[Today’s guest post is from Megan Westra, a writer and speaker who also serves on the leadership team of a Milwaukee church. Here she writes of her growing understanding of money, faith, family and friends.]
The Anxiety of Financial Matters
I was in high school during the heyday of Drew Carey’s improv show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” With a six-year age gap between my brother and I, there weren’t many things that would prompt an enthusiastic family-wide gathering at that stage in life, but piling on to the couch to laugh ourselves silly over Carey’s show was one thing that would bring us together without fail. Each show would begin with Carey enthusiastically welcoming the audience to another episode, and the tagline: “the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”
As a young adult I approached my finances with the same ideology: “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” I lived decidedly paycheck to paycheck carefully parsing out my bank account to the last dollar, and frequently checking my balance before heading to the mall or the grocery store just to make sure I had something in my account. I hated thinking about money. Creating a budget seemed so stodgy, actually following it even worse. I wanted to have the freedom to grab dinner or coffee or go shopping with my friends whenever I wanted, without having to first consult my budget.
Examining my finances was also anxiety inducing. If I sat down to plan how I would allocate my funds, then I would have to come to terms with how little money there actually was in my account. If I didn’t try to plan, then I could never come up short on cash for all the things I wanted to do.
It was only after encountering the work of Ron Sider, Gustavo Gutierrez, Shane Claiborne, Leonardo Boff and James Cone that I began to think about my money differently–namely that I needed to stop thinking of it as my money at all. These theologians and activists challenged my assumption that so long as I gave the 10% of my income commanded in Scripture, then I was honoring God with my money. A church kid among church kids, I had been tithing since I was in elementary school, faithfully dropping fifty cents of my allowance money in the brass plate as it passed by on Sunday mornings. As I encountered the work of liberationists like Gutierrez, Boff and Cone however, I started to think of giving in a different way. Sure, I still faithfully gave my 10% to the church as a young adult, but was God honored in the way I breezed past the woman experiencing homelessness on the street on my way to buy a $6 cup of coffee? The questions began to prick in my heart and mind, and I switched to Fair Trade coffee. After all, if I were going to spend that much money on a double shot, vanilla latte with extra foam, the person growing the coffee might as well be paid a livable wage.
A Baby’s Birth and a Mom’s Rebirth
My daughter was born in 2012, and that year I was reborn right along with her in so many ways, not the least of which was my view of money and resources, and what it means to be generous. We had been living intentionally in a low-income community for just over two years when Cadence was born. As we expected, people from our church gathered round to support our family with casseroles and baby clothes. Unexpectedly, our neighbors who often scarcely made ends meet, showed up on our doorstep with gifts and food to welcome the newest addition to the neighborhood. I was stunned. How did my neighbors, who had so little, find the means to be so generous? I started to think of their generosity whenever I would rush past someone in need on my way to get coffee, or to pick up a new top for a special event. How was it that I never seemed to have the resources to be so generous?
The Philanthropy Roundtable’s findings on the demographics of generosity in the U.S. back up what I experienced first hand in my neighborhood: that while we may read headlines about what charitable efforts billionaires are making, the people who are the most generous are in fact the poorest Americans. In fact, people who make less than $20,000 per year give around 12% of their income as opposed to people who make above $125,000 per year who give only 2-3%. My husband and I shifted our thinking, what if rather than make up rules about “do we tithe on our take home or our gross?” we chose to ask instead “how would you like us to use our resources, Lord?”
We began to listen to the tugs on our heart, when we read about a tragedy in the news, or when a support letter arrived in the mail from a college friend. We listened to conversations on our front porch with neighbors. We listened to the stresses of coworkers and friends, and we began to think of ways to respond as though whatever we have is potentially the answer to someone else’s prayer. Taking our cues from the book of Acts, where the believers held things in common, our family dares to imagine the possibility that perhaps it is possible for there to be communities in which no one has need. Which means we choose to view the money and resources we have not as ours but as ours to steward. It also means that when we are in need, we are vulnerable enough to let others know, and to trust that God will provide somehow–often the act of expressing need is much harder than giving sacrificially to meet someone elses need.
In Matthew 25 the evangelist recounts an exchange when Jesus tells his disciples that whatever they do for the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned and outsider they do to him as well. I wonder what would happen if we took this piece of Scripture seriously? That every meal shared, and every person embraced would be representative of Jesus in our midst. That every cup of water or vial of medicine isn’t to be doled out in amounts which meet the 10% quota, rather they are held with open hands, gifts given to me for this moment so that I might have something to give to another in their time of need. Because at the end of the day, it’s not my money anyway.
Megan Westra serves on the pastoral staff team at Transformation City Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is a dynamic and passionate writer, public speaker and worship leader, and is currently pursuing her Master of Divinity at Northern Seminary. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband of eight years, Ben, and their six- year-old daughter, Cadence. She enjoys coffee, fitness and cooking, and has a habit of starting to read more books than she could ever hope to finish. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter, where she describes herself as the Hermione Granger of theology.