Options, Part One

A Friend came to the Spirit and asked, “Spirit, how may I achieve perfect peace?”

The Spirit said, “Follow the testimonies, follow my leadings, subscribe to Friends Journal, and love your neighbors as yourself.”

The Friend said, “I have done all of that for years.”

Then there is one more thing to do,” the Spirit said.

Tell me.”

Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend waited expectantly, and, after a few minutes, said, “Please, Spirit. What is the one thing I have to do?”

The Spirit said, “I just told you. Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend was becoming agitated. “Spirit, why won’t you answer me? I’m listening.”

Sell. Everything. Give. The money. To. The poor. …Is this thing on?”

The Friend was by now distraught, and wandered away wailing, “Spirit, where are you? I feel so lost; I cannot find the Light! I don’t know what to do…”

(Later…)

And that’s how the Quakers died out?”

Of course. They had exactly one thing going for them: listening to Me. Have you seen their business meetings? They never would have survived so long if I hadn’t been helping out. When they stopped hearing Me they were doomed. But money talks louder than I do… and fear talks louder still.”

~~~

Or…

We could do something different.

Quakers are lousy when it comes to talking about money. We’re lousy about asking for it, lousy about handling it as a group, and worst of all, lousy about admitting we have it. In my experience, many Quakers treat money as if it were some filthy thing, and never own up to having much… despite the fact that a great number of us, probably a substantial majority, are actually living extremely comfortably by US standards, let alone the world’s. Guilt dominates our thoughts and conversations about money, yet changes of action and direction are few. Meetings for Worship for Business swiftly turn into meetings of the board when money enters the picture.

The reason is simple. We’ve been told by a figure of some authority that we cannot serve both God and wealth. But the vast majority of us were raised middle-class or upper-class, and the members of such classes have a great deal of training about money.

Fear out-shouts the Spirit. To be middle-class is to be constantly fearful in a few particular ways. Chief is the fear of not having enough. It’s not the typical fear of the poor, dreading not having enough food or shelter; it’s the fear that we can’t afford a new car, or can’t afford to send Junior to Guilford, or can’t afford to retire. It’s the fear of our mortgages and the fear of mounting medical bills; it’s fear of the future, and the fear that we won’t have enough to maintain our social status.

In fact, fearing the future and taking actions accordingly is how you get to be middle-class in the first place. The defining characteristic of the middle class, I think, is its propensity for saving up. If you’re poor, the money goes out as fast as it comes in; if you’re rich, you can pay for what you like; if we’re middle-class, though, we’re supposed to be buying the products and services of the wealthy (such as cars and college educations) with an income not too many notches up from the incomes of the poor, and so we have to save up. Saving up for the future, saving up against disaster. And with all that fear gnawing at our minds, it’s no wonder we middle-class Friends have some trouble with money.

So that’s Quaker Money Problem #1: we are so afraid—or guilty—about money that we can’t hear the Spirit.

Quaker Money Problem #2 is rather different. We’re facing a coming demographic shift which could shake the foundations of the Society of Friends if it’s not confronted squarely. The problem is simple: we are a faith which has run for some time on the financial contributions and volunteer labor of a small and aging middle- to upper-class membership. In coming decades we’re going to be shifting toward an even smaller membership of adults who are just scraping by. The rising generation of Young Adult Friends is increasingly confronted by an economy in which the salaried position with benefits is an elusive animal (except in health or tech). For example, for my age group, taking time off for Annual Session isn’t just a matter of taking precious vacation days: it’s a matter of lost income. Those who do have salaries are now expected to work twice as hard, too. That’s not even mentioning the shackles of student loans.

Moreover, this is a decided trend in the economy, not a passing phase. My generation will be poorer than my parents’ generation. I know Young Adult Friends in their 30s who are still dependent on their monthly or yearly meetings for scholarships to get them to Quaker events. What will happen when that age bracket forms the majority of working-age adults in the Society? What will happen when those same people are the only donors?

If we start worrying about Quaker Money Problem #2, however, then we’re just falling prey to Money Problem #1 (fear and guilt). So sitting about biting our nails and wringing our hands about Problem #2 will accomplish less than nothing: it’ll actively feed our other major issue. Therefore we need options for the future, options for positive actions.

Why, gracious me, isn’t “Options” the title of this essay?

One option presents itself immediately. If I’m correct in my basic assertion that some Quakers have too much money and others have too little, then surely the richer ones could fulfill the command to give to the poor by giving to the poorer ones. It has the advantage of being exactly what Jesus said to do. But there are a few problems with this. One, it’s totally unsustainable. Two, I don’t think it’s transformative. Most meetings are doing it already. It’s keeping us going for now—but what it really does is preserve the status quo a little longer, which is an extremely middle-class thing to do. It doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of the situation: that we are becoming fewer and poorer, while our society (with a small s) grows sicker and sicker. Moreover, “poorer” is relative—so when the richer Friends give to the poorer, they are really helping the latter group back up to a middle-class level. And frankly, the middle-class American lifestyle has inherent problems all of its own.

Consider this, however: Quaker Money Problem #2 is only a problem when we look at it with the eyes of Problem #1. We see that the rising generation doesn’t have enough and we think: how are we going to keep things going? But if Quakers have not been handling their money and other resources well, why do we want to keep things going as they are? A smaller and simpler Society might actually be closer to the Spirit.

The coming financial change in the Society of Friends is therefore not a problem or a crisis. It is an opportunity. It will only become a crisis if we cling to our current problematic way of life.

