Wednesday, March 21, 2012

All About Money

“It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right … she moves in mysterious ways.” – U2

One thing seminarians consistently worry about is money. Who’s going to pay for all this? Luckily for us, VTS has some pretty stellar financial aid, and we’re certainly grateful for that. But there’s paying for seminary, and then there’s making sure you have enough cash flow to buy the next round of groceries or to put gas in the car. And the longer I spend in seminary, the more I find that we have everything we need. Yet despite the overwhelming generosity from friends and family at St. Thomas and beyond—despite the way things always seem to work out—despite the fact that simply acting responsibly has proven to be enough—my anxiety about money continued to run high through my first semester at VTS. Having no financial buffer to speak of is nerve-racking!

And then, like Christmas presents streaming in throughout the twelve days, amazing things began to happen. First I was commissioned by the Diocese of Olympia to build a Facebook presence and gathering place for Episcopal young adults in Western Washington.  An additional scholarship for which I hadn’t even applied dropped right into my lap. And to top it all off, my personal website went viral, garnering 30 million hits in the month of January!

The site,, has been a very slight moneymaker since I contracted with Billboard magazine in 2009 and ads began to appear. But in a sudden rush of activity on Facebook right after New Year’s Day, I found myself to be the talk of the internet … and a very helpful chunk of change landed in my bank account. The fad leveled off quickly (to be replaced by this intriguing meme), and subsequent months will produce much smaller amounts, but I get the point: God sure has a great sense of humor.

I imagine God saying with a loving smirk, “OK, you’ve proven to me you’re not ready to live on the edge just yet without falling apart. The day of reckoning will come, and so will the grace you need to handle it—the grace that was already with you, and which you completely failed to see all around you. But in the meantime, I’ll throw you a bone.” This kind of pure, unadulterated gift probably won’t happen again. For years we’ve wanted to start a college fund for Sarah, and now we have that opportunity. Although we do not intend to spend any of this money on ourselves, it’s nice to have an emergency buffer again.

Yet I keep reminding myself that money is merely a tool, not a thing of value itself. Strategizing its use is all well and good, but Jesus called us beyond that into something a little less … controlled. Jesus called us to have more faith in God than in money. Bishop Jeff Lee used to say, “Money is frozen desire.” To collect more and more money, just because we might use it someday, is folly. To give money away to someone who needs it more is to use it well. And a gift is a gift—not a contract.

In reality, I have more money than I need … as do most of you reading this. Compared with most of the world, we’re doing just fine. So why wouldn’t we give more of it away? Is saving it for our daughter the same as spending it on ourselves? Yet education is extremely important to us, and we want to be sure Sarah can pay for it. Still, we can tithe from it, and we have the pleasurable challenge of making decisions about this one-time tithe.

I may seem to be talking pretty baldly about money. I’ve heard it said that sex is by no means the most taboo topic in America. Actually, we talk about sex almost constantly in our culture. What we don’t like to talk about is money, and we even indoctrinate our children at a very young age not to talk about it, or only to talk about it in certain ways. Think of how you would feel if your child asked one of your friends—or worse, a business associate or boss—“How much money do you make?” In his book Health, Money and Love (and Why We Don’t Enjoy Them), author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon writes about the cult of money and suggests an experiment: at a party, pull out a twenty-dollar bill and use it to light a cigar. Just see how the crowd reacts!

I’m reminded of the woman who poured expensive perfume all over Jesus’ feet to anoint them for his impending burial (Matthew 26:1-16). To whom do we relate most in this story? Most of us, if we’re honest, would have to admit we relate to Judas: he’s the sensible one. But let’s not let it escape our notice that this altercation about money pushes Judas over the edge, convincing him that Jesus needs to be gotten rid of.

I know, I know … you’re all thinking, “It’s not October. Get off the stewardship stump.” But these are my current seminarian musings, plainly and honestly. I’m intrigued by the idea that one of Jesus’ goals was to help us let go of our love and worship of money (and what better discipline to take on during Lent?). Yes, we need enough money to survive, and we need a little more of it in order to participate in American society to any meaningful degree. But once we have that much—and most of us in America do—things start to get fuzzy, and it’s easy to start making excuses. To quote a favorite George Michael song of mine, “The rich declare themselves poor/ And most of us are not sure if we have too much/ But we’ll take our chances, ’cause God’s stopped keeping score” (“Praying for Time,” from Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1, 1990).

One more thing: This week, Bishop Greg pointed me to a great article about money and tithing from the Sojourners website. It says a lot of what I’ve been saying here, but much more elegantly. Check it out.

As of last week, another round of exams is behind me. I have completed my three quarters of Church History. I will now pick up a one-quarter class called Crisis Ministry: I figure it’ll be great to have taken this class before beginning Clinical Pastoral Education in May. Old Testament and Hebrew will continue, along with a semester-long course called Constructions of Youth and Youth Ministry. This class is teaching me all the things I wish I’d known before beginning work at St. Thomas! It has occurred to me that things I learn about youth ministry going forward may be information I’m responsible for propagating rather than implementing, depending on what kind of position I’m called to after seminary—we’ll see. But I hope I can get back to working with youth more intently than do many of the priests I know. One big plus is that while I’m absorbing all this new knowledge, I also bring years of on-the-ground experience and wisdom to share with my classmates.

In January term, I took two consecutive week-long courses on critiquing and writing curriculum. I learned that both of these jobs are more demanding than I had anticipated, and that there are many resources out there that are helpful even if we don’t adopt them wholesale.

Christy among D.C. cherry blossoms
This fall, I will begin my field education at Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland. Another seminarian named Sarah Carter is already there; she was my TA in Hebrew first quarter, and I think we’ll work well together. Our first joint task will be to kick off a young adults group. I think the very possibility of a young adults group—always the last missing demographic—is a great sign of a healthy congregation! Actually, I fell in love with this parish on my very first visit. With all due respect to my friends at St. Thomas and the welcoming spirit we’ve worked hard to foster, Ascension is an incredibly hospitable parish. While we’re still “practicing the hospitality of God,” they seem to have come closer to mastering it! They’ve internalized hospitality to a degree that I myself would love to achieve someday.

Sarah falls off a monument in front of the U.S. Capitol building
Christy is still our family breadwinner in her job at the Cokesbury book store on campus. Sarah is growing like a weed, learning to read at a brisk pace, and reveling in her enjoyment of math. She is making good friends both within and outside the seminary community. She has also presented us with some distinct parenting challenges of late, in the form of aggravating obstinacy. While this is an area in which she will certainly grow, I find that my parenting skills are also stretching and growing in painful but healthy ways. I suspect that these skills—patience, choosing battles wisely, swallowing my pride, moving closer to the difficult loved one instead of going into orbit and flinging pronouncements from above—may also come in handy in parish life!

Please continue to keep us in your prayers. We miss you all, but we are planning a trip to Seattle in August. Stay tuned for details.

In Christ,

Josh Hosler

No comments:

Post a Comment