My Empty Wallet

Disclaimer: This is not a “woe is me” post. This is not a search for pity. This is not me soliciting donations. This is me, telling a story about my complicated and mostly negative relationship with money.

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. I have to admit, I have been nervous about it. I’d almost be more comfortable writing about my sex life than writing about my financial life. In fact, I would definitely be more comfortable writing about my sex life. I think that’s part of the problem though, right? Money and finances become so personal that any kind of financial drawback comes with a sense of shame. In fact, among all of the shaming things that have surrounded my divorce, the financial toll has been among the most devastating.

My relationship with money feels long and sordid. My mom received $37.50 twice a month for child support from my deadbeat biological father. I always knew when those checks arrived. Money was talked about a lot in the house. I feel like I always knew the prices of things and when we didn’t have enough. When I was nine, we moved to a very affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. My family lived way above our means, but even so, what we had couldn’t compare to what surrounded us in our neighborhood. We lived with the unspoken rule that it was better to live in a nice neighborhood and fight to keep up than to live within our means. I got a good education in our school district. That has become my standard defense of my parents’ decision to overextend us. The more I think of it, the less that defense holds up.

I’ve always worked. I helped my sister with her paper route until I was old enough to get my own. When I was sixteen I worked at Dairy Queen and at a shoe store in the mall. I worked in the cafe at the local grocery store through my first year of college. I worked nearly full time hours while maintaining my freshman course load and commuting between school and home. I liked earning my own money. I liked being able to go out with my own money. I liked not having to depend on people. I also liked giving. I came up in a prosperity gospel church that taught that God’s blessings were proportionate to your giving. Even when I left that church, that message was fully engrained in me. I sometimes wonder what things would be like if the money that I gave to church had gone into a savings account instead. I worked throughout college. I did telemarketing then I worked for a non-profit. I usually had enough to pay rent, buy books, and buy coffee and beer. That’s pretty much all you need to survive college.

I got married toward the end of college and a new pathology crept into my life. For most of my marriage, my wife made more money than I did. She put me through seminary. I worked the whole time, but she always made more. I was always proud of her. I loved that she had a great career to which she was well-suited, but in the back of my mind was this very old-fashioned notion that I was failing as a man. It’s funny (ironic) now to think that the times when I finally was making more than she did were the times when I was the most depressed. It was like climbing to the peak of a mountain only to discover that the view was of a landfill looking at other people standing on higher piles of garbage. At the time when I was making the most, I was able to buy the things I wanted (beer, books, and music), support my kids, buy my wife gifts, go on vacations, put a little bit away, pay down debts, and most importantly, give to the organizations that meant the most to me. It was where I was supposed to be and it felt hollow.

When I was asked to resign from my position in 2014, I stepped away from the highest paying job I may ever have. When I reported myself to presbytery, I laid down not just a vocation but an occupation. Not being able to serve the church has meant not being able to do the one thing  that makes me feel competent and give me some earning potential even if it is small. Most of what I have made in the last two years has gone to support for my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it should be any other way, but there is something humiliating about having money taken directly from me instead of being able to spend on my kids as I see fit. There’s a criminalizing aspect to it, as if I would not voluntarily care for my two people I love the most in this world if the system were not involved. Since 2014, I have lived with good friends who have let me stay under their roofs rent free. I’ve had help with food and transportation. I watched my house slip into foreclosure. I attempted to file for bankruptcy in hopes of keeping the house, but the monthly bankruptcy payments were too crippling. I’ve often been so overwhelmed by the state of my finances as of late that I have been paralyzed and done nothing.

Here’s the thing: most of America is one missed paycheck away from being where I am now. We’re all walking this perilous tightrope. I’ve been blessed to have people who care enough about me to keep me alive, but sometimes the difference between ruin and stability is the number of contacts that you have in your cellphone. My friend Hugh taught me that. What gets me is that we’re all walking on thin, isolated ice instead of trying to helping each other across the frozen pond. We’re constantly competing to have our stuff, our space, our cars and we miss the fact that needing community is not a weakness. It is what makes us human.

I hate being where I am now. I fully expect the bank app on my phone to develop the ability to laugh at me in one of the next upgrades. I hate  feeling needy. I hate feeling incompetent. I hate feeling like a burden. Being broke makes me feel all three. I learned from those early days of child support that my worth is a number on a check. I pray that what I am learning in this time is that my worth can be found in places of greater substance.