~~~

Before going further, I want to emphasize four things:

One, one size does not fit all when it comes to these options. Some people may not be able to follow all of the options described below, nor should they (in fact, some of them are mutually contradictory).

Two, I’ve divided these into individual options and communal options. [Literally. The communal options will follow in a second post, in a few days.]

Three, this list is in no way intended to be at all prescriptive. I’ve barely put any of these options into practice, so I can’t vouch for their efficacy. Some may not work at all. Moreover I don’t intend this to be an exhaustive list. What I hope to achieve by this list is to spark thought and conversation, to take these options, add to them, and refine them. These ideas are raw material only, rough drafts. Think about them and dream about them for a time.

Four and most crucial: in all ways we must live in accordance with the calling of the Light. So pray about these ideas, too! However good these ideas may be, do not live by them if it is not the Spirit’s will for you! Find what you are called to do, and then do that. But if you are having trouble discerning what you are called to do, perhaps considering these options will help guide you—and perhaps considering these will help you discern what you hear in your mind is the will of the Spirit, and what is the fearful voice of our middle-class training. We need to learn to seek the Spirit when we look at our money, just like every other time.

~~~

The Tentmaking Option

This is mostly a way of mind. Tentmaking comes from Paul of Tarsus, the Saint Paul of the New Testament, who was a tentmaker by trade; I was taught the term by Benigno Sanchez-Eppler. Because tentmaking was a skill that could be employed most everywhere in the ancient world, Paul could travel where his ministry led him and still have work. His ministry was his top priority, but he was determined not to be a burden on any of the Christian communities he sojourned with. So he would make tents.

The key to the tentmaking option is to shift perspective on one’s work. Instead of viewing your job as a method of sustaining yourself or your family, think of it as a method of sustaining your community. This may simply mean giving more of your paycheck to your meeting; it might mean passing up more lucrative employment for a job that gives you more time, or refusing to relocate for a job if the Spirit wants you to stay put. (Again, the bottom line—the true bottom line—of all these options is bringing the Spirit into your financial affairs.)

For myself, I work several part-time jobs. This means I don’t have a lot of money, but I do have time and flexibility—the nature of my work allows me to travel or relocate should I be called to. And while I can’t contribute as much to my meeting financially, I can contribute my time. I am currently clerk of Ministry & Worship at my meeting, Eastside Friends; I also serve on Nominating Committee of North Pacific Yearly Meeting, I’m the Young Adult Friends representative to NPYM’s Coordinating Committee, and I’m also involved in the YAF New Year’s Gathering. Plus I write essays like this one. People warn me about burnout, and that’s a reasonable concern, but my employment situation lets me give my Quaker communities that kind of time. I couldn’t do all this if I had a “real” job—meaning, salaried and entirely middle-class. “Real” work in the middle-class sense would prevent me from doing my true work, in the spiritual meaning of the word.

This perspective also helps me put up with various problems in my employment! I don’t need to have a 100%-fulfilling career (though I am relatively satisfied with it anyway) if I find fulfillment in my meetings. Tentmaking means that your career and vocation are among Friends, and your job is just a way to keep body and soul together while you follow your true path. It takes some of the pressure off.

