Talking – and Doing Something – about Faith & Money

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Remarks for Chestnut Hill Meeting on 1/6/2002, by Tom Jeavons

Why did Friends traditionally refuse to make a big deal of the sabbath, or celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter, or to describe the spaces we worship in as "sanctuaries"? Quakers held that we should not treat any one day or space as sacred because we believe every day is sacred, and every space can be made sacred, and that we should make sacred – we should sanctify -- every element of our lives by seeking God’s will for, and trying to reflect God’s love in, every aspect of our existence. Just as Quakers have believed that people have a certain sacred dignity because each has "that of God" within them, so too we have held that by inviting the Divine presence into every aspect of our existence we can make all of life sacred.

The questions I want to pose here this morning then are, "How many of us are trying to do this with the financial aspects of our lives? How many of us are connecting our faith to our money, and trying to our use of money in ways that might sanctify it? How do we understand our opportunities or obligations to support our Meetings with our money – and in other ways? "

Let me be clear here that I am not talking about making an idol of money; that is, treating money as if it is sacred in and of itself. There is way too much of that going on in our culture. We see many, many people treating money as if it were a God; worshiping wealth and sacrificing themselves to wealth, and believing it can give them joy, make them whole, and ensure their security. But money cannot do any of those things, and I would hope Friends would have no part of that.

Rather, I am asking if we are willing to reflect on how money takes on or can be imbued with spiritual meaning and import, for better or for worse, because of our attitudes towards it and the ways we use it? Money begins as a morally, spiritually neutral medium of exchange. However, it becomes something morally positive or negative, and something spiritually liberating or destructive because of the ways we feel about it and use it.

I want this morning to suggest a couple starting places for reflecting on and talking about questions of faith & money, by sharing and reflecting very briefly on three insights about faith and money. Then I want to talk more specifically about questions of how and why we support our Meetings and other Quaker organizations financially – and otherwise.

From Fear to Love

The first observation comes from Henri Nouwen, who once wrote …..
"Every time I take a step in the direction generosity, I know I am moving from fear to love."

How do the spiritual and secular views of money differ? It seems to me the most dramatic and important difference is found in the secular emphasis on fear and greed versus the spirit-rooted vision that emphasizes gratitude and generosity.

Look deeply, for example, at the content of advertisements for investments and you will often see an appeal to fear. A few are blatant, some are more subtle, but finally many appeal to our fears that we will end up without enough money for things we "must have" if we don’t earn more and invest more. Many imply we will end up old and broke, and maybe sick and lonely, if we are not somehow more focused on garnering wealth, more cautious about keeping it, and more aggressive in investing it. Other kinds of advertisements emphasize how we will be failures as human beings, socially inadequate or just unimportant, if we don’t own the right stuff, go the right places, and do the right things – all usually expensive things.

Jesus, on the other hand, tells us "not to worry about what we eat or wear or drink," but instead to contemplate how God provides for all of creation – "the lilies of the field and the birds of the air." He urges us instead to seek to live in the Presence of the Divine (the "kingdom of God"), to trust God will take care of us too so long as we are doing this, and to "be not anxious about tomorrow." In short, Jesus urges us to live in gratitude for what we do have, and a willingness to share with others, because that really is the path to joy and wholeness. And to live in this way because we are convinced of God’s grace and care for us is to move from fear to love.

Where Our Hearts Are

The second observation I would challenge us to reflect on comes from Jesus. At another point in his teachings he made an observation about the power of money to captivate or liberate us.

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Mt. 6:21)

This quote is a very familiar one. Many people nod knowingly when I talk about it. But I have found that many actually hear it backward.

Many think that Jesus said that where our hearts are – i.e., what we care about most – is where we will direct our money. That is often true. We may spend money more freely on our children’s education, or the care of our parents, because we love them.

However, Jesus’ observation is also true. Jesus is tells us that the ways we spend and invest our money can create obligations that may come to dominate our attention and energy, and in so doing draw our commitments and loyalties away from where we want them to be. Our hearts will follow our money. Jesus says it is just as likely that we will become devoted to the things we have spent money on as it is we will come to spend money on (or give money to) those things we are devoted to.

Simply put, the question is, "Do we possess our things, or our things possess us?"

One Friend who understood this dynamic well, and testified to it powerfully, was John Woolman. It was exactly this concern that led Woolman to choose to reduce the size of his business, so that (as he put it) he could "live more free from outward cares and cumbers ... so that nothing would hinder [his] fully attending to the voice of the True Shepard." That is to say, to his discerning the gifts and leadings of the Holy Spirit in his life, and following those wherever they took him.

So when we look at our lives, individually and collectively, as a people of faith, how would we answer this question? Where are we putting our treasure, and where is that leading our hearts? Is tending to our investments, or caring for our possessions, or trying to earn more for the things we think we must have to secure our future (or our children’s future) hindering our discerning and following the Spirit into the life we should lead?

Into the Channels of Universal Love

Actually, the last observation I would invite you to reflect on also comes from John Woolman. In describing what we might call a Quaker vision of stewardship, Woolman observed that, if our lives are deeply shaped by faith, then:

"To turn all the treasures we posses into the channels of universal love
becomes the business of our lives."

Clearly "all the treasures we possess" here does not mean just our money. It also means our time and our spiritual gifts and practical talents. It means our energy and our creativity. It may mean more than even that. But it also means our material wealth.

