Blue-Chip Discipline

I’m in one of the stuffed purple chairs at Starbucks, editing a story on my laptop. An academic friend of mine is in the adjoining chair, checking his assets in the Wall Street Journal.

“You gonna work much longer?” he says, folding the paper in half and then in half again.

“As long as I can,” I say, bemused.

He meant was I planning to retire soon. I’ve made no secret that reinventing myself has taken a toll on my finances. That it has eluded my friend probably says more about his preoccupation with finding a woman to marry at the age of 51 than about my circumstances.

Which are anything but robust, at least in the Wall Street Journal sense of the word. But in a world that seems to be lurching from one financial crisis to another, I’ve got some blue-chip experience when it comes to what Andy Stanley calls “faith tension.”

In Money  We Trust

Stanley is the pastor of three very successful non-denominational churches in Atlanta, and the other day he discussed Jesus’ take on spiritual discipline.

One facet of spiritual discipline, he said, is prayer. Not “prayer on the go” – praying that you’ll get to your appointment on time, for example – but taking time out every day, away from all distractions, and praying.

Another is giving, whether to the poor, to charity, to a church, whatever, but giving without expecting to be recognized or applauded by others. This was the nub of our existence, Stanley said, because what people trust above all else is money.

“It competes with God more than anything,” he said.

Thus the tension of faith: do you believe in God or in money? If you trust God, then you give as an act of faith, not knowing what’s going to happen next, but secure in the knowledge that your needs will be met.

People on Edge

It’s reminiscent of a one-liner from an underground comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers during the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” era: “Dope will get you through times of no money, better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

Substitute “God” for “dope” and you’ve got the premise of a lifetime.

But does it work? We’ve had a series of crises that test our financial certitude, from financial institutions to oil prices to the mortgage debacle.

A woman on the radio asked consumer advocate Clark Howard about insurance giant A.I.G., which the government was  about to prop up. “I’m about to retire,” she said, “and I’m kind of depending on that money for my retirement.”

“Of course you are,” yelped an agitated  Howard.  

When people are on edge, when their savings, pensions and IRAs are imperiled, when their security is threatened,  what does spiritual discipline have to do with it?

The Foothills of Faith

Plenty. After several years of financial stress I came to the conclusion that there was no way I was going to succeed on my terms. Having tried everything else I could think, and being about nine parts out of ten desperate, I decided to turn it all over to God. Not just work and finances, but everything. And not just once, but every day, and sometimes more than once a day when I start waffling.

It wasn’t such a big step. I’ve been studying spiritual matters for 25 years. But all I had for it was a set of beliefs, some of them pretty ordinary, others rather unconventional.  I’ve started writing a book to lay it all out on the supposition that others may find it useful and perheps inspiring. 

But those beliefs don’t add up to faith, and I didn’t realize that’s what was missing until I turned things over to the Creator and began to experience an almost dreamlike serenity. My circumstances hadn’t changed, but my attitude had. Things didn’t bother me the way they used to, and I don’t worry nearly as much. If I were hallucinating or indulging some kind of fantasy, I would have seen through it quickly. I’ve too accomplished a doubter to fall for self-hypnosis.

But I’m just in the foothills of faith; I’ve got a long way to go. Last night, I broke a tooth during dinner, and started obsessing about how much it’s going to cost to repair it. I called a friend, a 20-year veteran in  Al-Anon and a cancer survivor.

“That’s just life stuff,” he said. “The things that money can’t fix are the things that really matter. “

No Contest

So I turned the dentist issue over to God, relieved to be reminded once more that I am not in charge, and serenity drifted back into the room. 

Will spiritual discipline solve the financial crisis? Probably not. 

But when I look at the options — let’s see: I can either put my faith in financial instruments that are subject to the greed, fear and unpredictability of fallible people like myself, or I can put my faith in the source of the serenity I’ve been experiencing for the past eight months or so — well, it’s really not much of a contest.



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