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Putting our money where our hearts are

July 8, 2008

SUMMARY: "Put your money where your mouth is." Matthew 6:21 expresses a similar sentiment, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

What we do with our money says a lot about what we value. In The New York Times (June 10, 2008), columnist David Brooks focused on the connection between the values from which the United States was born and the way we spend money.

He wrote:

"The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality. Millions of parents, preachers, newspaper editors and teachers expounded the message. The result was quite remarkable&ellipsis;

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened."

At annual conferences across the United States, we may chuckle when the bishop asks those presenting themselves for ministry this historic question: "Are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself?" The laughter may cover the embarrassment we feel for the debt these persons have incurred to prepare themselves for ministry, or it may cover our discomfort with our personal level of debt.

Brooks identified one of the outcomes from the erosion of our cultural values around money.

"The transformation has led to a stark financial polarization. On the one hand, there is what the report calls the investor class. It has tax-deferred savings plans, as well as an army of financial advisers. On the other hand, there is the lottery class, people with little access to 401(k)s or financial planning but plenty of access to payday lenders, credit cards and lottery agents."

He challenged the government for its role in eroding U.S. financial values. His message from the pulpit of The New York Times is heard often in United Methodist churches.

"State governments have played a role. They aggressively hawk their lottery products, which some people call a tax on stupidity. Twenty percent of Americans are frequent players, spending about $60 billion a year. The spending is starkly regressive. A household with income under $13,000 spends, on average, $645 a year on lottery tickets, about 9 percent of all income. Aside from the financial toll, the moral toll is comprehensive. Here is the government, the guardian of order, telling people that they don't have to work to build for the future. They can strike it rich for nothing."

Does this great church, which has responded to so many social ills across its history, have the energy to help people live as faithful stewards, avoiding the domination of debt so we might transform the world? Isn't this our core business, and hasn't it been since the beginning?

This could be the moment for our churches to embrace stewardship in its fullest sense; not as a two-week commitment drive in the autumn, but as a lifestyle choice that includes our financial decisions in the values we embrace as disciples of Jesus Christ. Preachers who reluctantly preach on stewardship and the Christian life or avoid the topic altogether may, in fact, miss out on a subject their congregations are hungry to hear.

With enormous passion, the people of The United Methodist Church embrace a program like Nothing But Nets. It couldn't be simpler: for $10 you can buy a net and save a child's life. Millions of dollars are raised and many lives are spared, but something else happens. We begin to look at that $10 bill differently. A lunch out is a net. A trip to Starbucks is halfway to a net. The extra-large pizza with two toppings and a two-liter Coke is two nets. Wow!

This could be the best time ever to remind people that what we do with our money says volumes about what we value. This could be the greatest season to teach and challenge people to embrace the full life of the Christian steward. People are ready to listen.