The vision and challenge Woolman puts before us in these words is powerful and profoundly counter-cultural. You should know that marketers now spend more than $1000 per person per year for every man, woman and child (more than $250 billion) to convince us that we should put all we possess – or at least a lot of our money -- into comfort, status, excitement, self-aggrandizement and a desperate search for security. Somehow, we just do not see the same kind of advertising effort to convince us we should put what we possess into universal love. What would that look like?

Well, putting our material wealth into the channels of universal love might take many forms. However, at least one primary form has to be giving. If we care aboutpromoting universal love, then this should include:

  • Giving to communities of faith, like our Quaker Meetings, that sustain and nurture people in a faith that leads to works of mercy, justice, compassion, and peace.
  • Giving to other institutions, Quaker and other, that carry out those good works.
  • Giving to share the bountiful wealth in which virtually all of us, simply as part of the world’s richest nation, share widely.

I must also add, as a matter of personal testimony, that giving generously as a spiritual practice can be an incredibly liberating experience. I have seen that is true for others, and begun to experience it for myself. Which I guess is just finally to say that in trying to put all we possess into the channels of universal love way we may find our-selves more deeply immersed in the experience of universal love. Then our faith may grow deeper and stronger yet, and so too our capacity to change the world for the better.

Wrestling with the Ideal in the Real World

Having described what I see as a spiritual foundation for considering these matters, and sharing my convictions about the power of these ideals, we need to talk about how they are to be applied in the real world.

The truth is, for all sorts of reasons -- ranging from family history, to personal experience to social pressures -- money, the attraction of wealth, the social as well as economic consequences of being ‘poor,’ and the worldly power of wealth exercise considerably more power over us than most of us recognize or can admit. These influences, among others, make it hard for many people to be generous givers. Our hearts will follow our money, but our money will also follow our hearts – which includes our fears and our egos.

This is one of the reasons it is so important that we, as people of faith and as communities of Quakers, create opportunities to talk about these things: About how we can move from fear to love. About where our treasure is and where our hearts are, and where we want them to be. About how we can turn all we possess into the channels of universal love.

We have a great practical laboratory for working on these issues in our Meetings. As Meetings think about their needs for raising funds for various purposes, they have a great opportunity to engage these questions. We also need to be honest with ourselves and one another about where we are. In that vein, let me make a few plain, and perhaps provocative, observations about Quakers and their money and their giving patterns in Philadelphia.

  • Quakers in PYM are not an especially generous people, particularly when it comes to supporting their Monthly Meetings and the Yearly Meeting. It is hard to get good numbers on our giving, because we also tend to be secretive about money (another problem), but I have some reasonably reliable data about this.
  • It appears that as a rule only half to two-thirds of the members of our Meetings give anything to their support. In many cases it is even less than that.
  • As of 1997, the last year for which I can get any decent figures, the average gift per year per member to Monthly Meetings is between $250 and $300.
  • For comparison purposes, it is important to see this would put Friends in the bottom fifth (among 90 denominations) in supporting their congregations and their denomination, and many of the other groups there are small, black or immigrant churches where average income is very low.
  • Take what seems to be the case about our own demographics in terms of income – we are overwhelmingly middle and upper-class – and it appears we contribute on average between .5% and .75% of household income to our Meetings. That would place us in the bottom 10% in terms of generosity to our own faith communities.
  • Neither are PYM members particularly generous to the Yearly Meeting (and I say this not as sour grapes, but just by way of observation). In our best year for our Annual Fund (i.e., individual giving) we have raised $427,000 from a membership base of 10,000 people , or $43 per member. Even if you assume only half the membership is active, you get a figure of much less than $100 per member.
  • Finally, I have to say I am often stunned at how easily offended Friends are when asked for money, how reluctant we are to ask others for money, and the way we so often treat money as a taboo subject.

I think it is really important to ask why this is so. Why are Friends less generous – at least to their communities of faith? Why are we so nervous, private and sensitive about all this? Why so easily offended?

Do we give less just because we need less money to "run our Meetings?" That may be partly so, because we live in (mostly) bought-and-paid-for buildings and have relatively few operating costs. (No pastors, no organs or choir robes, etc.) But that cannot explain the whole thing. I would ask us to consider:

  • If we were just waiting for a need to give, then why is it often so hard to get Friends to give more when a need exists?
  • And how many projects do we not undertake because we say we cannot afford it?
  • And is it possible that we need so little now because we do so little; but also that we do so little because we so often are afraid of asking for the money – and/or unwilling to give the money – to pay for faith work that could be profoundly important?

Some Final Queries

I seem to have shifted into the "query mode," so let me raise a few more to rap this up and suggest some ground for further reflection and conversation?

  • Do we as individuals see giving to our Meetings (and other Quaker bodies) as: An obligation of membership? An opportunity to express our commitment to Quakerism? An exercise that can be an expression of – and contribute to our growth in – faith? As an expression of gratitude to God for all the blessings we have? Some combination? Something else entirely?
    Do we as a Meeting community believe members have an obligation to provide some financial support to the Meeting, even if only a token amount for those who have little to give? Do we believe members should make the Meeting a "charitable priority?" Are we willing to talk with one another about what levels of giving are appropriate? If not, why not?
  • Are we creating some safe spaces, and providing some support, for our members and attenders to talk with each other about and wrestle with questions and concerns about what should exist connections between our faith and our money – not just in relation to their giving, but in all aspects of their lives? If not, should we, and how could we?

Let me leave this here, then, and let you take up whatever threads of this conversation you would like to, or ask whatever questions you want.

Thomas Jeavons

January 6, 2002