Mind Over Money

Sarah Richards
March 6, 2016

Mind Over Money

In the sixth month of the Illinois state budget impasse, I was in the office of a local legislator. When he learned that I was a relative newcomer, arriving in summer 2014, he said half comically, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you moved to Southern Illinois now!” Ha. Ha. As months seven, eight, nine have gone by without any progress toward our state’s FY16 budget, I’ve heard variations on that comment—sometimes as a question, “don’t you regret/aren’t you sorry you came here?” Well, I’m sure not happy about the economic situation we’re in, but I’m not sorry, because I answered a call to serve as minister to this congregation. I’m committed much as the Fellowship is committed to being right here, right now, and into the future, carrying out its mission: creating a spiritual home, empowering our congregation, sharing our beliefs and being an active presence in our community for the common good. It is hard not to fear when we’re entering an uncertain future, which is, after all, always uncertain. But being here, now, doing what I am—what we are–called to do, we are here at the right time and place, together. Thanks to the vision and stewardship of members over the past sixty-three years up to this moment, this Fellowship is here, planning for the future with hope.

Well, but still, we are now in the third quarter of a budget-less year, witnessing or experiencing the decline in social services, job loss, cuts to SIU and John A Logan. It’s very true that to ignore these realities is irresponsible and unrealistic. But it’s also irresponsible and unrealistic to only focus on the problems of our community and not our capacities, to see only the scarcity and not our assets. The Sparrow Coalition, ‘a community partnership addressing issues of homelessness and poverty in Southern Illinois[i]’ offers us an example. The Coalition has created teams of individuals and organizations to research and publicize existent resources, and to research and adapt alternative methods to fill in service gaps. The Race Unity group is another example—using film discussions to develop dialogue and relationships between black people and white people. They have tapped in to people’s curiosity and thirst for understanding, as well as community networks to identify meeting space and discussion topics, to take steps toward change on the individual, person-to-person level.

What about the Fellowship? We have problems, of course, many related to those of our city and state. We also have this beautiful building, our spiritual home and community meeting place, the land it occupies, an endowment…but by far our largest asset with the most potential is people–we have energetic, smart, dedicated and creative lay people and professionals of a wide range of ages and diversity of talents, passions and dreams. As stewards, how can we balance our focus between the problems we fear and assets we can develop? One very promising, and therefore challenging way is to see stewardship as a life goal, to cultivate generosity as a way of living. Unitarian Universalist Mark Ewert’s book The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving, is a study group guide to stewardship in its most general sense. Ewert says, “Generosity can have many expressions, including care, time, skill, intelligence, gifts, and money. I believe that one cannot omit any of these without curtailing them all. Financial generosity is one of the most challenging expressions, and perhaps holds the most opportunity to make a difference in the world and our own well-being.[ii]

Financial generosity is challenging because it requires us to think about, and talk about money, which is a cultural taboo. We have such a conflicted relationship with money, especially related to religion, and UUs—even UUs who reject the idea that they are religious are not immune. Somehow money is an impolite, profane topic unfit for conversation in holy—or humanist contexts. We say, “put your money where your mouth is,” but can you think of any version of “put your mouth where your money is?” This cultural reticence is stunting to our individual and community development, spiritually and materially, and that is why the intentional, thoughtful, and many-layered approach to talking about money in the context of generosity is helpful.

It is also challenging because generosity, and particularly financial generosity is radically countercultural—counter to American consumer culture in which most of us were raised and live in today. This is where the spiritual, emotional internal work comes into it. As Ewert says, “…most of our cultural messages around money support the opposite trajectory—toward stockpiling, improving our social status, and counteracting our daily stress by spending for our own comfort, even on things that are not good for our health and well-being.[iii]” Ouch! I resemble that remark! We Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on being counter-cultural, but this practice of generosity—for me, and I’ll bet many of us—requires a powerful mindfulness and spiritual, emotional, discipline to free ourselves from our consumer culture behaviors. As Ewert notes, “Generosity takes a fair amount of discernment—how much to give, to whom, in what form, to what end? Giving is not a termination point; it is an opening to the potential for solidarity and kinship.[iv]

Thus, one of the several answers to the question we are asking ourselves this month, “what does it mean to be a people of liberation?” is being generous. The word itself means “freely giving more than is necessary or expected.” Ewart explains, “Generosity’s rich meaning [from Latin words for noble soul] can inspire us. It implies giving freely, so the giver holds choice and control—and freedom always feels good. It is about giving more than necessary, so it is not limited by being required or indispensible. It is more than expected, so it goes beyond the obligation to give or what is anticipated by the recipient. Finally, generosity ennobles us; it makes us great souls. Who would not want to feel that they are a generous person?” He also notes that the gen- part of generosity means “birth”—“So generosity causes something new to be produced—either a connection between people or between people and organizations.[v]

