The Common Good

When Money Gets Messy

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I've been thinking a lot about money, specifically about my personal finances (if there is really such a thing) and the power money has on my life. Recently I was part of a panel discussing following Jesus while simultaneously honoring our parents. The discussion had a few light moments, but overall it was a serious conversation -- as conversations about life and death should be.

The panelists were all staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and we all had disappointed our parents in our choice to go into vocational ministry. For many of us, our parents' love for us flowed into concern that giving up "real" jobs to go into full-time ministry would require suffering and a life lacking in the very security our immigrant parents had worked so hard to achieve.

One young man in the front broke down in tears as he shared with the entire room his desire to go into ministry and how utterly disappointed, heartbroken, and perhaps angry his parents would be. He was their future in so many ways. We asked the audience how many of them were also their parents' retirement funds. Most of the room raised their hands.

There are no easy answers to that kind of decision. None.

I struggle with money, and talking about money in some circles requires my inside voice, because in some circles we don't talk about such things. We talk in vague phrases, or use words like "stewardship" and "blessing" and "giving God what is God's." We don't really talk about salaries (I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours) or budget details (I give myself an allowance every month). Let's put it this way. I've been asked to speak about sex and sexuality more than a dozen times in a given year. I have yet to be asked to speak about money, which is kind of funny considering I have more money than I have sex. Sorry. I could not resist.

My husband and I are both white-collar "professionals" living in a fairly affluent suburb. His check is based on production. Mine is based on a combination of seniority, position, performance, and money raised. Yes, I ask people to donate their money so that I can do a job I love and get paid for it. Crazy.

But I'm beginning to understand that is where it all gets so messy for me. I know colleagues who have made very judgmental comments about people like me who live in zip codes like mine. I know I have judged people for those very same reasons. I also know that I get judged for what I do and the way I do it. Asking people for money to minister to the elite (college students) does not sound like much of a mission field when here in the West, we have painted missions to be about serving the poor. There are poor college students, but if you can get to college in the U.S. you are already way ahead of the curve. We are setting the curve for the world in terms of education, money, access, and power.

And because that is part of the American dream, immigrant parents should not be judged the way some of us have judged them. At that same panel discussion, one student spoke of his disdain for some of the first-generation congregants at his church who were too materialistic and because of that could not, perhaps, support his decision to go into ministry.

I didn't have a chance to comment, but my response would have been something like this -- our parents and their generation did not all come to America to accumulate wealth for wealth's sake. They were looking for security and certainty, not all too unlike the certainty you are looking for in a calling on your life. Be careful in your quick judgment of the generation you not only stand on but will have to lead.

And the real danger is that we, as the beneficiaries of the money and power of previous generations, turn around and carte blanche denounce the systems we have benefited from. I'm not so sure I'd be doing what I'm doing now if it weren't for that great college degree that my greedy parents worked so hard for. Right? The so-called materialism of my parents has allowed me to be where I am. Money does not define me, but I am not embarrassed or ashamed at my parents' wise budgeting and rare splurges. Their choices, though they may not be my own when I'm faced with the same decisions, have allowed me so many opportunities.

But perhaps that is the power of money. We spend so much time focusing on the damage and injustice caused by money and the unequal distribution of it that it is the inheritance and then division between two generations' understanding of blessing. Perhaps if the focus was first on the spiritual inheritance our parents have given us through their sacrifice and material wealth, we would have a better understanding of money?

How can we as the beneficiaries be grateful and gracious as we look to lead our lives and to lead in different ways?

portrait-kathy-khangKathy Khang is a regional director of multi-ethnic ministries for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and blogs at morethanservingtea.wordpress.com

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