Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Minister’s May Newsletter Message: Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way!

I’m overdue to redraft my Last Will and Testament. I also should create a Trust.

Since doing my will in 1991, things have changed. My nephews have grown up. They are out on their own, and their parents have done quite well, so they are not in need of all my assets. For 17 years, I haven’t even been in the Midwestern UU church that I listed as a beneficiary in my will long ago. Now I have a new congregation that is near to my heart and whose mission inspires my actions. This one!

 

Other things have changed. Since those days, I’ve become a graduate of one UU seminary and I feel very close to another one. I want them to continue to produce “all the ministers that are above average” for a long time to come.

 

At UUSS, our 50-year Master Plan for the Buildings and Grounds is visionary and beautiful, and the amount of resources necessary over the years for it will not be small. What made this plan possible in the first place were bequests of beloved members and friends of UUSS, now departed. You can see all their names on the metal Gratitude and Appreciation tree sculpture in the lobby.

 

Our fundraising consultant, Rev. Bud Swank, told me that we need an organized program to invite people to consider and plan on leaving a bequest or other legacy to UUSS with instruments like wills, trusts, mutual fund beneficiary designations, etc. This will ensure the Master Plan has sufficient resources down the road. I decided to get going on this need myself.

 

I don’t expect to die soon, but I don’t want to neglect putting down on paper the decisions that could put my assets to use in the service of my liberal religious values and in support of the mission and continuing ministry of this congregation.

 

If you’d like to talk to a minister about the kind of legacy you would like to plan for the future of Unitarian Universalism, please be in touch with one of us. I’m glad you are here now, in person. I look forward to seeing you soon on a Sunday. Take care!

 

Thank you for being part of UUSS.

 

Yours in service,

 

Roger

 

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UU Sermon: Money and Life, January 8, 2011

Hymns:

“Earth Was Given as a Garden,” “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” “For the Earth Forever Turning.”

Reading:

Today’s reading comes from an advice column in the newspaper:  “Money Manners.”   Written by Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz, it’s in our local paper, and at moneyville.ca. Today’s column (1/8/12)  is:  “What to do when exchanging gifts with a cheapskate.” This letter won’t rival the epistles of the Apostle Paul, but it is heartfelt. [i]

Dear Jeanne & Leonard:

It happened again this Christmas. Each year my husband and I ask his brother what he and his family of four would like for Christmas, and each year “William” reels off a list of pricey items that end up costing us a couple hundred dollars. In return, he sends us next to nothing — this year, a bargain-basket DVD and some drugstore bubble bath. I can’t stand another year of opening William’s cheap gifts and then getting the credit card bill for the nice things we sent his family. What should we do? By the way, the guy’s not hurting for money.   –Nora

Dear Nora:

If you can’t stand playing Santa to William’s Scrooge, stop asking William what’s on his wish list. As it is, you and your husband are putting yourselves in the position of either having to buy the expensive gifts William wants or ignoring his requests. Next year, instead of asking, buy your brother-in-law and his family presents of your choosing, presents you won’t resent having bought when William’s gifts arrive.

Here ends the reading.

 

Sermon

“Get your finances in order!” says the New Year’s Day headline in the newspaper’s business and money section.   The article gives a checklist:  reduce debt, watch your spending habits, and get a discipline of saving money.  Practical, important help.  Yet beneath “getting our finances in order” is everyone’s complicated relationship with money.  This is a spiritual issue, and like other spiritual issues it can’t be taken care of by resolutions and checklists alone.  It takes practice, patience, and honesty with ourselves.

Nearly every faith tradition has something to say about money, wealth, possessions, resources, and the needs of others.  Liberal religious communities affirm the importance of this life, more than a future life.   We do not dwell on otherworldly concerns, but on of how we live in the world as it is.  As a medium of exchange, money is one way that we connect with the world.

Without giving some attention to our relationship with money, we risk ignoring its power and place in our lives.  This is the message of Jacob Needleman, author of Money and the Meaning of Life.  We are at risk of confusing money with our self-worth and our sense of possibility.  In viewing others, we risk seeing money as a measure of character.  In relationships, we risk seeing money—or using it–as a substitute for love or as an expression of our hurt or hostility.   We need to pay attention, be honest, have some patience.

