Friday, October 11, 2013

Feel the Money, Part Two: “Waiting for Godot”

          It’s Sunday again, and I only have a few more hours left to pay it forward, to give the $50 to someone. During the week, I have been to the gas station, the grocery store, and even a local Walmart, but I have not found the person I am saving this money for. I stood at the cash registers, walked the aisles and parking lots, talked to those around me, but haven’t felt led to give it yet.

          Church is over, so I head to Target in Viera. I know that I am not really in the best area to find someone who needs the money more than I still do, but I have to try. I feel like I might be judged if I don’t give it away before the next meeting. The preacher recently taught the parable where the third servant hid the money in the ground rather than using it, and I feel like someone might compare me to that servant and say that I am wasting money, wasting time. Unaware that I am creating my own stress, fears and worries swamp me, and I think, maybe I shouldn’t be trusted with the money after all? All I have to do is walk up to someone and give it to them, pay for their groceries, or buy their gas.
          Lexi points out someone, and I again walk the aisles and hover near the cash registers. Nothing but families with two parents, single women holding a cup of Starbucks coffee, or men buying a few items. No one that feels right for me to give it to.
I notice that everyone, like I normally do, is moving so quickly. Rush up to the counter, pile everything on the conveyor belt, load the bags into the cart, swipe the card, rush away. I don’t see anyone using cash, and no one pauses long enough for me to smile or say hi.
          I don’t want to simply use the money and move on. I want it to mean something. I want to know that it has blessed someone. I want to feel not just the money but also the results. Is that part of the lesson?! We rush through life, swiping our life away on all of these things that we don’t always use and definitely don’t take the time to appreciate. However, when we slow down and use cash and take our time, we can connect with others as well as consider what we are buying, why we are buying it, and what it will bring us. We can live in a state of appreciation.
          When I received my deposit earlier in the week, I paid my bills and then wrote myself a check with the left over money for food and gas. I took the cash and placed it in the Dave Ramsey envelopes, and I have to say that I definitely feel the money more. In past weeks, I would have spent almost all of the money over the weekend and then been lost and even more anxious the rest of the time until the next pay day. This time, I was intensely conscious of how much cash I had left in my gas and food envelope, and I still have what I intended to save for next week, which helps me not feel so stressed and scared.
Just this week a devotional passage encouraged me to follow God’s plan, and on the radio, Chris Tomlin sang:
Where You go, I'll go
Where You stay, I'll stay
When You move, I'll move
I will follow You
Who You love, I'll love
How You serve I'll serve
If this life I lose, I will follow You
I will follow You         
I want to scream: I am here; I am listening; please show me the way. What do you want me to do, God?! Who should I give this money to? Where should I live? What job should I have? Why is my life still so far down the pit? Why do I feel like I am still stagnating in so many ways?! What do you want from me?!
Like Styx, I have questions and pray for signs:
I close my eyes and know there's peace
                                    In a world so filled with hatred
That I wake up each morning and turn on the news
                                    To find we've so far to go
                                    And I keep on hoping for a sign
So afraid I just won't know
Show me the way, show me the way
                                    Bring me tonight to the mountain
                                    And take my confusion away
                                    And show me the way 
When I arrive for the Momentum meeting this week, I am still feeling raw. I have been entrusted with money and a task, and I have failed. I feel like I am “waiting for Godot”—story of my life.
          In his two-act absurdist play, Samuel Beckett utterly describes how I have felt too many times in my life: feeling stuck, waiting for someone or something that will never come, having an inability to act for whatever reason, being sure that tomorrow will bring a better day only to have more of the same. The feeling is like having a bare thread of hope in a hopeless situation and a desolate world.
          I am glad to get through the meeting without being forced to metaphorically wear the scarlet letter and happy that I still have time to reevaluate and find the person I am meant to bless with this cash.
When I told my girls about this new adventure, Laina shared a story that her service learning teacher recently relayed about helping a man who was offering portraits for a little grocery money in the parking lot of a pizza place because he had just moved down here and started a new job and had two weeks before payday. After this man drew a portrait of the teacher’s son, they said thanks but we don’t have any cash and drove home. Once there, the son said that he wanted to give the man something, so they drove back and gave him five dollars and thirty cents, the exact amount of money to buy a pizza right then. The man started crying because he was so touched by their kindness. That’s what I want: to touch someone with kindness and begin weaving a stronger string of hope.
