spirit that is concerned with the welfare of others, not just ourselves.

But in the end, we have to watch out for ourselves and our family too. My dad was good about taking care of the family, but he never really taught us much about giving to others. The way he figured, he paid his taxes, and that went to federally-funded programs that help the poor. I also got the picture from him that poor people were poor through their own fault, not being smart, making bad choices, etc., and that giving to them was like throwing money into a black hole, and that they got enough benefits from the government anyway.

But I want to teach my children to be generous (as well as fiscally responsible). I think God wants us to share what we have with those in need, as best we can. The more we do this, the more I think it becomes natural to give, and this affects our spiritual disposition. Tithing has been our way of striking this compromise between our own welfare and the welfare of others in need. And so far it seems to be working.