~~~

Farming the Yard

A lot is being written elsewhere about local, sustainable food, and about growing your own, so I will not go into great detail here. One point worth mentioning: while eating organic might be best for your body, eating local is probably better for the Earth as a whole. And another: eating local does mean that you won’t be able to get everything you want to eat all the time—I haven’t bought bananas in years, and buying chocolate is like threading a maze—and it may mean that you don’t always get to eat as healthy as you might like. It has been said that eating local-only food is a form of slavery; it holds hostage our health to the climate. Eating local could be healthy for us in a spiritual way, however, because of the discipline and sacrifice it requires. I might also add that not a few forms of industrial food involve actual slavery.

Farming the yard takes some effort, and will not replace the market (be it super- or farmers’) any time soon. But raising some low-maintenance staples in your yard can take a bite out of your food budget and, on a tiny scale, help with environmental crises, even in winter. You can go a long way on potatoes and kale. If you feel relatively confident that you’ll be in a house for a few years—or even if you don’t—plant a fruit tree or some berry bushes.

This can also be scaled up. A few families collaborating can lighten loads, share tools, and share produce; each family could raise a few different crops and then meet up to swap. This is how it used to be done, and this is how some folks still do it; with the right friends, some land, and a little elbow grease, you can, too.

~~~

Mass Transit

With options like Flexcar and Car2Go springing up in many metropolitan areas, it makes less and less sense to own a car in an urban area. Cars are expensive in their own right, let alone with insurance and gas, and yet they spend most of their time just sitting there, parked. We can do better with our resources. (Rural areas are, of course, a totally different story. At the moment, at least, farmers need trucks; this is a given.) To go truly car-free in the city, however, means relying to one degree or another on mass transit. This can be a spiritual gift, though. There is nothing like riding a bus to teach the meaning of living in God’s time, not in ours.

It’s worth remembering that mass transit is not always pleasant—or indeed safe, for some. To me, however, this is actually added reason to ride. One can work for peace and equality on the morning commute. I’ve intervened in instances of sexual harassment on the bus; with the protection of the Light, you can too. Most offenses are committed because bystanders do nothing. Quakers, however, should practice speaking up no matter the circumstances—especially when scared! The more Quakers riding the bus, the better.

Besides: buying a Prius is to riding the bus as hearing the Spirit is to obeying the Spirit.

In many suburban areas, mass transit is inconvenient and unreliable. To my mind, this says a lot more about suburbs as a concept than it does about mass transit. And generally mass transit means that the government has to get involved, which can have its downsides; political gridlock here in Washington State means that Seattle is faced with the choice of gutting bus service or raising regressive taxes. So this option might require a lot of work, such as moving to a place where the transit systems are more functional. Some of my college friends moved to Boston specifically for the transit, and I frequently contemplate moving south when I ride on Portland’s system. So it can be done. Besides, moving to take better advantage of public transit can be combined with many other options on this list…

~~~

Quaker House

There are two variants to this one.

The first is something I’ve done: rent a house with a bunch of other young Quakers. Communal living brings down costs considerably. Rent alone can be substantially reduced, while having a house adds privacy and allows for greater cooperation and socializing than apartments. My friends and I also went in together on bulk food purchases and established a simple cost-sharing system: we had a running tally of how much each person had spent for the community, and if someone wasn’t putting in as much as everyone else, it was incumbent on them to catch up.

My household came together without much intentionality or thought to the spiritual side. We had meetings for business in the manner of Friends, but for my next foray into such a community (it’s something I’d love to try again), or for anyone else considering this option, I’d urge giving greater thought to worship, simplicity, and mutual support. Our house wasn’t without problems. Personality conflicts definitely surfaced, and issues over money and shared resources as well. Through Quaker patience and practice we handled things pretty well. We might have done better if we’d been thinking about such matters deliberately and up front, and better still if we’d been having meeting for worship every week.

That’s the younger version of this idea. Here’s the older:

I do some house-sitting for Friends who are frequently on the road on Quaker business. They live in a lovely, quiet neighborhood full of old Seattle houses overlooking Lake Washington and the Cascades vista. Their house is huge, with three floors, many bedrooms, and a spacious living room. As I walked their dog through their neighborhood, I looked around at the luxury, thought of the slum-dwellers of Lagos or the peasants of southeast Asia, and deplored the extravagance of the American house. My friends’ house could sleep five, or even eight or ten, with a little maneuvering—and there they live with two and a dog! Nor is their house the most extravagant in that neighborhood, not by far. The sense of injustice welled up in me and I gave thought to some catastrophe that might level the playing field.