My dirty feet

Maundy Thursday has long been my favorite liturgical day. For me, there is nothing for fundamental to the Christian faith than the call to serve. It is a day that lends itself to sensual rituals: communion, foot washing, sometimes plunging a sanctuary into darkness. These are beautiful reminders that are faith needs to be outside of our heads but also in our hands. We need more than to engage our minds, we must engage our senses.

I spent most of Maundy Thursday at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary. Farminary is all about using the context of agrarian life to engage theological and spiritual formation. It’s right up my alley and I have become fast friends with the program’s director. Nate invited me up to talk about the work I did with youth in Baltimore last summer at a pocket park. We talked about bringing beauty into urban spaces. We talked about ways the urban gardens could be used to fight gentrification instead of encouraging it. We talked about compost because I love talking about compost! 

After our discussion, we spent a couple hours working on the twenty-some acres of the farm. I turned compost, aerated soil, and watched as seeds got planted and soil moved. It was enlivening for me, the perfect classroom; a glorious combination of the head and hand. 

Then we shared a meal. They have potluck in class. It was bonding for these students, many in their first year of seminary and still finding their niche. After dinner, Nate read the text of John 13 where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. He then invited the students, as they felt comfortable, to do so for each other.

Nate asked if he could wash my feet. Of course I said yes. My feet are not my best feature. My right foot in particular is kinda gnarly. I was keenly aware of that as I took off my socks and shoes. The water was cold, despite earlier attempts to warm it with cups of hot water. I felt exposed. Nate took his time, soaping his hands, working the toes, getting into the crevices of my foot. It was sensual and intimate without being sexual. It was connecting. We hugged when he finished and switched spots. I was instantly more comfortable in the serving position. 

I was emotionally exhausted when I drove away from the seminary. I spent a couple of hours with my best friend who lives near the seminary. We were both drained but it was good to be in her company. As I drove back to Baltimore, I felt more and more emotional. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. 

I processed this with my therapist. She says I have a hard time being served. What does she know. She only spends an hour with me every week getting to know every nook and cranny of my psyche. It’s not just that it was hard to be served. It was good to feel competent again as I shared with those students. It was good to feel in my element with my hands in the dirt. It was good to know that the church is training leaders in this way. It was good to feel connected to another person. 

And yes, it is hard to be served. I don’t feel I deserve it and “deserving” is one of my hang ups. For that moment, I was purely a recipient of grace and it overwhelmed me. I am grateful for the people who let me touch the places of need in their life. I am frightened of opening up the places of need in my own, especially now. For now, I am grateful for the holy experience I had last Thursday. 

My Reframing

When I take all of the things that are listed here and all of the other faults and character defects that plague my being, it is easy to despair. It is easy to throw my hands up and ask “why even try?” It’s enough to make me want to give up and walk away from the world. I’ll admit; when I started this Lenten discipline, I thought that bringing attention to my failings would be a helpful practice. What I should have anticipated, and lack of foresight is another of my weaknesses, is that it ended up being incredibly depressing. I am flawed. I am broken. I am sinful. And do you know what is really depressing? Many of things have haunted me for years and will likely be there for the duration of my earthly sojourn.

What often happens in therapy, good therapy, is reframing. It’s not so much about fixing you, it’s about reframing those things in ourselves that we find problematic, getting at their source, and reframing them in ways that are helpful and can even highlight the positives in our make up. The things that make people stray in a relationship are often times deep longings for belonging and intimacy. The methods of going about them are hurtful, but the impulse is human and actually quite holy. When we can identify these roots within ourselves, most of which can be linked to very human desires for love, affection, security, and happiness, then we can seek out healthier ways of finding those things we need.

The resurrection is a reframing story. We take the evil of the state-sanctioned execution of innocent man and we turn it into a motivator for a life of abundance lived for God and for others. Where death is so evident and obvious, we celebrate that life finds a way. We no longer focus on the torture and the cruelty, but instead turn our attention to sacrifice, service, and love that will give up all for the beloved.

I had another discipline this lent. Every day of Lent I planted something. I planted potatoes and garlic. I planted a sunflower for my son. I planted herbs and wildflowers. I started my seeds for the growing season. IMG_3073.JPG

Not every seed I planted made it. Many did though. Each time I wrote about a defect within me I put my hands in the dirt and reminded myself that despite my  sins I can still be a conduit for new life and that maybe who I am at my core is a man who plants, cultivates, and nurtures.

