Five hundred years from now, archeologists will be sifting through the rubble of the collapsed American empire, trying to figure us out. They will want to know if we were a religious people, and as they excavate our homes from beneath mountains of discarded consumer products, they will discover that, surprisingly, despite our secular, scientific, technological culture, that, yes, we were very religious. In each home they will discover a large common room, where apparently each member of the family would gather at the end of the day. They will find that in each common room, every household had erected an idol for worship, and they will know it is a religious idol because it is the focal point of the room. Every sofa and chair is pointed toward the idol so that each member of the family, the parents and the children, could face the idol while worshipping it.
And what strange home idols they worshipped. They came in various sizes, but they all looked very similar. They were all rectangular flat surfaces. The archeologists will discover that these ancient Americans worshipped a limited number of gods in their pantheon of gods, for the archeologists will find the same names of idols in various households – names like So-ny, Pan-a-son-ic, Mag-na-vox, and To-shi-ba. What interesting names for gods. So the archeologists of the future will conclude that apparently this ancient American culture could not wait to worship their gods at the community temple on the designated holy day. No, they set up their own rooms of worship right in their homes so that they could worship their idols at the end of each work day.
These future archeologists will also wonder what kinds of values guided these people. Some archeologists will search through their letters and diaries and journals for clues. Others will read the obituaries and report cards and job evaluations. But a very clever archeologist will know exactly where to look to discern the values of these people. He or she will peruse their checkbooks. What better way to perceive what people value than to discover how they spend their money? Even an ancient prophet, who lived and taught in a time and place far away from this American civilization, once observed, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So today on the eve of the pledge drive, we are talking about money, but we are really talking about values because our money mirrors what we value. Which implies that a healthy spiritual life will be reflected in a healthy financial life. Now I realize that the word “spiritual” carries a lot of baggage for just about all of us, myself included. I like to keep things simple. For me, spirituality has to do with awareness. The more spiritually mature I become, the more aware I become – of myself, of others, of my reciprocal relationship with others, of my social, political, economic, and ecological world, and of my reciprocal relationship with my world. So the more spiritually mature I become, the more aware I become of my money, too. Am I saving enough or not at all? Do I spend too much, or am I stingy? Do I feel that I never have enough money, or am I comfortable with what I have? In making decisions for my life, is money a concern, is it the only concern, or do I blank out on financial implications? Do I give graciously and responsibly to my congregation or other worthwhile causes, or am I more generous than I can afford to be, or am I a freeloader, relying on others to carry my fair share? These are financial questions, yes, but they are also questions about my values. So if I want my earning, saving, and spending to truly reflect what I deem valuable – if I want to put my money where my mouth is – then I need to become clearly aware of my money.
Now awareness is not an all-or-nothing matter. It grows by degrees. Sometimes my awareness grows because I am attentive to and intentional about its growth. Sometimes life stretches my awareness when I least expect it and have not asked life to do so. This is true of our monetary mindfulness, as well. We begin life with a kind of innocence and naiveté about everything, including money. We begin life with no knowledge or understanding of money. Whatever our needs or desires, our parents mostly provide. We don’t worry about where money comes from or if there will be enough. As far as we know, it grows on trees.
I am amazed at how many people maintain this childhood naiveté into adulthood. I will sometimes see it in those who were born in the lap of luxury, whose desires never had to contend with the limits of money, only the limits of their desires. They just never learned to be responsible for their money – or even to think about it – because they never had to. And unless they have a limitless supply of it, they learn much later in life by having a rude awakening that feels like awakening from an all-night party the next morning with an awful hangover, figuratively and sometimes literally.
Our country is presently experiencing an awful hangover after a ten year party of buying and spending. It began when the dot-com bubble burst and then came 9/11, both of which propelled the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to historic lows, which flooded our economy with money. All-time low interest rates caused investors around the world to chase risky investments in order to squeeze a few more points of yield. Aggressive banks and storefront mortgage brokers pedaled subprime and exotic mortgages. Instead of curbing this practice, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their enablers in Congress encouraged it. The car companies got on board with interest- free financing. Whether it was cars or clothes or homes, the American people were all too willing to take advantage of the loose lending standards. Our savings rate fell below zero as we borrowed equity from our homes to fund a consumer economy built, not on the need to replace what was worn out, but on the desire to have more of what we already had. Seventy percent of our economy is constituted by consumer spending. Now the party is over, and our whole country has a massive hangover. And what makes this recession really scary is that the federal stimulus and bailouts are attempting to lure us to spend again, but most of us are spent out.
Sometimes I fear that our churches promote a kind of monetary mindlessness by refusing to talk about money, and I think this is especially true in Unitarian Universalist congregations. We UUs can talk about ultimate reality, human nature, meaning and purpose, ethics and morality, social and economic justice, but we’re afraid to talk about money, as if it were too personal and private. We find it easier to talk about our sex lives than our financial lives. A case in point: our denomination has a sexuality education program called OWL (Our Whole Lives), which offers classes for children as young as kindergarten all the way up to adulthood. But we have no curriculum on money. We ministers don’t learn anything in seminary about church budgets, fund-raising, or pledge drives. When it comes to ministers and money, it’s on-the-job training. Yet I find that people want to talk about money, not just how to manage it better, but how to insure that our money reflects our spirituality.