Go with me on a visit home, to see relatives back in my home state, two years ago.  In the prior year, an aunt has passed away.  My uncle—her husband, had died suddenly four decades earlier, when I was about five, the same age as their son.  She and my cousin moved far away from us the next year.  I hadn’t seen her for years before her death.  On this day, I am visiting two cousins and another aunt, in my home town.  “Did you get your money?” one of them asks.

I look puzzled.  “Didn’t you get the letter from the lawyer?”

“No…?” I say.  They tell me all about it.

My late Uncle Roy’s estate included an amount of money for all of his nieces and nephews, to be disbursed if the money remained after his widow would pass away.  Now she has.  So, every group of children of his brothers and sisters will get $48,000, to be divided among them in equal checks.   This means three siblings will share a bequest, getting $16,000 each, and a lucky, only child will get the full $48,000.  I express my surprise at this news. They get the letter out for me, and I read it.  I look at the list of names.  My cousins…my brother… everybody.  But not me.  “I’m not here,” I say.

“Well, honey, you weren’t born yet!”  this aunt says.

“Yes, I was, I say.  I am the same age as his own son.”  He came into our family by adoption at age three. This boy and I were the youngest of the cousins, both of us with older parents.  Surely I was too young for Uncle Roy to decide I was a bad nephew and leave me out of his will on purpose.  He just forgot me.

“What are you going to do?” one asks, getting excited and curious.

“Well, I’m not sure.  I’ll ask my brother about it.  Anyway, it’s only money.”  The rest of that visit, we make small talk.  But my mind is racing.  Let’s see, with my brother, each of us would receive $24,000.  But I won’t.  I was left out!    Did my brother get this letter?  He hasn’t said anything since I got here yesterday.  Is he hiding this from me? I need to ask him. 

The others report to me on a recent phone call from another cousin–the most outwardly accomplished of our generation of the family.    In spite of a hefty two-person household income, this successful relative never has any money.  This cousin has been in touch with all the others.  The demand: Sign the acceptance form and send it to the lawyer soon, so the lawyer will forward the checks.   I realize that neither this cousin, nor any others, will feel like including little old me in the calculation to receive some inheritance.  The only chance is in my big brother’s hands.

My reaction to this news of a surprise inheritance, a potential inheritance, is like not feeling hungry, and then walking into a dining room with a table of steaming food:  suddenly I want some of everything!

I get in the rental car and hit the highway to my brother’s house.  We’ve planned a dinner out, just the two of us. I think:   I’ll wait and see if he brings it up.  No, I need to get it over with. 

            I worry, because he’s been worried about money, unrealistically so in my opinion.  He retired early, but his wife has a great job, their house is paid off and he owns a rental property.  However, we’re now in the Great Recession, he has no confidence in the government, and the angry programs on talk radio just add to his anxiety.

            Well, I won’t make a big deal out of this, I think.  Fights over money can tear a family apart.  Before today, I didn’t imagine having any money than my own earnings.  I think:  If he gives me half, I’ll give most of it away.  I’ll make that commitment right now.  Yes I will!

In the Bible, in the book of Genesis, the brothers Jacob and Esau fight over their birthright, their inheritance.  Esau, as the firstborn son, traditionally has the birthright in the family.  Yet, when Esau comes back from a hunting trip empty handed, and very hungry, Jacob offers Esau a bowl of stew from the pot that Jacob has prepared.  Esau trades in his future inheritance for the short-term gain of satisfying his appetite, his craving.  Later, the younger Jacob impersonates his brother to trick their blind, aged father Isaac into giving the fatherly blessing to him instead of to Esau.   In the story, this blessing cannot be taken back or transferred, even after the stealing is exposed.  This theft launches a tumultuous future for the Hebrew people and sets a standard of disharmony for the whole human family.  The first family feud over inheritance!   I don’t want us to end up like those guys.  I just want us to share.

I’m in my brother’s kitchen.   He’s 12 years older, bigger, and stronger.  He’s standing, I’m sitting.  “I need to talk to you about something,” I say.   I tell him about my discovery today and ask him if he’s received the letter.  He says no.  “Well, the others have,” I say.  “You will.”