The Quaker educator and author Parker Palmer notes that generosity gains another dimension in community. “In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common story.[vi]” And that is exactly what we do here, are doing, right now in this Fellowship. We are incubating abundance, laying the groundwork for generosity. We fit the definition of something called a community of practice, which according to Ewert is “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. This is situated learning—learning that takes place in the same context in which it is applied.[vii]” I see the Sparrow Coalition, and Race Unity as communities of practice, and the Fellowship, too. Ewert tells us that “a church community…can build fellowship with opportunities for giving and receiving; support faith development and other activities; and provide a setting to practice generosity—through education, modeling behavior, providing a setting for engagement, and mentoring in generosity.[viii]” Our Fellowship’s mission statement comes to mind: our mission includes empowering our congregation to educate one another, enlighten and challenge one another to grow spiritually, intellectually and socially.

This fellowship, then, is a community of practice—and Ewert points out that “a community of practice centered around generosity is not like an exchange relationship, where you give to and receive from the same person in like measure. Rather, you may give support to one person or part of the community, and receive support from another part.—take a moment to think of how you have experienced that kind of giving and receiving – the many forms of support from wiping up a table to singing a hymn to leadership decisions, to signing a petition, to moments of meditation to potluck parties, to listening and being heard.”—Ewert continues, “Giving in a community setting allows for a host of benefits. It can help create social acceptance, promote maturity, and challenge its members to give in “right relationship.” It can also be a conduit through which one learns, practices values or beliefs, and benefits from the examples of other people. The experience can be a philanthropic kinship.[ix]” Philanthropic kinship, that is what we UUs might strive for, as individuals and as a congregation. That kind of connection is what is implied in our seventh principle, “to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all things of which we are a part.” Ewert makes a very interesting analysis of the seventh Principle, pointing out that the meaning of interdependence for UUs is more biological than theological. “As a scientific term, interdependence means the relationship in which individuals within one species, or different species living in a habitat, depend upon each other. This is easily understood even by non-scientists through the concept of an ecosystem. When applied to human relationships, the dynamic of giving and receiving is part of how we sustain each other and build social networks.[x]” …“Many people have realized that an understanding of the interdependent nature of giving and receiving provides feelings of freedom and confidence, which can motivate further giving. This comes with knowing that you can give generously, not only because you trust that you will be able to earn, create, or find more of whatever you give away. It also grows your belief in the web of social connectedness where others will step in to help or support you when you need it. Reducing your anxiety about the future, about your capabilities, what you might need, and even what you might have to give is motivating. It allows you to risk stepping into new activities, deeper levels of relationship, and more engagement with the world.[xi]” That sounds an awful lot like liberation to me!

So let us look around and inside ourselves for the creativity, passion, innovation, and yes, financial resources we can marshal, walking together into an unknown future. When all around us we hear appeals to fear and separation, problematizing and scarcity, may we stay clear eyed, mindful, and open-hearted. Ewert reminds us that “…generosity necessitates being reasonable and optimistic, yet not fearful, about what we need to ensure our own survival. It also requires an openness to others, the ability to be moved and inspired, and to act on those emotions.[xii]

He says, “In the end, being generous is an affirmation of hope in the future. It activates hope and provides a reason to hope.[xiii]” Stewardship – for the earth, for your family, for this Fellowship, is always forward-looking, and requires vision as well as commitment. As we are grateful for the stewardship of past members and friends, so are we committed to our calling to stewardship for all those who come after us.

Amen.

 

 

 

[i] http://sparrowcoalition.org/ accessed 3/3/16

[ii] Ewert, Mark V. 2014. The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving. Boston: Skinner House Books, loc 67/3964. (I read this book on an electronic reader which did not include page numbers).

[iii] Ibid, loc 134/3964.

[iv] Ibid, loc 359/3964.

[v] Ibid, loc 179/3964.

[vi] Ibid, loc 1845/3964.

[vii] Ibid, loc 1871/3964.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., loc 1874/3964.

[x] Ibid., loc 3129/3964.

[xi] Ibid., loc 3170/3964.

[xii] Ibid., loc 322/3964.

[xiii] Ibid., loc 390/3964.