Well, our childhood innocence and naiveté about money end sooner or later as we bump up against reality. We learn some of the lessons of life. Like you can’t always have what you want when you want it. Like you must work in order to have money. Like you must save if you want to have money in the future. We learn that people are treated differently, are even valued differently depending on how much money they have. We learn that life is not fair. Many of these lessons are painful, but there is really no way around the pain if we are to learn the realities of money and the realities of life.
Unfortunately, I have known quite a few parents through the years who have found it unbearable to allow their children to experience any pain, even the pain of learning limits. What I have observed is that often such parents are acting out of old wounds. Perhaps they were deprived of things or deprived of love when they were children, and they want to make sure their kids never have to experience the pain of wanting something you can’t have. Perhaps they equate love with things. We have a wonderful quotation out front on our wayside pulpit by Jesse Jackson: “Your children need your presence more than your presents.” Perhaps these parents feel guilty – because they have put their kids through a divorce, because they are dating someone and are spending more time with this new person, because they are spending too much time at work. Whatever the reason, they may feel guilty, and they try to assuage their guilt by giving things to their children. Perhaps they feel insecure and inadequate, feeling like a nobody, and they want to make sure their children never feel that way, so they give them things. Money reflects not only our values but our wounds. It’s important that parents become aware of their wounds so that they don’t wound their children by shielding them from learning the lessons of limits. Freeing your children from these natural, necessary struggles they have to go through is like freeing a butterfly before it’s ready to leave the cocoon. It needs to strengthen its wings against the cocoon, to go through that struggle to be able to fly. If parents take away that struggle, their children will not learn to fly.
All along in this school called life, we learn many lessons that help us attain a more mature spirituality, including greater awareness of money. On a basic level, usually through trial and error – usually lots of errors – we learn how to live on a budget, how to keep track of income and expenses, how to save for retirement, college for the kids, and other things. We learn that our money is more about us than the things we buy, that our money is an extension of ourselves, that my money mediates my heart and soul to the world. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Some of the things I treasure are a nice home, a nice car, nice clothes, and nice stuff. Yet these are egotistical treasures, and I am not using that word to imply that these treasures are selfish or immoral or sinful. By “egotistical,” I mean that these essential treasures are extensions of my ego; they help establish my presence, my place in this world. But my spirituality yearns to get beyond myself and to be connected with something greater than myself. I have shared with you before the meaning of “religion.” It has the same root as “ligament.” Religion connects us to our ultimate meaning and purpose.
Each year when we have our canvass and receive those pledge cards, it’s an opportunity for me to do some soul-searching. What is meaningful and valuable to me? What brings me fulfillment and joy? What kind of contribution do I want to make of myself to this world? What kind of person am I? What are my priorities? What values do I stand for? For me, there is no better statement of the kinds of principles I want to live by and I want to see our world live by than our seven Unitarian Universalist principles that we read together in our responsive reading. I was a Unitarian long before I knew I was and long before I knew what a Unitarian was. The first time I read these seven principles, I thought, “That’s me. That’s the kind of person I am striving to be. That’s the kind of world I want to live in and leave for the next generation.”
So when I fill out my pledge card, I examine my budget and I examine my heart, and I ask myself how generous can I afford to be in giving to a community of faith that embodies my values and seeks to represent those values in our wider community, not just here in Columbia, but throughout our nation and world through our contributions to the Thomas Jefferson District and the Unitarian Universalist Association. I use the pledge card to determine a specific percentage of my income and a specific amount to give each month. This amount comes out of my monthly income just like my home mortgage and my retirement. When it comes to priorities like my mortgage and my retirement, I learned early on to pay myself first. My tithe to the Fellowship is paying my values first. I do the same thing when I decide each year how much to give to charities and social justice organizations, like the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Amnesty International, Common Cause, and Planned Parenthood, because these organizations affirm and promote my values, too.
I’ve heard some Fundamentalist preachers talk about tithing as if it were hocus-pocus. The more you tithe, the more money you’ll have. I’ve discovered that they are right. The discipline of setting aside a portion of your income for your spiritual home brings clarity and simplicity. In our culture, we are hit about every five minutes with things that we have to have. But the practice of tithing reminds us of what we really need for a contented life and what is truly valuable. When I become aware of my priorities, I discover that most of the stuff our culture says I have to have doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. I become clearer about what I need and want, my life becomes simpler, and I find that I have enough.
I guess you could say that I’m being selfish when I pledge to our Fellowship because my contributions benefit me directly in terms of providing me with a job and with a spiritual home. I didn’t realize how important it was to have a spiritual home until I didn’t have one. When I left the church to go to graduate school to become a psychologist, it felt so liberating. I wanted to stand on the mountaintop and yell, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” But after several months of being alone in a place where we knew no one, I missed, not the dogma and doctrine, but the community. When I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas, I discovered that it was possible to have a spiritual home without the dogma and doctrine. I discovered there and I discovered at this Fellowship that it’s possible to have a spiritual home where you can be honest about your questions and doubts, where you can be sincere about your values, and where you can be accepted as you are. I don’t know what kind of price tag you can put on that, but for me, belonging to that kind of community is priceless. I can’t imagine my life without you.
The Bible says that “the Lord loves a cheerful giver.” But the word “cheerful” is a poor translation of the Greek. It should really be translated, “The Lord loves a hilarious giver.” When I contribute to this Fellowship, I don’t give out of guilt or obligation. I give out of pleasure, and I hope you do, too. Don’t give till it hurts. Give till it feels good. Amen.