My uncle also told me a story about how he and his young adult siblings each received a $100 bill from their Aunt Clarice. “Spend it on something special,” she said. So he hunted and searched and waited. Nothing seemed special enough, big enough, lasting enough, so he finally stuck the bill in his Bible and waited. Decades later, he left the chaos and excitement of New York City and moved back to family and the Mid-west. A few years later, finally, he knew what to do with his $100 bill when he heard his contractor complaining about a renter, a single mother, who wasn’t paying rent. This was just before Christmas, and he was packaging up our family’s homemade apple butter to share with his neighbors. So, he added a Christmas card with the $100 bill and took it to the single mother. He knocked, handed her the gift, and returned home. Later, he received a thank you card from the woman who shared that she had used the money for a small Christmas tree and gifts for her sons.
Yes. Sometimes waiting is the right thing to do. The important part is not to make waiting a lifestyle choice. There are many times in my life when I waited for too long, but there are also times when I took action and created a change that was better. So patience is one of the lessons I am learning, and another is to trust myself to know when to wait and when to act and to not worry that others might judge my actions and/or inactions. Finally, I am remembering that God does care and has a plan and is looking out for me, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. Even if I am complaining of too much conflict in my life. Even if I would prefer that God not only give me a signed copy of the plan, but that He also allow me to write in corrections and initial changes. But I do have faith that His plan is the best for me, even if I don’t get an advanced preview of it.
Speaking of conflict, I recently read an article from the July/August 2013 issue of Poets & Writers where Dan Barden asserts that conflict equals growth. He may be talking about fictional characters, but it’s true of humans too. In “The Art of Conflict: Why Your Characters Should Struggle,” Barden states:
Here’s the deal: Everything you want from your life is the opposite of what you give to your characters. Your characters should, more or less, always be having a very bad day. Why? Because that’s how human beings grow.
…Conflict is what creates growth. Conflict is what creates character. All forward movement is a product of conflict. All meaning, in fact, is a product of conflict. [We] need to fight.
…What it’s like to be a human being: hard. Like the man says, we’re all fighting a great battle. What narrative conflict brings to the party is the possibility of growth in the face of adversity—growth because we are faced with adversity. If there were nothing more important to me than my leisure, if it didn’t want things, I’d still have the values and self-discipline of a fourth grader. Fortunately for me, the world kicks my [arse] every day…
I agree.  Life is hard, and conflict, like it or not, grows me. For now, I am waiting, “waiting for Godot,” waiting for God.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Feel the Money, Part One: Temptation

I signed up for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program with my small group; our church calls it Momentum, and Lexi and I meet with our small group on Sunday afternoons.
On our third week, we are handed a ticket as we arrive. Today the video will encourage us to “feel the money,” so after the announcements, the leaders are ready for the drawing. Out of 100 people in the room, they are handing out six envelopes filled with hard cold cash.
I had arrived feeling dejected, overstressed, anxious, and raw, but hearing about the money perked me up a bit. Maybe I will win, I think. Maybe this is God’s way of answering my prayers.
There are two purposes, we are told, for those envelopes. First of all, those lucky winners will get to experience what it is like to “feel” the money. I am so on board with that. I can feel the cash already—it’s flowing from my fingers and out to pay for gas and groceries. Then, we are told the other purpose of the money—to pay it forward and bless others. Usually I am all about that. I love helping others and seeing how what I do or give blesses them. But now, right in this moment, I am a nerve of needs, everything pressing down on me. So that’s it, I think. God’s going to give an envelope to someone in my small group and maybe, just maybe, they will choose to bless me with it.
After all, I am the only one in our group who is a single parent, and I have all of the money woes Dave Ramsey discusses in the book. For years, I have been living in crisis mode, scraping by one pay check after another, only to play catch up with any surplus semesters. I often barely make ends meet with three part-time teaching/tutoring jobs and with help from family, and the nature of adjunct work means that my income changes every few months. I often don’t know how many classes I will have or how much I will earn until after the first week or so of each semester. When I can, I snag an extra class, an overload, which is what I need to survive. For over a year, I was able to work an overload, and when I have an overload, I am teaching the same amount as a full-time instructor for half the pay and no benefits. But I love my job and have been able to make it work for four years. However, colleges are not allowing overloads for adjuncts anymore unless absolutely necessary because of the new health care guidelines, which puts me in a deficit.
Days before this Momentum meeting, I discovered that I am not getting the extra class that I thought I was getting, which really adds stress to my life. I’d thought God had provided that extra class to help me make it this semester and through the winter break when I don’t have an income for over a month, but I am back to praying, trusting Him, and not knowing how I will manage.
