Spirituality of Money
In her book entitled The Soul of Money, fundraiser and global activist Lynne Twist invokes the image of water to describe money’s essence. “Money flows through all our lives, sometimes like a rushing river, and sometimes like a trickle. When it is flowing, it can purify, cleanse, create growth, and nourish. But when it is blocked or held too long, it can grow stagnant and toxic to those withholding or hoarding it. Like water,” Lynne Twist continues, “money is a carrier. It can carry blessed energy, possibility, and intention, or it can carry control, domination, and guilt. It can be a currency of love … or a carrier of hurt or harm…”
That’s a provocative image, isn’t it? Money as water … money flowing or money blocked … money carrying blessed energy and possibility or carrying control, hurt, harm.
And from the moment we are born, we are swimming within these currents. We soak up messages from family and peers and the culture surrounding us; we are shaped and formed by early experiences with money; and it all goes so deep that the messages and experiences develop into a kind of programming we find ourselves living automatically and going back to again and again even when it causes us pain. It’s all we know. It’s reality to us. It’s the water of our lives.
All of this implies something about the nature of a spirituality of money, my topic today. A spirituality of money, at the very least, requires us to press pause on what we’ve been doing automatically. It requires us to step back from ourselves, get some perspective, and chart a better course forward. In some cases the motivation for doing this can be sheer curiosity; but usually it is suffering of one kind or another. A lack of integrity in our lives, for example. As Vicki Robins says, in her book Your Money or Your Life, we find ourselves not so much making a living as making a dying; we feel like we have to give up who we are, violate our deepest values, just to make enough. Then there is a second kind of suffering: the feeling of disempowerment around money. We overspend or we hoard. We sabotage ourselves. Conversations about money often erupt into fights. Like the plague, we avoid budgets, financial statements, checkbooks, and all that stuff. Finally, a third kind of suffering: wanting to give to good causes in the world, but holding back. Fearing that there’s just not enough to go around. Starving the groups and institutions we believe in, even as our expectations for them to deliver remain sky-high.
So many kinds of suffering, that would drive a person towards a spirituality of money. So here we are. How many of you never feel stress around money? That’s what I thought….. Listen to what Lynne Twist says: “Rarely in our life is money a place of genuine freedom, joy, or clarity, yet we routinely allow it to dictate the terms of our lives and often to be the single more important factor in the decisions we make about work, love, family, and friendship. There is little that we accept so completely as the power and authority of money, and assumptions about how we should feel about it. We challenge assumptions about every other facet of life: race, religion, politics, education, sex, family, and society. But when it comes to money…..” When it comes to money, we don’t. Even religious liberals. Some might say especially religious liberals…
So that’s what we’re doing this morning, we religious liberals, we spiritual people who affirm the sacred in the everyday. If money is water, we’re toweling off for a time. Stepping out of the river, stepping out of the pool, to do some needed soul-searching…
And a big part of this begins by getting clear on our personal stories around money. Something psychologist Carl Jung once said rings absolutely true here: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” So we go back into the darkness and the shadows of old stories, childhood experiences, things we were told and behaviors we saw modeled, all of which became gospel truth to us…. We go back, we go deep, in order to go forward and to go far….
Here’s one of my stories. I always dreaded asking my Dad for money. Mom would hand it out without any struggle, much as I wanted and sometimes even more, even with a smile—but it was Dad who earned it, kept our boat afloat, so maybe Mom didn’t understand the value of a dollar. That’s what I wondered as a kid. What I knew: Men go to work, women stay home.
Here’s what Dad always said to me: “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” “Takes hard work.” And boy I got that. As a medical doctor, Dad was always gone. Even when he was with us, he was gone. The pager constantly on his belt could go off any time, and did. He’d come home and in the middle of dinner doze off. Money didn’t grow on trees—you had to work like a slave to earn it…
Nevertheless, I had my fantasies… May favorite comic book as a kid happened to be Richie Rich. After school and after skating practice I’d go to the MacNamara Café, order a glass of milk and a heaping plate of French fries covered with gravy, and read the most recent edition. Richie Rich was a boy my own age, and I thought he’d like me if we ever met, but he had all the money in the world, and then some, together with adventures so amazing they took my breath away.