At the end of the day, my faults have not stopped me from loving, from caring, from sharing the love that is within me and every time I do those things, new life is fostered. I may do so imperfectly. I may not fully understand all the layers that stand between me and my purist intentions. I will miss the mark again. But it’s never too late to be on the side of life. If nothing else, the resurrection proves that.

My Sins

My thirst for revenge

My discontent

My inconsistency

My reliance on intellect

My ability to rationalize my mistakes instead of taking responsibility

My fragile ego

My tendency to move towards safe friendships

My depression

My desire to use power over people

My despair

desperation

My self loathing

My inability to speak my needs

My emotional coldness

My imperial sympathies

My acquiescence to power

My unfair burdening of my children

My inability to mourn

My unwillingness to let the story unfold

My paranoia

My feelings of inadequacy

My divisive thoughts and rhetoric

My allowing the demons in my head to get the best of me

My irrational fears

My short memory

My grief

My theological fluidity

My lack of compassion

All of these things that I have brought to the surface during my lenten journey are a part of me. Today is Good Friday, a remembrance of death. Not just death, but torture, state-sanctioned execution, imperial demonstrations of dominance, and execution. I grew up with a theology that says that Jesus dies for my sins. I look at this list and I say that Jesus did not die for my sin. Jesus died because of the sins I have listed and many more that I have not. Jesus died because those things did not want to be exposed to the light and I and those like me would do anything to keep them from being exposed. My shadow side and the shadow sides of Jesus’ contemporaries sent Jesus to the cross because we don’t like to be called out on the ways that we miss the mark and we’d rather silence those who expose us than deal with our shit.

The one thing that sticks out for me from this list is how incomplete it is. As much time as I have spent this lenten season reflecting on my humanity, I got nowhere close to exhausting it. I am damaged. I am broken. I am frail. I am fallen. I am needy. I am in need of redemption. I am in need of salvation. I am in need of a new story. I am in need of reframing…

My Lamentations, Part 3

LAMENTATIONS 2:10-18

10The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.

11My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city.

12They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.

13What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?

14Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen oracles for you that are false and misleading.

15All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?”

16All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!”

17The LORD has done what he purposed, he has carried out his threat; as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you, and exalted the might of your foes.

18Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!

As I write this, I am sitting on the back patio. The sun is shining in my face. It feels glorious. The squirrels are scurrying around. The birds are busy arranging booty calls for later in the day (somehow knowing that bird songs are mostly about sex makes them more appealing to me). Things are turning green. Cherry blossoms are blooming. Later today, I’m headed to a place I love to do a thing I love and then later tonight I will see a person I love.

All that’s to say, I’m really not interested in hearing Jeremiah’s whining. Things are bad for him, I get it. This is a disaster. He feels hopeless, I get it.

But why’s he gotta bring me down? It’s a beautiful spring day. Good things are happening. Why does everyone want to act like the world is not a glorious place?

There’s two things wrong with what I’ve written above (grammar aside, assholes!); 1) It’s hypocritical. When I’m struggling, I want people to know and I want people to care. I lament with the best of them and I hate when my laments are called whining. To me, they feel real. Important. Second, it lacks compassion. Maybe Jeremiah didn’t write these words to stir compassion in his audience. Maybe he simply meant this to be a cautionary tale, but there is no part of me that isn’t moved when I hear about babies fainting in the streets. As difficult as it can be to sit with our own lamentations, it can be even more so to sit with those of others.

A friend of a friend was shot recently. This friend of a friend mentioned that people don’t know what to say to them. It’s hard to be in the presence of other people’s pain. What do you say? How can you help? Do you try to relate? Do you just shut up and listen? That’s typically my default. Whether we do or say anything that is the “right thing”, our hearts should be stirred. We should be pricked by the pointed reality of our neighbor.

I confess that as often as I seek compassion from others, I am not nearly as compassionate as I should be. Lord, forgive me. Break my heart with the things that break your heart.

My unwillingness to go there

LAMENTATIONS 2:1-9

1How the Lord in his anger has humiliated daughter Zion! He has thrown down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger.

2The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers.

3He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn his right hand from them in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around.

4He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; he has killed all in whom we took pride in the tent of daughter Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire.