So this could be how God is answering my immediate prayers. I hold my breath as the first five numbers are called. Please give it to someone in my group who might help me. The last number is called, and I can’t believe it. At first, I sit there, not moving, reading and re-reading my ticket. Yep, still mine. So I stand up and accept the envelope. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s story where the winner is the one sacrificed. Okay, maybe it’s not that horrific, but I have a hand full of cash and a body full of stress and no way of knowing how I will make it.
As you can imagine, I’ve had a million thoughts coursing through my mind since that moment. God must have a big sense of humor because this is downright ironic.
Here I sit, the single parent of our group, with an empty gas tank and a sparsely filled fridge (not to mention that we are down to our last roll of toilet paper). For over a week, I have been sending the girls over to Publix with $3 or $5 or $10, whatever I could find, to get milk or bread or bananas, something to eat. I have been pulling together $10 or $20 per day to put gas in my old mini-van, and I only have enough left to drive to work the next day (but not enough to return home or drive the girls to their activities). The bank account is down to $7, and there’s no savings. Surely, surely God didn’t mean to give me money to give to someone else?! It’s got to be a mix up or maybe I have entered an alternate universe where everything is upside down.
After the meeting when I settle into my car, I open the envelope and see a $50 bill—perfect for my immediate gas, food, and toilet paper angst. I can sure “feel” this money burning a hole in my hand, but I don’t think that’s what Dave Ramsey meant by “feel the money”!
Behind the cash is a piece of paper that reads:
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
          I laughed, bitter and humorless—seriously, God. You not only want me to give this to someone else, but you want me to do it with a cheerful heart?!  I could definitely see the irony, but I couldn’t dredge up the appropriate cheerfulness.
          As an aside: God has richly blessed me in many ways, even in the recent past, including through generous and giving people who have helped us, and I am not discounting those miracles or gifts at all. I am simply sharing all of the human emotions that accompany this adventure and sharing that I am in a dark and difficult place right now because I don’t see a way out of this pit of debt and difficulty.
          My mind swirls as idea after idea comes to me. I could use this money tonight, for example, to get some gas and food and then replace the $50 bill on Tuesday when I receive my deposit for a few hours of online tutoring. That doesn’t feel right, however, since one of the main things we are learning is to not borrow money. Plus, it just feels wrong, like I would be betraying someone—God, my church, myself—if I do it this way.
          While I start driving home, I rationalize and justify that I could definitely use the money to bless my girls. I could pay it forward to Lexi and Laina. After all, most of my income goes into providing for them, and I need gas and groceries to take care of them. Again, it doesn’t feel right. Not that it would be betraying anyone but that it wouldn’t be as big and as important as it could be. No, I don’t want to do it this way either.
          During all of this deliberation, a tiny seed sprouts and blooms in my mind, heart, and soul—God trusts me with this money. God trust me; my church trusts me, and my small group trusts me with money. I can trust myself with money.
          When I arrive home, I lock the envelope in my glove compartment and start praying, albeit a bit grudgingly, that God will show me who I should give it to. I also pray for immediate help with my troubles.
          Not long after I return home, our neighbor knocks on the door. He has just returned from a two-week vacation and hands me three Philly hoagies and a large sweet bun that he has brought for us. That takes care of breakfast and lunch the next day, which is a huge blessing.
          As I continue to reflect on this adventure, my heart lightens and my prayers change. I ask God to show me the way—a way to take care of what I need and a new way of approaching and handling money. I decide that God plans to do something big with this money. Since then, my constant prayer has been for Him to use me in big ways through this and to bring along someone who needs this more than I do (whether it’s the money they need or the kindness because people have shown me much kindness during these past few years, and some days, that makes all the difference in the world).
          On Monday, I receive $20 from a friend who owed me for pet-sitting, which allows me to fill my gas tank and return home from work. We use the last few dollars in the bank to buy toilet paper and a few ingredients to complete a delicious dinner. As we dine on chicken curry, it occurs to me how truly blessed we are. I recently read that if you make $30,000 per year, then you are among the top five percent of wage earners in the world. That is mindboggling. How can we have so much more than the rest of the world yet be so stressed, anxious, and ungrateful?
          I learned from my parents to live paycheck to paycheck, to barely make ends meet, to borrow from family, to always need help. Ever since I started this blog, I have been praying to become someone who blesses others rather than someone who needs blessings. Not that we all can’t use blessings at some points in our lives, but that I wish to feel secure and safe enough, that I long to have enough resources (both money and time) to help others more often. I guess God does answers prayers, so we better watch out for times when our prayers might clash.
          Ultimately, my prayer is for God to use me. As Ghandi said, I want to “be the change I want to see in this world.”