Thursday, August 1, 2013

Austerity, abundance, and my American psyche

View of downtown from on top of Mount Bridgeport
(photo by Steve Vance)
It was such a pretty day in Chicago. The July heat had broken, and October-like cool had moved in, much to my pleasure. My fiancée and walked up to the top of a hill in Palmisano Park in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood (a place I’ve also heard people call Stearns Quarry Park for the quarry that formerly occupied the site or Mount Bridgeport for the rare change in elevation). Cotton-ball cumulus clouds drifted above us toward Lake Michigan. Children flew kites around us. It doesn’t get prettier than that in Chicago.

And then Kacie asked me what I was thinking about. For some reason, I mentioned how I was worried about money. Suddenly frowny-face clouds rushed in, covering the happy-face sun, and all the kites immediately dropped to the ground with no wind and only suffocating humidity to keep them afloat. A child started softly crying, “Why is it ALWAYS personal finances? Why?” It wasn’t very pretty now.

After some uncomfortable conversation, Kacie started to get visibly upset. She expressed that she didn’t know why I didn’t trust her to help us to achieve our dreams together—careers in ministry and fashion design (respectively) with a strong emphasis on advocacy for the poor and marginalized, traveling around the world to experience different cultures, eventually have a couple of kids (eventually). I felt distance between us.

I took a deep breath for a bit of self-reflection, and I stepped in to the confession booth with my fiancée on the other side of the screen. See, I wasn’t so concerned about how our dreams were too idealistic or grand. I was concerned about how I, and I alone, would resource those dreams. After all, as the husband of an American family unit, it will be my responsibility to make sure that everyone’s dreams come true. Unfortunately, I have a couple more years of grad school and internships before I could come anywhere close to fulfilling that role. And then there’s that student debt I accumulated so that I could break into a generally low-paying profession. The central Pennsylvania realist in me recoils at these thoughts, and suddenly all I want to see on the menu is ketchup sandwiches (preferably complimentary ketchup snatched from the nearest McDonald’s franchise). I would do anything to avoid becoming dependent on other people’s charity.

One can see this reaction to personal finances as either incredibly ironic or deeply hypocritical. After all, when I preach, I preach about a God who provides for her children with abundance, and then I go on to denounce austerity policies in various legislatures. And full disclosure, I survive off of the generous support of my home church in Pennsylvania, family all over the country, and my stipend for one of my internships (yes, I said one of them). My personal austere attitudes simply matched neither my theology nor my lived experience.

These attitudes run deep in the American psyche. Patriarchy. Rugged individualism. Meritocracy through sheer grit and determination. And they run deep in my psyche, too.

The problem is that these attitudes are counter to my Christian faith and the kind of relationships I want to have with people—especially with my fiancée. I want to base my relationships on mutual love and respect. We trust that we will do what we say will, but we also share responsibilities, whether financial, household, or social. Together we worship God who gives abundant provisions to her children, and then we earnestly look where God is touching our world.

The scary part is that we can’t depend on just ourselves any more. While we are individual agents of creation in God’s world, we are meant to work together for the reign of God. Period. We give up control of our lives to God, and God works through ordinary events and ordinary folks around us to make sure we’re all okay. Because of our fallen nature, that system of communal care breaks down a lot. However, God still calls us to trust God and each other, even through the cloudy and stormy days.

The confession on top of Mount Bridgeport helped the two of us quite a bit. We were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and the prairie flowers  and the flying kites all over again. After all, isn’t that the surest sign that God still provides abundantly?

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