Listening to the Day Ahead speakers, it occurred to me that we were focusing mostly on sacrificing time, energy, even the privacy of homes as professors who seek to serve students, but I heard little about issues of wealth. Jesus of course spoke over and over about issues of money but these concerns did not find a place at FC08 alongside stewardship and sacrificial usage of the other resources with which God has blessed us.
Are we then only mostly following Christ, or is this a call that is outside the sphere of university ministry? Am I adding a burden that is outside the full gospel, or is wealth simply not on the “radar” of most American Christians?
I ask these questions as I have wrestled with the transition from graduate student in the social sciences (not as rich as engineering or natural science students who actually earn money in the form of stipends for their schooling, yet not as poor as the language and literature students who have fewer scholarships available to them) to new professor making more than three times more money. I neither want to let money concerns be the guiding force in my life (such that I fail to cultivate campus friendships because many faculty socialize by eating out) nor do I want thoughtlessly settle into a middle class trajectory that does not question my use of money any more than it questions how I value time or energy.
What worried me at the conference was that we are very comfortable discussing issues of the correct philosophy or theology or intellectual approach to problems (after all we are intellectuals!) but I find myself much less comfortable delving into issues of money. That discomfort leads me to ask whether there is a stronghold of power and status that I am unwilling to relinquish.
Such questions have been strengthened in reading Day Ahead speaker Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta. Mother Teresa emphasized that full obedience to Christ, including living at the poverty level of poor Indians, leads to full freedom to follow Him wherever He leads. As American Christians, I would guess that we consume at the same level as our non-Christian friends, buying as much stuff, traveling as frequently to far-off vacations, and eating out at restaurants as often as others do. As American Christian academics, we do not seem to wrestle with the easy position of status and wealth accorded us.
What am I suggesting then?
Mother Teresa herself was not against enjoyment of all the fine things God has made available. A friend told me a story of Mother Teresa’s reaction to a young couple that planned to spend $500 on an evening of dinner and music. “Shouldn’t they give that money to the poor?” was the question put to Mother Teresa. No, but they should remember the poor, replied Mother Teresa, and give money (an equal sum?) as well to the poor as part of the night’s celebration. (How much richer the evening’s enjoyment might be, knowing that others are also being blessed at the same time!)
Mother Teresa was not advocating punishment or self-denial for its own sake. But I am suggesting that we raise questions about (and consider thoughtful alternatives to) how we use the money we’ve been given to steward. As another friend said, denying ourselves should occur because we want to experience more of Jesus, not because we want to fashion crosses for ourselves that the Lord has not asked us to carry.
If we are to deny ourselves materially (by living below far below our means or by giving away much of our income), the promise of Christian community is that we can share in the excitement and support each other in the struggle to live out a counter-cultural call to simplicity and sacrifice. Such denial is difficult, maybe impossible, to do alone but it is certainly less fun than if we share in the journey together.
Are these irrelevant objections, or are we only mostly following Christ?