5The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel; He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and multiplied in daughter Judah mourning and lamentation.

6He has broken down his booth like a garden, he has destroyed his tabernacle; the LORD has abolished in Zion festival and sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.

7The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; a clamor was raised in the house of the LORD as on a day of festival.

8The LORD determined to lay in ruins the wall of daughter Zion; he stretched the line; he did not withhold his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament; they languish together.

9Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; guidance is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the LORD.

Hey, Jeremiah, I get that you’re sad. You’re angry. Your great city has been laid to waste. Your people have been decimated. Your homes, your land, your treasure, your heritage…all set to ruin. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I know that this is not just something that happens in ancient times. This is what is happening in Syria as we speak.

And that’s why I can’t go where Jeremiah goes with this. For Jeremiah, this was God’s work. Not only that, but the prophet sees that Yahweh was perfectly justified in committing these atrocities because of the sins of the people. I’m sorry… I’m not willing to go there.

God isn’t currently smiting Syria because of the sins of the people of Syria. Politicians, in that region of the world and beyond, have made decisions that are affecting the people. Greed is involved. Politics are involved. Fear is involved. Yes, religion is involved to an extent, but to say this is God’s doing ignores the very real consequences that people’s actions have. It also says some things about the pernicious nature of God’s wrath that I’m just not willing to accept.

With all of the things that have been happening in my life this year, I have been careful to avoid asking God “why are you doing this to me?” I did it to me. Some others have contributed, but I refuse to lose my agency and pass the buck to God. I think this is important for two main reasons. First, there are people today saying that if certain candidates don’t win, God’s wrath will fall upon our country. That is a really unhelpful and flat out dangerous understanding of God. Second, I genuinely don’t believe that God intervenes in human affairs this way. I have to confess that I paused a long time before I typed that sentence. What I believe about God has shifted so much in recent years. I think God is with the people of Syria; crying with them, fleeing with them, seeking shelter with them. I don’t think God caused their plight. I think God was with the people of Jeremiah’s Jerusalem even when they could not sense the Divine presence. And I think God is with me. Sometimes, that’s the only thing that keeps me going.

I guess this is less of a confession than an admission of theological shifts. Sometimes it feels like I need to confess those as well. I lament for the people of the Ivory Coast, Brussels, Syria, Palestine, and those who suffer throughout the world. I lament my own suffering, but I will not blame God for it. Any of it. I just can’t go there.

My Lamentations, Part 2

LAMENTATIONS 1:17-22

17Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her; the LORD has commanded against Jacob that his neighbors should become his foes; Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.

18The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity.

19I called to my lovers but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city while seeking food to revive their strength.

20See, O LORD, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death.

21They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me. All my enemies heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it. Bring on the day you have announced, and let them be as I am.

22Let all their evil doing come before you; and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many and my heart is faint.

“Yahweh is in the right, for I have rebelled against Yahweh’s word”.

It is right that I suffer because I broke vows. I broke vows to God, vows to my wife and kids, vows to the church… vows to the world, in some ways. May my suffering be a warning; honor your word. Be a person of integrity. Keep your priorities straight. Honor your own core values.

And how can I only write of my own suffering this morning when the people of Brussels have been terrorized. Because I am selfish. Things only matter to the extent that they affect me. “Where were you when…” To be honest, for many of the tragedies of the last five years, I would be ashamed to answer that question. While mother’s grieved the loss of their children, I was in the arms of the one who brought me more comfort than any other. While bombs ripped through the streets, I drowned my sorrows in love. While Paris cried, I ate sushi.

And this is the nature of terror, the nature of suffering. It is when it hits home, I mean really hits home, that it becomes real. When the suffering is private and personal. When the fear is tangible and corporeal. When your own chickens come home to roost, that’s when you understand the anguish of the other.

I pray for Belgium as I’ve prayed for Paris, for Charleston, for Syria, for Baghdad, for Sandy Hook, for all the nameless and faceless dark skinned people around the world… but their cries will fade in my ears and my own will return with full force, in full throat. God, I am a selfish wretch!

Inside of me there is a coldness. I turn it on at will when feeling gets too hard. Lately, I have turned it on less, but it is there and I feel it turning on again. The feelings have become overwhelming. My own suffering. The world’s suffering. The never-ending cycles of pain and loss. The people cry. Their enemies mock. The lovers turn away. It’s too real. I want to be numb. God, forgive me.