Then I realized: “I don’t want these houses gone; I want these houses full.”

(To their credit, the Friends in question are quite generous with their space and are excellent hosts. “It’s the only way we can justify keeping the house,” one of them told me.)

And so an elder version of Quaker House began to form in my mind. Friends could invite other Friends to live with them. Fill those empty rooms. Abandon one empty nest to fill another. Older Friends concerned about aging might welcome having others around. Why move out to an assisted-living complex if you have three or four others ready to help under your roof already? Moreover, there is no better spur to simplicity and the elimination of clutter than moving, or consolidating households. And again, such consolidation could free up quite a lot of money to do other good things.

The loss of independence is a difficulty, in either of these versions. I had to learn to keep my kitchen rather cleaner when I moved in with others. Fridge space becomes precious. Bathroom lines can build up if schedules conflict. It’s tricky enough for new couples to get accustomed to each other, let alone trying to have six or seven or eight people adjust. But “loss of independence” is one of the key aspects of submitting to the Spirit, is it not? If you can’t adjust to sharing the laundry room with your new housemates, how can you accept the leading of the Light?

I’ve laid this out in terms of “elder” and “younger,” but of course there is no reason that this can’t be intergenerational. In fact an intergenerational household might be all the stronger.

~~~

The Mitchell Dodd Option

Joe Snyder tells a story he’s fond of, which he calls “The Dream of Mitchell Dodd”:

The first thing to know about Mitchell is that he loved hang-gliding. Remember that.

Mitchell dreamed that he was in a large room, filled with many people. He realized that everyone was waiting for someone, though he and everyone else did not know who it was that they were waiting on.

Then the word went around that they were waiting for Jesus. At this point many people left.

After that, the word went around that they were waiting for Jesus to heal them. More people headed out.

Finally Jesus arrived and began healing people. Jesus came to Mitchell and laid his hands on him. And Mitchell felt that all his desire and joy in hang-gliding was being pulled away from him. So he grabbed and held onto it.

Jesus snatched his hands away, looked Mitchell in the eye, and said, “We don’t have to go through with this if you don’t want to!”

And then Mitchell woke up.

I have long interpreted this dream to mean that we must sometimes give up what we love in order to be truly whole. Certainly I don’t mean everything we love—I mean the pleasant distractions. Things which are largely harmless, but are not actively beneficial. “Harmless” is not the same as “good,” after all. I used to love playing war games with my father and friends; I gave that up, because I could no longer in good conscience draw any enjoyment from anything pertaining to war. I am beginning to wonder if I must sell my beloved science-fiction/fantasy books, and put my library card to full use if I want to read those stories again. And I have begun to dread that to follow the leadings of the Spirit, I can’t have children.

(Children are not distractions for everyone. Some of us are decidedly intended to have children, and besides, we can’t become the Shakers. I know that I am called to be a teacher and a minister, and both of those have a lot to do with children. But I don’t know if I am called to be a father.)

Clearly everyone has their own hang gliders, and no one save we and the Spirit can determine what they are, or say whether or not we must give them up. My mother is a quilter; should she give that up? Not in the slightest, not even if she’d never made a single usable quilt (and she’s made plenty, including the one I’m lying on now). Working with cloth keeps her sane in the dark Seattle winters. But my mother also reads murder mysteries, and will sometimes give over entire weekends to re-reading an old, familiar series. Is that necessary? It’s up to her, and I wouldn’t even have raised the question if she hadn’t raised it first. I can have a similar relation with Ray Bradbury short stories, but Bradbury taught me how to write. Do I give him up or not? I haven’t yet decided. But if the Spirit calls us to give up certain pastimes, it would free up time and energy for other tasks.

This is a painful option to follow. But I don’t think that we should be Quakers in order to be comfortable.

~~~

As I mentioned above, I’ve split this essay in half; it would be rather over-long if I hadn’t. These above are the individual/personal/small community options. Larger communal options are the subject of a follow-on post, coming in a few days. Stay tuned!

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3 thoughts on “Options, Part One

    • Very lovely. We, myself included, worry too much about money and miss the abundance around us. I remember a Friend, Michael Sherman saying, money is one of the easiest things for God to provide. But we have to let him.

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