Now one day, an advertisement on the back page caught my eye, for something called a Magic Money Maker. Finding this, I heard singing in my brain. Put a dollar in, said the ad, and out comes a twenty. Amaze your friends! Yours for only $2.50 (plus tax, shipping, and handling). Busily, I got to work figuring out the mathematics: it would cost only $4.15, total, to become just like Richie Rich! Now THAT’S a deal!
So four dollar bills, a dime and nickel jingled in the envelope I sealed carefully, wrote the address on in big block letters (ACME NOVELTY), and sent away, postage ten cents. I knew my life was changing. Visions of chandeliers danced in my mind—because that’s what mansions have. I was going to build a mansion for Mom and Dad and myself and my brother. We were gonna have Rolls Royces, maids and butlers, and all that Richie Rich stuff, so we could spend more time together, never work again, Dad could finally take that pager off his belt and relax, take me and my brother Rob on that camping trip he was always promising he’d take us on. Also no more school, and a girlfriend for me. All modest dreams….
Six weeks later, the package arrived. And when it did, I was in no way like Richie Rich’s elegant and stiff-upper-lip butler. I ripped that parcel open like crazy, no shame. It was here, finally! But then, when it was in my hands, I found myself surprised by how cheap it looked… It was smaller, lighter, than I had imagined, just a frame of red plastic holding two plastic rollers in place, one below the other, and a knob on the side. The instructions read: insert dollar bill into top roller. Twist knob. Result comes out of bottom roller. That was it. What kind of magic was that?
But I was still game. I did as the instructions said. Inserted the bill into the top roller. I could hardly breathe I was so nervous, so many things were riding on this moment–chandeliers and Rolls Royces and a girlfriend(!) and more. I twisted the knob until I could see something coming out of the bottom roller, uncurling, looking like money, but it was funny-colored, pale blue, and the face of Jackson—the face on every real twenty dollar bill—wasn’t on it. Just a goofy clown face.
In the end, I ended up having to break my Magic Money Maker to retrieve my real one dollar bill. That dollar sat in my hand like a heavy stone, and I realized that that was all it would ever be.
And that’s my story…. Does any of that resonate with you?
What’s your story?
Listen again to Carl Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” We go back, we go deep, in order to go forward and to go far.
I’m struck by how my personal Richie Rich dream was really about intimacy and integrity. My birth family being healed and whole. Finding time to have adventures together. Being with my Dad without fear that that damned pager could go off at any time. But the message I received as a kid and which so many of us received is that work is about making a dying; to earn enough money we have to violate what we love, violate our integrity, give up who we are. The dollar sits in our hands like a heavy stone, and that’s all it will ever be….
Money like toxic water, carrying toxic things. Did you notice the gender stereotyping in my story? Men make money, women spend it…. Men need to know about money, women don’t need to know anything. Talk about a prime cause of resentment in relationships. Dad resentful to have to bear the burden, Mom resentful for being in the dark. When Dad died, and it was revealed how poor a money manager he actually had been, important documents scattered everywhere and hard to find, you better believe my Mom’s resentment came out. Instantly, Mom had to learn how to take care of the finances, and she did. She was up to that challenge. Better than Dad ever could…
Another thing you might have noticed in my story is the saying, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Did you like that? Do YOU say that? I know I have, in those shocking almost-parapsychological moments of channeling my Dad’s spirit… And there’s so many others out there, and in here. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Money is the root of all evil.” “You only get what you pay for.” Lynne Twist calls them “life sentences” in order to underscore how they can imprison a person for a lifetime. There may be a grain of truth to them, but only a grain. “When I was a child,” she says, “my grandmother used to say to her granddaughters, ‘Marry the money and love will come later.’ We used to laugh when she’d say that and she would giggle and have a twinkle in her eye, but to tell the truth, she believed it. It’s what she had done. When she was married around 1900, she married the wealthiest man she could find and then found a way to love him. She wanted to pass that advice on to us. Even though we laughed at her comments, they imprinted us. Lynne Twist goes on to say that “All her granddaughters later had to break from that belief system in our lives if we were to be free to find loving partners with deeper credentials than cash.” Brings to mind a quip from Humorist Ezra Bowen: “If you marry for money, you will surely earn it.”