I explain the situation, and the humor of being the forgotten one.  He doesn’t get it.   I avoid asking straight out:  Will you give me half of your money?  Again I explain:  “See, each set of siblings has to share each total amount among themselves. Since there are two of us… , each would get…”

“Oh,” he says.  He gets it.  He pauses. “Yeah, I’ll give you some of that money… if you’re nice to me.”  I want to ask: What do you mean by “SOME”?  How big a fraction is that?   And:  What do you mean by NICE?

As a youth I was not nice to my big brother.   Looking back on my childhood, I see I was taking out my rage and frustration on him.  I was angry at our parents.  One was actively alcoholic.  They were distracted parents, unhealthy, older than other kids’ parents, and fragile.  I was careful not to be a burden.  My big brother was happy, athletic, popular.  A safe target for my hostility, and strong enough to take it.  And he took a lot of it, from me.

He married a year before finishing college, against our angry father’s wishes.  After graduation, he was unemployed.  He mowed lawns to make money, and borrowed money from our parents.  Dad used this fact as license to make my brother feel bad.  Every hundred-dollar loan was an I-told-you-so.  On my birthday one year, I got a windfall of cash.  Maybe I was mowing lawns by this time as well.  In any case, I was feeling flush.  Brother came to me and asked for a loan, $100.  Understandably, he didn’t want to ask Dad again.

I lent him the money, and confirmed the terms of the loan by mail.  At age 11, I really liked using the typewriter, and playing with business documents.  He received periodic statements of the debt he owed to me.  Then postcards in the mail announcing “Past Due.”    I don’t remember if he paid me right away, called me names, cried, or got Mom to make me lay off.   It was not a nice way to treat him.

I realize now that in pestering my brother I was trying to make a connection with him—an awkward, hostile, counterproductive, 11-year-old way of connecting.  When he moved closer to our home, my brother made money doing small-engine repair.  I was his agent, putting ads in the local paper, taking phone calls while he was at work.  He paid me a small percentage for this role.  I would type up statements for my commission: I took business reply envelopes from our father’s office and used Whiteout to change the name to my own.  I’d help him keep track of how much he owed me:  $2 here, $3 there.

Now, he doesn’t owe me anything, and there’s a big check waiting for him.  He can choose to split it with me or he can, quite legally, choose to keep it all.

Fortunately, my brother, the first-born son, has chosen to ignore my treatment of him, or to grant me forgiveness for it.  Will he also grant me a full half his money?  He could say he needs to save it for his own two grown children.  He does eventually give me a half-share, but seems to drag it out, with two installments in the mail.  I don’t send a bill this time.

Money has such pull for us, such power.  Of course it does.  Society is organized around it; it’s how we interact for the things we need and want and for the talents and work that we have to offer.  As a medium of exchange, money simplifies our transactions.  Yet because it stands for so much that we need and want and love and fear, money makes life complicated.

Most of us learn our attitudes and habits regarding money from the family culture in which we grow up.   Growth and healing from unhelpful attitudes calls for attention, effort, and support.   How did an 11-year-old loan shark like me learn a more healthy way with money?  Maybe I haven’t!  I do have some annoying habits about money, as well as healthier ones.  I have my times of avoidance and my frantic moments.

But in many ways, I’ve healed and grown.   The support for my growth has come from two sources:  my friends and my Unitarian Universalist religious communities.  Friends who are generous, no matter their wealth or poverty.  Religious communities that remind me of the abundance and goodness of my life.

In a UU community, I am invited to appreciate my blessings, and give thanks.  I learn about the needs of the world beyond these walls. I learn about generosity.   Over the past 25 years, I’ve learned–from UU ministers and church members–that it’s possible to stretch myself and give, and feel good about it.  I can give of my money, talents and time, and feel joy in it, and freedom.  I can also feel good about earning money—not only gratitude to have it, but satisfaction that I have something to offer that people like you have chosen to support.  Of course, mowing lawns for money can offer that same reward.  Moreover, with mowing the results are more certain and visible than in ministry.

