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.”

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