One more thing I’ll put my finger on in my story is the disempowerment I felt around money as a kid … and that many of us felt and still feel. A far worse story of this than mine comes from financial planner George Kinder, his book entitled Seven Stages of Money Maturity—it’s right up there with Lynne Twist’s book. He tells the story of a man named Sherman who, when he was a boy of seven or eight, “went out for a walk with his father, and the two of them stopped at a local convenience store. ‘Why don’t you get yourself some candy?’ his father said. Like any kid, Sherman jumped to, found his favorite licorice, unwrapped it, and was chewing happily when his father came to the cash register with the various items he was picking up. ‘You have the money to pay for that, don’t you?’ Sherman’s father said, motioning towards the half-eaten licorice. Sherman didn’t have the money. In fact, he’d assumed his father was going to pay. He felt so awful he could barely manage to say, ‘No.’ ‘Wouldn’t you know,’ his father said, turning to the store manager who was running the cash register. ‘The kid wants candy and he doesn’t have the money. He’s going to have to come back tomorrow and bring you what he owes. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he does it.” That’s Sherman’s story. “What do you think I am—your bank account?” “Do you think I’m made of money?” “Sherman,” says George Kinder, “developed an intense fear around money, which he carried into adulthood. No matter how much he was making or had socked away, Sherman always felt insecure, anxious that some person or accident would pounce on him in the next instant….” “Sometimes,” says Sherman himself, “I feel like I can’t afford to live. When I think about having enough money, the only feeling I get is despair that I’ll always fall short.”
That is really hard to hear, isn’t it? I can only imagine where a story like this might be taking you. Perhaps to a place of gratitude, that you were not parented like this. Perhaps you were parented like this. But all of us can sympathize with the difficult emotions involved; all of us know what they feel like.
The water of money when it is toxic carries them. Feelings that there is not enough to go around, feelings that more is better, feelings that this is just the way the world is—there’s nothing anyone can do about it. A scarcity mentality dulls everything in our lives, darkens over everything. We try to solve things by making more money, but you know what? Then, the only meaning money has for us is compensation for all that we have lost. Lost peace of mind, lost relationships, lost joy. It’s all about making a dying, not a living…
We must learn how to detoxify the water of money, get it flowing freely and purely in our lives. Get it to carry sweet things, good things, to bless the world. We must learn how.
Part of this involves giving something up. Giving up unhelpful but tempting coping strategies. One is finding someone to blame, and staying stuck in that emotional goo. Resentment towards corporations, resentment towards current and former spouses, resentment towards foreigners (undocumented immigrants are a great example of this), resentment towards the federal government and the IRS, resentment towards either major political party, and of course, resentment towards our parents. Blaming them as an excuse not to do anything, to change, to find a better way.
Got to give that up. And also this: oblivion. Some of us simply ignore money. Act like it doesn’t exist, or that it’s unimportant. But you know what? Money is where our values meet the world. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also,” says Jesus Christ. That’s why we as a religious community can’t help but talk about money! Money unites our treasure and our hearts. We go where our money goes. What we give into, we become. We have to talk about this.
We’ve got to give up blame, we’ve got to give up oblivion, and we’ve got to give up Magic Money Maker thinking as well. Get rich quick schemes. Fantasies that some rich uncle will one day show up on our doorstep. Congregations do this all the time. Fantasies about that magical creature elf called “someone else.” As in, I can be here and enjoy all the blessings of this community, but the money that we need to maintain what we have and keep growing—that will come from someone else. Someone else will do it. Someone else will take care of it. Well I’m here to tell you—there’s no one else here but us chickens. This is our house, and there’s no one else but us to love it.
It’s all about detoxifying the water of money, so that we can get it flowing freely and purely, get it carrying blessed energy, possibility, and intention to do good work in the world. We’ve got to give some things up, and we’ve got to do some other things. Become intimately aware of our personal money story. Look at our life sentences square in the face. Feel the difficult feelings that emerge and hold them, heal them, so they no longer pull our strings. Every time we find ourselves succumbing to the myth of scarcity–unmasking it as unreality and untruth. An illusion anchored by the pain of our past. Everyone knows that money can’t buy any of the truly good things in life: love, friendship, peace, meaning, purpose. Of course. But unless we develop a spirituality of money, all these free things will still remain unattainable or at the very least will be continually troubled, because our money attitudes touch everything. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” We must make the darkness around money in our lives conscious. Then comes the light.