But as a fearful young person from a family that fought over money, I didn’t know what it meant, spiritually, to be paid or to pay others, to give or to receive.  I didn’t know money from a spiritual perspective.  As a boy, I went with my mother to a mainline, moderate Protestant Christian church.  I recall they had an annual stewardship campaign, as most churches do.  We paid a monthly pledge.  But I didn’t hear what stewardship really meant.  Back in the 1970s, the church was timid about money and your spiritual life.  It was timid about sexuality too, another topic that makes people uncomfortable.  Both topics do, even though they are important ones.

As an adult finding Unitarian Universalism, I found a place that looks at serious matters honestly.  I learned what stewardship means.  What it means to me:  taking a good look at what has been handed on to you for your use and your care.   Whether it’s the local environment, your neighborhood, your country—it is handed on to you for using, tending, and passing along to

others.  Stewardship recognizes that we stand on the shoulders of generations and institutions that existed before we did.

            Stewardship recognizes that what we do, how we live, what we give, will affect the lives of others, including those who come after us.  We live for a moment in the stream of life, and it flows on.  Stewardship is about connectedness and interdependence.  It’s about belonging to one another, belonging to the past and the future.

            A friend of mine is a Mormon historian.  I ask him:  “Does everybody there really give away 10 percent of their income to the church?”  Yes, he says, most of them do tithe–and they make offerings on top of that.   Mormons have the practice of a fast offering, he tells me.  (I’ve learned that other traditions practice this a well.)  Unless it causes medical problems, they won’t eat for one day a month, and will give away they money they would have spent on food.  They give it away so others may eat.  He says the idea is that all their bounty comes from God, and to make a tithe or an offering is merely to give some of it back.

As a young adult, I learned from my ministers that there are UUs who have a different idea of God—or the idea that there is no God at all—but who still have a practice of giving. They make a goal of giving away a percentage of their income due to their connection to the community, to people and the earth.  From my UU communities, I got the idea to set a target of giving away 10% of my income, and move toward that target over time.  I now give about 5% of my yearly income to the congregation and 5% to other organizations that I care about.  I didn’t learn to do this from my family. I learned it from people like you.

I’ve read that Peter Singer, the controversial professor of ethics, gives away 20 percent of his income every year to important organizations.  He’s an atheist, so he gives not out of the fear of God or for the love of God.  He does it because he can, and because his giving can make a big difference in the lives of others.

I am now attending a doctor of ministry program, part time.  The seminary is not a UU school, but a progressive, interdenominational seminary.  That’s where my share of the money from our uncle’s bequest is now going.  This inheritance will cover 2/3 of the cost of the degree, so it helps a lot.  I thank my Uncle Roy and my big brother for the money.  I love the school, and don’t mind supporting it with my tuition payments.   The young, entering ministry students there—in the master’s degree program—give me hope for progressive religion.   During the semester, I attend chapel services on Tuesday before lunch.  The music is diverse and fun, sermons relevant and helpful.  At every service the campus chaplain announces the offering, which goes to a cause chosen by the preacher for that service.  I look around and think:  Most of the people here are beginning ministry students, living on loans.  But I’ve realized that the offering is a lesson for the ministry students.  It’s a model about how to ask with grace and honesty, how to show confidence and kindness in asking.  The chaplain says people at the school give “out of volition, not coercion.”  Free-will, not pressure.

He says:  “We ask for your financial support for this work, and for your prayers.” I decide that if they can ask, I can respond, so I participate in the offerings.

Nearly every faith tradition has something to say about money.  Not because it’s bad.  Not because it’s worthy of worship either.  We should not idolize money, nor should we avoid it.

But we can take it seriously. Like most resources, it is limited:  like our time, our attention, our talents, our health—it is limited, and important.

However much, or however little, we have of money…how we deal with it is a way to practice and grow in our sense of stewardship.  We can practice, and we can strive to gain our money responsibly, receive it with gratitude, lend it or borrow it carefully, spend it thoughtfully, and share it with joy.

Responsible, grateful, careful, thoughtful, joyful.  Joyful.

So may it be.  Blessed be, and amen.




Protected: “Money and Life”–Sunday sermon from January 8, 2012, plus a reading from “Money Manners”

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